How Pentecostalism went global

It's been an important month for global Christianity with the naming of a new pope and the installation of a new Archbishop of Canterbury. But the biggest ongoing story in the Christian world these days is probably Pentecostalism,a form of evangelical Protestantism with -- according to some estimates -- more than 600 million adherents around the world. Though only about a century old, Pentecostalism has become the second largest branch of Christianity after Catholicism. It is increasingly dominant in much of Africa and represents about 13 percent of Christians in Latin America. The largest Pentecostal churches in the world are now in South Korea.

I spoke this week with Allan Heaton Anderson, author of the new book To the Ends of the Earth: Pentecolstalism and the Transformation of World Christianity, which traces the history of the movement's rapid growth and influence of other denominations. Raised in Zimbabwe, Anderson was a Pentecostal minister himself in Southern Africa for nearly two decades, but today teaches at the University of Birmingham. 

I asked him how he accounts for the movements rapid growth. "The emphasis on the freedom of the spirit, as the Pentecostals would put it, has enabled them to adapt and take on characteristics of the local culture. That has now permeated the churches throughout the world. More and more these churches are becoming like each other in ways that never would have been true 100 years ago."

One major theme of the book is that as Pentecostal movements around the world take on local characteristics and merge with other churches, the movement becomes much harder to define. Anderson's baseline definition for Pentecostal communities -- from megachurchese in suburban American to storefront churches Lagos -- is that "they practice "spiritual gifts," particularly the ones that are more "miraculous" like speaking in tongues and prophecy and healing the sick." 

This type of worship is generally traced back to the United States around the turn of the century, particularly the Azusa Street revival beginning in 1906, during which African-American preacher William Seymour preached to a rapidly growing interracial flock in Los Angeles employing "tongues," miracles and other -- at the time -- highly unusual practices.

Heaton acknowledges the importance of Azusa Street as a key catalyst in the spread of Pentecostalim, but argues that the movement has older antecedents. "It's not to detract from the importance of the American movement, but what I'm trying to represent is that you can't say that was the beginning of Pentecostalism because it was really in continuity with things that had been developing in the holiness movement of the 10th century and the associated missionary movements in several parts of the world."

Heaton highlights the Mukti Revival, an Indian movement in the late 19th and early 20th  centuries lead by Sarasvati Ramabai, a social reformer and women's rights activist who became an evangelical Christian in the 1890s. Significantly, Heaton quotes reports describing Mukti followers speaking in tongues long before word of what was happening at Azusa street could have reached them.

"In the late 19th century there were events taking place in several parts of the world. I refer to what happened in India as one of the most important examples of a non-American origin for several aspects of early Pentecostalism," Heaton says. "Often these revival movements created a type of indigenous Christianity that was quite different from what the missionaries anticipated or even countenanced."

Missionaries did play a large role in spreading Pentecostalism during its early years -- and some of their stories are told in the book -- but new communications technologies also played a role. "As global communications were improving, people were hearing about what was happening and there was certainly a great expectation at the beginning of the 20th century that there was a great revival movement that would sweep the world, as it was believed that the coming of Christ was very, very soon," Heaton says.

More traditional churches have often had to play catch-up, as locally organized Pentecostal movements have spread. "I have attended Catholic and Anglican churches in Britain, Presbyterian Churches in Korea, Methodist Churches in America, places where I would not expect to see the kind of freedom of expression of Christianity that has characterized Pentecostals since its beginning."

What this means for older churches is a question likely very much on the agenda for both the new pope and the new archbishop.