The General Council of the Assemblies of God (USA), the largest white and Hispanic Pentecostal denomination in the United States, was organized in 1914 by a broad coalition of ministers who desired to work together to fulfill common objectives, such as sending missionaries and providing fellowship and accountability. Formed in the midst of the emerging worldwide Pentecostal revival, the Assemblies of God quickly took root in other countries and formed indigenous national organizations. The Assemblies of God (USA) is a constituent member of the World Assemblies of God Fellowship -- one of the largest Pentecostal fellowships in the world.
The Assemblies of God views itself to be a branch of the "one, holy, universal, and apostolic" church and has sought to be faithful to it. It recognizes the history of God's people as its own history, from the stories found in the Old and New Testaments and extending from the age of the apostles throughout the centuries until the present.
This Christian faith has been mediated to the Assemblies of God through various historical and theological currents, most notably the Protestant and Radical Reformations of the sixteenth century, eighteenth-century revivalism, the Higher Life and Holiness movements of the nineteenth century, and the worldwide Pentecostal revival of the twentieth century.
The Pentecostal Revival
The Assemblies of God is one of several denominations that emerged from the twentieth-century Pentecostal revival. Early Pentecostals drew from a complex tapestry of sometimes-competing beliefs, including the Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification, the Reformed emphasis on baptism for empowerment for Christian service, the Plymouth Brethren notion of dispensational premillennialism, and the faith healing movement. Pentecostals, despite their historical and doctrinal differences, formed an identifiable movement because of their common commitment to the doctrine and experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit.
While many sought Spirit baptism, uncertainty existed regarding how to determine whether one had received it. Answering this question, Kansas Holiness evangelist Charles F. Parham identified a scriptural pattern -- that the "Bible evidence" (later called the "initial evidence") of Spirit baptism was speaking in tongues. After students at his Bible school in Topeka, Kansas, began speaking in tongues at a prayer meeting on January 1, 1901, Parham, through his Apostolic Faith movement located in the south central states, had some success in promoting this restoration of the gift of tongues. Parham's identification of tongues as the evidence of Spirit baptism became a defining issue within the emerging Pentecostal movement.
However, it was not until the 1906 revival at the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles that this restoration was catapulted before a larger audience. William Seymour, an African-American and former student of Parham, led the Azusa Street mission. The revival lasted for three years, reportedly with non-stop services, day and night.
Formation of the Assemblies of God
Many established churches did not welcome this revival, and participants felt the need to form new congregations. As the revival rapidly spread, many Pentecostals recognized the need for greater organization and accountability. The founding fathers and mothers of the Assemblies of God met in Hot Springs, Arkansas on April 2-12, 1914 to promote unity and doctrinal stability, establish legal standing, coordinate the mission enterprise, and establish a ministerial training school.
The approximately 300 participants at the Hot Springs meeting incorporated the General Council with a hybrid congregational and Presbyterian polity. The first two officers elected were Eudorus N. Bell as chairman (title later changed to general superintendent) and J. Roswell Flower as secretary. While most other U.S. Pentecostal denominations were regionally defined or taught a Wesleyan view of sanctification, the Assemblies of God claimed a broad nationwide constituency and taught a modified Reformed view of sanctification.
Almost immediately, leaders were faced with a doctrinal dispute -- whether or not to abandon traditional Trinitarian theology in favor of a modal monarchian view of the Godhead (also called the "New Issue" or Oneness theology). In 1916 the General Council approved a Statement of Fundamental Truths, which affirmed Trinitarian orthodoxy and resulted in the departure of Oneness advocates. When questions arose in 1918 whether Spirit baptism could occur without speaking in tongues, the General Council declared its teaching of tongues as "initial physical evidence" to be its "distinctive testimony."
Early doctrinal manuals included Bible Doctrines (1934) by P. C. Nelson, Knowing the Doctrines of the Bible (1937) by Myer Pearlman, and a specialized discussion on Holy Spirit baptism, What Meaneth This? A Pentecostal Answer to a Pentecostal Question (1947) by Carl Brumback. Later publications included Bible Doctrines: A Pentecostal Perspective (1993) by William W. Menzies and Stanley M. Horton and the more extensive Systematic Theology (1994) edited by Horton. The General Council began to publish white papers known as "position papers" in 1970 to address doctrinal and practical issues troubling the churches; they were collectively published in Where We Stand (1990, revised 2003).
The General Council located its headquarters and publishing wing, Gospel Publishing House, in Findlay, Ohio in 1914, and then moved them to St. Louis, Missouri in 1915, and permanently to Springfield, Missouri in 1918. To handle the increasingly complex responsibilities of its home and overseas mission efforts, it established the Missionary Department in 1919 and later the Home Missions and Education Department in 1937; other departments followed (e.g., youth, Sunday school, Missionettes, Royal Rangers). Two periodicals spoke for the new organization: the monthly Word and Witness and the weekly Christian Evangel. After their consolidation and with further changes, the weekly Pentecostal Evangel became the official voice in 1919.
Missions has always been central to the identity of the Assemblies of God. The second General Council, held in Chicago in November 1914, resolved to achieve "the greatest evangelism that the world has ever seen." Within the first year of its existence approximately thirty missionaries gained membership in the General Council. Largely independent in their operation, they worked mainly in the traditional sites of Christian mission: Africa, India, China, Japan, and the Middle East; more would later serve in Europe, Latin America, and Oceania. In the early years the Missionary Department largely served to channel funds to missionaries. Beginning in 1943 it began to aggressively direct the strategy of the mission enterprise. Although committed to establishing self-governing, self-supporting and self-sustaining churches in the mission lands, missionaries generally followed the paternalistic practices of their Protestant counterparts. Beginning in the 1950s they focused more emphasis on training indigenous leaders for the churches; the change from paternalism to partnership led to dramatic church growth in many places. Through the efforts of key leaders like Alice E. Luce, Ralph D. Williams, J. Philip Hogan, and Melvin L. Hodges, the General Council promoted the development of hundreds of ministerial training institutions around the world.
At the Council on Evangelism in St. Louis, Missouri in 1968, the General Council reaffirmed its mission as an agency for the evangelization of the world, a corporate body in which humanity may worship God, and a means for the discipleship of Christians. Despite the failure to address issues related to holistic mission (e.g., poverty, hunger), Assemblies of God missions, already holistic in many quarters, increasingly moved in that direction without diminishing gospel proclamation. Such ministries include the Lillian Trasher Orphanage in Assiout, Egypt; the Mission of Mercy Hospital and Research Centre in Calcutta, India; HealthCare Ministries; and the Assemblies of God-related Convoy of Hope.
Women in Ministry
Identification with Evangelicals
Conservative evangelicals laid plans for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942 and invited the participation of the Assemblies of God and several other Pentecostal denominations to join in establishing a national evangelical voice, evangelizing the world, and working toward a Christian America. NAE membership subsequently identified Pentecostals as evangelicals and removed the cult status with which some observers had labeled them. The General Council also benefited from the cooperative programs that it offered such as National Religious Broadcasters, Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges, and Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies. More than any other Pentecostal, Thomas F. Zimmerman, Assemblies of God General Superintendent (1959-1985), worked to build the alliance of evangelicals and Pentecostals. Along with the NAE, the General Council has worked with the Lausanne Committee on Evangelism, World Evangelical Alliance, and the Pentecostal World Conference. Because of these associations, it has refrained from involvement in conciliar bodies such as the World Council of Churches.
New Revival Movements
The acceptance by evangelicals, calls for collegiate-level training for ministers, increasing denominational structures at the national and district levels, fear that the zeal and power of Pentecostal spirituality had declined, and growing affluence of Pentecostals triggered a reaction known as the "New Order of the Latter Rain." Beginning in revival services at the Sharon Schools and Orphanage in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1948, Pentecostal leaders claimed that a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit had begun.
Latter Rain proponents, like early Pentecostals, believed they were restoring all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the New Testament church. However, those involved in the Latter Rain movement began to alienate other Pentecostals. Latter Rain proponents advocated congregationalism and denigrated Pentecostal denominations as apostate. Some advocated restoration of the offices of apostle and prophet. The extreme form of congregationalism, which in practice resulted in a lack of accountability, led to some self-proclaimed apostles and prophets with poor morals and questionable doctrines bringing disrepute on the movement. Most Pentecostal denominations, including the Assemblies of God, and its sister denomination, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, condemned these excesses. While the movement did not result in a denominational division, some leaders and congregations withdrew from the Assemblies of God.
The Latter Rain movement lost momentum and its leaders and themes for the most part became marginalized, existing at the periphery of Pentecostalism in various independent churches and ministries, until emerging years later as some of the more radical elements within the charismatic, Word of Faith, and Apostolic-Prophetic movements.In contrast to the Latter Rain movement, the Salvation and Healing movement, which started in the late 1940s, gained wider acceptance among Pentecostals, and even among some non-Pentecostals. Ministers in the Salvation and Healing movement emphasized evangelism and healing. Prominent evangelists who emerged as leaders included Gordon Lindsay, William Branham, A. A. Allen, W. V. Grant, Jack Coe, and Oral Roberts. Many evangelists who identified with the movement were independent spirits who withdrew from Pentecostal denominations.
While a few Salvation and Healing leaders fell into moral failure or taught questionable doctrine, on the whole the movement had the effect of renewing interest in healing and evangelism, and helped contribute to the emergence of the charismatic renewal within mainline denominations. Still, one of the troubling legacies of the Salvation and Healing movement was the establishment of a large network of powerful independent evangelists who had little financial, doctrinal, or moral accountability.
Salvation and Healing evangelists attracted the attention of many non-Pentecostals, who stirred interest in spiritual gifts in their own denominations. Two parachurch agencies were formed to propagate the Pentecostal spirituality in local communities: The Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship International (formed 1951) and Women's Aglow (formed 1967).
Resulting in part from this interdenominational cooperation, in the 1950s, Pentecostal revival started breaking out where Pentecostals least expected -- mainline churches. This revival, which became known as the charismatic renewal, created some confusion among Pentecostals, who were uncertain how to react.
Pentecostals often suspected the new charismatics would leave their old churches for Pentecostal churches, but many charismatics stayed put and didn't adopt Pentecostal cultural patterns. Latter Rain leaders also retooled their doctrines for charismatic audiences. Latter Rain emphases re-emerged during the charismatic renewal in various forms, including demonology, the discipleship movement, congregationalism, positive confession theology, and an interest in modern-day apostles and prophets.
Pentecostals and charismatics sized each other up, coming together in numerous prayer groups, conferences, and preaching events. Assemblies of God leaders offered a measured response to the charismatic renewal in 1972:
"The winds of the Spirit are blowing freely outside the normally recognized Pentecostal body The Assemblies of God does not place approval on that which is manifestly not scriptural in doctrine or conduct. But neither do we categorically condemn everything that does not totally conform to our standards It is important to find our way in a sound scriptural path, avoiding the extremes of an ecumenism that compromises scriptural principles and an exclusivism that excludes true Christians."
Recent Progress and Challenges
New revival movements, such as the "Pensacola Outpouring" at the Brownsville Assembly of God (Pensacola, Florida) that attracted more than 2.5 million visitors after it began in 1995, spiritually invigorated many Assemblies of God people. However, the Pensacola Outpouring also brought division over certain revival phenomena that occurred, which had also characterized earlier Pentecostal spirituality.
A planned "Decade of Harvest" program to accelerate growth in the 1990s brought limited results, signaling new challenges for the future of the council: an aging clergy, misgivings about traditional church structures, and fears about the continued Pentecostal identity of the denomination. These have prompted leaders to explore the effectiveness of present church structures and programs. In recent years, Assemblies of God leaders have made efforts to better include ethnic minorities, women, and young people in the life of the church at all levels. Statistics for 2006 show a constituency in the United States of 2,836,174; 12,311 churches; and 33,622 ministers. The Council supported 2,691 foreign missionaries, working with fraternally related constituencies whose members and adherents numbered more than fifty-seven million people. Giving by the American churches totaled more than $376 million. These statistics show that 95 percent of adherents associated with the World Assemblies of God Fellowship live outside the United States, and that of those in the United States, 35 percent are non-Anglo. The typical Assemblies of God member is a poor female living in a majority-world country. These figures demonstrate the Assemblies of God's consistent emphasis on missions and evangelism. However, a history or theology of the Assemblies of God from a global perspective remains to be written. To encourage the study of the Pentecostal movement and the Assemblies of God in particular, the Council established the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center in Springfield, Missouri; it publishes the archival periodical Assemblies of God Heritage.
Enduring Core Values
Fashions and fads -- in the broader society as well as in church -- may come and go. However, history offers perspective about what lasts and what matters most. What lessons can be gleaned from the history of the Assemblies of God?
Reflecting back upon the spiritual pilgrimage of the Assemblies of God, General Superintendent George O. Wood identifies five enduring core values that have sustained the General Council since its inception in 1914:
Adhering to these enduring core values has enabled the Assemblies of God to reach the world for Christ. When, in 1914, the second General Council committed the Assemblies of God to labor toward "the greatest evangelism that the world has ever seen," such resolve must have seemed to some to be sheer audacity. In less than one century, though, this commitment has yielded results that hit shockingly close to the mark.
By Gary B. McGee and Darrin J. Rodgers