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Strange Fire Review: Chapter Two

In chapter two of Dr. John MacArthur’s book, Strange Firehe deals with the beginnings of the modern Pentecostal movement.  He shows that the movement itself began on strange terms.  His point is to compare the modern Pentecost that Pentecostals see as happening on January 1, 1901 in a prayer meeting in Topeka, Kansas under the leadership of Charles Parham.  Parham had instructed his students at his Bible institute to search the Scriptures to see what was the evidence for the baptism with the Holy Spirit.  The students concluded that speaking in tongues was the Bible evidence for Spirit-baptism.  Parham and his students gathered to seek God for the baptism with the Spirit.

In the early morning hours of January 1, 1901, one of Parham’s students, Agnus Ozman, asked her teacher to lay hands on her and pray that she would receive the Spirit.  Parham laid hands on her and she begin to speak in Chinese.  Parham claimed she could only speak and write in Chinese for three days.

After this, the other students soon begin to speak in tongues and Parham concluded that they spoke in over 20 languages including Japanese, Russian, Bulgarian, French, Bohemian, Norwegian, Hungarian, Italian, and Spanish.

MacArthur shows the holes in the story.  He footnotes all of this to show that history itself does not bear witness to the events.  Conflicting accounts have come from both Parham and Ozman as well as other students.  One of Parham’s students even told a local paper, “I believe the whole of them are crazy.”

MacArthur points out that the students were seeking to speak in foreign languages just as the disciples did in Acts 2:8.  However, MacArthur writes that the tongues of Parham’s “revival” were not the same and they did not speak in foreign languages but gibberish.  Parham even was quoted in a Kansas City newspaper as saying, “A part of our labor will be to teach the church the uselessness of spending years of time preparing missionaries for work in foreign lands when all they have to do is ask God for power.”

However, even Jack Hayford and David Moore conclude that Parham failed in his expectations.  They write, “Sadly, the idea of xenoglossalalic tongues would later prove an embarrassing failure as Pentecostal workers went off to missions fields with their gift of tongues and found their hearers did not understand them.”

In fact, eighteen Pentecostals were sent to Japan, China, and India expecting to preach to the natives in those foreign countries in their own tongue but failed to do so and all eighteen returned to the United States having failed to preach in the tongues they believed they had the gift of.  In time, Pentecostals had to learn the languages just as other missionaries have had to do for thousands of years.  The gift of “tongues” had to be rethought and in time the Pentecostals begin to view the gift for prayer and worship and not for preaching.

MacArthur goes on to show the sad story of Charles Parham himself.  Parham would be involved in several scandals including his own arrest on July 19, 1907 in Texas for sodomy.  Parham then begin to preach to his followers that he needed money to go to the holy land to find Noah’s ark and the lost art of the covenant.  After raising the money, Parham went to New York City in December 1908 to take a steamer to Jerusalem.  The trip never happened as Parham returned home to Kansas City claiming that he was mugged and couldn’t purchase his ticket.

Parham also held to marginal doctrines.  He sounded much like a universalist, was Pelagian in his view of sin, believed sanctification guaranteed divine healing, and strongly advocated racial segregation.

So what is MacArthur’s point?  He is trying to show that the Pentecostal movement began on the shoulders of this man, Charles Parham.  Why would God, writes MacArthur, give a fresh Pentecost to this man?  This man who held to strange doctrines, who advocated racial segregation to the point that he would not allow any “colored” people in his meetings?  When the true Pentecost came in Acts 2, the disciples not only spoke in foreign languages that was clearly understood by the hearers but their lives were transformed into godly lives.  Pentecost does not bring strange manifestations and unholy lives.

MacArthur goes on to write about E.W. Kenyon who is often viewed as the original father of the modern Word-Faith movement.  In fact, in his book, A Different GospelPentecostal scholar D.R. McConnell shows how Kenneth Hagin literally plagiarized Kenyon.

MacArthur then ends chapter two by looking at the words of Jonathan Edwards regarding emotionalism.  He points out that Edwards warned against emotionalism as evidence of revival.  Instead, Edwards believed that there were genuine signs of the work of the Spirit in the life of a true believer.  MacArthur is going to spend the next few chapters looking at what Edwards called, “the distinguishing marks of a work of the Spirit of God.”  Clearly, Matthew 7:21-23 must not be overlooked in this regard.

Let me offer my own thoughts here about this chapter.  First, I was not aware of much of this regarding Parham though I had heard of him and knew of his racism.  When I was in college, my roommate was black and we talked about this issue.  My roommate went on to earn his doctorate and wrote a book on William Seymour who would be the leader of the Azusa Street mission where the Pentecostal revival would start in 1906 in Los Angeles.

Secondly, MacArthur does make a strong case that Parham and his students were not on track.  Parham’s life and theology were not something to be desired.

Third, no Pentecostal would take an exception with MacArthur’s thoughts on Parham or on Kenyon (a man who is unknown to most modern Pentecostals).  I grew up in the Assemblies of God and never heard of Parham or Kenyon until after I was in college and then only because I researched them to a degree.  I had never heard of Kenyon until I read of him in McConnell’s work.

How should one react to this chapter.  I found myself agreeing with MacArthur here.  While I still believe that we must look to the Bible for sound doctrine and truth, it does bother me that history is not on the side of Parham.  I don’t care about Kenyon as he teachings have never impacted most Pentecostals that I know of outside of the heretical Word-Faith movement.   Parham, on the other hand, should trouble Pentecostals.  He would later influence William Seymour and Seymour would influence many others.  Every Pentecostal movement today finds it roots in Azusa Street.  As a boy growing up I often heard of Azusa Street and older Pentecostals spoke of it with reverence.  I remember older Pentecostals praying, “Lord send us another Azusa Street revival.”  I doubt they knew of any of the sins of Parham nor his strange teachings.

But I will end by simply asserting here that we must a people of the Word of God.  Whether you identify with the Pentecostal movement or not, I urge you to hold firmly the Word of God.  The Bible must be our guide and we must learn and obey it.

Written by The Seeking Disciple

01/15/2014 at 3:12 PM

2 Responses

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  1. It seems this whole issue from McArthur’s point of view is centred on discrediting the idea of continuing Spiritual gifts by using extreme examples of modern day penttecostals/charismatics. There is not an ounce of contextual consideration of what God’s word says about the matter.

    Onesimus

    01/15/2014 at 4:15 PM


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