Where in the world did all these Pentecostals and charismatics come from? In the explosive growth and geographical extension of Pentecostal and charismatic groups, we are witnessing one of the most if not the most stunning episodes of Christian expansion ever. In the not-too-distant future Pentecostals will likely make up the majority of Christians worldwide.

Yet Pentecostals and charismatics remain mysterious even to other Protestants, despite the fact that the origins of the contemporary Pentecostal movement are well known. A cluster of events around the turn of the 20th century shaped Pentecostalism's distinctive character and launched it as one juggernaut of a Christian movement.

The Start: Topeka

In October 1900, 29-year-old Agnes Ozmen matriculated at the freshly founded Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas. Former Methodist, now Holiness pastor Charles Fox Parham directed students to read the book of Acts with heightened alertness to every mention of the Spirit. Consensus emerged on two points: (1) outward manifestations always accompany the Spirit's activity, and (2) speaking in tongues is the outward sign, the proof of baptism in the Holy Spirit.

A watch night service was announced for New Year's Eve. Sometime in the wee hours of January 1, 1901, Parham placed his hands on Miss Ozmen at her request, praying that she would receive baptism by the Holy Spirit. Witnesses report that Miss Ozmen, for the next three days, spoke and wrote only in Chinese. Parallel with the event reported in Acts 2 at the feast of Pentecost, the miraculous “tongue” reportedly spoken at Topeka was a known, extant human language foreign to the speaker. Only rarely amid the subsequent spread of the movement did reports of such technically “Pentecostal” tongues arise. Famously, in the summer of 1960, Rabbi Jacob Rabinowitz discovered Irishman John Gruver speaking (unbeknownst to Gruver) Hebrew during an Assemblies of God worship service in Pasadena. But the vast bulk of Pentecostal tongues have been, ironically, not Pentecostal, but Corinthian—unknown tongues, heavenly languages.

Theologically, the events at Topeka retain the strongest claim as the scene of the birth of Pentecostalism. The consensus regarding the tongues and the Spirit resulting from the Parham-prompted Bible study combined with the watch night prayers, and Ozmen's tongues epitomizes early Pentecostal identity. Interpretation of these events gave birth to new doctrine that turned Holiness believers into the first self-consciously Pentecostal followers of Jesus Christ. Here's what they believe: speaking in tongues is the normative external sign of the baptism with the Holy Spirit that is the spiritual birthright of every Christian.

Holiness Cradle

Such a reading and application of the book of Acts was long in the making. A century and half earlier, John Wesley had taught that a second work of grace post-conversion was possible, desirable, and pursuable by converts to Jesus Christ. The Methodist movement Wesley inspired gave birth to the Keswick Convention and conferences and the Wesleyan-Holiness and Higher Life movements out of which Pentecostalism sprang.

These Holiness churches emphasized the importance of Holy Spirit-produced second and even third works of grace. One group, for example, identified regeneration, sanctification, and baptism in the Spirit as three constituent outpourings of the Spirit proper to the normal Christian life. Holiness Christians wrangled among themselves about the number, nature, significance, and proper sequencing of such experiences.

A distinctive and quite technical language developed among these Holiness Christians. Terms such as “second blessing,” “entire sanctification,” “being filled with the Holy Spirit,” “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” or “baptism by the Holy Spirit” became identity markers amid a proliferating movement giving birth to countless independent churches as well as full-blown denominations like the Pilgrim Holiness Church and the Church of the Nazarene.

All these Holiness groups insisted that the miraculous gifts reported in the New Testament continue beyond the apostolic age into the present-day church. Though some Holiness believers chafe at this reality, early Pentecostals were essentially Holiness Christians with one additional feature—the insistence that speaking in tongues is the normative outward sign of the normative baptism by and in the Holy Spirit.

Azusa Street

The second pivotal event occurred when African American Holiness-turned-Pentecostal pastor William J. Seymour made his way to Azusa Street in Los Angeles to preach. Seymour, a former student of Parham and son of a slave, witnessed the outbreak of a revival that would not abate for three years. This multi-racial, multi-class eruption of miraculous gifts (charismata) pumped out Pentecostal evangelists, missionaries, and ministers.

The spiritual lineage of almost all early leaders among Pentecostals who soon dispersed throughout North America and beyond trace back to this extraordinary time in greater Los Angeles. The defining theological distinctive of Pentecostalism was distilled at Topeka. The launching pad of what would become global Pentecostal advance was situated on Azusa Street.

Organizing and Theologizing

Now we consider a third decisive development. From the beginning many Pentecostal churches began as independent entities and chose to remain so. But hundreds of Pentecostal denominations arose as well, including this one: “The founding fathers and mothers of the Assemblies of God met in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on April 2-12, 1914, to promote unity and doctrinal stability, establish legal standing, coordinate the mission enterprise, and establish a ministerial training school.” It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of this event. Of the some 280 million Pentecostals worldwide, more than 67 million belong to the Assemblies of God.

Two words capture the heart of theological conviction underlying both Pentecostalism and the Holiness movement from which it sprang—continuity and restoration. Against “cessationists” who insist that the miraculous gifts reported in the New Testament (tongues, healings, prophecies) ceased with the close of the apostolic age, Pentecostals contend for their continuance. The relationship between then and now is one not of disjunction but continuity. Thus, where the miraculous gifts are absent, Christians should seek to restore them.

But do Pentecostals care about anything else? Yes, and like so many other Protestants, they're willing to fight with and separate from one another over all sorts of things. This 1947 observation by Canadian Pentecostal pastor H. H. Barber provides a helpful window into the theological and ecclesiological diversity of Pentecostalism:

In the city of Winnipeg are people who claim to be Pentecostal who are hyper-Calvinist [i.e., they hold to a strict doctrine of predestination], some who are strong Arminians [i.e., they hold that man has free will]; some who look upon the doctrine of the Trinity as a pagan superstition [the so-called “Jesus Only” groups], others who are staunchly Trinitarian; some who believe in baptismal regeneration, others who deny any regenerative virtue of baptism. Some cherish a rabid type of independence; others are loyal to the requirement of ordered denominational affiliation.

When push came to shove, some Pentecostal churches and denominations have proved themselves protective of orthodox and evangelical Christianity. The emergence of “Jesus Only” deniers of the Trinity within the Assemblies of God precipitated a schism and resulted in The Statement of Fundamental Truths (1916), one-third of which was dedicated to affirming the most ancient and fundamental confession of Christian believers. Today the official website of the Assemblies of God (USA) gratefully identifies itself with Martin Luther, John Wesley, and the First Great Awakening. Not just tongues, not even just the Trinity, but insistence upon the inerrancy and authority of the Bible and justification by grace alone through faith alone typically belongs to the irreducible minimum Pentecostal confession.

Such continuities between Pentecostals with older streams within the Christian tradition should not surprise us. Early Pentecostals believers did not materialize out of thin air but came forth from Holiness churches who themselves emerged from Anglican, evangelical, and fundamentalist communities of faith. We do well to recall that Pentecostalism arose from a Wesleyan-style watch night service during which the particular petition raised to God followed two months of meticulous individual and communal Bible study. These facts speak to the diverse, deep, and complex Christian rootedness of Pentecostal origins.

Pentecostals and Prosperity

The roots of the so-called prosperity gospel and health-and-wealth gospel that grew up out of Pentecostal soil trace back to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Early Pentecostal encouragement to look for material gain from the hand of God issued forth not from McMansion dwellers and Mercedes drivers but from impoverished preachers who knew what it was to go to bed hungry. The bearers of real material poverty seldom glamorize its sufferings and often bring alertness to certain biblical teachings. Does not God place his children in a garden paradise and take them to a promised land where he makes their crops, livestock, and jewelry heap up and overflow? Does he not promise ultimately to set his adopted children down at a messianic feast in a New Jerusalem traversed along streets of gold? Was not Jesus the Great Physician? Does not God himself make us expect and yearn for the end of crying and pain and death?

By the 1980s the conviction that God wills the physical health and the material wealth of every follower of Jesus Christ essentially supplanted preaching about much of anything else within many Pentecostal churches. The means for accessing such benefits was also identified—“name it and claim it.” From the ecclesial soil of Pentecostalism grew first the prosperity gospel and then the Word of Faith movement. Many academic Pentecostals decried such displacement of the heart of the gospel, and older, more confessionally rooted Pentecostals often avoided the worst excesses of these sub-movements. But the majority of the Pentecostal world flourishes in essentially independent communities of faith, allowing the prosperity gospel and its Word of Faith counterpart to spread with little real resistance. Can orthodox and evangelical Christianity survive where a robust prosperity gospel takes hold? On this point Pentecostals disagree among themselves. But even as Bible-believing Christians rightly criticize this development within Pentecostalism, they would do well to give serious attention to the impressive array of passages in both testaments to which these communities point.

Charismatics of a Different Sort

So what about the charismatics? Aren't they the same? Yes and no. Pentecostals are charismatics in that they pursue and report experience of the charismatic gifts. But the modern global charismatic movement exploded in the 1970s among Roman Catholics and within Protestant denominations as “the gifts” prized by Pentecostals appeared among them. The Vineyard Church is widely viewed as the first charismatic denomination. The charismatic movement emerged apart for Pentecostalism, but these communities cross-pollinated with their gift-practicing siblings in significant ways. Some charismatics adopted the prosperity gospel, Oral Roberts being the most spectacular example of such merging of and bridging between Pentecostalism and charismatic renewal. 

The modern charismatic movement provided an unexpected and fairly astonishing validation of Pentecostal theology as practice of the gifts spread within the established, non-restorationist Christian world. But these new charismatics also posed a challenge to Pentecostals, who seemed to have something of a corner on both teaching and experience where the gifts were concerned. Significantly, the new charismatics rarely treated tongues or any other outward manifestation as the necessary sign of Spirit baptism, making them immediately more compatible with others inside and outside their denominations who did not manifest the gifts.

Options for Orthodox Onlookers

What should those of us who do not speak in tongues and do not witness regular healing miracles make of these growing movements? Where “Jesus Only” denial of the Trinity or the quest for health and wealth supplants the gospel itself, our duty seems clear. We must declare, “That is not Christian.” Like Paul, love sometimes demands divisive dogmatism: “If we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you, a curse be on him” (Galatians 1:8).

But what about Pentecostals and charismatics who confess the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Jesus Christ in ancient, classic, orthodox fashion? What of those who cherish the Reformation solas, heartily affirming justification by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone? Surely a kind of theological and relational Golden Rule is in order: do unto them what you would have them to do unto you. We can love them without affirming convictions and practices with which we disagree. In the same way divergence over baptism and church governance results in a real separation between, for example, Southern Baptists and Presbyterians, without either community suspecting that the other languishes outside the body of Christ.

Ought not orthodox and evangelical confession achieve a core level of recognition and trust between diverse Protestant communions? Ought not such confession elicit and nurture considered patience towards one another? Again, like Paul, love sometimes demands from us dogmatic patience and refusal to separate: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). Discernment is the great burden of the church, but we must shoulder this responsibility with the seriousness demanded by the unity of the church and the purity of the gospel.