USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Moved by the Spirit

Origins and Growth

When dramatic social change upends conventional forms of belief, the seeds of renewalist religion begin to stir.

The Los Angeles Times was not pleased by events unfolding at the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission. Under the headline “Women With Men Embrace” in the newspaper’s edition for September 3, 1906, the writer for the Times catalogued several “disgusting scenes”:

Muttering a jargon of unintelligible sounds which no man can interpret, the worshipers in the barn-like negro church on Azusa street worked themselves into paroxysms of religious fervor last night… Men and women embraced each other in an apparent agony of emotion. Whites and negroes clasped hands and sang together. The surprise is that any respectable white person would attend such meetings as are being conducted on Azusa street.

Even apart from the overt Caucasian male chauvinism apparent in the article, the L.A. of that time was very different from the relatively stable, suburbanized metropolis of today. Racial unrest, violent labor protests and the threat of epidemic—cholera, typhus and even bubonic plague—roiled Southern California and other parts of the country. L.A. itself was undergoing difficult growing pains—the city had tripled in size during the first decade of the 20th century, the plan to establish a steady water supply for the arid region was still just “Mulholland’s Dream” and a boom-and-bust economy had created a huge, restive underclass.

Iconoclastic Religion

In the midst of this turmoil an unorthodox black preacher named William J. Seymour appeared. Seymour’s testimony about the spiritual transformation that followed the believer’s personal experience of the Holy Spirit connected a radically individualist form of Christianity to the event at Pentecost—an account in the New Testament that serves as a touchstone for both Pentecostals and their Catholic counterparts, Charismatic Renewalists. During the Pentecost event, which is supposed to have occurred 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection, his key disciples and scores of other followers were visited by the Holy Spirit, an ecstatic encounter that bestowed abilities like healing, prophesy and supernatural speech—or “speaking in tongues.”

Seymour’s church on Azusa Street drew motley throngs that alarmed members of a civic and religious establishment who saw little to like in an African-American preacher leading an interracial flock that engaged in a noisily emotional form of worship. But along with the promise of direct access to divine power through the Holy Spirit, the emphasis on emotion in Pentecostalism was, arguably, the primary reason it proved so attractive. Traditional Protestant and Catholic movements of that era defined themselves largely through creeds, liturgical orthodoxies and conventions of biblical interpretation—they were, in short, religions more of the head than the heart. At a time when rapid urbanization and social upheaval were the order of the day, Pentecostalism’s promise of supernatural power and healing made it a popular remedy for the forms of soul-sickness that afflicted many people in early 20th-century L.A. and in parts of the world connected to the city through a growing missionary network.

Competing Mythologies

At this point the story becomes more complicated. Among many American scholars, the standard narrative about Pentecostalism is that contemporary global expressions of the movement trace their roots to Los Angeles and the Azusa Street Revival. But the charismatic impulse in American Christianity has a much older lineage—including the camp meetings at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in the early 19th century and other events associated with the First and Second Great Awakenings. Members of renewalist movements often locate the source of their theology and practice even farther in the past, identifying their cultivation of ecstatic experiences with the spiritual fervor of Christianity’s earliest apostolic age. And many Pentecostal and charismatic communities in Korea, Fiji, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere nurture origin stories that offer a counter-narrative to the assumptions that underlie the Azusa Street mythology.

For example, the Mukti revival in India occurred concurrently with events in Los Angeles. And in West Africa, indigenous evangelists William Wade Harris and Garrick Sokari Braide sparked Pentecost-inspired revival movements in the early 20th century that had only the most tenuous relationships to Pentecostalism in the global North.

Networks and Empowerment

But if there were near-simultaneous eruptions of renewalist fervor during what might be called the First Global Great Awakening, the missionary and media networks that were established and expanded by Azusa Street evangelists unquestionably enabled the spread of the spiritual fire. In an article titled “‘Tongues’ Go Into Africa” (May 18, 1907), the Los Angeles Times offered a glimpse of this ongoing dispatch of missionaries into “un-churched” lands:

The “Gift of Tongues” fellowship transferred itself bodily last evening from the Azusa-street church to the Salt Lake Depot, and a “Pentecostal farewell” was given to the Cummings family, as it started in its initial journey, the end of which is planned to be Monrovia, Liberia, Africa.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Pentecostal missionizing of the era was the role it afforded single white women, who embarked on one-way journeys to parts of the globe that were largely unknown to most of them. These women felt themselves directly called by God to minister to non-Christianized populations—and they also found a way to experience a powerful sense of purpose at a time when women in the United States were largely excluded from leadership positions in other denominations and had not yet won the right to vote.

Similar impulses—and opportunities—now stoke the fervor of women in Pentecostal and charismatic religious movements in parts of the world where constraints on women’s power, both secular and religious, are often the last forms of institutional oppression to succumb to the forces of modernity. In Latin America, for example, the traditional exclusion of women from positions of authority in politics as well as in traditional Catholic hierarchies has made renewalist religion a key source of women’s empowerment in the countries where it is growing most rapidly.

Charisma and Expansion

This willingness to challenge hierarchical limits on laity’s access to divine power was also a central feature of the modern Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) movement. In the late 1960s, a small group of lay leaders in the Midwest, inspired by the Pentecostal forms of spiritual practice recounted in books like The Cross and the Switchblade and They Speak With Other Tongues, began to hold retreats that included prayers requesting baptism in the Holy Spirit. Though it has faced opposition from Church leaders who see the movement as a challenge to priestly authority—or as an opening for Pentecostal “sheep stealing”—CCR is now firmly entrenched in contemporary Catholicism.

In broad terms, what has become of the multiplex Christian renewal movement and its heady mixture of race, religion and gender in the century since it began? A recent Pew Research Center report on global Christianity provided comprehensive data to support a conclusion that many social scientists have drawn from piecemeal studies over the past decade: the Christian communities that are growing most rapidly are found primarily in the global South and East. And in countries like Nigeria and China—which had tiny Christian populations in the early 20th century and now each boast more Protestants than either Germany or the United Kingdom—much of the energy for that growth has come from groups associated with Pentecostal and charismatic religion.

According to survey data from Pew and other sources, Pentecostals and charismatics currently account for roughly a quarter of the world’s two billion Christians. And if present trends continue, by 2015 well over two-thirds of the world’s Christians will live in the global South, where the concentration of renewal movements is greatest.

More remarkably, a fine-grained examination of the locations where Christian renewalism is most dramatically flourishing reveals that it is thriving where dislocation, inequality and religious as well as political turmoil are often most acute—parts of the world, in other words, that are now experiencing the kind of tumultuous change that L.A. endured a century ago.

Crisis and Opportunity

Visits to Pentecostal congregations in rapidly urbanizing places like Brazil, Nigeria, India and Indonesia reveal similar concerns and yearnings— whatever its merits, the globalization of American-style capitalism has also dramatically altered cultural landscapes in a way that often produces instability and even a form of collective trauma. In El Salvador, which has made the transition from bloody civil war to shiny shopping malls in barely 20 years, gang violence and dramatic income disparity belie a veneer of social stability. A Pentecostal pastor in San Salvador remarked that the relationship between a believer’s experience of encounter with the Holy Spirit and the easing of the kind of “emotional commotion” that pervades his society is the heart of Pentecostalism’s appeal.

Other factors that may account for the “extremophile” character of Pentecostal and charismatic religion include renewalism’s fluid authority structures, which allow leadership opportunities for women and other traditionally marginalized people in places where rigid institutionalism impairs social mobility; an exuberant form of worship, often employing contemporary musical forms, which is particularly attractive to younger worshipers; and, finally, the notion that individual believers can have a direct line of communication with the Creator of the cosmos, which is a profound proposition for those who are disempowered politically, economically or within traditional religious hierarchies.

Syncretism and “Reverse Mission”

The missionary impulse in Pentecostal and charismatic religion has taken on a number of remarkable characteristics as renewal movements have begun to reflect the southward shift in Christianity’s center of gravity. In Fiji and other parts of Oceania, local mythologies trace the roots of biblical revelation to the South Pacific, and indigenous missionaries set out for countries with their own distinct narratives of Christian proselytism. Similar instances of “reverse mission” are playing out within Latin American and sub-Saharan renewalist communities, which dispatch spiritual emissaries to carry the light of the Gospel to “spiritually dark” regions of Western Europe and North America.

This development has transformed religious networks as well. Renewalist laborers migrating from poorer nations in the global South to find work in more prosperous economies create transnational infrastructures that sustain not only the flow of remittances to families back home but also the transmission of worship cultures from their communities of origin to their host countries.

Perhaps the most important system of transnational relationships for renewalism involves the dissemination of musical forms through social networks and electronic media. For example, the tunes of Hillsong Music—a praise-song production company affiliated with a Pentecostal megachurch in Australia—are played and adapted to local worship cultures in renewalist communities across Latin America, Africa and East Asia. The frequent syncretism between local musical forms and the performance component of renewalist religious experience also means that local innovations of praise music are readily transmitted through the same transnational networks.

Pentecostalization and Routinization

A number of additional trends have emerged in Africa, Asia and Latin America. For example, many mainline communities have become Pentecostalized—meaning that emotional worship styles and an emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit are now common features in churches that formally identify themselves with established denominations like Methodism or Anglicanism. Which highlights the fact that the boundaries separating evangelical, Pentecostal, charismatic and even mainline churches are blurring, making traditional distinctions somewhat outmoded. Conversely, many older Pentecostal denominations have begun to prize professionalized clergy and a more rationalistic worship culture—processes of routinization that have diminished their capacity to innovate and grow. The leading edges of the Christian renewal movement are now the province of post-denominational groups that are beginning to engage with other religious movements in order to transform weak and often corrupt civil societies.

Los Angeles, formerly the point of departure for missionaries dispatched to the global South, is now home to dozens of outposts established by Protestant renewal groups like the India Pentecostal Church, Nigeria’s Redeemed Christian Church of God and Misión Cristiana Elim, a particularly dynamic next-generation movement based in Central America. What are the characteristics of the renewal movements on the southern ends of these networks? How are they interacting with—and even shaping—the cultures where they flourish? And what seeds are they planting in the well-turned spiritual turf of the City of Angels?

Nick Street was a senior writer with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.