White supremacy and the Spirit

William Seymour (front, 2nd from the right)

William Seymour (front, 2nd from the right)

I should be working on a book, not blogging. But listening to a podcast this morning I was struck by this fact.

Q. What is the most racially diverse and integrated denomination in the United States?
A. The Assemblies of God.

We're not just talking about a denomination having separate Latino, African-American and white churches. We're talking about the individual churches themselves being diverse. People sitting in the pews together. A diversity of leaders on the same team.

Here's the surprising thing, the least racially diverse churches are the politically correct old mainline — Episcopalians, and United Methodists.

Then I made a connection.

I'm working on a book and revisiting the explosive growth of the Methodists on the American frontier. African Americans flooded to join the Methodist movement and helped shape its character.

The Methodist on the frontier were not like the Methodists of today. They were wild. They expected to experience God in powerful ways. And they did. 

Here's an example:

I went on to church, and the brothers and sisters prayed around me. Then, like a flash, the power of God struck me. It seemed like something struck me in the top of my head and then went on our through the toes of my feet. I jumped, or rather, fell back against the back of the seat. l lay on the floor of the church. A voice said to me, "You are no longer a sinner. Go and tell the world what I have done for you."

An ex-slave, from God Struck Me Dead.

Eventually the Methodists settled down. But Pentecostalism was their grandchild via the Holiness movement. Long story. 

So let's drop in on the birth of Pentecostalism, and of the Assemblies of God. We're in an old deserted Methodist church building which has been used as a stable. There's a black man down the front with his head in the packing crate used for a pulpit. William Seymour (above) is the son of former slaves and he's crying out to God for the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes in power, the wild scenes look very much like those Methodist camp meetings on the frontier.

The most shocking thing was that the meetings were racially diverse and a black man, blind in one eye, is leading. That's the founding identity of Pentecostalism and the Assemblies of God.

Out of Azusa Street, Pentecostalism quickly became the most expansive missionary movement of all time. There are over half a billion people in charismatic, Pentecostal and related movements globally, and they are young.

There seems to be something about power encounters with the Holy Spirit that remake people's identity. Especially those who are excluded or marginalized in society. If you have encountered God directly and powerfully it changes you. You may be a janitor and the son of former slaves, but God can use you to launch a missionary movement. If you have the Spirit, you have equality and dignity regardless of what others may think, That man next to you has the Spirit, he's a different color, but he's your brother.

Let's go to Columbia where Elizabeth Brusco studied the impact of a Pentecostal conversion on family life. She found conversion transforms the life of the family as men stopped gambling, drinking, committing adultery and taking an interest in the family. These men were now least likely to commit domestic violence.

What's this got to do with racism? I think there's a reason why the early Methodists, the Pentecostals, and the Assemblies of God lead the way in creating communities that are racially integrated.

It's their commitment to the gospel and their experience of the Holy Spirit. Domestic peace and racially reconciliation are the by-products.

Related: White Supremacy and the Word