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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...




Fully Committed

By Darrin Rodgers
Apr. 13, 2014

What is the most important thing for the Assemblies of God to remember?

Founding Chairman E.N. Bell, in a December 1914 article titled, “General Council Purposes,” declared that “our first aim and supreme prayer” is to focus on the spiritual life. “Let us keep to the front,” he wrote, “deep spirituality in our souls and the power and anointing of God on our ministry.”1

The men and women who pioneered the AG desired — more than anything else — to be fully committed to Christ and His mission. These pioneers included young people and veteran preachers, visionaries and faithful plodders, housewives and laborers.

They were unified by a common experience of the Spirit which brought them close to God and propelled them to be witnesses to the world. They were on a mission to share the love of Jesus in word and deed. They preached the gospel, prayed for the sick, witnessed miracles, published profound insights on the spiritual life, and established churches, schools, orphanages, and rescue missions.

Their story is our story.

Early Pentecostal Revival

The Assemblies of God is one of several denominations birthed in the early 20th-century Pentecostal revival. Early Pentecostals embraced a worldview that, at its heart, emphasized a transformative encounter with God. Pentecostals drew from a tapestry of sometimes-competing beliefs within evangelicalism.

Pentecostals, despite their disagreements, formed an identifiable movement because of their common commitment to the experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit. These ardent seekers saw in Scripture that Spirit baptism provided empowerment to live above normal human existence, brought believers into closer communion with God, and empowered them to witness.

While many sought Spirit baptism, uncertainty existed regarding how to determine whether one had received it. Kansas Holiness evangelist Charles F. Parham identified a scriptural pattern — that the “Bible evidence” (later called the “initial evidence”) of Spirit baptism was speaking in tongues.

Students at Parham’s Bible school in Topeka, Kan., began speaking in tongues during a prayer meeting on Jan. 1, 1901. Through his Apostolic Faith movement located in the south central states, Parham had some success in promoting this restoration of the gift of tongues.

The 1906 revival at the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles catapulted this restoration before a larger audience. William Seymour, an African-American and former student of Parham, led the Azusa Street mission. The revival lasted for three years, reportedly with nonstop services, day and night.

This revival brought together men and women from diverse religious, ethnic and national backgrounds. Participant Frank Bartleman famously exulted that at Azusa Street “the ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.” Scores of periodicals — from around the world and in numerous languages — carried reports of this revival.

Ministers and laypersons made pilgrimages to Azusa Street to experience the remarkable revival and to seek to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Participants became known as Pentecostals, named after the Jewish feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was first given to the church and believers first spoke in tongues (Acts 2).

The Topeka and Azusa Street revivals may have been focal points in the emerging Pentecostal revival, but they were neither the first nor the only such revivals. The earliest Pentecostals recounted similar revivals in the late 1800s and early 1900s across the world, and throughout church history.

Early AG educator Henry H. Ness declared, “During the 19 centuries since Christ whenever the spiritual life has run high, during revivals, the Lord has baptized with the Holy Ghost as He did on the Day of Pentecost.”2

Formation of the Assemblies of God

The founding fathers and mothers of the Assemblies of God met in Hot Springs, Ark., from April 2-12, 1914, to promote unity and doctrinal stability, establish legal standing, coordinate the mission enterprise, and establish a ministerial training school. The business meeting was called “General Council” and the new body was called the General Council of the Assemblies of God.

It was a momentous occasion. Walter Higgins later recalled, “A halo of glory rested over the sessions from day to day. God saw fit to bless this meeting with a visitation of His Holy Ghost. The praises rose from those gathered in the service, seemingly like a mighty sea.”

Participants at the first General Council represented a variety of independent churches and networks of churches, including the Association of Christian Assemblies in Indiana and a group identified as the “Church of God in Christ and in Unity with the Apostolic Faith Movement” from Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas. This latter group originated with Parham and, despite its name, appears to have been structurally separate from Bishop Charles H. Mason’s largely African-American denomination, the Church of God in Christ.

Bishop Mason was one of the speakers at the first General Council and blessed the formation of the AG. He also brought the black gospel choir from the Church of God in Christ school in Lexington, Miss., which sang at the first General Council. It was significant, given the “Jim Crow” laws of the day, that Mason and the founders of the AG were willing to cross the color line.

The approximately 300 participants at the Hot Springs meeting incorporated the General Council with a hybrid congregational and Presbyterian polity. The first two officers elected were Eudorus N. Bell as chairman (title later changed to general superintendent) and J. Roswell Flower as secretary. While most other U.S. Pentecostal denominations were regionally defined, the AG claimed a broad nationwide constituency.


Doctrine

The Assemblies of God identified with the Holiness movement, which emphasized the need for a deeper spiritual life. The first General Council did not adopt a formal theological statement, intentionally allowing for some theological diversity within the bounds of the Holiness worldview. The preamble to the first constitution of the AG aimed for unity despite differences: “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace, until we all come into the unity of the faith.”3

AG leaders quickly realized the need to develop theological boundaries. Almost immediately, they were faced with a new teaching that denied the doctrine of the Trinity. This new teaching (called the “New Issue” or Oneness theology) was sweeping through the Pentecostal movement, and a large number of AG ministers embraced it.

In 1916 the General Council approved a Statement of Fundamental Truths, which affirmed the Fellowship’s Trinitarian and evangelical witness. This resulted in the departure of Oneness advocates, as well as those who opposed what was perceived as “creedalism.”


Organizational Development

Initially, the primary function of the Assemblies of God headquarters was to publish literature through its Gospel Publishing House.

As the responsibilities for its home and overseas efforts grew increasingly complex, the AG established the Missionary Department in 1919 and the Home Missions and Education Department in 1937. Other departments followed (e.g., Youth, Sunday School, Missionettes, Royal Rangers).

First located in Findlay, Ohio, the AG headquarters moved to St. Louis in 1915, and finally to Springfield, Mo., in 1918.

The AG adopted two official periodicals: the monthly Word and Witness and the weekly Christian Evangel. The periodicals merged in 1916; the resulting periodical was renamed the Pentecostal Evangel in 1919.


Education

From the outset, the Assemblies of God promoted the development of educational institutions, encouraging both ministerial training and liberal arts education.

Initially, the AG endorsed several small regional Bible institutes and literary schools. Some survived to become enduring institutions; others merged or closed.

The first successful national school was Central Bible Institute (later Central Bible College) in Springfield, Mo., in 1922. In 1955, Evangel College in Springfield became the first national Pentecostal school of arts and sciences. The Assemblies of God Graduate School, which became the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, also began operations in Springfield in 1973. These three schools consolidated under the name of Evangel University in 2013.

There are currently 17 endorsed schools of higher education. Among them, Global University provides accredited ministerial distance education. Hundreds of smaller Bible institutes, sponsored by churches and districts, also exist.


Missions

World missions has always been central to the identity of the Assemblies of God. The second General Council, held in Chicago in November 1914, resolved to achieve “the greatest evangelism that the world has ever seen.” By 1915 the AG endorsed approximately 30 missionaries. They operated in independent fashion and primarily worked in the traditional sites of Christian mission: Africa, India, China, Japan, and the Middle East; others later served in Europe, Latin America, and Oceania.

The AG committed itself in 1921 to a missions strategy of establishing self-governing, self-supporting, and self-sustaining churches in missions lands. Alice E. Luce, a Spirit-baptized Anglican missionary to India who transferred to the Assemblies in 1915, influenced the AG to adopt this indigenous church principle long before it was embraced by most mainline Protestant groups.

Missions leaders such as Ralph D. Williams, J. Philip Hogan, and Melvin L. Hodges helped to implement the indigenous strategy, resulting in the development of hundreds of ministerial training institutions around the world.

AG missions addressed ministries of compassion without diminishing gospel proclamation. Such ministries included the Lillian Trasher Orphanage in Assiout, Egypt; the Mission of Mercy Hospital and Research Centre in Kolkata, India; HealthCare Ministries; and the affiliated Convoy of Hope.

By 2012, the national churches associated with the World Assemblies of God Fellowship counted more than 66 million adherents. The AG has become the second-largest Protestant family of churches in the world, after the Anglican Communion.

Such incredible growth, according to J. Philip Hogan, resulted not just from strategy, but from reliance on the Holy Spirit: “The essential optimism of Christianity is that the Holy Spirit is a force capable of bursting into the hardest paganism, discomfiting the most rigid dogmatism, electrifying the most suffocating organization, and bringing the glory of Pentecost.”


National Ministries

The Assemblies of God was formed, in large part, to aid ministry in the local church. National ministries for children and youth were pioneered during the 1920s, starting with graded Sunday School curriculum and an organization for youth and young adults — Christ’s Ambassadors (C.A.’s).

Ministries begun in the mid-20th century included Speed the Light (1944), Boys and Girls Missionary Challenge (1949), Chi Alpha (1953), Light for the Lost (1953), Missionettes (1956, now National Girls Ministries), Royal Rangers (1962), Teen Bible Quiz (1962, now Bible Quiz), and Teen Talent (1963, now Fine Arts).

The Revivaltime radio broadcast, a 30-minute weekly program on the ABC Radio Network, launched in 1950 and featured ministry by Wesley Steelberg. Later Revivaltime speakers C.M. Ward (1953-78) and Dan Betzer (1979-95) became two of the best-known personalities in the AG. Not only did these and other national ministries help evangelize and disciple believers, they also gave the AG a sense of national identity.


Ethnic Diversity

While the 300 ministers at the founding General Council in Hot Springs were mostly, if not all, white, the Assemblies of God soon expanded across the ethnic divides.

The AG ordained its first African-American minister in 1915 (Ellsworth S. Thomas), ordained its first Hispanics in 1916 (Juan Lugo and Solomon and Dianicia Feliciano), created a conference for Hispanic churches in the U.S. in 1918 (later known as the Latin American District), and appointed its first African-American missionaries in 1920 (Isaac and Martha Neeley).

The German Branch (later district) formed in 1922, and in the 1940s and 1950s eight additional language branches formed, mostly for Europeans who had settled in the United States. By the 1970s, most of these language branches for European immigrants had dissolved, as their members had Americanized.

Beginning in the 1980s, language districts have been organized for new immigrants (Korean, Brazilian, Slavic, and Samoan). Fellowships have been formed for 21 additional ethnic groups.

Despite the AG’s early interracial character and its roots in the integrated Azusa Street revival, the racial tensions in the broader culture found limited expression within the Fellowship. Significant efforts to repent of racism and to be racially inclusive have been made in recent decades.

The 1989 General Council adopted a resolution opposing “the sin of racism in any form,” calling for repentance from anyone who may have participated in racism “through personal thought or action, or through church or social structures.” The 1995 General Council resolved to encourage the “inclusion of black brothers and sisters throughout every aspect of the Assemblies of God.”

In 1997, the General Council voted to include representatives of ethnic fellowships in the General Presbytery and executive presbytery. In a groundbreaking election, an African-American executive presbyter, Zollie Smith, was elected in 2007 to serve as executive director of U.S. Missions.

In recent years, the nonwhite constituency in the AG has exploded in growth, from 31.4 percent in 2003 to 40.8 percent in 2012. The AG continues to show strong numerical growth, particularly when compared to other major denominations, largely because of growth among ethnic minorities.


Women in Ministry

Continuing in the tradition of the Holiness movement, women played important roles in early Pentecostalism and the Assemblies of God as evangelists, missionaries and pastors. Originally offering them ordination only as evangelists and missionaries, the General Council began ordaining women as pastors in 1935. However, many women served in the role of pastor prior to 1935 without denominational credentials.

Before 1950 more than 1,000 women evangelists had traveled the country ministering and planting churches. Influential women included Zelma Argue, Marie Burgess Brown, Etta Calhoun, Alice Reynolds Flower, Hattie Hammond, Chonita Howard, Aimee Semple McPherson (in the Assemblies of God from 1919 to 1922), Carrie Judd Montgomery, Louise Nankivell, Florence Steidel, Louise Jeter Walker, Alta Washburn, and Mildred Whitney.

Nevertheless, by mid-century, the number of women credential holders fell into sharp decline. The trend has reversed in recent decades with the percentage of women ministers increasing from 14.9 percent in 1990 to 21.8 percent in 2012. The number of female senior pastors increased from 400 in 2000 to 524 in 2011.


Cooperation

Early Pentecostals often cooperated at the local level in citywide evangelistic crusades and similar campaigns. They crossed the racial, denominational and social divides in practical ministry endeavors. This was true in early tent meetings 100 years ago, at the salvation-healing campaigns of the 1950s, and during the charismatic renewal from the 1960s through the 1980s.

The Assemblies of God was a leader in several new organizations, formed in the 1940s, that brought evangelicals and Pentecostals together. The AG was a founding member of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942. The NAE established a national evangelical voice on issues such as religious liberty and also encouraged cooperation on world evangelization.

NAE membership helped the AG to be identified with the broader evangelical movement. AG General Superintendent Thomas F. Zimmerman (serving 1959-85) worked to build bridges between evangelicals and Pentecostals.

The AG was also a founding member of the Pentecostal World Conference (1947) and the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America (1948) and worked with the Lausanne Committee on Evangelism, the World Evangelical Alliance, and the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium.

 

New Revival Movements

New revival movements have sprung up in the past 100 years, bringing both encouragement and challenges.

The “New Order of the Latter Rain” arose among Canadian Pentecostals in 1948. Some Latter Rain proponents advocated an extreme form of congregationalism, which in practice resulted in a lack of accountability, led to some self-proclaimed apostles and prophets, and brought disrepute on the movement. Most Pentecostal denominations, including the Assemblies of God, condemned these excesses.

In the late 1940s, a salvation and healing movement included many prominent evangelists, such as A.A. Allen, W.V. Grant, and Jack Coe, who started out in the AG but ultimately formed independent ministries. One of the troubling legacies of the movement was the establishment of a large network of powerful independent evangelists who had little accountability.

Salvation and healing evangelists attracted the attention of many non-Pentecostals, which resulted in Pentecostal revival breaking out in the 1950s where Pentecostals least expected it — mainline churches. This revival became known as the charismatic renewal.

Pentecostals and charismatics sized each other up, coming together in numerous prayer groups, conferences, and preaching events. AG leaders offered a measured response to the charismatic renewal in 1972:

“The winds of the Spirit are blowing freely outside the normally recognized Pentecostal body. … The AG does not place approval on that which is manifestly not scriptural in doctrine or conduct. But neither do we categorically condemn everything that does not totally … conform to our standards. … It is important to find our way in a sound scriptural path, avoiding the extremes of an ecumenism that compromises scriptural principles and an exclusivism that excludes true Christians.”


The Future

What is the future of the Assemblies of God? In 1953, W.T. Gaston, former general superintendent (1925-29) suggested, “If we are to have a future that is better or even comparable and worthy of our past, we will need to learn over again some of the lessons of yesterday.”4 One of the important lessons to rediscover, he wrote, was the importance of promoting “pure, undefiled” religion.

Gaston recalled the “utter disregard for poverty or wealth or station in life” that he witnessed in the early Pentecostal movement: “Completely satisfied without the world’s glittering tinsel, and content to be the objects of its scornful hatred, those rugged pioneers had something that made them attractive and convincing.”

If younger Pentecostals heed this lesson from older Pentecostals, the future of the Assemblies of God will be in good hands.


1 E.N. Bell, “General Council Purposes,” Christian Evangel, Dec. 19, 1914, p. 1.

2 Henry H. Ness, Demonstration of the Holy Spirit as Revealed by the Scriptures and Confirmed in Great Revivals (Seattle: Hollywood Temple, 1940s?), p. 5.

3 Minutes, General Council, April 2-12, 1914, p. 4.

4 W.T. Gaston, “Guarding our Priceless Heritage,” Pentecostal Evangel, Aug. 16, 1953.


DR. DARRIN RODGERS is director of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center for the Assemblies of God in Springfield, Mo.

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