1901-The Holy Spirit falls at Topeka
By Gary B. McGee
How can the world be evangelized in the ‘last days’ before the soon return of Christ?” asked many Christians at the turn of the 20th century. Thousands of missionaries served abroad, millions of dollars had been invested, but the number of Protestant converts had only reached 3.6 million out of a world population of 1.5 billion. Jesus had said, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matthew 24:14). What was the divine plan’?
Many evangelicals, both at home and on the mission field, had been praying for the outpouring of the Spirit as predicted by the prophet Joel (2:28-32). Many also discovered the scriptural promises of physical healing (Isaiah 53:4,5; James 5:13-16). With the growing belief that the world would go from bad to worse before Christ’s return, radical evangelicals now believed that only the supernatural outpouring of the Spirit could save the day. Indeed, only evangelism with the demonstration of the Spirit’s power in “signs and wonders” (Acts 5:12) could complete the Great Commission.
Among many who sought for a special baptism of power were seven celebrated English athletes known as the “CambridgeSeven.” They arrived in China in 1885 to serve as missionaries with J. Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission. Three of them, including CT. Studd, prayed for the “Pentecostal” gift of the Mandarin language according to the promise of Mark 16:17,18, “they shall speak with new tongues.” When criticized, they returned to their language books.
Years later, Charles E Parham encouraged students at his Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, to pray for the gift of tongues. He had been inspired by the spiritual dynamics of the New Testament church as recorded in the Book of Acts. Along with his students (Agnes Ozman was the first), he was baptized in the Spirit and spoke in tongues in early January 1901.
An independent preacher in the Wesleyan Holiness-movement, he forged his most enduring legacy by noting that tongues marks the “Bible evidence” of Spirit baptism in the Book of Acts, later referred to by Pentecostals as the “initial evidence.”
The years immediately following the Topeka revival proved discouraging. Biting criticisms from newspapers and individuals, the death of his infant son, and the loss of the Bible school property wounded Parham deeply. Nevertheless, he rose above these depressing circumstances and his message of the Pentecostal baptism gradually gained more acceptance.
A revival outside Houston, Texas, in 1905 led him to open another Bible school there. One of his students, William J. Seymour, was to play a key role in events that followed on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. (see next article)
In the summer of 1906, several holiness believers in South India were baptized in the Spirit and spoke in tongues. It appears they were completely unaware of the happenings at Topeka and Azusa Street. Thus, the Holy Spirit fell in the East as well.
It was from Azusa that Pentecostal missionaries first left for the mission lands. But much to their disappointment, they soon discovered that speaking in tongues did not enable them to bypass language school. Closer examination of the Scriptures made them realize that “glossolalia” usually meant praying in unknown tongues.
One such missionary, A.G. Garr, found upon arriving in Calcutta, India, that he had not received the Bengali language after all. He then wrote in March 1907 that praying in tongues represents “the sweetest joy and the greatest pleasure to the soul when God comes upon one and begins himself to speak his language. Oh, the blessedness of His presence when those foreign words flow from the Spirit of God through the soul and then are given back to Him in prayer, in prophecy or in worship.” Pentecostals now came to better understand speaking in tongues as prayer in the Spirit, the means of spiritual empowerment.
Over the years, the linkage of Spirit baptism and glossolalia with evangelism in “signs and wonders changed the landscape of Christianity. In looking back, little could that band of humble seekers at Parham's Topeka Bible school have realized that Pentecostalism in its various forms would someday prove to be the most dynamic force of the century for evangelization..
Gary B. McGee, Ph.D., is professor of church history at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary Springfield, Missouri.