Pentecostalism is a global religious movement that focuses on the immediate experience and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. It is arguably the most important development in Christianity of the 20th century. Some see it as the third stage in the history of Christianity, from Catholicism to Protestantism to Pentecostalism. It may also be the fastest growing religion in the world today. The anthropological significance of Pentecostalism is that it is global and strongest in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, the traditional locales of most anthropological research. Anthropologists are involved in the flourishing, interdisciplinary field of Pentecostal studies, and have produced several ethnographic case studies.
According to “Acts 2,” in The Bible, the apostles of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem to mark the Jewish holiday of Pentecost, ” . . . and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” For centuries, Christians prayed for a New Pentecost, which many believed would herald the return of Christ and the beginning of a millennial kingdom of God on Earth, and there were occasional short-lived movements involving “speaking in tongues” and miraculous “gifts of the Spirit” such as prophecy and healing.
The Pentecostal movement of today is believed to be the product of a synthesis of the principally Methodist Holiness movement of the late 1800s, which was concerned with personal purity and piety, and more ecstatic African American spirituality. It is generally said to have its immediate genesis in two events. First, Charles Fox Parham, a white Holiness preacher, taught that the Holy Spirit could enable a true believer to speak in another language, and several of his students did speak in “tongues,” in the Topeka Revival of 1901. Second, William Seymour, an itinerant African American preacher who had studied with Parham, initiated the Azusa Street Revival of 1906-1909 in Los Angeles. The revival was a sensational event, drawing crowds of people and inspiring ecstatic behavior, particularly speaking in tongues, which became the defining characteristic of Pentecostalism and was understood to be the sign that a convert had experienced a “baptism in the Spirit” as well as a water baptism.
Originally, those who received the “gift of tongues” believed it was a natural language that would enable them to serve as missionaries to other peoples. In addition, they saw it as a sign of the imminent return of Christ, lending urgency to their missions. Almost immediately, converts fanned out across the world, establishing Pentecostal missions in approximately fifty countries in the first 2 years. They quickly, and of course disappointingly, discovered they could not actually speak other natural languages, although that did not prevent them from spreading a new Christianity, founded on an ecstatic engagement with the Holy Spirit, to the sick, the weak, the poor, and the disenfranchised in particular. Today, Pentecostals understand “tongues” as a “heavenly language,” not a natural one.
The Azusa Street Revival collapsed in 1909, as principal figures quarreled and separated, generating the first of a rapidly and endlessly proliferating number of Pentecostal churches, movements, sects, and denominations. Pentecostalism grew exponentially throughout the 20th century, tripling in adherents from 1970 to 1990. Today, estimates of the number of Pentecostals in the world range from 250 to 523 million people, accounting for at least 1 in 8, and possibly 1 in 4, Christians, and at least 1 in 25 people in the world. It is predicted that Pentecostals will outnumber Catholics and become the main form of Christianity in the 21st century. As two of three Pentecostals live in the nonwestern world, and over 70% are nonwhite, the rise of Pentecostalism is changing the global face of Christianity. Latin America has the largest number of Pentecostals, followed closely by Asia and Africa, then North America; Europe has by far the lowest number. Catholic Brazil has the largest number of Pentecostals of any country in the world.
Pentecostalism is often confused with two related movements, Fundamentalist Christianity and Evangelical Christianity. Fundamentalists believe in the inerrancy of scripture and reject the idea of supernatural gifts or charismata in this day and age, and Evangelicals believe that salvation requires a conversion experience of spiritual rebirth. Pentecostalism goes beyond them in emphasizing charismata or spiritual gifts, particularly speaking in tongues, as signs of conversion and it relies on divine inspiration and guidance in addition to scripture.
There are thousands of Pentecostal denominations. All scholars recognize two “waves.” First, Classical Pentecostalism refers to 660 denominations that developed in the West from the Azusa Street Revival. Second, Charismatic Pentecostalism refers to a Pentecostal movement in the mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, beginning in the 1960s. Some scholars refer to a “third wave” of newer, independent, Pentecostal-like churches that place less emphasis on tongues and generally do not call themselves Pentecostal or Charismatic. Some focus on “spiritual warfare,” believing that demonic spirits control the world. Others promote a “health and wealth” or “prosperity gospel.” Some scholars also include the huge number of independent, indigenous, Pentecostal-like churches of Africa and Asia in this third wave, creating a “catch-all” category called Neo-charismatics, the largest of the three types.
Pentecostalism focuses on religious experience and praxis rather than belief and doctrine. Pentecostals follow the “fourfold” or “four square” gospel of Christ as Savior, Sanctifier or Spirit-Baptizer, Healer, and Soon-coming King. They believe that a Christian is a person who has experienced salvation from sin and eternal damnation through a conversion experience that culminates in a baptism in the Spirit. The convert is a changed person, developing a personal relationship with Jesus and rejecting the satanic world of sin and suffering. Speaking in tongues is a sign of salvation, which often also leads to other “gifts of the Spirit” such as healing and prophecy. Pentecostals look to the Holy Spirit for divine guidance and assistance in their lives. They believe that problems may be due to demons, and rely on faith, prayer, and sometimes exorcism for deliverance from evil. Pentecostals are formidable proselytizers and take great pride in church growth. They also hold an apocalyptic, pre-millennial eschatology, believing in the imminent Second Coming of Christ when a godly kingdom called the Millennium will be established.
Sociology and Anthropology
The Azusa Street converts were largely poor, uneducated laborers who did not feel welcome in mainstream Christianity. Likewise, the movement has typically appealed principally to marginalized and displaced persons around the world, particularly migrants to rapidly growing cities. Classical Pentecostalism in the United States, however, gradually became middle class and is moving closer to Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christianity. Adherents in the Third World are still overwhelmingly poor and working class, but middle class support is growing there too.
Social scientists have been trying to explain the incredible growth and appeal of Pentecostalism, and the functions it serves. One simple factor is that Pentecostal services are typically exciting, energetic, cathartic, entertaining events. Pentecostals make very effective use of music and technology, and services in the larger congregations are often elaborate staged performances. Pentecostals are also incredibly effective at “harvesting” new souls for the church. Every member is expected to bring more to the fold. Each new convert is hailed as a victory for Christ. This aggressive evangelism, some have suggested, is a good training ground for the world of business.
Pentecostals are also said to have an organizational genius. It is generally a decentralized religion. Congregations typically enjoy much autonomy but also participate in an extensive network of voluntary fellowship with other congregations. Pentecostals around the world are increasingly linked by a transnational network of electronic communications, publications, missions, crusades, and globetrotting evangelists, drawing adherents everywhere into the globalization process. Pentecostal congregations enjoy a high degree of lay participation and control, which may promote democratic attitudes. The idea of the priesthood of all believers—that every Christian is capable of inspiration and has the right to interpret scripture—encourages an egalitarian attitude. Leadership, even at the national level, is usually indigenous rather than under the direction of foreign missionaries. Women are particularly prominent in the movement and may be attracted by the opportunities it offers for leadership and power.
Many scholars see Pentecostalism as a response to material and social deprivation and anomie. They argue that the movement helps adherents cope with radical changes generally associated with modernization or globalization, including rural-to-urban migration, the growth of mega-cities, bureaucratization, the expansion of capitalism, and urban poverty. The Pentecostal congregation is typically close-knit and very supportive, helping its members respond to daily needs and crises. The importance of healing, in the broad sense of solving individual problems, seems to be a major attraction for the poor. The strict discipline of Pentecostal morality produces sober, hard-working, honest, trustworthy, and dependable employees. Pentecostalism also seems to promote stronger and more stable marriages and families.
One of the most interesting facets of Pentecostalism, for the anthropologist, is that it adapts easily to any culture, absorbing much of the culture while at the same time demonizing indigenous religions. It is paradoxically both global and local. The Pentecostal movement is clearly a force to be reckoned with in the 21st century. It began as an otherworldly religion and has been largely apolitical, but there are signs of increasing politicization, which can only increase its influence on the local and worldwide scene.
- Anderson, A. (2004). An introduction to Pentecostalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Burgess, S. M., & Van Der Maas, E. M. (Eds). (2002). The new international dictionary of Pentecostal and charismatic movements, (Rev. Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Cox, H. (1995). Fire from Heaven: The rise of Pentecostal spirituality and the reshaping of religion in the twenty-first century. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Martin, D. (2002). Pentecostalism: The world their parish. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
- Robbins, J. (2004). The Globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity. Annual Review of Anthropology,33, 117-143.