By Gary Fisher
“One of the most significant features of twentieth century religious life has been the phenomenal growth of Pentecostalism.”(1) Since many of our religious friends and neighbors are now Pentecostal, and since we have a responsibility to teach them the gospel, we need to become familiar with the Pentecostal church. This article will discuss the history, organization and doctrines of Pentecostalism. A future article will compare Pentecostal doctrinal teaching with the Bible.
“In historical perspective, the Pentecostal movement was the child of the Holiness movement, which in turn was a child of Methodism.”(2)Methodism began in the 1700s on account of the teachings of John and Charles Wesley. One of their most distinguishing beliefs was a distinction they made between ordinary and sanctified Christians. Sanctification was thought of as a second work of grace which perfected the Christian. Also, Methodists were generally more emotional and less formal in their worship.
By the late 1800s most Methodists had become quite secularized and they no longer emphasized their distinctive doctrines. At this time, the “Holiness movement” began. It attempted to return the church to its historic beliefs and practices. Theologian Charles Finney was one of the leaders in this movement. When it became evident that the reformers were not going to be able to change the church, they began to form various “holiness” sects. These sects attempted to return to true Wesleyan doctrine. Among the most important of these sects were the Nazarene church and the Salvation Army.
“The Pentecostal movement, with beginnings from 1901 to 1906, represented a theological division within the Holiness movement. That division was essentially caused by a controversy over the evidence required to prove that one had been baptized with the Holy Spirit.”(3)The precise beginning of the Pentecostal movement is usually traced to Charles Parham, a Kansas preacher, who began in 1901 to preach “`glossolalia’ as the only evidence of one’s having received the baptism with the Holy Ghost and who taught that it should be a part of `normal’ Christian worship.”(4) One of Parham’s students, a black preacher, W.J. Seymour, went to conduct a prayer meeting in Los Angeles in April, 1906. He soon rented an old Methodist church building at 312 Azusa Street and a massive revival was started. The distinctive feature of this revival was Holy Spirit baptism with evidence of speaking in tongues. “The Azusa Street revival is commonly regarded as the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement. Although many persons had spoken in tongues in the United States in the years preceding 1906, this meeting brought this belief to the attention of the world and served as the catalyst for the formation of scores of Pentecostal denominations. Directly or indirectly, practically all of the Pentecostal groups in existence can trace their lineage to the Azusa Mission.”(5)
News of these activities in Los Angeles was carried in detail in Holiness papers and, in a few months, much of the Holiness movement had been converted to Pentecostal doctrine. In the South especially, many entire Holiness denominations became Pentecostal. Other denominations, especially Baptist, had many congregations that were converted to this new doctrine. Pentecostalism spread very rapidly, particularly among the economically under privileged and the blacks.
As the movement grew, serious divisions occurred. The first concerned sanctification. The “Holiness Pentecostals” believed that sanctification was a second work of grace, instantaneously received. Baptism in the Holy Spirit was thus considered the third step in the conversion process. Those converted from a Baptist background, on the other hand,- believed that sanctification was a finished work, progressively received. Other differences also helped polarize the two groups. Those from Holiness backgrounds believed the church should have a strong central government; “Baptist Pentecostals” believed in more congregational independence. In 1914, the Assembly of God was formed. Doctrinally, this group took a non-Holiness view of sanctification; organizationally, church government was congregational. “After 1914 the Pentecostal movement was to continue about equally divided between `holiness’ advocates of the `second work’ and `assembly’ advocates of the `finished work.’ “(6)
Another division, this one over the number of persons in the Godhead, began in 1913 when Frank Ewart began to teach that “there was only one personality in the Godhead — Jesus Christ — the terms `Father’ and `Holy Spirit’ being only `titles’ used to designate various aspects of Christ’s personality.”(7) These people believed that proper baptism was in the name of Jesus only and many of them were re-baptized in that name. In 1916, the Assembly of God officially rejected this doctrine and many individuals and churches left the denomination. In 1945, several small sects merged to form the United Pentecostal Church, now the largest unitarian Pentecostal denomination in the United States. Despite these divisions, the Pentecostal movement continued to grow rapidly.
“At about mid-century a new constellation of Pentecostal people appeared on the horizon …. The neo-Pentecostal movement appears gradually and increasingly to be assuming the name `charismatic.’ “(8) This neo-Pentecostal Charismatic movement is essentially an outburst of Pentecostalism in non-Pentecostal denominations. The groundwork for this movement was laid in the 1950s by the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International and David Du Plessis since they popularized the Pentecostal movement among non-Pentecostals. The exact beginning of the Charismatic movement is usually traced to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Van Nuys, California, where in 1960, the preacher, Dennis Bennett, introduced tongue-speaking to several prominent members of that church. From this beginning just two decades ago, the Charismatic Movement has spread very rapidly. This Neo-Pentecostal movement is similar to traditional Pentecostalism in that both emphasize Holy Spirit baptism with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues. It is different in that it is a movement within traditional denominations. “There is very little if any interest in separating from old ecclesiastical structures and building new ones according to the Classical Pentecostal pattern. Rather, present institutions are to be `renewed’ by the Charismatic activity of the Holy Spirit as it affects the membership of a church or other group through the continued presence within the structure of individuals who have been baptized in the Spirit.”(9)
Pentecostalism today is a very significant religious movement represented by over 200 denominations and many individuals in traditional denomination. “Born in this century, raised largely among the poor, at mid-century entering the middle class, it is reputedly growing faster than any other modern Christian movement, and is increasingly pressing its existence upon the attention of the church and the world.”(10)“By the middle of the twentieth century, the Pentecostals were burgeoning into what some called `the third force in Christendom.’ Surveys of the worldwide Christian scene were revealing that three fourths of all non-Catholics in Italy were Pentecostals and that the majority of all Christians in South Africa were Pentecostals. Furthermore, the largest free churches in Russia, Scandinavia and France were Pentecostal . . “(11)
Organizationally, the Pentecostal movement is very diverse. There are over 200 Pentecostal denominations, the largest of which is the Assembly of God. Started in 1914, the Assembly of God believes in a two-stage conversion process and congregational government. The Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) and the Pentecostal Holiness Church are two of the most important Pentecostal denominations believing in a three-stage conversion process (sanctification being separate from both salvation and the Holy Spirit baptism). The United Pentecostal Church, formed in 1945, is the largest Jesus-Only church. The largest Negro body is the Church of God in Christ. Along with the numerous denominations there are many completely independent local assemblies.
The Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International (FGBMFI) is another important part of the organization of the Pentecostal church. It was begun in Los Angeles in 1951 by Demos Shakareian. The FGBMFI is a non-denominational fellowship of Pentecostal businessmen and professionals “who have set as their goal the evangelization of the world and the spreading of the message of the baptism of the spirit and the healing of the sick, as this is understood by Pentecostal healing evangelists, in non-Pentecostal circles.”(12) The FGBMFI has 1100 active chapters with 400,000 attending monthly and a one million dollar annual operating budget. The FGBMFI has formed a natural vehicle for the growth of the Charismatic Movement.
The Charismatic Movement itself has little official organization since it is largely a movement within traditional denominations. Religious publications and popular leaders provide a certain amount of informal organization.
Generally speaking, Classical Pentecostalism can be classified as “Arminian, perfectionistic, premillennial and charismatic.”(13) They usually view themselves as representatives of the first century apostolic movement.(14) “Neo-Pentecostalism is indebted to Pentecostalism for its inspiration historically, but it is more flexible in biblical interpretation and allows for a greater diversity in practice.”(15)
Specifically, the doctrine which makes Pentecostal churches unique is their belief in Holy Spirit baptism with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues. It is this personal experience, and not doctrine, that holds the movement together. “Pentecostalism wishes, in brief, to be understood as experiential Christianity, with its experience culminating in the baptism of the believer in the Holy Spirit evidenced, as at Pentecost, by speaking in other tongues. This experience with the Spirit should continue, as in the early church, in the exercise of the spiritual gifts privately, and then publicly in the Pentecostal meetings where the gifts have their most significant sphere of operation.”(16)
In the next article we will give specific attention to the Biblical answer for these distinctive Pentecostal doctrines.
Bruner, Frederick D., A Theology Of The Holy Spirit, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1970.
Hollenweger, W.J., The Pentecostals, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, 1972.
MacArthur Jr., John F., The Charismatics, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1978.
Quebedeaux, Richard, The New Charismatics, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, NJ, 1976.
Synan, Vinson, The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement In The United States, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, 1971.
Whalley, W.E., “Pentecostal Theology,” The Baptist Quarterly, Baptist Historical Society, London, Vol. XXVII, 1977-1978.
Guardian of Truth XXV: 3, pp. 38-40
January 15, 1981