D. William Faupel is director of library services at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Before joining the Episcopal Church he was a licensed minister in the Assemblies of God.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 17, 1990 pp. 938-941, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
In an extended review of Edith L. Blumhofer’s two-volume history of the Assemblies of God, D. William Faupel highlights the restoration motif in the denomination’s history.
Book Review: The Assemblies of God: A Chapter in the Story of American Pentecostalism (2 vols.) By Edith L. Blumhofer. Gospel Publishing House. Vol. 1: 464 pp; Vol.2: 256 pp.
On a spring day in April 1914, 300 Pentecostal saints met in the Grand Opera House of Hot Springs, Arkansas, to form the General Council of the Assemblies of God. According to the minutes of that council, they looked back to reflect over the course of events that had occurred since a revival at the Azusa Street mission in Los Angeles launched the Pentecostal movement eight years before. They rejoiced that "almost every city and community in civilization has heard of the Latter Rain outpouring of the Holy Ghost, with many signs following, and hundreds of missionaries have consecrated themselves and gone forth until almost every country on the globe has heard the message."
Though undoubtedly sincere, this assessment would have struck an observer then as an exercise in hyperbole. Today the same statement looks more like a prophecy of things to come: the Assemblies of God has been the fastest-growing denomination in the U.S. And although not the oldest Pentecostal denomination, the AG has taken the lead at every major crossroads the movement has faced and has been at the center of every controversy.
Until the early 1970s historians of Pentecostalism argued that the movement emerged ex nihilo at the turn of this century as an alternative to fundamentalism in protesting the modernist trend that was capturing mainline Protestantism. Like the historians, adherents of the movement had little awareness that Pentecostalism was a development of an earlier tradition. This perception began to change with the appearance in 1971 of Vinson Synan’s work The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement. Synan argued that Pentecostalism was an outgrowth of the 19th-century Holiness Movement, which in turn had its origin in the teachings of John Wesley.
In reaction to this argument, Edith Blumhofer’s doctoral dissertation, "The Overcoming Life," completed at Harvard in 1977, sought to broaden Synan’s version of the 19th-century origins. Tracing a line of development from Charles Finney and the Oberlin circle in the 1840s to the Keswick Convention in England in the 1870s and then to D. L. Moody’s Northfield Conferences in Massachusetts in the 1880s, Blumhofer demonstrated that the growing perfectionist movement within the Reformed tradition paralleled developments within the Wesleyan-Holiness lineage. Most of the early Pentecostal adherents who formed the Assemblies of God, she contended, could easily trace their theological roots back to the Reformed side.
More recently, Donald Dayton has shown in The Theological Roots of Pentecostalism (1987) that these developments in the Wesleyan and Reformed traditions were two wings of a larger movement taking place in 19th-century evangelicalism. A gestalt of four major doctrines concerning the work of Christ became the controlling center of the emerging theology. These doctrines were justification by faith in Christ; sanctification/Spirit-baptism as a subsequent work of grace; divine healing as part of Christ’s atonement; and the literal premillennial return of Christ at the end of the church era. Some in the Wesleyan tradition had a fivefold scheme, splitting the second doctrine into two separate experiences.
Grant Wacker is now making the case that Pentecostals saw the development of these five doctrines as part of a restoration scheme. They believed that beginning with Luther and the Reformation, God began restoring to the church truth which had been lost; Thus Wacker places the rise of Pentecostalism in the same cultural milieu as such diverse groups as the Disciples of Christ, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Seventh-day Adventism, all of which had their roots in a 19th-century restoration vision.
Although predating the work of Dayton and Wacker, Robert Anderson’s Vision of the Disinherited (1979) correctly identifies the premillennial return of Christ as the central focus which enabled Pentecostalism to emerge as a movement distinct from the earlier traditions. He notes that glossolalia was first seen as an eschatological sign signifying that a second Pentecost of the Spirit had taken place, bringing the church to a new and final dispensation, the era of the latter rain. During this final phase, Pentecostals believed, there would be a worldwide revival in which the nations of the world would have one last opportunity to hear the gospel and then the end would come. Early Pentecostals further believed that the gift of tongues which had been restored to the church bestowed actual languages which would enable them to speak in the languages of the nations.
The Welsh revival of 1904-5 set the stage for the emergence of Pentecostalism. Many of the Keswick and Holiness leaders stated in print that this was the latter rain that they had been expecting and confidently predicted that it would sweep the earth. When the revival spread to Los Angeles and was accompanied by the gift of tongues, the claim was made that this was the eschatological sign; the new era had truly dawned.
The fact that the Los Angeles revival grew out of a black church, that adherents proved unable to speak in actual languages at will, and that radical claims were being made typical of a newly formed millennarianist group prompted most of the leaders of the Wesleyan and Keswick traditions to reject Pentecostalism as spurious. This opposition merely served to fan the flames. By the time the initial Pentecostal revival began to die down three years later, the movement had been firmly established throughout the world.
Although adherents continued to believe that Christ could return at any time, it became increasingly apparent that he was not coming as quickly as most had anticipated. Some kind of structure was necessary if Pentecostalism was to preserve its gains. Many recognized the need for an umbrella organization and made plans to attend the Hot Springs council.
Two major criticisms, however, were leveled at the proposed meeting. Many were skeptical of any organization beyond the level of the local church. They interpreted the proposed council as an attempt to impose human organization upon a divine organism. Indeed, most of those who gathered at Hot Springs were equally concerned that they not establish another denomination. They defined the new organization as a voluntary fellowship of ministers who joined together for a common cause. Under the charter local churches were to retain complete autonomy, and no creed was adopted. Toward the end of the council a prophecy was given assuring those attending that their action had received God’s approval.
The second charge, leveled by Pentecostal leaders in the Southeast, concerned the doctrine of sanctification. Since 1910 a battle had raged over the Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification as a second definite work of grace. During the first four years of the revival everyone, for the sake of unity, embraced it as one of the five cardinal doctrines which God had restored to the church. However, many adherents who had come from the Keswick tradition felt uncomfortable with the teaching.
In 1910 William Durham of Chicago broke ranks, declaring that sanctification was accomplished in Christ’s "Finished Work of Calvary." This was apprehended by the believer at conversion by faith and was actualized in the life of the believer over a course of a lifetime. The Wesleyan doctrine of a second instantaneous crisis experience was denounced as a man-made doctrine.
Durham’s message caused a firestorm throughout Pentecostal ranks. In two years’ time he had won the allegiance of most Pentecostals west of the Mississippi. He returned to Chicago in 1912 to launch his campaign in the Northeast and in the deep South, the heartland of the Holiness-Pentecostal groups. Whether Durham would have been successful in this effort can never be known. He died before these campaigns could begin, leaving the Pentecostal Movement sharply divided between East and West.
The leaders in the Southeast refused to comb to Hot Springs, suspecting that it was an effort to complete Durham’s unfinished work. Though understandable, this view was probably wrong. The leaders of the newly formed AG were more interested in reconciliation so that they could establish a truly national fellowship. Two years later, when the AG adopted a "Statement of Fundamental Truths," the doctrine of entire sanctification was defined in such a way that both "Second Work" and "Finished Work" adherents could sign the document in good conscience. (However, the fundamental breach was not healed. Several Pentecostal denominations, such as the Church of God in Christ; the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee; the Church of God of Prophecy; and the Pentecostal-Holiness Church, whose base of support is in the Southeast, still retain the Wesleyan understanding of entire sanctification.)
The newly organized Assemblies of God immediately encountered a second theological crisis, which was also set forth in a restorationist context. The second person of the Trinity had been the focal point of the five doctrines restored to the church. Jesus was the Savior, Sanctifier, Baptizer, Healer and Coming King. Furthermore, as Pentecostals looked to the Acts of the Apostles in an effort to follow the apostolic patterns of the early church, they noted that converts were baptized in water in "Jesus’ name." As a result, it had been a common practice in the movement’s initial years to practice water baptism using either the trinitarian formula found in Matthew or the christological formula noted in Acts. A fresh revelation now came to some that Jesus was not the second person of the Trinity but rather the Name of God, who revealed himself as Father in the Old Testament, as Son in the New Testament, and as Holy Spirit in the church age. The message swept the newly formed fellowship as one leader after another embraced the new teaching, including E. N. Bell, the first general superintendent.
The controversy raged for two years, the final showdown coming in the 1916 General Council, where trinitarians won by a decisive two-thirds vote. J. Roswell Flower, general secretary and managing editor of the Pentecostal Evangel, led the fight for the orthodox position. He charged that the new teaching was a form of modal monarchianism, which had been condemned as heresy by the early church fathers. Patient argument and shrewd political maneuvering paid off, although the cost was heavy. Of 585 ministers, 156 withdrew from the fellowship, taking their churches with them. They would move on to found such "Oneness" denominations as the United Pentecostal Church and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.
The decision to exclude the Oneness teaching forever changed the nature of the Assemblies of God. Its leadership adopted a "Statement of Fundamental Truths," established a strong central executive and abandoned the restorationist understanding of church history.
External and internal battles over, the new denomination quietly withdrew into isolation, where it would remain for 30 years. Growth came slowly but steadily during this time. It took on more and more the characteristics of a denomination, strengthening its structures, sending forth missionaries, establishing Bible schools, and communicating with its constituents through the Pentecostal Evangel.
Following World War II, the Assemblies of God broke out of this isolation. They were invited to join the newly formed National Association of Evangelicals, a group of church bodies composed of the fundamentalist, holiness and Pentecostal traditions. Shortly thereafter they took a leadership role in founding the World Pentecostal Fellowship and its regional counterpart, the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America.
This shift did not come without opposition from some members. Several voices sounded the alarm that this trend represented a step backward, not forward -- a betrayal of the original aims of the denomination and as such a signal of accommodation with the world. In 1948 the protest took the form of a revival movement that came to be known as the New Order of the Latter Rain. The revival soon spread beyond the Assemblies of God to the larger Pentecostal context. Once again, restorationism provided the theological structures in which the revival’s message took shape. The leaders of the revival charged that the Pentecostal denominations had sold out. The revival signified that God was doing a new work in the world, and through this "New Order" he would establish his kingdom.
Once again, the Assemblies of God took the lead in responding to this challenge. The revival’s message was firmly rejected as heresy. Ministers and local churches who embraced the revival were forced to withdraw from fellowship. Other Pentecostal denominations followed the AG’s lead shortly thereafter.
Unlike the initial Pentecostal revival, the leadership of the New Order refused to organize beyond the local level in the face of this sustained rejection. As a result the revival spent its course by the mid-’50s and ceased to be visible. However, its message thrived in local congregations and in regional associations around the nation. By the ‘70s the New Order was providing the leadership for the highly visible Independent Charismatic Churches springing up across the land.
In the meantime, their newfound acceptance by other evangelical bodies proved to be a boon to the AG. The church flourished, membership grew, the missionary enterprise exploded, and the denomination’s social location was transferred to the middle class. The church received heightened visibility through the efforts of a number of evangelists who gained national attention in the ‘50s. As these evangelists developed radio and TV ministries, they began to win converts among Christians in mainline denominations, who opted to remain with their own churches. The groundwork had been laid for the emergence of the charismatic movement.
This turn of events forced the AG to rethink its stance toward mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The leadership has engaged in cautious but creative dialogue with several mainline denominations. It has sent observers to Faith and Order discussions of the National Council of Churches and participates in the Pentecostal -- Roman Catholic dialogues in Rome. At the same time the denomination has continued to strengthen its relationship with other evangelical groups. In the 1960s, for example, it adopted an inerrancy clause in its statement on Scripture in a show of solidarity.
This dual strategy has paid huge dividends. The denomination has gained visibility and respect across the theological spectrum. Much of its recent membership gains have been drawn from charismatics who have left their former churches to find a place of worship more compatible with their new experience.
As the Assemblies of God has matured, its attitude toward the larger culture has changed. The denomination was born in the midst of the Great War, and its leaders had viewed that conflict as the prelude to Armageddon. The male membership, for the most part, had declared themselves to be conscientious objectors. Thirty years later, the denomination was ready to defend the American cause in World War II. Its periodicals promoted the war effort and most of its sons volunteered. Not a few ministers served as chaplains.
In the ‘50s the AG established Evangel College in Springfield, Missouri, as its first liberal arts college. In the ‘70s it established a theological seminary. By the ‘80s many members were running for political office at the local, state and national levels.
The denomination’s maturity is perhaps best demonstrated in its increasing ability to be objective and introspective when reflecting upon its own history. As part of the celebration of its 75th anniversary, the leadership sponsored the publication of Edith Blumhofer’s two-volume history, a candid and at times probing appraisal of the denomination’s role in the larger Pentecostal context.
Blumhofer, who was on the faculty of the AG seminary when she published the history (she is now at Wheaton College in Illinois), devotes a full third of her text to the church’s prehistory. She draws heavily upon the recent scholarship mentioned earlier. In particular, she casts the emergence of Pentecostalism in the framework of the restoration theme. Citing an early Assemblies of God leader to this effect, she notes:
After years of careful study of primary sources, I am convinced that he was right. Other streams of nineteenth-century piety -- the diffuse holiness movement, German pietism, premillennialism, and higher life teaching -- intermingled in important ways in the Pentecostal subculture, each contributing an emphasis without which the movement cannot be correctly understood. Overarching all of them, however, was restorationism.
She makes a convincing case that restorationism was the embracing theme that held the early Pentecostal vision together. It is, in my judgment, the most valuable contribution of the work.
For the period from 1914 to the present, Blumhofer switches to the developmental model used by William Menzies in an earlier work, Anointed to Serve: The Story of the Assemblies of God (1971) She illustrates many of the points with fresh anecdotal material and brings into greater focus certain aspects of the history, such as the denomination’s response to the New Order of the Latter Rain.
Blumhofer’s most original contribution is her account of the role women have played in the denomination. While other scholars’ have noted that women had been’ active in ministry since the founding of the church, Blumhofer’s analysis reveals that the official position was at best ambiguous. Her critique is scathing. Women were given credentials to function as evangelists and missionaries but for years were denied the right to vote in General Council. They were forbidden to administer the sacraments. Seldom were they allowed to be the senior minister in a church. What few exceptions there were occurred when women survived the death of their minister husbands. Blumhofer sums up the general attitude: "Emphasis was always on woman’s responsibility, not her rights; on her service to the cause of Christ. not her leadership of it."
She concludes her work with a penetrating analysis of the forces which gave rise to the ministries of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. She sees in Bakker the long road the AG took from the rejection of popular culture to its identification with it. Swaggart represents the other side of the AG personality. Although he made use of the latest techniques of modern technology, he articulated the deep-seated yearning for an earlier age when the AG stood over against contemporary society. The public disgrace and moral failure of these two famous sons have called the whole denomination to sober reflection and have given its members a chance to integrate these polar urges.
It is precisely this unresolved tension, which runs throughout Blumhofer’s work, that needs further explication. The denomination came into being as a restorationist-countercultural entity. But from the moment of its inception, the AG has moved to embrace popular culture and to dissociate itself from its restorationist origins. Had Blumhofer used the restorationist framework to interpret the history of the denomination as she did its prehistory, the work would have been even more illuminating. For example, that the early leaders could denounce the church fathers as apostate one minute and then turn to embrace them the next in order to declare the "oneness" view of the Godhead to be heresy, was quite remarkable indeed. Restorationism has shown its creative but potentially destructive force repeatedly throughout the denomination’s history. How the AG has dealt with this phenomenon and how it should respond when it recurs in the future are two of this denomination’s largest issues.
The Assemblies of God will serve itself and the rest of Christendom best if it holds restorationism, with its counter-cultural themes, in creative tension with its desire to be part of the establishment. Restorationism, for all of its dangers, has been the fountainhead of this denomination’s life. If the Assemblies of God can embrace its origins, it is well positioned to be a mediating force and an agent of renewal to the rest of Christendom.