Pentecostalism is a fairly modern movement within Christianity that can be traced back to the Holiness movement in the Methodist Church. A major focus of Pentecostal churches is Holy Spirit baptism as evidenced by speaking in tongues. There are approximately 170 different denominations that identify themselves as Pentecostal.
Toward the end of the 19th century, there was a dramatic rise in religious fervor as various groups anticipated the end of history and the return of Christ in 1900. Much of this fervor was driven by the revival meetings held by those in the Holiness movement, and there were occasional reports of people speaking in tongues. The first widespread use of tongues was at a revival in Topeka, Kansas, in January 1900, led by Charles Parham. Agnes Ozman, a Methodist, began to speak in tongues, and others in the meeting eventually followed suit. In 1906, a series of revival meetings on Azusa Street in Los Angeles led to a widespread experience of tongues-speaking, which spread to many parts of the country. The meetings were led by William Seymour, one of Charles Parham’s students. Parham and Seymour eventually parted ways, because Parham believed many of the manifestations of Azusa Street were of the flesh, or perhaps even demonic. By 1909, Seymour had excluded all but African-Americans from holding office in the mission, and the ministry eventually faded into history.
Though the Azusa Street mission had a brief life, its impact on the Pentecostal movement has been a lasting one. Many new churches and missions were founded across America which carried the new emphasis on seeking the baptism of the Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues. Today, there are over 200,000,000 denominational Pentecostals and another 200,000,000 who identify themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic in mainline churches.
There are three main divisions within the Pentecostal movement. The original group which came out of the Holiness churches (Methodist and Nazarene), sees three progressive steps in the life of a believer which indicate growth and blessing. The first step is justification, which is the forgiveness of sins that comes from putting faith in Jesus Christ. The second step is sanctification, or the second blessing, which was first taught by John Wesley in his “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection” (1766). The essence of this doctrine is an inner purity of heart and an infusion of power, whereby the believer no longer practices sin. This is sometimes followed by the third step, the “baptism of the Spirit,” as evidenced by speaking in tongues or other signs. The Church of God in Christ and the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee, are two major denominations in this group.
The second division is comprised of those who came out of a Baptist background, but were heavily influenced by the Holiness revivals of the late 1800s. The Assemblies of God was founded in 1914 under the leadership of Eudorus N. Bell, who had been a Southern Baptist pastor. The key difference in doctrine for this group is that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is available for anyone, regardless of attaining sanctification.
The third division is the Oneness Pentecostals. At the meeting which formed the Church of God in Christ (1914), there was intense debate over Trinitarian doctrine. While the majority of Holiness believers held to the traditional belief in the Trinity, there was a growing group which held to a modalist belief and affirmed that baptism should be done in Jesus’ name only. Another tenet of this group is the necessity of speaking in tongues as evidence of salvation. This group was to form the United Pentecostal Church and the Apostolic Pentecostal Church, among others.
What are we to make of this movement? The early Holiness believers recognized that Christianity ought to result in visible changes in a person’s life. The focus of many early prayer meetings was to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1). These earnest believers wanted to run their race faithfully and were seeking God’s help to do so. As that earnestness gave way to emotional religious fervor, doctrines were developed to explain and support the emotions and experiences. For many today, the emphasis is on the excitement, the experience, or the new word of prophecy. Some of the questionable foundations laid by John Wesley (e.g., a second blessing of perfection) paved the way for later Pentecostal doctrines of new works of the Spirit. Some Pentecostals allow experience to trump scriptural teaching and attempt to conform Scripture to what they “know by experience.” But fervent experience, even when it involves miracles, is not the test of true faith (see Matthew 7:22–23). Peter affirmed the value of Scripture over experience when he said, “We also have a more sure Word of prophecy, to which you do well to take heed, as to a light that shines in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19).