Schisms within Pentecostalism: Why So Much Fragmentation?


Pentecostalism refers to a reincarnating religious movement that occurred at a mass level within Christianity in the twentieth century. Taking a broad spectrum of organizational and theological perspectives into account, this movement emphasized on the direct personal experience of God through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Growing out of the Holiness renewal during the second half of the nineteenth century, Pentecostalism was initially confined within the America’s lower and middle-class groups.

Exponents of Holiness

Exponents of Holiness rejected the impurity of mainstream churches and resultantly they were disengaged from the increasing wealth and elaborate rituals practiced by the churches.

This alienation led to the formation of new theological perspectives consecrated to the doctrine of perfectionism. The inspiring force behind the conceptualization of the new doctrine was realized by Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists. The theological idea of ‘Spirit Baptism’ was advocated through the new Holiness revival, and leaders such as John Alexander Dowie, Charles Cullis and Albert B. Simpson set up healing missions across the U.

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S. with a prognosis of a brand new, miraculous era of the spirit was would be on its way. In 1900, Charles Parham, a former Methodist sermonizer turned ‘healer’, established the bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas and asked his students to study the scriptures and make out for themselves what proof might be given of Spirit Baptism. This event marked the formal beginning of the Pentecostal movement that gradually spread exponentially across Missouri, Arkansas, Texas and Los Angeles.

Tracing the growth and expansion of the Pentecost revival, it is worth noting that it is first and foremost multifaceted in nature.

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The account of the Pentecostal historians focused on a providential framework and the role of God was given more importance than human and natural causation. The interracial nature of the movement has been considered as a fundamental protest to separatism and as a dynamic force of social change. More then the theological aspects of the movement itself, social class analysis of its followers were on top of the agenda for the scholars and historians.

The study unearthed the assumption that Pentecostalism thrived because it made up for the loss of social and political status for its followers. This historical presupposition stood its ground firmly as David Edwin Harrell and Robert Mapes Anderson hinted at similar causes. On the other hand, Grant Wacker highlights another dimension involving positive functions of faith in the origin and spread of Pentecostalism. In the midst of loss of social status, class alienation, economic uncertainties and a generic pessimism, Pentecostals tried to bring order into their lives by following the paths of primitive faith.

The reincarnating and millennial roots of the movement

Some scholars have also examined the reincarnating and millennial roots of the movement, describing Pentecostalism as a longing to restore the ancient order of things. Such explanations are supported by doctrines such as receiving of spiritual gifts, prophesying, and healing as presented in the Book of Acts from early Christianity. All these different historic interpretations of Pentecostalism clearly suggest that the course of the movement has never been a smooth ride. Internal conflicts and ideological debates influenced and transformed Pentecostalism to a great extent.

Doctrinal disparities, mainly with regards to speaking in tongues inside the church, resulted in both internal and external disputes, and gave rise to schisms within the movement. Consequently, just as the Wesleyan factions (the Apostolic Faith Union and the Church of God) engaged in battle with the Reformed wing (Assemblies of God), Trinitarian Pentecostals fought with Unitarian Pentecostals. This proposal will attempt to study the reasons behind the fragmentation of the doctrine with necessary insight into the growth and development of the same. Read about the importance of evangelism in church growth

Baptism of the Holy Spirit According to the Pentecostal belief, the ‘Spirit Baptism’ or the ‘Baptism of the Holy Spirit’ should be made prescriptive for all Christians. The primary cause of fragmentation, as discussed in the research proposal, deals with use of the tongue with regards to going back to the times of second coming of Christ. This is also known as the first sign of the ‘initial evidence’ of this second incarnation, which, according to a Pentecostal, is speaking in a language unknown to the speaker.

The unspoken form of communication takes place when one individual or community connects with another, and it exerts a greater impact than what is normally the case with the regular structure of spoken language. In other words, the very essence of Pentecostalism lies in “a postconversion experience of spiritual purification and empowering for Christian witness, entry into which is signaled by utterance in unknown tongues”. Speaking in tongues sporadically appeared in the nineteenth century in both America and England, but the process had never assumed the significance ascribed to it by the mainstream Pentecostals.


Glossolalia was in practice in the 1830s in London, under the religious aegis of Presbyterian Edward Irving. In the United States of America, Joseph Smith’s Mormon followers also advocated for speaking of the tongue during the Shaker movement. But the Pentecostals were the first collective group to assign the doctrinal belief of the ‘Baptism of the Holy Spirit’ to the practice. Talking of the nature and framework of the movement and it might be noted that the ‘Baptism in the Spirit’ was believed to provide force to lead an apostolic life.

If one attempts to examine the path of the movement during the course of history, one will find that it has assumed identifications such as ‘Full Gospel’, ‘Latter Rain’ and ‘Apostolic Faith’. To a great extent, the movement for reviving the Holiness exercised a great amount of influence on several groups. According to Edith Blumhofer and Joe Creech, early Pentecostals did not origin in a homogenous setup, but came from diverse backgrounds. In order to elaborate it furthermore, it is worth taking a look at the racial origins of Pentecostalism.

The black roots of the movement have always been a neglected area of research among the historians and scholars. The ‘myth of Azusa Street’ concerns the reign of the black leader William Seymour. The elements of Africanism in the initial phase of the movement are worth considering when it comes to addressing the interracial nature of Pentecostalism. The Azusa Street revival took place in a deserted African Methodist Episcopal church in Los Angeles from 1906 to 1909.

This movement is believed to have set in motion Pentecostalism as a global phenomenon. Years later in 2001, Atlanta’s New Birth Cathedral saw history being reenacted as White and Black Pentecostals gathered solemnly in memoriam of the event in 1906. In the following year, waves of Pentecostal beliefs lashed the theological-religious shores of China, Africa and other countries around the world. The missionary initiatives gathered rapid momentum after the formation of Pentecostal denominations in the United States of America after 1910.

The theological perspectives

Coming back to theological perspectives, the reason behind fragmentation lay in the controversy surrounding the postconversion experience of spiritual purification. The Holiness theology that withstood even after many conflicts among the different wings of Pentecostals eventually got detached. The concept of a ‘third blessing’ was attributed to the previously believed ‘second work of grace’. But before expatiating more on this ‘growing out’ phenomenon, it is imperative to discuss the backdrop that initiated schisms within Pentecostalism.

As mentioned earlier, the ‘Azusa Street’ revival heralded a new era which was later to be culminated in American Methodist movement through Topeka and Los Angeles events. Under the leadership of John Inskip and Phoebe Palmer, the nineteenth century Methodists, emphasis was given on a ‘second blessing’ through the ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’. British evangelicals also singled out a miraculous Holy Spirit experience in the Keswick Conventions commencing in 1874. One of the major schisms occurred during this period when there was a difference of opinion between the earlier Pentecostals and the ‘Reformed’ groups.

The former group viewed purification as a crisis experience, while the latter cult interpreted it as an ‘ongoing quest’ to know God. American Methodist missionaries and traveling evangelists played a major role in spreading the Holiness movement to many countries around the world. Even though they did not preach the miraculous events associated with the ‘baptism in the holy spirit’, they stressed on a conscious experience of baptism and anticipated a revival of the NT church as a foretoken of the end of the church era.

A few other schools of thoughts assumed prominence in this period, with majority of them proclaiming the probability of providential healing in response to prayers and the expectation of the anticipated second coming of Christ. Historical documents published during this period were mostly written on the postconversion experience. Another movement began in Iowa 1895, dealing with the third blessing known as ‘the fire’. This movement deviated from the principles of the conversion and sanctification experiences that were already preached by the Holiness movement.

‘Fire-Baptized Holiness Church’

Led by Benjamin Hardin Irwin from Lincoln, Nebraska, this mission was named the ‘Fire-Baptized Holiness Church’. The Pillar of Fire Church in Denver and the Burning Bush of Minneapolis were among the other two notable ecclesiastical establishments of this time. The importance of prayer and faith was taught in the new theological doctrine, with an added emphasis on promoting religious lessons regarding how to cope with crisis situations. Instant conversion was taught by the ‘Fire-Baptized Holiness Church’, and instant purification was considered as the ‘second blessing’.

The other two primary doctrines propagated by the ‘Fire-Baptized Holiness Church’ included instant providential healing through prayer and instant second coming of the Christ before the new millennium. Formally recognized as the four fundamental doctrines of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Keswick preachers focused on popularizing instant salvation, ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’, providential healing and the second coming of the Christ.

Therefore it can be stated that the only crucial addition to the tongue-speaking custom in Topeka in 1901 was to assert that tongue-speaking was a part of the biblical confirmation of receiving the Holy Spirit baptism. Apart from this important addition, all the other elements of Pentecostalism were taken in entirety from the earlier doctrines. Times of Separation Doctrinal differences became apparent with the turn of the new millennium as many Holiness leaders disapproved of Pentecostalism on account of demon possessions and mental imbalances.

Those who were ardent followers of the older appellations turned down Pentecostalism without even giving any second thought. The Salvation Army, the Wesleyan Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene and the Church of God in Anderson, Indiana were among the leading denominations to have refused to follow Pentecostalism. So it is obvious from the historical records that schisms within the movement began to gain prominence with different denominations exercising independent practices. According to the opinion of MacRobert, schisms can be partially accredited to white racism.

He contends that the white religious leaders in the Assemblies of God and the Apostolic Faith Union ignored their interracial inheritance, and therefore fragmenting their churches according to racial preference. The separation of the Holiness doctrine from the main body of Pentecostalism was perceived as a liberalist variant of purification followed by the conversion with the ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’. This notion held by William H. Durham of Chicago was adopted by the Assemblies of God which became the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world by 1914.

The large variety of associations and churches

The stage was set for such an organization as Pentecostalism included a large variety of associations and churches. So it was imperative to build some form of doctrinal regularity and group pattern between various independent Pentecostal churches. Hence, a “General Convention of Pentecostal Saints and Churches of God in Christ” was coordinated in April 1914 in Arkansas. A religious doctrine was published before the formation of the Assemblies of God. Majority of the Pentecostal missions formulated after 1914 were based on the model set by the Assemblies of God.

They included the Pentecostal Church of God, the Open Bible Standard Church and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The span between 1914 and 1925 is often called the period of schism in terms of theological and doctrinal matters. Jesus Only Controversy Another worth mentioning split occurred due to the ‘Jesus only’ controversy, which began in 1911 in Los Angeles. Spearheaded by Frank Ewart and Glen Cook, this movement turned down the Trinitarian doctrine and stated that Christ was the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit at the same time.

The reasonability of this doctrine was dependent on one crucial prerequisite: it must relate itself to Pentecostalism in its purest form, i. e. , glossolalia. The resulting schism later on gave birth to the United Pentecostal Church and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. A fewer number of cases saw that other schisms occurred over smaller doctrinal conflicts and personal orientations, resulting in movements such as the Congregational Holiness Church and the Church of God of Prophecy.

However, researches have unearthed that majority of Pentecostal denominations in the United States of America and in the rest of the world were not established due to any splitting of theological or religious doctrines. In most cases Pentecostal denominations evolved out of segregated native churches. So we have seen that the three main areas of Pentecostalism are ‘Holiness’, ‘Finished Work’ and ‘Oneness’. The evangelist nature of such a theology has made it popular among all countries around the world. In Latin America alone, Pentecostalism is regarded as the largest non-Catholic religious sect.

The Reconstructionist ideologies of Chalcedon Foundation

Likewise, both the continents of Africa and Asia can boast of a having strong Pentecostal following. In Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism, Randall Herbert Balmer mentions the Reconstructionist ideologies of Chalcedon Foundation – named after The Council of Chalcedon that defied the Oriental Orthodoxy in matters of how Christ should be interpreted. The difference of opinion between the Monophysites (Oriental Orthodox) and Saint Cyril of Alexandria led to the origin of split. The Monophysites deserted their pro-Chalcedonian counterparts, suspecting that the Council had given in to the unorthodox doctrine.

It might also be observed in this regard that struggle for gaining political advantage and ethnic differences too played a part in schism; standpoint of the church only sparked it off. Nature of Pentecostalism With the number of registered members of Pentecostalism amounting to 30 millions in the United States alone and nearly 430 millions worldwide, it goes without saying that the impact of Pentecostalism was enormous in the theological and religious context of the nineteenth and the twentieth century. The Holiness revival that underlined the Pentecostal doctrine advocated an Armenian theology.

It was basically a reaction against modernism in the early twentieth century. Even though this reactionary nature of Pentecostalism was criticized by historian William G. McLoughlin, stating that the outcome of such a doctrine would prove to be futile in later years, history tells us otherwise. In nature and functional aspects, Pentecostalism is in fact very close to the fundamentalist movement. The theological part reflects a Biblically conservative ideal, defying the Calvinist tenet. Advocators of Pentecostalism believe in being strongly pre-millennial in the interpretation of the end times.

Just like fundamentalists, Pentecostal theology on the end times first appeared in the Scoffed Reference Bible. According to this school of thought, Christ will come back before a thousand year rule over earth. This view means that the timeline of world’s history is classified into seven ages, and seventh age will come to an end in Christ’s reign on earth. So the Pentecostal doctrine of the second coming of Christ is aptly justified by this theological explanation. Moreover, the ideas of salvation and spiritual cleansing or rebirth of the soul are also incorporated in the doctrine.

Interpretation of sin

Interpretation of sin in Pentecostalism is a lot more liberal compared to other religious sects, especially with regards to man’s own judgment in choosing or rejecting Jesus Christ. Pentecostals firmly believe that the moment man indulged in free-willed sin, he was separated from God. They also teach that children are not responsible for sin until they reach the age of reason. Comparing Theologies Taking into account all these facets of Pentecostalism, it is quite a task to make a comparative analysis among the varied theological dimensions that might have led to splintering in the parent body.

The Protestant inheritance of Pentecostalism has resulted in both development as well as fragmentation. With 300 Pentecostal organizations and denominations in the United States of America, the main area of conflict has always been the overlapping of Catholic dogmas with Protestant freedom. Consequently, the genuine interpretation of the Bible, which is considered to be ‘Mouth of God’ by the Pentecostals, has been subject to discord within the movement. Accordingly, the myriad constellation of churches ran the risk of developing operational as well as doctrinal discrepancies among them.

For instance, the Holiness churches, a product of the Methodist convention, abide by the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection that stresses on a postconversion experience of total purification. Again, the Pentecostal view of liturgy as unspiritual makes them form unique prayer customs that are not supported by tongues in public places. Reading of scriptures, sermon, prayers or congregational singing – everything is done in a ‘private language’. Contrary to this, the convention of using tongues is completely shunned in the Holiness churches.

They are among the sternest critics of the practice. The Pentecostal doctrine teaches that Glossolalia is a repeatable phenomenon that can be accessed by Christians in all ages and its annexation is proved by speaking of tongues. It has been observed an umpteen number of times that the Holiness churches focus on the ‘fruits’ or ‘graces’ of the Spirit to mock the custom of putting a greater amount of importance on ‘gifts’ of the Spirit, primarily in dealing with ‘divine healing’. The causes behind schisms also lie in the diversity of Christendom.

The Holiness and the Pentecostal churches

Both the Holiness and the Pentecostal churches functioned in their own ways before the establishment of denominations. Therefore it was possible for the Holiness doctrine to get influenced by parallel theological missions, including Methodism, pre-Civil War perfectionist antislavery radicals and so on. Similarly the Pentecostal churches being part a larger ethnic and theological group also showed the tendency to divert into different religious practices based on race, socio-political standings and other factors. These basic disparities made way for the splitting of the main body.

Discontinuities in holiness doctrines between the classical Wesleyanism and late nineteenth century ones are subject for contention when it comes to interpreting the belief of ‘entire sanctification’ that forms the kernel of Pentecostalism. There is a widespread belief among the scholars and historians that Wesley cast off the doctrine of ‘entire sanctification’ on the grounds of having precarious exegetical foundations. This apprehension compels the Nazarene theologians to resort to two different camps. One group reasserts the classical Wesleyanism and another group safeguards the nineteenth-century perspectives.

Now such scenarios are extremely precarious in our understanding of the Pentecostal theologies as it developed. It puts into doubt the very authenticity of the movement and even regarding the assortment of theologies in the New Testament. Contemporary Schisms In recent times in Mexico, the apocalyptic Marian colony of Nueva Jerusalen experienced a hostile schism. The conflict led to major organizational transformation and helped to set up a concentrated system of authority now prevalent in the colony. The probable reason of the schism is attributed to the succession crisis that was followed by the death of a Marian apparition prophet.

The schism came to an end in 1982 with the exclusion of several hundred colony residents, paving the path for a new sect. As suggested by Rochford, the ‘movements of exit’ are often followed by new religious movements. However, the protestors of Schism in the Marian colony didn’t give up fight to maintain their religious outlooks. Administrative changes were made before the onset of schism, and it gathered momentum later on. In Bulgaria too, seemingly insoluble schism developed for a four-year span from 1997 to 2001.

The longstanding dispute between the Orthodox Church and the World Council of Churches resurfaced as the new movement was not welcomed by the evangelical school of religious practices. The thesis topic at hand is clearly subject to a lot of research and argument. Looking into all the probable areas of contention, it might be noted that the recurrence schisms in Pentecostalism can be attributed to the diverseness of theological viewpoints of Pentecostals as well as to the rapid growth and expansion of the movement in different parts of the globe.

Updated: Feb 23, 2021
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Schisms within Pentecostalism: Why So Much Fragmentation?. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Schisms within Pentecostalism: Why So Much Fragmentation? essay
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