On January 1, 1901, Agnes Nevada Ozman became the first member of the student body at Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas to receive the baptism of the Holy Ghost and speak in tongues. Her experience historically marks the beginning of modern Pentecostalism and becomes a significant flashpoint from which the initial revival spread through the school, which produced the first band of Pentecostal workers, who spread their message throughout Kansas to Texas and beyond.
According to her autobiography, What God Hath Wrought, Agnes Ozman was thirty years old when she received the Holy Ghost. In many ways, her experience at Bethel was the culmination of a lifetime of spiritual seeking. As a girl, she had attended a Methodist Church with her family and appreciated “the joy, rejoicing and shouts of victory.”
At the age of 20, Agnes Ozman became very ill with La Grippe (influenza) and pneumonia. At the worst point of her illness, Ozman believes that she “traveled the way to heaven” but was sent back on the strength of her Methodist pastor’s prayers, who believed God had more in store for this young Christian woman. After much prayer, Agnes did miraculously recover. Fully convinced that God had spared her to accomplish a greater purpose in her life, Agnes centered her life on her faith. She joined the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and participated in a Bible study group where she learned the “Bible teachings” on water baptism, the Second Coming of Christ, and divine healing.
In 1892, she joined Thomas Corwin Horton’s Bible school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Horton was a Presbyterian, who was deeply involved in the work of the YMCA. Horton was also strongly fundamentalist, and his school was permeated with his dispensational premillennialist ideas, which must have greatly inculcated Ozman.
In fall of 1894, Horton announced his intention to take up evangelism, and Ozman again began looking for another Bible school to attend. She settled on Albert B. Simpson’s Bible School in Nyack, New York. Simpson was the founder of the Christian Missionary Alliance and maintained a strong position on Wesleyan holiness, teaching students that after conversion there remained a second crisis of sanctification that removed the carnal nature and which he equated with the baptism of the Holy Ghost.
Eventually, Agnes returned to her family in Nebraska. On her way West, she stopped at John Alexander Dowie’s Chicago work and received prayer and healing from “chills and night sweats.” In Nebraska, Agnes Ozman continued the type of mission work that she had done in New York and encountered Charles Fox Parham, who was holding meetings in Kansas City. Parham, a former Methodist Episcopal minister who stressed divine healing, planned to open a Bible College in Topeka, Kansas. Ozman fleeced the Lord for her fare and received two separate donations of $5.00 from “one sister.” Certain that God was directing her to Topeka, she purchased train tickets and arrived at Bethel Bible College, along with some other Kansas City companions, in October 1900.
At Bethel, Ozman achieved the zenith of her spiritual experience, receiving the baptism of the Holy Ghost during a late-night tarrying service at the school. In a 1922 letter to Eudorus N. Bell, Ozman claims that she did not understand tongues to be the evidence of the Spirit prior to her infilling: “Before receiving the Comforter, I did not know that I would speak in tongues when I received the Holy Ghost for I did not know it was Bible. But after I received the Holy Spirit speaking in tongues it was revealed to me that I had the promise of the Father as it is written and as Jesus said.” She continues:
The next morning after receiving this mighty gift, I was accosted with questions about my experience the night before . . . I pointed out Bible references to show that I had received the Baptism as Acts 2.4 “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance . . .
Agnes Ozman’s initial experience was particularly unique in the annals of early Pentecostalism. Even after a night’s sleep, Ozman was unable to speak English the following morning. According to Parham, her speaking in tongues continued for three days. Attempting to communicate with the inquisitive students, she says that she motioned for a pencil: “When I began to write, I wrote characters of other languages and joyed [sic] with the Lord talking in tongues. Some of the writing has been interpreted and is a wonderful message.” Parham believed the characters to be Chinese. In an interview with The Kansas City Times, Parham also claimed that other Spirit-filled students were now able “to write by inspiration.”
The night after commencing speaking in tongues, Ozman’s utterances were understood by a Bohemian, who heard her speaking in a service at the school’s mission in downtown Topeka. This incident confirmed to the Parham and his students that at least some of the tongue-speaking were intelligible foreign languages. Certainly, Parham believed that this was the method by which the Spirit would aid the Church in the evangelization of the earth.
When the Bethel school disbanded, Agnes Ozman continued Gospel Missions work. Later, she met and married Philemon M. LaBerge, and both were ordained ministers of the General Council of the Assemblies of God. Like so many early pioneers of Pentecostalism, she consistently demonstrated an insatiable hunger for God and a desire to be completely surrendered to the work of His Kingdom. Her experience at Bethel became a powerful precedent for the fledgling Apostolic Faith movement and encouraged many others to wade into the deeper waters of Spirit-filled revival. Despite the fact that she never received the revelation of the Mighty God in Christ, Agnes Ozman’s role as a key player in the recovery of the apostolic teaching of tongues as the Bible evidence of Holy Spirit baptism should not be forgotten. The cloven flames of Pentecost have spread from the Bethel’s turrets in Topeka to a global wildfire, and the power of the Holy Ghost, evidenced by speaking in tongues, which first ignited in the soul of a thirty-year-old pioneer of the plains, now burns in the hearts of multiplied millions.