September 18, 2008

Krista's Journal: Main Street Mysticism

September 18, 2008

Pentecostalism is sometimes confused with Fundamentalist Christianity, but it is historically distinct and spiritually different. In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where it is growing most rapidly, Pentecostal Christianity is often associated with emancipation for women, the poor, and the disenfranchised. This is "main street mysticism," as one sociologist puts it. And it began on the American frontier, with an African-American son of slaves a century ago.

It felt right to retrace this history in light of all the scrutiny of churches Sarah Palin has attended, and remarks she has made in them. I will state more plainly what I noted above: these churches and Palin's experiences are minor reflections of a major, far-flung phenomenon that is literally changing the face of Christianity and culture.

Delving into the history, humanity, and spirit of this movement was fascinating for the members of our production team who attended the centennial — and it left an indelible mark on our view of religion in the world. Pentecostalism is the largest and most influential religious movement to originate in the United States. There are over 100 Pentecostal denominations. But Pentecostalism is not essentially a set of institutions and beliefs. It is, in the words of believers, a charismatic, spirit-filled impulse and practice that has penetrated the spectrum of the world's Christian traditions. At its present rate of growth, one billion people will be part of this movement by the year 2025.

The founding figure of the modern Pentecostal movement was an African-American son of slaves, William J. Seymour. Around the turn of the century, he attended classes of another Pentecostal forebear, the Reverend Charles Parham of Topeka, Kansas. There, Seymour sat in the hallway because he was black. In 1906, he accepted a call to ministry in Los Angeles, and he soon began to draw a vast sweep of humanity to what became known in the course of three years as the Azusa Street Revival. As the Los Angeles Herald described it at the time, with some scorn, "All classes of people gathered in the temple last night. There were all ages, sexes, colors, nationalities and previous conditions of servitude."

Pentecostalism has ever since appealed to people on the margins of culture, authority, and religion, as Pentecostal historian Mel Robeck describes. In my pre-radio days, long before I sat down with Robeck near Azusa Street in Los Angeles for the foundational interview of this program, another project took me to his office at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. I saw the shelves upon shelves of historical documents he's collected of Pentecostalism's inaugural century, many of which only exist in his office.

Like his mother and father before him, Mel Robeck is an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God — the denomination of the church Sarah Palin attended until 2002. He's proud of the fact that Pentecostals ordained women from the first, just one measure of the egalitarian impulse at the heart of this tradition. He is also learned and frank about the ways in which this religious revolution — like every revolution — has often failed its own highest ideals. He is quick to explain the sharp distinctions between Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Pentecostal theology and spirituality. Yet he worries that as American Pentecostals have become more culturally mainstream and more closely associated with conservative Evangelical Christianity, they have lost some of their original core values of egalitarianism, pacifism, and social justice.

Still, as the inheritors of the Azusa Street revival commemorated it with a parade through the streets of Los Angeles in 2006, they reflected a vast and improbable mix of humanity in one place with one purpose. There was a brass marching band from the Bahamas. There were Native Americans carrying the shofar, the sacred horn of the Hebrew Bible. There were Romanian Pentecostal teenagers from Orange County and a delegation from Uganda and Kenya. Azusa Street bikers came with shaved heads, leather jackets, and tattoos. A young Christian rock group and a gospel choir performed on flatbed trailers.

You'll hear some of them in this program. You'll hear a graduate student in physics describe his love for the Pentecostal church, while his Latina wife talks about speaking in tongues. And you'll also hear the voice of Bishop Charles Blake, whose church we visited on the Sunday morning of the centennial. He's since become the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African-American denomination with six million members, which traces its roots directly back through Azusa Street. It is now the fifth-largest Christian tradition in the U.S. Bishop Blake gave an important speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, representing the perspective of a "pro-life" Democrat.

William J. Seymour once said this: "We are not fighting men or churches but seeking to replace dead forms and creeds and wild fanaticisms with living, practical Christianity." In such words, one hears the appeal of Pentecostalism in his time and in ours. It is impossible fully to describe or analyze this experiential faith with the scholarly and journalistic tools of rationality and objectivity. Outsiders often focus their attention on the aspects of this faith that they find most puzzling, especially its ecstatic forms of worship and excesses that can result from that. But all of us — journalists, policymakers, and citizens — must find new ways to understand and take this movement seriously, for it is changing our world.

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is a professor of Church History and Ecumenics at Fuller Theological Seminary and a historian of Pentecostal tradition. He is the author of The Azusa Street Mission & Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement.

is chair of the Haggard School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University and author of Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Society, and Self.