Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A religious movement that has spawned a denominational family within the doctrinally conservative ("evangelical") wing of Protestant Christianity. The movement takes its name from the experience of Jesus' disciples on the day of Pentecost, described in the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles (2:4), when "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance."

Pentecostalism has grown dramatically worldwide throughout the twentieth century, making it arguably the most important recent development in Christianity. Although there are many readily identifiable pentecostal denominations —the Assemblies of God being the largest—precise figures on the size of the pentecostal movement are more difficult to obtain both because smaller, independent pentecostal churches tend to elude religious censuses and because it is impossible to quantify the influence of pentecostalism in non-pentecostal denominations. Estimates, however, range from 10 million to 29 million followers in the United States alone. What most clearly distinguishes pentecostalism and identifies it as a coherent religious family is the belief in and experience of "baptism of the Spirit" as evidenced by speaking in tongues (glossolalia) .


Pentecostalism germinated from the fertile soil of nineteenth-century American revivalism, specifically the Holiness movement in Methodism. The Holiness movement was actually brought into Methodism through the influence of other "Methodized" Protestants—such as Oberlin evangelist Charles Finney—who had discovered John Wesley's writings on Christian perfection. In addition to the emphasis on perfectionism, Holiness theology professed the doctrine of entire sanctification, whereby a dramatic "second blessing" (sanctification) ratifies a person's holiness subsequent to the born-again experience of conversion (justification). Increasingly, that event was described in the Holiness movement as "baptism of the Holy Spirit," and soon speaking in tongues was seen as an outward sign of that baptism, and hence of sanctification. Benjamin Hardin Irwin's Fire-Baptized Holiness Association further set the stage for pentecostalism by maintaining that "baptism with the Holy Ghost and fire" was a "third blessing." These principles and practices were directly carried over into pentecostalism. The pentecostal movement's novel contribution to Holiness revivalism was rendering glossolalia normative , an essential sign of "Spirit baptism." Although not all who have experienced baptism of the Spirit also claim to have spoken in tongues, and vice versa, the percentages of Pentecostalists who have experienced both is very high (67% in Poloma's [1989] study of the Assemblies of God).

The precise origin of pentecostalism is traced to Charles Parham and his Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas. In 1901, after being instructed by Parham to read the biblical book of Acts, student Agnes Ozman received baptism of the Spirit and spoke in tongues. When others at the school had a similar experience, Parham concluded that glossolalia was evidence of Spirit baptism. He then embarked on a series of revival meetings in Missouri and Kansas, establishing loosely organized "Apostolic Faith Missions," although his most important encounter was in Houston, where he evangelized an African American Holiness preacher, William Seymour. Seymour took Parham's campaign to Los Angeles, where his Azusa Street Mission became the center of pentecostalism in the United States and the springboard for its worldwide expansion.

From its inception, pentecostalism has included a diverse assortment of churches and associations. In an effort to develop some measure of doctrinal uniformity and cooperation between various independent pentecostal churches, a "General Convention of Pentecostal Saints and Churches of God in Christ" was called for April 1914 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. A creed was issued, and an organization called the Assemblies of God was formed, along with a general council to oversee it. This moment is historically significant because it inaugurated pentecostal denominationalism.


Pentecostalism, true to its Protestant heritage, has coupled growth with splintering. Conservative estimates suggest there are some 300 pentecostal denominations and organizations in the United States. While pentecostalists were officially opposed to "dogma," with its stultifying Catholic and mainline Protestant overtones, issues of correct interpretation of the Bible have been the source of considerable dissension within the movement. Although all adhere to a biblically conservative theology, two major disputes have divided pentecostalists.

One of the main cleavages in the pentecostal movement was between those who adhered to a Wesleyan Holiness view of the doctrine of sanctification and those who adopted a non-Wesleyan ("Reformed") position. Early pentecostalists working within the Holiness tradition as modified in the Fire-Baptized Holiness Movement saw baptism of the Spirit as the third step in the Wesleyan formula of justification—sanctification. Reformed Pentecostalists, in contrast, came to see salvation as sufficient, as "a finished work of grace" that frees the believer from the guilt of sin. Sanctification, which flows from conversion, is an ongoing process that frees the believer from the power of sin. Spirit baptism, in this view, is not dependent upon a "second blessing" assuring sanctification.

The second major cleavage within pentecostalism materialized at a 1913 camp meeting during which a "Jesus only" theology was proposed. This Jesus Unitarian doctrine held that there is only one person in the Godhead, and to baptize in the name of the "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" is simply to recognize the three titles of the one God: Jesus. Dispute over this "Oneness" doctrine gave rise to an enduring division in the pentecostal movement and was a major reason that a Statement of Fundamental Truths was issued by the Assemblies of God in 1916 definitively endorsing Trinitarianism.

Three major groupings of pentecostal denominations are formed by these divisions: (1) Holiness Pentecostals, (2) Reformed or "Finished Work" Pentecostals, and (3) "Oneness" Pentecostals. Holiness Pentecostals include the largest historically African American Pentecostal denomination, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC in Memphis, Tennessee) as well as historically white denominations such as the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), the Church of God in Christ-International, and the Pentecostal Holiness Church. Reformed Pentecostals include the Assemblies of God (the largest historically white Pentecostal denomination), International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and Pentecostal Church of God. Oneness Pentecostals include two major denominations—the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (African American) and the United Pentecostal Church (white)—which formed from a racial split within the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.

Secularization Theory:
Old and New

The rapid growth of Holiness and Pentecostal churches in the most advanced industrial society in the world poses an empirical challenge to mechanistic theories of "secularization," particularly those informed by Max Weber's idea that societal rationalization would lead to the "disenchantment" of the world. Rodney Stark and his colleagues have offered an alternative "economic approach" to religion, which accounts for the persistence of religion in the modern world by maintaining that secularization is a self-limiting process. As mainline churches become worldly and mundane (secularized), more vital sectarian movements arise that seek to restore the "potency" of religious traditions. These less worldly sects are better able to compete in the religious economy and therefore experience substantial growth.

In Finke and Stark's view, the emergence of the Holiness-Pentecostal churches from Methodism and their subsequent growth is paradigmatic of the history of The Churching of America (Rutgers University Press 1992). While the sectarian Church of the Nazarene and Assemblies of God gained 42% and 371%, respectively, in market share between 1940 and 1985, the United Methodist Church lost 48% over the same period (p. 248). In the nineteenth century, when Methodism grew in numbers to be the largest church in America, its laity became more economically prosperous and its clergy more educated and professionalized. As a consequence, its focus on outward holiness was compromised, and in accommodating to the world, its sectlike vigor was transformed into churchlike tedium. The emergence of the Holiness revivals in the nineteenth century was a reaction to the increasing "worldliness" of this and other mainstream Protestant denominations.

Although the Holiness movement began as a revitalization movement within Methodism, by the late nineteenth century, ecclesiastical officials had shown themselves to be resistant to change, and the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) became the first independent Holiness church. The Holiness movement has followed the American pattern of denominationalism since, producing churches such as the Salvation Army, Wesleyan Methodists, and Free Methodists. The largest Holiness denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, has seen dramatic growth since its official founding in 1908 as the result of a series of mergers between several small, independent Holiness congregations. In 1906, there were 6,657 Nazarenes, or 0.08 members per 1,000 population; by 1986, there were 530,912, or 2.20 members per 1,000, an increase in market share of 2,750% (p. 165).

As remarkable as the case of the Church of the Nazarene is, its growth has been more modest than that of the Assemblies of God, which is not only the largest pentecostal denomination but is the twelfth largest of all Protestant denominations in the United States today.

In the past four-score years, its market share has grown even more significantly.

Growth and Institutional Dilemmas

The remarkable growth experienced by denominations such as the Assemblies of God raises certain organizational challenges—notably, how to balance the need for institutionalization with the desire to keep spontaneous charismata at the center of religious practice. Poloma (1989) analyzes this situation in terms of O'Dea's five "dilemmas of institutionalization," and finds that the Assemblies of God has managed to keep these dilemmas alive, not allowing institutionalization to routinize completely the church's spirit of charisma. It has done this in part by combining congregational and presbyterian governance and thereby facilitating heterogeneity (e.g., in staffing, in ritual style) within the denomination. The dilemmas of institutionalization, however, are ever present, and the fallen teleministries of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart exemplify the powerful forces of accommodation that bear on successful churches. Indeed, as the Assemblies of God becomes more suburban, more educated, and more middle class, the specter is raised of a schism within the church as it becomes more worldly, more compromised—in a word, more secularized.

The Social Sources of Pentecostalism

Sectarian religious movements have long been seen as the religion of "the disinherited." In his historical study, Anderson (1979:240) locates pentecostalism among those on the margins of the new, urban, bureaucratic industrial social order—the working poor, blacks, immigrants, marginal farmers. But even if social dislocation and economic deprivation create a pool of candidates, they cannot explain who among the disinherited actually become involved in sects. Anderson concludes that the social sources of Pentecostal membership were the combination of deprivation and coming from a revivalistic Protestant or superstitious Catholic background.

As pentecostal denominations have grown, they resemble less their disinherited forebears. Poloma (1989) compared a sample of 1,275 Assemblies of God members with a national sample of Protestants and found that members had slightly higher than average earnings and were more likely to be college graduates. More generally, however, although the gap between upstart sects and mainline Protestants in the United States has narrowed considerably over the course of the twentieth century, members of Holiness-Pentecostal churches are still below national averages in education, income, and occupational prestige (Roof and McKinney 1987).

Moral, Social, and Political Views

When scholars classify religious groups according to ideology, pentecostal denominations are routinely counted among the "conservative" churches. This conservatism is not only theological, it also can be seen in the moral attitudes, social views, and political beliefs of pentecostals. Compared with Americans generally, pentecostals are very traditional on moral issues such as abortion, sex education in schools, premarital and extramarital sex, and homosexuality. On social issues, pentecostals routinely take conservative positions on the role of women in society, the death penalty, and corporal punishment. They are far less favorable than the average American to the granting of atheists, communists, and homosexuals such civil liberties as the right to speak in public, and are also less supportive of racial justice (e.g., laws against miscegenation) than Americans generally (Roof and McKinney 1987). One exception to this consistently conservative outlook is that Pentecostals are surprisingly liberal on the economic issue of welfare spending, probably a reflection of their class position.

In general, Pentecostal churches tend to uphold strict codes of behavior, proscribing social dancing, gambling, and the use of tobacco or alcohol, and prescribing self-control and individual achievement. According to Johnson (1961), this orientation is a variant of what Weber has called the ethic of inner-worldly asceticism, a latent function of which is the socialization of adherents in the dominant values of American society.

As theologically conservative Christians, pentecostals are typically grouped with fundamentalists and other evangelicals in the "New Christian Right" (NCR), which gained considerable notoriety for its political activities in the 1980s. More subtle analyses of NCR politics, however, have revealed diverse social and political attitudes. In God's Warriors (Johns Hopkins University Press 1992), Clyde Wilcox shows that a major divide in the 1988 Republican presidential primaries was between pentecostals, who gave the candidacy of charismatic Baptist televangelist Pat Robertson the strongest and most consistent support, and fundamentalists, who followed Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority in supporting George Bush.

David Yamane


R. M. Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979)

B. Johnson, "Do Holiness Sects Socialize in Dominant Values?" Social Forces 40(1961):309-316

M. M. Poloma, The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989)

W. C. Roof and W. McKinney, American Mainline Religion (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987).

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