From Rome to Kansas: the beginning of the Pentecostal movement in the 20th century
Many people consider the birthplace of the Pentecostal movement to be the Azusa Street mission in Los Angeles, California. Whilst the three year-long revival which began in 1906 was, without doubt, the catalyst that launched the global phenomenon of ‘Pentecostalism’, the movement itself commenced in rather more obscure circumstances in Topeka, Kansas on New Year’s Day, 1901.
In October 1900, Charles Parham, a former Methodist lay preacher and independent evangelist, started Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas. During the ensuing months, Parham led his students into the understanding of a deeper experience with God which he called ‘the baptism in the Holy Spirit’. On New Year’s Eve, 1900, the students held a ‘watch-night’ service of prayer and worship to ask for God’s blessing on the coming year. The following night, January 1st, 1901, they held another service, during which a young woman by the name of Agnes Ozman felt impressed to ask other students to pray for her that she might receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Immediately after being prayed for, she began to praise and worship God in several unlearned languages. She later testified, “It was as though rivers of living water were proceeding from my innermost being.”
Ozman’s experience inspired other students to earnestly seek the Lord, and on January 3rd “God answered their prayers by pouring out His Spirit, and one after another began speaking in tongues and some were given interpretation”. In spite of ridicule and opposition, the revival quickly spread through Kansas and into Missouri and Texas. In 1905 Parham moved his Bible School to Houston, Texas, where he encountered Lucy Farrow, an African-American woman who had received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and ‘felt a burden for Los Angeles’, and William Seymour, an African-American preacher who later that year accepted an invitation to conduct meetings in Los Angeles, which eventually morphed into the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street.
Few people may know about the history-shaping events that took place in Topeka, Kansas, on New Year’s Day, 1901, but even less are aware of the remarkable scenes that unfolded in Rome, Italy, earlier the same day. For on that very morning, hours before Agnes Ozman started speaking in tongues in Topeka, Pope Leo XIII ushered in the new century by solemnly invoking the Holy Spirit over all Christendom. Standing by the Holy Spirit window in St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pope chanted the Veni Creator Spiritus (‘Come Creator Spirit’), a 9th century hymn traditionally used during liturgical celebrations at Pentecost, and on other occasions such as Vespers, the dedication of a church, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and whenever the Holy Spirit is solemnly invoked.
Come, Holy Spirit, Creator blest,
and in our souls take up Thy rest;
come with Thy grace and heavenly aid
to fill the hearts which Thou hast made.
O comforter, to Thee we cry,
O heavenly gift of God Most High,
O fount of life and fire of love,
and sweet anointing from above.
Thou in Thy sevenfold gifts are known;
Thou, finger of God's hand we own;
Thou, promise of the Father, Thou
Who dost the tongue with power imbue.
Kindle our sense from above,
and make our hearts o'erflow with love;
with patience firm and virtue high
the weakness of our flesh supply.
Far from us drive the foe we dread,
and grant us Thy peace instead;
so shall we not, with Thee for guide,
turn from the path of life aside.
Oh, may Thy grace on us bestow
the Father and the Son to know;
and Thee, through endless times confessed,
of both the eternal Spirit blest.
Now to the Father and the Son,
Who rose from death, be glory given,
with Thou, O Holy Comforter,
henceforth by all in earth and heaven.
Pope Leo’s extraordinary gesture was inspired, in part, by a letter from Elena Guerra, founder of the Oblate Sisters of the Holy Spirit in Lucca, Italy. On October 15th, 1900, Elena wrote: “May the new century begin with a Veni Creator Spiritus …. sung either at the beginning of the Midnight Mass, or before the first Mass to be celebrated in every Church on the first day of the year.” This was one of 12 letters that Elena wrote to Pope Leo over a period of 8 years, in which she requested a renewed preaching on the Holy Spirit, and urged the Pontiff to rekindle devotion to the Holy Spirit within the Church. Elena famously declared:
“Pentecost is not over. In fact it is continually going on in every time and in every place, because the Holy Spirit desired to give himself to all men and all who want him can always receive him, so we do not have to envy the apostles and the first believers; we only have to dispose ourselves like them to receive him well, and He will come to us as he did to them.”
To facilitate this renewal, Elena envisaged a worldwide prayer movement modelled on the Upper Room in Jerusalem where the disciples waited for the coming of the Spirit after Jesus’ ascension to heaven (Acts 1.4-14). Elena said, “Oh, if only … unanimous and fervent prayers could be raised to Heaven in every part of Christendom, as they were one in the Cenacle (upper room) of Jerusalem for a rekindling of the Divine Spirit.”
Elena Guerra lived and wrote during a time of monumental change in the Roman Catholic Church. Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour and Prime Minister of the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and first Prime Minister of unified Italy, championed the doctrine of the separation of church and state. A Catholic by profession but a Freemason by practice, Cavour introduced legislation that resulted in a weakening of the Church’s power and the confiscation of property owned by religious orders. In so doing, Cavour became the hero and focal point of liberal anticlericalism in the newly formed kingdom.
Facing a rising tide of nationalism, liberalism, and materialism on one hand, and a changing political landscape on the other, Pope Pius IX convoked the First Vatican Council in 1869. Less than a year later the balance of political and military power in Europe shifted dramatically with the capture of the Pope’s benefactor, Napoleon III, by Prussian forces on September 2nd, 1870 at Sedan. That same month, Garibaldi’s troops broke through the fortifications of Rome and captured the city, thereby sanctioning the Church’s loss of temporal power once and for all. Ironically, the very Council that was convened to shore up Papal infallibility and hence unchallengeable ascendency was interrupted by the canon fire of Northern Italian troops, leading to its suspension and abandonment one month later.
Elena Guerra interpreted these events as an opportunity for the Church to return to its true source of power: the person of the Holy Spirit. In 1895 she wrote her first letter to Pope Leo, pleading that Christians “return to the Holy Spirit, so that the Holy Spirit returns to us.” And in a subsequent letter, she urged “… that the faithful should unanimously reunite, in order to return to the Holy Spirit and to bring about with ceaseless prayer a beneficent renewal of the face of the earth.” She even expressed the wish that the ‘Come, Holy Spirit’ could become as popular as the ‘Hail Mary’!
Elena extolled the principle of the poor Church—a Church lacking political, economic and ideological power, but rich in faith, bountiful in mercy, and mighty in Spirit. Elena’s view bears a striking resemblance to that of Zechariah, considered by many to be the most messianic of the Old Testament prophets. Zechariah encouraged Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, that the task of rebuilding the temple would not be accomplished by might or by power, but by the Spirit of the Lord (Zech 4.6).
The Hebrew word chayil, translated ‘might’, denotes force or power, and especially military strength. The Hebrew word koach, translated ‘power’, signifies human capacity or ability and is often linked with the creation of wealth. Thus God is telling Zerubbabel that material wealth and political power—usually seen as essential elements of a successful enterprise—are of no real value in the divine scheme of things. In the final analysis, the only thing that really matters is the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.
In this passage, Zerubbabel is depicted placing the capstone or crowning top-stone on the completed temple with shouts of “Grace, grace to it!” Chen, the Hebrew word translated ‘grace’, denotes favour or kindness, with the added connotation of enablement. In other words, ‘equipping grace’ or grace with a purpose. According to Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, the repetition of the word ‘grace’ expresses the thought of ‘grace from first to last’. The building of the house of the Lord begins with grace, continues through grace, and is completed by grace!
Paul the apostle addressed the theme of the continuity of grace in his letter to the Philippians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (1.6) Furthermore, “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (2.13) But to the Galatians, Paul exclaimed, “Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (3.3) As Paul clearly demonstrates, the ‘Spirit of grace’ or the ‘Spirit of enabling favour’ is the necessary and indispensable means to a great and glorious end (Zech 12.10; Heb 10.29).
Elena Guerra challenged the Church of the 20th century to rediscover life lived according to the Holy Spirit. For this reason, she is remembered as ‘a missionary of the Veneration of the Holy Spirit in our present time’, as Pope John XIII declared at her beatification on April 26th, 1959. Through her simple devotion she prepared the way for the 20th century to be called ‘the era of the Holy Spirit’. In her own words, “The first well-spring of renewing action is prayer, which connects with the Spirit of Christ, He who renews the face of the earth.”