Pentecostalism and Persecution

In my research for the Global Christianity course, one pattern that started to emerge is that Pentecostalism seems to require an environment similar to the free-wheeling religious freedom of the United States to really thrive — in countries where they are kept from starting new churches basically at will (examples include Mexico or Cameroon), they have difficulty spreading, and they certainly don’t experience the “explosive growth” that scholars of Global Christianity are so excited over.

So here’s a thought: Pentecostalism arose in the US, which was a remarkably hospitable region for new religious movements, particularly by the 20th Century. It’s arguably one of the only major Christian movements to arise without significant conflict or persecution—could this have something to do with the optimistic outlook, the lack of emphasis on suffering or injustice, the indulgence in things like prosperity gospel, the failure to gain ground when they face anything but a totally open field for expansion?

How different would Pentecostalism be now if it had initially faced persecution on the scale of that experienced by Liberation Theology, for example? Would it still be enjoying “explosive growth”?

8 thoughts on “Pentecostalism and Persecution

  1. I didn’t mean to suggest it would become like liberation theology – obviously there are different starting points, and there are plenty of other persecuted groups I could have mentioned – just that its basic lack of an experience of serious persecution may explain some of its characteristic features.

  2. Interesting hypothesis, but I’m sure there would be numerous counterexamples. E.g.: The Mennonite church in Ethiopia (the Meserete Kristos Church), the initial product of missionary efforts by very non-Pentecostal Mennonites from the eastern U.S., took on a markedly Pentecostal flair during the communist Derg regime from 1974 onwards and grew significantly during that period of repression.

  3. Adam,

    I think the claim of persecution-change can be made about any particular movement or denomination; and I know you are not trying to say this is a pentecostal phenomena. But any new movement will be met with some form of persecution that is not always on the scale of another movement. In a developed, ‘tolerant’ country like the U.S., persecution is not likely to happen in the same way it would have in the first century. I wonder if you could expound upon the similarity of religious freedoms in countries like Kenya or Chile and how these are similar to the U.S.

    There are those scholars who are dealing with the issue you mentioned (lack of emphasis on suffering, prosperity gospel, etc.) and to mention one: Yolanda Pierce. She recently wrote a blog post ( addressing such issues within the pentecostal community. In essence, compared to other movements, pentecostalism is rather new and modern. They are still working out the kinks and developing theologies.

    But, I think the short answer is that, yes, pentecostalism (as different than classical Pentecostalism) would be much different if they faced persecution on a much larger scale. But in some way, the people of the renewal movement of people of suffering. Former slaves, the uneducated, miners, migrant workers, etc. While the movement itself was not persecuted, I believe the people were/are. In Latin American countries, while Christians remain Roman, they can still remain pentecostal as well–and even incorporate liberation theologies.

    The immediate hope that pentecostalism offers is definitely a selling point, but I wonder: in countries where persecution happens, why does pentecostalism not “sell”?

  4. The idea that Pentecostalism does not grow under persecution is incredibly counter-intuitive to me. I’ve always thought of it as the populist eschatology par excellence – Christ’s return is always immanent, yet the Holy Spirit’s presence is a permanent prefiguration of Christ’s return.

    To add to this, the extreme emphasis on the work of various spiritual beings in the world – demons, spirits, – always means that one’s suffering can be displaced. The world of the Pentecostal – at least, the Canadian Pentecostal tradition I grew up in – is one step away from full blown animism.

    To put it another way, I’ve always thought of Pentecostalism as being the ultimate in abstract freedom and/or stoicism. Perfect for one on the throne (prosperity) and in chains (Christ’s return).

  5. Alain, I was not aware of the Ethiopian example, but surely the Mennonite roots there might account for the ability to thrive under persecution.

    Rob L, Why do you think that the Chinese underground church is necessarily Pentecostal?

    Alejandro, Certainly Pentecostalism appeals to the oppressed, but there’s a strong middle class element and often also a strong desire for upward mobility. Perhaps it appeals to the oppressed in an “opium of the people” kind of way rather than as something that encourages critical analysis and resistence — certainly the trend in most of the countries I’m aware of has been for Pentecostals to be apolitical or actively court the favor of authorities.

    Mike, Making an argument for why Pentecostalism should stand up under persecution doesn’t make it so. (For instance, I think it’s theologically obvious that all Christian churches should be at the forefront of struggles for social justice — but that’s not necessarily happening.)

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