I believe no religion is growing as quickly or with such potential to fundamentally reshape politics and geopolitics as Pentecostalism. In this blog and the next, I want to share a little about this transformative religious movement. Today we will focus on its founding, early growth and key characteristics. In the next blog, we will explore the substantial implications this has for world politics because, in recent decades, some developments have made Pentecostalism especially potent in the political realm. Let’s start at the beginning.
The Founding of Pentecostalism
In 1905, a religious supernova occurred in Los Angeles. There, William J. Seymour, an African-American preacher, launched a religious revival where Seymour and others began “speaking in tongues.” This refers to speaking a language the speaker does not know. This miracle occurs at Pentecost in the New Testament but in Los Angeles, Seymour and others said this power had returned. There had been rare similar claims elsewhere but Seymour’s revival made the front page of the Los Angeles Times, he published a newspaper spreading the news and people flocked to Los Angeles and then brought these ideas back home with them. Pentecostalism was born.
Speaking in What?
Pentecostals speak in tongues, meaning they are uttering words from a language they do not actually know. The first adherents thought they were speaking foreign languages and so many went abroad as missionaries convinced the locals would understand them. When they arrived, they realized no one understood them.
They were not deterred. They reinterpreted the language as heavenly rather than earthly and continued to evangelize. It worked. Boy did it work. Pentecostalism spread across the globe quickly. In Korea, there were 150,000 converts within just three years. People were mesmerized by this display of miraculous power and by the ability to have it occur to them. But that was not all…
If you wish, you can see American preachers speaking in tongues at this link. Note this one includes translation which is not commonly done. Photo credit: screenshot from YouTube at previous link.
In the New Testament, early Christians spoke in tongues but they also healed people. Since the gift of tongues had returned, many also believed the power to heal had returned. America was ripe for this idea owing to New Thought, the 19th century American notion that your ideas determined things like your health and prosperity (advocated by prominent folks like Ralph Waldo Emerson amongst others). New Thought taught mind over matter literally. This easily led to Pentecostals saying the mental state you needed was to trust in Jesus and you would be healed miraculously. Early Pentecostals even denounced doctors (they do not anymore). They healed people everywhere they went which continues today in places like America, the Philippines, Nigeria and Brazil.
Post WWII, this New Thought influence took a new direction. If mind conquers matter and if believing Jesus would heal you could cure illness, what else might it do? Some said it would help you get that new job or promotion. It would help your kid get into college. It would help you get rich. Pastors like Oral Roberts spread this idea which really took off during the 1980s economic boom. This “Prosperity Gospel” advocates “name it and claim it” meaning say what you want, believe God will make you victorious and indeed it will happen. Especially controversial is that this prosperity gospel is often linked to seed-giving – the idea that tithing to the church plants a wealth seed that will blossom into wealth for you. These pastors become very wealthy…which just shows God does indeed bless those who trust in him.
This American innovation has become a very successful export as the prosperity gospel has converted millions in Africa, East Asia and Latin America.
God not only promises heaven, he promises good things now too including health, wealth and good fortune.
Joel Osteen, America’s most watched minister, preaches the prosperity gospel. His wealth shows how blessings come to those who trust God will reward them. Photo credit: Familymedia.tv
Pentecostalism typically thrives amongst the marginalized. Its worship services are ecstatic, emotional affairs that create meaningful experiences. The Holy Spirit might even allow you to speak the language of heaven however low your station on earth. It will heal you when doctors or broken states fail you. And it promises wealth and success. It’s miraculous, powerful, and energizing and it promises success over illness, poverty, demons, and death itself. See how God has blessed your pastor? God has blessed him and he will bless you too.
The tradition began in an unremarkable church in Los Angeles just a century ago yet, today, Pentecostals may outnumber Buddhists. The Roman Catholic Church has been helpless to stop the bleeding as it loses followers in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere to the Pentecostals. Indeed, some Catholic churches are emulating Pentecostal practices by holding evening healing services with testimonials and miracles.
In the next blog, let’s look at politics because Pentecostalism might be the most politically significant religious movement on the planet right now. It is truly reshaping our globe.
Photo credit: Canva.com