Mar 13, 2013

Parham and the contested boundaries of Pentecostal experience

Charles Fox Parham's historical significance is due to one fact: he was the first to outline and define early Pentecostal theology of glossolali, the experience that Pentecostals call "speaking in tongues." He himself wasn’t the first to have the ecstatic experience of "spirit baptism," and utter unknown words in an unknown language, but rather, as the religious leader at the Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas in 1901 he was the one who theologized the experience of others. He said that the tongues were tongues. He said the experience was the spiritual gift of a new language, the evidence of sanctification, and the tool that God would use to spread the gospel at the end of time. In Ann Taves' terminology, he was the one who deemed the experience of tongues a religious experience. Parham referred to himself as the movement's "projector." In light of Taves' work, he might more precisely be called the "ascriber," as he is the one who set this particular experience apart as special, founding this specific religious tradition with his ascriptions.

Lesser known, but perhaps also significant, is another aspect of Parham's work as founder and leader of the nascent Pentecostal movement. He spent much of his time, from 1901 on, aggressively contesting the validity of Pentecostals’ ecstatic experiences.

After he started the movement, Parham was among its fiercest critics. According to historian Grant Wacker, he dismissed the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, one of the most successful moments of early Pentecostalism, as "holy-rolling-dancing-jumping, shaking, jabbering, chattering, wind-sucking and giving vent to meaningless sounds and noises." Many ecstatic experiences that others deemed the work of the Holy Ghost were, for Parham, "disorders." He dedicated himself, time and again, to brusque denunciations of experiences he considered to be lewd or racially inferior, manifestations of "the flesh" or "spook spirits" in "wild, weird prayer services."

These efforts to police the boundaries of Pentecostal experience have not gone unnoticed in Pentecostal historiography. Yet, they haven't been foregrounded, either. They have been considered as secondary or even tertiary in the beginnings of this movement, construed normally as curious but not critically important power struggles. Taves' work suggests it might be fruitful for historians to re-focus on these disputes.

Read Other Reasons to Unpack 'Religious Experience', my response to Ann Taves' interview with The Religious Studies Project.