What do Christians believe and why? Why are there so many different Christian churches and denominations? Do we all worship and serve the same God? Do we share anything meaningful in common?
Continuing this Sunday, May 15, with the Pentecostals, we will explore questions about what Christians believe and why in both Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall worship services, as well as in an eight week study of Adam Hamilton’s book, “Christianity’s Family Tree.” The following is a selection from that book:
Pentecostals and the Power of the Spirit
We now look at the youngest of the major bodies in Christianity, the Pentecostal family of churches. Pentecostalism takes its name from the Jewish festival of Pentecost; it was at this festival around AD 30 that the Holy Spirit descended on the first Christians, and the church was born. Pentecostals are known for energetic and passion-filled worship and an emphasis on supernatural experiences of the Holy Spirit. Although the official beginning of Pentecostalism is usually set at 1901, its roots reach back another 200 years through John Wesley and the Methodist Church. So we will need to discuss a little Methodist history to set the stage for our study of Pentecostalism.
In the early 1700s, the Church of England offered worship that was beautiful, subdued, speaking perhaps more to the intellect than to the heart. Its dominant strain seemed to place little emphasis on holiness and seemed satisfied with a tepid kind of faith, at least from John Wesley’s perspective. John and his brother Charles, both Anglican priests, began to seek more from their faith. They pursued rigorous spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, and works of piety and met with others in small groups for accountability and growth in faith. In 1738, both Wesley brothers had profound experiences in which they came to have an assurance of their salvation. As a result, they incorporated in their beliefs the need for conversion and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, with the aim being sanctification; that is, removing the bent toward sin and shaping the Christian into one who loves God and neighbor. John Wesley went on to be a leader of the great eighteenth-century religious revival in England.
Wesley’s followers, called Methodists, were known for their spiritual passion and for religious experiences that were sometimes deemed, by more traditional Anglicans, to be excessive. Wesley and his followers seemed able to hold together, sometimes in tension with one another, the intellect and the passions, the evangelical and the social gospels. But in nineteenth-century America, the Methodist movement found itself divided between those who emphasized the heart (Christian experience, personal holiness, and the evangelistic gospel) and those who emphasized reason, intellect, and the social gospel. The former were known for their camp meetings, in which people on the frontiers would come together by wagon, pitch their tents, and hold revivals led by Methodist preachers. The latter became known for their Chautaquas, gatherings characterized not by emotional gospel preaching, but by lectures on the Bible, culture, and the social issues of the time.
During the nineteenth century, a number of groups broke away from the Methodist movement to form their own churches, nearly all emphasizing holiness or sanctification. They included the Nazarenes and their predecessors, the Church of God; the Adventists; the Salvation Army; the Wesleyan Church; and others. These groups tended to be more conservative theologically than the Methodists, and they placed a greater emphasis on both personal piety and personal fervor or experience.
Speaking in Tongues and the Charismatics
Pentecostalism was born out of this holiness movement in 1901 at Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas. Charles Fox Parham, who had a Methodist background, was teaching at Bethel. His study of the Book of Acts led him to wonder if the works of the Holy Spirit recorded there could not still happen in the church. Parham came to believe that what he called “baptism in the Holy Spirit” was separate from the believer’s receipt of the Holy Spirit at salvation. He felt that such an experience—an immersion in the Holy Spirit—would be demonstrated first by speaking in toungues, whereby the Holy Spirit enabled Christians to speak in a language they had not previously known or to speak in a completely unintelligible language. Parham began to invite his students to receive this manifestation of the Holy Spirit, and it was in 1901 that a woman named Agnes Ozman had an experience such as Parham had described and began to speak in an unintelligible language. From there, the Pentecostal fire quickly spread to Los Angeles in 1906 and to Texas, Missouri, and a host of other places.
Modern-day Pentecostals view the experience of speaking in tongues as normative, believing that it is as available today as it was in the first century. Those in non-Pentecostal denominations who have had the Pentecostal experience of the Holy Spirit are typically called “Charismatics,” from the Greek word used in the New Testament for spiritual gifts (charismata); and today it is estimated that there are as many as 600 million Christians worldwide who are either Pentecostal or Charismatic.