God’s Organism: Attitudes and Efforts of Early Pentecostals Toward Organization


Early Pentecostals recognized their unique position in God’s end-time restoration of New Testament truth and revival. They emphatically believed that the Holy Ghost baptism evidenced by speaking in tongues was a universal experience that would sweep across all denominations, and they had no intentions of creating an exclusively Pentecostal church. In fact, their deep reverence for the sacred nature of the Spirit’s work made them reticent to classify themselves at all. This attitude went a long way to attract Christians from denominational churches. Most of the primitive Pentecostals in Charles Parham’s revivals in Topeka, Kansas and Houston, Texas and William Seymour’s significant work at Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California, emerged from Wesleyan, Holiness, and Baptist traditions. Such seekers recognized the spiritual decay, and even decadence, of their respective churches and saw the return of Pentecost as a revitalizing force from Heaven. It is perhaps even more accurate to say that the earliest Pentecostals perceived themselves not as Pentecostals but as Spirit-baptized Methodists, Baptists, Nazarenes, etc. While most made an initial effort to return to their churches with the message of the Pentecostal blessing, they often met with disdain or outright expulsion from their former assemblies. It was these sorts of crises that created a class of Pentecostal pariahs, and the earliest fellowships of newly-formed missions and churches were very loosely connected and tenuously structured. Pentecost was a movement and not a denomination, and many primitive practitioners vehemently resisted efforts to name, define, codify or otherwise organize Spirit-filled believers.

Any student of early Pentecostalism has probably noticed the generic names of churches, missions, and works. Parham’s school, Bethel Bible College, in Topeka was popularly known as Stone’s Folly after the mansion where the school was housed. It was customary to call a Pentecostal or Apostolic work only after its address or location, consider William Durham’s North Avenue Mission in Chicago, G.T. Haywood’s 11th & Senate in Indianapolis, and Frank Bartelman’s 8th & Maple Mission in Los Angeles. In my hometown of Muncie, T.J. Miller’s “Block Church” and Bishop Oscar Sanders 3rd and Vine identified the earliest locations of Pentecostal revivals. This nomenclative tradition grew out of Pentecostal suspicions about denominationalism and formal organization. Bro. Bartleman, who carefully recorded the Pentecostal revival in Los Angeles, criticized the Azusa Street Mission for its early appendage of “Apostolic Faith Mission” to its name and zealously spoke and wrote against the move:

The truth must be told. “Azusa” began to fail the Lord also, early in her history. God showed me one day that they were going to organize, though not a word had been said in my hearing about it. The Spirit revealed it to me. He had me get up and warn them against making a “party” spirit of the Pentecostal work. The “baptized” saints were to remain “one body,” even as they had been called, and to be free as His Spirit was free, not “entangled again in a yoke of (ecclesiastical) bondage.” The New Testament Church saints had already arrested the further progress in this way. God wanted a revival company, a channel through whom He could evangelize the world, blessing all people and believers. He could naturally not accomplish this with a sectarian party. The spirit has been the curse and death of every revival body sooner or later. History repeats itself in this matter. Sure enough the very next day after I dropped this warning in the meeting I found a sign outside “Azusa” reading “Apostolic Faith Mission.” The Lord said: “That is what I told you.” They had done it. Surely a “party spirit” cannot be “Pentecostal.” There can be no divisions in a true Pentecost. To formulate a separate body is but to advertise our failure, as a people of God . . . The church is an organism not a human organization. (Bartleman 68-69)

While this attitude was widely held, some more progressive members were willing to entertain the notion of some type of organization. In fact, many ministers had joined Charles H. Mason’s Church of God in Christ, which was begun as a Holiness organization and had come into the Pentecostal movement. Because of this association, Church of God in Christ was one of the earliest prescribed names for Pentecostal or Apostolic assemblies. In 1912, Eudorus N. Bell, editor of the Word and Witness wrote an article appealing to Pentecostal works to use the name “Church of God in Christ” for their churches rather than Apostolic, Pentecostal, or Mission (all of which were popularly employed). He posited: “We believe with all our hearts in the ‘Aposotlic Movement’ not as a name for a church, but as a religious ‘reform movement’ composed of all clean people who will join our battle cry and reform slogan of “Back to the faith once deliver to the saints!” (Bell 2). “Church of God in Christ” was presented by Bell as a biblical alternative.

Bro. Howard Goss was instrumental in identifying the need for organization, but he recognized the independent spirit of many of the brethren: “As our numbers increased, the influx brought with it leaders who did not believe in organization at all; some even preached that anything of that nature (when committed to paper) was of the devil” (Goss 259). While Goss and others proceeded with caution and initially clandestinely, they were persuaded that a broader Pentecostal organization was necessary to sustain the growing work of the movement. While general fellowship had been maintained by announcements of camp meetings, conventions, and revivals in Apostolic periodicals, there was a need to coordinate worldwide evangelism and produce printed literature. Goss noticed the natural cohesiveness of some works and feared that partisan spirits were developing in some areas. Additionally, there was a need for some definition, some criteria of fellowship as many assemblies would receive anyone into their pulpit claiming to be Pentecostal, and the reputation of Spirit-filled works was really at stake.

The result was the formation of the Assemblies of God in 1914. The charter document declared the name to be “GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF GOD (which is God’s organism)”. The name was formulated to allay fears about organizational sectarianism, and the document made the new fellowship’s intentions clear:

[Our] purpose is neither to legislate laws of government, nor usurp authority over said various Assemblies of God, nor deprive them of their Scriptural and local rights and privileges, but to recognize Scriptural methods and order for worship, unity, fellowship, work and business for God, and to disapprove of all unscriptural methods, doctrines and conduct, and approve of all Scriptural and conduct . . . (General Council Minutes)

Out of this organization grew the Oneness organizations that eventually formed the United Pentecostal Church in 1945.

While many of our predecessors blatantly opposed efforts of ecclesiastical incorporation, today we benefit from the blessings of Godly organization. Modern United Pentecostal Church adherents have accepted a workable compromise, simultaneously understanding our status as a movement and not a denomination but cooperating in a spirit of unity for the work of evangelism and worldwide revival. The reticence of our forebears reminds us of the true heavenly nature of our beginnings and continues to caution us against degenerating into the spiritual staleness of mere denominationalism. Rather, with these Apostolic ancestors, we must adopt an “all flesh” attitude and spread with urgency the message of salvation and regeneration through the power of the Holy Ghost!

Sources:
Bartleman, Frank. Witness to Pentecost. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985.

Bell, Eudorus N. “Not Missions, but Churches of God in Christ.” Word & Witness Vol. 8, Is. 6. 20 August 1912, p. 2.

“General Council Minutes”, 1914.

Goss, Ethel. The Winds of God: the Story of the Early Pentecostal Movement (1901-1914 in the Life of Howard A. Goss. Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1958.

Word and Witness, 20 March 1914, p. 1.

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