A few years ago, I followed a fascinating social media discussion about the use of icons in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Orthodox Christians regard images of Christ and the Apostles blessed by a priest as representing the actual presence of these revered individuals in the home.
The conversation sparked a memory from several years earlier of interviewing a farmer in his rural north Alabama home. I noticed that his entire living room was adorned with angels — all kinds of angelic figurines and pictures — that were arranged in much the same way that a Russian, Greek or Serbian farmer would display icons in his home.
In the course of the conversation, I learned that the farmer was a minister in one of the Pentecostal faith traditions. I was so intrigued by that encounter that I spent the trip home struggling to account for why this angelic display bore such a close resemblance to Eastern Orthodox piety.
The thought eventually occurred to me: The Pentecostal legacy represents a genuine sundering within Protestantism, not unlike what occurred within Christianity following the Reformation. It was as if a cloth partition that separated the tangible from the ineffable within Protestant Christianity was ripped apart.
Luther’s Reformation may have have been grounded in a mystical experience somewhat similar to the Apostle Paul’s following his Road to Damascus experience. But for Luther, this experience ended up driving home what amounted to an existential truth to Luther: that he was powerless in the face of God and that only through the atoning power of Jesus Christ’s suffering on the cross was he saved from an eternity of fiery perdition. This conviction became a central tenet of Protestantism, one that has has tended to crowd out the mystical shoots that sprouted out of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions and that across time have formed such lush canopies within these faith traditions.
Curiously, this has contributed to an anti-mystical inclination within Protestantism across time. Luther’s experience of the atoning grace of Christ was so powerful, so palpable a presence, that he ended up discounting the institutional primacy of the church. He would come to emphasize scripture over episcopacy, liturgy and ritual.
Over time, Protestants, with their emphasis on scriptural authority, discovered a natural affinity for the rationalist sentiment that grew out of the Enlightenment.
And this rationalist sentiment was reinforced across time, through the theology of Calvin and his spiritual adherents, Puritans and Separatists who eventually crossed the ocean and established beachheads of faith in North America. These predispositions underwent further re-enforcement on the post-colonial frontier, as settlers abandoned older confessional traditions and polities, ultimately placing even greater emphasis on biblical authority, culminating in the rationalist bibliocentrism that underpins so much of contemporary evangelical Christianity.
Protestants compensated for the loss of mysticism in a couple of remarkable ways. The popularity of Masonry attested to the deep hunger among many frontier evangelical Christians for the mystical and ineffable. And this hunger was also reflected – arguably, at least – in the strong Back Country affinity for fraternities that were organized on many of nascent college campuses.
Yet, the Azusa Street Revival, which gave birth to Pentecostal Christianity, amounted to an eruption like no other within Protestant Christianity. It was a spiritual awakening, yes, but one that amounted to a reintroduction of a deep mystical yearning into a faith that had become excessively rational and, in the view of many, a bit hidebound.
And it’s remarkable to think of how this immense spiritual awakening was sparked by an African-American preacher, William J. Seymour, a meagerly educated preacher and former Roman Catholic, whose preaching galvanized a congregation of very humble, marginalized people meeting across several weeks in a weathered, clapboard structure, located on 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles, during the spring of 1906.
In less than a half century, a sort of middle-class version of this movement, known as Charismatic Christianity, began gaining footholds in many mainline Protestant churches.
Some religious scholars have argued that the Azusa Street revival has proven every bit as significant to the history of Christianity as Luther’s so-called Tower Experience. Whatever the case, it is remarkable to consider that in less than a century, Pentecostal Christianity has emerged as the dominant form of Protestantism throughout much of the developing world. And that is why this revival should be remembered as one of the most pivotal occurrences in the history of Christianity, transforming the experience of the divine not only in America but throughout much of the world.