Paul Prather: The upside and downside to being revived

When the ardor fades: Reflections on Pentacostalism

Contributing columnistMarch 8, 2013 

Last weekend, my wife, Liz, and I spent a day reading — for about nine straight hours.

We don't get many Saturdays like that. In fact, I don't think we've ever spent so much time at a single stretch with our noses stuck in books.

By coincidence, we both were absorbed in religious topics. Liz was reading a huge volume of church history that covered 20 centuries.

Among other things, I was rereading on my laptop a digital version of Frank Bartleman's 1925 book, How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles, which I read years ago in a print copy under the title, Azusa Street.

When from time to time our eyes went bloodshot and glazed over, Liz and I would stop to discuss what we were learning. It turned out we both were thinking about a recurring problem within Christianity.

That is, periodically, certain groups receive what they take to be life-altering, supernatural visitations from God. These revivals, as they're called, sweep through a congregation or a community or a whole society.

Those who are revived find themselves suddenly freed from hidebound church traditions and stifling legalism. They worship God with ardor, with warmed hearts and a newfound compassion toward other people.

They may, like the Christians in the New Testament, give away their possessions to feed the poor. Often, they claim to experience miraculous gifts such as prophecy, healings or tongues.

More than anything else, they feel awash with love.

Then, somehow, in a month or a decade, this fresh visitation, this wonderful soul-changing gift, this sense that God is present in their very midst fades.

Sometimes the shift begins when a few of the participants get too far out of hand. Their intimacy with God crosses over into anarchy.

At that point, others intervene to restore needed order, to tamp down the chaos. The next thing you know, the revival is waning.

In its place arises a self-important hierarchy and a code of stultifying rules, both designed to prevent anyone from exercising too much liberty.

Thus, hard-core religion reigns again, until the next revival sweeps through.

Bartleman's When Pentecost Came to Los Angeles is his personal memoir of the spontaneous Azusa Street revival, which broke out in 1906 in a ramshackle house on North Bonnie Brae Street.

When the house's porch collapsed, meetings were moved to an empty stable on Azusa Street that formerly had been an African Methodist Episcopal church.

The revival's leading minister was William J. Seymour, a one-eyed black man. The Azusa Street revival was remarkable for many reasons, among which was its equality of races, genders and leadership.

The worshipers and clergy included blacks, whites and Hispanics, all praying and singing side by side. Women preached, children preached.

The services continued day and night. People flocked to Azusa Street from every inhabited continent. They received what they called the baptism in the Holy Spirit; they prophesied and spoke in tongues.

A century later, we're still witnessing Azusa Street's legacy. Scholars agree the revival marked the birth of the Pentecostal-charismatic movement. By 1995 that movement encompassed 500 million adherents worldwide, making it the second-largest branch of Christianity; only Catholicism was bigger.

And yet, Bartleman and others tell how the Azusa Street revival itself collapsed.

The meetings were infiltrated by what Bartleman thought of as spiritual counterfeits: people caught up in mere ego, or the occult, or mental illness, who caused the services to spiral into truly bizarre extremes.

In trying to control the excesses, apparently, some leaders asserted their authority too harshly, quenching the spirit and offending sincere participants.

Other leaders got caught up in smug doctrinal arguments. White preachers fell back into racism and disassociated themselves from Seymour.

Eventually, the revival ended and its founders (including Bartleman himself) died in obscurity. Much of the subsequent Pentecostalism that sprang from Azusa Street suffered—and sadly still does — from a stifling religious legalism.

But, as Liz and I agreed, that's not just the history of Azusa Street.

Details vary from century to century and from movement to movement, but the same general pattern applies to almost every similar spiritual outpouring: the first-century church, the Reformation, the Great Awakenings.

For that matter, it probably applies to many secular upheavals, such as the French or Russian revolutions. Again and again, we humans find ourselves smothered by oppressors — ground down by their rules and rituals and egos.

Somehow a mighty wind of freedom and grace blows through. The burdened are revived. We dance in the aisles or the streets. We embrace as brothers and sisters. We rejoice. We praise God.

Then we get anarchic. We go wacky.

So someone imposes new controls. Before all's said and done, the formerly revived have managed to recreate the very soul-killing edifices we longed to escape.

What we really need is a middle ground that allows us as much freedom and grace and joy as we can handle, but balances these virtues with the equal virtues of humility and common sense and a desire for the common good.

That balance might be the rarest achievement of all.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can e-mail him at

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