By Talmadge French
We can all learn a great deal from our brave and tenacious Apostolic founders, and the case for respect for the Pentecostal pioneers is nowhere more compelling than with respect to their early interracial successes. In the early part of the twentieth century culture, interracial harmony was not commonly experienced. However, the explosion of the Pentecostal movement and especially the Oneness Pentecostal movement provided a spiritual impulse indicative of the Pentecostal experience. As such, it is arguably one of the most remarkable counter-cultural phenomena within religious movements of any era. And Oneness Pentecostalism, later interracial failures aside, was the notable leader with respect to early interracial vision.
The Story of Pentecost
One need only consider the dramatic growth and dynamic of evangelism of the Oneness movement during those fifteen formative years of racial zeal and harmony, 1915–1930, with an amazing worldwide expansion to nearly three hundred thousand believers and three thousand churches. (See Early Interracial Oneness Pentecostalism: G. T. Haywood & the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (1901-1931), by Talmadge L. French.) Its interracial features enhanced its growth potential and contributed to its rapid expansion into an international movement.
G. T. Haywood, African American pastor from Indianapolis, Indiana, one of the most beloved early Apostolic leaders, spearheaded and inspired this early vision as none other. We now know from FBI records that the government considered Haywood to be the movement’s main spokesperson, and that they were aware of its innovative interracial nature. In the United States, by 1924 it had an equal balance of Black and White constituents working within the framework of the same organizational leadership.
Such an historic feat has never been duplicated, yet we can still envision in hindsight what an inspiring victory for equality could have been won had that early success been sustained. To reimagine the successes of the early founders we may be required to accomplish the difficult task of focusing upon the reality of the original victories of interracial success, without ignoring the reality and the negatives of the later failures. Only then may we be able to truly accomplish meaningful reconciliation.
Perhaps the remarkable efforts of our spiritual forefathers to guarantee the success of their interracial commitments then remain the key to our potential in the present. The talented Haywood was uncanny in making spiritually double references, as in his well-known hymn “Crimson Stream of Blood” in Bridegroom’s Songs. Just as the Spirit was poured out on all flesh, so the “blood” was powerful enough to break the chains of all sin, including the evil of racism and inequality. In another of Haywood’s songs he asks the prophetic questions that also echo the racial query:
When shall the day dawn when right de-thrones wrong?
My Jesus, I’m waiting, but, O Lord, how long?The majority of early Apostolics argued for the essentiality of both the oneness of God and the oneness of the church—one God, one church. Click To Tweet
Committed to Oneness as Believers
Although interracial equity is costly, it remains the lofty and persistent goal of the Pentecostal spiritual vision. We are not merely Oneness in our theology of the Godhead, but we must remain committed to Jesus’ prayer for the “oneness” of believers (John 17:11). The majority of early Apostolics argued for the essentiality of both the oneness of God and the oneness of the church—one God, one church. Lamentably, this vision faded almost entirely by 1937, largely due to the failure of thinking through the requirements of making such an all-people theological vision workable in a world of prejudice. In other words, a failure to resist the world at this most crucial point of spiritual vulnerability.
Years of hindsight and impulse eventually resulted in the rekindling—thankfully—of the original belief in and hope for racial unity. But much like the task of restoring holiness to a people grown accustomed to its want, racial reconciliation and restoration have required renewed interracial zeal. The Oneness movement is once again becoming a leader in the arena of the spirituality of race unity which, again, is contributing significantly to its worldwide growth and success. This is especially notable within the dynamics of the United Pentecostal Church International. We have the twenty-first century opportunity of learning from the twentieth century successes in this regard, as well from the failures. We must repeat the former but never repeat the latter.The Oneness movement is once again becoming a leader in the arena of the spirituality of race unity which, again, is contributing significantly to its worldwide growth and success. Click To Tweet
Every Kindred, Tongue, People, and Nation
Perhaps the most important element of this rekindling of the Apostolic zeal for the unity of the faith and an “every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” unity (Revelation 5:9) is that of its intentionality. True unity demands intentional spiritual zeal and resolve which reject failed cultural racial assumptions, resist the lack of any personal responsibility in matters of racial unity, and therefore require evidence of living out the real love of God. Rhetoric is insufficient. Repentance, denunciation of racism, and the articulation of a spiritual, biblically sound response to the sin of prejudice in culture remain essential. Dynamic interaction on this basis is a continuation of the original restorative zeal of the Spirit which permeated the founding movement which so impacted their world that it now encircles our world with literally millions of Jesus Name believers.
Racial reconciliation and unity have the potential of impacting our world in the same powerful and far-reaching manner as we capture their hope and passion. Why not? They themselves captured it from that first generation of Pentecostals in the Book of Acts and the apostles themselves! “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39).
(A version of this article was published in Pentecostal Life.)
Resources and Links
The Early Pentecostal Revival – This history of twentieth-century Pentecostals and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World is a must for every Pentecostal’s library.