Pentecostalism Research Paper

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Pentecostals, who interpret the Bible literally and believe in the imminent return of Christ, are distinguished from other Fundamentalists or Evangelicals by greater exuberance in their religious services. Pentecostals emphasize prophecy, interpretation of tongues, healing, and exorcism of demons. The movement has spread from its roots in the United States to the Caribbean, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Korea, Britain, and Eastern Europe.

Pentecostalism emerged as a distinct movement following the Civil War. It was a radical extension of the Holiness movement that sought to revitalize the Wesleyan doctrine of perfection in various mainstream U.S. denominations, particularly the Methodists. But speaking in tongues (glossolalia), a significant factor in of Pentacostalism, appears to have existed off and on for millennia. Despite a diversity of beliefs among them, Pentecostals generally emphasize (1) the baptism of the Holy Spirit manifested by speaking in tongues; (2) the imminent return of Jesus Christ; and (3) the significance of speaking in tongues as an evangelical mechanism. Although Pentecostals take a literal interpretation of the Bible and stress a puritanical morality, they are distinguished from other Fundamentalists or Evangelicals, such as Southern Baptists and the Churches of Christ, by greater exuberance in their religious services. Pentecostals also emphasize prophecy, interpretation of tongues, healing, and exorcism of demons. At the ideological level, Holiness and Pentecostal sects emphasize the notion of “sanctification.” As opposed to the relatively subdued tone of Holiness services, Pentecostalism emphasizes inspirational outbursts of ecstasy such as shouting, gesticulating, twitching, fainting, rolling on the floor, and especially speaking in tongues or glossolalia. Some Pentecostal sects in southern Appalachia and the Ozark Mountains even handle poisonous serpents.

Pentecostalism Develops in the United States

Early sites of the Pentecostal movement included a center in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee connected with A. J. Tomlinson and the Church of God; a center in Topeka, Kansas, associated with Reverend Charles Parham; and the interracial Asuza Street Revival of 1906–1909 in Los Angeles. Parham left the Methodist Episcopal Church to establish Bethel Healing Home in Topeka, Kansas, in 1898. He had been inspired by the healing ministry of J. A. Dowie of Zion City, Illinois, and visited Holiness and healing ministries from Chicago to New York to Georgia in 1900. In late 1900, Parham established the Bethel Bible College in Topeka. Some of his students began to speak in tongues in early 1901 after investigating the doctrine of the “baptism of the Spirit.” Parham closed his school and instructed his students to spread the Pentecostal message. He opened another Bible college in Houston in 1905 and recruited William Seymour, an African American Holiness preacher, who went on to provide the impetus for the famous revival at the Asuza Street Mission. Particularly poor and lower-class people from not only many parts of the United States but also other countries attended the revival. Seymour spread the Pentecostal gospel to both whites and blacks in the Southeast. After attending the revival with two compatriots in early 1907, Charles H. Mason, one of the two founders of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), transformed the Holiness sect into a Pentecostal group. His cofounder, C. P. Jones, rejected Pentecostalism and formed the Church of Christ (Holiness) U.S.A. By the early 1910s, the Pentecostal movement had attracted converts in much of the United States, Canada, and northern Mexico with estimates ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 followers.

The initial interracial character of the Pentecostal movement began to break down in the years following the Asuza Street Revival. In 1914, COGIC ordained white ministers formed the Assemblies of God. Whereas the COGIC, headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee, today constitutes the largest predominantly black Pentecostal group in the world, the Assemblies of God has evolved, with its present headquarters in Springfield, Missouri, into the largest Pentecostal group in the world. Several years later, Canadian-born Aimee Semple McPherson broke away from the Assemblies to establish her congregation in Los Angeles, which was incorporated in 1927 as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Some Pentecostals, particularly those associated with the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World and the United Pentecostal Church International, emphasized the oneness of God and baptism in the name of Jesus, rather than in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. By the end of the twentieth century several hundred Pentecostal sects, many of them African American, had emerged in the United States alone. Both African American and European American Pentecostalism have had a rich history of colorful and even flamboyant evangelists. In the 1940s, Oral Roberts, a Pentecostal Holiness Church evangelist, created a healing and radio ministry based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Sweet Daddy” Grace, the founder of the United House of Prayer for All People, functioned as one of the “gods of the black metropolis.” Kathryn Kuhlman, a white Presbyterian, and Bishop Ida Robinson, an African American and the founder of the Mt. Sinai Holy Church of America, testified to the ability of women to rise to positions of leadership in the Pentecostal movement, despite the efforts of males to assume dominance. Pentecostal sects also have tended to attract a higher percentage of women than have mainstream denominations.

The Charismatic Movement Develops

While Pentecostalism proper has catered largely to lower-middle- or working-class people, neo-Pentecostalism, or the charismatic movement, has tended on the whole to cater to more affluent people, ranging from the lower-middle class to the upper-middle class. The charismatic movement first spread among some members of mainstream Protestant churches (e.g., Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians) in the 1950s and among Roman Catholics in the 1960s. Demos Shakarian established the Full Gospel Business Men in 1952, and David J. du Plessis, a South African–born Assemblies of God pastor in Connecticut, established connections with mainstream churches by joining the World Council of Churches in 1954 and attending the Vatican II conference as the sole Pentecostal observer. Although the Assemblies of God excommunicated him for these actions in 1962, du Pleissis served as an important catalyst in sparking the charismatic movement in mainstream churches. The charismatic movement also received an infusion of energy in the form of the Jesus People movement, a young people’s revival that began in California. Jim Bakker, an Assemblies of God minister, and Jimmy Swaggart, also an Assemblies of God minister, joined Oral Roberts as highly visible and influential charismatic televangelists.

The Pentecostal movement within Catholicism began in the spring of 1967 at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, but later spread to North Dame University and Michigan State University. Although members of the Catholic Pentecostal movement initially called themselves “Pentecostal Catholics” or “Catholic Pentecostals,” they later referred to themselves as “Catholic charismatics” for class reasons (McGuire 1982, 4).

Global Diffusion of Pentecostalism

Pentecostalism has spread from its roots in the United States to many other parts of the world, including the Caribbean, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Korea, Britain, and even Eastern Europe. David J. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson (cited in Wacker 2001), renowned statisticians of Christianity, maintain that by 2000 there were 525 million Pentecostals/charismatics (27 percent of the Christian population in the world), which to that date made Pentecostalism the single largest Christian category after Catholicism. Large independent Pentecostal congregations sprang up in large numbers in Latin America and America, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s. Massive conversion to Protestantism, particularly of a Pentecostal variety, has occurred in Brazil, where various estimates indicate that Protestant churchgoers outnumber Catholic ones on any given Sunday. Many members of Protestant mainstream congregations in Brazil have left in order to establish Pentecostal congregations. Although North Americans introduced Pentecostalism into Latin America, by and large Latinos are now responsible for diffusion of the movement. As in the United States, South African Pentecostalism emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century as a racially integrated movement that attracted blacks and poor Afrikaners and quickly became racially fragmented, in the view of Allan H. Anderson in “Dangerous Memories for South African Pentecostal.” (1999). The efforts of various North Americans and Europeans resulted in the formation of the South African District of the Assemblies of God. Many black Pentecostals opted to affiliate themselves with a wide array of African independent sects in South Africa. Some Pentecostals around the globe are interconnected through the Pentecostal World Fellowship, but apparently most are not affiliated with this body.

Interpretations of Pentecostalism

A number of sociologist and religious scholars have written about Pentacostalism as it is now practiced around the world. Robert Mapes Anderson, in Vision of the Disinherited (1979), provides perhaps the most insightful analysis of European American Pentecostalism, noting that it serves several functions, none of which seriously challenges the larger society or significantly alters the position of Pentecostals within it. Pentecostalism, he asserts, (1) constitutes a cathartic mechanism for marginalized people; (2) provides career opportunities for its leaders; (3) serves as a “safety valve” for dissatisfaction within mainstream churches; (4) facilitates the migration process from the countryside to the city; (5) instills in its members passivity, industriousness, and thrift; and (6) develops a compliant working class. While the same could be argued historically for African American Pentecostalism as well, an increasing number of black Pentecostal congregations have become more politically and socially engaged due to the impact of the civil rights and black power movements on a third generation of black Pentecostal ministers. Pentecostal Institutional Temple, COGIC’s mother church (located about a mile east of downtown Memphis), played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Ministers and Christians League, an organization that spearheaded a drive that doubled the number of black registered voters in Memphis. Black Pentecostals have won seats on city councils and in state legislatures and have been appointed to minor cabinet positions in the executive branch of the federal government.

Meredith McGuire views the search for empowerment as central to the Catholic charismatic movement. She asserts that even relatively affluent and conservative people in U.S. society “sense that change has ‘robbed’ them of the power to control the future, to effect their wills on their environment, to know what to expect and to act accordingly” (McGuire 1982, 176). Thomas J. Csordas, in The Sacred Self, asserts that the perception of divine presence often instills in Catholic charismatics a sense of security that enables them to overcome memories of traumatic events.

Various scholars have examined the role that Pentecostalism plays in Latin America and other developing and underdeveloped countries. For the most part, Pentecostalism in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America caters to the poor. Despite the fact that Christian-based communities inspired by liberation theology provided Catholicism with a new lease on life in Latin America, Pentecostalism has proven to be a fierce competitor because of its ability to tap into deeply felt emotional needs and to promise its adherents upward social mobility. Based upon an ethnographic study of Pentecostals in Belem, Brazil, R. Andrew Chestnut, in Born Again in Brazil, reports that the great majority of his subjects converted to Pentecostalism during or shortly following a serious sickness. In a similar vein, Thomas R. Lancaster in Thanks for God and the Revolution (1988) found that Pentecostal churches in Nicaragua recruit most of their members from the lowest echelon of the poor, many of whom are alcoholics or sick or elderly.

Despite their traditional political fatalism, Pentecostals have also become politically active in Latin America, although they have generally favored conservative candidates such as Rios Montt in Guatemala, a former Pentecostal Sunday School teacher, and Alberto Fujimori in Peru. Indeed, General Augusto Pinochet provided support to Chile’s largest Protestant sect, the Pentecostal Church, according to David Stoll in Is Latin America Turning Protestant? Some Brazilian Pentecostals have supported left-wing candidates and parties, such as Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and the Workers’ Party. Nevertheless, Chestnut argues that Brazilian Pentecostalism generally “reinforces the political status quo by engaging in the clientelistic politics that predominate in the republic” (1997, 146). South African Pentecostalism for the most part maintained its distance from the antiapartheid movement, although some of the younger black Pentecostals expressed opposition to the regime. In the case of South Korea, Jung asserts that Pentecostalism assumed an explicitly anti-Communist orientation and “produced an ahistorical, apolitical and otherworld- centered form of faith” (1999, 151) that served to support the country’s capitalist class. Conversely, as Stoll observes, Pentecostal pastors and congregations “tend to retain considerable autonomy in their dealings with state and society” (1990, 319).

An Increasingly Diverse Movement

Pentecostalism, like other religious traditions, is not a monolithic entity. As this essay has indicated, it exhibits tremendous diversity within specific countries, such as the United States or Brazil, and from country to country. At any rate, in the course of a little more than one hundred years, it has become a significant force politically, economically, and culturally. Furthermore, particularly in its charismatic form, it no longer is simply the religion of the downtrodden and disinherited. As a consequence, an increasing number of historians, theologians, sociologists, anthropologists, and other scholars, both Pentecostal and non- Pentecostal, have deemed it a topic to warrant serious consideration with the context of the world-system.

The sociologist David Martin views Pentecostalism, on the one hand, as the Christian equivalent of Islamic fundamentalism in the sense that it constitutes a cultural revolution responding to changes in the large global economy, while, on the other hand, unlike the latter, not offering an overarching political agenda. As a consequence, Pentecostalism, perhaps like Christianity as a whole, may be utilized to support existing sociopolitical and socioeconomic arrangements or to challenge them.


  1. Anderson, A. H. (1999). Dangerous memories for South African Pentecostals. In A. H. Anderson & W. J. Hollenweger (Eds.), Pentecostals after a century: Global perspectives on a movement in transition (pp. 89–107). Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press.
  2. Anderson, R. M. (1979). Vision of the disinherited: The making of American Pentecostalism. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Baer, H. A., & Singer, M. (2002). African American religion: Varieties of protest and accommodation (2d ed.). Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
  4. Blumenhofer, E. L., Spittler, R. P., & Wacker, G. A. (Eds.). (1999). Pentecostal currents in American Protestantism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  5. Chestnut, R. A. (1997). Born again in Brazil: The Pentecostal boom and the pathogens of poverty. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  6. Csordas, T. J. (1994). The sacred self: A cultural phenonomenology of charismatic healing. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  7. Harrell, D. E. (1975). All things are popular: The healing and charismatic revivals in modern America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  8. Hollenweger, W. J. (1997). Pentecostalism: Origins and developments worldwide. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
  9. Jung, L. H. (1999). Minjung and Pentecostal movements in Korea. In A. H. Anderson & W. J. Hollenweger (Eds.), Pentecostals after a century: Global perspectives on a movement in transition (pp. 138–160). Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press.
  10. Lancaster, R. N. (1988). Thanks for God and the revolution: Popular religion and class consciousness in the new Nicaragua. New York: Columbia University Press.
  11. Mariz, C. L. (1994). Coping with poverty: Pentecostals and Christian base communities in Brazil. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  12. Martin, D. (2002). Pentecostalism: The world their parish. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.
  13. McGuire, M. (1982). Pentecostal Catholics: Power, charisma, and order in a religious movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  14. Sanders, C. J. (1996). Saints in exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal experience in African American religion and culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
  15. Stoll, D. (1990). Is Latin America turning Protestant? The politics of evangelical growth. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  16. Synan, V. (1997). The Holiness-Pentecostal tradition: Charismatic movements in the twentieth century. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing.
  17. Wacker, G. (2001). Heaven below: Early Pentecostals and American culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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