BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Tongues of Fire – How Pentecostals are Changing the Church’ aired Sunday, offering a speedy jaunt through the world of Pentecostal and charismatic faith in Northern Ireland. Over the course of a 30 minute programme, presenter Robbie Meredith brought listeners to an almost dizzying array of Pentecostal and charismatic churches, talking with pastors and the people who attend.
The programme provides a broad flavour of the Pentecostal/charismatic movement, featuring lots of music, testimonies of healings, people praying in tongues, thoughts about Jesus’ return and the end of the world, reflections on scandals within Pentecostal/charismatic churches (think American televangelist Jimmy Swaggart), and examples of Pentecostal/charismatics serving the community (the Belfast Vineyard church’s downtown Storehouse).
The programme is a good introduction for people unfamiliar with or curious about the movement, as it encompasses some of its global history as well as its presence in Northern Ireland.
One of my favourite parts was listening to an archive of a BBC Sunday Service featuring an Assemblies of God congregation, where the presenter explains in a very matter-of-fact way what these churches are and how they approach worship.
The programme airs again on Thursday 4 July at 7 pm or you can listen to the programme here.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Meredith consulted me for some background information for the programme, which includes some words from myself as well as two other academics: Drew Gibson of Union Theological Seminary and Roddy Cowie from the School of Psychology at Queen’s.
I speak briefly on the origins of the modern Pentecostal/charismatic movement, which most scholars date to the revival in Azusa Street, Los Angeles, (1906-1915), which was led by an African American preacher called William Seymour. Remarkably for the time, the revival was interracial, crossed class boundaries, and women were prominent and involved. The revival emphasized the need for baptism of the holy spirit, and featured speaking in tongues and healings. People were urged that salvation is by faith, the believer should strive to be holy, and that Christ would come back soon.
The revival spread outwards from LA, particularly among the poor and immigrant groups. Many missionaries went out from Azusa and within two years the movement had spread to over fifty nations. Denominations that are a legacy of this era: Church of God, Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God.
In the 1960s, there was another revival, with the gifts of the spirit becoming evident in mainstream, traditional denominations. There were also new charismatic ‘house churches’ formed, and the Jesus People/Jesus Movement of the 1960s/1970s were in some respects charismatic. Charismatic denominations developing onward from this time include Calvary Chapel, Vineyard, and the New Frontiers Network.
But while the modern Pentecostal/charismatic movement may be only a little over a century old, it has important antecedents in church history.
Renewal, revival, or the ‘gifts of the spirit’ are nothing new, on the island of Ireland or worldwide. Going back centuries, the mythic tales of the lives of Irish saints are full of miracle stories and visions of God. More recent ancestors of Pentecostal/charismatic renewal are:
- The Methodist revivals of the 1740s. These were accompanied in some cases by speaking in tongues and ecstatic expressions of faith. John Wesley’s preaching in the open air – in Ireland as well as in England – was at the time revolutionary and inspired revival, especially among the poor and working classes. (It was paralleled by the First Great Awakening in the American colonies in the 1730s/1740s)
- 1859 Ulster Revival. It featured dramatic conversions, changes in people’s way of life, the imperative to get ‘saved’, and manifestations of gifts of the spirit. (It was paralleled by the Second Great Awakening in the US in the 1790s/1840s).
- 1904-1905 Welsh Revival – On this side of the Atlantic, this is the link that is closest in time to the birth of modern Pentecostalism. In Northern Ireland Ireland, Elim Pentecostal Church was founded around 1915.
There are a few more points that I hope to pick up from the programme, and will blog about them in the coming days.
(image – expressive singing and prayer typical of charismatic worship; sourced on Flickr by Tiago Crossol Schvartzhaupt)