Classical Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism: An Introduction (Stephen)

Even in academic circles, the terms “evangelicalism” and “pentecostalism” are used almost interchangeably at times.  (For example, see the way the esteemed sociologist of religion Peter Berger does so here.)  While this is defensible in some contexts (e.g., many African contexts in which practically all Christians are pentecostals), in the US it is not entirely a given that pentecostalism ought to be considered a sub-sector of evangelicalism.  If such a notion seems crazy, that is mostly because the neo-evangelical coalition constructed its mythology in such a way as to make the inclusion of pentecostalism within evangelicalism both tautological and desirable for all concerned.

In order to understand pentecostalism, we first have to divide it into its three major branches: 1) Classical Pentecostalism, 2) Charismatic renewal, and 3) Third Wave or Neo-Pentecostalism.  While the first of these is most closely aligned with evangelicalism, the second is rarely considered evangelical, and the third is a mixed bag.  When defining each of these three branches, some history is important.  Here, I will address the first of these branches.

At the beginning of the 20th century something new called “modern pentecostalism” began.  At the same time, this was not something entirely new; instead, it was part of a recurrent series of renewals within Christendom and was the direct fruit of movements that began in the 18th century.  For Classical Pentecostalism to happen, it needed the precedents of the American Great Awakening, at which point the New Light Presbyterians adopted revivalist methods and (Arminian) Wesleyanism rapidly grew on the American frontier.  As such revivalism became a fixture in American life, such Bible-driven movements as German Pietism and the 19th century Holiness movement blended with more strictly evangelical movements such as the Keswick higher life emphasis to produce spiritual fervor and desire among low church Americans.

As believers saw a discrepancy between their own lives and the spiritually alive New Testament church, they began praying for the gifts of the Spirit, particularly tongues (which Acts seemed to indicate was the evidence of Spirit-baptism), in order to be equipped for missions work.  In Topeka, Kansas on the first day of the 20th century, Charles Parham and a group of Bible school students claimed to have experienced this gift of tongues.  By 1906, a media spectacle arose in a mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California, as gifts of tongues, healings, conversions, and an urgent mission to save souls before the end of the age caused fervor in visitors from many locations.

Although they were loath to organize into denominations, within a decade most of these revivalists (who by then had planted churches around the world) had banded together into denominations that we now know as the Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God (not a denomination, but a “cooperative fellowship,” as they call it), the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), and the Foursquare Church, among others.  While these denominations all traced their roots to Azusa Street, they divided both along racial lines and according to their precise schemes of the order of sanctification and spiritual filling.

Because Baptists and Presbyterians, among others, made a habit of violently expelling them from towns in which they tried planting churches, Classical Pentecostals had tense (if not outright hostile) relations with the Fundamentalists of the time.  Even though they ended up taking their formal doctrines largely from the Fundamentalists, in practice they emphasized a unique blend of Scripture interpreted through the lens of experience, attempting to apply Scripture in a consistently New Testament fashion.  (Here and in the next paragraph I am indebted to Bill Oliverio’s dissertation on Pentecostal hermeneutics, with any errors being my own.)

By 1940, though, white Classical Pentecostals (in particular the Assemblies of God) underwent a massive shift in the direction of white evangelicalism.  As Paul Alexander chronicles, the AG went from being a prominent pacifist denomination, with thousands of conscientious objectors, to joining in the nationalist fervor that followed World War Two and becoming a part of the fiercely militaristic culture of American evangelicalism.  Furthermore, as Harold Ockenga scrounged for members of a new moderately fundamentalist coalition, the National Association of Evangelicals, he desperately appealed to the Assemblies of God.  Although the AG was the majority constituency of the organization early on, later they gained extraordinarily as well: “NAE membership subsequently identified Pentecostals as evangelicals and removed the cult status with which some observers had labeled them.”  By 1960, the AG had tacked on a biblical inerrancy clause to its Statement of Fundamental Truths, and unique aspects of Pentecostal practice, such as female ministers, began to fade in the midst of a pursuit of respectability.

While theologians in the Society for Pentecostal Studies began to question the notion that Pentecostalism is a subset of evangelicalism during the 1970s, today most of that organization is (to varying degrees) in open revolt against the alleged evangelical captivity of Pentecostalism.  On the ground, though, two contrary dynamics seem to be in play: 1) White Pentecostals are becoming nearly indistinguishable from white American evangelicals, which is a matter of great concern to older Pentecostals who see distinctive Pentecostal identity and practices as endangered.

2) Immigrant or ethnic Pentecostalism is both rapidly growing and, for obvious reasons, not always remaining closely associated with the culture of American evangelicalism.  Such Pentecostals are often more closely linked to Third Wave Pentecostals, a conglomeration of more recently formed churches that strongly emphasize charismatic gifting.  Similarly, African-American Pentecostals were never integrated into the neo-evangelical coalition and tend to associate either with the Third Wave or with “the black church” more than with white evangelicals.

As much as white evangelicalism can numerically benefit from the addition of white Pentecostals, one has to remember that white North American (including Canadian) Pentecostal churches are (as far I have heard) the only sector of Pentecostalism that is shrinking.  Consequently, this sector will not halt a potential numerical decline among American evangelicals.

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