Pentecostal Pacifism: A Lost (and Denied) Tradition

Pentecostal Pacifism: A Lost (and Denied) Tradition May 6, 2015

Pentecostal Pacifism: A Lost (and Denied) Tradition

Recently here I blogged about the supernatural and how, in my opinion, many evangelicals have neglected, if not denied, it due to a general search for respectability. Nowhere is this evangelical search for respectability more evident to me than among Pentecostals. All Pentecostal Christians pay lip service to miracles, but how many actually believe in and pray for miracles? Many do, but I would guess their number is fewer than fifty years ago. To a very large extent, according to my observations, American Pentecostals have blended in with American society and lost their particularity—except on paper.

One notable feature of Pentecostalism that is gradually changing is its anti-intellectualism and that I consider a positive sign of maturation. In the past, intellectually inclined Pentecostals had to work outside their tradition (in non-Pentecostal evangelical organizations and institutions) or leave Pentecostalism altogether. Today there is a rich and growing intellectual subculture among American Pentecostals evidenced by the large and flourishing Society for Pentecostal Studies and its scholarly journal Pneuma. Pentecostal leaders are far less devoted to anti-intellectualism than fifty years ago. It’s not difficult to identify Pentecostal scholars with reputations beyond the movement’s borders: Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Amos Yong, Gary Tyra, Frank Macchia, Gerald Sheppard, Russell Spittler, Cheryl Bridges Johns, Stephen Land, Gordon Fee, Craig Keener, James Smith.

Pentecostal historical self-examination has uncovered a somewhat embarrassing fact. Nearly all American Pentecostals were originally pacifists—in the sense of being conscientious objectors in war. During the first half century of American Pentecostal history, from 1906 until sometime in the 1950s, most Pentecostal denominations had official or unofficial expectations that their members would not “bear arms” but serve as non-combatants if drafted. (I grew up in the Pentecostal movement in the 1950s and 1960s and knew of this although it was fading away. My youth pastor had served as a non-combatant in the Korean War and explained to us that, then, Pentecostals were so encouraged by their Pentecostal pastors and leaders.)

Several books by Pentecostal and post-Pentecostal scholars have brought this forgotten history to light. Most recently Warren Jay Beaman and Brian Pipkin have published Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace (Pentecostals, Peacemaking and Social Justice) (Pickwick, 2013). Beaman is an old friend of mine. We attended seminary together and served for a while on the staff of a church. Long ago Jay published Pentecostal Pacifism (now republished by Wipf & Stock). Another scholar of Pentecostal pacifism is Paul Alexander, who, while an Assemblies of God minister and theologian, published articles and books on Pentecostal pacifism and peacemaking. (Alexander now teaches at Eastern University’s Palmer Theological Seminary and has left the AG.) My friend Darrin Rodgers, director of the Flowers Pentecostal Heritage Center, has confirmed to me that many Pentecostal denominations once had either official or semi-official statements or expectations about pacifism and that most have dropped them and many refuse to acknowledge that part of their history.

My question, to which no clear answer has emerged, is why Pentecostal denominations have almost all not only dropped their pacifist leanings but now either deny that part of their history or do not wish to talk about it. I have even known of Pentecostal pacifists working within denominations that once were pacifist who have been persecuted for advocating pacifism. To all appearances the Pentecostal attitude toward war has swung around completely. Many Pentecostal pastors are strong defenders of American foreign policy including war and some have called opponents of American wars “traitors.”

Whenever I see a change like this within a specific movement I want to know why it happened. One way to answer that is to look at other changes in the movement that happened around the same time and look for connections and patterns.

When I grew up in Pentecostalism the movement was almost entirely composed of what one scholar called “the disinherited” meaning the disadvantaged people of America. (See Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism [Oxford University Press, 1979].) The vast majority of Pentecostals during the first half century of the movement’s history were relatively poor. I can remember when that began to change in the 1950s and especially in the 1960s. My father, a Pentecostal pastor for over fifty years, preached against “the sin of conspicuous consumption” and I know he wasn’t the only one. As Pentecostals became more affluent they were expected to give more to missions. When a family in our church (1950s) bought a new Cadillac they were subjected to church discipline. That money (over what a new Chevrolet would cost) could have gone to world missions—a major emphasis of Pentecostals then.

Then came the 1970s and a sudden increase in Pentecostals’ affluence. It began earlier, but became notable to me, anyway, in the 1970s. Suddenly Pentecostal church parking lots were filled with expensive new cars. I will never forget the controversy among Pentecostals sparked by some Pentecostal churches’ building of “fancy new church buildings.” Before the 1970s most Pentecostal churches were relatively simple—often older church buildings purchased from “mainline” churches that built new ones out in the suburbs. (Yes, there were exceptions to this such as Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, the “mother church” of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel built by Aimee Semple McPherson in the 1920s. But, for the most part, prior to the 1970s most Pentecostal churches, even new ones, were simple structures without expensive architectural flourishes.)

During my lifetime I have seen with my own eyes and experienced a process among Pentecostals that I would call cultural accommodations—absorbing of Americanism. Don’t get me wrong. Even in the 1950s and before Pentecostals loved America—mainly for its religious freedom. We were patriotic but resisted “worldliness” which included accommodation to “Hollywood culture” and politics. We cared about government and prayed for our national and local leaders, but we did not participate in government or even vote in elections. We were what I call “urban Amish.” Yes, we drove cars and had electric lights, etc., but we eschewed as much of modernity as possible while living in the city. When I was a teenager, for example, Pentecostal young people were expressly forbidden from dating non-Christians and the strong preference was to date Pentecostals. So we chose our friends and life partners from among our own. When I graduated from high school in 1970 there was no question of attending “prom.” We had our own “graduation banquet” on the same night as prom.

Some of that separatism was silly. But not all of it. And it was inconsistent, something I noticed very early and attempted to ask about without receiving any clear answers. (For example, our rather large church youth group could only roller skate when our church rented the rink for an evening, but the “disc jockey” played the same popular music as always [“Let me tell you ‘bout the birds and the bees….”]. Also, although boys and girls at summer youth camp were not allowed to swim together we could sit out and watch the other sex swim. That was almost more arousing to adolescents!)

I mentioned “separatism,” but I need to explain. We Pentecostals DID NOT practice fundamentalist “secondary separation” from other Christians. We actually scoffed at that practice that meant fundamentalist Baptists, for example, would not participate in Billy Graham evangelistic crusades, join the National Association of Evangelicals, or participate in trans-denominational parachurch organizations such as Youth for Christ. We did all of that. Which is possibly part of the reason why Pentecostals gradually dropped (for all practical purposes) women pastors and adopted belief in biblical inerrancy and began to enter into American culture including politics. (We believed in biblical authority for faith and practice but did not talk about “inerrancy,” a term I never heard until I attended a Baptist seminary, and we believed in good government but only prayed for it.)

Sometime during the 1950s a new impulse, disposition, began to emerge among American Pentecostals. It grew in the 1960s and came to full fruition in the 1970s. I would call that impulse “Americanization” in the sense of uncritical adoption of “the American way” of defining “the good life” according to middle class values, upward mobility, good citizenship (defined as participation in political life), American nationalism, individualism and consumerism. Along with that came not only a change in traditional Pentecostal pacifism but a denial of it—to the point of expunging records of it from Pentecostal statements, publications, etc. Pentecostal researchers have told me that they have a difficult time getting Pentecostal leaders to remember and reveal the changes their forebears made to their official doctrinal statements that often included pacifism.

Now, I am not a pacifist, so I am not personally opposed to that change in Pentecostal belief and practice. What I worry about is the tendency of Pentecostal leaders to deny that part of their heritage and be embarrassed by it. Such a change should be theologically considered and made in such a way that those who made it and their heirs can be proud of it and defend it. My suspicion is that it was not. For the most part, anyway, it crept up and in as part of a gradual process of cultural accommodation. Today pacifists among Pentecostals are often looked down on if not persecuted. And that’s not because of some well-thought-out and theologically reflective change; it’s because of Pentecostal Americanization—a gradual process of cultural accommodation that happened almost unconsciously and is still not fully recognized or admitted.

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