On this Black History Month, Dr. Robin Johnston, editor in chief and publisher for the United Pentecostal Church International, charges readers to be Pentecostal and live out the whole gospel of Jesus Christ.
Black History Month is set aside to remember a people whose history has been taken from them in a significant way. From my study of history, at least in the European theater, if you didn’t have a written history, you weren’t a people. If you did not have a written history, that was proof you were less than fully human.
Black History Month: A Time to Remember
So the celebration of Black History Month is significant because we’ve privileged written history over oral history. We’ve said if it’s in a book somewhere, it’s important. But if it’s stories told around the campfire, that’s not quite as important. It devalues people—people God made in His image.
The history of who we are as a people begins with the Acts 2 record of the Spirit being poured out on all flesh (Acts 2:14–21). The rest of our story includes where we have done well and where we need to do better as we think about what it means to be truly Pentecostal.
The best way to look at the emergence of the Pentecostal movement is to look at it through the restoration impulse—the impulse to restore the church to its original condition, free from the accretions of history.That sign, I would suggest, is the doctrine that formed the Pentecostal movement—the notion of evidential tongues (tongues as a sign of the baptism of the Spirit). Click To Tweet
Before we were called Pentecostals, we saw ourselves as people of the Apostolic Faith because we were trying to return to the Book of Acts.
As Pentecostals, we want to go back to the beginning. Before creeds and councils, what did the apostles believe?
We privilege the Book of Acts above all the other books in the canon. In fact, if you’re witnessing and people find out that you read the Bible, they may ask where one should start reading. We usually say the Book of Acts. It becomes critical to our understanding of who we are. As Pentecostals, we want to go back to the beginning. Before creeds and councils, what did the apostles believe?
The Doctrine That Formed the Pentecostal Movement
As we read stories of the people who contributed to the Pentecostal movement, we see a people who wanted to go back to what it was at the beginning. Charles Parham tried to figure out the sign of people receiving the baptism of the Holy Ghost by studying the Book of Acts for a uniform sign that people experience.
Students in his Bible class recognized from Acts the sign was speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance. That sign, I would suggest, is the doctrine that formed the Pentecostal movement—the notion of evidential tongues (tongues as a sign of the baptism of the Spirit).
Parham went on the road with his crew, the Apostolic Faith Movement, and they spread that story around Kansas, Oklahoma, southwestern Missouri, and then down into Houston. As Parham and a group of people preached the Apostolic Faith message, a female holiness preacher, Lucy Farrow, became part of the fledgling Pentecostal movement.
A young man, William Seymour, helped her. (His parents had both been slaves.) Allow this story to sink in: he had been raised by people who had been owned by somebody else.
[Seymour] joined this new movement that had its roots, among other things, in this notion that the Spirit was going to be poured out on all flesh and that the church should not be segregated.
When the Emancipation Proclamation came, they were free from their slavery, but the South wasn’t a friendly place to be if you were Black. And so many Blacks, including William Seymour, made their way North. He ended up in Indianapolis and met people we know as Evening Light Saints. Something happened in the life of William Seymour. He joined this new movement that had its roots, among other things, in this notion that the Spirit was going to be poured out on all flesh and that the church should not be segregated.
What It Means to Be Pentecostal
For some reason, Seymour moved to Houston. He picked up the message that Parham was preaching about the baptism of the Spirit. After some time a mission came open in Los Angeles on Ninth and Santa Fe Avenue.
Seymour arrived, and before long the famous Azusa Street revival broke out that rocked the world, starting the greatest revival the church has ever known. In that seminal revival at Azusa, the cradle of the Pentecostal movement, the Spirit was poured out on all flesh.
The Azusa Street mission was intentionally interracial in a time when the culture at large was very much against that. Los Angeles newspapers reflect that the people weren’t opening their arms wide and embracing this notion of interracial worship. It was multicultural. Women had a place of leadership in that mission because Seymour believed that the Spirit was poured out on all flesh.
The Azusa Street mission was intentionally interracial in a time when the culture at large was very much against that.
As truth began to be revealed to this new Pentecostal movement, they recognized that baptism in the Book of Acts was in the name of Jesus. By 1913, people were beginning to baptize in Jesus’ name. And what we know today as the Pentecostal church was birthed.
As Pentecostals followed this restoration impulse and truths were being recovered from the Book of Acts, the church was quick to follow where that new message took them. In fact, reading the writings of early Pentecostals, they were afraid not to.
There was the sense that if God revealed truth to you and you didn’t walk in the truth with what He revealed to you, you would lose your place with Him.
When Culture Hides Biblical Truths, Beware
So why was this issue of Jesus name baptism such a big deal? Because God was revealing something that had been hidden. It’s obviously very plain in the Bible.
God was revealing something that had been hidden. . . . Culture had hidden it.
But culture had hidden it, and so the church was following that impulse that pulled them along. We have followed that restoration impulse, and one of the things that the Oneness movement has done, the United Pentecostal Church in particular, is hold strong and true to that impulse that makes us who we are. When we had opportunity to retreat from Bible doctrine, to give up on those New Testament teachings that were restored, but we’ve held true to that. That’s where the restoration impulse has led us, and that’s what we’re going to follow.
Talmadge French opened my eyes a little further about the restoration impulse and helped me to see that I wasn’t seeing as clearly as I thought I was: The restoration impulse is not just about doctrine. The restoration impulse—what Seymour was trying to do and what the earliest Pentecostals were trying to do—was to restore the church to its original practice.
Azusa Street shows what that looked like. The church was intentionally interracial and, furthermore, there was a place for women to have a voice, a true and an equal voice.
We retreated; we lost our way. . . . We let culture tell us how we should treat races.
I would like to tell you today that the Oneness movement at large has held as fast to that impulse as it held to its doctrinal impulse, but I can’t. And while the Oneness Movement did stay interracial longer than other movements, we retreated; we lost our way. We did what we would never do about doctrine; we let culture tell us how we should treat races.
Rather than be informed by the Bible, we decided we had to keep culture happy. We took our women’s voice away because the conservative culture at large said there wasn’t a place for women to speak. We followed their rhetoric, which was not who we are nor who we’re supposed to be.The church was intentionally interracial and, furthermore, there was a place for women to have a voice, a true and an equal voice. Click To Tweet
Years ago we invited Bishop James A. Johnson, former presiding of Pentecostals Assemblies of the World (PAW), to address a leadership class at Urshan Graduate School of Theology. Near the end of his session, he opened the floor for questions, and I’ll always remember this question and his answer.
Someone asked, “What has racism cost the church?” Bishop Johnson’s answer was, “The full witness of Christ.”
Live Out the Full Gospel of Jesus Christ
As Oneness Pentecostals who believe in the whole gospel to the whole world by the whole church, I want to charge you on this Black History Month to live out the full gospel of Jesus Christ. Intentionally follow the restoration impulse, hold closely and tightly to the doctrinal restoration impulse, and also uphold the impulse that the church is not made up of one color.
The church is made up of many people, and there’s a place for men and women to lead and to speak as we live out what it means to be full partners with the Spirit as He’s doing what He wants to do in the world today.
I challenge you to be Pentecostal.
Bio: Dr. Robin Johnston serves as the editor in chief and publisher for the United Pentecostal Church International. In addition he is the director for the Center for the Study of Oneness Pentecostalism and an adjunct professor at Urshan Graduate School of Theology.
Resources and Links
To read more by Dr. Johnston, click here.