Early Beginnings of Pentecostal Worship

Pentecostalism grew out of the Holiness movement, and thus drank deeply from the populist movements in Methodism and Baptist and African-American circles. Charles Fox Parham (1873–1929), is usually credited with the beginnings of the movement. He was born in Muscatine, IA, and claimed a revelation of light at age 13. Parham associated with Methodism, but rejected their hierarchy, and moved toward holiness theology. He broke with Methodism in 1895 and established his own ministry, Bethel Bible College, in October 1900. He emphasized “primitive Christianity.” 

An easy error for a historian to commit is to equate or link events or movements in history that are similar, while ignoring or underplaying their differences. One example of this is when historians of worship note that modern negative reactions to contemporary pop-rock worship contain similar objections to ones leveled against the hymns of Luther, and later, Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts. Without question, there are similarities. What a lazy historian fails to notice is when the differences are greater than the similarities.

That can be said about the roots of Pentecostal worship, found in the populist religious mood that swept America in the late 1780s, through to the 19th century. Yes, there are many parallels to earlier reactions against ossified liturgical forms that sparked more colloquial and lay-driven worship (e.g., some Waldensians and Lollards, some Anabaptists, the Moravians). But there are differences to previous reformations of worship that far outweigh the similarities. When we examine those differences, we will find that the seedbed from which Pentecostalism grew in the 1900s was actually a considerable departure from prior worship reformers such as Luther, Wesley and Watts.

Nathan Hatch detects four waves of populist folk religious music in America from 1780 to 1830. The first was among Separatist Baptists in rural New England. Some of the early hymnals of these Baptists maintained continuity with the hymns of Watts and others, but a flood of hymnbooks published by Elias Smith between 1804 and 1820 contained no overlap with the accepted hymnals of the day. Original and catchy lyrics linked to popular folk tunes became the new tradition of rural New England Baptists.

The second wave of populist worship was Methodist revivalism. The Wesleys had taught the importance of the participation of all people, but had also insisted that hymns maintain dignity and reverence. But Methodism in America during the early 1800s went in a new direction. It included spontaneous song, shouting, jumping and seeking a rousing emotional response to the singing. These songs were the beginnings of the “gospel song”: simple, easily remembered lyrics, verses written in rhyming pairs with a chorus or refrain. Gospel songs were songs of testimony, marching songs of solidarity, humorous ballads, even appeals to repentance.

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