By James Haught
James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.
By James A. Haught
The Book of Acts says the risen Jesus told his apostles “ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.” And when they gathered on Pentecost, “suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind… and there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire… and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues.”
Just over a century ago, a little-educated evangelist named William Seymour, a son of ex-slaves, preached that modern Americans could “get the tongues” as the apostles did. In a Los Angeles slum, he led followers in ardent prayer, hoping for the “rushing mighty wind” from heaven.
Finally, on April 9, 1906, after five weeks of beseechment, a follower began spouting uncontrollable sounds. Next meeting, six more believers experienced glossalalia. Then the minister himself followed — and word of the “miracle” spread like wildfire. Hundreds, thousands, of believers flocked to the ramshackle church, where many “got the tongues.” Excitement spawned missionaries who carried the mysterious new phenomenon to other cities — and finally to other countries.
The Los Angeles Times heard the buzz and sent a reporter, who wrote:
“Meetings are held in a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street, and the devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal. African Americans and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshipers, who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-wracking attitude of prayer and supplication. They claim to have the ‘gift of tongues’ and be able to understand the babble.”
Another L.A. newspaper reported:
“They cry and make howling noises all day and into the night. They run, jump, shake all over, shout to the top of their voice, spin around in circles, fall out on the sawdust-blanketed floor jerking, kicking and rolling all over it. Some of them pass out and do not move for hours as though they were dead. These people appear to be mad, mentally deranged or under a spell.”
Pentecostalism became the name of the practice, and it snowballed into a national, then worldwide, movement. The Assemblies of God was established in 1914, followed by the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World in 1916 and the Pentecostal Church of God in 1919.
For decades, Pentecostals remained a remote fringe, derided as “holy rollers.” But gradually, they inched into the mainstream. Republican politicians like Sarah Palin and John Ashcroft were Assemblies of God believers.
As late as 1980, Pentecostals were smallish, comprising a tiny fringe of Christianity. Then a remarkable upsurge occurred. The Atlas of Pentecostalism, maintained by the Pulitzer Center, says:
“An estimated 35,000 people join the Pentecostal church each day. Of the world’s 2 billion Christians, a quarter are now Pentecostal — up from 6 percent in 1980.”
As most of Christianity shrinks, Pentecostals are the fastest-growing group. A Wheaton Theology report says:
“There were 631 million Pentecostals in 2014, comprising nearly one-fourth of all Christians. There were only 63 million Pentecostals in 1970, and the number is expected to reach 800 million by 2025.”
Will much of Christianity be transformed into jerking, howling, swooning congregations who utter incoherent sounds? If so, that’s one more reason for thinking people to renounce irrational supernaturalism.
This essay appeared in Free Inquiry magazine, Feb-March 2018.
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos/Brazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
Image Credit: James Haught.