A Pentecostal drawn to Anabaptism

by Richard Gillingham


The invitation was to write as ‘a Pentecostal drawn to Anabaptism’. Although I no longer fellowship within a Pentecostal setting, Pentecostalism has been extremely important in informing my Christian life. I think my first encounter with something like Anabaptism was reading (as a 16 year old) Christopher Hill’s survey of 17th-century English religious radicalism, The World Turned Upside Down. However, in retrospect I think it was less intellectual than that. My church was an outgrowth of a House Church and it was during this time that I was re-baptised (I had been baptised previously as a child in the Methodist Church) and ever since that point I have been something of an advocate of the Believers’ Church tradition.

There were undoubted strengths in my church community, but the strong vein of anti-intellectualism was not one of them; I was in a place of having an experience but lacking a (conscious) theology in which to situate it and eventually enrolled in a Classical Pentecostal theological college, despite reservations from some of the church leadership – because the college had the label ‘theological’ in the title!

Why I was drawn to Anabaptism

In the history of Classical Pentecostalism, particularly through reading the late Walter Hollenweger’s excellent book Pentecostalism, I found a narrative in which my experience could be placed, interpreted and one of which I could be proud. What then of my relationship with Anabaptism? In conversations with others it is clear that the primary means of attraction to the Anabaptist Network is relational, but in my case this was not so. My interest in Anabaptism was as a consequence of re-reading John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus after researching the theology of Stanley Hauerwas in my postgraduate work.

In my reading it was clear that Anabaptism, like Pentecostalism, is strongly apocalyptic. I think this similarity is a key reason for my attraction to the Anabaptist vision (more on that later). Reading their respective histories some of the similarities between Pentecostalism and Anabaptism are striking. For example:

A Charismatic view of the Church

Pentecostalism is well known for its emphasis on the spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of tongues. While Anabaptism, especially in its early history, certainly had similar manifestations this is not what I mean by calling both churches charismatic. Rather, both have a very strong emphasis on every-member ministry in the Church. Early Pentecostals regularly claimed that Pentecostalism had no earthly leaders. Both traditions assert that every member of the Church has been gifted for a unique ministry. The historian Augustus Cerillo writes that the ‘central element in Pentecostal ideology was its belief in the church as a Holy Spirit-created egalitarian community in which all the walls of separation produced by racial, ethnic, gender, and class differences would be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ’ (Pentecostal Currents, 237-238).

A Peace Church

Pentecostalism’s approach to violence has demonstrated a monumental U-turn of which many a politician could be proud. In 1917 Stanley Frodsham, General Secretary of the Assemblies of God in the USA, could write: ‘From the very beginning, the movement has been characterized by Quaker principles. The laws of the Kingdom, laid down by our elder brother, Jesus Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, have been unqualifiedly adopted, consequently the movement has found itself opposed to the spilling of blood of any man … Every branch of the movement, whether in the United States, Canada, Great Britain or Germany, has held to this principle’ (cited in Blumhofer, Restoring the Vision, 147).

The reason for their pacifism was sometimes a negative one; the argument going something like this: the imminent (pre-millennial) return of Christ is to be preceded by ‘wars and rumours of war’; to oppose violence with violence would paradoxically be to oppose the purposes of God. However, this is hardly any different to the early Anabaptist Melchior Hoffman’s pacifism or the view of some recent Old Order Anabaptists. Like Anabaptists, there were also more sophisticated pacifists, such as the British Pentecostal Donald Gee.

Pacifism in Pentecostalism has (to my knowledge) all but disappeared. The status of dynamic ecclesiology is a slightly more ambiguous but there is a tendency to deem successful Pentecostal Churches that inhibit the idea (in practice) and present a slick production in which attendees are passive customers of a professional production.

Historic and Contemporary Pentecostalism

In his book A Generous Orthodoxy Brian McLaren describes as one of seven different understanding of Jesus his encounter with the ‘Pentecostal Jesus’. He writes that ‘the Pentecostal Jesus [is] up close, present, and dramatically involved in daily life…the Pentecostal Jesus also saves by his powerful presence in this present moment’ (50). Without doubt this emphasis on the living presence of the resurrected Jesus is a strength of the movement. However, it also bears with it problems. The Pentecostal Jesus’ relationship can have an excessively individualistic feel, in which the worshipper is engaged in an intense relationship with the divine but the worshipping community is peripheral. One Pentecostal scholar (Jean-Daniel Pluss) has recently suggested that the rapid growth of Pentecostalism is in fact a globalization of individualism. More accurately it is a globalization of a wholly vertical relationship with God, which is often divorced from the wider social context. Rather than offering a witness to the unseen reign of God in what is a predominately individualistic and consumerist society, Pentecostalism can have tend to baptise such trends in Christian vocabulary – thereby acting as a disincentive to social change. Tragically, this is probably why the Reagan administration (via the CIA) invested heavily in Chilean Pentecostalism – to try to undercut the ‘dangerous’ challenge of Liberation Theology; with Pentecostalism’s apocalyptic theology and emphasis on the imminent return of Jesus. From this perspective, any time spent on social transformation is, in the words of Robert Beckford, ‘a waste of precious prayer time’.

Such an approach is not representative of some of Pentecostalism’s own history. Elsewhere Beckford, a British Black Pentecostal, has suggested that the glossolalia (gift of tongues) of Asuza Street was not just a signifier of Holy Spirit baptism but also a signifier of a commitment to ‘radical social transformation’. In claiming continuity with the early Church (as evidenced in Acts 2) the Pentecostals were also confirming their continuity with the egalitarianism the apostolic Acts church exhibited. Following William Seymour’s lead, Pentecostals affirmed that ‘one could not have tongues and continue with forms of social discrimination’. The subsequent history of Pentecostalism makes it painfully clear that this is inaccurate (the movement has been plagued by racism). However, as Beckford (6) says in concluding his argument: ‘If every…Pentecostal Church in Britain viewed tongues as a language of social engagement rather than just a supra-rational ecstatic experience, what spiritual power would be unleashed in Britain‘s urban centres!

I do not want this article to be read as an attack on Pentecostals. Whilst I certainly think there are failings, they are outnumbered by its strengths. Instead I suggest that Pentecostalism has a revolutionary and liberating history that in many ways has significant congruence with the Anabaptist vision. I view Anabaptism and Pentecostalism as co-heirs of the same radical tradition.

What can Pentecostals learn from Anabaptism?

Part of my remit was to suggest what Pentecostalism could learn from Anabaptism. My main suggestion is a relatively easy one, although one with wide-ranging implications. Although Pentecostalism and Anabaptism share a thoroughgoing apocalyptic theology, they differ in how the idea of apocalypse is understood.

In his excellent introduction to central themes (the core) of Anabaptism, From Anabaptist Seed, C.A. Snyder never once (explicitly) discusses the idea of apocalypse. If one were to read a similar book on Pentecostalism (I am not aware of one) this would play an important role. One of the pillars of the so-called ‘foursquare gospel’ (as Pentecostalism was often called) was the understanding of Jesus as ‘the coming King’, which was universally understood in a pre-millennial way (though not quite so universally now). The apocalyptic in Pentecostalism is discourse about a future event and it is extremely determinative for Pentecostal faith. Into this category comes the hope of the great End Time Revival which was central to early Pentecostalism (especially Charles Parham), regularly returns in movements of (alleged) renewal such as the Latter Rain revival of the late 1940s and the Toronto and Pensacola revivals of the 1990s, and was in effect the primary goal for the church in which I grew up.

Although less prominent in Anabaptism, the apocalyptic seems to be no less determinative for Anabaptist witness. After some infamous false starts in Anabaptist history (most notably Munster), contemporary versions (with which I am familiar) focus less on God’s timetable for the world’s eventual demise and more on the invasive self-revelation of God in Jesus as determinative for the way things should be, and therefore a model of the Church’s vision. In the words of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder: ‘The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the sword are not as strong as they think…It is that people who wear crosses are working with the grain of the universe. One comes to that belief by…sharing the life of those who sing about the resurrection of the slain Lamb.’

Anabaptism, like Pentecostalism, understands the notion of apocalyptic to be determinative for faith, but it understands apocalyptic as the unveiling of the way of Jesus. The apocalyptic is shorthand for Jesus Christ (Harink). Walter Hollenweger wrote in his Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide (397): ‘The problem and promise of Pentecostalism are two sides of the same coin. Both are rooted in its identity and in its history. It would be bad advice to recommend to Pentecostals that they become Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, or Catholics of a sort. They must discover instead what it means to be genuinely Pentecostal. Genuine Pentecostalism is distinguished by faithfulness to its roots.’

Pentecostalism has in many ways, although not I suspect consciously, disowned its own radical history and become assimilated into its social surroundings and therefore lost its critical voice (not a uniquely Pentecostal error!) This is in large part responsible for a recurrent aversion to the idea of a Pentecostal tradition.

In 1659 the Dutch Mennonite Thieleman J van Braght wrote the Martyrs’ Mirror. It retold the faithfulness of early Anabaptists in laying down their lives for their faith, because van Braght felt that the Mennonites of his own time had lost some of their vibrancy. By remembering the faithful witness of the early witnesses contemporary Mennonites could be re-invigorated. I believe that after a similar hiatus since Pentecostalism’s origins it may be time for the ‘martyrs’ of Pentecostalism to be remembered and used as a source of critical self-reflection. These martyrs may be literal martyrs, like the Iranian Houssein Moodman, or those imprisoned for their faith, such as the early British Pentecostal leader Howard Carter. Pentecostals might also listen more attentively to those on its own margins who are voicing many of the same concerns about the contemporary version of respectable Pentecostalism. For all the extreme doctrines and personalities of Early Pentecostalism, this is the tradition and story that set me on the path to the vision that sees the church as witness to God’s restorative justice and peace in the world. Such a view is a decidedly Anabaptist one, and is one for which I am indebted to Pentecostalism.