Charles Fox Parham (1873–1929) was an American preacher and evangelist and one of the central figures in the emergence of American Pentecostalism. It was Parham who first claimed that speaking in tongues was the inevitable evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He is often referred to as the “Father of Modern-day Pentecostalism.”
Charles Parham was born June 4, 1873, in Muscatine, Iowa, which at that time would have been on the American frontier. He suffered many health problems early on, including a heart condition that would trouble him all his life. He became a Methodist at age 13 after attending an evangelistic meeting. He read avidly, taught Sunday School, and became a minister at age 15.
Parham’s religious beliefs seem to have been influenced by two spiritual experiences. At the age of 13 he claims to have been bathed in light. At the age of 18 he claims to have been completely healed of rheumatic fever and his heart condition. Although these conditions recurred later, Parham came to see his mission as bringing healing to others.
In 1890 Parham began studying religion and medicine at Southwest Kansas College in Winfield, Kansas. However, a recurrence of rheumatic fever nearly killed him and caused him to leave his studies and return to ministry. Parham was licensed as a minister and at the age of 20 took a position as temporary pastor, but he increasingly found himself at odds with Methodist leaders. Much of the conflict was due to his leanings toward the holiness doctrine, which became more prominent in his teaching.
In 1895 Charles Parham broke with the Methodist Church (at the same time rejecting all denominations) and started his own ministry. He preached the need for personal conversion and also a return to “primitive Christianity.” His base of operations was in Topeka, Kansas. Parham expanded his ministry to include a rescue mission, an employment service, an orphanage, and a periodical. In 1900 he started a Bible school.
Parham’s Bible school was tuition-free and open to all those who were willing to forsake everything to follow Christ. The Bible was the only textbook. Under Parham’s tutelage, students became convinced that the events in Acts 2 should be normative for the Christian life today. On New Year’s Eve, 1900, Parham led a watch night service with about 75 people who met to pray for God’s work. According to Parham’s own account of the event, he laid hands on a female student who began to speak in a language that sounded like Chinese although she only knew English. For three days she was able to speak or write only “Chinese” (the language was never confirmed), and she was unable to speak or write in English. For Parham, this was evidence of God’s Spirit at work, and he pressed on from there. Parham believed that the gift of tongues involved speaking in actual human languages and would be a necessary tool for carrying out missions activity.
In 1901, Parham closed his school and went on a preaching tour, taking some of his students with him. His meetings were heavily attended, and reports of “Holy Spirit baptisms,” speaking in tongues, and healings were circulated.
One of Charles Parham’s later students was an African-American named William Joseph Seymour. Seymour took what he had learned from Parham to Los Angeles and opened a rescue mission on Azusa Street. Thousands began to attend Seymour’s preaching with the result that his (and Parham’s) theology spread far and wide. Many if not most modern Pentecostal movements trace their roots back to the Azusa Street Mission.
A rift developed between Seymour and Parham for a couple of reasons. First, Parham was aghast that Seymour’s services were characterized by mass hysteria, chaos, and ecstatic displays of emotionalism. Second, Parham was firmly against integrated services, believing that the Anglo-Saxons were the descendants of the ten “lost” tribes of Israel and that blacks and whites should be segregated (Seymour had not been allowed to sit with the rest of Parham’s students in class). In 1906, Parham publicly denounced Seymour and the Azusa Street “revival.”
Besides his teaching of Anglo-Israelism, Parham also began to advocate for annihilationist theology—the teaching that people who go to hell will eventually be annihilated rather than endure eternal punishment. These doctrines and an arrest in Texas caused Parham to be viewed more and more critically by those within the movement and by those reporting on it from the outside. By this time, Seymour had come to exert more influence on the Pentecostal movement than Parham. But the Pentecostal movement that Parham helped begin took on a life of its own; by 1914, various denominations had sprung up, including the Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God, the United Pentecostal Church, and the Pentecostal Church of God. Parham continued to preach but with diminishing influence. He died at his home in Baxter Springs, Kansas, in 1929.
Charles Parham never saw his dream of international missions fulfilled; his students did not use the gift of tongues to evangelize the world. His primary theological contribution is his equating speaking in tongues with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Other groups in the United States had been speaking in tongues before Parham. However, Parham was the first to articulate that speaking in tongues was the necessary evidence of Spirit baptism. Many view Parham as a hero, spiritual giant, and latter-day Elijah; others view him as a self-promoting racist who mistook a psychological phenomenon for the work of the Holy Spirit. What’s plain is that Parham ignored the plain teaching of Scripture regarding speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 12 makes it clear that not every believer has the gift of tongues), and his teaching has caused many distractions from the gospel over the past 100 years.