The Role of Experience, Rationalism, and Narratives in Early Pentecostalism

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An ounce of testimony is often more helpful to hungry hearts than a pound of doctrinal teaching.139
A.S. Copley
God, the church, and the world are tired of listening to these modern preachers while they whittle intellectual shavings and theological chips. They want REALITY, a message from under the Throne, delivered by one who opens his mouth to be filled by God, with burning, clinching truth. This message is now going forth.140
Charles Fox Parham
The strength of Pentecostal traditioning lies in its powerful narratives. Through their “testimonies” of God’s great work Pentecostals have quite successfully spread their experience to the masses…Unfortunately, for much of their history Pentecostals have been better at telling their story than explaining it to their children.141
Simon Chan


This thesis has now explored several of the key attributes of Postmodernism, particularly as it relates to Christianity. In describing Postmodernity as a philosophical movement which has rejected rationalism, placed high value on the role of experience, as well as narratives as means of communicating that experience, we have necessarily began the process of noting the convergent viewpoints between Postmodernity and Pentecostalism.
Without doubt, all of human life is built upon experience, as we encounter the world in which we live, react to what we discover, and interact with those around us. Modernism has downplayed the importance of experience, particularly in terms of an epistemological approach to defining truth. Through Modernism, reason became King; truth could not be discovered except through the cerebral cortex of the brain. Pentecostalism was born in part out of a reaction against Modernist trends within the Christian community142, and as such, placed high value upon the role of experience in the Christian life, and rejected the exaltation of reason as the arbiter of truth in the Christian context. Writing of the predecessors of Pentecostalism, Rick Nañez notes:
…The giants of nineteenth-century evangelicalism preached to the masses, witnessing the rebirth of hundreds of thousands of souls. As the lost were wooed down sawdust trail, they deposited their sins – and often their intellects – at the foot of the altar, returning to their seats with the two commodities most prized among American believers – Jesus and their feelings.”143
As will be further demonstrated, contra the Postmodernist, early Pentecostals did employ the use of a metanarrative to bring coherence to their self-understanding, but like Postmoderns also relied heavily upon community- based sharing of personal “stories” or “testimonies.”


The late Eighteenth century witnessed a dramatic increase of interest in the person and work of the Holy Spirit among Christians who had heretofore expressed little interest in the third person of the Trinity. Indeed, as C.I. Scofield was to point out:
We are in the midst of a marked revival of interest in the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. More books, booklets, and tracts upon that subject have been used from the press during the last eighty years than all the previous time since the invention of printing. Indeed, within the last twenty years more has been written and said upon the doctrine of the Holy Spirit than in the preceding eighteen hundred years.144
Early Pentecostals were not necessarily known as great theologians. In fact, many early Pentecostals were anti-intellectual,145 and were not shy about asserting the fact. However, some observers are surprised to note just how prolific these early Pentecostals were in terms of the various newspapers, magazines, and books, which were produced with the express purpose of explaining this new outpouring of the Holy Spirit.146 In the years following Azusa, Pentecostals were very concerned to try and make some sense out of their new experience, and were thoughtful in their responses to the question asked of them, as it was of Peter at Pentecost: “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12). Significantly, there is therefore an abundance of primary literature available. For example, from 1906-1908 William J. Seymour edited a newsprint publication entitled, “The Apostolic Faith.” This monthly offering included articles by several Pentecostal leaders of the time, as well as testimonies of what God was doing at Azusa, and throughout the world. In 1915, Seymour published “The Doctrines and Discipline of the Azusa Street Apostolic Mission of Los Angeles, Cal. with Scripture Readings,” a compendium of the theology and practices of the Azusa mission to that point in history. 147
Charles F. Parham was equally prolific, publishing Kol Kare Bomidar: A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (1902) and The Everlasting Gospel (1911), to explain his views on Christian doctrine, including the Pentecostal experience.
Others such as George Floyd Taylor, David Wesley Myland, Ambrose Jessup Tomilson, and Joseph Hillary King each published works in the ten years following the initial Azusa outpouring, outlining his own beliefs and practices associated with this new movement.148
Douglas Jacobson, in his work Thinking in the Spirit, argues that early Pentecostals, while attempting to follow the predominant model of Protestant systematic theology in their explanations, recognized the need to bring experience and words together in a manner that was uniquely Pentecostal.
Most leaders of the early Pentecostal movement were, of course, suspicious of theology done in the traditional way. Too often, they thought, theology had lost touch with the Spirit and had become dry and brittle, incapable of conveying the living truth of God’s love to anyone. William Seymour, for example, cautioned the members of his Azusa Street Mission against getting caught up in merely “talking thought” lest the power of God decline in their midst….At the same time, each [leader] was convinced that thought was a necessary part of Pentecostal faith – theology was necessary and unavoidable. 149
These authors never implied that they had to give up part of their Pentecostal faith to write in a systematic and logical manner, and there is no evidence that their relatively systematic style of writing forced them to set aside certain Pentecostal topics simply because they didn’t fit logically with everything else. They were writing as Pentecostals to Pentecostals for Pentecostal theological purposes while trying to be just as thorough and systematic as their non-Pentecostal peers.150
From this early literature, we are able to determine the attitudes of early Pentecostal leadership towards the role of experience in the newest outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the place of reason in determining truth from error, as differing doctrines and explanations swirled around the new movement. This chapter will survey the writings of some of the earliest Pentecostal leaders, and present their views on the place of experience and reason within Pentecostalism.

Charles Fox Parham

Charles Parham may rightly be called the Founder of Pentecostal theology, for it was he who first developed the distinctive Pentecostal doctrine of glossolalia as the initial evidence of Spirit-baptism151. For Parham, tongues-speaking was the necessary evidence that one had been baptized in the Holy Spirit; without this evidence, one could not consider the experience valid. 152 He states that, “Speaking in other tongues is an inseparable part of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit distinguishing it from all previous works; and no one has received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit who has not a Bible evidence to show for it.”153
Parham was born on June 4, 1873 in Muscatine, Iowa, and encountered numerous health problems very early in life. He contracted a virus as an infant, which left his growth permanently stunted, and at the age of nine was stricken with rheumatic fever, a condition which left him weakened for the rest of his life. Following several brief pastorates, Parham founded a Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, concerning which he states:
Its unique features and teachings became subjects of the daily papers throughout the land. Its only textbook was the Bible; its only object utter abandonment in obedience to the commandments of Jesus, however unconventional and impractical this might seem to the world today.154
Having been influenced by various Holiness teachers concerning the doctrine of Spirit-baptism, Parham directed his students to Acts 2, in search of a verifiable proof for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. “The purpose of this study was to discover the real Bible evidence of this Baptism so that we might know and obtain it, instead of being confused by the chaotic claims of modern Holy Ghost teachers”.155 On January 1, 1901, one of his female students, Anges Ozman, experienced the expected glossolalia as the “Bible sign” of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit.156 Shortly thereafter, Parham and 34 of his other students had a similar experience. By 1905 Parham had launched another Bible school in Houston, Texas, as an outlet for his preaching of the Pentecostal message.
Among his notable students during this period was William J. Seymour, who was to become the leader of the Azusa Street outpouring in Los Angeles one year hence.157
Parham’s thoughts on the place of experience within Pentecostalism and his own rejection of rationalism are woven throughout his published works.
Having been raised in a home with few books, Parham considered himself fortunate, for he grew up “with no preconceived ideas, with no knowledge of what creeds and doctrines meant, not having any traditional spectacles upon the eyesto see through.”158 Jacobson notes:
He was convinced that he, unlike many of his peers, brought no interpretive scheme to the Bible at all. He simply believed what the scriptures actually said and later in life he mused that his naïve ability to read the Bible fairly and accurately without any warped preconceptions had helped him ‘weather the theological gales’ that had driven so many others into error.159
One of Parham’s contributions to Pentecostal theology, which speaks of his rejection of rationalism, was his strong belief in xenolalia. God would speak through believers, via tongues, in whatever human language was needed to complete the missionary thrust of God before Christ’s soon return. All believers who were properly Spirit-baptized received this ability in small measure, although only those who were called to foreign places of service would develop the full gift of a foreign language. Missionaries could cease wasting time with language courses, and minister directly to those in need:
How much better it would be for our modern missionaries to obey the injunction of Jesus to tarry for the same power; instead of wasting thousands of dollars, and often their lives in the vain attempt to become conversant in almost impossible tongues which the Holy Ghost could so freely speak. Knowing all languages, He could as easily speak through us one language as another were our tongues and vocal chords fully surrendered to His domination.160
Although subsequent Pentecostal missionary experience proved Parham’s theory of xenolalia to be misguided, his views on the subject show the extent to which early Pentecostal leaders had shaken off the shackles of Modernity, and embraced new forms of thought and doctrine entirely unsupported by scientific evidence.
In the years following the Azusa Street outpouring, Parham continued his work as a tireless promoter of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of tongues. Very often, he was challenged by those he described as well educated, belonging to established and respected congregations. Parham’s description of such challenges is telling:
A Baptist preacher said to a friend of mine: “Now don’t become crazy about this. I have been through college, and I know it is impossible for anybody to speak in other or foreign languages unless he has learned them.” This preacher had a Ph.D., D.D., and L.L.D., on the rear end of his name and a Rev. in front of it. My friend came to me in trouble and said: “What shall I do about this?”
I challenged that preacher to come to my school for just one week. I promised him a post-graduate course that would enable him to put another degree on the end of his name. I would have gotten him so humble before God, and so willing to let God use him, that he would have come out of the post-graduate course with A.S.S. on the end of his name. Could I have gotten him to become as humble as was Balaam’s mule, God would have talked through him in tongues.161
Parham felt little need to debate correct hermeneutical approaches when discussing his “Bible evidence” for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Nor did Parham wring his hands because support for Spirit-baptism was found not in the didactic teaching of St. Paul, but in the narratives of Luke alone. For this early Pentecostal leader, the proof that tongues was the sign of Spirit-baptism could not have been more plainly defended than Scripture had already recorded.
“Remember, that it is an incontrovertible fact in Scripture that the Holy Ghost of promise was, and is today, accompanied with speaking in other tongues.”162
While scholars today might smile at such a strong assertion with little or no theological support, such was the norm for early Pentecostal leaders. After all, the Holy Spirit was given as a glorious tool of witness, not to provide scholars a new topic of debate:
The present Pentecost is not only given as the sign of a believer, the sign to unbelievers, the power to witness (prophesy) only in your own language, but in other tongues as the Spirit giveth utterance, but in those last days the Holy Spirit is sealing in the forehead and bestowing the power so that we can sing, pray, and preach “in the Spirit” as a “gift of tongues,” not a “gift of brains.”
God, the church, and the world are tired of listening to these modern preachers while they whittle intellectual shavings and theological chips. They want REALITY, a message from under the Throne, delivered by one who opens his mouth to be filled by God, with burning, clinching truth. This message is now going forth.163


William J. Seymour

William J. Seymour was born on May 2, 1870 in Centerville, LA, the eldest son of Simon and Phillis Seymour. Raised in poverty during his childhood, by the time of his father’s death in 1891 he had left Louisiana for work up North, in cities such as Memphis and Indianapolis. Seymour worked at various jobs during this period, including as a porter, and bartender. It was during his stint as a waiter in Indianapolis that Seymour was converted and joined the local Methodist- Episcopal church. 164 Following this, Seymour appears to have spent a brief period in Chicago, where it is hard to imagine that he did not come into contact with the racially progressive teachings of the great faith healer John Alexander Dowie.
By 1905, after several years of evangelistic and other Christian ministry, Seymour connected with Charles Fox Parham, who accepted him as a student in his Houston Bible School. Due to local segregation laws, Seymour was only permitted to listen to the lectures from the hallway outside the classroom. In February, 1906, Seymour received an invitation to pastor a small Holiness Mission in Los Angeles, and armed with Parham’s Spirit-baptism theology, arrived in Los Angeles shortly thereafter. Finding himself quickly locked out of the new church by its Holiness founder who was not enthusiastic about his new teachings, Seymour began a series of Bible studies at the home of Richard and Ruth Asbury at 214 Bonnie Bray Street. Within weeks, several of the participants, including Seymour, had experienced the Baptism of the Holy Spirit with the “Bible evidence” of speaking in tongues.166
Soon, Seymour was forced to look for more spacious accommodations, and quickly settled upon the former sanctuary of an African Methodist Episcopal Church at 312 Azusa Street. The revival at the Azusa Street Mission burned brightly until mid-1908, and arose once again in 1911, but thereafter ceased forever. At its peak, the small Mission would be packed to capacity by the faithful, those seeking their own Pentecostal baptism, and critics who had come to solidify their opposition to this noisy and undignified movement. From Azusa Street, the Pentecostal message and experience spread rapidly throughout the earth.167 As the pastor of the Azusa Street Revival, Seymour effectively oversaw the revival that spawned the Pentecostal movement today. As such, his thoughts on the role of experience and place of reason within the Christian faith are extremely important.
In general, leaders of the Azusa revival such as Seymour were not enamoured with theology; indeed, the official publication of Azusa Street, The Apostolic Faith, explained that the new Pentecostal message had clearly not been given to the outstanding academics of the time, but was accessible to the most ordinary and uneducated seeker.
There have been those who have sought for the baptism and could not get it, because they did not come humbly as a little babe. They did not give up their doctrines and opinions; they did not empty out so they could get the filling. This is not revealed to our great theologians.168
For his part, Seymour recognized that sound Biblical doctrine was essential to the preservation of the revival, but struggled with those who attempted to explain theologically something which, in his mind, was an experience given by God to whosoever will. This barely-educated preacher was unwilling to join those who wished to abandon doctrinal purity, and simply experience unity through the experiences of the Holy Spirit. “They say, ‘Let us all come together; if we cannot be one in doctrine, we can be one in spirit.’ But, dear ones, we cannot all be one except through the Word of God.”169 Again, Seymour contends: “We are measuring everything by the Word, every experience must measure up with the Bible. Some say that is going too far, but if we have lived too close to the Word, we will settle that with the Lord when we meet Him in the air.”170
While striving for doctrinal purity Seymour nonetheless realized that the Pentecostal Baptism was not a matter of knowledge or education, but ultimately of hunger and faith. Theology had its purpose, chief of which was to ensure doctrinal purity. When it came to the precious Baptism of the Holy Spirit, however, Seymour and the leaders of Azusa saw little need to analyze theologically what was taking place. Again, one can quickly see that discussions concerning the validity of supporting this new experience from the narratives of Acts were never entertained. In fact, many leaders were of the impression that too much analysis would actually hinder the Spirit from moving as he desired. Seymour, writing in The Apostolic Faith paper, declared:
When we received the Baptism of the Holy Ghost, the power came down in such a mighty way, and after a time people began to consider and got us to talking thought. But what are we that will put straps and bands on the Holy Ghost, when the Lord comes and finds and thrills us with the Holy Ghost? Just because it is not our power shall we quench it and hold it down? Let us be free in the Holy Ghost and let Him have right of way.171
Seymour’s personal preaching style betrayed a simple man with a hunger for God. An eyewitness described the preacher and his message: “He was meek and plain spoken and no orator. He spoke the common language of the uneducated class…The only way to explain the results is this: that his teachings were so simple that people who were opposed to organized religion fell for it. It was the simplicity that attracted them.”172 Commenting in one of his sermons on those preachers who boasted of their credentials and new places of worship, Seymour declared:
…the main credential is to be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Instead of new preachers from theological schools and academies, the same old preachers, baptized with the Holy Ghost and fire, the same old deacons, the same old plain church buildings will do. When the Holy Ghost comes in He will cleanse out dead forms and ceremonies, and will give life and power to His ministers and preachers, in the same old church buildings. But without the Holy Ghost they are simply tombstones.173

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George Floyd Taylor

George Floyd Taylor (1881-1934),174 was also a passionate spokesperson for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, with the special evidence of glossolalia.
Originally a preacher in the Holiness movement, Talyor came into contact with G.B. Cashwell,175 and accepted the testimony of his personal experience of Spirit-baptism at Azusa. Becoming heavily involved in the Pentecostal Holiness Church, Taylor continued to preach and teach Pentecostal Spirit-baptism, with a certainty amid a clear lack of concrete proofs that would elicit shock from those of a rationalistic mindset. Again, in Taylor’s writings, one does not read detailed expositions and exegesis from key Acts’ passages to support the doctrine of glossolalia as Initial Evidence.
In a passage describing what he believed were seven key operations of the Holy Spirit and the manifestation that accompanied each, Taylor admits that errors might be found in his description of the first six manifestations; individual experiences may vary with his stated view. Readers should feel at “liberty to rearrange these manifestations if they choose.” However, “When we come to the manifestation following the Baptism of the Spirit, we have a ‘thus saith the Lord.’” In the view of this early Pentecostal leader, the Scriptures were clear, the testimony of the earliest believers was clear, and he had the correct interpretation: “The manifestation following the Baptism is speaking with tongues!”176 In his discussion on Taylor, Jacobson concludes:
Taylor asserted, perhaps more unconditionally than any other Pentecostal theologian, that everyone who received the Baptism of the Holy Ghost would speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. He allowed no room for dialogue on this matter, and he rejected the idea that any other corroborating criterion should be added to the mix.

Table of Contents
Key Terms
Chapter I Introduction
1.1 Problem Stated
1.2 Definitions and Limitations
1.3 Pentecostalism and Postmodernity: A Desirable Relationship?
1.4 Thesis Defined
1.5 Practical Theology
1.6 Summary
Chapter II Postmodernity – A Brief Summary
2.1 Introduction
2.2 Postmodernism – An Overview
2.2.1 Premodernity
2.2.2 Modernity
2.3 Postmodern Philosophers
2.4 Varieties of Postmodernism
2.5 Postmodernity – The Key Tenets
2.6 Postmodernism and Evangelicalism – A Critique
2.7 Conclusion
Chapter III The Role of Experience, Rationalism, and Narratives in Early Pentecostalism
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Early Pentecostal Experience and Rejection of Rationalism
3.3 The Pentecostal Story: The Metanarrative of the Latter Rain
3.4 The Pentecostal Story: The Importance of the Testimony
3.5 Summary
Chapter IV Late Twentieth-Century Pentecostal Hermeneutics: More “Evangelical” than “Pentecostal”? The Test Case of Gordon Fee
4.1 Introduction
4.2 General Hermeneutical Principles of Gordon Fee
4.3 Hermeneutics and Pentecostal Theology
4.4 The Pentecostal Response
4.5 Conclusion
Chapter V Postmodernity, Pentecostalism – and Rudolf Bultmann
5.1 Introduction
5.2 The Life and Times of Bultmann
5.3 Demythologization
5.4 Bultmann’s Legacy – The Jesus Seminar
5.5 The Bultmannian Legacy and Postmoderns
5.6 A Pentecostal Conclusion
Chapter VI Pentecostal Hermeneutics for the Twenty-First Century: A Proposal by Kenneth Archer
6.1 Introduction
6.2 Introduction to Archer’s Book
6.3 Chapter One
6.4 Chapter Two
6.5 Chapter Three
6.6 Chapter Four
6.7 Chapter Five
6.8 Chapter Six
6.9 Evaluation and Conclusion
Chapter VII The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics: The Pentecostal Edge?
7.1 Introduction
7.2 The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics: A Deafening Silence
7.3 Why must the Holy Spirit be Involved?
7.4 How does the Holy Spirit aid in Illumination?
7.5 A Distinctive Pentecostal (and Postmodern) Hermeneutic: Four Options
7.6 Experiential Verification: The Pentecostal Edge?
7.6.9 Summary
7.7 Conclusion
Chapter VIII Conclusion and Contribution
8.1 Summary and Conclusion
8.2 Contributions of this Study
8.3 Implications of this Study and Areas of Needed Research
Cited and Consulted Words

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