The dawning of Pentecostalism: Five factors that made the Pentecostal movement

By Fiona Lockett

This article explains the rise of the Pentecostal movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Five factors lead to the rise of Pentecostalism, the most important of which was the Holiness movement, which was itself a significant part of the American religious landscape. Other influential factors were the state of the established churches, the pluralism of society in general, the past experience of revivalism and the presence of black churches and spirituality.

Factor One: The Holiness heritage

New and old theology

Much of the success of the Pentecostal movement was due to its similarity in doctrine to the Holiness movement.

The Holiness movement was born out of Wesleyan Methodist theology and was prevalent in American religious life towards the end of the 19th century. MacRobert argues that it was based on “a simplistic understanding of Wesley's teaching” because it interpreted his doctrine of sanctification as taking place at 'crisis moments', that is, specific points in time. This doctrine had been changing in emphasis in the years leading up to the rise of the Pentecostal movement. It began to be spoken of as 'baptism with the Holy Ghost', rather than 'sanctification' and was seen more as 'an enduement of power from on high', rather than simply an 'inner cleansing'.

There were also differing opinions within the Holiness movement as to the number of crisis moments. Some people believed there were two (first, conversion and baptism and later, Spirit baptism and sanctification) and others believed there were three (baptism, sanctification and later still, Spirit baptism). The theology of the 'third blessing' was “an important bridge to Pentecostalism in that attention was given to the unique empowering action of the Holy Spirit separate from the cleansing work of the Spirit in sanctification”.

(For more explanation of Wesleyan Methodist theology, see Where Pentecostalism came from (Part 1) - The theology of John Wesley)

Charles Parham, the man who founded Pentecostal theology, was originally a Methodist supply pastor and in the last decade of the 19th century was involved in “radical holiness circles”. Pentecostal theology began in December 1900 when Parham asked the students at his Kansas Bible School to investigate the “Bible evidence of the baptism of the Holy Ghost”. His interest in this question was the result of his background in the Holiness movement. To his “astonishment”, the students found that the “indisputable proof on each occasion was, that they spake with other tongues” (based on Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6 and 1 Cor 14:1-33).

This lead Parham to believe that Spirit baptism was exclusively proven by speaking in tongues. “[F]rom the beginning [this] clearly distinguished the Holiness Movement from the early Pentecostal movement”. Anderson suggests that “'[e]xcept for speaking in tongues, in the early days there was little to distinguish the Pentecostal believer from his holiness brethren'”.

A new movement

Parham was the man who created Pentecostal doctrine, but another man popularised it. William J. Seymour was a black Holiness preacher, brought up in black folk Christianity. At the end of 1905 he heard about Parham's new Bible School in Houston, Texas. He enrolled and became a convert to Parham's Pentecostal message. However, he adopted a different emphasis to that of Parham. His focus was less on missionary activity and more on the harmony that would result once the gospel was heard. He regarded speaking in tongues as the Spirit “breaking through the barriers . . . reconciling all people with one another.”

After graduating, Seymour preached the new Pentecostal teaching at his first (Holiness) church in Los Angeles - and was expelled. He continued to teach from a friend's house and on the 9th of April 1906 tongue speaking began. Numbers grew so large that Seymour and his followers had to begin meeting in an abandoned church building at 312 Azusa St. “[W]ithin a month Sunday attendance had risen to 750 or 800 with a further four or five hundred, for whom there was no room, crowding outside.”

Bartlemann, who was present in those early days, recalls that there was speaking and singing in tongues and “fall[ing] all over the house, like the slain in battle, or rush[ing] for the altar en masse, to seek God. The scene often resembled a forest of fallen trees. Such a scene cannot be imitated.” People came “hungry for God” and “were humbled”. Bartlemann declares that, “Divine love was wonderfully manifest in the meetings” and, “The whole place was steeped in prayer”. He says that “God's presence became more and more wonderful”.

These descriptions show that experience was the 'heartbeat' of the movement. “All was spontaneous, ordered of the Spirit. We wanted to hear from God, through whoever he might speak.”

It was not difficult for Holiness people to convert to the new Pentecostalism. The offer of proof of Holy Spirit baptism was very attractive to people already convinced of its legitimacy. The southern Holiness churches in particular were open to increasingly radical teaching, and, as such, were “predisposed to accept the even more radical doctrines of the Pentecostal movement”. Furthermore, “the attaching of tongues to the Holy Ghost baptism had a strong basis in the New Testament, a fact that easily convinced many holiness people, practically all of whom interpreted the Bible literally.”

The Pentecostalism initiated by Seymour was also successful because it continued the tradition of other aspects of the Holiness churches - healings and interracial, emotional meetings.

In addition to finding Pentecostal doctrine and practice understandable and attractive, circumstances at the time meant that it was relatively easy for Holiness people to change 'religion'. The necessity of 'coming out' of the established denominational churches in the late 1800s to join the Holiness churches established the groundwork for later joining the Pentecostal movement.

Rejection and separation

Not all Holiness people were happy about the new Pentecostalism however. “Almost immediately after the birth of Pentecostalism, the branch of Christianity which gave birth to the movement was disowning the offspring - the parent regarded the child as an ugly mutant.”

Alma White, leader of the Pillar of Fire church, which, in 1906, “saw one of its congregations in Los Angeles taken over by Pentecostal enthusiasts”, regarded tongue speaking as demonic. Bresee, head of the ironically named Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene, also based in Los Angeles and the largest of the holiness denominations, opposed the Azusa St revival because it “constituted a direct threat to his own congregation”. Dr G. Campbell Morgan, “one of the most respected preachers of the twentieth century”, called the Pentecostal movement 'the last vomit of Satan'”. The famous holiness preacher W.B. Godbey was “repelled by the noise and disorganization”, when he visited Azusa St in 1909, calling the Azusa people “Satan's preachers” and “magicians”. “[H]e used his considerable influence in persuading a large portion of the holiness movement to reject the Pentecostal message.” Finally, in 1910 Beverly Carradine, “well know for many decades in the holiness movement” had a similar reaction, calling the Pentecostals, speakers of 'gibberish' and “[w]ielding great influence on the other holiness denominations, Carradine helped stem the Pentecostal tide which threatened to engulf the entire holiness movement.”

The early opposition to and rejection of Pentecostalism by prominent Holiness leaders caused the new movement to separate out from Holiness circles from its very beginning, thus facilitating the development of Pentecostalism into a distinct movement in its own right.

Although the Holiness movement was the first and major component of American religious life out of which Pentecostalism rose, other factors also contributed to the establishment of the Pentecostal movement.

Factor Two: The state of the established churches

The second factor contributing to the rise of Pentecostalism was the state of the established churches at that time. These churches were liberal, greedy, lukewarm, “academic and static in their preaching and liturgy”. They were being undermined by critical readings of the Bible, the theory of evolution, the social gospel, and comparative religious studies which relativised Christianity.

It was partly in reaction to this state of affairs that the Holiness churches were born, and the Pentecostal movement shared their motivation. Seymour wrote, “We are not fighting against people or churches, but we are seeking to replace dead forms and dogmas with a living, practical Christianity.” There was a “yearning simply to know the divine mind and will as directly and as purely as possible, without the distorting refractions of human volition, traditions, or speculations.”

“Many [Pentecostals] suspected intellectualism to be an enemy of spirituality.” Their literal interpretation of the Bible, in regard to speaking in tongues for example, was in part a reaction to biblical criticism. “What was needed was not a new argument for heads but a new experience for hearts.”

Factor Three: The pluralism of society

Ironically, the very things that the Pentecostal movement was reacting to, were the things that facilitated its rise.

Society had become more diverse as the result of mass immigration, industrialisation and urbanisation. As many as 40 million immigrants came to the United States between 1800 and 1920, and from 1870 to 1930, the number of people living in cities with populations of 2500 or more went from 10 to 69 million. “Growing commercial pressure, greater access to higher education, and more opportunities for contact with representatives of different religions and ethnic groups all worked to undermine the Protestant character of the national religion. Space in the cities for other kinds of Christianity and for simple inattention to the faith stimulated an evermore obvious religious pluralism.”

This new pluralism of thought that lead to liberalism (such as the critique of traditional Christian thinking, and narrowing and relativising of Christian applicablity) also created a climate where new attempts to sure up the Christian faith were possible. It was this climate that permitted the rise of the new Pentecostal movement.

Factor Four: The past experience of revivalism

The fourth factor in American religious life which lead to the rise of the Pentecostal movement was the experience of revival. Revival happened in the northern states in 1858 and briefly in the south in 1865-67. The Welsh Revival, which was read about with great excitement in America, happened in 1904. Following this revival, Holiness minister Frank Bartleman urged people to pray for a new revival in America. He anticipated one last world-wide revival before Jesus' return. Other Holiness preachers were also calling for revival.

It was no surprise that these people “were ready to accept the events of 1906 in Los Angeles as the answer to their prayers”. Their support of the new movement is evidenced by the fact that, “the Pentecostal movement first sprouted in the geographical regions that were most familiar with revivalist Christianity”.

The past experience of revival also meant that the new Pentecostalism was attractive to these people because the two movements shared teaching and practice. In fact, Revivalism's belief in the imminent Second Coming of Christ was partly responsible for Parham's desire for tongue speaking. He expected missionaries to receive this gift to enable them to “preach in the language of the natives” so that this gospel would be “proclaimed to all people before the end comes.”

Pentecostalism also shared Revivalism's belief in healing, and the experiential aspect of spirituality had been promoted by Revivalist preachers who wanted to see heartfelt conversion experiences (in order that the individual would be transformed and society would be bettered). Revivalist Christianity has been described as “lively, emotional, fervid”. The new Pentecostal movement shared all these factors.

Factor Five: Black churches and spirituality

The fifth aspect of American religious life to influence the rise of Pentecostalism was the presence of Black churches. There were many Black churches in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1906, they accounted for 17 per cent of the nation's churches.

The Holiness doctrines had been particularly successful in these churches. Church life was heavily influenced by African culture and spirituality. Teaching was “handed down orally by means of stories, myths and songs”. Spirit possession was also part of African spirituality, preparation for which involved singing, drumming and dancing. There was “no division between the spiritual and the earthly reality”. African spirituality also saw a very close relationship between the present and future (the future being “so close that it has almost arrived”), which married well with the Pentecostal belief in Jesus' imminent return. This style of church life carried over into the new Pentecostal movement.

Five factors that made Pentecostalism

At least five factors contributed to the rise of the Pentecostal movement. The first and most significant factor was the preexisting Holiness movement, which gave almost all of its doctrine as well as its style of church meeting to the new Pentecostalism. The second factor was the sorry state of the established churches. Pentecostalism offered a more heartfelt and faithful alternative. The third factor was the pluralism of society at large, which facilitated the introduction of a new religious movement. The fourth factor was the past experience of revival. The events at Azusa Street were seen as a new and grand manifestation of revival and the new Pentecostalism shared much of Revivalism's thinking and style. And finally, the fifth factor was the influence that the substantial number of black churches had on the doctrine and experience of Pentecostal church life. These five factors together contributed to the phenomenally successful beginning of the Pentecostal movement.

More on this topic

Why Pentecostalism began

(PART 3) Where Pentecostalism came from - The Holiness movement

(PART 2) Where Pentecostalism came from - The legacy of Edward Irving

(PART 1) Where Pentecostalism came from - The theology of John Wesley

Why Pentecostalism was successful

How early Pentecostals saw themselves


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