New wine breaks old bottles

A reflection on Baptists and the Holy Spirit: The Contested History with Holiness-Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements by C. Douglass Weaver.

When one thinks of the history of Pentecostalism, it is unlikely that Baptists come immediately to mind. But like all of American history, pulling on any single thread of a story reveals an interwoven tapestry of relationships and rivalries that are necessary for any movement to exist and flourish. Such is the story of Baptists and the Holy Spirit: The Contested History with Holiness-Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements by C. Douglass Weaver. Weaver, as a professor of Baptist studies at Baylor University, is well qualified to unravel the patchwork that is the history of Baptists and Pentecostals in a way that is helpful to both scholars and historians. In this book, Weaver makes the historic depth of details easily accessible while also providing coverage of moments rich with irony, considering that Baptists and Pentecostals have often found themselves on different sides of theological divides.

For example, Weaver points out that pastor Joseph Smale, who led The First Baptist Church or Los Angeles just prior to The Azusa Street Revival, was described by the “early Pentecostal evangelist Frank Bartleman . . . as the ‘Moses’ of Pentecostalism—greatly contributing to its origins but not entering into the Promised Land as a full-fledged participant”(103). These details provide a glimpse into the cultural and religious tributaries that often converge into evolving currents that take Baptists and Pentecostals in new directions with continuing implications for emerging ecumenical movements to this day.  

Weaver carefully guides us through the decades, demonstrating that in every iteration of the Baptist and Pentecostal movements, one is sure to find the other substantially represented as either friend or foe, and sometimes as both. Weaver observes, “the interaction of holiness-Pentecostal-charismatic influences of the Holy Spirit in Baptist life has occurred, and it has occurred more than historians have bothered to notice” (405). These intersections, as Weaver describes them, take place in a variety of places on platforms both small and large. One such intersection is that of music. Weaver observes that music “continues to bring at least a charismatic-lite element to worship outside charismatic circles,” and goes on to point out the eclectic influences on Baptist worship styles, from the David Crowder Band to Hillsong finding prominence in Baptist hymnals (405).

But these influences aren’t limited to the outward expressions most visible in worship services, but also in the nuanced milieus of leadership structures, sermon preparation and delivery, theological emphasis, and daily Christian life, all of which played out in local congregational culture. These concerns intersected in how Baptist leaders often responded to Pentecostal innovations in theology and practice. One such example is Smale’s initial support of William Seymour’s Apostolic Mission at Azusa Street in Los Angeles and his later condemnations. According to Weaver, “Smale’s initial openness to ‘jumping saints’ . . . soured” when the daughter of a prominent wealthy supporter of Smale spoke in tongues at the Azusa Street Mission and later “rebuked Smale for denying freedom of the Holy Spirit in worship” (107). Weaver’s careful analysis of the interactions of Baptists with emerging Pentecostal streams throughout the 20th century reveals that while there were moments of support, there were many more moments where the divides were widened, reflecting the larger societal schisms that impact religious movements.

Baptist and The Holy Spirit

On these points, although some of the issues have evolved, it is clear that the methods employed by Baptists to discredit their theological and cultural opponents are strikingly similar today. Weaver reports that “Veteran North Carolinian minister J.J. Landsell offered a cessationist response as he rejected what he had heard about the Azusa Street Revival. . . . Landsell declared: I have heard of some ignorant negroes who claimed to have received the baptism of the spirit and professed to speak in unknown tongues, and would babble out a string of sounds that neither they nor those who heard understood . . . (130). Such a declaration points to the fact that many theological divergences between Pentecostals and Baptist are actually cultural, steeped in stubborn notions of White Supremacy.

But Weaver makes it clear that the criticisms flowed in both directions, as the rhetoric of Charles Parham (who is often credited with introducing Pentecostal innovations in America and a noted racist himself) illustrates. Weaver writes that in 1907 when Parham’s ministry and notoriety were in decline, he endeavored to relaunch with stinging criticisms that “reflected the Pentecostal, class-oriented criticisms of educational elites” challenging educated Baptist pastors to attend his school and earn an ‘A.S.S’ degree by speaking in tongues in the biblical tradition of Balaam’s donkey, as “animosity between Baptist and Pentecostals was never rare” (133) . Sadly, this kind of animosity is still on display today in some circles.

Weaver’s scholarship supports the work of others who have written extensively about the Pentecostal movement being largely a response to the socioeconomic pressures of the day. But Weaver’s unique contribution is to demonstrate how these pressures fueled the often competitive and rare collaborative relationships between Baptists and Pentecostals. Weaver writes in his conclusion “Pentecostal problems, Baptists were convinced, found roots in socioeconomic factors: ignorance, cultural deficiencies, emotional excesses, and psychological instability” (403). Perhaps this demonstrates Weaver’s strongest point: Pentecostals and Baptists are forever tethered to one another by larger cultural connections that do not hinge on theological divergence or convergence.

Weaver reveals that what Baptist feared in Pentecostals was a reflection of themselves in a primitive state. This is the cyclical nature of culture, including that of religious culture, the rise in response of innovators to the perceived injustices of the status quo only to eventually become the status quo themselves, who then seek to marginalize the influence of innovators following them. Baptists, who themselves were once on the fringes of the religious mainstream in America, feared having their status usurped by up-and-coming Pentecostals. Just like Baptists, Pentecostalism now finds itself occupying a position of acceptability that it once sought to avoid, and they must reconcile its past and present through the lens of reflection, repentance, and restoration. Modern Baptists and Pentecostals would benefit from taking to heart the words of Weaver’s citation of an editorial written in Kentucky’s The Baptist Argus:

We must not forget that new wine has a way of breaking old bottles; that all intellectual and spiritual storms uproot things and appear arbitrary and destructive. The banks through which divine life were made to flow have been so clogged up in many places, with ritualism of actions and thoughts, with corbans and creeds, which church and personal sins, that when a flood-tide of divine life comes, it is forced, is driven out of the banks, escapes the balances of theologians and gets into the hands of children of the marketplace, who know not what to do with their new-found treasure. As a rule, all sorts of revolutions start with the plain, empty, noble people, and as a rule, violent and illogical things are done. The violent have even taken the kingdom by force (125).

Baptists and the Holy Spirit is a wonderful primer for those of seeking to understand and navigate the religious revolutions of the past and of those yet to come.

First published in Reading Religion

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