Baptist History and Pentecostalism

Doug Weaver

The Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street, Los Angeles, CA in 1907 / Wikimedia

Most observers (and participants!) do not see much if any connection between Baptists and Pentecostals. Baptists are generally known as cessationists — contending that the miracles in the New Testament and the extraordinary spiritual gifts practiced like glossolalia (speaking in tongues), prophecy and divine healing have ceased in the modern era. According to cessationism, the miracles so common in the ministry of Jesus and the apostles were prevalent in order to give birth to the early church community and to demonstrate God was with them amid hostile opposition. In other words, God can perform extraordinary miracles today, but no longer needs to do that.

On the other hand, Pentecostals are continualists — the exact opposite of cessationism. When the Pentecostal movement erupted at the turn of the twentieth century, early participants advocated for a fourfold gospel: conversion, the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the necessary sign (“initial evidence”) of speaking in tongues, divine healing, and the imminent return of Jesus to usher in the end of time. Pentecostals strongly affirmed that miracles and spiritual gifts continue into the present age. To cite just one biblical verse, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

When presented with these polar opposites, the idea that Baptists and Pentecostals have little in common sounds accurate. Indeed, the history of the two groups reveals a great deal of conflict when one group talked about the other or when someone left one group for the other. Baptists said that Pentecostals were adding to the Bible with the need for miracles and modern- day prophecies. They said they were too emotional, too reliant on their subjective experience, and thus prone to doctrinal heresies. On the other hand, Pentecostals said that Baptists had ignored the power of the Holy Spirit, and thus the Baptist claim to being the embodiment of the New Testament church or to restoring it was bogus and fraudulent. Baptists, Pentecostals said, did not practice or accept the “full gospel” so obvious in the Scriptures. Pentecostals believed that they were the genuine restoration of New Testament Christianity.

Of course, the criticisms between these two differing perspectives were couched in the language of the Bible, but they also were overlaid with socio-economic, gender and racial factors. As the twentieth century unfolded, Baptists saw themselves as the beacon of democracy for the modern era. Their democratic governance (congregationalism) and focus on voluntary faith meant they would help usher in the “Christian century” and God’s plan for democracy worldwide.

[Baptists’] democratic governance (congregationalism) and focus on voluntary faith meant they would help usher in the “Christian century” and God’s plan for democracy worldwide.

Baptists might have come from the margins, but that was in their past, they confidently asserted. As they looked on Pentecostals, they often spoke with condescension about Pentecostals being stuck on the margins: uneducated, emotionally unstable, lower-class Americans. In turn, Pentecostals contended that Baptists had lost their way, were becoming too worldly, too elitist, too educated and unable to experience the power of the Holy Spirit. In Tennessee, for example, as Pentecostals began making inroads into Baptist “territory” in the 1930s, one Baptist journal editor wrote that Satanic-induced tongues was characterized by unbiblical bodily contortions that gave practitioners “hysterical spasm(s).” He also employed a frequent gendered argument used against Pentecostals — that women were more prone to “jabbering away” while falsely claiming to speak in tongues when they should follow the biblical mandate for women to keep silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34).

Baptist-Pentecostal interaction, however, is much more complicated and extensive than any standard narrative of opposition or of groups being essentially isolated from each other. Pentecostalism was born out of the Holiness movement that influenced late nineteenth century evangelicalism. Whereas Pentecostals argued (based on their reading of Acts 2) that the sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit was speaking in tongues, Holiness believers had earlier spoken of holiness/sanctification as a post-conversion second work of grace (or a second religious experience) and gradually defined it as the baptism of the Holy Spirit. As the Holiness movement developed, primarily among Methodists, some Baptists accepted holiness doctrine and practice and sought the extra sin-cleansing experience and witnessing power of the Holy Spirit. For example, some Baptists in the mountains of Tennessee accepted holiness beliefs, which led to the founding of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). This church later became a large Pentecostal denomination. The Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church (with headquarters in North Carolina) is an example of a group of Baptists who stayed Baptist but accepted holiness teachings and then accepted Pentecostal beliefs. Baptists who accepted holiness ideas were usually more willing to moving into Pentecostal circles. Not all holiness Baptists became Pentecostal, but the desire for Spirit-led experience was a connecting link.

A.J. Gordon, perhaps the most well-known self-identified Spirit-led Baptist of the nineteenth century was an influential missions leader and conservative pastor among Northern Baptists (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary is named after him). He accepted a version of holiness teaching as he participated in the holiness-friendly revivals of evangelist D.L Moody. Gordon also affirmed divine healing for the modern era. He said that if Baptists insisted that the mode of baptism in the New Testament was necessary in the modern era, then out of consistency they must practice healing by faith as outlined in Scripture. Gordon said not only did the Bible ascertain the truth of divine healing, but personal experience (including his own) vindicated the Bible’s testimony. Gordon died in 1895, but when Pentecostals of the twentieth century went looking for theological defenses of divine healing, they turned to his writings.

The origins of Pentecostalism is not a Baptist story, but the narrative is distorted without recognizing the Baptist elements. The date of the birth of Pentecostalism is disputed, but the eruption of the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 is widely understood as the key event for the development of a lasting movement. Pentecostal pioneer William Seymour was a Black holiness preacher who adopted the belief of speaking in tongues as the sign of the Spirit baptism. He was not a Baptist, though attendance at a Baptist church was part of his background. Some of the earliest holiness participants who attended the months of continuous services at Azusa Street had come from African American holiness Baptist backgrounds. White Baptists were also part of the Azusa story (for example, A.H. Post) and provided leadership.

In addition to the story of origins of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN), the formation of the Church of God in Christ, which would become the largest African American Pentecostal body and the Assemblies of God, which would become the largest white Pentecostal group, had Baptist backstories. Charles H. Mason was an African American Baptist minister who became a holiness Baptist and ministered in Arkansas and Mississippi. He and African American holiness Baptist Charles P. Jones of Jackson, Mississippi ended up being excluded from Baptist life over holiness ideas in the 1890s. They then split over the emergence of Pentecostalism. Mason attended the Azusa Street Revival when he heard about the miracles occurring at the Los Angeles church and experienced speaking in tongues. Upon his return to the South, he and Jones separated and Mason’s Pentecostal leadership blossomed as the leader of the Church of God in Christ. Many holiness Baptists joined his Pentecostal venture. For example, Lizzie Robinson, longtime leader of women’s ministries in COGIC, had also been Baptist.

Many of the early leaders in the Assemblies of God had their starts in Baptist life, particularly E.N. Bell, who had attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for ministerial training. The Assemblies were a natural home for Baptists who wanted more immediate experience of God found in the Holy Spirit baptism, but who defined holiness more as an “enduement” of power for witnessing rather than the Wesleyan concept of sanctification as cleansing of inbred sin.

The Assemblies were a natural home for Baptists who wanted more immediate experience of God found in the Holy Spirit baptism, but who defined holiness more as an “enduement” of power for witnessing rather than the Wesleyan concept of sanctification as cleansing of inbred sin.

Assemblies of God adherents, like most Baptists, thought that sanctification was progressive and not received in this life. Pentecostals certainly argued among themselves about how many distinct experiences were biblical but those with Baptist roots often (though not always) found the two-step experience of conversion and Holy Spirit baptism via tongues more compatible with their previous Baptist identity.

Baptist and Pentecostal interaction had a variety of venues and some unexpected twists and turns. Baptist cessationist pastors normally detested faith healing crusades, but Baptists were in the audiences of divine healers like F.F. Bosworth and Aimee Semple McPherson. The well-known story of Sister Aimee, the popular evangelist of the 1920s, actually included another Baptist element. As she left the Assemblies of God in the early 1920s, she was ordained by First Baptist Church, San Jose, California. A group of full gospel Baptist churches found inspiration in her ministry. Even John Roach Straton of New York, the fundamentalist firebrand in the battle against modernism, became a fan of McPherson and her child preacher protégé, Uldine Utley. Most fundamentalist Baptist cessationists never hesitated to denounce McPherson, but the intensity and frequency of their pronouncements that equated “McPhersonism” and Pentecostalism and called her the “high priestess” of the movement revealed that her ministry (and the support of women in ministry in Pentecostalism) was a threat to their own religious experience as Baptists.

In the 1960s, Pentecostal practices went mainstream with the eruption of the Charismatic Renewal movement. Charismatics were people who remained in mainline denominations but affirmed Pentecostal experiences like speaking in tongues, prophecy and divine healing. Baptists were part of the story and some became notable leaders, including Pat Robertson, John Osteen (father of current Houston megachurch pastor, Joel Osteen) and James Robison. Being slain the Spirit, falling to the floor (doing carpet time) limp under the miraculous power of God especially characterized the rise of “power evangelism” (sometimes called the “third wave” of Spirit-led Christianity). Leaders of the demonstrative Toronto Blessing (1990s), which highlighted being slain as well as holy laughter and even barking in the Spirit, included former Baptist turned Vineyard minister, Randy Clark. Clark attributed his interest in miracles and revivals to his study with holiness Baptist, Lewis Drummond, an evangelism professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jack Taylor, Southern Baptists’ most prolific author on Christian discipleship in the 1970s, also led Baptists into this “power” phrase of Pentecostal practices. Unsurprisingly, however, Baptist charismatics usually insisted that they were not Pentecostal.

Most adherents and leaders of Charismatic Renewal were white, but in the 1990s, many Blacks, including Black Baptists, assumed leadership positions. The most visible example was the formation of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship under the leadership of Bishop (rare for Baptists to be called bishops) Paul Morton. Growing up in the Church of God in Christ, Morton became pastor of St. Stephens Baptist Church in New Orleans and initiated a movement he said was based on choice — Baptists could choose to be both Baptists and Pentecostal. Many Black Baptists were attracted to the movement, yet others found the church’s identification with prosperity theology (God wants you rich and healthy) to be unbiblical.

Baptists and Pentecostals are different, but both groups are experiential in faith and they have interacted more than observers have ever recognized. Interest in being Spirit-led is part of the neglected heritage of the Baptist story. The interplay of religious experience, stated reliance on the Word, and desire for the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit in how they understand and practice faith can be found in the identity of both groups. In many ways, Baptists and Pentecostals are experiential competitors who occasionally find unity in the Spirit, but often argue about whose experience best restores New Testament faith. ♦

Doug Weaver is Professor of Baptist Studies and Director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State studies. His most recent work is Baptists and the Holy Spirit (Baylor University Press, 2019).

Recommended Citation

Weaver, Doug. “Baptist History and Pentecostalism.” Canopy Forum, September 21, 2020.