The following two excerpts are from the revised text of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Finding the Way to Christ in a Complicated Religious Landscape, which is due for publication by Ancient Faith Publishing in December 2016 (see the full Table of Contents here). The chapter on Pentecostalism from which these sections are drawn is completely new for this edition. The “Parham” mentioned in the first paragraph is Charles Fox Parham, generally regarded as the founder of Pentecostalism and the teacher of William Seymour, whose Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles touched off the movement on April 9, 1906, whose 110th anniversary just passed.
You can also listen to the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy podcast which includes this information and a lot more. The sections on Pentecostalism are currently in progress. There’s more to come!
It was during his time in Topeka that Parham presided over a moment that is one of the traditional historical markers for the beginning of Pentecostalism. Before departing for three days of preaching in Kansas City in late December 1900, Parham directed his students to spend time alone studying Acts 2:
The gifts are in the Holy Spirit and with the baptism of the Holy Spirit the gifts, as well as the graces, should be manifested. Now, students, while I am gone, see if there is not some evidence given of the baptism so there may be no doubt on the subject. (Charles F. Parham, “The Latter Rain” (1900-1901), in The Life of Charles F. Parham: Founder of the Apostolic Faith Movement (compiled by Sarah Thistlethwaite Parham), 1930, p. 58-59)
It’s clear from his directions how he intended his students to be thinking, that the miraculous signs seen in Acts 2 would properly accompany the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. It would not be surprising if they all reported similar results on his return. And, sure enough, Parham said that that’s what happened:
To my astonishment they all had the same story, that while there were different things occurred when the Pentecostal blessing fell, that the indisputable proof on each occasion was, that they spake with other tongues. (ibid., 52)
A close examination of the testimonies of Parham and two other students who kept diaries of their own suggests that the traditional story of multiple, simultaneous independent experiences of tongue-speaking was not what actually happened. Parham himself had probably believed for some time that speaking in tongues was evidence of the Baptism of the Spirit, and accounts of other eyewitnesses to the events around the turn of that new year strongly suggest that it was an experience passed on from one student to another rather than something that happened independently. One student, Howard Stanley, bore witness to this: “Agnes Ozman was the one that made clear to me that when we were filled with the Holy Spirit that we would speak in other tongues.” In other words, they learned this from each other (Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism, 52-57).
Parham claimed an ecstatic experience of speaking Swedish, while Agnes Ozman both spoke and wrote in Chinese and other languages after Parham laid hands on her. Stanley wrote that he saw “clovend tonges as of fire (sic)” come into the meeting room, descending and enabling him to speak another language, something he saw others doing, as well. Those assembled all sang “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” in at least six different languages while surrounded by a miraculous glow of white light. Parham’s telling of the story is very much reminiscent of the narrative in Acts 2.
It was January 3, 1901. Their Second Pentecost had come.
And the defection of one of their members a week later, S. J. Higgins, who told a local newspaper that the school was “a fake,” introduced the movement to the press. Soon, reporters arrived from Kansas City, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and other cities, all writing about the curious religious movement near Topeka. One article even included a transcript of the tongue-speaking of Parham’s sister-in-law Lillian Thistlethwaite. With the public eye on the “Parham School of Tongues,” despite some initial setbacks, the movement began planning campaigns across the country.
It’s important that we note here that the precise character of speaking in tongues at this early stage of Pentecostalism is not what it is today. What was supposedly experienced here was xenoglossia, that is, the miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages. This is roughly what occurs in Acts 2, where the disciples of Jesus, after having received the Holy Spirit, begin to preach publicly, and everyone heard in his own language:
And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?” (Acts 2:5-12)
It’s not precisely clear how this works in Acts 2. Are the apostles actually speaking in foreign languages? Or are they speaking and the miracle is in the hearing of those present—an effect like Star Trek’s Universal Translator, where technology enables multiple species to converse while speaking and hearing in their own language?
It may be reasonable to interpret the apostles’ miracle as speaking foreign languages, rather than the miracle being in the hearing. In any event, this is what the first Pentecostals—who referred to themselves as the Apostolic Faith Movement—were claiming, that at their Second Pentecost they were given the gift identical to the one given to the apostles at the first Pentecost. And its purpose was the same as the apostles’—evangelism.
As Pentecostalism gained ground in the Holiness movement, eventually resources were gathered together to begin sending missionaries to foreign lands so that they could use the gift of tongues to convert the locals to Christ. Jesus was coming soon, so the work had an urgency to it. The world needed to hear the Gospel, and since the established denominations had failed to bring the Gospel to the world, it would be those Baptized in the Spirit who would do it:
Parham’s belief that the primary purpose of speaking in tongues was to make possible the fulfillment of the last sign of the end—the miraculous propagation of the gospel in the languages of all the peoples of the world—was not, like some of his ideas, an idiosyncrasy merely. Nor was it, as Pentecostal apologists would have us believe, an aberration entertained only by a few extremists. It was, rather, a fundamental and nearly universal notion during the first few years of the movement. (Anderson, 90)
The Azusa Street mission where Pentecostalism began its real spread taught this:
A minister says that God showed him twenty years ago that the divine plan for missionaries was that they might receive the gift of tongues either before going to the foreign field or on the way. It should be a sign to the heathen that the message is of God. The gift of tongues can only be used as the Spirit gives utterance. It cannot be learned like the native tongues, but the Lord takes control of the organs of speech at will. It is emphatically, God’s message. (The Apostolic Faith, Vol. 1, No. 1, September 1906)
Missionaries were soon sent, dispatched to places such as Japan, China, and India. At the time, the more mainstream Bible Missionary Society investigated eighteen Pentecostal missionaries to see how they were faring. Not one of them reported being able to communicate successfully with those to whom they were sent. Tongue-speaking evangelism wasn’t working.
But the demoralizing failure of tongue-speaking as an evangelistic gift did not effectively debunk the claims of Pentecostals. Instead, the movement soon changed its theology of the nature of tongues. Speaking in tongues was now understood as glossolalia, an ecstatic utterance of prayer while being possessed by divine power. Xenoglossia was still admitted as a spontaneous gift, but no longer was speaking foreign languages at will identified with the gift of tongues. Glossolalia had been admitted prior to this change, especially paired with the gift of interpretation of tongues (an explanation in common language), but it had not been the standard theology for tongue-speaking.
Very quickly, however, glossolalia became the standard theology, and it persisted in the decades that followed. The initial emphasis on foreign languages for the purpose of evangelism—which had been the dominant understanding at first—was essentially swept under the rug as the belief of a few misguided, exceptional individuals. Such a shift was probably inevitable, as it was only a matter of time before the gift would actually be tested on real foreigners. Yet while the movement now associates glossolalia with the original apostolic Pentecost, the narrative in Acts 2 instead shows xenoglossia.