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What Meaneth This? A Question for 21st Century Pentecostalism

 

Winchester then described a new book he is writing on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As Pentecostals know, just days before the earthquake, a small band of seekers led by William Seymour met in Los Angeles. Winchester said it was “a very small meeting of an extremely flamboyant Christian movement known as the Pentecostalist movement that had pastors waving their arms and speaking in tongues. The leader said that God was going to give a sign.” On Wednesday April 18th San Francisco was devastated by the earthquake and in Los Angeles, and as Winchester describes it, “Thousands began attending the meeting and the Pentecostalist movement, which is still extremely important in the United States, was born as a result of this earthquake.”2

While we may question Winchester’s conclusion regarding the birth of Pentecostalism, we do know that the earthquake was significant to the Azusa Street leaders and attendees. Frank Bartleman, a first-person chronicler of the Azusa Street revival, observed in response to the earthquake, “A tremendous burden of prayer came upon me that the people might not be indifferent to His (God’s) voice.” The day after the earthquake Bartleman was in a prayer meeting when he and others felt the room shake in an aftershock felt in Los Angeles. By May 1st, in reply to the question, “Did God do that?”, Bartleman released 75,000 copies of his tract, “Earthquake.”3

I have been intrigued by this observation about the Azusa Street revival, the San Francisco earthquake, and the contemporary quest for meaning in light of the 2004 tsunami and the other issues of our generation. While there are numerous views, secular and religious, concerning the meaning, or lack thereof, of cataclysmic events in the natural world, it seems timely in that we have an opportunity to examine Pentecostalism at the beginning of this century with much the same framework as one hundred years ago and two thousand years ago.

Let’s not forget that two thousand years ago the first followers of Jesus responded to a series of events that impacted the natural world.

First, Matthew 28:51 records an earthquake when Jesus died.

Second, the disciples hardly had time to sort this out before Jesus, in N.T. Wright’s memorable phrase, “went through death and came out on the other side” 4 in the resurrection, again accompanied by what St. Matthew termed “a great earthquake” (28:2)—Jesus becoming the first fruits of a radical change in the molecular structure of human existence! Their graves already broken open by the Good Friday earthquake, “the saints who had fallen asleep were raised and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:51-53).

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Category: Living the Faith, Summer 2008

About the Author: A. Doug Beacham, Jr., D.Min. (Union Presbyterian Seminary), is the General Superintendent of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC Ministries). Twitter: @DougBeacham. LinkedIn. Facebook.

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