Tag Archives | pentecostalism

Unifying Pentecostalism | Walter J. Hollenweger

Walter HollenwegerI believe that there is something unifying in the Pentecostal movement, but it is probably not on the level of doctrine. It is a way of doing theology: experience-related, open to oral forms, ecumenical (by virtue of its many worldwide forms), and expressing itself in categories of pneumatology.

—Hollenweger, Pentecostalism, 329.

The Father’s Kiss | Donald Gee

Donald GeeThe kiss with which the Father greeted the returning prodigal must have been like sweetest balm upon his poor weary wounded spirit; yet no one would suggest that the Father kept on kissing him all the time. . . . Some Christians tend towards the superlative, and we have to confess to a feeling approaching nausea at their sugary language.

—Gee in Hollenweger, The Pentecostals, 211.

The Pentecostals | Walter J. Hollenweger

The cover of Hollenweger's The PentecostalsIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I laughed and cringed—often during the same page. With the passion of a genealogical researcher, Hollenweger uncovers the history of our pentecostal ancestors in all of its glory and absurdity, its passion and pragmatism.

Hollenweger has been viewed as the granddaddy of Pentecostal research for good reason. His doctoral dissertation, Handbuch der Pfingstbewegung, was a ten volume study of global pentecostalism, the first of its kind. Yes, you read that correctly. Ten volumes! That is what makes The Pentecostals so great.

Perhaps aware that not many people would read his ten volume German dissertation, he condensed his findings into a 500 page Enthusiastisches Christentum: die Pfingstbewegung in Geschichte und Gegenwart which appears in English translation as The Pentecostals. Hollenweger is generous while remaining appropriately critical. Through judicious quoting of source material (the early Pentecostals were know for their prolific production of journals), Hollenweger allows the reader to feel the ethos of the early Pentecostals. He approached his work in two ways.

First, Hollenweger traces the history of pentecostalism. He begins in the United States with the story of Parham and Seymour which most pentecostals are aware of, but he does not stop there. The first half of the book explains how pentecostalism broke out worldwide, from the United states to Brazil, South Africa, and various countries in Europe.

Second, Hollenweger looks at the theology of the diverse pentecostal movement in appropriate categories such as the understanding of scripture, the Trinity, and demonology. This is where Hollenweger applies a more critical lens to the movement. Consider his insight on the gifts of the Spirit (and remember, he wrote this in 1969):

We must look beyond the gifts of the Spirit which are manifested in the Pentecostal movement to find modern gifts of the Spirit: the gifts of service to society and science. That is, we need gifts that will help us to understand better our sick world of politics, economics and science and to contribute to the task of healing it. (373)

I was raised in a small-town Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada church. In reading Hollenweger’s account I finally understood many of the odd theological quirks I grew up with. This not only helps my self-understanding—it enables me to see the doctrinal roots of my own congregants.

The Pentecostals was as compelling as it was informative. My next task is to read his work on pentecostalism that he wrote at the other end of his career: Pentecostalism. A man who bookended his career with in-depth studies of pentecostalism should be read and valued by thoughtful pentecostals today.


Hollenweger, Walter J. The Pentecostals. Translated by R. A. Wilson. London: SCM Press, 1972.

Signs and Wonders | Harvey Cox

Harvey CoxSome pentecostal preachers I have heard and watched are so fascinated by sensational displays of rapture that they appear to have forgotten the original meaning of the “signs and wonders” which were seen as tokens that a new day was coming, that the reign of God was breaking into history.

—Harvey Cox. Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1995, 313.

Heaven Below | Grant Wacker

The cover of Wacker's Heaven BelowHistory slides quickly into myth and legend.

In 1901, Agnes Ozman received the “baptism with tongues” in Charles Fox Parham’s school in Topeka, Kansas. Parham’s own baptism followed quickly. Two years later Parham took his school on the road to Houston where he taught William J. Seymour. Seymour took the message to California where the new movement exploded in 1906.

In Heaven Below, Grant Wacker tells the story of that first generation of American pentecostals. Since almost every new expression of pentecostalism had its corresponding magazine and mailing list, Wacker mined a mountain of primary material to arrive at his nuanced understanding of the pentecostal movement.

Wacker described his overall thesis in one sentence:

The genius of the pentecostal movement lay in its ability to hold two seemingly incompatible impulses in creative tension. (10)

Wacker shows how through a variety of topics (women, tongues, worship, war, testimony, etc.), pentecostals were able to be both primitivists (people who returned to what they considered the New Testament faith) and pragmatists (people who thrived in the world).

Context always influences research and Wacker is up-front with his. He was raised pentecostal but now identifies more broadly as an evangelical Christian. He confesses, however, that “in many ways my heart never left home” (x). He is neither a dispassionate sceptic nor a fawning hagiographer.

Now, a word about the context of this reviewer. I too was raised as a pentecostal and still identify as one—I pastor a Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada church. Wacker’s research opened my eyes to the origin of many of the quirks I have encountered over the years.

While reading Heaven Below, I was alternately inspired by my spiritual ancestors who bragged that “the color line has been washed away in the blood,” and disgusted at Parham’s racist insistence that black evangelist William Seymour sit outside the school by the open window so he could get the teaching without mixing his race with the whites inside. The same feelings held true with many other issues: women in ministry, poverty v. wealth, and pacifism v. war to name a few.

That God did something world-shattering in the early pentecostal movement is beyond question—its effects are still resonating throughout the entire word. I hope pentecostals of our day can take inspiration from our mothers and fathers in the faith while at the same time repudiating the errors that have become clear with the benefit of hindsight.


Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Fire from Heaven | Harvey Cox

The cover of Cox's Fire from HeavenFire from Heaven is one massive mea culpa! In 1965 Harvey Cox released The Secular City where he presupposed the arrival of a post-religious age. In the preface to Fire from Heaven, Cox acknowledged that now it is “secularity, not spirituality, that may be headed for extinction” (xv). The growth of worldwide pentecostalism is a major factor in this flip-flop of opinion.

For Cox, pentecostalism represents an outbreak of primal spirituality that had been repressed by the formalism of religion. Through the recovery of primal speech (glossolalia), primal piety (signs and wonders), and primal hope (endtime eschatology), pentecostalism has proven to be the form in which humanity’s latent spiritual desires took shape.

As a container for primal spirituality, pentecostalism is exceedingly adaptable. Cox shows how pentecostalism welcomes liberation theology in Latin America, shamanism in Korea, and even tribal healing practices in Zimbabwe. Far from being an achilles heel, Cox understands this tendency toward religious syncretism as pentecostalism’s great strength.

Fire from Heaven is part spiritual autobiography and part history. Cox’s willingness to pen his own thoughts adds a sense of genuineness to the story. This same autobiographical sense also colors his interpretation. In the chapter “Music Brought Me to Jesus,” Cox developed an extended analogy between jazz music and pentecostalism (Cox is a jazz saxophonist). While some of the points are fitting, there are a couple major flaws with this argument. First, the actual music of pentecostalism has always tended toward simple folk, roots, and rock styles. More importantly, jazz is highly a sophisticated form of music—an ethos in direct contradiction with pentecostalism’s underprivileged roots.

Another obvious flaw in Cox’s book is the way he only criticized North American pentecostalism. His examples deserved the criticism he delivered, but surely a more unbiased view might find reason to critique other expressions of pentecostalism outside the author’s continent.

Cox has delivered a highly readable interesting analysis of global pentecostalism. His central thesis, that pentecostalism is the vehicle for an outburst of primal spirituality, is thought provoking and could very well be true. Time will tell whether his conclusions in Fire from Heaven weather better than Secular City.


Cox, Harvey. Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1995.

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