Who Founded the Pentecostal Movement?
By J.R. Ensey
A friend recently shared with me that some he had heard or read after were troubled by the article on the “light doctrine” that I had published. He suggested that a few readers felt the article seemed to be at variance with the attitude of some of the Pentecostal movement’s “founders,” that some of them would have been uncomfortable with “formulaic salvation”—a term used to make the traditional Apostolic message sound stiff and rigid.
Here was the essence of my response to him:
I don’t look at Seymour, Parham, Goss or any others of that era as founders, but as “finders.” They were in the process of “finding” the doctrinal path the true founders laid out for us 2000 years ago. None of them claimed to be the founder of the modern Oneness movement and we don’t enshrine anyone on that pedestal. The real founders of the movement we are in were Christ and John and Paul and Peter and the other apostles. We all, regardless of the era of time in which we may find ourselves, are obligated to walk in the “light” they shined, not the way early 20th century ministers might have viewed it from their perspective.
I honor those we count as “pioneers” of Pentecostalism in America as courageous “finders” who honestly searched the Scriptures and began to make commitments to what they were finding. It took grit and grace and commitment for them to break away from tradition, friends, and quite often, family. Some made a quick, clean break. Others took a while. Some couldn’t bring themselves to break at all. Postmodern apologists like to especially point to the latter groups because there was some wavering back there as the movement tried to get its balance. Do they feel that fact justifies them in their current wavering stance on the message?
Detractors like to refer to “the spirit of the Word.” That’s because they think it gives them some interpretive wiggle room. That subjective approach allows anyone to justify his presuppositions and doctrinal preferences by his own perceived “spirit of the word” interpretation. Jesus was either right or wrong in John 3:5…which? Paul was either right wrong in II Thessalonians 1:7,8 and Galatians 1:8 and I Corinthians 6:9-11…which? Peter was right or wrong in Acts 2:38…which? John was either right or wrong in I John 2:3-6 and II John 9-11…which? Those men were among the “founders.” They are the ones I prefer to trust. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what those founders were saying or what they meant. No wavering there.
That takes nothing away from the early 20th century Oneness ministers. I recognize that some of them had a difficult time breaking free from the traditional movements of that era, especially to the point of saying that their friends were not saved except they were born again according to Acts 2:38. They were hugely outnumbered and many were made to pay dearly for their stand. But at each juncture of church history, especially during the Reformation and thereafter, that same pain was experienced by “dissenters.” In time it abated as the initial reformers gradually passed from the scene. While I deeply respect all those who took a stand for Oneness in the early 1900s, I do not look to them to fully define our fundamental truth. That is the primary error of traditional Protestantism.
The real “founders” of Christianity were Christ and the apostles (Ephesians 2:20). The fundamental truths they taught are infinitely more trustworthy than the initial reformers of the last century. The ministers of a hundred years ago gradually accepted what had been in the Bible all along. There was no “revelation” in 1901 or 1913 or 1916, just discovery and acceptance. John 3:3-5 and Acts 2:38 had been there all the time. That is why we don’t enshrine anyone or any particular group as our modern “founders.”
Perhaps a few felt we should not go beyond the stand of those “finders” of the last century. To do so “is clearly wrong,” someone is supposed to have said. Oh? Should we have stayed where Parham was? Flower? Seymour? E. N. Bell? Opperman? Who? Where do they propose we stop before we fully arrive back at the original apostolic message? The “founders” they refer to came around quite slowly, feeling their way out of centuries of tradition.
The Acts 2:38 message is sometimes referred to as “formulaic salvation” by detractors. They love to use that term because its use makes one sound intelligent and his opponent appear creed-bound. It is just an excuse for circumventing the full message and making room for one’s friends in other faiths and movements. Call it what you will, the new birth is nothing short of repentance, baptism in the name of Jesus, and the infilling of the Holy Ghost. To me, “formulaic salvation” sounds too much like a string of magic words, a cold incantation. Salvation is more than “1,2,3 and you’re saved…believe these verses and do this and you are saved.” That was the Fundamentalists’ error of the late 19th century. The new birth focuses on a relationship with Christ, becoming a new creature in Christ.
Light doctrine adherents might qualify for appointment to the Supreme Court by the Obama administration. Rather than being a “strict constructionist,” their “feelings” and “empathy” and “background of experience” would come into play. I worked very closely for several years with one of the old “pioneers.” He himself was a Christian man if there ever were any, but it was painful for him to draw hard lines. He had been associated with some really good men by his estimation who never were baptized in the name, etc. He was very empathetic. But such feelings are subjective. Our personal feelings must be left out of this, else everyone becomes a law unto himself.
To imitate the “values” of the finders is fine as far as grit and grace and toughness are concerned, but we have to look to the Book for basic doctrine (II Timothy 3:16), not to great men of history or to organizational Manuals. The Word is immutable, infallible, and unfailing; certain spiritual heroes often were not. And which modern founder/finder would we look to? Probably no two of them saw everything alike, but the Book is unerring and plain.
We do owe our “pioneers” of the last century a sincere debt of gratitude, and I have been lavish with praise over the years for their willingness to take a courageous stand, sometimes on a single issue. They were willing to suffer persecution and ostracism for any morsel of truth. But doctrinally, they were in the process of cutting themselves out of their old traditional cocoons. As time went on and the movement matured, doctrinal issues were clarified and firmed up. Today the butterfly sips the sweet nectar of the whole gospel flower. Enjoy, and be thankful.