What is Pentecostalism?

Pentecostalism is a Holy Spirit movement which was born in the global networks established by evangelical and revivalist missions during the 19th century, and which has since spread out of Protestantism into other Christian traditions, and that out of its originating locations (India, North America, Wales, Scandinavia, Korea, Australia) to become one of the most prominent forms of Christian faith around the world. Originally a missions and healing movement, which sought for divine empowerment for the fulfilment of God’s mission in the world in what were then considered to be the “last days”, members were drawn from the holiness, Methodist, revivalist, restorationist, and other Christian streams by their seeking after a ‘restoration’ of the manifestations and presence of the Holy Spirit as described in the New Testament Book of Acts. A “social movement” rather than a particular church, Pentecostalism is united largely through a common spiritual experiences, and an orientation towards biblical activism.  While conservative socially and theologically, Pentecostalism includes a very wide range of social, theological and political views, and is not conclusively represented by any one denomination or school of thought.

Where did Pentecostalism start?

While it has been a commonplace to identify the beginnings of Pentecostalism with the outbreak of the Azusa Street revival in North America (1906), in fact Pentecostalism is one of the earliest truly global forms of Christianity, commencing in many places before emerging as a loose, mutually recognizing movement of churches, denominations, and individual ministries. Before the Azusa Street breakout, there were significant Pentecostal ‘origins’ in Portland, Victoria (1870), Italy (1896), Cherokee County, North Carolina (1896), Wales (1904), India (1905), Scandinavia (1907) and Korea (1907), etc., most of which were not connected directly to Azusa Street, but which shared a common holiness experientialism which interacted with local needs and conditions. Sitting at the centre of emerging American interests in the Pacific, extensive missionary and communications networks, Azusa Street became symbolic of this broader movement, but in no way was the actual point of origin. The dominance of American literature has tended to portray Pentecostalism as American religion. As British sociologist, David Martin has pointed out, to portray Pentecostalism as exported American religion is ‘very misleading’:

Pentecostalism was in some ways multicentered in its origins, but … the now famous revival led by William Seymour, an itinerant black preacher, in Los Angeles in 1906 was a formative event. … [Its] combination of American black and white spirituality enabled Pentecostalism to cross any number of cultural barriers and become indigenous in countries all over the developing world. To talk about its expansion in terms of an “American export” seriously distorts what has happened and is happening, and betrays a gross ignorance of a vast literature detailing the various ways in which Pentecostal religion has adapted to its surroundings. In an important sense, its black American origins pre-adapted Pentecostalism to Africa, where people often find it more “authentically” African than mainstream Protestantism. (David Martin, ‘This Just In’, Commonweal, June 5, 2009).

In the words of Joseph Creech, Azusa was a symbol, a mechanism for expansion, not a point of genesis. (see http://www.calvin.edu/nagel/resources/files/CreechASCH07.pdf)

Where did Australian Pentecostalism start?

The key points for the origins of Australian pentecostalism seem to be:

  • 1853 – the arrival of the first Catholic Apostolic Evangelist (Alfred Wilkinson) in Melbourne, presaging the foundation of a network of churches and communities (particularly important in the education, arts and wine industries), which practised charismatic gifts, but declined through the expiration of the movement’s Apostles. It seems possible that some of these (e.g. E. S. Tooth) joined pentecostal churches as these formed from 1910 onwards.
  • 1870 – the Portland, Victoria, outbreak among Methodists under Joseph Marshall, which connected to mainstream pentecostalism through family links in Adelaide and Melbourne. There is reason to believe that charismatic outbreaks among Methodists and Salvation Army communities were not uncommon in the period 1870-1910.
  • 1882 – John Alexander Dowie, the Scots-Australian Congregationalist minister, who may have been influenced by Catholic Apostolics in Edinburgh during his period of study there, begins emphasizing divine healing in Newtown. He later operated centres in Melbourne, and Zion City, Illinois. Many of those who were Dowie-ites later became pentecostals, and his influence would return to Australia in the 1910s through the disciples of one of his members, John G. Lake.
  • 1907-9 – about this time, Thomas Ames commences an independent Pentecostal work in Adelaide
  • 1909: Foundation of Good News Hall, North Melbourne, the first ‘continuing’ pentecostal church in Australia.  The major influence on its founder, Sarah Jane Lancaster, seems to have been A. A. Boddy, in England.
  • Two critical points in Pentecostal continuance were the 1924 Macknade revival in Queensland, and the 1926 Sunshine Revival in Melbourne.