My personal history has been shaped by women, which I shared in a previous post. Of course, my personal story is not meant to represent every Pentecostal’s story; as Alex said, Pentecostal history is much too rich and multifaceted to suggest that one person’s story can encompass everyone’s.
At the same time, I was very purposeful when I said that other Pentecostals likely have similar stories as mine because there has been one consistent feature all along the way in Pentecostalism: women leaders.
Two men––William J. Seymour and Charles F. Parham––are typically credited as the founders of the Pentecostal tradition, at least by Westerners. I will say, we do love our “Founding Fathers” narratives. Now, Parham was quite racist and quite upset that Seymour was getting all the attention for this new outpouring of the Spirit. After all, the story we often tell does state that Parham was the one that introduced Seymour to the baptism of the Spirit…well, slight correct: Parham actually introduced the white people in his church to the baptism of the Spirit, and Seymour heard it from outside the doors where those not raced “white” were relegated.
Now, it is really easy to mock Parham for his unacceptable actions, but it is important to note that we Pentecostals have not completely disavowed segregated worship or self-promotion. In fact, one could even argue that some versions of Pentecostalism promote segregation and self-aggrandizement.
So, the “Great Man” theory is at work here: two great men started Pentecostalism which is now the fastest growing religious movement in the world. Wow!
Again, this kind of thinking is easy to mock; nevertheless, American sensibility has clearly not released the false notion that men, in contrast to women, are great and that they are able to make things great, often great again.
Women of Azusa Street
Estrelda Alexander is a fantastic Pentecostal scholar and she has written many important books, including The Women of Azusa Street. In this book, Alexander astutely identifies the people often left out of the historical accounts about the Azusa Street Revival: women.
Did you know that Seymour’s pastor in Houston, TX, was a woman, Lucy Farrow, and that she was the one who introduced him to Spirit-baptism? Did you know that the only reason Seymour went to Los Angeles in the first place was because Neely Terry convinced her church to invite Seymour to be a guest speaker? And did you know that that church in LA was pastored by a woman, Julia Hutchins?
To his credit, Seymour, who like me was greatly influenced by women, declared that it was contrary to scripture not to allow women to participate in God’s work.
It is unsurprising, then, that two-thirds of the first (Western) Pentecostal missionaries, many of whom came from Seymour’s church, were women and half the evangelists were as well. These early Pentecostals recognized that the Spirit works through all people regardless of gender, race, and ability. The theological alternative, consequently, would be to say that the Spirit is restricted by gender, race, and ability, and that is simply absurd.
India and China
Let’s move East now, though much more could/should be said about Azusa Street, because the Spirit was moving throughout the world and by only considering the West, we limit our understanding of the Spirit and we perpetuate an inappropriate Western bias.
Historian Allan Anderson identifies and describes a largely ignored Pentecostal leader and catalyst for the movement, saying, “Pandita Sarasvati Ramabai (1858-1922), that most famous Indian woman, Christian, reformer, Bible translator and social activist––and in particular the revival movement in her mission––had an important role in the emergence of Pentecostalism worldwide” (77). Engaged Pentecostals would be wise to revive Ramabai’s story in their local churches because she was a Spirit-filled reformer and social activist. Her ministry included “a rescue mission, hospital, oil-press, a blacksmith forge, a printing press, a complete school that provided college entrance, a school for the blind, and training departments in teaching, nursing, weaving, tailoring, bread and butter making, tinning, laundering, masonry, carpentry and farming” (78). Talk about an Engaged Pentecostal!
Moving farther East, the first Western Pentecostal missionaries to China included one man, Alfred Garr, and six women, Lillian Garr, Maria Gardner, May Law, Rose Pittman, Cora Fritsch, and Bertha Milligan. What is interesting is that during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when missionaries were strongly encouraged to leave China, Pentecostal expressions continued to grow through the leadership of local Chinese women. One scholar suggests that Chinese Christianity can be properly identified as “Pentecostal by default.” While that statement is contested, it at least communicates that Pentecostal expressions are pervasive in China. If we mix all this information together, then one could reasonably say that Chinese Christianity is indebted to women for its richness, and more fundamentally, for its very existence.
At this point my question is simple: how have so many Pentecostals forgotten their heritage? How have we neglected the Spirit’s call to empower all people regardless of gender, race, and ability?
Some scholars argue––and I happen to strongly agree––that what happened is that these fledgling Pentecostal churches noticed that certain kinds of structures garnered social power and prestige. At the top of the list was racial and gender segregation. Mix in the pursuit of money (“your blessing is a donation away!”) and all of a sudden the beautifully diverse Pentecostal community moved into isolated, homogenous, male-led clusters that preached spiritual salvation without social liberation and freedom.
Here’s the good news: that is not our heritage. Our heritage instead is racial and gender inclusion. It’s a heritage that does not limit the Spirit’s activity due to human biology. And it’s a heritage that we are called to embrace and engage.
Up next in the series, “Race”
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.