Charles Fox Parham (1873-1929) is often referred to as the "Father of Modern Day Pentecostalism." Rising from a nineteenth century frontier background, he emerged as the early leader of a major religious revivalist movement. He emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit and the restoration of apostolic faith. With his evangelistic zeal, he also advanced the concept of "speaking in tongues." Though his influence in the movement diminished later in life, his enormous impact on the development of Pentecostal faith was widely recognized.
Charles Fox Parham was born June 4, 1873, in Muscatine, Iowa, the third son of William and Ann Parham. He lived the American frontier experience, reared on the tenets of populism. In 1878, William Parham packed his family into a covered wagon and moved to Anness, Kansas, where they lived comfortably on a profitable 160-acre farm.
Parham was a sickly youth, suffering from encephalitis and tapeworms. Making matters worse, when he was nine years old, he caught rheumatic fever, which weakened his heart, a condition that troubled him throughout his life.
His parents adhered to no particular religious faith but they were God-fearing people. Parham embarked on his own theological journey, first joining the Methodist faith in 1886 after he was converted during an evangelistic meeting. An intelligent youth and avid reader, Parham taught Methodist Sunday school and then, when he was only 15, he became a minister.
Parham's religious beliefs and the later teachings of his ministry were greatly influenced by two deeply spiritual experiences he had as a youth. The first occurred, he claimed, when he was 13 years old, when he became bathed in a bright light while performing a repentance prayer ritual. The second event, which he claimed took place when he was 18, involved a miraculous cure of his rheumatic fever and resulting heart condition. Though Parham would continue having heart troubles, he came to see himself on a mission to provide the same healing experience for others.
Beginning in 1890, he attended Southwest Kansas College in Winfield, studying religion and then medicine. After he suffered a recurrence of rheumatic fever that nearly killed him, he returned to his evangelistic pursuits. He earned a minister's license from the Southwest Kansas Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and when he was 20 he became a temporary pastor at the Eudora Methodist Church near Lawrence, Kansas. But Parham was often at odds with his Methodist superiors. Conflicts arose because Parham's theology veered in the direction of the Holiness movement, a revivalist offshoot of Methodist theology with tenets that included sanctification, baptism by the Holy Spirit, and divine healing.
By 1895, Parham broke with Methodism—in fact, all denominationalism—for good. He started his own independent evangelical ministry in Kansas, where he held revival meetings that emphasized personal salvation. He also advocated a return to the fundamental teachings of the scriptures, or "primitive Christianity."
In 1886, he married Sarah Thistlethwaite, the daughter of Quaker parents. A year later they had a son. In 1898, as his ministry grew, Parham moved his family to Topeka, Kansas, where he established his base of operations. His other activities included running a rescue mission for the poor and sinners, an employment agency, and an orphanage service and publishing the Apostolic Faith, a Holiness periodical.
For much of this period, Parham took his evangelistic mission through parts of the United States and Canada. When his efforts met with little success, he became discouraged. But his sense of mission was revitalized in 1890 when he studied with Frank Sandford, a well-known member of the Holiness Movement who had started the the Holy Ghost and Us Bible School in Shiloh, Maine. Parham's visit to Shiloh strengthened his beliefs about baptism of the Holy Spirit. Taking that belief a step further, Parham started to believe that the Holy Spirit would enable converts to spontaneously speak foreign languages. This he termed "missionary tongues," because it would enable the new believers to go out and convert people all over the world. This ability eventually became widely known as "speaking in tongues."
Parham first heard someone imbued with the power to speak in tongues at Shiloh. However, Sandford placed less significance on it than Parham, believing it to be something that only occasionally happened during intense prayer. But Parham felt that converts could use the ability to envangelize the world.
Now revitalized, Parham returned to Kansas and started his own Bible school in October 1900. Calling it the Bethel Healing Home, he modeled it in part after Sandford's school, and he taught college-age students the need for a restoration of New Testament Christianity, or a return to "primitive Christianity." Biblical truth, Parham preached, could be gained only by returning to the teachings of the Apostles and following the words found in the Book of Acts. That part of the Bible, Parham believed, was where the true word of God was found. Parham eventually expanded his theology to include the laying of hands on others during prayer, speaking in tongues, and baptism of the Holy Spirit, which led to purification of the soul. Religious historians regard the opening of Parham's Bible school as the birth of modern Pentecostalism.
Parham had about 40 students. In late December 1900, Parham left the school for several days to fulfill some outside preaching engagements. He told his students to pray and study while he was gone. During Parham's absence, the students participated in intense collective prayer sessions, allowing themselves to be overwhelmed by a spiritual fervor. The students believed they were in the "last days," as Parham had predicted the world would end in 1925. When Parham returned, he was told that one of his students, Agnes Ozman, spontaneously had gained the ability to speak in tongues during a prayer session.
Apparently, on the last day of 1900, Ozman began speaking Chinese, despite the fact that she never had studied the language. This led Parham to deduce that the baptism of the Holy Spirit would be accompanied by the ability to speak in tongues, a novel conclusion at the time. In Pentecostal historical chronicles, Ozman's experience is regarded as a significant event, and she is cited as being the first Bible student of modern times to undergo apostolic baptism of the Holy Spirit accompanied by speaking in tongues. According to accounts, within a few days, Parham and about half the students also underwent the same experience. Parham maintained that this sudden collective ability was directly attributable to God. Parham termed the ability to speak in tongues as "xenoglossae," which means "foreign tongues" in Greek. The reason God provided this gift, he said, was to allow true believers to go out into all parts of the world and save souls without having to learn a foreign language. In the wake of this collective experience, Parham founded a new movement called the "Apostolic Faith."
In 1901, Parham closed his school and took some of his students on the road, holding evangelistic services throughout the Midwest. But his efforts met with only middling success. Around this time, Parham endured other troubles. His beliefs were drawing criticism and even ridicule from newspapers and local citizens. Also, his one-yearold son died.
By 1903, it was being noticed that none of the followers of Parham were leaving the heartland of America to go overseas and envangelize the world. Still, his Apostolic Faith movement entered a period of strong growth. He held a hugely successful revival in Galena, Kansas, which lasted for months and resulted in 800 conversions. Participants also reported hundreds of Holy Spirit baptisms accompanied by the speaking of tongues as well as 1,000 testimonies of healing. Buoyed by this success, Parham decided to expand his ministry into the Southwest.
In 1905, he was invited to preach in Orchard, Texas, on Easter Sunday. His message was well received and it soon spread throughout the state. In the fall, he conducted a huge revival in Galveston, Texas. In December, he opened the Bible Training School in Houston.
In Houston, Parham met William Joseph Seymour, an African American Baptist minister who wanted to join Parham's school. Despite his own segregationist beliefs, Parham allowed Seymour to attend. Seymour was poor and uneducated. But he would have a huge impact on the development of Pentecostalism. Seymour went to Los Angeles in 1906 and, using the preaching credentials he earned from Parham, he opened a mission in an old warehouse located on Azusa Street.
Meanwhile, Parham traveled to Illinois, where he was well received. His missionaries were beginning to travel to places such as India and Africa. It seemed as if he was finally realizing his vision of an international mission.
In Los Angeles thousands of people were soon attracted to Seymour's mission, where services were held three times daily, seven days per week. Over the next several years, Pentecostal missionaries who had received the baptism in the Holy Spirit at Seymour's mission were going across the world, setting up other missionaries.
The huge success of the Azusa Street mission was a big surprise. During the enthusiastic services, participants reportedly spoke in tongues and engaged in fervent prayer. The mission also gained a reputation as a setting for wild scenes. The meetings began to be filled with fringe figures such as spiritualist mediums, hypnotists, and others who had a deep interest in the occult. Newspapers reported hearing "weird babbling" emanating from the structure. Soon the mission attracted the curious, who had no desire to be saved but merely wanted to witness the events.
Despite the controversy it generated and the curiosity it aroused, the mission also attracted true believers. Hundreds were saved and set out on evangelistic missions. In fact, almost all of the major Pentecostal associations that sprung up in subsequent years could trace their origins back to Azusa Street.
By 1907, nearly 13,000 people reportedly had accepted Parham's Pentecostalism. However, at this point, the movement began to slip away from him, take on a life of its own and move in other directions. The great success of the Azusa mission created an irreparable rift between Parham and Seymour. Parham visited the mission once and was reportedly aghast at the racial integration and the extreme emotionalism demonstrated. Parham tried to exercise some control over the proceedings, but Seymour discouraged his efforts.
Parham's inability to exercise his influence over the mission marked the start of his decline as a leader. Parham not only alienated Seymour, but others became disenchanted with his judgmental attitude as well as some of his theological concepts. After 1906 and the emergence of the Azusa Street mission, Parham's name turns up less frequently in the history of Pentecostalism.
Also, in 1907 Parham encountered some legal difficulties that did terrible harm to his reputation. He was arrested in Texas for alleged sexual misconduct involving young boys. However, charges were dropped as no one came forward to testify. Today, it is generally regarded that the charges were without merit and most likely resulted from a conspiratorial campaign to discredit him initiated by anti-Pentecostal religious leaders. Nevertheless, the accusation was enough to do substantial damage, and he subsequently lost much of his credibility with the neo-Pentecostal movement.
Many of Parham's most loyal followers began rejecting some of his concepts, including his beliefs about salvation and the coming "Rapture" or end of the world. They also started revising his notions about speaking in tongues. The new Pentecostals reviewed the Bible to gain more understanding of this mysterious phenomenon, and they believed it was an intense and personal spiritual experience that resulted from prayer, but they rejected Parham's idea that it could be useful in establishing international missions. Many had even less tolerance for his more bizarre ideas. Indeed, some of his beliefs later made him an embarrassment to the movement, particularly his belief in Anglo-Israelism, which claimed that Anglo-Saxons were descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. The concept was closely tied with the so-called "two seed theory of Christian Identity," which had racist and anti-Semitic overtones.
By the end of 1913 independent Pentecostal organizations began forming within the movement, including the Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God, the United Pentecostal Church, and the Pentecostal Church of God. As Parham watched his influence slip away, he became embittered and resentful. In 1919 Charles Shumway of Boston University published a dissertation, A Critical History of Glossolalia, that was highly critical of Parham and maintained that speaking in tongues was a psychological phenomenon rather than a spiritual one.
In retrospect, religious historians recognized Parham's importance to the development of Pentecostalism. Many of the individuals who would become leading figures in the movement received their baptism and education in Parham's ministry. Loyal followers, who remained staunch in their support, downplayed his alleged anti-Semitism by pointing to the love he demonstrated later in his life for Israel and the Jewish people. In 1927, two years before he died, Parham even made a trip to Palestine.
Parham died in his home in Baxter Springs, Kansas, sometime in 1929. The date of his death is not certain. After his death, the Charles F. Parham Center for Pentecostal-Charismatic Studies, an independent research facility at South Texas Bible Institute in Houston, was established. The Center maintains an extensive special library, conducts research projects, and presents public symposiums and other events. Just as Parham was throughout his ministry, the center is non-demoninational and strives to serve all churches.
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