Christianity: Pentecostalism

Edith Blumhofer. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.


Pentecostals are Christians who believe in an experience called “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” This form of baptism refers to the descent of the Holy Spirit upon a person, allowing the person to speak in tongues and to manifest other spiritual gifts. It is mentioned several times in the New Testament, including the following passage from Matthew 3:11: “I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire.” The name Pentecostalism comes from the Pentecost, which is the day, discussed in the Acts of the Apostles, when the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’ apostles.

Pentecostalism began in the United States in January 1901, when Charles Fox Parham, an independent Holiness evangelist in eastern Kansas, preached that speaking in tongues was the biblical evidence of baptism with the Holy Spirit. His teaching was taken to Los Angeles in 1906 and sparked the Azusa Street Revival, whose publications attracted radical evangelical groups across the United States.

Today much of Pentecostalism’s numerical strength lies outside the United States. In the World Christian Encyclopedia, David B. Barrett estimates there were 65.8 million Pentecostals worldwide in 2000. If the count included those outside Pentecostal denominations but who had been influenced by waves of twentieth-century charismatic renewal, the total, he suggests, would exceed 520 million.


Many late-nineteenth-century Protestants on the margins of the church establishment taught that baptism was with the Holy Spirit rather than with all three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Among them were those who embraced the idea that the evidence of such baptism was speaking in tongues.

This was the view of evangelist Charles Fox Parham. A native of Iowa, Parham spent his formative years in Kansas, where he began preaching among Methodists. His strong independent inclinations led him to launch out on his own, however. During the mid-1890s he preached throughout eastern Kansas, imbibing home-spun religious opinions. In 1898 he opened a healing home and mission in Topeka and began publishing the newspaper Apostolic Faith. Working “by faith,” he received no salary and passed no collection plates at the mission. With his wife, Sarah Thistlethwaite Parham, he developed enough of a following to open a Bible school in the fall of 1900. Aware of growing interest in topics related to the Holy Spirit, Parham read and traveled to keep abreast of the latest popular views.

In January 1901 Parham began teaching that speaking in tongues was always evidence of baptism with the Holy Spirit. He also thought that speaking in tongues, by circumventing the need for language study, would allow the gospel to be proclaimed rapidly around the world. Parham understood baptism with the Holy Spirit to be the third in a series of “crisis experiences” he urged everyone to embrace. Conversion and sanctification, the latter freeing the penitent from the power of sin, were the first two. The third, baptism with the Holy Spirit, provided the fully sanctified believer with the power for service, which was widely understood as preaching.

Parham’s message started to spread in 1903, when he began a series of meetings in Joplin, Missouri. His efforts then spread to Texas, where he converted William J. Seymour, a local African-American Holiness pastor, who carried the views to Los Angeles in 1906. Between 1906 and 1908 there were revivals at Seymour’s Azusa Street Mission. Reports of “Pentecosts” around the globe filled the pages of the mission’s four-page monthly, Apostolic Faith. Leaders of various grassroots networks embraced the mission’s message of restoring early Christian practices, and by 1907 regional clusters, most of them small associations, began to identify with Pentecostalism. Among them were the Church of God, established by Ambrose J. Tomlinson near Cleveland, Tennessee; the Pentecostal Holiness Church around Dunn, North Carolina; and the largely African-American Church of God in Christ, with congregations in northern Mississippi and southwestern Tennessee. Camp meetings, periodic conventions, and a flurry of inexpensively produced periodicals sustained fervor and slowly built an enduring religious movement out of an emotion-packed revival.

After World War II a renewal movement that included Pentecostal practices erupted in both mainstream Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. This charismatic, or neo-Pentecostal, movement also contributed to the growth of independent ministries. Oral Roberts became a key figure when he moved from the Pentecostal Holiness Church to the Methodist Church and then to an independent fellowship that bridged charismatic and older Pentecostal influences. Pentecostal evangelists traveled the globe to testify to experiences described in the movement’s press, and the Pentecostal focus on possession by the Holy Spirit, physical healing, and the immediacy of the divine presence found a ready response in some non-Western cultures. Such media-savvy Pentecostals as Americans Jimmy Swaggart and Benny Hinn promoted their message throughout the world, and German Reinhard Bonnke and American T.L. Osborne conducted crusades featuring “signs and wonders evangelism.”

Central Doctrines

Charles Fox Parham’s belief that speaking in tongues, or tongues speech, was always evidence of baptism with the Holy Spirit lay at the core of early Pentecostal identity. The views of the handful of Pentecostals who objected that this gave undue prominence to one spiritual gift or disagreed about the meaning of speaking in tongues were soon overwhelmed by the force of the majority. The idea that speaking in tongues was useful in missionary work was taught briefly at Azusa Street, but increasing numbers of Pentecostals embraced the view that speakers in tongues generally employed heavenly languages.

The interweaving of two other convictions also influenced the movement’s core identity. First, Pentecostals thought they lived at the end of history. As premillennialists, they anticipated the imminent “rapture” of the church to heaven, and they wanted to be ready. This translated into an interest in personal holiness and public witness of their faith. Second, Pentecostals believed that the Bible promised an end-times revival, a “latter rain” that would rival the power of New Testament Christianity. They saw the restoration of the gift of tongues as the sign that the end-times revival had arrived.

Pentecostals believed that all New Testament spiritual gifts belonged to the contemporary church, and they embraced with particular enthusiasm the doctrine of divine healing. They thought that healing was part of the Atonement, and they anointed and laid hands on the sick and prayed for their recovery, eschewing the use of medicine. They thought of themselves as people of faith and believed that faith supplied their physical and temporal, as well as spiritual, needs.

For Pentecostals sanctification was not an abstract doctrine. Becoming holy had everything to do with how they lived. In the movement’s formative years most Pentecostals thought of sanctification as a “second definite work of grace,” in which the tendency to sin had been uprooted. Like their cousins in the Holiness movement, Pentecostals received this “second blessing” in a crisis moment, often by coming forward for prayer and generally after much agonized self-searching and repentance. In 1910 Chicago Pentecostal evangelist William Durham offered an alternate view he called “the finished work of Calvary.” Durham deemphasized the crisis aspect of sanctification and stressed the moment-by-moment subduing of sin effected by Christ “reigning” within the soul. Durham’s supporters thought of sanctification as a process rather than an instantaneous event. This caused an enduring rift in the Pentecostal movement between those who insisted that three crisis experiences (conversion, sanctification, and Spirit baptism) marked the Christian life and those who were satisfied with two (conversion and Spirit baptism).

By 1912 the baptismal formula had led to yet another controversy. Observant Pentecostals noticed that, according to the Acts of the Apostles, early Christians were baptized “in the name of Jesus” rather than “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Some members promptly introduced this pattern, and by 1913 prominent preachers called for rebaptism of the faithful in the name of Jesus. In some areas Pentecostals largely heeded the summons. By the end of the decade, proponents of rebaptism had begun rejecting traditional views of the Trinity in favor of an emphasis on Jesus as the New Testament manifestation of the Old Testament Jehovah. They came to be known as Oneness, or sometimes Apostolic, Pentecostals.

Moral Code of Conduct

Pentecostals draw their moral code of conduct from Scripture. Early Pentecostals dreaded worldliness and separated themselves from the world in decisive ways. Movies, theaters, spectator sports, dance halls, bars, and the like were off-limits. Adherents dressed modestly and shunned jewelry, and women wore their hair long, avoided makeup, and wore skirts rather than slacks. One Southern U.S. denomination, the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church, divided over the worldliness of men’s ties. Others argued about the propriety of wedding rings. In tobacco-growing regions Pentecostals wrestled with the conflict presented by making their livelihood from a product they denounced. Pentecostals also abstained from alcohol.

After World War II many of these proscriptions began to change, especially those related to dress and entertainment. Objections to movies and theaters gave way to sponsored dramatic competitions, as early notions of worldliness yielded to the press of popular culture. Like other evangelicals, Pentecostals have moved away from the lists that once governed conduct to general guide-lines that leave many such decisions to individual choice. Oneness Pentecostals have tended to be the most conservative on these issues.

Sacred Books

The Bible is the only book Pentecostals regard as sacred. They value the devotional writings common among evangelicals, however, and they regularly publish new resources and materials. Pentecostal how-to and therapeutic manuals are as popular as the classics.

Sacred Symbols

Pentecostals have no sacred symbols in any traditional sense, and the movement sustains no concept of sacred space. While some churches display a cross or a scripture text, others display no Christian symbols.

Early and Modern Leaders

Leading Pentecostal figures include Charles Fox Parham, the self-proclaimed “founder and progenitor” of the movement; William J. Seymour, an African-American preacher and constant presence in the ever-changing scene at the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles; Ambrose J. Tomlinson, founder of the Church of God movements that identify with Pentecostalism; William Durham, articulator of the process of grace as an alternative to crisis sanctification; J. H. King, founder of the Pentecostal Holiness Church; Charles H. Mason, founder of the Church of God in Christ; Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Los Angeles–based International Church of the Foursquare Gospel and nationally known evangelist; Oral Roberts, evangelist and broadcaster; and Jack Hayford, pastor of the Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California, as well as educator, broadcaster, author, and popular speaker, who has bridged the Pentecostal and charismatic movements.

Major Theologians and Authors

Pentecostals have not historically valued formal theology, and the movement in the West has produced few theologians recognized beyond Pentecostalism. Some leading Pentecostal theologians include Donald Gee, George Taylor, Ernest Williams, Stanley Horton, Gordon Fee, and the charismatic Presbyterian J. Rodman Williams. Each denomination values its own theologians, few of whom cross over to other constituencies. Pentecostals with an academic interest in theology tend to value the work of evangelical theologians.

Organizational Structure

The Pentecostal movement involves members in numerous Christian denominations and in a vibrant independent sector. Larger groups include the Church of God in Christ; Assemblies of God; International Church of the Foursquare Gospel; United Pentecostal Church; Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee; Pentecostal Holiness Church; and Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

Pentecostal congregations meet in all kinds of buildings, from mega-churches filled with the latest technology to small frame buildings. The movement has no holy places, though the memory of the Azusa Street Revival has a hallowed place in rhetoric and collective identity.

What is Sacred?

While Pentecostals do not generally denote objects or spaces as sacred, in practice they regard both the teaching of Scripture and the “moving of the Spirit” as sacred. They understand the Holy Spirit to move among gathered believers when spiritual gifts are exercised and emotions are touched. Ecstasy, individual audible praise, prostration, uplifted hands, dance, or tears may mark such moments.

Holidays and Festivals

Pentecostals have no holidays or festivals of their own. Some, however, take special note of the day of Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter, to celebrate the movement’s particular emphasis on speaking in tongues and baptism with the Holy Spirit, experiences recorded in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles as having marked the first Christian Pentecost.

Mode of Dress

Pentecostals vary in their customs of dress. Some emphasize modesty, but they interpret this in a variety of ways. Pastors often wear business suits, although some adopt clerical collars and others wear robes. African-American congregations may feature deaconesses, or congregational mothers, who dress in white and take a prominent part in the life and worship of the community. A few denominations object to the wearing of jewelry.

Dietary Practices

In general Pentecostals view the body as God’s temple and urge believers to exercise good stewardship of their health. Many Pentecostals participate enthusiastically in the popular evangelical culture of religiously based diet books—with titles like What Would Jesus Eat?—and some churches host dietsupport groups. Pentecostals oppose smoking and the consumption of alcoholic beverages.


Pentecostal congregations have worship services on Sunday mornings as well as midweek prayer and Bible studies with a family emphasis. In the United States, Sunday evening services are increasingly less common. Rituals include prayers for healing, often accompanied by anointing with oil; exorcisms; and altar calls (invitations to the penitent or those seeking healing or Spirit baptism to come forward for prayer). Annual or biennial denominational business meetings attract huge numbers of members. The fall convention of the Church of God in Christ, for example, draws tens of thousands of people to Memphis, Tennessee. At these mammoth gatherings of the faithful, both lay and clerical, rituals for cleansing, healing, and reconciliation are reenacted around business sessions.

Rites of Passage

Most Pentecostal congregations offer a service of infant dedication, in which parents promise to provide their child with a Christian home and church education. Once they reach an age of accountability, children may choose to be baptized. Both new converts and anyone who received baptism as an infant are encouraged to be baptized on a profession of faith. Pentecostals regard baptism as obedience to a command, as a sign of something from the past rather than as a moment of grace. In some Pentecostal denominations it is not necessary to be baptized to receive Communion.


Pentecostals evangelize eagerly. They are extremely conscious of numbers, and they tend to equate success with growth. Pentecostal denominations support thousands of career and short-term missionaries around the globe. Pentecostals employ many modes of outreach, both in the United States and elsewhere. They readily embrace new media to assist their evangelistic efforts. Pioneers in radio and televangelism, Pentecostals also use the Internet and nontraditional missionaries to reach countries closed to missionary work.

Religious Tolerance

Pentecostals support freedom of worship. In the United States they have historically been wary of the ecumenical movement. This distrust has been nurtured by the liberal theology and political views of ecumenical agencies and by the Pentecostal belief in the prophecy of a coming world church. Pentecostals cooperate, however, in the efforts of evangelical agencies to support relief work and evangelism.

Social Justice

White Pentecostals in the United States have not taken strong public stands on issues related to social justice, except to support human rights elsewhere, especially religious freedom, with petitions, prayers, and public statements. African-American Pentecostals have been much more involved than white Pentecostals in the civil rights and poverty issues that affect their constituencies.

Social Aspects

Pentecostals work hard at building strong families. They promote Marriage Encounter, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and a wide variety of other programs that are infused with conservative views on marriage, relationships in the family, and male headship in the home. The realities of modern life have forced them to respond as well to the needs of the divorced and of single parents and blended families. Pentecostals regard homosexuality and abortion as sinful practices.

Controversial Issues

Pentecostals discourage divorce and remarriage. For most of their history, Pentecostal ministers refused to remarry a person whose earlier spouse was living, and most Pentecostal denominations routinely refused ordination to divorced persons. In the 1990s some denominations altered this stance in favor of a case-by-case approach. Pentecostals have no proscriptions on birth control, but they absolutely reject abortion. Some Pentecostal denominations ordain women, and to sustain their outreaches, all of them depend heavily on the volunteer efforts of women, who constitute a majority of the membership.

Cultural Impact

Music is the area in which Pentecostals have had the most cultural influence. The Pentecostal emphasis on religious experience has assured a prominent role for music, and their styles of music have affected both Christian sacred and secular popular music. Instead of traditional hymns, it was gospel hymns, with roots in late-nineteenth-century revivals emphasizing testimony and experience, that found favor at the movement’s outset. Since the mid-1960s the musical revolution associated with the charismatic renewal has brought into many Pentecostal congregations simple scriptural choruses (Bible verses or phrases set to music), along with music focused on praise and worship. While these changes in religious music did not necessarily originate in Pentecostal circles, Pentecostals have embraced them in their yearning for renewal of their worship practices. Thus, the emphasis on personal worship has made Pentecostals major contributors to the praise-and-worship music used widely in contemporary Christian services.