Were Early AG Leaders Anti-Intellectual?

From the beginning, the Pentecostal movement had a careful relationship with theology and the pursuit of education. Even today, many of my educated AG pastor friends are often frustrated with the way in which people within our fellowship are suspicious of education.  Roger Olsen speaks of the these attitudes.  He says, ‘Endemic to Pentecostalism is a profoundly anti-intellectual ethos. It is manifested in a deep suspicion of scholars and educators and especially biblical scholars and theologians.’[1] Some early Pentecostals rejected the need for education because they believed the Holy Spirit and the power of God was a greater validation of ministry than human approval. Elizabeth Sisson, a veteran missionary and evangelist who joined the AG in 1917, rejected the notion that she needed any credentials, education, or degrees to validate her ministry. She remarked,

You might hold all the offices of the church, and append to your name all the letters of the alphabet bestowed by all the universities of Europe and America, but these things of the power and learning and intellect of man will not release the demon oppressed, will not heal the sick, etc. But praise God, through the simple believer, under the power of the Holy Ghost, these things are wrought.[3]

Sisson’s application for credentials with the AG reveal this sentiment. When asked ‘have you been ordained and by whom?’ on the application, Sisson responds, ‘By the Lord.’

The problem with education for many Pentecostals was not the pursuit of knowledge; it was education at the expense of simple faith in Jesus and the Scriptures. The main concern was the way in which seminaries were indoctrinating its clergy in Higher Criticism. Denominational seminaries were believed to be guilty anti-supernatural bias the sought to ‘tear the blessed Book of Life to pieces’.[8]   A.G. Jeffries, a British AG evangelist, describes the situation.

For fifty years the American people have been cursed with head, and starved for heart preaching. Many churches have demanded of their ministers a classical education before ordination, and have made little or no demands of them along spiritual lines. It has been all head and no heart, and this very thing has brought on a spiritual dearth that has been and is appalling indeed.[4]

The return to heart Christianity over head Christianity was part of the lure of the Pentecostal faith.  Because of this, many late 19th Century evangelicals turned to the Bible School model where they emphasized spiritual formation as well as knowledge. Many early Bible schools boasted of having ‘No book but the Bible’ and ‘No teacher but the Holy Spirit.’

The reaction to modernism and education did not necessarily mean that Pentecostals were anti-education.  This is certainly the case when one looks at  Assemblies of God leaders.  Some of the most prominent early leaders of the AG were themselves educated in colleges and seminaries. These were not lay-theologians who were articulating a populist Pentecostal theology. [5] E. N. Bell, a well-educated Southern Baptist Pastor, held a bachelors degree from Stetson University and a seminary degree from Theological Seminary in Louisville  as well as spent 3 years at University of Chicago. J.R. Flower was not trained in theology but spent two years preparing for law career in Indianapolis. S. A. Jamieson was a ‘scholarly’ Presbyterian minister who spent nine years in Wabash College and Lane Theological Seminary.[6] Arch P. Collins did his training at Baylor University. T. K. Leonard spent two years at Findlay College, a Church of God institution. P. C. Nelson was trained at Denison University and later Rochester Theological Seminary where he trained under Augustus H. Strong.[7]

The first AG Bible school where subjects were taught including OT and NT interpretation, Church History, and Homiletics.

The relatively high level of education in many of the early AG leaders was vital to the preservation of the fellowship through several theological debates that took place in the first decade. These leaders had to formulate a doctrinal statement, defend the orthodox views of the Trinity, and articulate their Pentecostal distinctive.  Their ability to articulate sound theological views was greatly helped by the education they brought with them into the fellowship.

While some  still have the attitude that education is detrimental to Pentecostal Spirituality, there is a legacy in the AG of educated ministers and a commitment to higher education. In a future post I will share a bit about AG education and the origin of AG Bible schools. Hopefully this post is a reminder that attitudes about Pentecostals should always be understood in context.  While it is true that anti-education sentiment was part of early Pentecostalism, it certainly was not the whole story.  The AG benefitted greatly from the education level of many of its founders and early leaders.  It is part of our history. It is a part that I am grateful for and hope will continue to be important for this generation.

 

[1] Roger E. Olsen, ‘Pentecostalism’s Dark Side’ Christian Century (Mar 7, 2006), p. 27. See also Paul Lewis, ‘Why have Scholars Left Classical Pentecostal Denominations?’ AJPS, 11:1 (2008), pp. 69-86; William W. Menzies, Anointed to Serve (GPH 1971)p. 141.

[2] Sisson’s application for credentials reveal this sentiment. When asked ‘have you been ordained and by whom?’ on the application, Sisson responds, ‘By the Lord.’

[3] Elizabeth Sission, ‘The Coming Glory’ PE, (Nov 26, 1927), p. 2.

[4] A.G. Jeffries, ‘The Limit of Divine Revelation’ PE (Mar 18, 1916), p. 6.

[5] Spittler argues that ‘The tradition survives, however, in classical Pentecostal circles of esteemed pastors and church leaders producing doctrinal expressions.’ Spittler, ‘Theological Style,’ pg 299.

[6] S. A. Jamieson, ‘How a Presbyterian Preacher Received the Baptism’ PE (Jan 31, 1931) p. 2, Brumback, Like A River, pg 136.

[7] Gary B. McGee, ‘Nelson, Peter Christopher’ in Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements Ed. Stanley Burgess & Gary B. McGee (Grand Rapids, MI: 1988), 636-637.

[8] PE (Jan 20, 1920), p. 8.

[9] ‘Announcement of Bible School’ CE (Feb 24, 1917), p. 14.

[10] PE (Jan 10, 1920), p. 8; PE (Jul 10, 1920), p. 2; Brumback, Like A River, p. 87.

[11] ‘Pentecostal Bible Schools’ PE, (Mar 19, 1921), p. 9.

The AG and Black Heritage

During the month of February, I have read several great articles on Pentecostalism’s black heritage. Vinson Synan wrote about William Seymours’ role as the father of Pentecostalism.  Darrin Rodgers highlights 10 African American ministers that were in important to the AG and the Pentecostal movement.  David Daniel’s highlights what happened to the racial diversity in the Pentecostal movement.

color line

Leaders of the Azusa Street Revival

When you read these articles you realize just how diverse the Pentecostal movement was and how it began as a multi-racial movement.  Blacks and whites worshiped, prayed and ministered together.Many of the earliest leaders were African Americans.    The Assemblies of God owes a great deal to the African American leaders of Pentecostalism. There would be no AG without C.H. Mason and the Churches of God in Christ.  After Charles Parham was disgraced, members of Parham’s Apostolic Faith network needed to reorganize around new leaders.  Around 1910, several of those leaders such as Howard Goss and E.N. Bell approached C.H. Mason about offering COGiC credentials to their ministers.  For the next 3 years, several hundred white ministers held COGiC credentials and became the nucleus of what would become the Assemblies of God (See Word and Witness Dec 20, 1913, p. 4). Bishop Mason even attended several early AG General Councils.

bishop-c-1-h-mason-709x1024

Bishop C.H. Mason, founder of the Churches of God in Christ

Despite all of this, the AG has been predominantly made up of white Pentecostal ministers.  Why didn’t the AG stay COGiC?  Why has the AG been predominantly white?   Was it racially motivated?  Some have suggested that the AG was made up of  people associated with Charles Parham and some of his racist ideology. However, most of those who came out from Parham were the same ones that sought out Mason for credentials.  Some suggest that the strong presence of black pentecostal groups like the COGiC church in the midwest made it hard for the AG to be diverse. Some believe the AG was a group subject to its time and the cultural conditions and the racial relations in the midwest.

I can’t say race hasn’t been an issue in the AG.  I am sure it has played a part. But my research into the AG has left me with a couple of other factors that I think people overlook that I believe also may have contributed to the AG becoming predominantly white:

  1. In all my research through over 100 years of AG periodicals, I have yet to read anything that would suggest that the separation between black and white was intentional.  If there were racial motivations for leaving the COGiC or intentionally being a white Pentecostal group, they didn’t admit it.  Of course, I haven’t found anything about advocating for racial diversity either. Perhaps they avoided that issue all together because of the social tensions of their day.
  2. Prior to the AG, many of the AG founders were followers of William Durham and his ‘finished work’ orientation of just salvation and baptism in the Spirit.  Holiness groups believed in three experiences (salvation, sanctification and baptism in the Spirit).  Durham started preaching against holiness teaching on 3 works of grace which caused a bitter controversy between the finished work (which became AG) and other holiness Pentecostals. Mason’s COGiC church was a holiness organization.  This controversy began AFTER these men began issuing credentials to members of the Apostolic faith network.  It is likely that as the divide between the finished work and non-finished work grew, they grew more and more uncomfortable with being under a holiness organization.
  3. Mason’s COGiC church had a different polity than the AG wanted to have.  The AG was founded as a cooperative fellowship that desired to have no ruling governance (which of course was not sustained).  Each AG church was to be sovereign and independent.  Mason’s church had a presbyterian government with ruling bishops like many other holiness Pentecostal groups.  It is likely their founding of their own organization was as concerned with polity as anything else.

In the last 100 years, the AG has taken steps to become more diverse.  There are more African American ministers and fellowships in the AG today.  Progress has been made and there is more to do.  I am proud of what our General Superintendent George Wood has done to partner with COGiC leaders to foster greater racial empathy and understanding.  He has a worked to help our fellowship understand how we are to share in the conversation on race and culture. 

As we look back this month, I am thankful there was a group of men who were not afraid to reach out across racial lines to a Black Pentecostal leader in C.H. Mason for help when they needed it.  I am also thankful that Mason was willing to help those men, though it appears he gained nothing in return.  Even though they eventually parted ways, this is part of the AG story. I am thankful the influence of Black Pentecostal leaders. I am proud to be part of a movement that has honored our differences but encouraged the multi-ethnic vision of the Spirit being poured out on all flesh. I pray we will continue to work towards this vision.

 

What is an Evangelical, anyway?

Evangelical

There is a lot of discussion during the political season about what “evangelicals” will do as a voting block.   How do you know if you are an evangelical?  The reality is that the term ‘evangelical’ is a very difficult term to define.  It has historical, theological, political and social meanings.  My study of Pentecostalism has required me to try to understand the meaning behind the word.   I thought I share a somewhat simplistic guide to understanding some of the history of the term.

Prior to Protestant Reformation, there was basically only one church; The Roman Catholic Church.  The Protestant Reformation of Luther and Calvin was able to point believers back to the Bible as the source of faith and back to grace as the means of salvation.  The greek word for gospel is “evangellion.” In this sense, the Protestant Reformation was an evangelical reformation. Personal salvation and the Word of God were primary emphases.

 

A couple hundred years later, Protestantism had enjoyed periods of rise and decline.  In the mid-1700’s  a wave of revival came to Britain and America.  Revivalists such as WB-preaching-in-tentCharles Finney and John Wesley brought spirituality back to the declining church that had become too doctrinal and formal within protestant denominations.  This led to a revival  that once again emphasized conversion experiences and emphasis on biblical forms of Christianity.   During this time Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Congregationalists were all emphasizing personal salvation, holiness, Spirit empowerment and the expectation of the return of Jesus.  They also emphasized social action through the gospel. Many evangelical missions, orphanages, hospitals, inner city ministries, abolitionist, women’s voting rights and welfare programs were begun during this time.  Historian David Bebbinton characterized evangelicals during this period as:

  1. Bible centered – they emphasized the primacy of scriptural authority
  2. Christ centered – They emphasized the saving work of Jesus Christ
  3. Conversion Centered – they emphasized the born again experience of faith
  4. Action Centered – They emphasized the active work of the believer through holiness and social engagement.

By the end of the 19th century, nearly all the major denominations had an evangelical emphasis that included the sanctifying and empowering work of the Spirit, holiness and divine healing.  In the late 1800’s, Evangelical leaders like D. L. Moody, A. J. Gordon (Baptist), A. T. Pierson (Presbyterian), and A. B. Simpson (Presbyterian turned founder of Christian and Missionary Alliance) were all calling the Protestant church to embrace a ‘higher life’  evangelical spirituality.   Many of these leaders were writing books about being baptized in the Holy Spirit, Healing and Sanctification. They worked together across denominational lines, shared their various beliefs at Bible conferences, and engaged in social issues issues. Yet, they were still differentiating themselves from other Christians that they thought were less than committed to the Bible.

Now at this point, you would probably be comfortable with the label “evangelical.”  But wait, it gets more complicated moving forward.

At the start of the 20th Century, a great revival broke out among Wesleyan Holiness people that began to emphasis the Spirit, healing, miracles and speaking in tongues.  The Pentecostal movement was essentially an outgrowth of this Evangelical movement.  Though the theology differed between more Wesleyan holiness Pentecostals and more Reformed/Baptist Pentecostals, they all saw themselves in this stream of set apart evangelical believers who were called to bring people out of the formal churches and into a living faith with Jesus. Once this new Pentecostal movement began, many Evangelicals were forced to decide if they were going to accept these new tongue talking revivalists.  Many did.  But by 1910, some Evangelicals were already beginning to reject Pentecostalism’s claim that tongues were the evidence of the baptism in the Spirit.   Although Pentecostals thought of themselves as Evangelical, Evangelicals were not so favorable toward Pentecostals.  Rhetoric against Pentecostals grew in popularity as evangelicalism became less revivalistic and more cerebral.

Descent_of_the_Modernists,_E._J._Pace,_Christian_Cartoons,_1922Concurrent to the beginning of Pentecostal movement was the rise of Modernism within academia.  Evangelicals reacted to the Modernist method of denying of miracles of Jesus, the salvation experience and their adoption of evolution rather than believing the book of Genesis. To put in today’s language, modernists were what people today label as ‘liberals.’    In 1910, a group of evangelical scholars wanted to defend biblical christianity against the rise of modernism and liberalism by publishing a series of books called The Fundamentals that they sent free of charge to every church and minister they could reach.  This group of conservative evangelicals became known as “Fundamentalists” in the 1920’s.  However, the more this group emphasized correct doctrine, the more they pushed others away, including the ‘fanatical’ Pentecostals.  Whereas Evangelicalism had diverse opinions but tried to maintain unity, Fundamentalism became an ultra theologically conservative (primary Calvinistic), non-inclusive movement that retreated to isolationism from the growing secularism and modernism influencing the culture.  In the mid-1920’s, Fundmentalists officially rejected Pentecostals.  They were no longer welcome in the evangelical/fundamentalist family.  (For more on this check out this article). Whereas 19th century evangelicalism engaged culture and promoted the work of the Spirit, early 20th Century evangelicalism rejected the Spirit and isolated from the culture.  The list of heretical Christian groups began to grow and they rejected anyone who didn’t agree with them and labeled them with the liberal-modernist label.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s a resurgence of American identification with Christianity led a movement of many denominations with varying degrees of ties to fundamentalist sympathies began to join together to be more unifying and influential in American culture. The result was the National Association of Evangelicals.  Their goal was to agree on what was essential to Christian doctrine and principles. They also sought to recover America’s Christian identity. They affirmed basic Protestant doctrine but unlike Fundamentalism they allowed room for outliers such as the Pentecostals.  In fact, Pentecostals became a large part of the NAE.   They tried to distance themselves from the “fundamentalist” label because of the negative and combative connotations of the name.   Evangelical once again became a term that meant protestant Christian.  However, many of the mainline (more liberal) denominations did not join. So the divide between conservative and liberal remained.

time_evangelicalsIn the 1980’s there was a resurgence of political activism among Evangelicals.  Once again, they were ready to engage in a cultural battle with “liberals” and attempt to bring America back to the Bible.  The 1980’s saw the rise of the Moral Majority, Right to Life,  Conservative Christian Colleges, mega churches and influential Christian leaders like Pat Roberson, Jerry Fallwell, James Dobson who were conservative theologically and emphasized political activism above social activism.  During this decade, so called evangelicals (born again christians) were mobilized to issue oriented voting which eventually culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan.  With Reagan, the Evangelical vote became the central block of the Republican party.   Prior to 1980, evangelicals could be found within both Republican and Democrat parties.   However, now Evangelical came to mean politically conservative Christian voter.  Candidates for office at local, state and national level had to assure the public they were ‘born again.’  That continues today as Republican candidate Donald Trump courts the Evangelical vote by assembling his team of evangelical leaders and the recent news that Trump has been “born again.”  No Republican candidate today can win without the so called ‘evangelical’ vote.  As you can see, today the label has become less theological and more political in orientation. It still means ‘born again’ protestant believer, but it means more than that.  Many theological traditions that made up 19th Century Evangelicalism are no longer welcome in that category because of political positions, even though they may still have evangelical theological positions.  Today that term has been reduced to simply a political categorization.  This is way many (primarily younger Christians) have rejected this label and are critical of evangelicalism.

As you can see, the name ‘evangelical’ has gone through many different shades of meaning.  Perhaps you might find yourself more or less comfortable with the label.  Of course the history is much more complex than I am able to describe here. Even so, I hope this description at least helps you understand the term better so you can decide for your self if you are in fact an ‘evangelical.’