As a movement firmly planted in the revivalist tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, global Pentecostalism emerged from a number of “revival” centers scattered throughout the world. Historians generally agree that events like the Welsh revival led by the Welshman Evan Roberts (1904-1905), the Mukti Mission revival in India led by Pandita Ramabi (1905-1907), and the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles led by the African American William Seymour (1906-1913) provided the initial impetus for a movement that spread through established global missionary networks within Protestantism. From its inception, Pentecostalism was, and is, a religion made to travel, cosmopolitan both in its scope and outlook.
To take one example of the use of global networks, in 1906, Minnie Abrams, a Methodist missionary operating out of the Mukti Mission in India, wrote a pamphlet entitled The Baptism of the Holy Spirit and Fire to explain the connection between the spiritual experiences occurring at the mission and the event of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. Abrams subsequently sent the pamphlet to her fellow alum of the Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions, May Hoover, who, with her husband Willis Hoover, was a Methodist missionary in Chile. After reading the work, the Hoovers held meetings at which similar spiritual experiences began to occur. These meetings led to the formation of the Iglesia Metodista Pentecostal de Chile, a denomination that currently has over 800,000 members and is the largest Protestant church in Chile.
During the past hundred years, Pentecostals developed global networks that foster cooperation between indigenous and foreigner workers. The most prominent example of this kind of cooperation is between the various bodies that comprise the World Assemblies of God Fellowship. Originally a U.S. denomination formed out of the Azusa Street revival, the Assemblies of God now consists of a fraternity of national bodies.
Each national body is self-governing, having its own General Council, consisting of elders and led by a General Moderator. In some cases, there are several General Councils within the same country as in South Korea, due to the size of Yoido Full Gospel Church, one of the largest congregations in the world. The fastest growing members are the Assemblées de Dieu in Burkina Faso, a small country in West Africa just north of Ghana, and the Brazilian Assembleias de Deus. The former body has 1.2 million members, which is just over 7 percent of the country, and the latter has 23 million members, which is almost 12 percent. The use of global networks and swift adaptation to various cultural contexts attests to Pentecostalism’s versatility and universal reach.
Defining Pentecostalism more precisely, however, poses a challenge equal in difficulty to the relative ease of identifying the channels through which Pentecostal DNA flooded into various regions of the world. The cosmopolitan nature of Pentecostalism works against classification in part because Pentecostalism is more a spirituality than a confessional tradition, a set of spiritual experiences to be transmitted than a set of doctrines to be taught.
Central to this spirituality, however, is a robust theology of encounter supported by a cluster of theological ideas that facilitates its translation into diverse cultures, and even distinct ecclesial contexts and confessional traditions. Through the cluster of theological ideas undergirding Pentecostalism, one can identify family resemblances among most Pentecostals that also intimate a catholic spirituality at its center, which attests to its cosmopolitan outlook.
The first and most obvious mark of Pentecostalism for the casual observer, is an affirmation of the ongoing charismatic activity of the Holy Spirit through visions, prophecy, and healing of the body. For many Pentecostals, the entry point into this dimension of Christian existence is a spiritual experience described as the baptism of the Spirit. Many, but not all, Pentecostals will claim that the initial sign of this spiritual experience is for the individual to speak in an unlearned language, either known or unknown.
When Pentecostals describe baptism in the Spirit, they almost instinctively revert to the language common to Christian mystical traditions, and they theologize about the experience in relation to Christian mission in the world. As with other mystics, the encounter immerses the person into the presence of God which, in turn, deepens spiritual union so that he reemerges with a renewed sense of mission and purpose. While the experience of the apostles in Acts 2 provides a pattern for Pentecostals, the content used to describe the experience remains deeply informed by mystical streams. Thus, baptism in the Spirit concerns an encounter that transforms and empowers individuals for mission.
A second set of ideas coalesce around a view of salvation as involving deliverance from sin in all of its permutations and ongoing participation in divine power and presence. Rather than construing the problem of sin primarily in terms of guilt, Pentecostals prefer to talk about hostile forces at work, both internal and external to the individual. These hostile forces may be destructive desires and emotions, political and economic structures, demons, or even meteorological events.
Ultimately, it is the affirmation that humans must be liberated from sin and death as forces that continuously assault individuals and seek to deprive them of life that connects the Pentecostal in Africa to the Pentecostal in North America. This is why warfare metaphors permeate the Pentecostal worldview.
In this second cluster of ideas, one gains a glimpse of the Evagrian emphasis in ancient monasticism on the interior life as one of constant warfare against the seven deadly thoughts (or capital vices) or the theology of martyrdom stemming from second-century Lyons in which the slave-girl Blandina becomes a dramatic image of Christ engaged in combat against the political might of Rome, which was viewed as a manifestation of demonic powers.
This emphasis not only appeals to world views in the global south, but also provides a catholic way of dealing with an over-emphasis on guilt in European and North American traditions. Viewing sin and death as hostile forces creates conceptual space for individuals to recognize that the problem is one of slavery to something destructive in the self rather than seeing the self as what must be destroyed.
A third set of ideas, reflected in prosperity theology, represents a theological trajectory within a movement that constantly emphasizes life, blessing, and wholeness as emerging from ever increasing degrees of immersion into God’s presence. There is an ongoing debate within Pentecostal circles as to how best to think about prosperity, and Pentecostals who prioritize economic prosperity clearly push too far in one direction.
Part of Pentecostalism’s appeal in the global south, however, stems from its continuous message of human flourishing—that God is concerned with the material well being of the individual as much as with the spiritual well being, and that these are intimately related. Pentecostals largely do not dichotomize between healing of the body and healing of the soul nor do they push salvation into a distant future. Salvation concerns the healing of the human person, body and soul, in the present moment, which stands in continuity with future consummation.
These elements of Pentecostal spirituality easily transfer into a number of disparate cultures and confessional traditions in a way that renews by reorienting rather than destroying confessional and cultural identities. Through the charismatic renewal, the Catholic Church, for example, has been able to adapt baptism in the Spirit in light of its connections to Christian mystical traditions and continuity with the sacrament of confirmation. The bilateral ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Pentecostals, now in its fourth decade, began in part because of “Catholic Pentecostalism,” the phrase employed in the late 60s and early 70s by Catholics like Donald Gelpi, SJ and Kilian McDonnell, OSB, who had experienced baptism in the Spirit.
Through works like Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit, McDonnell (and Gelpi) represent a number of Catholic Charismatic scholars attempting to integrate the spirituality of Pentecostalism into a Catholic framework. This work continues on the international level through organizations like the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships led by Matteo Calisi and on the national level through movements like Rinnovamento nello Spirito Santo led by Salvatore Martinez. Around 20,000 were present, including the president of the Italian bishops’ conference, at the 2009 national assembly in Italy sponsored by Rinnovamento nello Spirito Santo.
The cosmopolitan nature of Pentecostalism reveals itself in the capacity of the movement to adapt to a variety of cultural and ecclesial contexts. While global missionary networks within Protestantism provided the transnational conduits to carry the message, it was and is a spirituality that emphasizes prosperity, empowerment, and deliverance that sustains its growth. This spirituality also explains how Pentecostalism could serve as a positive catalyst for renewal within other Christian traditions.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University and co-editor of Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies.