While modern-day Pentecostals, a movement belonging to Christianity in the Protestant tradition, trace their history back to the New Testament book of Acts, the present-day expression of their movement originated in the early 20th century.
Influenced by the Holiness Movement, a trend prevalent in late 19th century Methodism, Pentecostal Christianity emphasizes moral living in conjunction with special gifts from the Holy Spirit.
While there are historical reports of certain charismatic manifestations occurring in the United States from 1850 to 1900, their duration was short and their growth was non-existent. Yet the one that began in the early 1900’s in Kansas blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon in less than a century. The largest Pentecostal denomination in the world today is the Assemblies of God followed by the Church of God in Christ (Cleveland, Tennessee).
The History of Pentecostalism
Charles Parham (1872-1929) was born in Muscatine, Iowa on July 4, 1873. He became a Christian as a teenager and was involved with a local Methodist congregation.
When he became deathly ill in his mid-20's, he came to the conclusion that God was disciplining him for not going into the ministry. Parham testified that when he decided to enter the ministry, his health improved.
When he was 26 years old, Parham moved to Topeka, Kansas. In Topeka he opened a home for Christians who were seeking God’s healing. Also at this time, he began to publish a biweekly newsletter called, “The Apostolic Faith.”
Bethel Bible College
Early in the year 1900, Parham traveled to Iowa, New York, and different places in New England, where he heard that supernatural healings had occurred to investigate. In October 1900, he traveled back to Topeka and opened a school called Bethel Bible College in an old mansion that he rented.
Approximately 40 students enrolled. Some were lay people and others were former ministers. Married couples and singles were both a part of the student body. The only textbook for the school was the Bible.
In December 1900, Parham assigned the whole school the topic of baptism in the Holy Spirit. From his earlier travels, he had become persuaded that there was a supernatural experience available to Christians.
Parham gave the student body the assignment of figuring out what the experience was. On December 31, 1900, Parham summoned the student body so he could learn about their findings. The students said that what they found in the book of Acts was that baptism in the Holy Spirit was evidenced by speaking in tongues.
The Topeka Outpouring
Even though the student body had discovered that the evidence of being baptized in the Holy Spirit was speaking in tongues, it hadn’t yet been their experience. The first person to report having the experience was a woman named Miss Agnes N. Ozman.
Some accounts say she didn’t speak English for three days. Ozman later encouraged others to seek the experience by seeking the Holy Spirit rather than the gift itself. On January 3, 1901, many people reported experiencing baptism in the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues, including Parham.
Support from the student body wasn’t unanimous. Some even left the college. The community of Topeka was suspicious as well. The newspaper, The Topeka Capital, used skeptical phraseology as they reported the events: “strange goings on,” “strange religious body,” “strange feature of faith,” and "senseless gibberish.”
Historically, the significance of the Topeka Outpouring was twofold:
(1) It was the first time in modern history that speaking in tongues was related to baptism in the Holy Spirit, and
(2) It was the first time a charismatic manifestation survived and expanded and eventually had the framework of a denomination built around it
Expansion and Growth
The mansion that housed Bethel Bible College soon succumbed to a fire, which pushed the student body, and their spiritual experiences, outside of Topeka. After having little initial success in preaching his new message about baptism in the Holy Spirit being evidenced by speaking in tongues, Parham found an audience in Galena, Kansas. Meeting in a grocery store than sat approximately 2,000 people, which was often filled, many people responded to Parham’s message.
Parham’s ministry soon expanded into Southeast Kansas, Northeast Oklahoma, and Southwest Missouri. This area today is still a stronghold for the Pentecostal movement in the United States. Parham also had ministry success in Joplin, Missouri and Orchard, Texas, speaking to sizable audiences and establishing churches.
In July 1905, Parham conducted meetings in Houston, Texas. Because thousands of people responded favorably to his message, Parham decided to open a Bible school in Houston in December 1905. Just like in Topeka, the Bible was the students’ only textbook. A student at the Bible college in Houston named W.J. Seymour would become the link between the Pentecostal ministry of Parham and the three-year revival that would take place on Azusa St. in Los Angeles, California beginning in 1906.