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Neil Hudson, You Will Never Know Where You Are Going Until You Know Where You Came From: British Pentecostals’ past development and future challenges

The Assemblies of God eventually became a distinct group in 1924, after a failed attempt two years previously. The denomination was determined not to become a centralized group, wanting to preserve and safeguard the independence of local churches. However, the need for a new body was acknowledged if the Pentecostal distinctives were to be maintained and churches guarded from sliding into heresy by being disconnected from other assemblies. Although there was an early attempt to incorporate Elim’s vigorous evangelistic work into their new group, it was deemed too bold a step, the preference being expressed for two vigorous Pentecostal works in Britain rather than one larger body.

Each denomination viewed the others with slight suspicion. The Apostolic Church was felt to be fanatical by the Assemblies of God and Elim in its desire to be led via the prophetic gift and apostolic authority; Elim’s dependence on Jeffreys’ evangelistic gifts was viewed as being unhealthy whilst the Assemblies of God’s insistence on independence was believed to have led to an uneasy denomination. Needless to say, the new denominations led by highly charismatic figures, operating in the same towns and growing with the same types of people sometimes produced the unfortunate picture of competing meetings occurring on the same street at the same time.

The golden years for Pentecostalism were the late 20’s—1930’s, when the revivalists packed their tents, town halls and auditoria with people hungry for a revitalized spirituality.

Post-War Pentecostalism

However, the outbreak of the World War Two saw the diminishing of Pentecostalism’s vigour. Internal dissension led George Jeffreys to leave Elim and set up an alternative group that remained small and insular in its significance; the Assemblies of God and Apostolic Church had survived the period of suspicion, had seen churches develop and be established but would struggle to function in post-war Britain.

The desire for ongoing revivalism explained the ongoing attempt to recapture the past by enshrining the practices that had become ritualistic. The choruses that had been written to be used spontaneously to produce a non-threatening environment and introduced alongside the hymns were collected into bound songbooks. This ensured that the post-War generation found themselves destined to sing spiritual songs set to pre-war popular melodies. Healing, the successful means by which many came to faith, was no longer solely located in the revivalists, but in the local pastors who would advertise evangelistic meetings with the promise of miracles, even though these were less forthcoming than they had expected. The doctrine of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, for many years conflated with the subsequent experience of sanctification, became a doctrine that was preached, believed and expected but often the emphasis on tongues as initial evidence gave way to the gift of the tongues being centre-stage rather than the fuller experience of life in the Spirit. Expectant that the Lord would return at any time, Pentecostals became sectarian, whilst being suspected by many Evangelicals of being ‘holy rollers’.

The Sixties, shock and suspicion

The 1960’s proved to be a decade of shock for Pentecostals. In general society it was, of course, the decade when the world talked more about sex, permissiveness and youth than ever before, listening to the soundtrack of rebellion, epitomized by the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Within the small Pentecostal circles, it was a time when it became apparent that the Spirit’s work was being accepted in mainstream churches, something that would never have been expected previously. Initially the reports came from Anglican churches. John Collins, vicar at St. Mark’s, Gillingham, Kent, was the first Anglican parish to become a focal point for the Charismatic Renewal. His two curates, David Watson and David MacInnes would become leading figures in the Charismatic Renewal in years to come. The other figure that would have an impact on British Pentecostalism was Michael Harper, curate at All Souls and the first leader of the Fountain Trust, a service agency for the Charismatic Renewal.

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Category: Church History, Pneuma Review, Summer 2012

About the Author: Neil Hudson is a Pentecostal pastor who has worked in local churches, theological colleges, and is currently working with the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity as a church consultant and trainer. His most recent book is Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples (IVP, 2012).

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