Review of Edith Blumhofer’s “The Assemblies of God: A Popular History”

1870 – 1900: Fundamentalists, Spirit Baptism, and Divine Healing

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the writings of Charles Darwin were persuading the liberal churches to abandon beliefs in the supernatural, embrace evolution theory, and criticize the Bible. The majority of Protestants accepted these views, so much so that their churches came to be called “mainline” denominations. Blumhofer - AG Popular HistoryThe fundamentalist movement rose up in protest against this movement, being led by R. A. Torrey, who eventually edited a collection of writings called The Fundamentals (1910-1915). Torrey and his friend D. L. Moody were champions of the early fundamentalist cause; but at the same time, they were influenced by the holiness movement, the Higher Life movement, and the Keswick movement: all of which taught that it is possible to be baptized in the Holy Spirit and have more power to live holy and do ministry. Torrey published The Baptism with the Holy Spirit in 1895. They viewed it the same way that Charles Finney had 25 years earlier in 1870 when he co-authored Asa Mahan’s The Baptism of the Holy Ghost and The Enduement of Power: Spirit baptism was only viewed as an enduement of power for service. No tongues or miraculous gifts were involved in this view. It was primarily centered on experiencing more of the fruit of the Spirit, the ethical side of the Holy Spirit. 

A. B. Simpson founded the Christian & Missionary Alliance in 1887. He too preached about the baptism in the Holy Spirit, and living up until 1919, he played an important role in nurturing the fundamentalists and Pentecostals of the early 1900s into these views on the Holy Spirit. In his book The Holy Spirit (1899), the title of chapter 2 was “The Baptism with the Holy Ghost.” Torrey and Moody had more in common with A. B. Simpson than they did with Calvinistic cessationist theologians like B. B. Warfield. Torrey, Moody, and Simpson all believed in Spirit baptism and divine healing; and prayed for healing miracles to happen in their church services. They were cautiously charismatic fundamentalists. Some of the divine healing books of the era were Charles Cullis’ Faith Cures (1879), A. J. Gordon’s The Ministry of Healing (1882), A. B. Simpson’s The Gospel of Healing (1885), and Andrew Murray’s Divine Healing (1900). Moody died in 1899, leaving Torrey as the leader of his church and Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Torrey, after years of praying for healing, eventually published Divine Healing (Moody Press, 1924). This was a major part of the theological background that nurtured the Welsh Revival (1904-1905), the Azusa Street Revival (1906-1909), the early Assemblies of God (founded in 1914), and early Pentecostal healing evangelists like Smith Wigglesworth (d. 1947) and F. F. Bosworth (d. 1958). While fundamentalist theology was an evangelical reaction to liberal theology, the divine healing movement was an evangelical reaction to the Christian Science cult, founded in 1879 in Boston. Coincidentally this was the same city that Charles Cullis operated his healing ministry and same year that he published Faith Cures. All of the healing ministers and authors above saw themselves as following in Cullis’ footsteps. For more about the pre-Pentecostal development of Spirit baptism and divine healing, see chs. 4 and 5 in Donald Dayton’s The Theological Roots of Pentecostalism.

1900 – 1916: Speaking in Tongues and the Assemblies of God

Charles Parham, a man of various contradictions and strange beliefs, was an independent healing evangelist during the late 1800s. He believed pretty much the same way that Simpson, Torrey, and Moody did about Spirit baptism and divine healing. But he still felt that some important aspects of miraculous gifts were missing from modern Christian experience. He felt that the experiences in the book of Acts had not been fully restored. He had heard about a man named Frank Sandford who had a religious community in Shiloh, Maine. Parham went there in good faith, not knowing at the time that Sanford was an abusive authoritarian leader. During his visit, however, he saw some people come out of a prayer tower and they were speaking in tongues. Parham was convinced that the only way to recapture the miraculous gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, was to experience this element of speaking in tongues (see Vinson Synan’s The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition, p. 90). He began to set up temporary Bible schools for holiness people who were interested in experiencing some deeper things in God. The first of which was rented at a fine looking mansion called Stone’s Folly in Topeka, Kansas. He called it Bethel Bible College: it operated for no more than one and a half years, from 1900 through 1901.

In December of 1900, he challenged his students to search the Bible for clear and indisputable evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. After personally seeing the people at Shiloh speak in tongues, and after having wondered if there was more to Spirit baptism than merely claiming it by faith as most in the holiness movement were doing, he asked his students to come to him with their findings. He left the school for several days on a trip and came back. They had all reached an agreement: the only real evidence of Spirit baptism that they could find in the Bible that was clear, indisputable, and definite–was the aspect of speaking in tongues: “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4); “On the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God” (Acts 10:45-46); “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). From these three Scriptures they established the doctrine of “initial evidence”: later the keystone belief of the Azusa Street Revival, the Assemblies of God, and all Pentecostal denominations. It is the teaching that speaking in tongues is the only clear, indisputable, initial, physical evidence that someone has been baptized in the Holy Spirit.

A. B. Simpson and people in the Christian & Missionary Alliance begged to differ; and so did R. A. Torrey, who later said the Pentecostal revival was “emphatically not of God, and founded by a sodomite,” referring to Parham’s later fall into homosexuality (see Vinson Synan’s In the Latter Days, p. 77). The CMA and Torrey remained theoretically open to speaking in tongues, but believed there were enough moral experiences to prove an experience of Spirit baptism without tongues. Blumhofer says, “Alliance leaders virtually excluded tongues-speaking from their movement: They adopted the position that tongues should neither be sought nor forbidden” (p. 33). To differ with the CMA, might I reply that this idea appears to contradict 1 Corinthians 14:5: “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues.” Everyone else in the holiness movement rejected tongues as totally demonic, siding with the view in Alma White’s Demons and Tongues (1910). Agnes Ozman was the first person to speak in tongues at Bethel Bible College. Parham had never spoken in tongues himself, but she asked for him to lay his hands on her and pray to be baptized in the Holy Ghost and speak in tongues, as in Acts 19:6. And it happened to her; then it spread to the other students, and eventually to Parham. It was Parham’s confused, eccentric ministry and eclectic way of thinking that allowed for such religious experimentation. Despite his personal failings and gross imperfections, we can be thankful that he at least played his role in passing the tongues teaching on to the much godlier William J. Seymour, who led the Azusa Street Revival from 1906 to 1909 and really popularized the Pentecostal experience on a global scale. More about that in Frank Bartleman’s How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles (1925).

After the Azusa Street Revival was over, Pentecostal churches were mainly non-denominational and independent, scattered across the United States. Eventually two Pentecostal magazine editors came together, E. N. Bell and J. Roswell Flower, and rallied together a loosely knit Pentecostal alliance which they decided to call the Assemblies of God (AG). In 1914, they got large enough to where they incorporated as a denomination and eventually used Gospel Publishing House as their denominational headquarters in Springfield, Missouri. It was here that they printed the Pentecostal Evangel and their books. The AG became the largest Pentecostal denomination because they accepted William Durham’s teaching of a Baptistic progressive sanctification, empowered by a Pentecostal Spirit baptism, evidenced by speaking in tongues. All of the other Pentecostals believed in a Wesleyan entire sanctification, which kept the rest of the Protestants at a distance. The traditional Protestant view of holiness is gradual and nothing more. The AG’s acceptance of this gradual view of holiness made it easier for other Protestants to become Pentecostals by joining the AG. They also formed their Statement of Fundamental Truths in 1916 to keep the anti-trinitarian “oneness” Pentecostals out of the movement, and preserve orthodox evangelicalism.

1921 – 1948: GPH, Stanley Frodsham, and Smith Wigglesworth

As the AG began to grow, so also did its various ministries and institutions. The first was Gospel Publishing House (GPH), which came to be headed by Stanley Frodsham from 1921 to 1949. Frodsham was already an author of various articles in the British Pentecostal paper Victory, and had been aware of Smith Wigglesworth. He moved to Springfield, Missouri to be the chief editor. In my view, the Assemblies of God lived through its healthiest, most revivalistic times, during the period that Frodsham was editor. He had a sensitivity to the issues of Pentecostal experience. He also wrote the biography Smith Wigglesworth: Apostle of Faith (1948). However, I suspect that this book got him into some trouble with AG leaders, because general superintendent E. S. Williams was not a fan of Wigglesworth, mainly because he would sometimes hit people while praying for them. In 1949, Frodsham left the AG and became involved in the non-denominational Latter Rain Revival. He too felt, that by then, the AG had lost its desire for miraculous gifts. The view of AG leadership at the time might be summarized by this statement on Wigglesworth:

I had heard a thing about his oddities; and I didn’t feel swell about it. So I got three or four of my elders in my car, and we drove up to New York, and heard him one night, and we drove back to Philadelphia. And he’d get over your nose, funny things, and he’d hit ya. (He might hit where you’re hurt if you went down for prayer.) It didn’t appeal to me; but I told (my elders), “You look over here” (look at him hitting people). So after the meeting, they said, “We don’t want it.” They didn’t want him. Yeah. So, I didn’t have any close contact with him. I’ve nothing to say too much in his favor other than he was a kind of an eccentric man. And nothing against him, because he may have had some wonderful things take place…he’s a “legend,” but that’s a bit much, I think (“1979 Interview with E. S. Williams,” 58:40 – 1:01:23).

So, I think its safe to say that the AG leadership distanced themselves from Wigglesworth, because of his eccentric habit of hitting people during his meetings. The fact that he was non-denominational might have had something to do with it too. But there was a love-hate relationship towards him. His books are the most popular AG books. His Ever Increasing Faith (1924) is an AG classic on miraculous gifts. But when the Latter Rain Revival happened, accusing the AG for their anti-charismatic attitude, and for their institutionalism, even Frodsham had to agree–so much so that he left the AG. I won’t defend Wigglesworth’s “hitting prayer” eccentricity. I’ve even heard that he gave up the practice. But look at all of the supernatural ministry that is written about him! I haven’t seen anything like that written about E. S. Williams or any AG superintendent. Were they jealous and skeptical of the miraculous claims of Wigglesworth? Perhaps their jealousy, fear, and suspicion fueled their skepticism and lack of spiritual hunger.

Smith Wigglesworth was clearly the leader in miraculous gifts during that time period; but the top AG leaders didn’t even want to give him a chance to have dialogue and be used more for God’s glory. But it seems that lower level AG leaders did, especially in Great Britain, as he was invited by them to conduct a number of healing meetings. During this period, the AG leaders associated with E. S. Williams started a radio ministry, and some Bible colleges, but I would ask, “What good is that if you can’t even recognize a true prophet like Wigglesworth when you see one?” Ralph Riggs might have had some experience with miraculous gifts, as he seems to show an in-depth knowledge of them in his book The Spirit Himself (1949). He served in various AG leadership capacities, eventually becoming general superintendent from 1953 to 1959. But who knows the name of Riggs outside of AG circles? Pharisees tend to climb the ladder in religious organizations, but prophets always end up on the outside, even though they adhere to the religion claimed by that organization more fanatically and strictly than those who wrote up the Statement of Faith (more on this in Margaret Poloma’s The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads: Charisma and Institutional Dilemmas). I don’t know if Riggs was a Pharisee or a man of God. But Jesus said, “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in Heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23). At least Frodsham managed to publish some Wigglesworth books while he was at GPH.

Foreign missions and home missions  began to grow in the late 1920s and 30s as the financial support gradually increased in the AG. But at first, many of the AG missionaries were sent out on faith and lived in total poverty. Home missions, or evangelistic projects in the United States, were focused on church planting, ministry to the deaf and handicapped, Native American reservations, evangelism to the Jewish people in America, prison evangelism, and church planting in Alaska; also, David Wilkerson’s Teen Challenge, the Pentecostal drug rehab program mentioned in The Cross and the Switchblade (1962), was eventually absorbed into AG’s home missions department (pp. 85, 87). During World War II in the 1940s, most of the people in the AG were pacifists, but there was a trend towards soldiers and military chaplains coming from the AG. While many American men had to join the Army, many American women, including those in the AG, had to join the workforce; and this changed the economic landscape in America, as well as the image of a traditional family. With all these changes going on in the natural realm: AG departments, World War II, women joining the workforce, etc: by the time Wigglesworth died in 1947, many of the new converts and young people in the AG had never seen a healing; and the AG was in a period of “declension,” definitely needing a Pentecostal revival. In this same year, a twelve year old AG boy by the name of Elvis Presley was learning about the world in Memphis, Tennessee. Ten years later, he would demoralize America’s youth with his sexually provocative style of rock music.

1948 – 1952: The Latter Rain Revival and the Healing Revival

In the beginning of 1948, a Pentecostal revival began in Canada called the Latter Rain Revival, which was inspired by the word of knowledge and healing ministry of William Branham. There were several attributes about this revival (p. 95):

1. They rejected the AG and all Pentecostal denominations as dead and backslidden.

2. They believed the AG had lost its miraculous gifts, because they had compromised with the world.

3. They rejected the AG’s form of church government–Presbyterian polity–and favored an independent congregationalism.

4. They believed in prophetic ministry through the laying on of hands, impartation of miraculous gifts, and giving words of knowledge. Strangely, to this day the AG rejects the idea that miraculous gifts can be imparted by the laying on of hands (this goes against Acts 19:6, one of the key Pentecostal verses).

5. Sometimes, Latter Rain prophets would have revelations that they considered to have equal or greater authority than the Bible. One of these ideas was the infamous “manifest sons of God” idea: the view that some super-Pentecostals would rise out of the Latter Rain Revival and experience immortality, do miracles greater than the apostles in the book of Acts, and hasten the return of Christ.

6. Sometimes, Latter Rain healers’ emphasis on healing and deliverance stemmed from an arrogant delusion of grandeur, that they were super apostles.

Faced with these challenges, the AG replied with an article denouncing the “New Order of the Latter Rain” in 1949. That same year Stanley Frodsham, the chief editor of Gospel Publishing House, left the AG and joined the Latter Rain Revival. He probably aligned himself with the more sober-minded revivalists. (I think if I were living in those times, then I would probably follow Frodsham’s lead as well. Even today I have seen a lot of the same “deadness” problems in Pentecostal denominations; and the “aliveness” of prophetic ministry in non-denominational charismatic churches.) Obviously, there is no excuse for the “manifest sons of God” idea or the grandiose title mongering of the word “apostle,” but all of the other aspects of this revival appeared to be pure. At the same time, the Healing Revival gained national publicity through television broadcasts as William Branham, Oral Roberts, and Jack Coe preached and prayed for thousands of people in their gospel tents. By 1952, however, Branham and Roberts started to preach different heresies and their influence died out. Roberts left us the ungodly legacy of the prosperity gospel, later to be featured nonstop on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). Jack Coe died in 1956. The Healing Revival also featured many other Pentecostal evangelists, brought together through Gordon Lindsay’s The Voice of Healing magazine; and Lindsay also put together a 513 page book on miraculous gifts called Commissioned with Power. The Healing Revival, did however, have a positive influence on the Assemblies of God pastors. Many more of them began to pray for the sick in their churches (p. 99).

1920s – 1960s: The AG and Youth Ministries

Youth ministry ideas really had their start in the AG during the late 1920s among California pastors. They would have Pentecostal youth rallies and eventually a Pentecostal youth magazine called The Christ’s Ambassadors Herald. This was pretty much the trend in the ’30s and ’40s as well, with their youth rallies growing in popularity. Speed-the-Light was a sort of YWAM type AG youth missionary endeavor that involved fund raising for AG missionary airplanes and other equipment. (My understanding is that YWAM, or Youth With A Mission, branched off of this in 1960; and became a farther reaching endeavor open to young people from all denominations. The AG’s response to YWAM seems to have been Ambassadors In Mission, or AIM, in 1966 for short-term mission trips.) Campus ministry began in the 1950s under the name of Chi Alpha (originally abbreviated CA and then to XA); and had a magazine called Campus Ambassador. Campus ministries really grew in size during the 1960s. Royal Rangers and Missionettes (comparable to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts involving community service projects), focused on K-12 boys and girls respectively, were developing in the ’60s also; as did Teen Challenge, a youth-oriented drug rehab ministry founded by David Wilkerson, and related in his book The Cross and the Switchblade.

The 1960s: The AG and the Charismatic Movement

In the 1960s, David du Plessis and David Wilkerson, both AG ministers, and both with the name “David,” incidentally enough, played major roles in influencing the charismatic movement in the mainline liberal churches. Du Plessis was especially more cooperative with them and paved the way for charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church. Wilkerson’s influence came through his book The Cross and the Switchblade (1962) and by getting invited to speak at charismatic conferences. Dennis Bennett, the Episcopal priest, also showed that he was influenced by AG theology when he articulated his view on miraculous gifts in The Holy Spirit and You (1971), particularly things related to Wigglesworth. But the AG leaders generally rejected the charismatic movement, because although many claimed to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, they stayed in liberal theology, and did not embrace the holiness lifestyle of the AG. The remaining, lingering question to all charismatics was, “So, when are you going to join an AG church?”

The Decline of Pentecostal Revival Experiences in the AG Churches

By the late ’50s, many AG leaders saw that their numbers were dramatically decreasing; and that Pentecostal revival experiences were being replaced by institutionalism, respectability, and spiritual complacency. In my view, this probably had to do with a decrease of holiness-related and evangelistic Gospel preaching, as it always seems to be the reason why evangelical revivals decline and fade away. David Wilkerson, in a number of his sermons, indicated that the AG had become a dead institution, which is why he broke ties with the AG after he founded Times Square Church. I spoke to an AG district superintendent in 2012 when I was once again reconsidering ministry with the denomination. He told me that an AG pastor’s job is to get people saved and an AG evangelists’ job is to get them speaking in tongues; that they keep statistical records of how many people speak in tongues in their churches; and that the more property and the more tongue-speaking there is going on in a church, the better it is–and that these are the marks of success for an AG pastor. Would you believe it if I told you that I decided not to be an AG pastor that day? When any evangelical church stops placing the emphasis on repentance preaching, Hell, and the moral law of God–that church is no longer in a state of revival. That’s my conclusion. And when any Pentecostal church stops placing an emphasis on the baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, Pentecostal worship, words of knowledge, and praying for divine healing–that church is no longer in a state of revival. Writing in 1985, Blumhofer said of AG membership, “Some are Pentecostals in name only, never having experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit” (p. 143).

For those who are students of revival, I’d have to say that after the 1950s, the charismatic or Pentecostal experiences spread into the Charismatic Movement through Dennis Bennett, Larry Christensen, John Sherrill, and David Wilkerson’s influence–stretching through the 1960s. In the 1970s, you saw the appearance of more non-denominational charismatic churches, with Derek Prince, New Wine Magazine, and the shepherding movement leading the way in all things charismatic. Kathryn Kuhlman’s healing ministry also got a lot of attention on TV during the ’70s. Then in the 1980s, it was John Wimber and the Vineyard churches, headquartered at what is now called the Vineyard Church of Anaheim. (The AG in the ’80s, however, had the sex scandals of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker to deal with.) Mike Bickle, author of Growing in the Prophetic, and founder of what is now called IHOP-KC, used to be a Vineyard church, and has played a big role in bringing words of knowledge back into charismatic churches–this is now called “prophetic ministry” and there are several other names associated with this: Jack Deere (Surprised by the Voice of God), Steve Thompson (You May All Prophesy), Larry Randolph (Spirit Talk), Jim Goll (The Seer), and John Paul Jackson (The Biblical Model of Dream Interpretation). In my view, the last great evangelical revival in the United States was also a Pentecostal one, and an AG one at that: the Brownsville Revival, from 1995 to 2000, led by Steve Hill. The New York Times took notice in 1997 with their article: “In Florida, a Revival That Came but Didn’t Go.” But that same superintendent that I had spoken to before, also told me that the AG leaders shut down that revival for one simple reason: they didn’t like people shaking. Once again, respectability and complacency killed the fires of revival. One can only hope that another revival like the one in Brownsville will hit the AG, and that next time, the leaders won’t let respectability and complacency get the best of them.

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