By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Book Reviews

Pentecostal Compensations

Famous but little understood.

Peter Hartwig

Pentecostals at prayer; Frances Roberts/Alamy Stock Photo.

Wesleyan minister Charles Fox Parham (1873–1929) is usually credited with sparking the global Christian movement known as Pentecostalism—now more than 600 million followers strong. Parham was a typical late-nineteenth-century Methodist in many ways: He preached a gospel of healing prayer and the life-transforming experience of God. Parham founded a Bible college in Topeka, Kansas, and there a woman named Agnes Ozman, “on the eerily complete date of 1 January 1901,”  Hardy writes, reportedly began to speak in Chinese during a prayer meeting. “It was as if rivers of living water were proceeding from my innermost being,” Ozman later said.

Ozman’s experience was the first incident in what had been a long-dormant phenomenon: Christians speaking languages they had never learned. Noticeably similar events are reported in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, in which the Holy Spirit descends upon Jewish followers of Jesus during the holiday of Pentecost, miraculously inspiring them to “speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). Elsewhere in the New Testament, this is called glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues.” According to contemporary Pentecostalism, the reappearance of glossolalia on the first day of 1901 marked the birth of a new movement—one characterized by this phenomenon and named for the day of its first-century advent.

Parham found an eager student in William J. Seymour, a Louisianan who was the son of emancipated slaves. In early 1906, Seymour moved to Los Angeles to take up a pulpit from which he was swiftly fired for preaching the Pentecostal message he had learned from Parham. After ten days of fasting, Seymour and a handful of faithful parishioners began speaking in tongues. When this story gets told, that spring day of April 12, 1906, is remembered as the moment when gasoline was poured on Parham’s spark.

This little flock grew quickly, and within weeks took occupancy of a building at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles. That building, which came to be called the Azusa Street Mission, has come to be regarded as the home of Pentecostalism. For about three years, the Azusa Street Mission was a vibrant community where supernatural events seemed to be happening every day: the miraculous healing of bodies, moments of prophetic wisdom, life-altering experiences of spiritual ecstasy. The congregation was exceptionally diverse, representing a wide range of ethnic and racial communities that traditionally had been segregated in Los Angeles: black and white Americans, as well as immigrants from China, Russia, and South America. The life of that church, its miraculous worship, and its racial dynamics all formed, in some sense, the original soul of the now ubiquitous movement.

Pentecostalism gained much greater visibility in the 1920s thanks to Aimee Semple McPherson. She was an evangelist with a widespread reputation, the pastor of the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, and the founder of a new denomination: the Foursquare Church—so named for its emphasis on Jesus as savior, baptizer, healer, and coming king. McPherson was also a proto–celebrity preacher and radio personality who made innovative use of early broadcast media. By the time her career ended, in the 1940s, and in no small part due to her work, Pentecostalism had become famous.

For the last century, this curious form of Christianity has continued to flourish in just about every corner of the globe. Even so, Pentecostalism remains oddly ignored and misunderstood in much of our public discourse. Journalist Elle Hardy is trying to change that, and with Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World, she provides a punchy introduction to the wildly complex organism that is global Pentecostalism.

The book’s first chapters describe the movement’s originators—Parham, Seymour, McPherson—and some of its biggest contemporary names. Throughout these introductory pages, Hardy marks what she sees as the characteristic features of Pentecostal leaders. For instance, she says this of McPherson:

With a seemingly endless ability to raise money and a flair for self-promotion, Aimee Semple McPherson wrote the script for the public evangelism that can be seen in her many heirs today: combining political expediency with biblical literalism and blurring genuine charity with a charismatic leader’s self-enrichment. Add to this her ability to thrive in the face of scandal, and you have the quintessential modern Pentecostal preacher.

It’s not exactly a flattering portrait. And when it comes to the broader movement, the author’s suspicions remain.

Hardy is concerned that Pentecostalism preys on human frailty by offering false hope of prosperity. “Prosperity theology,” which for her is simply the claim that faith can make life better, “is central to Pentecostal faith, and especially so in countries where prosperity is hard to come by.” But the Pentecostal faith, in fact, is little more than an instrument of self-enrichment for those in religious power. Or so she seems to think.

Hardy continues with a brisk introduction to some of the more (in)famous names in the Pentecostal world: John Wimber (and Lonnie Frisbee), C. Peter Wagner, Bill Johnson, Brian Houston, David Yonggi Cho, Flordelis de Souzas (and the husband she murdered), Heidi Baker, Johnson Suleman, and Reinhard Bonnke, among others. Hardy also weaves into this narrative the stories of people she met in her research: North Korean refugees to South Korea, Traveller evangelists in the United Kingdom, the faith healer Prophet Sithole in Johannesburg, and the snake handlers of Appalachia.

The second half of Beyond Belief, “Spirit Warfare: The Battle to Build Heaven on Earth,” paints a picture of the sociopolitical power of Pentecostalism. At Bethel Church, in Redding, California, an 11,000-member congregation has all but taken over the town. Hardy also recovers the history of Seven Mountain Theology, or “The Seven Mountain Mandate,” which calls on Christians to take control of various cultural, social, and political institutions. She also assesses Pentecostalism’s active opposition to prostitution and human trafficking—a “social justice” stance of which Hardy is deeply suspicious. In addition, she lays bare the colonial legacy of Pentecostal leaders and American influence in Guatemala and concludes somewhat abruptly by examining Israel’s place in Pentecostal theology and the role of Pentecostalism in contemporary populist movements.

A blurb on the book’s dust jacket describes Beyond Belief as an “exposé of the global revolution you’ve never heard of: a deep-pocketed, tech-savvy Christian movement shaping our societies from within.” And that is exactly how it reads. The writing offers at times almost tabloid-caliber scandalmongering. “As the final chapters of the book reveal,” Hardy writes, “the convergence of intolerance, instability, and a sense of existential crisis, when coupled with the movement’s strength of self-belief, can lead rapidly ‘Pentecostalizing societies’ to a darkly violent place.” Pentecostalism exerts social and political influence on our worlds, she argues, and it is rarely of a progressive nature.

I do not mean to say that Hardy’s facts are wrong, though it is clear that she is willing to risk some claims that scholars would not, such as the assertion that Pentecostalism is a movement “within” evangelicalism. (Pentecostal scholars tend to consider the movements fundamentally distinct, and historians note moments of conflict between the two.) Rather, the book’s tone betrays an author who seems to think that there is some version of religion that “stays in its lane.” Pentecostalism, she insists again and again, has crossed the line.

Hardy maintains a rigid divide between the sacred and the secular, but viewed exclusively from the secular side. “Pentecostalism’s religious entrepreneurs have become political entrepreneurs—they’re not really pastors anymore, but executives who oversee a morally charged business operation.” Earlier, in her introduction, she asserts that “as this book will show, there’s much more than religion at play here”—the “more” being politics, power, and money.

Few people would debate that the raw struggle for power among religious leaders is undesirable. Becoming a pastor in hopes of becoming a bishop or, better, the president, seems at cross-purposes with the calling of the cloth. But Hardy’s approach to Pentecostalism is at once idealistic in its understanding of religion and naive in its understanding of lived faith. Is religion supposed to deal only with the otherworldly and the pure? A religious movement that exerts significant political power in line with a political agenda is dangerous, Hardy argues. Yet when has “religion” ever functioned differently?

Hardy’s approach to Pentecostalism strikes me as an unfortunate example of what the British anthropologist Mary Douglas called “compensation theory.” According to that model, religions offer people compensation in the afterlife for pains endured in this life. As Hardy writes, religion “couched in vague psychoanalytic terms” may motivate the very persons upon whose misfortune it preys:

Compensation theory treats the symbolic order as a secondary result of the social order, as purely expressive. A replication hypothesis, however, allows for the power of symbols generated in a particular social set-up to control it. The symbols themselves lash back at the people and divert their attempts to change their lot into channels which do more to symbolize than to improve it. The natural symbols of society create a bias with strong philosophical as well as religious aspects.

Although Hardy does not use the term, the idea of promised compensation is central to her understanding of Pentecostalism. Pentecostal preachers, with their jets and jewelry, promise a similar lifestyle to their congregants, who remain energized by what they hear but rarely if ever see. In short, Hardy asserts, Pentecostal pastors are after power and money, while their followers are driven by desperation and loneliness. In every vignette, recounted experience, and portrait of a leader, we can hear Hardy’s suspicion or her outright conviction that the movement can be fully accounted for in material terms. But this is a reading of the movement that is simply too, well, materialistic.

Treating faith as, at best, a secondary explanation for human motivation, Hardy ignores the symbology of Pentecostal worship and experience. She reads healings as little more than handouts. But what of the traditional Pentecostal claim that such miraculous events are, in fact, signs of the divine presence at work in a body-altering form? She reads glossolalia as little more than crowd hyping. But what of the Pentecostal claim that speaking in tongues is a gift from God, intended to deepen the spiritual life of the speaker? She reads the promises of faith as junk bonds in the economy of God. But what of the historical Pentecostal claim that faith is a mode of being that brings the human experience into contact with its unfathomable source in the Living God? Even when Pentecostals themselves uphold these idiosyncrasies as sacraments of a world-enchanting God, Hardy reduces such matters to their starkest material terms. This book is, among other things, a missed opportunity.