The Assemblies of God & the Worldwide Growth of Pentecostalism

Who are the Assemblies of God?

Internationally, the Assemblies of God (AG) is the largest grouping of denominations originating from Pentecostalism with roughly 65 million members worldwide. The Assemblies of God USA, which helped inspire the rise of the AG denominations in other countries, claims about 3 million members, making it the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States.

Similar with most Pentecostal denominations, the Assemblies of God place a high emphasis on the post-conversion experience of glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues,” as evidence that an individual has experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This spirituality, which is the distinguishing feature of Pentecostalism, is combined with a largely evangelical theology that stresses a high view of Scripture, justification by faith alone, premillennial eschatology, and the importance of evangelism and missions.

The AG was founded just over a century ago, in April 1914. Interestingly, there were no Pentecostals in 1900, yet today Christians associated with both the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements make up about 25% of the world Christian population, a massive expansion that has taken place within a little over a century. In order to understand the AG, a knowledge of the larger Pentecostal movement and its origins is necessary.

Holiness and Pentecostal Backgrounds to the Assemblies of God

The Assemblies of God emerged from the Pentecostal movement of the early 1900s, which itself emerged from the Holiness movement of the 19th century. The Holiness Movement was a subset of American evangelical Christianity in the 1800s that extensively developed and promoted John Wesley’s doctrine of perfectionism (see that discussion here in the post on Methodism).

Holiness advocates like Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874) maintained that Christians ought to seek and experience a post-conversion blessing from God where the Christian, after an intense spiritual crisis, consecrates oneself to God and experiences an infilling of the Holy Spirit that effectively puts to sleep sinful impulses and fills one with the joys of divine love. Because of its strong ties with Wesley’s doctrine of perfection, the vast majority of Holiness advocates were almost exclusively associated with Methodism.

After the Civil War, when American Methodism grew increasingly indifferent to Holiness spirituality, many Holiness leaders left Methodism to form other denominations. Holiness denominations that split from Methodism include the Free Methodist Church and the Church of the Nazarene. Other late-19th century denominations that prominently featured Holiness themes include The Salvation Army and the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Though she did not claim to have experienced entire sanctification herself, many of Fanny Crosby’s hymns contained Holiness themes. Wherever Holiness teaching took root, it was second nature for its adherents to think of Christian experience in terms of two tiers,

  • regeneration/conversion where sins are forgiven and the new birth is experienced, and
  • sanctification/consecration where one is victorious over the power of sin and lives the “higher” Christian life of “holiness.”

The Pentecostal Movement arose out of the Holiness movement, so most of its original followers were already comfortable with a two-stage spirituality. By the late 1890s, some Holiness leaders began wondering if there was an even higher stage of Christian experience beyond the victorious higher life of holiness.

Charles Fox Parham (1873-1929) was a Midwestern itinerant Holiness revivalist who in 1900 came to the conclusion, along with his students at his Bethel Bible School in Topeka, that God grants a mighty baptism of the Holy Spirit that empowers Christians for ministry. They maintained that speaking in tongues (glossolalia) is the sign that one has received this baptism of the Holy Spirit. During a New Year’s Eve service on December 31, 1900, Parham led a group of students in seeking the Lord for this blessing. With the dawning of the new year (and the new century!), one of Parham’s students, Agnes Ozmen, received the Holy Spirit, enabling her to speak another language that prevented her from speaking English.

Though Parham spread his Pentecostal message throughout the Midwest, it was one of his students, William J. Seymour (1870-1922), who became the catalyst for spreading the Pentecostal gospel throughout North America. Seymour, the son of slaves, fully embraced Parham’s message and brought it to Los Angeles to a run-down Holiness church on Azusa Street. There, a spectacular three-year Pentecostal revival commenced (1906-1909). Thousands came from across the country to see and experience the wonders of this new movement, which they held was the beginning of the full restoration of New Testament Christianity. Convicted, converted, and convinced by the new teaching, these Pentecostal pilgrims took the message back home, effectively spreading Pentecostal spirituality throughout the United States and beyond.

Early Pentecostals were not just about speaking in tongues. They saw themselves as the restored New Testament church, which, they said, was not about creeds, sacraments, book-learning, or tradition, but merely a fellowship of believers in Jesus who manifested the gifts of the Spirit with power and awe. They emphasized moral and cultural separation from the world, the immanent second-coming of Christ, pre-millennial eschatology, and believer’s baptism; and they stressed the abiding vitality of the Spirit’s extraordinary work in the world through the manifestation of divine healing, miracles, and glossolalia. Their worship services made room for the Spirit’s supremacy alone: anyone could preach and the phenomena of tongues, prophesy, and healing could break out at any time.

Within several years, Pentecostalism went from a mere experiential movement to one where definition and boundaries were drawn, a feature that usually accompanies the maturing of any movement. As often happens, this boundary-drawing led to divisions and ultimately denominational separation within the Pentecostal household. Within a decade of its founding, Pentecostalism had divided into numerous denominational groupings usually because of one or more of the following three issues:

  1. The issue of God. Most early Pentecostals embraced the Trinitarianism of the broader Christian community. A few, however, came to reject the Trinity because they (erroneously) came to equate the “name” into which Christians are baptized (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Matt 28:19) with “Jesus” (as the apostles had baptized in Acts 2:38; 8:16; 19:5). For them, Jesus is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which is essentially the old heresy of modalism. Thus, Pentecostals divided between:
      1. Trinitarian Pentecostals, who affirmed the orthodox understanding of God (like the Assemblies of God, and the Church of God in Christ), and
      2. Non-Trinitarian or “Oneness” Pentecostals, who embraced the heretical, modalistic understanding of God. Oneness Pentecostal denominations include:
        1. Pentecostal Assemblies of the World – a predominantly African-American Pentecostal denomination with 1.8 million members.
        2. United Pentecostals Church International – a predominantly white Pentecostal denomination.
  2. The issue of sanctification. Most early Pentecostals hailed from Holiness backgrounds, which meant that they possessed a three-tiered spirituality: conversion (salvation), consecration (holiness), and Spirit-baptism (evidenced by tongues). When Christians from non-Holiness, non-Wesleyan backgrounds began embracing Pentecostal teaching, they began questioning the validity of the second step (the holiness teaching of consecration). William Durham (1873-1912), a Chicago pastor who embraced Pentecostalism in 1907, maintained that Christ’s finished work in salvation rendered the need for an intermediate stage between salvation and Spirit-baptism obsolete. Durham’s teaching was influential throughout the movement and created a division among Pentecostal adherents between the following groups:
      1. Wesleyan/Holiness Pentecostals, who continued to embrace the original three-tiered spirituality of Parham and Seymour. These denominations include:
        1. Church of God (Cleveland) – one million members in the United States today.
        2. International Pentecostal Holiness Church – Oral Roberts (1918-2009) originally ministered in this denomination, which has 300,000 members in the United States today.
        3. Church of God in Christ – see below.
      2. Non-Wesleyan Pentecostals, who followed Durham’s two-tiered spirituality (conversion followed by Spirit-baptism). These denominations include
        1. The Assemblies of God
        2. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel
  3. The issue of race. The beginning of the Pentecostal movement was noteworthy for its interracial and interethnic character. Photographs from the Azusa Street revival as well as other Pentecostal fellowships in the first decade of the 20th century reveal a great deal of ethnic and racial diversity among their followers, a point that most Pentecostals look back on with pride. By the mid-1910s, however, America’s racial prejudices sadly settled into the movement, effectively dividing it along racial lines.
      1. Black Pentecostals – denominations that were founded predominantly by African-American Pentecostals.
        1. Church of God in Christ (or COGIC) – the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States with 5.5 million members. COGIC was organized in 1897 by Baptist Holiness teachers who embraced Pentecostal teachings in 1907. C.H. Mason (1866-1961) was the founding Bishop of the denomination who provided strong leadership in the denomination’s first half-century.
        2. Pentecostal Assemblies of the World – a largely African-American Oneness Pentecostal denomination.
      2. White Pentecostals – denominations that were founded predominantly by white Pentecostals.
        1. The Assemblies of God
        2. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel – similar to the AG in doctrine and practice. Noteworthy for its charismatic founder, Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944).

In short, the AG was founded as a Trinitarian, non-Wesleyan, white Pentecostal denomination, even though today one finds more racial and ethnic diversity among its membership (a point that could be made about many other Pentecostal denominations as well).

A Brief History of the Assemblies of God USA

The AG’s beginnings date to a gathering of Pentecostal ministers in Hot Springs, Ark., in April 1914. Within two years they adopted a “Statement of Fundamental Truths,” which has since served as a basic statement of faith for the denomination. In it one finds the explicit affirmations of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, believer’s baptism, a non-Wesleyan understanding of sanctification, a pre-millennial eschatology that underscores the rapture of the church, and the teaching that Spirit baptism is a post-conversion blessing of the Holy Spirit that empowers Christians for living the overcoming life and is initially evidenced by speaking in tongues. The AG’s “four core doctrines” include: salvation, divine healing, baptism in the Spirit, and the second coming of Christ.

Originally, the AG was very separatistic, similar to other Pentecostals and Fundamentalists of the early 20th century. Through associations with the National Association of Evangelicals in the 1940s and beyond, the AG has become more “mainstream” evangelical in its ethos. They have grown steadily throughout the 20th century and now have about 3 million members in the United States. Historically, the AG has had a significant ministry to Latin Americans in the United States and today a large segment of the AG USA is Hispanic. The AG also allows women to be pastors, though historically the number of women pastoring AG churches has not been that large. In recent decades, the AG has appeared in the news, first related to televangelist scandals of the 1980s (both Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were AG ministers) and second related to revival (the Brownsville Revival in the late ‘90s took place at Brownsville Assemblies of God in Pensacola, Fla.).

The denomination affirms the “sovereignty” of the local congregation; each church elects its own pastor and deacon board and is self-governing and self-supporting. Local congregations are part of one of the 61 national “districts” that oversee inter-congregational ministries (evangelistic outreach and camps) and offer direction for local congregations. Each district operates under the national “General Council,” which credentials ministers, publishes educational literature, and oversees the denomination’s missionary endeavors as well as its colleges and seminaries. Similar structures are found in AG churches around the world, some of which were founded by AG missionaries.

Today, the AG USA claims to have roughly 2,000 full-time missionaries employed throughout the world, with 9,000 short-termers. Since 1988, international AG churches have aligned into the “World Assemblies of God Fellowship.” Representatives from the more than 140 national fellowships meet every three years. Official AG statistics note that worldwide there are roughly 360,000 congregations that are associated with the WAGF with 66 million members. Their strengths lie in Latin America and Africa. If these numbers are accurate, then close to one percent of the world’s population is associated with the Assemblies of God.

Worldwide Pentecostalism Today

The worldwide AG statistics are indicative of a significant trend in Christianity worldwide: namely, that the fastest growing segments of Christianity in the world today are associated with either the Pentecostal or closely related Charismatic movements. (Charismatics have similar practices to Pentecostals [healing, prophesy, tongues] but generally do not believe that Spirit baptism must be evidenced by speaking in tongues).

According to a 2011 study done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, there are 590 million Pentecostals and Charismatics worldwide, an eye-popping number that is double that of those who are part of the Evangelical movement (who generally do not make tongues, prophesy, and healing central practices of their Christian faith). The Pew study acknowledges the limitations in their statistics (i.e. they had to rely upon denominational claims, not official government census data), and there may very well be some inflating of the numbers here. But it cannot be denied that in a little over a century, the Pentecostal movement has become a prominent feature in world Christianity, one that will probably be around for quite some time.

Quick Facts

  1. Terms
    1. Holiness movement: 19th-century movement among American Methodists who vigorously advocated John Wesley’s doctrine of perfectionism. A Christian must consecrate his/her life to God in order to be sanctified by the Spirit to live a life of “holiness.”
    2. Pentecostalism: movement of Christians who argue that a Christian should experience a post-conversion baptism of the Spirit in order to be empowered for victorious Christian living and ministry. Pentecostals argue that speaking in tongues (glossolalia) is the sign that one has experienced this Spirit baptism.
    3. Charismatic movement: Generally, these are Christians who practice many of the same things as Pentecostals (tongues, divine healing, prophesy) but they do not affirm that glossolalia is the only sign of Spirit baptism.
  2. Pentecostal Origins: John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection (18th century) –> Holiness teaching and practice (second blessing sanctification; 19th century) –> Pentecostalism (speaking in tongues as the sign of Spirit baptism; early 20th century).
    1. Original Theological Promoter: Charles Fox Parham (1873-1929)
    2. First Pentecostal Revival: Azusa Street Revival (1906-1909) in Los Angeles, led by William J. Seymour (1870-1922)
  3. The Assemblies of God
    1. Founded April 1914, Hot Springs, Ark. Eventually became a non-Wesleyan, Trinitarian Pentecostal denomination that was largely white in its constituency (this has since changed).
    2. Statement of Faith: “Statement of Fundamental Truths” (1916)
    3. Stats: 3 million members in the United States; 2,000 full-time missionaries; 66 million members in the worldwide AG association.
  4. List of prominent people with associations with the AG:
    1. John Ashcroft: Attorney General of the U.S. (2001-2005) and former Senator from Missouri (1995-2001); long term AG member.
    2. David (Paul) Yungi Cho: Korean minister of Yoido Full Gospel Church (Seoul, South Korea), which claims to be the largest church in the world (a membership of one million).
    3. Sarah Palin: Attended Wasilla Assembly of God from the time she was a teenager until 2002.
    4. Elvis Presley: As a boy in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Presley attended an AG congregation with his family in Tupelo, Miss.