The Reason for the Rise of the Pentecostal Movement
Thomas F. Zimmerman
Late in 1969, Jessyca Russell Gaver received a clipping from the September 6, 1969, edition of the New York Times sent by her publisher, Arnold Abramson. The headline read, “Pentecostal Movement Finding New Adherents.”
Abramson wanted Mrs. Gaver to write a book about this phenomenon, and to encourage her to accept the assignment, he included the story of the growth of Pentecostals. She accepted, and the result was an almost 300-page paperback entitled Pentecostalism.
While there were certainly other considerations which caused Mrs. Gaver to take the assignment, a prominent motivating factor was one sentence in the newspaper article:
Pentecostalism has developed into the world’s fastest-growing denomination at a time when membership in most other churches is declining as a proportion of the population.
Like the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the Pentecostal movement today has received widespread attention. It has been referred to by various designations-both kind and unkind. Possibly one of the most appropriate descriptions from a biblical point of view is the term “revival.” The rise of the Pentecostal movement came under conditions which existed prior to revivals both in Bible times and in later Church history. The rise of the present-day move of the Spirit is directly attributable to believers who fulfill God’s conditions for revival.
Great revivals have often begun in times of spiritual and moral darkness. Conditions of gross darkness prevailed before revivals under such leaders as Asa (2 Chronicles 15: 1-15), Joash (2 Kings 11, 12), Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29-31), Josiah (2 Kings 22, 23), Zerubbabel (Ezra 5, 6), and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8:9; 12:44-47). The people and leaders were guilty of idolatry, neglect of and in some cases contempt for the house of God, unjust and sometimes cruel treatment of fellow Israelites, entangling alliances and associations with heathen nations, and the practice of spiritualism and other forms of the occult.
Against this backdrop of ungodliness, there were always those who were earnestly looking to the Lord for His intervention. These people were never disappointed, for when God’s people sought the Lord with the whole heart, a spiritual and moral revival always followed.
A quick perusal of history books makes it very evident that conditions prior to the present Pentecostal revival were deplorable. Post-Civil War America was fraught with sectional hostility and financial turmoil. Increasing population movements into the cities were accompanied by the usual moral decay-crime, gambling, alcoholism, and prostitution grew rampant. Corruption reached high levels of federal and state governments, and many became rich quickly at the expense of the taxpayers. In the business world, those who became wealthy through stock manipulations, oil speculations, and other fraudulent means often outnumbered those who succeeded through honesty.
Nor was the church exempt from the spirit of the times. American seminaries exchanged professors with the German universities where liberal theology and higher criticism of the Bible were in vogue. It wasn’t long until pulpits were being populated by literal apostles of unbelief. They ridiculed the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, and the substitutionary atonement. The social gospel was supplanting the supernatural Gospel, and the theory of Christian nurture preempted the necessity of repentance.
But still there were many devout believers in every denomination who continued to “contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” As these people began to pray more earnestly because of deteriorating world conditions, it was not long until God began to pour out His Spirit and to restore to the remnant Church the gifts of His Spirit, notably speaking in tongues.
Not all these people upon whom the Spirit fell realized, at first, the biblical precedent for the experiences they were having. But soon, from many different places, they began to declare that the Holy Spirit was being outpoured as during the first days of the Church age. Once again God had honored His ancient promise in a time of deep darkness.
This, then, is the explanation for the remarkable growth of the pentecostal movement. Men have tried to adduce all kinds of reasons for it in terms of sociology, psychology, ecology, and economics. But nothing short of the almighty power of God responding to the contrition of His faithful remnant could have produced such results.
Let us then review the essential elements in the lives of these people on whom the Spirit fell.
1. First, they revered the Word of God, the Bible. And so it always was. The revivals under Asa (2 Chronicles 15:8-19), Joash (2 Chronicles 24:6), and Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:6), as well as those under Josiah, Zerubbabel, and Nehemiah, were attributable largely to the fact that these Old Testament leaders insisted on a renewed commitment to the Mosaic documents, especially to Deuteronomy.
Evan Roberts, leader of the famous Welsh revival at the turn of this century, exemplified this same dedication to the priority of Scripture. A contemporary observer said of him, “He is no orator, he is not widely read. The only book he knows from cover to cover is the Bible.” George T. B. Davis, in his book, When the fire fell, reported that a religious paper in Chicago made this observation of Evan Roberts: “First he worked in a coal mine, then became an apprentice in a forge, then a student for the ministry. But all his life he has yearned to preach.”
The Bible was given priority in Bethel College, Topeka, Kansas, where about forty students came together primarily to study the Word of God. It was after exhaustive study of the Bible that the students unanimously agreed that speaking in tongues is the initial evidence of the Baptism in the Spirit. What they believed the Word of God taught, they soon began to experience, and so the modern Pentecostal movement was launched.
2. Secondly, these people on whom the Spirit fell lived holy lives. They studied to avoid sin and to shun the very appearance of evil.
Since the pentecostal movement is strongly biblical, emphasis on holiness is not surprising. It might have seemed that such an emphasis would inhibit its growth, but the opposite has been true. The committed life with all its attendant blessings came to be appreciated by people who recognized the greater price which had to be paid for selfish and sinful living. Holiness was not to them a cross to be borne, but a cherished delight.
While there have been different doctrinal positions on the matter of sanctification, all Pentecostal fellowships have emphasized holiness. A careful study of the past seventy years would show that this has certainly been a factor in the growth of these bodies.
3. A third prominent feature of all revivals of Bible and church history has been a strong emphasis on the truth of substitutionary atonement. Sin is a reality which can only be taken care of through
the transfer of the offender’s guilt to Christ, and the transfer of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.
The work of the Holy Spirit is to glorify Christ (John 16: 14). This is why, when Pentecostal believers have emphasized the atoning work of Christ, lost souls have responded with joy. Persuasive human eloquence did not produce these many conversions, but the convicting power of the Holy Spirit who honored the cross-centered preaching of the Pentecostals.
4. Perhaps one of the most significant and widely observed phenomena of the Pentecostal revival is its emphasis upon free and exuberant worship. Man is a worshiping creature. He will worship something. If he doesn’t worship God, he is surely an idolater.
When people are filled with the Holy Spirit, they are indwelt by the one who glorified Christ and who also empowers authentic worship. This Spirit of worship which has attracted so many in the past will certainly continue to do so.
Dr. Leland R. Keys, a retired minister who has served many years with distinction both as a pastor and educator, was introduced to Pentecost in a mission in an eastern city in the early years of this century. He said there was one custom of that mission which attracted his attention most: a lady would play the pump organ before the service and sometimes would sing familiar choruses and hymns. Without waiting for the service to commence formally, the people as they gathered would join in, and God’s presence would become wonderfully real.
Dr. Keys continued, “A Spirit-baptized body of believers, loving the Lord with all their hearts, singing and making melody to the Lord, expressing their joy in the public assembly, prepared the way for what
was called a ‘Holy Ghost meeting.’ The gifts of the Spirit were manifested, and the Word of God was proclaimed with power. The result was that the altars were filled with those who were hungry for God.”
Much more could be said about the numerous features which attracted People into the Pentecostal ranks from every walk of life. The joy of salvation, their irrepressible happiness, miraculous healing and deliverances, transformed homes-all had great appeal.
Less appealing was the persecution. It happened in the home, in the community, in the schoolhouse. Wary onlookers quickly coined epithets to describe these people whose behavior they considered bizarre. As in the early church, however, persecution didn’t hinder the work of God-it helped.
5. The final characteristic of the early Pentecostals which accounts for much of their success was their consuming evangelistic zeal. In spite of charges to the contrary, Pentecostals do not spend all their
time talking in or about tongues. They have instead consistently sought to bring people to Christ. Like the people described in the Book of Acts, they have gone everywhere, earnestly proclaiming the message of salvation.
A.W. Orwig, who attended some of the Azusa Street meetings in Los Angeles, later wrote:
One thing that somewhat surprised me was the presence of so many from different churches. Some were pastors, evangelists, or foreign missionaries. Persons of many nationalities were present. Sometimes these, many of them unsaved, would be seized with deep conviction of sin under the burning testimony of one of their own nationality, and at once heartily turn to the Lord. Occasionally some foreigner would hear a testimony or earnest exhortation in his native tongue from a person not at all acquainted with that language, and thereby be pungently convicted that it was a call from God to repent of sin.
W.J. Seymour, a leader in the Azusa Street mission, was often heard to say, “Now, do not go from this meeting and talk about tongues, but try to get people saved.”
In conclusion, we must not overlook the prophetic and eschatological implication of the Pentecostal movement. When the multitude gathered at the first Pentecostal outpouring, some were angered, some were in doubt, and some mocked. It was then Peter who offered an explanation in terms of the prophecy of Joel:
And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: and on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy: and I will show wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke: the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come: and it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Acts 2:17-21)
The Pentecostal revival is a fulfillment of prophecy-a sign of the last days.
Paul made a less buoyant forecast about those days: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come” (2 Timothy 3:1). He followed that with a dreary catalog of evils which would characterize the last days-a list that convinces believers more than ever of the imminence of the end of the age. But Pentecostals know that where sin abounds, grace is even more plentiful, and they are optimistic. They expect an outpouring of the Spirit greater than ever.
Thank God for what happened on the day of Pentecost! Thank God for the rise of the twentieth-century Pentecostal movement. But let us especially thank God that the best days are not in the past. They are in the future.
Convinced of this, we will continue to sensitively follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit; we will continue in dedicated service to Christ; and we shall continue to pray, “Even so, come Lord Jesus! Maranatha!”
From Azusa Street and Beyond, L.G. McClung, Jr., Editor; Bridge Publishers, 1986.
A foremost leader is world Pentecostalism, Thomas F. Zimmerman is the former General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God (1960-1985). Since 1964 he has served as the Chairman of the Advisory Committee for the World Pentecostal Conference.