Charles Fox Parham (4 June 1873 – 29 January 1929) was an American preacher originally from a Methodist and the Wesleyan Holiness Movement back ground. Together with William J. Seymour, Parham was one of the two central figures in the development and early spread of Pentecostalism (which initially emphasized personal faith and proper living, along with a belief of the imminence of the return of the gifts of the Holy Spirit) in 1901 in Topeka, Kansas. Parham left the Methodist church in 1895 because he disagreed with its hierarchy. He also complained that Methodist preachers “were not left to preach by direct inspiration”. Rejecting denominations, he established his own itinerant evangelistic ministry, which preached the ideas of the holiness movement and was well received by the people of Kansas.
Charles Parham’s Theological roots
Pentecostalism grew out of the Holiness movement roots. John Wesley, the eighteenth century Anglican minister and founder of Methodism, is in many ways seen as “the spiritual and intellectual father of the modern holiness and Pentecostal movements” because of the doctrine of sinless perfectionism. Perfectionism (sanctification) was the second blessing or experience of the believer. This perfectionism would become something a believer must seek and strive for. Pentecostalism says to them, “Aim for this special blessing too. Seek perfection, for it too is within your reach! With special power from the Holy Spirit you can also attain to this level of spirituality! Surrender to the Spirit completely and be without sin; yield to His power and you can be perfect!”
With roots in Methodism, Mr. Parham’s theology in itself developed and grew over time. He preferred to work out doctrinal ideas in private meditation, he believed the Holy Spirit communicated with him directly and its not hard to see how his theology was riddled with doctrinal heresies. He believed in annihilation of the unsaved and denied the Bible doctrine of eternal torment. He believed in the unscriptural doctrine of anglo-Israelism. He taught that there were two separate creations, and that Adam and Eve were of a different race than people who allegedly lived outside of the Garden of Eden. The first race of men did not have souls, he claimed, and this race of unsouled people was destroyed in the flood. Parham believed that those who received the latter days spirit baptism and spoke in tongues would make up the bride of Christ and would have a special place of authority at Christ’s return. He believed in a partial rapture composed of tongues speakers.
In spite of his teaching that it was always God’s will to heal and that medicine and doctors must be shunned, one of Parham’s sons died at age 16 years of a sickness which was not healed. Parham ironically himself suffered various sicknesses throughout his life and at times was actually too sick to preach or travel.
Well, Mr. Parham also taught the fringe two-seed theory or “Where did Cain get his wife, or was there a pre-Adamite race!” —a theory that is always found connected to ‘another race’, the two seed theory of Christian Identity’ or aliens’ or that Biblical record is false and that Adam was not the first man God created. This same theory was later to influence other Pentecostal preachers like William Branham.
Charles Parham’s most memorable theological contributions were his beliefs about the baptism with the Holy Spirit as another work of grace aside from conversion or salvation. There were Christians speaking in tongues and teaching an experience of Spirit baptism before 1901. However, he was the first to identify tongues as the “Bible evidence” of Spirit baptism. It is not clear when he began to preach the need for such an experience, but it is clear that he did by 1900. Charles Parham later asserted too that there are not two experiences, but there were three works of grace that a true believer must experience – conversion, sanctification, and Spirit baptism!
Then There was Azusa Street
In 1906 every thing was yet to boil over. This was at the Azusa Street Revival – which is commonly regarded as the spark that caused the beginning of modern Pentecostalism. The Azusa story revolves around the leadership of William J. Seymour – Charles Parham’s black African American student. Both Parham and Seymour had preached to Houston’s African Americans, and Parham had planned to send Seymour out to preach to the black communities throughout Texas. Seymour left Houston to become the associate pastor of an African-American holiness mission in Los Angeles, California. Seymour’s work in Los Angeles would eventually develop into the Azusa Street Revival.
Large crowds came from across the nation and around the world, and for three years these meetings would go on. Seymour usually sat at the front of the room behind two empty boxes, one on top of the other. During meetings, he kept his head inside the boxes, earnestly praying. There was little or no order to the Azusa Street services. Whoever felt “moved by the spirit” to speak, would do so. Seymour rarely preached. Some say that the firsthand descriptions of the Azusa Street “revival” sound very similar to the current “Laughing Revival.” A bewildered Los Angeles Times reporter visited the meeting and remarked, “The night is made hideous … by the howlings of the worshipers.”
When Charles Parham, visited the revival in October of 1906 it was not a joyful reunion for the student and his master. David McCloud, in his book The Strange History of Pentecostalism said of this visit that “even he was shocked by the confusion of the services. He began his first sermon by telling the people that “God is sick at his stomach” because of the things which were occurring at Azusa. He was dismayed by the ‘awful fits and spasms’ of the ‘holy rollers and hypnotists.’ He described the Azusa ‘tongues’ as ‘chattering, jabbering and sputtering, speaking no language at all’. The Azusa Street meetings were so wild that Parham condemned them with the term ‘sensational Holy Rollers.’ He testified that the Azusa Street meetings were largely characterized by manifestations of the flesh, spiritualistic controls, and the practice of hypnotism (Sarah Parham, The Life of Charles F. Parham, Joplin, MO: Tri-State Printing, 1930, p. 163). According to Parham, two-thirds of the people professing Pentecostalism in his day ‘are either hypnotized or spook driven’ (Parham, Life of Charles F. Parham, p. 164). In his writings about Azusa Street, Parham described men and women falling on one another in a morally compromising manner.”
Splits and Denominations
click to enlarge chart of pentecostal denominations
Numerous charismatic denominations refer to this revival as the beginning of their particular beliefs. Until 1914, the movement worked primarily within the Holiness churches. But increasing friction motivated the Pentecostals to form their first denomination, the Church of God in Christ. Although the movement was racially integrated in its early years, racial divisions soon developed. Many white clergy could not handle the presence of both blacks and whites in the congregation; the clergy subsequently left to form the Assemblies of God where blacks could be excluded.
Eventually, there evolved three main Pentecostal divisions, and a number of similar splinter groups:
- Some Pentecostals, particularly those with a Holiness background, believe in the “Pentecostal experience” as the third of three experiences:
1)-justification (faith and trust by the believer in Jesus as Lord and Savior)
2)-sanctification (the “second blessing” – imparting of a new life to the believer by the Holy Spirit)
3)-baptism of the Holy Spirit (as evidenced by speaking in tongues)
Their main denominations include: Church of God (ClevelandTN), Church of God in Christ.
- Other Pentecostals, particularly those with a Baptist background, believe that the baptism of the Holy Spirit can happen to any believer in Jesus, whether or not they have first been sanctified. The main denomination is the General Council of Assemblies of God
- Oneness Pentecostals (a.k.a. “Jesus Only” or “Apostolic Pentecostals”) believe that in the early Christian church, baptism was done in the name of Jesus Christ only (as in Acts 2:38) , not in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (as in Matthew 28:19). In time, this group abandoned the traditional expression of belief in the Trinity, and accept the oneness of God. A crisis developed within the Assemblies of God (AOG) in 1916 over these new beliefs. The AOG decided to remain Trinitarian, both in its baptismal formula and its concept of deity. Almost 200 pastors left the Assemblies of God as a result. TheUnitedPentecostalChurchand the Pentecostal Assemblies of The World are the main Oneness Pentecostal denominations.
Around 1973, in order to distinguish newer Pentecostals from the older Pentecostal denominations, the word “charismatic” began to be used widely to designate the movement in the mainline churches.
Lessons and Repercussions
The Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement has affected the whole of Christianity in a way not seen since the Protestant Reformation. Though many admire how it energizes its followers, many theologians are shocked at how much of traditional Christian doctrine are completely ignored, misinterpreted, or mangled up.
Pentecostalism seeks to apply to our day what belonged only to the apostles and their day. Pentecostals teach that those extraordinary gifts given by the Lord to authenticate the apostles due to the fact that the canon of scripture was not yet completed are intended for Christians in every age. In New Testament times God spoke by direct revelations to His Apostles and Prophets. Signs were needed to confirm that their messages were actually from God.
Pentecostalism often places human experience above the written Word of God. For Pentecostals the way to find the truth is to appeal to oneself, to look within, to look at ones own experience. “I know that it is from God because it feels so good” or “it feels so right” they often say. Systematic biblical exposition is almost non-existent.
Pentecostalism assembles the church around something other than the Word of God. A true church of Jesus Christ assembles together around the pulpit. It comes together for the preaching of the Word of God. Pentecostalism today assembles the church around special revelations and dreams and speaking in tongues and experiences rather than the preaching of the Word of God. It desires unity in the church, yet often brings division.
And because Pentecostals have disregarded admonition to hold fast to sound doctrine, it’s not that difficult to see why they can have fellowship with the most extreme liberals and apostates who deny the fundamentals of the faith and also with fundamentalists and Roman Catholics, just as long as “they have experienced Holy Spirit baptism.”
Pentecostalism popularized a doctrine of salvation that included physical health and healing as an essential part of the believer’s conversion and deliverance that by 1940s the central focus of revival meetings was the moment of miracle (when the “miracle event” occurred in the meeting).
Pentecostalism by the late twentieth century (with the intergration of word of faith and prosperity gospel) was known to propagate easy believism and feeble false converts to Christianity who easily whithered away once the emotions and material draw strings had worn out thereby becoming a haven for high profile, fastidious preachers, Christian celebrities and media personalities (e.g., musicians and actors).
The criticisms and lessons learnt from the life of Charles Parham and Pentecostalism can best be summarised by the words of Pentecostal theologian Gordon Fee:
Pentecostals, in spite of some of their excesses, are frequently praised for recapturing for the Church her joyful radiance, missionary enthusiasm, and life in the Spirit. But they are at the same time noted for bad Hermenutics. First, their attitude towards Scripture regularly has included a general disregard for scientific exegesis and carefully thought out Hermenutics. In fact, Hermenutics has simply not been a Pentecostal thing. Scripture is the Word of God and is to be obeyed. In place of scientific Hermenutics there developed a kind of pragmatic Hermenutics. Obey what should be taken literally–spiritualize, allegorize, or devotionalize the rest. Secondly, it is probably fair and important to note that in general, the Pentecostal’s experience has preceded their Hermenutics. In a sense, the Pentecostal tends to exegete his experience.
I will be the first to readily acknowledge that there are many godly Christian people within Pentecostalism. Not all Pentecostals are characterized by easy believism, duplicity and fringe extremism and esoteric mesmerism. There are still some clear thinking Pentecostals/Charismatics who are enthusiastic for the gospel and are un doubt ably eager to learn and drink from the milk of the Word of God. But we must know how to rightly divide the word of truth. Because if we don’t, mishandling the Scriptures and not interpreting it properly just feeds endless confusion. And that is why there is so much Charismatic chaos.
Charles Parham was later arrested for “sexual indiscretions” with boys, although charges were dropped, some suggest because no one would testify. The toll these allegations took on Parham, the man, was immense and the change it brought to his ministry was equally obvious to his hearers. He became harsh and critical of other Pentecostals. Although plagued by troubles and controversies towards the end of his ministry, Charles Parham died on January 29, 1929, at the age of 56. His family, fearing that someone would damage his grave, buried him with a small stone marker that did not even include his name. Years later a memorial was put up by friends. Though the Azusa Street mission had a brief life, its impact on the Pentecostal movement has been a lasting one. Many new churches and missions were founded across America which carried the new emphasis on seeking the baptism of the Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues. Today, there are over 200,000,000 denominational Pentecostals and another 200,000,000 who identify themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic in mainline churches.
In conclusion, depending upon which reports one reads, Charles Fox Parham’s sins and errors are usually partially discussed, totally ignored, excused, obscured or glossed over. But as we see, learning from Charles Parham’s short comings and errors in Church history will enable us to avoid bad theology, maintain traditional boundaries of orthodoxy and gives us a broader perspective of the body of Christ (the Church) as it is on this side of eternity.