Of Holy Spirits and Charismatic Christians

Starting last night, Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians from all over the world are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Azusa Revival in Los Angeles, and church folks with Dallas-Fort Worth ties are front and center. Scheduled to perform last night at the Azusa Street Centennial gathering in Los Angeles were Bishop T.D. Jakes of Dallas' The Potter's House; Fort Worth-based televangelist Kenneth Copeland; and Benny Hinn, whose ministry headquarters is in Irving. Copeland's wife Gloria will speak later in the week.

Don't be embarrassed if you've never heard of the Azusa Revival; remarkably little has been written about what will certainly be considered the most important church history event of the 20th century. All Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians can trace the roots of their faith tradition in some way to Azusa, where, starting in April 1906, a one-eyed black preacher named William J. Seymour led revival meetings in a grubby former livery stable on Azusa Street. The meetings, which had no order of service, were marked by men and women shouting, weeping, going into ecstatic trances and speaking in tongues, the practice people most associate with Pentecostals today. Call it weird, call it whatever; just remember there are 650 million Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians in the world today and counting. --Julie Lyons

The Pentecostal movement has been largely ignored by historians—and secular journalists, until the months leading up to the Centennial—probably for the same reason the early Pentecostals were marginalized by Christianity as a whole: They were considered flakes and fanatics. The term "holy roller," after all, wasn't invented as a compliment.

But since journalists are supposed to write the first draft of history, or however that goes, I'm going to offer a very abbreviated first draft of how the Pentecostal Movement's impact can be felt in America today:

Pentecostals are the most important source of true racial reconciliation in America. Azusa was a multi-racial movement during the most racially polarized time in American history, the Jim Crow era. Whites, blacks and people of other countries traveled to Azusa to experience what they considered a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a direct parallel to what happened 2,000 years earlier with Jesus' disciples at Pentecost. Contemporaries noted how the color line melted at Azusa, and that sensibility—a belief that the Holy Spirit will, and must, unite all believers--has been sustained through the decades, if not always in such a courageous form as was evident in the earliest years.

Pentecostal churches are the most integrated congregations in America by far. And thanks to brilliant preachers like T.D. Jakes and the broad reach and inclusiveness of Christian television networks such as TBN and DayStar (um, maybe a little too inclusive), a whole lot of white Christians have been introduced to the black faith tradition and have actually learned to appreciate and benefit from it. Pentecostals, after all, consider racial and ethnic prejudice "sin." I'm white, but I've visited numerous black Pentecostal churches over the years, and I can honestly say I've been treated with conspicuous warmth on all but one occasion—and that place shunned a black friend of mine, too, who didn't conform to their rigid dress code. I know it doesn't always work the other way, when blacks visit white churches--but there is something built into the Pentecostal spirit that recognizes we were all meant to worship God together on equal ground, even if it hasn't always happened. (I don't, by the way, get the same kind of reception in black Baptist or mainline churches.)

I know people are always taking digs at prosperity teaching in Pentecostal churches, often rightfully so. They ignore, however, a positive consequence—that Pentecostals have generally avoided an "always the victim" mentality--the "culture of complaint," as the great essayist Conor Cruise O'Brien called it. They've focused instead on the importance and spiritual necessity of honesty, charity and hard work. Nothing wrong with those things. Middle-class white people will be terribly offended from now till kingdom come that some churches deign to hold out prosperity as a goal; I say let 'em whine. I have personally seen that kind of teaching pull people out of poverty and near-poverty.

OK, historians, it's all yours now.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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