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,"
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.
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
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."
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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.