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A Charismatic Looks at the Birth of Pentecostalism

Charles Parham and the theology of tongues

These two revivals give us a backdrop to understand the achievements of the Pentecostal revival that did succeed and was able to discern a way forward through its own temptations to false prophecy and exaggerated theology. For this we need to turn to pioneer of all of this, Charles F. Parham (1873-1929).[5] Parham was born to a rural family in Iowa, and as an infant had an attack of encephalitis which left him weak and stunted his growth. At age nine he contracted rheumatic fever which further weakened him. Thankfully his devout mother prayed for him continuously.

In 1890 Parham entered Southwest Kansas College, but the next year suffered a severe relapse of rheumatic fever. In a weakened state he overheard his physician say that he would die, and this brought him to intense prayer. Shortly, he began to recover. But it was an incomplete healing that left him partially crippled and with his ankles turned outward. Seated under an apple tree at Southwest he made a re-commitment to God to pursue the ministry and be obedient to God’s direction. Immediately he was healed and walked normally.[6]

Parham left Southwest in 1893 to become a Methodist pastor, and successfully pastored several Methodists congregations. But by 1895 he felt a call to pursue an independent ministry, dependent solely on God’s inspiration and direction. He came to accept the “radical” Faith-Cure position, that recourse to medication or doctors was lack of faith. He added faith healing to his preaching of salvation and holiness and in fact ministered many healings in his evangelistic efforts.[7] During this period he married Sarah Thistlethwaite, who would be his life-long assistant and co-worker, and with her help founded the Beth-el Healing Home in Topeka, on the model of healing home from the Faith-Cure movement of the 1880s.[8] The focus at Beth-el was to build up the patient’s faith so that his or her own prayers would result in healing. He also published a Holiness journal called Apostolic Faith.

In 1899 he read in another Holiness journal of a Christian missionary who received a special gift. She was able to open her mouth and speak in unknown tongues, and her audience in Africa could perfectly understand what she said in their native languages. This is similar to what happened to Peter in Acts 2:5-12.[9] This unusual spiritual gift is called “xenolalia,” by scholars, and it has been reported sporadically in both Catholic saint’s tales and Protestant missionary literature.[10] Later, Parham went on a twelve week tour of Canada and the U.S. to visit several Holiness centers. At his stop at a large Holiness church complex in Shiloh, Maine, he again heard an account of Holiness missionaries speaking in unknown tongues which the natives heard and understood in their own language.

These reports impressed Parham who had strong belief in pre-millennialism and the soon return of Christ. Parham combined these elements into a theological system. The Holy Spirit was about to pour out a new baptism on the Church which would enable missionaries to communicate the gospel with whoever they encountered, and demonstrate the power of the Gospel with healing. This combination would trigger an immediate and glorious world-wide revival, and in turn usher in the rapture and second coming. In Parham’s mind, tongues/xenolalia was the key and identifying mark of Spirit-baptism and of the end-times great missionary expansion.

Parham returned to Topeka at the end of 1899 and urged his students at Beth-el to seek the marks of Spirit-baptism. He guided them to study the book of Acts, and especially Acts 2. They reported to him that the single evidence for the reception of the Holy Spirit was the speaking in tongues. A night-watch service was called by Parham to usher in the New Year for Parham’s students and his local congregation. Parham recalled later what happened:

About 75 people beside the school which consisted of 40 students, had gathered for the watch night service. A mighty spiritual power filled the entire school. At 10:30 p.m. Sister Agnes N. Ozman, (now La Berge) asked that hands might be laid upon her to receive the Holy Spirit as she hoped to go to foreign fields. At first I refused, not having the experience myself. Then being further pressed to do it humbly in the name of Jesus, I laid my hands upon her head and prayed. I had scarcely repeated three dozen sentences when the glory fell upon her a halo seemed to surround her head and face and she began speaking in the Chinese language, and was unable to speak English for three days.[11]

We should note that Parham guessed that the tongues spoken was Chinese, since there are many languages spoken in China. Parham believed his theology was authenticated and that his discovery would usher in the great end-time revival immediately. Instead, it immediately caused opposition and negative publicity. There followed two years in the “desert” where he cultivated a small following and tried to spread the message of tongues as mark of Spirit-baptism. In Galena, Texas in 1903 he did trigger a local revival and it was there that tongues and divine healing were united into what we would recognize as a Pentecostal service. The Galena revival received some favorable local publicity, and Parham was able to lead further revivals in Texas and especially in the Houston area. There he settled and establish the “Houston Bible School” where he combined Holiness sanctification, divine healing, tongues and the pre-millennial end-times into a “Pentecostal package.” He also spread this theology via his journal Apostolic Faith.

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Category: Church History, Fall 2014

About the Author: William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include Quenching the Spirit: Discover the Real Spirit Behind the Charismatic Controversy (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015), and The Public Prayer Station: Taking Healing Prayer to the Streets and Evangelizing the Nones (Emeth Press, 2018). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He continues in his healing, teaching and writing ministry and is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations. Facebook

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