The Birth of Speaking in Tongues October 1, 2013

The Birth of Speaking in Tongues

Dr. Karen Stollznow‘s latest book, God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States (Pitchstone Publishing, 2013), takes a look at everything from Fundamentalist Mormon sects to the Amish.

In the exclusive excerpt below, Stollznow explains the WTF-inspiring beginnings of the Charismatic movement:

The Holy Spirit waited for almost two thousand years before appearing again in Topeka, Kansas (of course). This is where pastor Charles Fox Parham managed his Bethel Bible School. One day he asked his students to ponder the meaning of “Receiving Baptism of the Holy Spirit.” After a few days of consideration, the class came to the conclusion that this referred to speaking in tongues, and that one of their fellow students could actually do it! Agnes Ozman had already given them a convincing demonstration. As the story goes, in the first minutes of the year 1901, Parham and his class prayed over Ozman, and performed the laying on of hands. Within minutes, she began speaking in tongues! This time there wasn’t a mighty wind, or tongues of fire from the sky. Instead, a halo appeared around Ozman’s face, and then she began speaking Chinese. Soon, Parham and the other students began speaking in tongues too. These events are generally believed to have sparked the Pentecostal movement.

Following this discovery, Parham proceeded to open Bible colleges in Houston, Texas, and began baptizing people in the Holy Spirit. One of his students was a young African-American man by the name of William Joseph Seymour. He was soon invited to preach at a church in Los Angeles, but he only delivered one sermon before he was locked out of the building for his unorthodox beliefs. He began speaking in private homes instead, and his quirky services quickly gained a following. Seymour found a permanent residence at 312 Azusa Street, a rundown shack that had once been a church, but in recent years had served as a warehouse, a barn, and even a shop that built tombstones. The first meeting was held at this location on April 14, 1906, and it ignited a movement that became known as the Azusa Street Revival.

Within months, the newly named Apostolic Faith Mission was packed with thousands of worshippers on a weekly basis. The meetings would begin in the morning and often last twelve hours or longer. These weren’t typical sermons. Instead, there was speaking in tongues, shouting, singing, and shaking, while Seymour kneeled on the ground screaming “Repent!” again and again. The faithful believed these were manifestations of the Holy Spirit, although it seemed more of a manifestation of mass hysteria as they howled, cried, rolled, and jumped. People were slammed against the wall by the spirit, they danced like they were drunk, or they lay still on the floor for hours as if in a coma. They became known as Holy Rollers, Holy Jumpers, Holy Ghosters, and Tangled Tonguers.

The services attracted people from diverse religions, including Methodists, Mennonites, Quakers, Baptists, and mediums from the spiritualism movement. This was during the height of the Jim Crow era, yet the congregation united men, women, and children of all ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Not everyone appreciated this at the time. As pastor Parham observed in disgust during a visit, “Men and women, white and blacks, knelt together or fell across one another; a white woman, perhaps of wealth and culture, could be seen thrown back in the arms of a big ‘buck nigger,’ and held tightly thus as she shivered and shook in freak imitation of Pentecost. Horrible, awful shame!” Parham had hoped to lead this new movement, but it had already evolved beyond him. However, he still had a legacy to fulfill. Parham, married with children, became embroiled in a scandal in 1907. He was arrested on charges of sodomy with two young men, and so, he also established a precedent of hypocritical preachers. The Azusa Street Revival lasted into 1913, but lives on today as the strange origins of the Pentecostal movement.

God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States is now available on Amazon.

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