Almost immediately after the birth of Pentecostalism, the branch of Christianity that gave birth to the movement was disowning the offspring. The parent, radical evangelicalism, regarded the child as an ugly mutant. Abusive words flew back and forth for decades, subsiding into sullen silence only in the 1930s.

A mere craze

These "radical evangelicals"—Holiness Wesleyans and "higher life" fundamentalists (such as the Christian and Missionary Alliance)—repeatedly called the new movement a "fad" or a "craze." The Christian Witness and Advocate of Bible Holiness, for example, charged that the "new fanaticism" would soon "have its run and lie a curiosity in the museum of ten thousand dead follies."

Others highlighted the notoriety of the revival's geographical birthplace. F. W. Pitt, a prominent London pastor, dismissed the stirring as a peculiarly American phenomenon, "the land of wonder-meetings and freak religions." Another writer affirmed what many suspected: Los Angeles harbored more fanatics than any city in the United States.

Still another arrow in the critics' polemical quiver was minimizing the numerical size of the menace. Phineas F. Bresee, founder of the Church of the Nazarene, dismissed the revival as of "small account," exerting "about as much influence as a pebble thrown into the sea."

As the months wore on, fear eroded restraint. By 1908 for most, the bugle had sounded. It was time to choose sides and to expose toleration for what it really was: flirtation with the Devil.

Families dissolved, churches split, denominations broke apart. The most conspicuous divisions took place within the Church of God in Christ, the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church, the Holiness Church of North Carolina, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance, all of which ruptured or suffered severe defections between 1907 and 1910. Many fellowships witnessed steady and painful attrition.

Seething immorality

In the face of this real-life nightmare, evangelical leaders mounted a multi-pronged counterattack, specifying Pentecostals' defects one by one.

Perceived sexual immorality ranked high on everyone's list. What Pentecostals did on the floor of the camp meeting aroused the darkest of suspicions. Thus when A. T. Pierson, editor of the prestigious Missionary Review of the World, first alerted his readers to the Pentecostal menace in July 1907, he observed that their meetings involved instances of "shocking impropriety." Two months later Pierson judged that he had erred on the side of "mildness and moderation."

To Pentecostals, their record of accomplishment was nothing less than supernatural.

Accumulating evidence from reliable eyewitnesses contained "statements of facts too shocking to print." Other leaders felt no compunctions about exposing Pentecostals' so-called depravities.

Southern Holiness evangelist W. B. Godbey detected a good deal of "hell-hatched free lovism" in their circles, adding, for good measure, that gamblers, atheists, whores, and thieves also spoke in tongues. Even Reuben A. Torrey said Pentecostal meetings, "seethed with immorality of the grossest character."

In their critics' eyes, Pentecostals' spiritual pride ranked even worse than their sexual misdeeds. Denver preacher Alma White found Pentecostals the most "self-righteous, self-sufficient" people on earth. One Free Methodist minister left a Pentecostal meeting in Chicago shaken less by the doctrines he heard than by the "offensive, arrogant, and bombastic manner" in which they were presented. A Nazarene author said that Pentecostals treated their ability to speak in tongues as a prize, "worn as a peacock carries its tail feathers."

Spiritual pride seemed to spawn other worms, especially looseness with the truth. Critics suspected Pentecostals exaggerated the number of people who attended their meetings, misstated the results of their services, and told outright falsehoods about miraculously speaking foreign languages.

Above all, they perjured themselves when they recounted the healings that took place in their meetings. In a work symptomatically called Faith Healing Tragedies, F. W. Pitt claimed that he had attended many healing meetings and, yes, he had seen a few cures but only of slight nervous conditions.

Worse yet, according to the critics, Pentecostal religion actually endangered the physical body. Enthusiasts got hurt when they fell into trances, bumping into objects or crashing to the floor. Critics claimed the records bristled with stories of devotees sprawling to the ground after discarding their crutches, fighting back tears after tossing away their eyeglasses, or even dying after stopping desperately needed medical treatments. Famed Bible teacher Harry A. Ironside knew one adolescent woman who had lost all of her hair because of the "unnatural excitement" of Holy Ghost meetings. On several occasions, some said, the determination to fast until Jesus returned had led to near or actual death by starvation.

"Strain upon the brain"

Physical harm proved only half of the peril. "Good honest people," stormed an Alabama educator, were turned into "wild eyed fanatics … with love leaked out and their faith forever ruined."

China Inland Mission personnel worried that meetings of the local Pentecostal Missionary Union produced "consequences of a dangerous character," including "strain upon the brain" and, occasionally, "insanity." The Nazarene Herald of Holiness alleged—without a scrap of proof, it should be said—that Pentecostal teaching actually stirred converts to go out and murder their enemies.

The situation became especially volatile when children were involved. In Alliance, Ohio, Quaker Pentecostal Levi Lupton made the mistake of inviting a boy to his camp meeting. The boy's mother sprang into action. She hired local toughs, who invaded the meeting, squirted Lupton and several worshippers with sulfuric acid, then retrieved her child.

If the wrenching of families aroused the most intense passions, the disruption of local churches ran a close second. "No community is safe from this most dangerous heresy," thundered one editor.

In Alabama a Holiness college president wrote to a friend that the Pentecostal eruption marked one of the saddest events of his life. "[It has] slashed and utterly ruined … the work of God," he sighed. Everywhere in the world, protested Jesse Penn-Lewis, Pentecostals inflicted "division and separation among Christians."

As anger turned to bewilderment, evangelicals found a master explanation for everything: Satan. By this reckoning, Pentecostalism was—take your pick—"a gross deception of Satan," a "gigantic scheme of Satan," a "satanic attack … at our Lord Himself," wholly "of the Devil," "purely of the Devil," a "monstrous heresy … from hell."

Turning the tables

Pentecostals fought back. And their response was often every bit as vigorous, innovative, and unfair as the attacks of their critics.

The most common retort was, in effect, "Look at our record, see what we have done." To Pentecostals, their record of accomplishment was nothing less than supernatural.

Souls saved, bodies healed, addictions eradicated, debts paid off, marriages restored, even adolescent children tamed and brought back into the loving folds of family and church.

A. P. Franklin, stationed in India as a missionary of the Scandinavian Alliance, wrote of the struggle within himself when he first heard of the Pentecostal teaching:

"The Devil tempted me to believe that we were on the wrong track, that it was some sort of made up hypnotism, or altogether from the Devil himself." But when Franklin opened his eyes and observed the dramatically changed lives of those who had undergone the baptism experience, he knew beyond doubt that the movement could only be of God.

Of all the indictments against them, Pentecostals found the charge of schism the most incredible. With a regularity that bordered upon litany, they pointed out that the revival had brought together Friends, Brethren, Methodists, Salvationists, Baptists, Congregationalists, even Roman Catholics.

In the words of T. B. Barratt, patriarch of the revival in Norway, the new movement was proving itself "able to melt long-divided hearts." Barratt clearly spoke for thousands of Pentecostals around the world: "Instead therefore of ruining and blighting the lives and the homes of people, as our opponents state, this revival is sent by God."

In the face of so much good accomplished, how could anyone court God's wrath by mocking the Pentecostal revival? True believers among the Pentecostals offered many answers. Many of the detractors, they asserted, were backsliders to begin with. Some were born fighters who would rather foment trouble than save souls. Other critics had already proved themselves intractably obstinate, very much like the foolish virgins in the Scripture. Some were simply and inexplicably perverse, for no good reason.

And then there was pride—stubborn, damnable pride. As far as evangelist Frank Bartleman could see, God had finally by-passed the Holiness missions in California because they were "too well satisfied with their own goodness." The Lord demanded a "humble people," but the Holiness folk were "too proud of their standing."

And so it went, year in, year out. Occasionally gentler spirits like Aimee McPherson spoke up, but not often. Relations improved somewhat after World War II, but even today the two groups often find themselves on opposite brinks of the ecumenical canyon, eyeing each other with suspicion.

Grant Wacker is associate professor at Duke University Divinity School, and co-editor of Church History journal. This article appeared in a slightly different form in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History in July 1996.