Spiritual Tidal Wave: The Origins and Impact of Pentecostalism
The birth of the Pentecostal movement began 100 years ago on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. We’ll be taking our show on the road to cover this global gathering and revival that is reshaping Christianity, culture, and politics worldwide.
Cecil M. Robeck, Jr. is a professor of Church History and Ecumenics at Fuller Theological Seminary and a historian of Pentecostal tradition. He is the author of The Azusa Street Mission & Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement.
September 18, 2008
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Pentecostal Christianity has appeared as an influence on both sides of the current U.S. presidential campaign. Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has Pentecostal roots, and so do key staff people of the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign. This hour, we explore the origins, theology, and impact of this way of faith, which is changing the face of Christianity in ways its African-American founder, a son of slaves, could never have imagined.
PROFESSOR CECIL M. ROBECK JR.: Once you have been touched by God at such a deep level, right down to the tongue that you speak, and your ability to speak the language that you’ve been trained in all of your life leaves you, there is no turning back.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s Pentecostal background has been under scrutiny. But the Alaska churches she has attended are a small part of a vast, diverse, undertold religion story of our time. The CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee and Barack Obama’s director of religious affairs are also Pentecostal, like one-quarter of the world’s Christians across every denomination. Pentecostalism is sometimes confused with Fundamentalist Christianity, but it is historically distinct and spiritually different. It is emotional, personal, and populist. In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where it’s growing most rapidly, Pentecostal Christianity is often associated with emancipation for woman and the poor. This is “Main Street mysticism,” as one sociologist puts it. And it began on the American frontier with an African-American son of slaves, a century ago.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.
In 2006, our production team went to the centennial celebration of the Pentecostal movement, on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, to explore the history and meaning of this faith. Today, we return to that journey to shed light on contemporary events in American politics and the world.
On April 25, 2006, an overcast morning in inner-city Los Angeles, the Reverend Billy Wilson of Tennessee welcomed thousands of people to an open-air procession. The were there to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Pentecostal movement of the Azusa Street revival that broke out for three years in Los Angeles starting in 1906.
THE REVEREND BILLY WILLIAMS: The Bible says clap your hands, all you people, shout unto God with the voice of triumph. Come on. Amen.
Now, my understanding of history is that when the revival broke out at this house, words spread through the neighborhood. They turned the porch into a pulpit and up to 800 people gathered on the porch and they were using it as a pulpit and the porch broke down. So they went down the road a little ways, to 312 Azusa Street, and the rest is spiritual history. Amen.
CROWD: (In unison) Amen.
THE REV. WILLIAMS: Hallelujah.
MS. TIPPETT: Pentecostalism is the largest and most influential religious movement ever to originate in the United States. There are over 100 Pentecostal denominations, but Pentecostalism is not essentially a set of institutions and beliefs. It is, in the words of believers, a charismatic, spirit-filled impulse and practice that has penetrated the spectrum of the world’s Christian traditions. At its present rate of growth, one billion people will be part of this movement by the year 2025.
The words charismatic and Pentecostal come from the Bible. The New Testament book of Acts records that the earliest followers of Jesus were visited by tongues of fire at the harvest feast of Pentecost, and this enabled them to speak suddenly to onlookers in all the languages of the world. Skeptics said they were drunk. But the apostle Peter interpreted this as a fulfillment of the Hebrew prophesy that God would pour out His spirit on all flesh — men and women, young and old, servant and master.
PROF. ROBECK: Thousands of people become Christian as a result of this testimony that’s based upon this experience of these folks speaking in other tongues. So there’s — right even in Acts Chapter 2, there’s this evangelistic expectation that is consistent with what we find in Los Angeles in 1906.
MS. TIPPETT: Cecil M. “Mel” Robeck Jr. of Fuller Theological Seminary will be our guide this hour. Mel Robeck is ordained in the Assemblies of God, the denomination with which vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was associated until 2002. He’s also a leading theologian and church historian, who has collected a singular archive of original Pentecostal documents and has written a definitive history of the movement.
The early seeds were planted in 1901 in Topeka, Kansas, where the Reverend Charles Parham became fascinated by the earliest Christians’ experience of gifts of the spirit. The pivotal passage for him was the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians about these gifts or charisms. They included wisdom, teaching, prophecy, healing, preaching, and speaking in tongues. Mel Robeck:
PROF. ROBECK: Charles Parham had been a Methodist, and there were a lot of Methodists that were concerned about the direction that the Methodist Church was going at that particular time. There was a move towards a very optimistic view of history, a move toward what would become the liberalism of the 20th century, and there were a lot of folk in the rural heartland that just could not identify with that. They had no ability to have a relationship with people in government, for instance. They didn’t have high finances. Most of them were not highly educated people. They were really kind of cut off from society.
MS. TIPPETT: When you say an optimistic view of history, what’s wrong with that? What was wrong with that for them?
PROF. ROBECK: Well, in one sense, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it was so — it was absolutely the opposite of what a lot of people in the rural heartland were feeling at that time. It was a very pessimistic way …
MS. TIPPETT: OK. It was contrary to their experience. OK.
PROF. ROBECK: Precisely, you know. Some of them were losing their farms, their kids would go away to the city to get jobs, they would go to colleges, they’d come home with these strange and foreign ideas. They just felt like they were losing control of where life was. And so, you know, in one sense, it produces the Fundamentalist movement. In another sense, it produces the Pentecostal movement. And, of course, it produces, I think, the modern liberal tradition within historic Christianity. So those are all coming in play.
MS. TIPPETT: We think of Pentecostalism associated with the moment in Acts with the tongues of fire and the speaking in tongues. But Charles Parham was really focusing initially on this important passage in I Corinthians: 12—14. And you know, I just revisited that as I was thinking about meeting you, and there’s so much in there. You know, as you say, it is diversities of activities: the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, the gift of healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues. And then that passage goes on to give this pivotal image of the body of Christ, which has all different kinds of gifts and manifestations and functions. And it goes into I Corinthians 13, which is about love …
PROF. ROBECK: Yeah, that’s right. The guiding principle.
MS. TIPPETT:…and the primacy of love. So it’s really a very large vision…
PROF. ROBECK: Yes, it is.
MS. TIPPETT: … when that gifts of the spirit contains a lot of big ideas.
PROF. ROBECK: Yeah, that’s correct. And that’s really what Charles Parham was about. I mean, there was a whole range of groups that developed in the 19th century that thought that because things were beginning to turn downward a bit — they had this pessimistic view — that the only way change was going to come would be with a return or a divine intervention of God. And he was very much committed to that idea. And so what happens is you end up saying, ‘Well, if there are all these people out there and God is going — or the Lord is going to return, they’re going to be caught without hope. And so it’s our job to get out there and lead them into some kind of a salvation experience and so forth. We need power for that.’ And that’s what baptism and the spirit was all about. And those tongues, in his theory at least, would tell you, if you could identify what those tongues were, it would tell you where you were going to spend your time doing your evangelization and missionary work.
THE REV. BILLY WILLIAMS: … want you to pray that the anointing of God would start to be released in this city. I want you to pray out loud, Pentecostal style. Everybody at the same time, all right? Pray in the spirit if you’d like today. Let the Holy Spirit work through you. Let’s pray together. Father, we thank You for Your anointing. We thank You for Your blessing this day. Hallelujah. We are here, Lord, to glorify You and to honor You. We ask You, Lord, to anoint this march …
MS. TIPPETT: I think that, you know, this notion of speaking in tongues is perhaps, well, at the time, was most — both intriguing and frightening and strange to outsiders. And to this day, I would say, if people associate Pentecostalism with speaking in tongues, this is the most exotic and strange and frightening aspect of it. I mean, OK, you grew up in the late 20th century as a Pentecostal Assemblies of God, which is the major, one of the, I think, the largest denomination that grew out of Azusa Street.
PROF. ROBECK: Yeah, that’s right. If you’re thinking about it globally, yes. In one sense, I suppose it is exotic. It certainly is not something that modernity and scientific method and so forth would look at that and say, ‘Well, you know, that’s something that we can all work toward,’ or ‘We can reproduce that scientifically in these sorts of ways.’ No, I think it’s much more subjective than that at one level, and yet it’s built out of a relationship that one has with God. And if you think about God as another person, in a sense, you know —that is, that it is possible to have a personal relationship with that God — you’re really talking about how does that encounter with God affect you? And it seems to me that you can look at that psychologically, you can look at it anthropologically, you can look at it in a whole range of ways and say there are possible answers to that. And I think psychologists and anthropologists have done a lot of work on that in recent years, and many of them come out with much more positive assessment of it than what was in the past. But what I would say is that it’s not a learned behavior in one sense of the word, and it can, in a sense, I suppose it could be understood as a learned behavior in that you are in the midst of a people, there’s peer pressure, those kinds of things, but so many of the testimonies come when people are by themselves, you know? I was washing dishes at the sink and I was just praising the Lord …
MS. TIPPETT: And started speaking in tongues.
PROF. ROBECK: … and all of a sudden, I started to speak or sing out loud, and I couldn’t understand what I was saying. And some of them would go on for hours doing that. So it doesn’t require a group, it simply requires an encounter with the divine. And we would call that or look at that as a kind of trans-rational form of speech. In other words, it bypasses the mind. The person who is actually speaking in the tongue doesn’t know what he or she is saying, but given the readings from I Corinthians 12 through 14 that you cited, we understand it to be some form of language that is inspired by the spirit that God understands.
MS. TIPPETT: Something that you bring out in your book that’s very interesting is that there’s the phenomenon of speaking in tongues, which is connected to, you know, dreams and visions. I mean, there’s a lot that’s going on that has kind of a mystical sensibility about it. And you point out that there are those images, also, in the Hebrew Bible as well as in the New Testament, and also in African spirituality.
PROF. ROBECK: Right. Surely.
MS. TIPPETT: And a lot of the founders of this movement, and William Seymour himself, were African-American. And, you know, that glossolalia, which is the technical term for speaking in tongues, also had some precedence in ancient Greece. So this is also part of human experience in a way.
PROF. ROBECK: Yes. Yeah. I think that Pentecostals would like to theologize about this in keeping with Acts and I Corinthians. But I think that Pentecostals also have to expand their vision and look at this as a human phenomenon as much as anything. You know, one of the ways that I try to talk about it in my book is to think about it in terms of this encounter in which the closer we get, the more we have an inability to describe what it is that we’re experiencing. In other words, we can start with ordinary language and say, ‘Well, you know, I was praying at such and such a time,’ or ‘I was in this room,’ or ‘I was sitting in this seat,’ or ‘I was on the floor,’ or whatever it was, and then, suddenly, I find that most of these testimonies move to some kind of metaphor. ‘Well, it was kind of like this,’ ‘It was kind of like that,’ you know, ‘like I had a big pipe fitted to my head and, all of a sudden, I felt this rush of hot oil or I felt water bubbling up,’ or, you know, something like that. And then the next thing you know, they’re speaking in a tongue, babbling, if you would, incoherent to ordinary people sitting around them. And it strikes me as being somewhat similar to the experience that John the Revelator has in the Book of Revelation in Chapter 1, where the risen Christ appears to him and he says, you know, “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I fell down as one who was dead.” And one of the common things in Pentecostalism was that people did, in fact, fall on the floor. They were what we call “slain in the spirit” or “resting in the spirit” or something like that. And then he says, “And I turned and I heard this voice that I recognized, and I turned, and here was this person who was like …” And then he goes into this metaphorical description of who the risen Christ is, you know, with this tongue that looks like a …
MS. TIPPETT: Well, it’s a move from prose to poetry. I mean, we always — we encounter the limits of language in many forms in life.
PROF. ROBECK: Yes, yes. So I think there’s a big parallel there theologically. But it doesn’t surprise me at all. I mean, we are human beings, and I don’t think we have plumbed the depths of our psychology or our anthropology; that, in fact, we’re very complex. And I’m not at all surprised that we can be touched in these sorts of ways and that it could be looked at scientifically as much as anything.
MS. TIPPETT: Pentecostal historian Mel Robeck. Here are some reflections by a young Pasadena couple after worshipping at their small Pentecostal church. Speaking first, is Shane a graduate student in chaos theory at Cal Tech.
MR. SHANE ROSS: People don’t look the same. There’s a lot of diversity. You see a lot of mixed racial couples. I mean, I met my wife here, and she’s Latina, I’m a white guy. And so I meet weekly with some guys just at my place. We meet together. We pray, we go through the Bible, and we live like brothers. We share like brothers, even though maybe nothing else would bring us together, but the church brings us together.
Well, I haven’t seen my scientific training as being at odds with my faith. In fact, scientific training teaches you that there is a truth, there is objective truth out there, and that’s the same thing that we believe here. And the scientific training teaches me about the material world. This teaches me about the spiritual world. And our lives are lived on both planes, the spiritual and the material.
MS. JESSICA ROSS: You feel God’s love here, you know. I think when I came here, I learned to worship. I really learned to worship. And also the, you know, speaking in tongues, being able to do that, it was a huge release. I mean, it was just very fun. I was crying with joy, you know, and it was just very freeing. And so, now, it’s made a huge difference. It made a huge difference in my life, because God was even that more real to me. Sometimes when I’m very happy, it just comes out. When I’m frightened, it comes out, and I just know I get God’s peace, because I know that He hears me.
MS. TIPPETT: Shane and Jessica Ross at the Pasadena Foursquare Church.
Watch our narrated slideshow, “Foursquare Stories,” and hear why they found a home in this urban Pentecostal church. That’s at speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. As Pentecostal Christianity has emerged as an influence on both sides of the current U.S. presidential campaign, we’re revisiting our coverage of the origins and theology of this faith at its centennial gathering in Los Angeles in 2006.
The founding figure of the modern Pentecostal movement was an African-American son of slaves, William J. Seymour. He attended the Reverend Charles Parham’s pioneering classes on baptism in the Holy Spirit, though he had to sit in the hallway because he was black. In 1906, William Seymour accepted a call to ministry in Los Angeles, and he soon began to draw a vast sweep of humanity to what became known as the Azusa Street revival. As the Los Angeles Herald described it at the time, with some scorn, “All classes of people gathered in the temple last night. There were all ages, sexes, colors, nationalities and previous conditions of servitude.”
And as the inheritors of that event commemorate it with a parade through the streets of Los Angeles, they also reflect a vast and improbable mix of humanity in one place with one purpose. There is a brass marching band from the Bahamas. There are Native Americans carrying the shofar, the sacred horn of the Hebrew Bible. There are Romanian Pentecostal teenagers from Orange County and a delegation from Uganda and Kenya. A young Christian rock group and a gospel choir perform on flatbed trailers. Azusa Street bikers come with shaved heads, leather jackets, and tattoos.
Prof. Robeck: Well, in 1906, it certainly was unusual. I mean, the U.S. was …
MS. TIPPETT: And almost impossible, I think, and unthinkable then.
PROF. ROBECK: Absolutely. In many places within the U.S., states and local communities were governed by Jim Crow laws, which kept people apart, black and white in particular.
MS. TIPPETT: Was that true in Los Angeles as well?
PROF. ROBECK: It was not true in Los Angeles, you see, so that was unique. I mean, you know, there was prejudice and discrimination and racism going on in Los Angeles at that time …
MS. TIPPETT: And that came out in the newspaper reports of this gathering that you quote in your book, apparently. It’s all there.
PROF. ROBECK: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. And so there are these underlying feelings that are anti-black. But the real racism and discrimination in LA at the time is against Mexican-Americans, on the one hand, who were at the very bottom of the totem pole, and the Chinese and Japanese, who had been brought over here to build the railroads in the West, and, you know, they couldn’t own property, they couldn’t bring in their spouses or families, and so forth. But it was a huge amount of discrimination that went right on up into the middle of the 20th century. So this was really unusual to find all of these kinds of people worshipping together.
It was part of the vision, I think, that maybe goes back to Parham, but I think much more clearly goes to William Seymour. He came out here with this vision, Seymour did, of establishing a congregation that was, in fact, multiethnic, multiracial. And the way he helped to bring this vision together was when that church opened its doors, he placed the pulpit right in the middle of the room. Now, that pulpit was not a formal pulpit like we would see in a mainstream church, but it was a couple of wooden boxes stacked on top of one another. And he actually would kneel down in there or sit there with his head inside the one box, you know, praying, while everything was going on around him. In other words, the seats in the congregation were in a circle so that everybody had somebody to look at. And it provided a real opportunity for conversation back and forth. And one of the things that I find interesting is that some of those conversations got to be quite heated. You have to stop and think, if the churches on the whole think that this is something that is past, that nothing like this is taking place, there are no books that Seymour can go to and say, ‘How do you set up and develop a Pentecostal church?’ There are no places that he can go, no seminars that he can attend, no self-help kinds of things. He’s on his own. It’s experimentation. Every service is an experiment. And what he has as his text is his Bible. And so he can expect those kinds of things to break in, but what those mean and how they’re to be interpreted is really up for debate.
MS. TIPPETT: So the height of this revival, the real core of the revival, happened over three years.
PROF. ROBECK: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think you say sometimes on a Sunday there could be 1500 people there. Is that right?
PROF. ROBECK: As many as 1500.
MS. TIPPETT: Which is, again, a lot of people in 1906. When you talk about what happened there, and I’m curious about, you know, within your church, or within your family, you know, how would you tell your children how you understand what happened there?
PROF. ROBECK: Well, you know, we use a lot of jargon, obviously, but you know, we would say that the Holy Spirit visited this place, touched people’s hearts and lives. When they had been touched in the way that we talk about it in terms of baptism and the Holy Spirit, they were utterly transformed. That is, once you have been touched by God at such a deep level, right down to the tongue that you speak, and your ability to speak the language that you’ve been trained in all of your life leaves you, there is no turning back. And I think that what that did was it produced a lot of what we would call witnesses, people that can tell the story of ‘what God did to me,’ and they are passionate and they are believable, because they have, in fact, had an encounter that’s very real to them, and they communicate that. So we see that as a consistent kind of compelling experience that makes it possible for people to live differently, empowered to do things that they couldn’t, on their own, do.
MS. TIPPETT: Pentecostal scholar Mel Robeck.
A leading Pentecostal minister, Bishop Charles Blake, remembered the Azusa Street revival with worshippers at his 22,000-member West Angeles Cathedral in inner-city Los Angeles on a Sunday morning in 2006. Today, he is the presiding bishop of the 6-million-member Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African-American denomination, which traces its roots directly back through Azusa Street. It is now the fifth-largest Christian tradition in the U.S. And Bishop Blake gave an important speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, representing the perspective of a pro-life Democrat. His West Angeles Cathedral has an abstract steeple of stained glass, rising from the ground to evoke the tongues of fire descending at the first Christian Pentecost. This sanctuary has a grand mosaic tile backdrop and stained-glass portals. Most vivid of all are the people, of all ages and backgrounds. They seem to exude a joy at being here. In addition to self-improvement and social projects in urban Los Angeles, the West Angeles Cathedral has a significant ministry to AIDS orphans in Africa. Among the visitors Bishop Blake recognizes in church this morning are the Latino mayor of Los Angeles, the president of the Harvard Foundation, a priest from Italy representing the charismatic movement within Roman Catholicism, and a delegation of 12 from the small African nation of Burkina Faso.
BISHOP CHARLES BLAKE: It is so good to be together in the house of the Lord. It’s so wonderful to worship Him. Azusa is in the air. We’re celebrating. We’re celebrating. We’re celebrating the day of Pentecost, Acts Chapter 4, where the Holy Ghost moved, and Acts Chapter 2, where the Holy Ghost came in and fell and blessed the people of the Lord with the power of God. But we’re also celebrating April 1906 — 1906, when here in the city of Los Angeles, God did it again. Hallelujah.
[Sound bite of church choir]
MS. TIPPETT: Our online editor, Trent Gilliss, proposed that we rebroadcast this show after he watched video of remarks Sarah Palin gave at her former Pentecostal church — remarks that have been widely quoted in recent weeks. Watch the complete video of that speech and read Trent’s post about it on our staff blog, SOF Observed. There you can also watch video of Pentecostal minister Leah Daughtry, who is CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee. And as part of our SoundSeen series, view an audio slideshow of the members of a small Pentecostal congregation. They are Ph.D.s and college students, prison ministers and business leaders. Learn more about the role Pentecostalism plays in their lives. Also, download an MP3 of this program for free through our e-mail newsletter, podcast, or Web site. Find all these links and more on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.
After a short break, the difference between Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism, and Pentecostalism. Also, more on the social justice impulses at the origins of Pentecostalism and why they’ve been diluted to some extent in U.S. culture. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, we’re exploring the origins and theology of Pentecostal Christianity, which has emerged as an influence on both sides of the current U.S. presidential campaign. Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s Pentecostal roots are in the news, and both the Democratic National Convention and the Obama campaign have key staffers who are Pentecostal. In 2006, our production team went to the centennial gathering of the Pentecostal movement, which began on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906. It is now changing Christianity and culture worldwide, most rapidly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The centennial festivities were attended by representatives from over 100 nations, including these African delegates.
[Sound bite of singing]
Pentecostalism did not emerge from the theological impulses that gave rise to Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity. It does not primarily stress beliefs and doctrine, but life changed through a direct experience of God. The early Pentecostals were members of the holiness tradition, breakaway Methodists. The holiness movement spawned the Salvation Army and formed some of the earliest abolitionist and champions for women’s suffrage. Pentecostals who broke from them insisted as well on the biblical gifts of the spirit, including speaking in tongues. They take these as sources of spiritual power to face the challenges of human life and a changing world.
Pentecostal historian Mel Robeck is frank about how this religious revolution, like every revolution, has fallen short of some of its own highest ideals. Black, white, and Latino Pentecostals who came together spontaneously in 1906 soon worshipped apart. Over time, American Pentecostals have become more affluent and mainstream and more closely associated in places with conservative Evangelical Christianity.
In that process, Robeck and others suggest, some have diluted or lost the original Pentecostal values of egalitarianism, passivism, and social justice, though, here in Los Angeles and around the world, Pentecostalism retains a special appeal for people at the edges of society, authority, and religion. Participants testify to its power to fight addiction and the breakdown of families. In Latin America, in particular, Pentecostalism is often associated with social justice movements that are emancipatory for women, the poor, and others who have been historically disenfranchised. Mel Robeck:
PROF. ROBECK: Pentecostalism is, in a sense, a religion that is made for the people on the margins, you know.
MS. TIPPETT: And why is that? Say something about that.
PROF. ROBECK: I’m not quite sure why that is. I would have to say part of it has to do with worldview. We tend to think in elitist terms most of our time. And I talk to my students about what does it mean to talk about feminism and the role that women play? Or what does it mean to be talking about post-modernity? Ninety percent of the world could care less about either one of those things. They’re much more concerned about where they’re going to get their next meal, how they’re going to dress for the day. I mean, do they have clothing enough, do they have enough to heat their homes? What are they going to do that would help their children to have a better life than they have? And in so many places in the world, you know, it’s a conflict between good and evil, between good spirits and bad spirits, and so forth. What Pentecostalism does, that so many other groups have done, is to take that kind of a worldview very, very seriously. You know, we talk about good spirits and evil spirits as well. We talk about the fact that Christ came to break the chains of any kind of spiritual bondage, that exorcisms can take place, that these are expected and not simply something that are psychologically made up, and that we are so modern that we identify the demonic simply in systems of injustice, and so forth, that we personify them, in a sense. And that means that there’s an appeal at the grassroots for every person who’s under some kind of an oppressive system or in some kind of an oppressed situation. Then they look at this and they say, ‘Aha, there’s hope for me here.’
MS. TIPPETT: Because it is a very liberating force for people …
PROF. ROBECK: Very much so.
MS. TIPPETT: … especially in the developing countries.
PROF. ROBECK: Developing countries.
MS. TIPPETT: In the developing world. I mean, let’s talk about women, all right?
PROF. ROBECK: All right.
MS. TIPPETT: Because we don’t, in this country, associate — people don’t commonly associate Pentecostalism and, let’s say, feminism.
PROF. ROBECK: No, that’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: Even though what you’re describing to me, what we’re talking about here that happened on Azusa Street, which is a few blocks away from us here, in 1906, was that Pentecostals were ordaining and sanctioning the full ministry of women a hundred years ago, half a century or more before some of the most liberal churches in this country. Why is that not something that people know about Pentecostalism? I know, in other countries, women are very often drawn to Pentecostalism for this reason.
PROF. ROBECK: Right. Well, not only are they drawn to it, but they become — provide …
MS. TIPPETT: Because they’re empowered.
PROF. ROBECK: … huge leadership. And I dare say that those who have controlled the teaching of history, and religious history in particular, in the United States — I mean, it’s very difficult to find in any major history of the United States, any real treatment of Pentecostalism. I mean, most seminary students today …
MS. TIPPETT: Which is incredible, given its global influence.
PROF. ROBECK: Given its global importance, yes, it is incredible oversight.
MS. TIPPETT: But is, for example, this empowerment of women within Pentecostalism, is that as much a part of the movement now in this country as it was a hundred years ago?
PROF. ROBECK: You know, it’s …
MS. TIPPETT: And if not, why not?
PROF. ROBECK: It’s a good question. It’s a real mix of things right now, and it worries me quite a bit. You know, I think the feminist movement did a great deal of good, not only for the nation as a whole but for mainstream historic churches in particular, because it did, in fact, provide them with the opportunity — equal opportunity in the pulpit. OK? We had that already.
But what happens is that the feminist movement, I think, has identified too broadly with a variety of other movements that Pentecostals cannot identify with. Personal rights, you know, the abortion issue, the gay issue — all of those kinds of things kind of got identified in relationship to the feminist movement in ways that Pentecostals had very difficult time looking at. So there are now some people within the Pentecostal tradition who say we shouldn’t be doing this because it identifies us with the modern feminist movement, instead of looking at their roots and saying, ‘Wait a minute. We got this from the Bible, and we can still be who we are, and we can have real feminists within the Pentecostal tradition.’ There should be no necessity to, you know, in a sense, lift up women here, because they founded denominations, look at Aimee Semple McPherson as a great example.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right, 1920s.
PROF. ROBECK: Yes, exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m sure that you’re aware of this. I’m very aware in media in this country that the words Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Fundamental are often interchanged.
PROF. ROBECK: Yes, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: But in fact, those are very — three very different theological and spiritual streams.
PROF. ROBECK: Very different streams, yes. Very different.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, how would you describe — just to clarify, make that distinction between Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Fundamentalists. What, for you, as a Pentecostal, is important?
MR. ROBECK: There are a couple of things. Evangelicalism, in a sense, is a certain form of Fundamentalism. It’s broader, it has more of a social conscience, it’s much more at home accepting evidence coming from social scientific studies, and so forth. But — so if you really go back to two strands, that is, one being Fundamentalist and one being Pentecostal, the Fundamentalists tend to be much more rationalistic. There is a tendency to talk about real literalism that has to be stacked up rationally in such a way that everything connects, you know. And if one block falls, the whole castle falls down as well. So you have to have this kind of strong tendency toward the inerrancy of scripture, toward the literal interpretation of scripture, and all of these blocks must fit together. With Pentecostals, there’s much more flexibility. We have a certain tendency to think that rationality is not necessarily good.
MS. TIPPETT: Pentecostal historian Mel Robeck.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. As Pentecostal Christianity has emerged as an influence in the lives of people on both sides of the current U.S. presidential campaign, we’re revisiting our 2006 coverage of the Pentecostal movement at its centennial gathering in Los Angeles.
The transformative, whole-body spirituality of this movement was alarming to many from the very beginning. Some of the early Pentecostals were confined to mental institutions. Around the world today, conversion to Pentecostalism is a controversial and sometimes persecuted choice. Historian of Latino Pentecostalism Arlene Sánchez Walsh writes that, from the earliest days of the Azusa Street revival in 1906, “Pentecostalism shocked Protestant America. Pentecostalism was anti-intellectual, anti-rational, ahistorical, nonliturgical, and allegedly sensual and therefore morally dangerous.” She continues: “Evangelicalism had its own language, imagery, institutions, and expectations that could not accommodate Pentecostalism’s spiritual tidal wave.”
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There have been two new waves of the Pentecostal movement in the century since the Azusa Street revival. Most influentially in the 1960s, after an Episcopal priest in Northern California began to speak in tongues, a charismatic renewal washed across all the Christian denominations. Today, only half of the world’s 500 million Pentecostals belong to Pentecostal churches. The rest are Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, and every Christian variation in between. Mel Robeck finds himself today to be an ecumenical diplomat as much as a historian. In several countries in Latin America, Pentecostal Christianity is overtaking the historic majority of the Roman Catholic Church. And Mel Robeck is co-chair of the International Vatican-Pentecostal Dialogues that have resulted.
PROF. ROBECK: My involvement in the Vatican-Pentecostal Dialogue really came about as a result of a dream or a vision that I received in the middle of the night.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
PROF. ROBECK: You know, my denomination at that time had bylaws that prohibited — well, prohibited is too strong — but, certainly, I was open to possible discipline by engaging in any kind of ecumenical relations in any kind of formal setting. And yet, when I was called on the carpet, in a sense, and asked to sit before the executive presbyters and tell my story, share where this vision came from and what I thought it meant and the kind of fruit that had come out of it, they took a vote, and that vote sustained the ministry that I’m involved in even though the bylaws basically said you shouldn’t be doing these kinds of things.
MS. TIPPETT: And what was that dream and that calling? What was it you felt called to do? Why was it important?
PROF. ROBECK: Well, at that particular time, I had been elected president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. It was in 1982. And I was really struggling with what to talk about. I was concerned about a particular split between an older group and a younger group of scholars and how they didn’t value one another. And I had been praying and asking God, “Please help me to give a word that will bring some sense of healing in this rift within the society.” And, you know, I was awakened in the middle of the night with Jesus standing at the end of my bed saying to me, “Mel, I want you to talk about ecumenism.” And I said, you know, “Lord, I …
MS. TIPPETT: Which is reaching out to other churches.
PROF. ROBECK: Yeah. I don’t know anything about this and how is this relevant? You know, I went back to sleep. And He woke me up again with the same words on the same night, saying, “I want you to speak about ecumenism.” And I said, “Lord, you know what our bylaws say. Here I am in the Assemblies of God, and I’m going to get in trouble if I do what You’re asking me to do.” And I went back to sleep. And He woke me up a third time with the same words. And I finally thought, you know what? Here I call myself a minister of the gospel, and if Jesus is asking me to do something, I’d better do it. I mean, this is what I’m supposed to do, huh? And so I said, “Yes.” And I went back to sleep. The next day, I went to my office and I began looking, thinking what in the world can I say about ecumenism that will bring about the healing of this rift? I didn’t have a clue. So I thought, well, how do I even approach this? Because everything I’d ever heard about ecumenism within the Assemblies of God had been negative. So I began looking at the earliest documents that I had. Everywhere I went there was this appeal to John Chapter 17, where Jesus is praying to the Father and He is saying, you know, “Lord, I want you to keep them, and I want them to be one, as we are one,” OK? And it suddenly struck me that the very essence, the very core of the whole question about unity between Christians is wound up in that prayer of Jesus. And that prayer was everywhere in Pentecostal literature. And I thought, well, how in the world did we get from there to where we are today, which is so anti-historic churches and so forth, and even against one another? And it was the kind of tracing out of that history, which became my presidential address. And what I said was, you know, there are things that we could give to that larger body and there are things that we could receive from that larger body, and we don’t need to be ashamed of who we are as Pentecostals, because what we have is real.
MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you from your, you know, life spent in this church as worshipping in this denomination, loving this denomination, and also as a historian and a scholar, you know, as you look at this global future of Pentecostalism, Pentecostalism now, I think, is so influential. What a responsibility comes with that. What power for something that had started so spontaneously.
PROF. ROBECK: Right, yes. At least potential power, yes. Right.
MS. TIPPETT: What is your greatest hope and — I mean, what is your greatest fear? What are you concerned about working on in your church so that that power unfolds in a way that you feel is consonant with the spirit of this religion that started a hundred years ago here?
PROF. ROBECK: Right. I — you know, I think it’s a tendency of all groups that move upward in terms of their social status. You know, one of the things that has been wonderful about Pentecostalism is that it is, in a sense, so undiscovered. And it is not — has not been self-conscious about what power it has. I mean, one of the things that’s unique about Pentecostalism is that it doesn’t have to look exactly the same everywhere.
MS. TIPPETT: And it doesn’t, does it?
PROF. ROBECK: And it isn’t, no.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s very adaptive to culture and human lives the way they are. Right.
PROF. ROBECK: Very adaptive, exactly. And, therefore, I think it can play different roles in different regions. It doesn’t have to have a kind of global political presence.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Well, I mean, I think about your work with the International Vatican-Pentecostal Dialogues and, fine, Pentecostals can be apolitical; but in countries in Latin America where there have been a majority of Catholics and the Roman Catholic Church has been such an important social force, which has also meant that the judges and the presidents and the police chiefs and the generals have been Catholic, and they will now be Pentecostal. I mean, that has political ramifications, whether Pentecostals want it or not.
PROF. ROBECK: Yes, absolutely. It does. You know, and I would say that even the worship in Catholic churches these days is very different than it was before — we’ll call it charismatic renewal within the Catholic Church, which is a direct relationship with Pentecostal movement. Pentecostals within the Catholic Church now number, I think the last statistic I saw two weeks ago was 130 million people. That’s better than one in 10 identify with this kind of Pentecostality of Roman Catholicism. I think my job is to help people understand where they come from and why it is that it’s important for them to be in touch with their roots, because their roots will help to direct the future in where they’re going. And those roots are rich and they are broad and they are inclusive and, you know, they engage people at all different kinds of levels. There is this social conscience that’s present there. And I think it’s a matter of helping them to understand and tap into that and point them to some good directions in the future; not simply to assume that they have all the answers right up front.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. OK. And that is part of the tradition, too, that the answers come.
PROF. ROBECK: It is. Yes, the answers come, because the Lord leads.
MS. TIPPETT: Cecil M. Robeck Jr. is professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is the author of The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement.
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We will continue and deepen our exploration of religion as a factor on both sides of the current U.S. presidential campaign in upcoming programs in early October. Across the years, we’ve featured diverse Pentecostal voices on Speaking of Faith, and we’ve gathered those voices together on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org. Listen to Emery University professor Robert Franklin talk about the rise of Pentecostal worship among African-Americans. Hear sociologist Margaret Poloma on her study of modern-day Pentecostals, whom she sees as main street mystics. And find a fascinating Web-only conversation with historian of Latino Pentecostalism Arlene Sánchez Walsh. You can also download my complete unedited interview with Mel Robeck and this produced program for free through our podcast, our weekly e-mail newsletter, or our Web site. That is speakingoffaith.org.
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The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.