Friday, June 7, 2013

Is Charismatic Renewal for real?

Author’s note: A lot of people will find this even more tedious and pointless than many of my other efforts, and some will find it irritating. I am writing about a phenomenon that has caused much of the unprecedented growth of Christianity in our times and continues to do so. I am not writing to convince anyone to join a movement. I personally don’t like movements. They involve too many meetings.

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

What is all this nonsense about Charismatic Renewal? Is it for real?

Kerry Zmatick

Dear Kerry,

Short answer: Some of the Charismatic Renewal is for real and some of it isn’t. 

Long answer: What is generally called Charismatic Renewal was formerly called the Pentecostal movement. It has it’s most recent roots in 1900, when Rev. Charles Fox Parham rented an old mansion called Stone’s Folly as a site for his Bethel Bible College. He used the run down old mansion as a gathering place for Bible studies and prayer meetings. He and his students were part of an outgrowth of Methodism the Holiness movement, which taught divine healing and sanctification, or how to arrive at a sinless life.   

As the year 1900 drew to a close, Parham and his students were focused on the Bible phrase “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) For us Catholics that’s a no-brainer. It’s what happens before the big party after a long boring Confirmation ceremony. A bunch of Methodist Bible students had to admit that they weren’t quite sure what it meant. Parham and his students decided that if the Holy Spirit  descended on you, you would have to speak in tongues, because that’s what happened in the Bible, and this gift of tongues would prove that you had received the Holy Spirit. On New Year's Eve 1900, Parham and his students spent the night in prayer asking to receive the Holy Spirit. As the clock ticked over into 1901, one of his students, Agnes Ozman, (no relation to Donny or Marie) asked Rev. Parham to pray for her with the laying on of hands that she might receive the Holy Spirit, because that’s what they did in the Bible. He did and she started babbling in unintelligible phrases. And the Christianity of the 20th century changed irrevocably. 

As I heard the story in my youth; the next evening, Parham’s students were praying at their mission in downtown Topeka and Agnes Ozman’s babbling was understood by a Bohemian who happened to be there. This was huge! Understand that classical Protestantism does not believe in modern miracles. The Protestant founders taught that “When the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.” (1Cor. 13:10) They interpreted this to mean that Scripture, being perfect, ends any need for other kinds of revelation. Sure, God may heal a sick person now and then, but the age of prophecy and miracles ended when the last word of Scripture was set down on paper and the last of the disciples either keeled over or provided a snack for a lion in a Roman arena. 

Bishop Butler (Church of England b. 1692) told John Wesley (Anglican founder of Methodism, a forerunner of Pentecostalism), “Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.” This was essentially the attitude of Parham’s Protestant neighbors at Stone’s Folly, and so the lease was not renewed. The place was sold to Harry Croft, a bootlegger, who turned it into a bar. The old mansion burned to the ground on December 6, 1901 and is today the site of Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church. The wonder of it all! From  birth place of Pentecostalism, to gin mill, to Catholic Church. I think this means something, but I’m not sure what.

In 1899, there were no Pentecostals. Now there are about 300 million members of Pentecostal churches and untold hundreds of millions of Charismatics, so called, in traditional churches. It is easy to make the case that the explosive growth of Christianity in the world’s southern hemisphere, particularly Africa, as well as in parts of Asia is due to a Pentecostal style of worship and evangelism. The case can also be made, and I will make it eventually, that the resurgence of traditional Catholicism is in large part a consequence of Charismatic Renewal within the Catholic Church. What happened?

The closing of Bethel Bible College/Stone’s Folly had the effect of throwing water on a grease fire. Charles Parham moved on to El Dorado Springs, Missouri, where in 1903 he set up shop again and started healing the sick at the local hot springs.  Mary Arthur invited him to Galena, Kansas, after he had prayed for her healing. He went preaching in Galena, Kansas and Joplin, Missouri where  1,000 claimed to have been had been healed and 800 had claimed to be converted. This sort of thing tends to get noticed. Parham sent out “bands” to preach the “apostolic faith” spreading the movement in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

Parham opened a Bible school in Houston in 1906 where African-Americans were welcome including William J. Seymour. Seymour left Houston to serve in a black holiness mission in Los Angeles, California. When the Baptist congregation that had hired Seymour found out that he was one of those new “Pentecostals” they rescinded their offer, so Seymour set up shop down the street in a church that had been converted into a livery stable which now got a second chance at being a church. Why not? Jesus was born in a barn. 

This church/stable/church blossomed into the Azusa Street Revival, which went on for nine years, 1906 -1915. Evangelicals came from the world over to see what was happening and whole denominations, like the Church of God and the Methodist Church of Chile were pentecostal-ized. The years of the Azusa Street Revival were the catalyst that started the world wide Pentecostal/Charismatic phenomenon. The old building is no more. The site is now occupied by a parking lot to which I, being a traditional Catholic, once made a pilgrimage.  Seymour and Parham soon parted company over the Azusa Street church because Parham was critical of the emotional style of worship at Asuza Street and hesitated over whites and blacks praying in the same services during the time of the Jim Crowe racial laws.

In April 1914, 300 preachers and laymen from the US and a few other countries met in Hot Springs, Arkansas to figure out where God was leading. Pentecostalism, being at odds with Protestant orthodoxy, was rejected by most churches and Pentecostals were simply not welcome. There were objections to the claim of resurgent miracles and prophecies. The emotionalism of the participants was disapproved of  and there were questions about racial familiarities in the new movement.

There were also  theological questions to be answered.  Could one be truly saved if one did not speak in tongues? After all, if the Bible says  “ one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit”,(1Cor. 12:3)  and if one did not speak in tongues, could one say that he truly had the Holy Spirit, and if he wasn’t sure that he had the Holy Spirit, could he be sure that he was really capable of saying that Jesus is Lord? And if one cannot say that Jesus is Lord is he truly saved? So, the big question: Can one be saved if one does not speak in tongues? 

Already we see theological wackiness setting in. The movement has been plagued by theological wackiness ever since its beginning.  There were other issues, such as can one lose one’s salvation? Is prayer that is not emotional really prayer? (They call it agonizing in prayer.) These pressing issues caused splits among the delegates and again, as I heard the story, there were those who believed that God was calling them to form the perfect, full-Gospel, Bible-believing, New Testament Church. That faction formed the Assemblies of God. There were those who insisted that God did not want to form a new Church. They formed the Independent Assemblies of God. And the wackiness went on and on and on until today there are innumerable Pentecostal denominations in the grand tradition of Protestant Reformation Unity. 

It is great fun to drive down to the west side of Frostbite falls and read the church names. I remember one that read “Fire Baptized Church of God With Signs and Wonders Following,  Inc.” The sign continued, “Rev. Jones, Bishop, Apostle, Prophet, Healer and Pastor.” This guy didn’t need a church. He was a church.  Even today, the proliferation of churches goes on unabated as do the scandals from Aimee Semple McPherson, in the 1920s-1940s to Jimmy Swaggart, Marvin Gorman and Jim and Tammy Bakker in the 1980's.   

The snake handlers of Appalachia are among the most delightful variations of  Pentecostalism. 
In 1910, George Hensley started snake handling  in the recently pentecostal-ized Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee. He later resigned his ministry and started the first holiness movement church to require snake handling as evidence of salvation. In other words, if you’ve never danced around with poisonous snakes, you’re clearly not going to heaven. At least that’s what they think it says in the Bible.

“And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” (Mark 16:17-18)

If you’re going to prove you’re a believer who is saved, you are going to speak in tongues, heal the sick, right? ....Right.  Well, what about drinking poison and handling snakes? Shouldn’t you have to do these things to prove you are filled with the Holy Spirit, and thus saved? Oh, they drink poison, too. And they often drop dead. If they die from poison or snake bites it’s obvious they didn’t have enough faith and weren’t saved. Don’t you just love this stuff?

The Pentecostal/Charismatic phenomenon, and it most certainly is a phenomenon, not a movement, chugged merrily along blissfully creating church after church and dubious evangelist after dubious evangelist along with a few dead snake handlers for the next 60 years. How can something like this be one of the major forces in Christianity today? How can anyone think that a movement that encourages drinking poison, waltzing with rattlesnakes and babbling in Babylonian can make any sense at all.  Sorry I’ve run out of time, and you’ll just have to wait until next week.

Rev. Know-it-all


  1. I read a story one time about a man who was invited by a co-worker to attend his Pentecostal church. When they arrived, there was one person babbling and the man was horrified. He was Chinese and said that the person speaking in tongues was actually speaking in a rare Chinese dialect and was uttering the most horrible blasphemies imaginable! It was the spirit, yes, just the wrong one.

  2. I'm grinning widely, Fr. Simon. Somehow, none of this surprises me. I've been a 'prayer buddy' to a Baptist/Pentecostal woman, and oh boy, where have my readings & research taken me!? It all reminds me of Alice in Wonderland: "It just gets curiouser and curiouser......"

    Looking forward to your next installment!

  3. Back in my younger days, when I first came to the US, I was invited to attend a ‘Catholic Pentecostal’ meeting. With some reluctance I accepted the invitation. To put it mildly, I was singularly unimpressed. Too ‘touchy-feely’ for my taste.

    I could not buy into the ‘speaking in tongues’ part – much less the ‘interpretation’ of same by someone who had the ‘gift of understanding’ from being ‘touched by the Holy Spirit’.

    In Ireland we used to refer diplomatically to someone who was not completely compos mentis as being ‘a little touched’. I had the impression that all the participants here were ‘touched’ - and suspected that the Holy Spirit had little to do with the ‘touching’.