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The Historical Role of the Assemblies of God Evangelist

by James O. Davis

On January 1, 1901, the modern Pentecostal movement began in Topeka, Kansas. At the close of the 20th century, Pentecostalism has become the strongest evangelistic force in the world. Assemblies of God evangelists have been greatly responsible for establishing a solid foundation and for spreading the gospel and the message of the baptism in the Holy Spirit globally. This brief historical overview will crystallize the functioning role of the itinerant evangelist in the body of Christ. The dual tracks of evangelism and equipping will be seen repeatedly in the stories of these key 20th-century evangelists.

Aimee Semple McPherson

There were many effective evangelists in the 1920s and 1930s whose ministries resulted in the enormous growth of local Pentecostal churches in the United States. These were the formative years of the Pentecostal movement in the United States. Evangelists preached in storefront buildings, garages, skating rinks, brush arbors, tents, on street corners, and in citywide crusades. Their messages emphasized salvation through Christ, the baptism in the Holy Spirit (a subsequent work after salvation with the initial physical evidence of speaking in other tongues), physical healing, and the second coming of Jesus Christ. Miracles followed these messengers.

Aimee Semple McPherson (a member of the Assemblies of God from 1919–22) traveled from city to city to establish strong Assemblies. Struggling home missions churches were transformed overnight into thriving churches. Innumerable churches became a part of the Assemblies of God during her citywide campaigns.1 Gigantic crowds attended these crusades, and the Pentecostal message was expanded in America. McPherson later founded The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

English-born Smith Wigglesworth, known as the “apostle of faith,” came to America between 1914-35. It has been recorded: “No other person exerted more influence over the Assemblies of God with regard to faith for supernatural confirmation of the Word than this one-time illiterate English plumber. His book, Ever-increasing Faith, sold over 100,000 copies.”2 Although more than 50 years have passed since Wigglesworth's death, the miracles in this man's ministry represent a legacy of the supernatural and his popularity remains to this day.

In 1933–34, Morris Plotts preached evangelistic crusades in south central Iowa. In New Sharon, 50 miles southeast of Des Moines, hundreds poured into his meetings. The crowds numbered up to 1,000. Some people drove more than 100 miles to attend these crusades. A large nucleus of people were saved and baptized in a nearby river. This was only the beginning of what God had planned for Morris Plotts' life.

Over the years, Evangelist Plotts became burdened for world evangelization, particularly East Africa. He is remembered for his evangelistic zeal, pioneer spirit, and missionary vision. As an evangelist in the United States and Africa, Plotts pioneered scores of churches. He epitomizes the pioneer spirit of a true Pentecostal evangelist.

Ethel Musick was a legendary church planter in Oklahoma and Texas in the 1920s. She began her ministry by traveling with a Sister Tomson in evangelistic meetings. Musick later set out on her own as a teenage evangelist. After she was married, her husband traveled with her, supporting her calling as an evangelist. The Musick family typified the common lifestyle of evangelists in the beginnings of the Pentecostal movement. The Musick children had few roots and no permanent home. The Musick family was used by God to pioneer churches. For example, Ethel Musick established six new churches and built five new church buildings in just 18 months.

James Robert Ashcroft was raised in an evangelistic family. The Ashcroft family conducted evangelistic meetings anywhere and anytime. As a teenager, James Robert Ashcroft began to hold evangelistic crusades on his own. Over the years, Ashcroft served as an evangelist, pastor, educator, and author. For 45 years he provided gifted leadership in higher education in the Assemblies of God. He served as president of four Assemblies of God colleges. When there was a break in his full-time ministry in education, Ashcroft ministered for a while as an evangelist. He died en route home after seeing his son Senator John Ashcroft sworn into his first term as U.S. senator.

C.M. Ward was a radio evangelist on Revivaltime—the Assemblies of God radio program—for 25 years (1953–78). He never repeated one of his 1,300 sermons delivered on the radio to millions around the world. Before coming to Revivaltime, Ward served as an evangelist, pastor, teacher, and editor. He received more than 50 awards, including being named to the National Religious Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1993. C.M. Ward died July 12, 1996, in Modesto, California, at the age of 87.

Bernhard Johnson is an example of an evangelist to a nation. Johnson went to Brazil with his parents in 1940. He attended school in Brazil before coming to Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. Over the years, he traveled throughout America sharing his burden for Brazil and raising finances to conduct his evangelistic campaigns. He was the founder and president of Brazilian Extension School of Theology and founder of the Children of Brazil Outreach. Johnson conducted 225 citywide crusades in Brazil and recorded some 1.8 million converts to Christ. Johnson suffered a heart attack while participating in a missions banquet. He died a week later, on February 16, 1995.

Many early Assemblies of God evangelists had no fringe benefits, stable salaries, permanent homes, fine hotels, extra monies, or retirement packages. They were ridiculed, persecuted, and even jailed for preaching the gospel. Though they could have found easier work in the kingdom of God than pioneering churches, they sacrificed to lay a solid foundation for the Assemblies of God. Space will not permit telling of Alpheus Broadhead, Edward Sanders, John and Will Bostrom, Jimmy McClellan, Bert Webb, Mildred Mara, J.L. Jones, Raymond Richey, Lilian Yeomans, Hattie Hammond, Charles Price, John Follette, and countless others.

In the formative years, these dedicated men and women carved out the evangelistic road for the Assemblies of God in particular and the Pentecostal movement in general. They provided creativity, exemplified tenacity, and role modeled Pentecostal leadership. There is no way to count the hundreds of Pentecostal churches pioneered through the gift of the evangelist and the number of people who were called into full-time ministry during these crusades.

Just as evangelists have led the Pentecostal movement in evangelism throughout the 20th century, evangelists will need to provide Spirit-filled, culturally relevant, Bible-based, evangelistic preaching ministries in the 21st century. The Pentecostal movement desperately needs effective evangelists who will possess the leadership capabilities to mobilize local churches toward evangelism. Pentecostal history reminds us of the importance of reestablishing the biblical role of the New Testament evangelist.

Endnotes

1. William W. Menzies, Anointed To Serve (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1971), 170.

2. Carl Brumback, Suddenly…From Heaven, (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1961), 272.

Recommended Resources

Brumback, Carl. Suddenly…From Heaven, Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1961.

Davis, James O. The Pastor's Best Friend: The New Testament Evangelist, Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1997.

Menzies, William W. Anointed To Serve, Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1971.

Warner, Wayne, ed. Assemblies of God Heritage, Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House.

James O. Davis, D.Min., is the national evangelists representative for the Assemblies of God, Springfield, Missouri.

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