Pentecostalism as we know it today began at the dawn of the twentieth century as a progressive theo-social movement grounded in the appearance of glossolalia or speaking with other tongues. It is a movement that began with only a handful of students and increased steadily throughout the world during the twentieth century until by 1993 it had become the largest family of Protestants in the world (Liardon 2006). As a Bishop in the Pentecostal church, I am keenly aware that Pentecostalism is often overlooked and undervalued in academic dialogue because its roots do not lend themselves to the euro-centric racially biased philosophical frameworks that are rooted in western constructs of male dominance and sexism; however, it is a great failure and oversight on the part of the academy to ignore the sheer size and impact of its global presence. This movement was birthed in Kansas among white adherents, but quickly spread to the Los Angeles area, where it gained its original popularity and broadest reach, through the teaching and leadership of a Black man (Synan 1971). Pentecostalism from its earliest roots was movement of racial reconciliation. Leadership from women like Bishop Alma White, founder of the “Pillar of Fire” movement, was normative in the roots of Pentecostalism. This female leadership was extremely progressive and helped usher in the Women’s Rights Movement.
While it is popular thought that the conservative theology of the Pentecostal movement has always meant conservative politics, the truth is Pentecostalism is historically progressive in matters of race and gender equality. It is unfortunate that this movement with so much progressive potential would eventually fragment onto racial prejudice and division. The clearest sign of this division was the birth of the Assemblies of God. Now the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world, The AOG was formed out of the Church of God In Christ which was led by a Black man. When the white men of the COGIC no longer wished to be led by a Black man, they met during the annual meeting and formed a separate white led organization and thus began the real move away from progressive social policies in Pentecost (Menzies 1971). Throughout the twentieth century, white Pentecostals more than Black Pentecostals have been preoccupied with glossolalia. The Black church has sought to retain the tension between holiness, spiritual encounter/empowerment, and the prophetic Christian social consciousness (Clemmons 1996).
As racism came so did the sexism and other demoralizing social ills, such as classism, creep into the Pentecostal movement. Original Pentecostal culture was a safe haven for the wealthy and the poor to coexist peacefully with no hierarchy based on finance. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case in the Pentecostal church where consumerism, capitalism, and classism now have found their theological home through the prosperity gospel. In the Kansas school where glossolalia is said to have originally occurred everyone sold their possessions and pooled their money equally to attend the school for the one year it was in operation (Liardon 2006). This type of radical anticapitalistic community was not uncommon for early Holiness/Pentecostals and can be seen in the formation of Zion City by Alexander Dowie (Synan 1971). How far Pentecostalism has drifted from its roots.
What would happen if the largest Protestant branch of Christianity returned to its socially progressive roots? How would the world change if globally the Pentecostal movement would adopt an intentionally radically progressive agenda in keeping with its foundations? The church could engage transformation of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy so enmeshed in the social fabric of western society by offering the countercultural narrative that we are one. If Pentecostalism could be the catalyst to bring about social progress during Jim and Jane Crow and Woman’s fight for voting rights, how much more could progressive Pentecostals give voice to the need for social change in this contemporary moment. We must respond to the pettiness of elected officials who seek to divide rather than unite. As we face the spread of fascism at home in the United States, as well as globally, progressive Pentecostals can bear witness to the radically inclusive message of the Christian faith. Being that on the day of Pentecost the first miracle was unity, there is embedded in true Pentecostalism a call to unity in the most divisive times.
I am calling for all Pentecostal liturgist and all liturgist of good will to think over the next few weeks about the ways in which Spirit is inviting us into a space of progress. How do we make room in our worship experiences for the “other”? What praxis in your weekly worship is contrary to human flourishing? How have we lifted cultural norms above the liberative message of the Christian faith? How do we hold fast to our heritage of social progress in the face of hate? How do we intentionally combat sexism, classism, racism and all other divisive forces that try to thwart the unity of the faith and taint our witness in the world?
Please feel free to comment below.
Peace Is Possible,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Clemmons, Bishop Ithiel C. 1996. Bishop C. H. Mason and the Roots of the Church of God in Christ. Lanham: Pneuma Life Publishing.
Liardon, Roberts. 2006. The Azusa Street Revival. Shippensburg: Destiny Image.
Menzies, William W. 1971. Anointed to Serve: The Story of The Assemblies fo God. Springfield: Missouri.
Synan, Vinson. 1971. The Holiness- Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.