Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Charles Fox Parham, who was born in Muscatine, Iowa, on June 4, 1873, is regarded as the founder and doctrinal father of the worldwide pentecostal movement. A sickly youth, Parham nevertheless enrolled in Southwest Kansas College in 1890, where he became interested in the Christian ministry. After receiving a call to preach, he left college before graduating, and in 1893 accepted the pastorate of a Methodist church in Linwood, Kansas.

In Linwood, Parham soon became involved in the holiness movement, which was spreading in Methodist circles at the time. This movement stressed instant second-blessing sanctification as taught by John Wesley. It was in the Plains that the most radical elements of the holiness movement took root. By 1895, as controversy over the second blessing divided the church, Parham became so enmeshed in holiness theology that he left the Methodist Church to follow a career as an independent holiness evangelist and teacher. He soon began to emphasize newer doctrines, such as divine healing and the instant premillennial second coming of Christ. For the rest of his life, he also rejected any type of church organization.

In 1898 Parham opened his own "Bethel Bible School" and healing home in Topeka, Kansas, where in 1899 he began publication of a magazine called the Apostolic Faith. It was in this school that Parham and his students studied the differing teachings of the holiness movement relating to the "baptism in the Holy Spirit" described in Acts 2:4. Through a student consensus, with some help from Parham, the student body concluded that speaking in tongues (glossolalia) was the "Bible evidence" of such an experience.

On January 1, 1901, a student in the school, Agnes Ozman, spoke in tongues, electrifying the school and the Topeka area through sensational stories in local newspapers. Parham's teaching that speaking in tongues was the necessary "Bible evidence" of baptism in the Holy Spirit became known as the "touch felt round the world" that, according to J. Roswell Flower of the Assemblies of God, "made the Twentieth Century Pentecostal Movement." Parham also began to teach that glossolalia also constituted zenolalia (i.e., "missionary tongues"), whereby missionaries could go to the corners of the earth and preach miraculously in known human languages that they had not learned. In a short time, all Pentecostals except Parham dropped this belief due to unsuccessful efforts at preaching in unknown tongues in India and other places.

By 1906 the pentecostal movement had spread to Los Angeles through a black preacher, William Joseph Seymour, who learned pentecostal theology as Parham's student in another Bible school in Houston, Texas. From the Azusa Street Mission led by Seymour, the pentecostal movement spread rapidly throughout the world.

In October 1906 Parham visited Azusa Street and denounced the Los Angeles meetings as being dominated by "holy rollers and hypnotists" that featured "darkey camp meeting stunts." He was thereupon expelled from Azusa Street by Seymour and his elders. For the rest of his life, Parham denounced his former student and the Azusa Street revival as "spiritual power prostituted." In 1907 Parham was accused of sodomy in San Antonio during a local healing crusade. Although he was acquitted of the charge, his influence as a major leader in the pentecostal movement was over. In the last two decades of his life, Parham retired to his home in Baxter Springs, Kansas, where several thousand of his followers attended his annual camp meetings until his death on January 29, 1929. He is buried in Baxter Springs.

A century after Parham's movement began in Topeka, the Pentecostals had grown to be the second largest family of Christians, with more than 500 million members in the pentecostal and charismatic churches and movements that had spread from Topeka to practically every nation of the world. Major American denominations produced by the pentecostal movement include the Assemblies of God, the Church of God in Christ, the Pentecostal Holiness Church, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), the United Pentecostal Church, and the Pentecostal Church of God.

Vinson Synan Regent University

Burgess, Stanley, Gary McGee, and Patrick Alexander. Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988.

Goff, James R. Fields White unto Harvest: Charles Fox Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988.

Synan, Vinson. Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition. Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.

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