‘Pentecostal’ can be a sort of buzz word these days. You can find it in academic articles, popular Christian books, or even on the magazine rack at the grocery store. But, if you ask anyone what ‘Pentecostal’ means, you are likely to get a millions different answers.
And the problem only gets worse when you throw in related terms like charismatic, neo-Pentecostal, neo-charismatic, or those-crazy-people-over-there. Are all these terms talking about the same thing? Well… maybe.
The truth is, there are distinctions between all those categories (especially the last one), but most people who aren’t studying Pentecostals don’t have much use for them. That’s why this site will typically just use the term “Pentecostalism” as a catch all for all of that. At the end of the day it’s a big tent.
That said, it isn’t as if Pentecostalism fell from the sky. It has a history, and sadly most Pentecostals don’t know it. That’s why we are starting this series of posts about the basics of Pentecostal history. Through these posts, we’ll try to highlight the parts of that history you may not know and unveil some of the amazing Pentecostals whose names you’ve never heard of.
But, before we can jump into the deep end, we need to ask one important question:
Where did Pentecostalism come from?
Believe it or not, the answer isn’t as simple as you’d think, and serious scholars have a great time getting angry at eachother over their answers to that question.
On one corner of the ring is what I will call the chicken theory. In short, there was one big chicken that laid the big Pentecostal egg. There are fancy names for the theory, but “The Chicken Thesis” will work.
Most chicken theorists will look back into history for something that looks close to the Pentecostalism that they know. They try to find the big event that launches the movement; they want Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed to the church door.
There’s only one big problem, getting a consensus on who the first Pentecostal chicken isn’t easy.
Most people might point to the 1906 Azusa Street Revival led by the black minister William J. Seymour. It’s a good option. A lot of missionaries went out from Azusa, and many people travelled to receive the gift. Azusa saw people slain in the Spirit and speaking in tongues, and people of color and women played a large role in the leadership of the revival.
The problem? Azusa never claimed to be first. William J. Seymour was a student of Charles F. Parham, a minister running a Bible school in Topeka Kansas. And by student I mean Seymour sat outside the classroom door because Parham was an avowed racist and would not allow a black person in the room. Parham began to gain a following in 1904 during the Topeka Outpouring when his Bible school students began to speak in tongues.
If tongues and revivals are all that we are looking for as a beginning, however, then we can push the big chicken back to 1896 in Cherokee County, North Carolina. That year, three visiting ministers from a Holiness group in Tennessee led a large revival where people spoke in tongues. These ministers were part of what is today a major Pentecostal denomination, the Church of God (Cleveland, TN).
Of course, those are just the major chicken candidates in the United States.
Across the pond, the Welsh Revival kicked off in 1904. Over the course of about a year, Wales was rocked by a growing spiritual movement characterized by new musical and mystical experiences. Through the course of the revival, Wales would see the conversion of nearly one hundred thousand people.
If we look to India, we can see the example of Pandita Ramabai. A celebrated woman reformer, Ramabai is well remembered for her advocacy and work on behalf of women. Yet, she was also a revival leader. In 1905, Ramabai’s girl’s school in Mukti was brought to a standstill as ecstatic prayer and visions of fire gripped the girls and propelled them to form preaching bands.
Moving further east, the Pyongyang Revival of 1907 could also be a good candidate. The revival saw a massive number of conversions and was generally propelled by Korean church leaders and western missionaries working together. While it didn’t have tongues, it was characterized by teary emotional outbursts of repentance and loud group prayer.
Truthfully, we could probably do this all day, but you get the point. While you’d think that the chicken theorists would be able to find that first big Pentecostal chicken, it seems more and more likely that there isn’t one. In fact, if a historian claims a single person or event is the origin of Pentecostalism then it probably has more to do with the historian’s own context than it does with the historical contexts.
And so this gives rise to the other theory, what I call “The Eggs Theory.” As historians of Pentecostalism keep looking back, they keep finding pockets of people around the world interacting with each other. These communities affected and were effected by one another, and when the revival shells started cracking, the whole nest started to go.
The eggs theory is hard because it doesn’t give us the clean view of history we want; it’s messy, but it is also amazing because it illustrates that Pentecostalism was never “one” thing, it has always been filled with diversity and competing visions.
Some eggs leave a legacy of bigotry and pride, but many others leave legacies of beauty, social progress and sacrifice. For a long time, a lot of those sort of eggs have been ignored, but you have to wonder…
what sort of movement would Pentecostalism be today if the “other” eggs were the ones people remembered. As this series explores Pentecostal history, maybe we’ll find out.
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.