Charles Parham, William Seymour and South African pentecostalist racism

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The research in the article utilises a comparative literature study, based on a new historiographic interest in the origins of the pentecostal movement in pentecostal scholarship during the past decade. It finds that most South African classical pentecostals historically ascribed the origins of their movement to two different persons and historical events in terms of their race, in agreement with the race of the historical figure. Without reflecting on the historiographic implications, white Afrikaans-speaking Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) members find their origins in Charles Parham and the experience of glossolalia at his Bible schools of 1900–1 and 1906, denying the important role played by the Azusa Street Revival under the leadership of William Seymour. Black South African pentecostals for their part go back to Seymour, as most current historical evaluations of the movement have done.

Research shows that although white Afrikaans-speaking pentecostals accept glossolalia not as xenolalia, but as an initial sign of Spirit baptism, they find their roots in Parham’s racist theological perspectives and not in the more influential events at Azusa Street, using his perspectives as justification for their racial practice of separate worship services and ministry of sacraments. What white Afrikaans-speaking pentecostals choose deliberately not to remember is that Parham defined glossolalia exclusively in terms of xenolalia or xenoglossia, that is, speaking in tongues that are foreign to the speaker but exist somewhere in the world, in line with the impression in Acts 2:6 that tongues refer to existing languages. Parham condemned and denounced the Azusa Street Revival for this very reason, that the blacks’ glossolalia consisted of incomprehensible, unintelligent, crude negroisms that characterised the American south and which were wrongly ascribed to the work of the Spirit. Ashton T. Crawley describes xenolalia as “white” and glossolalia as “black”. He criticises white pentecostalist theologians who ignore the distinction and argues that they betray their own racist preferences in their support for Parham. In their practice, white pentecostals followed Parham, who defined glossolalia in terms of the language of heaven or angels, in line with the designation found in 1 Corinthians 13:1.

Parham was also known for his British (Anglo-) Israelism that acknowledged the sovereignty of the Anglo-Saxon race to rule over all people and for eternity. He believed that certain races were equipped with the necessary intellectual and spiritual insight to dominate the other races. The other races were created and predisposed to serve and be dominated by them. Supremacy belonged to the white race. “Nigger lovers” were “traitors to the white race”. Parham’s racism was ideological and hierarchical, classifying all people into three classes. The first class had been established to enjoy God’s salvation; they were receptive to spiritual truths. The group included Anglo-Saxons, Germans, Scandinavians and the Japanese. Only they were enabled to realise their spirituality. A second group, consisting of Russians, Greeks, Italians and Spaniards, could not comprehend the full gospel pentecostal message. Their lack of intellectual and moral abilities disqualified them from partaking in the heritage of the descendants of Abraham. The third class consisted of the heathen, including all black, brown, red and yellow races. They cannot be saved at all. These ideological opinions of Parham influenced the subsequent pentecostal movement, and teachings from his books were reflected in publications by white pentecostals.

The purpose of the article is to investigate South African pentecostal racism with reference to these two historical figures and what they stood for, in order to ascertain the implications of white Afrikaans-speaking pentecostals’ choice for Parham as the initiator of the pentecostal movement. The legalisation of apartheid in 1948 made it possible for white Afrikaans-speaking pentecostals to distort the history of their own denominations effectively to suit their racial views and support their supremacist stance, demonstrated by choosing Parham as their “father”. They did not show much consciousness of or sensitivity to the oppression of the majority of South Africans in the country by a political and legislative system designed for their benefit. They shared in the ideological brainwashing of the government about the threat of “black danger” in service of communist powers (the “red danger”) that was supposed to be aimed at destabilising the South African government. These powers in turn stood in the service of the evil powers of the Antichrist, attempting to destroy Christianity and civilisation. They did not see the flagrant structural sins committed by a system that denied the dignity of black people. All who dared to criticise the system and government were stigmatised as “liberals” and dangerous supporters of a communist-inspired liberation theology.

Most black pentecostals also supported the theological perspective of non-participation in politics found widely among pentecostals. However, their context of oppression necessitated that they design strategies for survival in an abnormal and violent community.

Regarding the origins of the pentecostal movement, most researchers emphasise the significance and importance of Azusa Street Revival as a black movement of resistance against racism, seeing the real miracle in the non-racialism that characterised the early days rather than the phenomenon of glossolalia. However, the white AFM denied its importance, taking a position not supported by historical evidence.

This is demonstrated with reference to the authoritative church histories of the two largest classical pentecostal denominations in South Africa, the Apostolic Faith Mission of South Africa (AFM) and the Full Gospel Church of God. The respective histories were written by leaders within the churches, both of them serving as the national president or moderator of their churches.

Later these churches made representations to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, it is argued that white Afrikaans-speaking pentecostals did not confess their culpability in the crimes committed in apartheid South Africa by the government and white people who enjoyed the benefits of a segregated society, neither in the representations at the Commission nor publicly at any other stage.

The point of departure is that South African racism did not receive a deathblow with the arrival of a democratic South Africa in 1994, as many people had hoped. On the contrary, it seems that racist attitudes among all racial groups have increased during the past decade. It is suggested that white Afrikaans-speaking pentecostals would benefit in a non-racial South African democratic dispensation by critically reflecting on their distortion of their historical roots and revisiting their theological justification of apartheid.

Keywords: Charles Parham; classical pentecostalism; glossolalia; racism; William Seymour; xenolalia


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

Charles Parham, William Seymour en Suid-Afrikaanse pentekostalistiese rassisme 

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  • Frederick Collins

    I was brought to your article through a Google search. I was looking for confirmatory information on today's installment of Christian History from the Christian History Institute which said: However, Parham denounced Azusa as “spiritual power prostituted.” A racist, he was appalled at the mixing of whites and blacks in the church and tried unsuccessfully to wrestle the work away from Seymour." Thanks.

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