A profile of Pentecostal Christianity, its history and increasing popularity, and Pentecostalist worshippers' customs of speaking in tongues, prayer cloths, healing by laying on of hands and rarely serpent handling.
Last updated 2009-07-02
A profile of Pentecostal Christianity, its history and increasing popularity, and Pentecostalist worshippers' customs of speaking in tongues, prayer cloths, healing by laying on of hands and rarely serpent handling.
According to research published in December 2006, Pentecostals are the fastest-growing group of Christians in the UK. The research was based on an analysis of the English Church Census, carried out by the charity Christian Research and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Pentecostalism is a form of Christianity that emphasises the work of the Holy Spirit and the direct experience of the presence of God by the believer.
Pentecostals believe that faith must be powerfully experiential, and not something found merely through ritual or thinking.
Pentecostalism is energetic and dynamic. Its members believe they are driven by the power of God moving within them.
Pentecostal churches stress the importance of conversions that amount to a Baptism in the Spirit. This fills the believer with the Holy Spirit, which gives the believer the strength to live a truly Christian life.
The direct experience of God is revealed by gifts of the Spirit such as speaking in tongues, prophecy and healing.
Pentecostalism is based on a key event in the life of the early Christians: the baptism of the twelve disciples by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
Most Pentecostals think that their movement is returning Christianity to a pure and simple form of Christianity that has much in common with the very earliest stage in the life of the Christian church.
Pentecostalism is not a church in itself, but a movement that includes many different churches. It is also a movement of renewal or revival within other denominations.
It's not always easy to see if a church is Pentecostal because many Pentecostal denominations don't include the word 'Pentecostal' in their name.
In the West, Pentecostalism is strong in the Black churches and the American and Australian 'mega-churches' such as Hillsong Church. One of the world's largest churches - the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, where up to 250,000 people attend each Sunday - is a Pentecostal church.
Although Pentecostalism is often said to be rooted in experience rather than theology, Pentecostals base their theology on the text of the Bible which they believe to be the word of God and totally without error.
Pentecostalism gets its name from the day of Pentecost, when, according to the Bible, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus' disciples, leading them to speak in many languages as evidence that they had been baptised in the Spirit. Pentecostals believe that this was not a one-off event, but something that can and does happen every day.
There are just under 1 million Pentecostals in the UK, and over 20 million in the USA. (March 2006)
During the last three decades of the twentieth century Pentecostalism grew very strongly and there are now over 250 million Pentecostals around the world, who make up more than 10% of all Christians. (Some writers suggest the number is more like 500 million.)
Pentecostalism is particularly strong in the developing world where it poses a serious challenge to other, more established, denominations.
The story of Pentecost is told in the Bible, in the Book of Acts of the Apostles chapter 2.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.
They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.
"These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
'In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'
Peter was quoting this prophecy in the Old Testament Book of Joel, which he claimed was being fulfilled at Pentecost:
And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
Pentecostal churches are highly diverse, which makes it difficult to provide a definitive list of Pentecostal ideas. Nonetheless, this section covers a range of ideas and customs that are common to many Pentecostal churches.
Pentecostal churches aren't 'fundamentalist', although they're sometimes described as such.
Pentecostals share with Christian fundamentalists their acceptance of the status of the Bible as the inerrant word of God, but they also accept (which fundamentalists do not) the importance of the believer's direct experience of God through the work of the Holy Spirit.
A person is sanctified when their life is dedicated to God and they are separated from their past sinful life. When a person is sanctified, they are born again to Christ through the Holy Spirit and turn away from the bad behaviours and thoughts of their old life.
The word holiness is also used by some churches for this concept. Whatever the word, it is something that is essential to living a Christian life:
Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
Some Pentecostals teach that believers must experience a once-for-all spiritual event which leads them to "consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" Romans 6: 10-1. The work of sanctification is carried out by the Holy Spirit.
Other churches teach that believers continue to grow closer to God in a continual process of sanctification, which helps them to live a Christian life.
While some Pentecostals believe that sanctification is a necessary precondition for a person to be baptised in the Spirit, others believe that baptism in the Spirit is available to anyone who sincerely gives their life to Christ.
This distinction may be lost on non-specialists and it may be simpler just to say that Pentecostals believe that human beings must have come to salvation in Christ before they can receive the baptism of the Spirit.
Pentecostal churches follow scripture in practising baptism by immersion. For Pentecostals water baptism is an outward symbol of a conversion that has already occurred. It is the conversion that is essential; the water baptism is an additional element.
Infant baptism is not practised in Pentecostal churches.
Pentecostal churches do not baptise infants. They regard water baptism as an outward expression of an internal work of grace following an individual's choice to follow Christ. Young children are not able to make such a choice because they do not recognise their need for salvation.
Instead, infants in Pentecostal churches are dedicated to God and blessed. This remembers the Bible stories of young children being brought to Jesus to be blessed.
Some Pentecostal churches believe that most children can be ready for water baptism between the ages of seven and ten, and that parents or pastors are able to determine whether a particular child is able to understand the significance of water baptism by discussing it with them.
Baptism in the Holy Spirit is the central event of Pentecostalism. The name of the movement commemorates the first baptism in the Spirit, of Jesus' disciples on the day of Pentecost.
Baptism in the Spirit is not a conversion experience; a person must already have been converted before they can receive baptism in the Spirit.
Pentecostals believe that baptism in the Spirit is an essential part of salvation. Traditionally this is a second baptism that follows conventional water baptism, although some passages of scripture reverse this sequence.
Baptism in the Holy Spirit is an experience in which the believer gives control of themselves to the Holy Spirit (although not in a way in which they lose their own identity and autonomy). Through the experience they come to know Christ in a more intimate way and are energised with the power to witness and grow spiritually.
Spirit baptism is believed to be an action of God's grace, but one that is available only to people who put themselves forward to receive it:
Grace makes Spirit Baptism possible but people must seek the experience or it will not happen.
Clark H.Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, 1996
Analogous with water baptism, a person baptised in the Spirit feels themselves to have been totally immersed in the Holy Spirit. But the analogy fails at that point, because a person who is baptised in the Spirit is also completely filled with the Holy Spirit, in the same way as the disciples of Jesus on the day of Pentecost.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
The proof of having been baptised in the Spirit is speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues is the only consistent event associated with baptism in the Spirit in the various Biblical accounts of the phenomenon.
"All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
... the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not a temporary state of affairs; a person who has been baptised in the Spirit is believed to have the Holy Spirit within them to empower and guide them for the rest of their life.
The Assemblies of God puts it like this:
The Baptism is the entry experience introducing the believer to the beauty and power of the Spirit-filled life.
Assemblies of God
The Holy Spirit will enable the believer to turn away from their old worldly life and live a new Christian life. As St Paul put it:
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.
But as well as giving a new beginning to the believer, baptism in the Spirit gives them gifts of the Spirit which they are expected to use to bring others to faith, and generally to further Christian work.
The gifts of the Spirit are supernatural abilities given to believers by God. These gifts demonstrate the power of God and are used for particular purposes such as healing the sick, and generally helping the believer in their Christian ministry.
St Paul listed the gifts of the spirit as love, prophecy, healing, wise speech, faith, miraculous powers and ecstatic speech.
St Mark offered a different list:
In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.
Speaking in tongues means speaking miraculously in a language unknown to the speaker, "as the Spirit gives utterance". It first happened to the disciples on the day of Pentecost.
Speaking in tongues can be either evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, or a demonstration of the gift of tongues.
Theological texts also use the word glossolalia to refer to speaking in tongues. This word is sometimes restricted to ecstatic speech in non-existent languages.
Pentecostals believe that God can and does work miracles today.
Pentecostal churches tend to avoid anything that might be seen as sacramentalism.
They do, of course, have rituals and ceremonies like communion and water baptism that other churches treat as sacraments, but Pentecostals refer to these as ceremonies or ordinances. Ordinances, like sacraments are visible representations of invisible realities.
Some Pentecostal churches practise foot-washing as an ordinance of humility in their services. In doing so they follow the instructions of Jesus, who washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.
Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
Prayer cloths are small cloths like handkerchiefs that are used in healing. The practice is based on this passage of scripture:
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.
The healer prays over the cloth which is given to the sick person, who may bring it close to the afflicted part of their body.
The cloth is seen as carrying the prayers and the divine healing power to the ill person.
The famous American Evangelist, Oral Roberts, had a "ministry of prayer cloths" in which he sent anointed cloths to anyone who asked for prayer. Each cloth carried this message:
I prayed over this cloth for God to deliver you--use as a point of contact (Acts 19:11-12). Oral Roberts, Tulsa 2, Oklahoma.
It is not necessary to wear the cloth unless you feel you should. It can be used more than once or for more than one person. If you wish to request more, I will be glad to send them to you.
The important thing is to use the cloth as a point of contact for the release of your faith in God, so that when you pray and put the cloth on your body, you will believe the Lord will heal you at that moment. I have prayed over this cloth in the name of Jesus of Nazareth and asked Him to heal you when you apply it to your body.
From a cloth in the ORU Archives, as printed in David E Harrell Jr, Oral Roberts: An American Life, 1985
Prayer cloths were particularly popular in the first part of the twentieth century, but they are still used today. Prayer cloths are also used by Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists.
Many Pentecostals tithe 10% of their income directly to their church.
Latter rain is a term referring to the new outpouring of the Holy Spirit on today's Pentecostals. The events of Pentecost are known as the former rain.
The idea of latter rain comes from this Old Testament text, which precedes Joel's prophecy that God will pour out his Spirit on all people:
Be glad, O people of Zion,
rejoice in the LORD your God,
for he has given you
the autumn rains in righteousness.
He sends you abundant showers,
both autumn and spring rains, as before.
The early Pentecostals were keen to connect their own experience of the Spirit with that of the disciples, so they interpreted Peter's quoting of Joel's prophecy in Acts 2: 16-21 as a further prophecy that God would pour out his Spirit again at a later time.
They interpreted the pouring out of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost as the early autumn rain, and the second pouring out of the Spirit, that they were experiencing, as the later spring rains; the Latter Rain.
The idea of latter rain is found throughout Pentecostalism, but the Latter Rain Movement, founded in 1948, teaches that the second coming of Jesus is due to happen soon and that latter rain is evidence for this. They justify this using scripture.
Some Pentecostal churches engage in the dangerous practice of handling poisonous snakes during services; teaching that doing so successfully was a gift of the Spirit. They base this practice on Mark 16:18; "they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all".
Although this practice has been given sensational publicity in the media, it was always extremely rare, restricted to small sects, and largely disapproved of by the larger Pentecostal denominations.
Pentecostalism began among poor and disadvantaged people in the USA at the start of the Twentieth century.
Although the movement is a modern one (its foundation is usually taken to be the American Azusa Street revival in the first decade of the 20th century), its roots go back to the 18th century Wesleyan Holiness tradition, the 19th century Holiness movement and the late-Victorian Keswick Higher Life movement.
The Wesleyan Holiness movement was a reaction against the formality and ritualism of the traditional Christian churches of the time. It taught that Christians needed to be transformed by a personal experience of the truth of Christ which they could only get through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Members of this Methodist tradition experienced baptism in the Holy Spirit (which was given that name in 1771 by John Fletcher). Baptism in the Spirit was an important feature of all the Holiness churches.
The difference between these earlier traditions and the Pentecostal movement was, on the surface, speaking in tongues as a physical sign of baptism in the Spirit. The theological conflict underlying this was that members of the Holiness tradition believed that the Pentecost story did not need to be interpreted absolutely literally in modern times, while the early Pentecostals were committed to seeing baptism in the Spirit as an absolute re-enactment of the day of Pentecost.
Modern Pentecostalism began on January 1, 1901, when Agnes Ozman, a student at Charles F. Parham's Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, spoke in tongues (actually, the story is that she spoke in "Chinese", and did not speak English again for several days). On January 3, Parham and a dozen other students also spoke in tongues.
Parham and his followers later moved to Texas and began a spiritual revival in 1905.
This was followed by what became known as the Asuza Street revival, centered on the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission in Azusa Street, Los Angeles, led by the African-American preacher William Joseph Seymour, who had studied with Parham.
In 1906 Seymour preached that God would "send a new Pentecost" if people prayed for one, and was rewarded when he and his congregation began speaking in tongues.
This event, greatly helped by apocalyptic thoughts prompted by the San Francisco Earthquake which happened soon after, sparked a powerful religious revival driven by the three doctrines of salvation, sanctification and baptism in the Spirit, and in which the gifts of the Spirit were seen on a large scale. Over 13,000 people are said to have spoken in tongues in the first year.
At first the Pentecostal ideas flourished in individual church groups across North America, and it was not until 1914 that the first Pentecostal denomination, the Church of God in Christ, was founded.
The first Pentecostal church in the UK was founded by William Oliver Hutchinson in 1908 at the Emmanuel Mission Hall, Bournemouth. It became the headquarters of a network of Pentecostal churches which became known as the Apostolic Faith Church.
Another early European Pentecostal denomination was the Elim Pentecostal Church, which was founded in 1915 in Ireland by a Welshman, George Jeffreys.
Pentecostal worship is less formal and more emotionally expressive than that of other Christian traditions. Participants worship with body, heart and soul, as well as with their minds.
Much Pentecostal worship is designed to bring about an experience of God's presence, and to this end the atmosphere, worship-leading and music encourage openness to the presence of the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the spirit are often demonstrated during church services, sometimes quite dramatically.
In Pentecostal churches there is a great deal of active congregational involvement: the worshippers may dance and clap. Personal testimonies may be given. Preaching may rely more on stories and less on textual analysis.
Services can incorporate healings, trances and speaking in tongues.
The congregation is likely to respond actively to the sermon, with applause, or, in some churches, shouts of amen and hallelujah.
The result may well be that participants feel that the service is actually led by the Spirit. Consequently Pentecostals are able to see the church as a community of God's people working to create the context for a direct experience of God.
Some Pentecostals also use 'worship' to refer to their everyday life which they dedicate as a gift to God.
Pentecostalism offers attractive spiritual certainties in a world where religious truths are under attack, because a direct experience of God is unarguable to those who receive it: "if it happens to you, you know it's true".
Pentecostalism began among the poor and disadvantaged in North America. This tradition of being both of the poor and for the poor has given the movement particular appeal among the poor in South America and Africa, where its growth is partly rooted in continuing anger at widespread poverty and inequality.
Pentecostalism adapts easily to local traditions and incorporates local music and other cultural elements in worship, enabling people to retain elements of their own spirituality when they move to a Pentecostal church. This adaptability has made it easy for non-Pentecostal churches to include Pentecostal elements.
Walter Hollenweger has pointed out that Pentecostalism offers 'oral' people the same chance to take part in the life of faith as it does to 'literary' people.
Pentecostalism is revolutionary because it offers alternatives to 'literary' theology and defrosts the 'frozen thinking' within literary forms of worship and committee-debate. It gives the same chance to all, including the 'oral' people.
Walter J. Hollenweger, Pentecostalism and Black Power, Theology Today, Oct 1973
Pentecostalism is particularly strong in South America, Africa, and Asia. It has a unique character on each continent - which is one reason why it's so successful.
Developing-world Pentecostalism has been particularly successful among the poor (like its success in the USA which has also mostly been among the less well off).
Pentecostal denominations have been particularly successful in Latin America among largely unchurched and nominal Roman Catholics, particularly those at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy. In this sense Pentecostalism is a Christianity for the underclasses of the world.
Paul K. Conkin, American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity
Pentecostalism's success in the developing world is partly due to energetic missionary work by Pentecostal churches and partly due to history, politics, flexibility and empowerment.
Historically Pentecostalism grew out of African-American churches which retained many stylistic elements that still resonate with the developing world (and with the contemporary West too).
These were things such as an emphasis on the interconnection of body, mind and spirit, which it displayed in its highly physical worship, and in healing, speaking in tongues, and the acceptance of dreams and visions as valuable tools of spiritual insight.
Politically and socially, Pentecostalism originated in churches filled with people who were poor and oppressed and it has never forgotten those roots. Its early leaders were working class Christians with a very similar life experience to the people they led. These factors give Pentecostalism great appeal in parts of the world where people continue to suffer from poverty and injustice.
Pentecostalism approaches the predicaments of the poor very practically; churches work as 'mutual aid communities' to deal with poverty and sickness, and provide alternative solutions to problems that might otherwise be 'solved' with witchcraft or other superstitious practices.
Pentecostalism, more than any other form of Christianity, is willing to fit in with local cultures and use local music and other cultural elements in worship, and sees the value of teaching the Christian message through religious ways of thinking and talking that are already familiar to local people.
... the great strength of the Pentecostal impulse [lies in] its power to combine, its aptitude for the language, the music, the cultural artefacts, the religious tropes... of the setting in which it lives.
Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century
Because Pentecostal worship is spontaneous and oral, rather than anchored in a liturgical text, it allows all members of the congregation to play their part without any fear of doing the wrong thing, and enables each one to share their particular experience of God and have it valued by the whole community.
Secondly, the Pentecostal acceptance of the value of the body/mind/spirit connections fits well with the non-Christian spiritual background of many developing cultures, and allows Pentecostal churches to incorporate without difficulty the elements of those cultures that are compatible with Christianity. The result is that Pentecostalism can take on a completely local costume:
It may be appropriate to consider Korean Pentecostalism as a culturally indigenous form of Korean Christianity interacting with shamanism, just as African Pentecostalism is in constant interaction with the African spirit world, and as Latin American Pentecostalism encounters folk Catholicism and Brazilian spiritism.
Dr Allan H Anderson, The Pentecostal Gospel and Third World Cultures
But flexibility is valuable to a church in other ways too: since developing countries are now changing far faster than Europe or America ever did, Pentecostalism's ability to change, and its devolution of power to individual church communities allow it to adapt to the needs and desires of the people better than more rigidly hierarchical churches.
Pentecostal churches have flat power structures, and allow a very great amount of participation by the laity, both in worship and in the organisation of their institutions.
This has an obvious appeal to groups of people who are largely deprived of any power or influence in their working or political lives. It is a great contrast to the early missionary churches which had come to bring a Western version of Christianity, or to the hierarchical established churches which in some countries were seen as too closely allied to government or to employers.
For the first 60 years of the 20th century, Pentecostalism was largely confined to specifically Pentecostal denominations, but in the 1960s Pentecostal ideas became a source of renewal in other Protestant churches, and this extended to some Roman Catholic churches shortly afterwards.
The emphasis given to experience of the divine distinguishes Pentecostals from other Evangelical Christians who would say that the Bible is the only foundation of their faith. Some people feel that because Pentecostalism is based on a direct experience of God it is in some way purer and more like the faith of the early Christians.
Pentecostal churches are not very influential in the Christian establishment, despite having very large numbers of very active members. (In fact it's almost unthinkable that a person could be a passive Pentecostal.)
This may be because many of these churches have a minority racial profile, and their members are mostly poor and not in positions of secular power. However given the energy and growth of the movement it's likely that their influence will grow significantly in future.
In recent years, Pentecostals have engaged in creative and supportive discussions in the International Roman Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue.
Pentecostal churches in the West include the following:
Some Pentecostal churches have moved away from the mainstream Christian doctrine of the Trinity. They believe that there is only one person in the Godhead - Jesus Christ.
The United Pentecostal Church International explains it like this:
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are not names of separate persons, but titles of positions held by God. . .
The apostles understood that Jesus was the name to use at baptism, and from the day that the church of God was established (the Day of Pentecost) until the end of their ministry, they baptized all nations . . . in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Apostles' Doctrine, United Pentecostal Church International
This idea developed from a 1913 sermon by R. E. McAlister (who had founded the first Canadian Pentecostal church).
McAlister showed that in the book of Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles baptism was always carried out only in the name of Jesus Christ and not using the Trinitarian formula given in Matthew 28:19.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Others joined McAllister, and after close study of the Bible they came to the conclusion that Christ contained the totality of the Godhead and that baptism in the name only of Jesus Christ was fully effective.
They noted that when Jesus used the Trinitarian formula in Matthew 28:19 he used the singular word name rather than the plural names.
Frank J Ewart (one of the study group) wrote:
In the four records of administering the rite of Christian baptism in the Book of Acts, we have the name Jesus mentioned in every one of them, but the words, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are conspicuous by their absence.
Frank J Ewart
The texts that supported their views included these:
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form
Peter replied, 'Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
Membership of the Oneness churches totals about 17 million around the world.
Oneness churches include:
The Oneness movement is sometimes referred to as the "Jesus Only" churches, but this is a somewhat derogatory name and should be avoided.