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Tongues, The Bible Evidence

The Revival Legacy of Charles F. Parham

By Gary B. McGee

In plush surroundings at the former Stone mansion outside of Topeka, Kansas, the first Pentecostal revival of the century began on January 1, 1901. This revival would give rise to the most dynamic force for evangelism and missions in modern times. 

The elegant setting, however, meant little to the band of 40 students of the Bethel Bible School that the 27-year-old Charles F. Parham had begun 3 months earlier in these rented facilities. Convinced that God had commissioned them as missionaries in the "last days," they gathered to pray for the promised "latter rain" outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:23,28,29), to acquire the same spiritual power that marked the expansion of the Early Church. 

In this intense atmosphere of expectancy on New Year's Day, student Agnes N. Ozman became the first to receive the sign of Spirit baptism: speaking in tongues. "Thus was the Church militant again permitted to receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit," mused Parham. With the great end-times revival beginning and the army of harvesters prepared for the mission fields, the clouds would soon part and "the Lord himself…descend from heaven" (1 Thessalonians 4:16). How did this obscure Kansas preacher so notably advance the restoration of apostolic power in the churches?

Click here for more details, and a larger image... Searching for Apostolic Power

On June 4, 1873, in Muscatine, Iowa, the family of William and Ann Parham welcomed the birth of a third son, Charles Fox Parham. In 1878, William, a house painter and horse-collar maker, moved the family by prairie schooner south and settled in Kansas. Shrewdly investing his money in agriculture, he won for his family a comfortable living on their 160-acre farm near Anness, Kansas. But young Charles wrestled with poor health, ranging from infant encephalitis to tapeworms. To make matters worse, he contracted rheumatic fever at age 9, which weakened his heart and forced him into long periods of inactivity. Once, he nearly died from a recurrence.

Call to Ministry

Although the Parham family made no particular confession of faith, his mother taught him the value of godly devotion. Charles was converted in 1886 when he attended evangelistic meetings at a local Congregational church; a "Damascus road" experience that changed the direction of his life. Shortly afterward, Parham began attending a Methodist church where he taught Sunday school. 

At age 15, he began conducting revival services on his own. To further prepare himself for ministry, in 1890, he enrolled at Southwest Kansas College in Winfield. 

While a student, Parham "backslid" and decided to become a medical doctor. But following another bout with rheumatic fever, he recommitted himself to the ministry. Returning to evangelistic work, he obtained a minister's license from the Southwest Kansas Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, North. At age 20, he received a temporary appointment as supply pastor at the Eudora Methodist Church near Lawrence, Kansas. 

Despite his successful ministry among the people, Parham's relationship with his Methodist superiors became tense. His ambiguous attitude toward denominational affiliation did not warm their hearts. More importantly, Parham's adoption of Wesleyan "holiness" theology with its crisis experience of sanctification branded him as a troublemaker. Holiness preachers declared that following conversion, believers should seek for this "second blessing" to purge the Adamic nature from their hearts. To Methodist leaders, this smacked of doctrinal aberration.

Independent Ministry

Click here for more details, and a larger image... At the annual Southwest Kansas district conference in 1895, Parham surrendered his license to preach and "left denominationalism forever." Denouncing Methodism as spiritually bankrupt, he had a "world-wide parish," free of the "confines of a pastorate, with a lot of theater-going, card-playing, wine-drinking, fashionable, unconverted Methodists." Though freedom from denominational restraints offered Parham the liberty he desired, it brought new problems, uncertainties, and hardships. Nevertheless, he found a measure of success. 

Before long, he was overcome by an exhaustive preaching schedule and suffered once more from a heart ailment possibly related to his struggle with rheumatic fever. In 1886, he married Sarah Thistlethwaite, the daughter of a devout Quaker family. A son born to them some time later became deathly ill. After pleading with God for their healing, Parham testified to their complete recovery. Praying for the sick then became a featured part of his ministry and like other advocates of the period, he challenged the medical profession: "The [Bible] is significantly silent about any ministry of pills or powders." 

As his ministry gained more recognition, Parham moved his family and base of operations to Topeka, Kansas, in 1898. There he founded Bethel Healing Home and enlarged his activities to include rescue missions for prostitutes and the homeless, an employment bureau, an orphanage service, and later a Bible institute. To highlight these enterprises, he began publishing a holiness periodical, the Apostolic Faith.

Fire Baptism

By this time, Parham's teachings included divine healing, the crisis view of sanctification, and belief in the imminent return of Christ. Something else now drew his attention: the baptism in the Holy Spirit. 

Mainline holiness believers at the end of the 19th century referred to sanctification as baptism in the Spirit, an ushering in of a higher stage of Christian living providing purification and empowerment. However, on the radical holiness circuit, Benjamin Hardin Irwin taught the "fire-baptized" doctrine of a third experience of grace. Critics called it the "third blessing heresy." To Irwin, as well as Parham who endorsed it, sanctification cleansed believers as vessels for the Master's use (2 Timothy 2:21), and only afterward could the Spirit pour in His power. Naturally, this created a dilemma: How could one distinguish the evidence of Spirit baptism from the fruit of sanctification? 

Even with Parham's oratorical skills and the expansion of his ministry in Topeka, by 1900 his efforts there had largely failed and disillusionment swept over him. His need for a fresh vision led him to the Holy Ghost and Us Bible School at Shiloh, Maine.

The Gospel of the Latter Rain

Following the American Civil War, a small but growing cadre of Christians adopted a dispensational premillennial view of biblical prophecy. On their chart, the world would go from bad to worse before Christ would come for the saints at the rapture of the Church (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17). With the end of the century nearing, an arms race heating up between the major powers, increasing political and military tensions ("wars and rumors of wars"), and Zionists calling for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, many speculated that Christ would return by 1900 or thereabouts. Amid deepening concern over the slow pace of conversions, keen observers of the missions scene wondered how the Great Commission could be accomplished in the few remaining years.

Click here for more details, and a larger image... The Radical Strategy

Radical evangelicals on the fringe of the missions movement uniquely contended that supernatural "signs and wonders" (Acts 5:12) should accompany the preaching of the gospel according to Matthew 10:5—10 and Mark 16:17,18. With the close of human history fast approaching, only a mighty intervention of the Spirit's power could ensure that every tribe and nation would hear the good news in time (Matthew 24:14). 

Those who anticipated miracles in evangelism included: A.J. Gordon, founder of what is currently Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; John Alexander Dowie, the faith healer who built the utopian community of Zion City (later Zion), Illinois; A.B. Simpson, president of the Christian and Missionary Alliance; and Frank W. Sandford, founder of the Holy Ghost and Us Bible School in Maine. Sandford's preaching deeply stirred Parham when he heard him speak in Topeka in June 1900. 

Leaving later in June on a journey that would last 12 weeks, Parham visited holiness centers in Chicago, Cleveland, and Nyack, New York, on his way to Maine. There he sat under Sandford's teaching, reinforcing what he believed about the empowering function of Spirit baptism. 

But going farther than Sandford, Parham began to envision that the Spirit would confer known languages—"missionary tongues"—on believers in response to their faith. Weeks before Sandford's visit to Topeka, Parham had printed a note in the April 1900 issue of the Apostolic Faith, notifying his readers that a "Brother and Sister Hamaker" were residing at Bethel "to labor for Jesus until He gives them an heathen tongue, and then they will proceed to the missionary field." 

As Parham's theology of baptism in the Holy Spirit evolved, he concluded that recipients would form an elite band of end-times missionaries with supernatural power to evangelize the world. In fact, "missionary tongues" not only resolved the evidence question of the Pentecostal baptism, but bestowed immediate readiness for missionaries by eliminating their need to spend months or years in language school before they could preach in their countries of service. After all, Jesus had said: "And these signs shall follow them that believe…they shall speak with new tongues" (Mark 16:17). Significantly, Parham recalled hearing speaking in tongues for the first time at Shiloh as he listened to students coming down from the prayer tower after hours of intercession. To Sandford, tongues simply represented an occasional revival phenomenon. 

There were recent precedents of persons suddenly receiving the capacity to preach in other languages. In 1881, a missionary to India, Miss C.M. Reade, testified of the Spirit's giving her the "gift of speaking Hindustani" to enable her to preach without a translator. Similar reports came from Jonathan Goforth, the famed Canadian Presbyterian missionary to China, as well as W.P. Buncombe, an Anglican serving in Japan. Yet it is doubtful that Parham knew about them. 

Others, however, found only disappointment. While it remains uncertain if Parham had heard of these failed attempts, the testimony of a young Missourian, Jennie Glassey, impressed him deeply. He reprinted a brief account in the May 1899 edition of the Apostolic Faith. According to the story, she "received the African dialect in one night…while in the Spirit in 1895, but could read and write, translate and sing the language while out of the trance or in a normal condition, and can until now. Hundreds of people can testify to the fact, both saint and sinner, who heard her use the language. She was also tested in Liverpool and Jerusalem. Her Christian experience is that of a holy, consecrated woman, filled with the Holy Ghost."

he Topeka Revival

By October 1900, when Parham opened Bethel Bible School, his "Gospel of the Latter Rain" had already been formulated: "missionary tongues" represented the indispensable evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit, a "sign" of the "last days" outpouring that bestowed linguistic ability. 

In the fall of 1900, after leading his students through a series of Bible studies on repentance, justification by faith, sanctification, and healing, Parham instructed them on Spirit baptism. By the end of December, they were prepared to encounter Acts 2 in a new way. After the revival commenced on New Year's Day, he announced that the students had spoken many languages. He himself had received the capability of preaching in German and Swedish, Agnes Ozman in "Chinese," and others in a variety of languages including Japanese, Hungarian, Syrian, Hindi, and Spanish. Parham noted that "cloven tongues of fire" appeared over the heads of speakers. Sometimes interpretations followed such as "God is love," "Jesus is mighty to save," and "Jesus is ready to hear." 

Curiously, no missionaries traveled overseas from Topeka. In fact, it presently appears that the first Pentecostal missionaries left Fargo, North Dakota, for South Africa in 1904 as a result of a revival among Swedish-Americans likely unaware of events in Topeka. 

Biting criticisms from the newspapers and area residents, the death of Parham's year-old son, and the sale of the Stone mansion out from under him brought discouragement and led Parham to begin traveling once more and preaching the more acceptable message of divine healing. 

The fortunes of Charles Parham and the "Apostolic Faith" movement, as the Pentecostal movement was first called, finally turned around due to a spectacular revival in Galena, Kansas, in 1903. Daily services continued for months, concluding with over 800 conversions, 1,000 testimonies of physical healing, and several hundred receiving the baptism in the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues. 

This development inspired Parham to expand his ministry, and in 1905 he moved to Houston, Texas, where he started another Bible school and evangelized the area with his students. This Houston revival was successful and spread all over Texas. From Houston the Pentecostal message went to Los Angeles through one of his students and coworkers, the African-American William J. Seymour. Parham traveled to Zion City, Illinois, where his preaching gained a warm response from hundreds of John Alexander Dowie's followers. New missionaries then traveled from Zion City across the United States and to India, Africa, and other mission lands. Parham's vision of the movement reaching international proportions seemed within reach at last.

Declining Influence

Click here for more details, and a larger image... Regardless of these successes, Parham's stature began to diminish after 1906. Although he had a productive ministry and saw thousands baptized in the Holy Spirit, including many who became ministers and missionaries, the flaws in his character and leadership style stunted further influence. Despite having renounced denominationalism and church hierarchies, he awarded himself the title "Projector of the Apostolic Faith Movement" and appointed field directors. 

After encouraging Seymour to proclaim the Pentecostal baptism in Los Angeles, even contributing to his travel expenses from Houston to California, Parham publicly denounced the revival and its leaders in October 1906 for the emotionalism displayed in the worship at the Azusa Street revival, and for the intermingling of blacks and whites in the services. Seymour had asked Parham to help him control excesses. But visiting the mission for the first time and observing the "manifestations of the flesh," he stood up and declared: "God is sick at His stomach!" (It is unclear how he justified the emotionalism in his own meetings.) 

This unfortunate incident and his judgmental nature alienated Parham not only from Seymour, but others as well. The Movement had now begun to move well beyond him. Indeed, it was not as monolithic as he and others assumed: Pentecostalism emerged in India in 1906 among holiness believers without ties to Topeka and Azusa Street. 

Parham had difficulty retaining the loyalty of many followers. Most Pentecostals rejected his notion that only the Spirit baptized would be taken in the Rapture and had even less tolerance for his ideas about the annihilation of the wicked and the origin of Anglo-Saxon peoples. 

As his influence slipped, he became increasingly resentful. When former friends and other Pentecostals met to organize the General Council of the Assemblies of God at Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1914, Parham criticized them. 

In his later years, controversy continued to swirl around him, including unfounded charges of impropriety. Parham died at his home in Baxter Springs, Kansas, in 1929.

Parham's Place in History

Click here for more details, and a larger image... Historians naturally search for the "movers and shakers" of religious movements to understand their development. Yet, it is a complicated task to identify a single founder of modern Pentecostalism. In the early years, the movement had as many leaders as revival centers and the faithful attributed it solely to the work of the Holy Spirit. These early personalities left notable imprints on the Pentecostal movement. But some historians have nominated Parham as founder of this Pentecostal movement. 

Pentecostalism swiftly encompassed whites, African-Americans, and Latinos. Many Pentecostal trailblazers can be cited, among them, Thomas B. Barratt (Norway) and in America, E.N. Bell (Assemblies of God), Charles Harrison Mason (Church of God in Christ), Aimee Semple McPherson (International Church of the Foursquare Gospel), and Francisco Olazábal (Latin American Council of Christian Churches). 

It is much to Parham's credit that defined the chief doctrinal distinctive of the Movement: the truth about speaking in tongues as the uniform "Bible evidence" or "initial evidence" of baptism in the Holy Spirit. Even so, Pentecostals were reviewing the Scriptures by 1907 to obtain a fuller understanding. Although retaining Parham's insistence on tongues, they recognized that glossolalia constitutes prayer in the Spirit—the source of spiritual empowerment. In this way, Pentecostals kept the sign value of tongues, but rejected their utility in missions. This incisive change solidified the biblical foundation of Pentecostal theology.

A Final Reflection

The unprecedented growth of worldwide Pentecostalism after mid-century prompted historians to examine its origins, and they discovered Parham to be a major historical figure. 

Those baptized in the Spirit as a result of his ministry and who played key roles in the Pentecostal movement included early Assemblies of God leaders Howard A. Goss and Fred Vogler; Etta Calhoun, founder of the Women's Ministries program of the denomination; and Marie Burgess [Brown], pioneering pastor of Glad Tidings Tabernacle in New York City. Some were called to missions: John G. Lake went to South Africa and Edith Baugh to India. Finally, in the early 1920s when Parham was preaching in Portland, Oregon, teenager Gordon Lindsay found Christ as Savior. Lindsay's ministry later became prominent through his Voice of Healing organization and Christ For The Nations Institute in Dallas, Texas. 

In analyzing the life and legacy of any Christian, it is important to remember Paul's counsel to the Corinthian believers: "We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us" (2 Corinthians 4:7, NIV). Students of history should neither glorify Parham beyond his actual achievements nor dismiss his memory. In God's mercy, He uses frail human beings. But then…that's the point about "jars of clay."


By Charles F. and Sarah E. Parham:

About Charles F. Parham Of related interest:

Gary B. McGee, Ph.D., is professor of church history at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri.

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