Believers thirsting for the Day of Pentecost

By the end of the 20th century, 525 million people identified themselves as Pentecostals, making this group of Christians second in number only to the Roman Catholic Church.

Although the most publicly recognized Pentecostals these day are televangelists (Jimmy Swaggart), prosperity preachers (Kenneth Copeland), and faith healers (Benny Hinn, Ernest Angley, Kathryn Kuhlman), Pentecostalism erupted in 19th-century America as a grassroots, sectarian movement.

Like a wildfire spreading across the arid spiritual plains of mainline religions, tens of thousands of Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Mennonites, and Presbyterians abandoned the religions in which they were raised, seeking a more authentic New Testament faith. Taking as their model the story of the Day of Pentecost, when tongues of fire descended on the gathered Christians and filled them with the Holy Spirit, these new Holy Ghost believers sought to find this divine supernatural power in their own times.

As Grant Wacker, who teaches the history of American religion at Duke, points out in this fascinating book, the two decades from 1885 to 1905 were the formative years of Pentecostalism. Numerous sects sprang up in those years, such as Shiloh, Pillar of Fire, and the Fire-Baptized Holiness Association.

Although each of these sects differed slightly in their interpretation of the Bible, women's role in the church, or missionary activity, they all accepted and lived by what Wacker calls a "four-fold gospel." The threads of this gospel were "heartfelt salvation through faith in Jesus Christ," Holy Ghost baptism, divine healing, and the expectation of Christ's imminent return to earth.

Pentecostal sects often withdrew from the world, believing that God would work only through their communities, which the Holy Spirit had baptized with fire. Such withdrawal and this feeling of God's special blessing made the practice of the Pentecostal religion a rather private affair.

Speaking in tongues, which many Pentecostal leaders taught was the evidence of Holy Ghost baptism, became a featured part of Pentecostal services. In these early decades, outsiders cast a wary glance at these "holy rollers" because of their raucous church services and their adamant refusal to be a part of this world.

Wacker argues, though, that "the genius of the Pentecostal movement lay in its ability to hold two seemingly incompatible impulses in productive tension." The first he calls the primitivist impulse, and he variously describes it as a "longing for direct contact with the divine," "otherworldliness," or "heavenly mindedness." He reminds us that Pentecostals sought to return to "first things, original things, fundamental things" in their religious practices.

At the same time, he observes, Pentecostals maintained a remarkable ability to focus on practical matters. "Pentecostals' primitivist conviction that the Holy Spirit did everything, and that they themselves did nothing, bore grandly pragmatic results," he writes. "It freed them from self-doubt, legitimated reasonable accommodations to modern culture, and released boundless energy for feats of worldly enterprise. At the same time, this vigorous engagement with everyday life stabilized the primitive and kept it from consuming itself in a fury of charismatic fire."

Unlike other histories of Pentecostalism, Wacker uses the letters, journal entries, newspaper articles, and other writings of the believers themselves as he examines the rise and development of the movement.

With a blend of thorough scholarship, lively detail, and elegantly crafted prose, Wacker provides us with an enlightening glimpse into the history of Pentecostalism in this first-rate history of American religion.

Henry L. Carrigan Jr. is a freelance writer living in Lancaster, Pa.

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