A portrait of a church that swings—the Pentecostal Assemblies—and the new kind of old-time religion that is sweeping Canada and the world

ANTONY FERRY November 3 1962


A portrait of a church that swings—the Pentecostal Assemblies—and the new kind of old-time religion that is sweeping Canada and the world

ANTONY FERRY November 3 1962


A portrait of a church that swings—the Pentecostal Assemblies—and the new kind of old-time religion that is sweeping Canada and the world


A FEW WEEKS AGO in Edmonton’s Jubilee auditorium three thousand Canadians and a few United States visitors took part in a performance that some observers later described as “a real whoop-it-up Holy Roller meeting.”

On the platform a fiery-eyed preacher raised his arms high and a brass band struck up a swinging version of “Jesus Lifted Me." The preacher cried, “Oh, sing it, you precious Pentecostal people!” and a wave of emotional responses arose from the congregation:

“Glory!” “Amen-amen!” Some raised their hands above the moaning crowd and repeated over and over, “Jeee-.vz/.v, Jeee-vzo!” “Allelujah!” cried the preacher. “Oh, I love it when folks warm up to the message. Let me get that feedback from you when I start to preach.” And he launched into seventy-two minutes of exhortation punctuated by a frenzied “feedback” of “prcach-it, preach-it. preach-it\”

“. . . The devil and his angels, the beast and false prophets . . . the fearful and unbelieving, and abominable, and murderers and whoremongers, sorcerers and idolators and all liars shall be consigned to everlasting punishment in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone ...”

After the preaching. Rev. Walter Elmo McAlister stood to make an announcement: “We Pentecostals arc the fastest growing religious body in Canada.”

To an outsider this might easily have sounded like an exaggeration quite in keeping with the atmosphere of the meeting. Ex-

cept for one thing: it was undoubtedly true.

So unemotional an authority as the Dominion Bureau of Statistics confirms that in ten years the membership of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (they object, mildly but emphatically, to the term “Holy Rollers”) has reached almost 144,000, an increase of 51.2 percent. This not only exceeds the rate of growth of any other denomination, hut it took place in a decade when some of the conservative established churches were experiencing a decreased rate of growth. Of seven hundred Pentecostal churches in Canada today, three hundred are churches that other denominations abandoned, some because the original congregations have moved from downtown areas, some because congregations have dwindled.

If the boom in Pentecostalism comes as a surprise to most Canadians, there are reasons for that: for all their collective fervor, the Pentecostals are hLimble people. (Probably the only member who could be considered a celebrity is the Hon. Philip Gaglardi, British Columbia’s fast-talking, fast-driving minister of highways, who is also an ordained Pentecostal minister.)

They tend to belong to lower-income groups — individually, that is. Collectively they contribute large sums to their various “good works.” At the recent Edmonton conference of church loaders and members a one - day telephone “offerama” brought pledges from all across Canada totaling $40,603 for Pentecostal missions. The Pentecostal policy makers have a strong aversion to higher education, to what they call “book lcarnin’ ” and to liberal arts courses even for the ministry.

Pentecostals denounce strong drink and CBC drama

As Walter Elmo McAlister puts it, “too much education encourages skepticism and skepticism is ungodly.” Consequently most Pentecostal ministers are proudly unlettered, and in their live Canadian Bihle schools candidates for the ministry are trained on the precept that “the Bible is our all-sufficient rule for faith and practice, infallible and absolutely supreme in authority . . . God does not give new revelations apart from or beyond the Bible.”

But in spreading this fundamental message the Pentecostals are amassing some amazing statistics. Some weeks ago Rev. Jack McAlister, son of Rev. Walter Elmo McAlister, returned to his headquarters in Hollywood, California (the McAlister home town is C'obden, Ont.) to give an interim report on what he calls “Christ’s conquest in Asia”: to date he has distributed 46,134,838 gospel tracts in the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Formosa and Ceylon—150 tons of literature in Japan alone.

How had he achieved this major feat of logistics? He explained that it was with the help of two hundred religious bodies, some of them Pentecostals but others that included Baptists and even Anglicans. Asked how he had persuaded such conservative denominations to distribute Pentecostal tracts, he explained: “We keep the message simple— straight out of the Bible. How could any Christian body object to that?”

Jack McAlister says he will not consider the Pentecostal conquest of Asia complete until he has placed a Bible or a tract in every home. Already the Pentecostals claim close to a million adherents in the Near and Far East, including 100,000 in China (but only two thousand in Formosa), hall a million in Indonesia and a nucleus of six hundred in Israel.


In Brazil another McAlister son, Rev. Bob, is working on an equally ambitious project: to carry the Pentecostal message to every one of the traditionally Roman Catholic country's seventy million people via radio and open-air rallies. As a result Bob McAlister has become Brazil's largest buyer of radio time. He travels about the country broadcasting “preachathons” that last four or five hours at a stretch. The first time he tried to buy a four-hour program, in Sao Paolo, the station manager refused on the grounds that the station couldn't afford—even for cash—to devote that much time to a program that “nobody would listen to.”

Bob McAlister persuaded him to try it once, and the audience response was so overwhelming that McAlister has since had no trouble in buying all the radio time he wants. One of his open-air rallies attracted 30.000 people whose “lost faith in Rome.” as McAlister put it, has made them converts to Pentecostalism. Largely as a result of McAlister's campaign, the Pentecostals

claim 610,000 converts in Brazil, second only to the U. S. membership of over four million.

The Pentecostals say, however, that the sect’s membership in Soviet Russia—of all places—may be greater than Brazil's. They claim 600,000 members in the Soviet Union, but add: “Reports out of Iron Curtain countries are fragmentary, therefore figures used are very conservative.” (Other Iron Curtain membership: Romania 50,000; Poland 20,000; Czechoslovakia 2,000.)


In other parts of the world there are portents of a significant swing to "old-time religion" as represented by the Pentecostals and associated sects—in some cases supported by evidence other than the Pentecostals’ own “conservative estimates.”

• In Latin America outside Brazil, says Rev. A. C. Forrest, editor of the United Church Observer, “the Pentecostals have practically taken over from other Protestant denominations” to become the largest single rival of the Roman Catholic church. The Pentecostals claim 300,000 adherents in Chile, 65,000 in Haiti, 100,000 in Mexico and 55,000 in Puerto Rico. Probably the world’s largest per capita concentration of Pentecostals is on the small West Indian island of Barbados, with 17,000 members.

• Africa is no longer the exclusive preserve of the established churches. While Jehovah’s Witnesses are claiming huge gains, the evangelistic sects are also waging a frenetic battle for souls. Nicholas Bhengu, an African Pentecostal minister who is known as the “Black man’s Billy Graham,” has reported over 200 new assemblies recently sprung up. “Every member is a preacher,” he said. “We don’t have to appoint or ordain them. Wherever they go, something burns in their hearts and they tell it out.”

• In Scandinavian countries the Pcntecostals arc beginning to rival the established churches in strength, with a membership of close to a quarter of a million. Sweden alone has over 160,000 Pentecostals.

• In the U. S. the Pentecostal growth trend has accelerated, even though sociologists have been predicting for years that a rising standard of living would lessen the appeal of this type of religion.

“Salvation-or-damnation” non-conformist groups have always had a big appeal for the economically dispossessed. But a report by the American Academy of Political and Social Science points out that “the evangelizing zeal of the Pentecostal groups has not waned as their members have acquired economic advantage and social status.”

Historically, this wave of old-time religious revivalism would normally be considered a cyclical recurrence, linked to other revivals at roughly fifty-year intervals since 1850. But there are indications that the fairly even world balance between traditional Protestantism and Roman Catholicism has now been split. The upsurge of Pentecostal ism has, in fact, led the American Academy of Political and Social Science to refer to the Pentecostal type of religion as "a third Christian force, at work beyond the traditional spheres of Protestantism and Catholicism.”


Healing session: the ritual ol

laying on of hands” for a man suffering from chest pains. He said they ceased

continued from page 23

“She proceeded to expose the sinful condition of his life”

The new cluster is referred to without derogation as “sects and cults,” and Dr. H. P. Van Dusen. president of the august inter-denominational Union Theological Seminary in the U. S.. finds this force primarily in “the spirit-centred churches, the Pentecostal and Holiness bodies.” (In the United States the Holiness Church is part of the Pentecostal movement. The term “spirit-centred" refers to the fact that the Pentecostals believe that the spirit of God literally enters the body and mind of the true believer.)

One startling fact, reported hy evangelist Billy Graham (a non-Pentecostalist) after his world tour, is that the Pentecostals and smaller evangelistic sects now have more missionaries in foreign fields than all the “mainstream” churches combined. A Canadian Pentecostal official said the Pentecostal world organization has forty-five thousand missionaries, adding: "That's a conservative estimate.” Whether or not the swing to Pentecostalism is as strong as sect officials claim (“over ten million” is their estimate of world membership) there can be no doubt that the sect has achieved amazing growth from a standing start in little more than half a century. Actually, the Pentecostals claim to be the oldest Christian denomination, founded on the day of Pentecost, which they place in 33 A.D. Thus the first four verses of the second chapter of Acts they regard as their founding charter:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

But if Penteeostalism was horn in 33 A.D., it underwent the longest hibernation in religious history. It was not until 1906, one thousand eight hundred and seventy-three years later, that it was revived (Pentecostals prefer “revived" to "founded“).

According to the official history of the Canadian Pentecostals. this is how the resurrection of the religion came about:

"A little colored lady from Los Angeles was visiting Houston, Texas. She enjoyed the ministrv of Elder W. J. Seymour, a spirit-filled man. She invited him to come to preach in Los Angeles.

“In Los Angeles, a German-born reporter was asked by his editor to report on the meetings. The reporter was told: The more ridiculous you can make it, and the more comical, the better it will be.’

“The reporter found that the longer he sat in that meeting the more serious he became. Suddenly, a woman stood and gave a message in a language unknown to her, but given to her for that moment by the Holy Spirit. It happened to be the tongue of the reporter. She was looking right

at him as she spoke. She proceeded to expose the sinful condition of his life so perfectly that he was dumbfounded. He dropped to his knees and accepted Christ as his Saviour.”

This experience, say the Pentccostals, was “typical of thousands” who attended Elder Seymour’s meetings, and latter-day Pentecostalism was born. Among those who traveled to Los Angeles was Robert McAlister, of Cobden, Ont., who a few years before “had been converted from a funloving prankster to a deeply serious Christian.” McAlister returned to Canada “aflame with zeal for the new message.” Since then McAlisters have been among the leaders of the movement. No fewer than ten McAlisters in three generations have been prominent in Pentecostal affairs.

Pentecostal ism is ultrafundamentalist, using the Bible as its cornerstone and preaching it, as one churchman put it. “as if it were literal truth from cover to cover.” Theology or philosophy docs not exist for them outside of the Old and New Testaments, and their beliefs thus tend to be circumscribed and puritanical.

The revivalists reject middle-class values, scorn most forms of modern entertainment and abstain from smoking and drinking. They have censured CBC television drama as immoral, and believe that alcoholism as a social problem cannot be cured until all alcoholics embrace Christ.

In the matter of strong drink, and in certain other attitudes, taking the Bible literally presents some problems. Although the Bible condemns the misuse of alcohol, there’s also the incident of the instant wine made for the wedding by Jesus; and the wine served at the Tast Supper. The Pentecostals get around the latter incident by referring to the menu as “bread and the fruit of the vine.”

A more serious problem, and one the Pentecostals say they have been criticized for by other fundamentalists, arises from the fact that many women arc active in the ministry. How to justify that in view of the Bible’s clear declaration?

“Tet your women keep silent in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak ... it is a

shame for women to speak in the church.”

Pentecostal officials have decided that women “are virtually silent with respect to doctrinal and government questions,” and in any case “in some instances women may speak in the church without violating their subjection to men.”

The Pentecostals are confident of the Second Coming, or Adventism, and many hold to the doctrine of premillenialism, which states that the visible personal return of Christ will be a prelude to his reign during a thousand years on earth, marked by peace, plenty, and universal purity.

Salvation takes the form of an uninhibited and public exclamation by the individual that he has been “saved" or has “let Jesus into his heart.” These instant conversions arc called “decisions for Christ,” and they often have a contagious effect on the onlooker.

Bhengu. the African Pentecostalist, described one of his rallies in East London, South Africa, where he raised $90,000 to build a church: "We were outside in the open air and it was Easter Monday. There were over 7.000 people and I said to God, '1 hope nothing will happen today.' While we were singing the chorus of There is Power in the Blood of the Lamb.' small boys twelve years old began to talk in tongues and prophesy. It was impossible to preach.

"The rain came down upon the people. And other people came from all over to see what this noise was— and they got converted—and the numbers increased and the Lord baptized."

As the delirium spread, Bhengu grew' more afraid of trouble. To get people to disperse he commandeered all the buses in the city. "But as the bus conductors picked the people up,-’ he says, "they also came under the power. Until finally they refused to touch these people. They said. ‘As soon as we touch them, this comes into us.’ ”

Revivalists have the habit, disconcerting to orthodox churchmen, of tallying the numbers saved — "eleven hundred and twenty-one decisions were made for Christ"—as if these new-found souls will immediately swell their growing membership. For the Pentecostals especially view salvation as a judicial act of God. In their Statement of Fundamentals they say "the sinner is declared righteous by faith, and not by his own works or dcservings.”

Baptism, which is not considered an absolute requisite for salvation, is practised among adults only, and by single immersion. Children are not counted as adherents. They are brought up in their parents' faith, but have to experience their own “infilling" of the Holy Spirit.

Although they don't ignore the power of medicine, Pentecostals and most revivalist sects believe in divine healing. Their growth over the past thirty years has been marked by massive faith-healing rallies, but the emphasis on spectacular demonstrations, in Canada at least, appears to be shift-

ing. Their ministers decline to make any explicit statement on the subject, except to quote from Isaiah 53:4-5— “And with (Christ's) stripes we are healed." It is virtually impossible to authenticate a single cure in the strict terms that might satisfy a medical man. and Canadian Pentecostals make no wild claims. Nowadays “healing" takes the form of private prayers for the sick, wfith no spectacular results promised. The ancient ritual of laying on of hands by the elders of the

church is also regarded as conferring health as well as spiritual blessing.

Men like Oral Roberts, Leroy “Miracle Arm” Jenkins, and Rev. A. A. Allen still hold faith healing tent rallies, but they usually advertise themselves as "interdenominational.”

Allen's recent visit to Toronto’s Palace Pier for a week of faith healing was not sponsored by a Pentecostal body, the elder McAlister emphasizes. Ten thousand people attended healing services, but none of the sup-

posed "cures” w'ere backed up by medical evidence. "In any case,” McAlister adds, "Allen was defrocked by the Pentecostal Holiness Church of the U. S. some years ago. He now operates on his own.”

A wide range of revivalist and evangelistic faiths have rallied under Pentecostalism. The Fifth World Conference held in Toronto in 1958 attracted speaker-delegates from the International Foursquare Church, the Open Bible Standard Churches, the Elim churches of the U. K., the Zion Evangelistic Society, the Church of God, and the Church of God in Christ.

One of the keynote speakers was Rev. Oswald J. Smith, the founder of People’s Church in Toronto. Smith disagrees with one of the main tenets of Pentecostalism, the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. Smith’s son Paul says, “It’s on this point that we part company with them.”

He admits people have experience»!! tongue-talking in his church on rare occasions. “We’ve discouraged it because it's not only unintelligible but also very distracting for worshippers. The few times it happened, w;e simply asked them to quieten down.”

The Pentecostals are so firm in their belief in the gift of tongues that they state in the Fundamental Truths: “We consider it a serious disagreement for any minister among us to teach contrary to it.” What passes for “speaking in tongues” at many Pentecostal services, some skeptical orthodox churchmen believe, may be a simple and unintelligible transport of joy, an “ecstatic utterance” which expresses a total yielding to Christ. It’s referred to as a “heavenly language,” like no tongue spoken on earth, and each manifestation of it during a service calls for another Pentecostal ist brother to volunteer an “interpretation” of what was said. But Rev. Walter Elmo McAlister denies it is merely a form of ecstasy. He says many of his following have spoken in actual loreign languages, “and even ministers of the established churches — Anglicans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians —have experienced tongues.”

One case cited by McAlister, involving the wife of a Toronto minister, has been denied by the family.

Another case is based on the assertion of Rev. A. G. Ward, a Pentecostal minister and former secretarytreasurer of the movement, that he had “spoken as the Spirit gave utterance in German, Indian, Scandinavian and Polish.”

A skeptic once said to McAlister, “This gift of tongues must be very useful to yoLir missionaries since they don’t have to learn foreign languages.”

“Unfortunately,” answered the minister, “it doesn’t work out that way. Our missionaries learn their languages from textbooks.”

What is the appeal of the Pentecostals? One theory is that the sect practises no snobbery or racial discrimination. Among the ministers who gathered at the Edmonton conference were Indian and Eskimo missionaries, and there are Chinese Pentecostal churches in Calgary, Victoria and Vancouver. In New York City, of 169 non-Roman Catholic churches serving Puerto Ricans, ninety-two are Pentecostal. Non-discrimination doesn't extend to the United States south, however. Or, as the white Pentecostals prefer to put it, “The Negro churches run their own affairs.”

Another explanation put forward is that the Pentecostals employ a form of “brinkmanship” in warning the masses of imminent annihilation and offering the comfort of everlasting life. Both the Red menace and the nuclear threat are used by preachers to back up the age-old prediction of an imminent Armageddon. The Pentecostals habitually refer tc the present as “these closing days of time.” ★