On Jan. 27, 1907, an unusual article appeared in the Portland Oregonian.
Under the headline “Frenzied by Religion: Strange Proceedings at a Recent Mennonite Revival in Oregon,” the article described a scene at the “Mennonite Mission” in Albany that included “men and women moaning and weeping in fanatical frenzy,” with some people “lying prostrate on the floor, trembling and hysterical, and others chattering in a language which seemed to be a mixture of Chinese jargon and the chatter of a bird.”
Nine months earlier, a similar revival had broken out in Los Angeles.
Marked by miracles, ecstatic spiritual experiences and speaking in tongues, the Azusa Street revival of 1906 is recognized today as the birthplace of the 20th-century Pentecostal movement. Earnest Swing Williams, the main preacher at the Mennonite Mission, had been present at Azusa Street and was now an itinerant apostle of the gospel of Pentecostalism to anyone who would listen, including Mennonites.
There is much about this news story that awaits further research. It is not yet clear, for example, exactly which group of Mennonites were involved in this event or what the lingering impact of the encounter was on the Mennonite participants. The story is fascinating in part because Mennonites in North America have generally responded to Pentecostal forms of revival with great skepticism.
For many groups in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite family, however, dramatic expressions of Spirit—in the form of healing, miracles, prophetic visions, or speaking in tongues—are a regular part of daily life and worship.
Today, the fastest growing segments of the Christian church are Pentecostal, Charismatic and neo-Charismatic groups.
Although estimates vary, as many as 600 million Christians—more than 25 percent of the entire Christian church—consider themselves part of this “renewalist” movement. Some renewalists, like the Pentecostals, have made speaking in tongues a crucial marker of a true “baptism in the Spirit.”
Charismatics, by contrast, generally embrace a wider range of spiritual manifestations and emphasize renewal within larger traditions. The so-called neo-Charismatics tend to be attracted to western-style megachurches and the gospel of health and prosperity.
In his book Signs and Wonders: Why Pentecostalism is the World’s Fastest Growing Faith (Jossey-Bass, 2009), Paul Alexander—a Pentecostal pacifist and friend of Mennonites—explains some of the reasons behind this rapid growth. Pentecostal and Charismatic groups, he notes, tend to emerge as indigenous movements, free from any connection to colonialism or traditional Western denominational structures.
Renewalist groups generally do not have elaborate educational requirements for pastors or complex procedures for credentialing leaders. Their worship practices move easily across cultures and are often driven by deep emotions of joy, liberation and belonging rather than duty or guilt. Direct access to the Spirit gives a sense of power and agency to those who are poor and marginalized.
Above all, the Bible is filled with stories of visions, miracles, spontaneous healing and speaking in tongues.
At their best, Pentecostals and Charismatics are simply recovering biblical practices that have gone out of focus in Western cultures dominated by science and reason.
Like many other renewalist movements, most Anabaptist groups in the 16th century strongly emphasized the living presence of the Spirit.
Today, many members of the global Anabaptist-Mennonite fellowship carry forward these same renewalist impulses, though each in its own distinctive way. Mennonite churches of Ethiopia and Kenya, for example, flourished in the aftermath of the East Africa Revival, with the Ethiopian Meserte Kristos Church moving in a Pentecostal direction, while the Kenyan Mennonite Church has been more Charismatic in nature. The Indonesian JKI church, which has seen rapid growth in the past few decades, would be an example of a neo-Charismatic group.
This summer at the Mennonite World Conference assembly in Harrisburg, Pa., heirs of the Anabaptist tradition from more than 50 countries, will gather to sing, pray and learn from each other. All of us, shaped by our cultural and theological contexts, will bring our distinctive spiritual understandings and preferred styles of worship. Like those gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost, we will speak many different languages.
If you, like many Mennonites in North America, tend to be skeptical of Pentecostals and Charismatics, consider the MWC assembly as an opportunity to learn more about these expressions of Christian life from the fastest-growing parts of our body.
Listen; learn; be attentive.
Whatever form it takes, may the gathering in Harrisburg be a time of Spirit-filled renewal.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.