American Pentecostal Pioneers

The Pentecostal movement is by far the largest and most significant Christian movement in the world today. It began in 1901 with only a few students in a Bible School in Topeka, Kansas and now numbers around 250,000,000 denominational Pentecostals with another 250,000,000 charismatics, or ‘neo-Pentecostals.’

Although the modern Pentecostal movement traces its beginnings to the United States, it owed much of its basic theology to earlier British Perfectionist movements. For information on these see the British Pentecostal Pioneers section of this website.

The initial Pentecostal churches were produced by the holiness movement prior to 1901 and, though they were notional Pentecostals rather than experimental adherents, their theology and hunger inevitably led to the experience of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. 

The first "Pentecostals" in the modern sense appeared in 1901 in the city of Topeka, Kansas in a Bible School run by Charles Fox Parham, a holiness teacher and former Methodist pastor. Significantly, on January 1, 1901, a young lady called Agnes Ozman was baptized in the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues. Within a few days about half the student body had received the Holy Spirit with the evidence of tongues.  Through the press and Parham’s campaign ministry the Pentecostal message was widely disseminated.

It was not until 1906, however, that Pentecostalism achieved worldwide attention through the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles led by the African-American preacher, William Joseph Seymour. When a student of Parham, he was invited to pastor a black holiness church in Los Angeles in 1906. This is where the Spirit broke out in great power and for over three years, the Azusa Street "Apostolic Faith Mission" conducted three services a day, seven days a week, where thousands of seekers received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and spoke in new tongues.

Soon the American land was awash with Pentecostal preachers who propagated the renewing and refreshing message of Pentecost.

Many visitors to Azusa Street  returned home to start new movements and denominations. Gaston B. Cashwell brought three entire groups into the Pentecostal stream. Charles Harrison Mason founded the Church of God in Christ, which, by the 1990’s was by far the largest Pentecostal denomination in North America, claiming some 5,500,000 members in 15,300 local churches. William H. Durham came from Chicago to Azusa and then led thousands of mid-western Americans and Canadians into the Pentecostal movement. His "finished work" theology of gradual progressive sanctification, which he announced in 1910, led to the formation of the Assemblies of God in 1914. By 1993 the AG had over 2,000,000 members in the U.S. and some 25,000,000 adherents in 150 nations of the world.

Others like Frank Bartleman, Florence Crawford, John G. Lake and F. F. Bosworth were powerfully used of God to spread the message around the nation and then the world during those great days. It is on their foundation that the Pentecostal movement was built and it was their legacy that inspired Pentecostals through the 20th century to revive the fires and see the movement spread over the entire globe. Further successive waves of the Spirit brought new personaliteis in their wake - Aimee Semple McPherson, Kathryn Kuhlmann, Oral Roberts William Branham and a host of others.

Bibliography: Vinson Synan, The Century of the Holy Spirit, Chapters 1 &2, 2001.

Tony Cauchi
March 2009

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