Pentecostals make for great copy. Their leaders are, well, charismatic (and, dare I say, sometimes found dancing near the devil). They have some righteous tunes. And they make frequent claims of dramatic healings. Now they’re celebrating their 100th anniversary, more or less. The Azusa Street Revival — where an interracial Los Angeles congregation of thousands, led by the Rev. William Joseph Seymour, experienced speaking in tongues and physical manifestations of supernatural contact — began in April 1906.
The Associated Press’ Gillian Flacchus has a complete and tightly written wrap-up that tells you most of what you need to know, including this interesting bit about how newspapers followed what was happening. The disaster refers to the San Francisco earthquake:
The same day as the disaster, a major Los Angeles newspaper published a front-page story about Seymour’s strange prayer meetings — all-night services so rowdy that two policemen were posted full time at the church to keep order. The story bore the headline “Weird Babel of Tongues: New Sect of Fanatics is Breaking Loose.”
Soon, all eight major newspapers were covering the revival, as were religious newspapers called “holiness circulars” that were passed among evangelical churches nationwide. Word spread across the nation — and then the world — about the massive revival under way in Los Angeles.
One of the revival’s most notable characteristics, experts say, was that blacks and whites worshipped under the same roof and shared pastoral duties.
“At its height, it drew people from all classes, wealthy and poor, Hispanics, blacks, Jews — you name it, everybody came,” said [Pentecostal scholar Vinson] Synan. “Whole churches collapsed and joined it. There was a force there, it was almost supernatural. People said they could feel it in the air from about three blocks away.”
I love that headline Flacchus cites. Anyway, she goes on to explain how Pentecostalism spread throughout the country and world. I have to take issue with the figure she and other reporters use to show how large Pentecostalism is:
The movement, once relegated to the theological fringe, now claims up to 600 million followers worldwide and remains one of the fastest-growing sectors of Christianity, according to Vinson Synan, dean of Regent University’s School of Divinity and an ordained minister of the Pentecostal Holiness Church.
Argh. Church statistics are difficult on a good day. And it could be true that pentecostals claim 600 million people — the graph at left came from a charismatic magazine. But you can’t just let folks make outlandish claims without noting the problems with the data. Other sources put the size of Pentecostal churches at 115 million or so. And yet every story I read on this this cited the remarkably high number.
Many newspapers are finding local angles to the story. Richard Vara with the Houston Chronicle tells readers that Seymour learned about the baptism of the Holy Spirit only a few weeks before the Azusa Street revival . . . at a Houston Bible school where Charles Fox Parham, the founder of Pentecostalism, taught:
Parham’s involvement with glossolalia began on New Year’s Day 1901 at his Bible school in Topeka, Kan., when student Agnes Oznam spoke in tongues.
Three days later, Parham and other students experienced the phenomenon. . . .
Parham and his Topeka students concluded that speaking in tongues was biblical evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit.
“What Parham does is develop a theology that becomes the Pentecostal theology, one that is quite preachable,” [Cecil] Robeck [Jr., professor at Fuller Seminary] said. “He packages it and markets it, in a sense.”
The marketing of Pentecostalism is frequent fodder for critics, from Sinclair Lewis’ satire Elmer Gantry to Ole Anthony’s Trinity Foundation. Anthony is mentioned in the Dallas Morning News, which offers the best package of information I came across. Jeffrey Weiss writes the anniversary story while Sam Hodges looks at Dallas’ Christ for the Nations Institute, including a sidebar with a tidbit about Bob Dylan. Great package.
I have to make a quick book recommendation — Jim Bakker’s autobiography I Was Wrong. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s a really fascinating. He wrote it after serving a prison sentence, so I was expecting the title to reference some sort of criminal wrongdoing. In fact, he writes an eloquent critique of the Prosperity Gospel he had advocated for so long. He realized in prison that even though he lost his wealth, his family, his ministry and his reputation, God loved him. You’ll thank me later.