The life and ministry of Charles Fox Parham (1873–1929) pose a dilemma to Pentecostals: On the one hand, he was an important leader in the early years of the Pentecostal revival. On the other hand, he was a morally flawed individual. Larry Martin presents both horns of this dilemma in his new biography of Parham.
All conventional histories of Pentecostalism highlight Parham’s influence. It was at Parham’s Bible school in Topeka, Kansas, that Agnes Ozman spoke in tongues on January 1, 1901. Parham and his students interpreted tongues as the “Bible evidence” of Spirit baptism. This teaching —today called initial physical evidence — quickly became Pentecostalism’s doctrinal distinctive.
Parham founded the Apostolic Faith Mission and published The Apostolic Faith. The movement was an important network in early Pentecostalism, and the publication disseminated Pentecostal teachings and testimonies to a wide readership.
The Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California, became the site of Pentecostalism’s best known and most consequential revival. Originally, it was affiliated with Parham’s movement. Its leader, William J. Seymour, was one of Parham’s students. And its publication took its name from Parham’s.
Based on these widely acknowledged facts, and others, Martin argues that Parham is “indisputably the founder of the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements.”
By 1907, however, many Pentecostals had begun to repudiate Parham. The leading reasons they did so concerned his deeply flawed character. Two flaws in particular need mentioning.
The first is racism. Martin leaves no doubt that Parham was a white supremacist. He used racist language, practiced segregation, was friendly to the K.K.K., and belittled Black Pentecostals.
In October 1906, for example, Parham traveled to Los Angeles at Seymour’s invitation to preach at the Azusa Street Mission. He was appalled by what he saw, describing the mission’s interracial prayer services as a “freak imitation of Pentecost. Horrible, awful shame!” (His full quote uses explicit racial epithets that I refuse to print.) Seymour and Azusa broke with Parham.
Racism was not Parham’s only moral failing, however. In August 1906, a Pentecostal worker in League City, Texas, accused Parham of attempting a same-sex act with him. This led to a disciplinary trial and conviction by Apostolic Faith members in Texas in April 1907. In July of that same year, police in San Antonio arrested Parham and charged him with sodomy, though a trial never took place. As Martin notes, these were not the only allegations of sexual impropriety made against Parham.
Parham and his defenders argued that these charges were concocted by jealous opponents. Martin, though, makes a strong circumstantial case that the charges were true. After 1907, Parham was on the sidelines of Pentecostalism, though he continued to minister throughout the United States until his death in Baxter Springs, Kansas, in 1929.
So, what should Pentecostals today do with Charles Fox Parham? We cannot deny his contributions in the early years of the Pentecostal movement. But we cannot affirm his evident moral failings either.
Perhaps the answer is to reflect more deeply on how the Bible describes the lives of the godly people. With few exceptions — most obviously Jesus Christ — the Bible portrays the saints as deeply flawed people.
Take King David, for example. In 1 Samuel 13:14, the prophet Samuel described David as “a man after [God’s] own heart” who wrote moving psalms of praise to God. And yet, David was also a violent, adulterous man. Neither his virtues nor his vices canceled the other out. They coexisted.
Martin Luther, the great (and greatly flawed) Protestant reformer captured the paradoxical character of Christian life when he wrote, “a Christian is righteous and a sinner at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God.” Christians are, to use Luther’s Latin phrase, simul iustus et peccator.
Although Larry Martin doesn’t cite Luther in Charles Fox Parham, I think that’s where he finally lands. He tells the truth about Parham’s genuine contributions, and he hopes God will show grace to a deeply flawed man. That combination is biblical (John 1:18), and therefore the best way for contemporary Pentecostalism to deal with the sins of early leaders like Parham.
Let me close with a few other comments about Martin’s biography. It cites original sources in copious detail. We get Parham, his followers, and his critics in their own words. Martin has clearly done his homework and uncovers many new details about Parham’s life, ministry, beliefs, and scandals.
Along with that is the book’s honesty. Martin devotes a chapter each to Parham’s theological errors, racism, and sexual immorality. I confess that Martin’s documentation of these problems is so detailed that I often found it difficult to see any good in Parham’s ministry. Martin himself expresses considerable anguish over the man’s failings, but he also notes the many good things Parham did.
The book’s thesis is that Parham is “indisputably the founder of the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements” (emphasis added). No one disputes that Parham made a signal contribution to early Pentecostalism with the doctrine of “Bible evidence.” Is that contribution sufficient to make Parham the founder of Pentecostalism? Personally, I’m not convinced.
Rather than using an architectural metaphor in which Parham is a founder, I’d prefer to use a social network metaphor in which Parham is a node. In the first few years of the revival, many individuals, Bible schools, and revival meetings connected through him. But after 1907, Parham’s node decreased in connectivity, for the reasons Martin documents.
I recommend Charles Fox Parham to Pentecostal readers. It is well-researched and clearly written. Most importantly, it is a model of gracious truth-telling about an important figure in our history.
Larry Martin, Charles Fox Parham: The Unlikely Father of Modern Pentecostalism (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2022).
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P.P.S This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com by permission.