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What is Pentecostalism?

Pentecostalism may well be the fastest growing movement within Christianity, especially in Latin America where it has a strong appeal for traditionally Catholic populations. Drawing its inspiration from the Pentecost story, those involved in the movement emphasize the "gifts of the Holy Spirit" that are enumerated in the first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 12. Among these gifts are those of healing and "speaking in tongues," or glossolalia.

For the text of the Pentecost story from Acts 2

Pentecostalism came into its own in the early twentieth century in the US. In 1901 Agnes Ozman received the "gift of tongues" at Charles Fox Parham's Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas. Parham, a charismatic preacher of Methodist background, promoted the idea that speaking in tongues was the best available evidence that the Holy Spirit is present in the life of the believer.

An American Movement

Beginning in April, 1906, during the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles several people again experienced the "infilling of the Holy Spirit" in a series of meetings under the leadership of William J. Seymour, a student of Parham's. The Los Angeles Times ran a front page story on the Azusa Revival, and from that point forward Pentecostalism began to spread rapidly across the United States.

Another distinguishing characteristic of Pentecostalism is that from the beginning it seemed to appeal equally to African Americans and Caucasians. One California newspaper commented on the emotional character of its worship in which "...whites and blacks mix in a religious frenzy."

The interracial harmony that characterized Pentecostalism in its first decade did not last, however, and in 1924 it split along racial lines. The breach was not healed until 1998 when the major white and black branches of the movement merged to form the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America.

The Global Impact

The largest Pentecostal denominations in the United States today are the Church of God in Christ, Church of God (Cleveland) and the Assemblies of God. Today there may be as many as 20 million people in the US who consider themselves to be part of the pentecostal movement; with another 100 million in countries outside the US.

For a chart comparing the pentecostal movement to other families of faith around the world.

As the name of the denomination created in 1998 indicates, there is a close relationship between those identifying as part of a Pentecostal denomination or congregation and those that self-identify as "charismatic." Charismatic Christians also emphasize the gifts of the Spirit, including speaking in tongues, but often remain part of more traditional Protestant denominations. There are millions of Catholics who think of themselves as part of the charismatic movement.

What Catholics and Protestants find troubling in Pentecostalism

The major criticism of pentecostalism among traditional Protestants and Catholics has to do with the notion that some spiritual gifts are privileged over others. Thus, in the writing of St. Paul there is a long list of spiritual gifts, including wisdom, understanding, and even "administration." Yet Paul clearly discusses spiritual gifts in a context that emphasizes the unity of the church, whereas Pentecostalism has tended toward the creation of separate denominations in which it is suggested that practicing the "higher gifts" of faith healing and glossolalia are the distinguishing mark of authentic Christian faith.

Also, traditional Christians point out that the twelfth chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians in which the spiritual gifts are enumerated, is followed by the thirteenth chapter that clearly places such gifts in a wider context. Writes Paul: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing."

For more about Pentecost

The date of Pentecost

Books about Pentecostalism

Books about Pentecost

For more about the Holy Spirit

For more about the Trinity


Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.