Lecture 5

Entering the Twentieth Century

The Christian and Missionary Alliance met the twentieth century with great energy and enthusiasm. In 1881, Simpson left the comfort of the prestigious New York pastorate for an insecure existence as an independent evangelist, author and publisher. The first meeting he called to cast his vision for addressing the "religious wants of New York City" was attended by seven people. His first attempt at sending missionaries ended in disaster in 1884. Yet by 1895 a new organization, the International Missionary Alliance, had placed 300 missionaries overseas. The Christian Alliance, the other organization formed out of Simpson's ministry in 1887, was rapidly expanding all over North America calling people to a renewed experience of the fullness of Christ and his healing and sanctifying power. These two organizations, both growing and sharing virtually the same membership and executive officers, came together to promote deeper life and missions as the Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1897. The growth seemed just to be starting and the new century offered a limitless new horizon in which to move. Many Alliance people, with Simpson, were convinced that signs were clear that the completion of the missionary task was within reach and that the return of Christ was near.

The new century brought with it new movements which would affect the future direction of the Alliance, especially after the death of Simpson. Both Pentecostalism and Fundamentalism were early 20th century movements which extended and disrupted the evangelical consensus we have looked in Lecture 4 as the 19th century context in which Simpson and the Alliance grew up. A brief discussion of these two movements is essential for locating the changes which the Alliance experienced in the first 30 years of this century.

There was an unusually close connection between the new century and the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement. Holiness teachers, like Simpson, had been calling for a renewed work of the Spirit of God among God's people through the last years of the 19th century. One of the distinctive teachings of many of these teachers was that a "Baptism of the Holy Spirit" was an experience for all Christians. This baptism would bring personal holiness and power for service in the work of God's Kingdom. In line with the Wesleyan theological tradition this baptism was understood to be a distinct experience of God occurring after conversion/initiation. At the same time, interest was growing in the special charisms evident in the New Testament Church, particularly tongues. Former Methodist Charles Parham opened a healing home in 1898 much like Simpson's Berachah homes. After a visit to Alexander Dowie, a teacher on healing, and Simpson's Missionary Training Institute recently relocated to Nyack, New York, Parham opened is own Bible school near Topeka, Kansas. Part of the motivation for this new work was Parham's conviction that there was something beyond the experience of sanctification which would equip the church to meet the challenges of the new century. In seeking for this in the tenets of the holiness teachers and the Scriptures, Parham set his students the assignment of discovering from the Book of Acts the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Their unanimous conclusion was "speaking in other tongues." Convinced that this was the true reading of scripture, Parham and his students conducted a watchnight service on December 31, 1900, with the purpose of waiting on God for a baptism of the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues. Sometime after midnight, on the first of the new year and indeed the new century, a student, Agnes N. Ozman was prayed for and began speaking in what reportedly was "the Chinese language."

This might well be considered the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, however the events which brought it to the attention of the world were to occur in Los Angeles in 1906. William Seymour, an African-American disciple of Parham moved his message of a "third experience" of baptism in the Spirit with tongues evidence, to a dilapidated African Methodist Episcopal Church on Azusa Street. With these meetings came a great revival, the prominent feature of which was the great many who spoke in other tongues. From here the movement spread across North America and around the world as the curious and the critics came to investigate and took the message away with them.

The message and the vocabulary of the Pentecostals and the Alliance were both rooted in the 19th century Holiness movement. Many of the distinctive emphases of Simpson were also shared by the Pentecostals. Historian Charles Nienkirchen speaks of the "debt" of the various streams of Pentecostalism to Simpson and the Alliance. According to Nienkirchen, the Simpson legacy includes:

  1. doctrines borrowed from the Alliance (particularly sanctification and healing);
  2. the hymns of Simpson;
  3. the books of Simpson, Pardington, Tozer and others;
  4. the terminology "Gospel Tabernacle," which, when supplemented with "Full," became a popular name for churches among Pentecostals;
  5. the polity of the early Alliance society, after which the A[ssemblies of ] G[od] was styled;
  6. a worldwide missionary vision; and
  7. numerous leaders converted and trained in Alliance circles.1

Of these contributions the first and last were possibly the most important and the last the most costly. The doctrinal similarity made many Alliance people receptive to the message of the Pentecostal revivals. The Alliance was not a denomination and was quite adamant about being open to all evangelical Christians and all movements raised up by God's Holy Spirit. Consistent with this Simpson did not condemn the Pentecostals as many other holiness leaders did.2 Simpson was open to the exercise of the charismatic gifts but rejected the Parham's "initial evidence" which required speaking in tongues as evidence of a true filling of the Holy Spirit. Many Alliance people received the Pentecostal baptism with tongues as a third experience and left the Alliance for the rapidly growing new movement. Many of those who stayed had a less than open attitude to their sisters and brothers who had left. This lack of charity went both ways. Those who stayed often considered those who left to be divisive and deceived by a spurious spirituality and those who left felt those who stayed had stopped short of the fullness of an experience of God and held to a deficient, unspiritual position. The result was that the Alliance lost people at every level of the organization. Many Alliance branches left en masse, individuals trickled out, key leaders moved to provide high level leadership with one of the Pentecostal groups and missionaries on the field joined the increasing number of Pentecostal missionaries moving out to encompass the globe.

The full impact of the Pentecostal movement on the early Alliance has not received the study it deserves, but in a 1984 Doctoral Dissertation, Ernest Wilson concludes that this was the "most serious crisis" in Alliance history. The result was not only a loss of people, but perhaps more importantly, a change of attitude. Nienkirchen summarizes Wilson's thinking as follows:

as a result of "unhappy experiences with Pentecostal people," [the Alliance] changed doctrinal camps in practice if not in theory, by diminishing its "active relationships" with "Pentecostal, charismatic or holiness groups" in favor of strengthening both its contacts with "'Baptistic groups' and … emphasis on 'Baptistic' doctrinal concepts."3

This served to bring the Alliance into the pull of the other major religious development of the early 20th century, the Fundamentalist movement.

Simpson lived and thrived in the great evangelical mainstream of the 19th century. We have considered the fact that Simpson was at the same time a leader and a critic of the evangelical heritage passed on to him. His critique was focused not on destroying the heritage but revitalizing it by recovering its vibrant spirituality. As the 19th century moved into the 20th it was clear there were other approaches to revitalizing evangelicalism. One of these alternatives suggested that if evangelicalism was to survive, it needed to be recast in the vocabulary and concepts of the emerging modern world. The key characteristic of this world was the independent use of reason. Thus evangelicalism would be saved by conforming itself to the rational, scientific view while the less respectable, superstitious aspects of the faith, like miracles and the virgin birth would at last be removed. This view was labeled as modernism in the early 20th century and developed into theological liberalism.

The alternative movement working to save evangelicalism also appealed to the independent use of reason. However, rather than fixing its star to the scientific materialist worldview, it suggested that a rational, empirical approach to scripture could finally provide a clear and indisputable understanding of God and his will through the study of the Bible. Fundamentalism believed that science could be improved upon by submitting it to a reading of the Bible which rejected natural processes. Modernism believed that the Bible could be improved upon by submitting it to scientific criticism which denied the possibility of the supernatural. In the end neither was successful in saving evangelicalism and the 20th century has witnessed the slow and steady decline of the strength and influence of the evangelical tradition.

Into the first decade of the 20th century, Christians who continued to adhere to historic Christian doctrines were pressured to join the Fundamentalist cause to perserve the faith. Simpson had always contended that it was self-defeating for Christians to fight one another, particularly when there was so much work to be done in bringing the Gospel to the world. Simpson played no part in the many fundamentalist organizations which were being founded and looking for prominent leaders to endorse their view, although he sympathized with some of the issues that were being raised. In general however, the attitude of the fundamentalist movement was combative while Simpson wanted to bring people together. Moreover, Simpson was most interested in a vibrant relationship with the indwelling Christ as the key to Christianity while the fundamentalists stressed correct opinions on selected issues. As a result, the Alliance stayed clear of involvement with fundamentalism, at least on an official level, during Simpson's lifetime. However, with his death in 1919 and the movement away from contacts and connections with the holiness and Pentecostal movements, the Alliance had moved into the Fundamentalist stream by the early 1920s.

The Alliance entered the 20th century as a vibrant deeper life and missions movement but, as it entered, developments going on around it changed forever the context in which it had come into being. The challenge now was to preserve the original intent given these new circumstances. And to make the story more complex, not only were changes occurring outside, there were significant internal changes as well. Some of these changes came about because of the success of the Alliance. The 1897 reorganization was necessary because of the growing number of missionaries overseas and complexity of local churches and branches in North America.

In 1906 an important meeting took place which again was witness to the success of the Alliance. This was the Conference for Prayer and Counsel Respecting Uniformity in the Testimony and Teaching of the Alliance held May 25-28, 1906, just preceding General Council. At this point the Alliance was a growing movement, now 19 years old, with many teachers and preachers representing the Alliance across North America and around the world. The Conference for Prayer and Counsel was not to impose a particular teaching but to open the floor to discussion of what it was that most clearly defined the distinctive witness of the Alliance. This provided an important glimpse into the thinking and attitudes of the Alliance just before the issue of how to respond to the Pentecostal revivals needed to be faced. (William Seymour's Azusa Street revivals were getting underway in April of 1906 and received wide attention for the first time as this Conference was convening.) What impresses me is the degree of openness, even on so central a teaching as sanctification. After defining the key elements of what was considered the Alliance understanding of sanctification, we find the following advice.

It is understood that all our Alliance officers and teachers are at liberty to present the truth of sanctification in such phases and phrases as his own convictions warrant, in general accordance with the above specifications, but with the understanding that such extreme views as are sometimes taught under the name of "eradication" or "suppression" shall not be presented in an aggressive or controversial spirit toward those who differ.

In the early Alliance it was important that the truth be communicated, but the truth could not be confined by particular "phases or phrases." Doctrinal definition was focused on communicating the reality of the indwelling Christ and not to discovering an infallible verbal formula. The intent was to draw people to Christ rather than to exclude those who thought or spoke differently about their experience of him.

This approach, still evident in 1906, was soon to change, primarily due to numerous losses to the Pentecostal movement. People who spoke in tongues and joined the Pentecostal movement created a major problem for the Alliance not because they were considered to have moved outside the faith or the will of God but because their support was lost for Alliance missions. Remember there are still about 300 missionaries on the field and training, maintaining, and supporting this effort required constant effort. The loss of people to the Pentecostals, who were quickly moving to recruit and send their own missionary force, clearly threatened the Alliance missions program. We have already mentioned that this division resulted in hard feelings and misunderstanding on both sides, but the material losses led to a new Constitution in 1912 which clearly changed the nature of the Alliance.

The General Constitution and Principles adopted by the General Council in May 26-30, 1912, changed the Alliance from a "simple and fraternal union of all who hold in common the fullness of Jesus" (1887) to a denomination. This view of the Constitution was denied in the Constitution itself. The text of the Constitution was at pains to make clear that this document changed nothing and was simply to improve on the free and open fellowship that had always existed. However, it added an important new condition of membership, that all local groups deed their property to the Alliance.

This condition does not interfere with the interdenominational character of the Alliance. Its attitude toward such independent churches and companies is simply the same as toward individuals, namely, one of cordial recognition and helpfulness. It is to be clearly understood that such full relations between the Alliance and these churches or companies are always effected on the initiative of the churches or companies themselves, and not through the solicitations of the Alliance.

With this made clear the document goes on to state:

The latter [i.e. the Alliance] merely accepts the trusteeship for the properties of such churches or companies, and the responsibility of supplying or approving their ministers or leaders, with a view to assuring their permanent adherence to the full gospel truths for which the Alliance stands.

Now one has to ask what it is that denominations do? A good definition would suggest that a denomination looks after adherence to doctrinal standards, trains and helps in the supply and approval of ministers and holds trusteeship for property. It seems to me that the paragraph quoted above attempts to say "the Alliance is not a denomination although it will now begin doing all the things that denominations do." The key element of this new denominational status was the "reversion clause." This introduced a major penalty for leaving the Alliance and this was clearly aimed at stemming the tide of defections to the Pentecostals. If a local group decided to discontinue their fellowship with the Alliance they were free to do so, but the deed to their property would stay. If a group was considering a change of allegiance, this was to give them pause.  If they decided to leave anyway, the assets realized from the sale of their property could be used for missions.

The 1887 vision of an open Alliance of evangelicals working together to deepen their experience of Jesus Christ and take the message of the Gospel to a lost world did not survive long into the 20th century. The financial demands of an ambitious missions program lead to the institution of the reversion clause in the 1912 Constitution. This may well have been a necessary step to preserve the integrity of the Alliance but in the process the Alliance became a denomination which denied it was a denomination. The challenge of the Pentecostal revivals on the one hand and modernist theological revisions on the other, drove the Alliance to associate more closely with the fundamentalist movement. By 1928 this association led to the first formal set of doctrinal standards used in the Alliance. The Doctrinal Statement for Alliance Bible Schools was a slight revision of the doctrinal statement of the World Fundamentals Association. The intent here was that by keeping the Alliance schools free from modernism by adherence to this Doctrinal Statement, the Alliance itself would remain free of modernist infection.

While some of the character of the Alliance was lost during this transition into the 20th century much was preserved as well. The missions program continued to grow and reach people for Christ. The North American work was developed as well, now along more traditional denominational lines, planting distinct local churches rather that founding interdenominational "branches." The quest for an intimate connection with the indwelling Christ continued to characterize the Alliance. The work of A.W. Tozer in the middle of the 20th reawakened much of this concern and provided a corrective to some of the narrow doctrinaire approach of fundamentalism.

Our next major activity together is group discussions which are scheduled to begin on Wednesday. Look over All for Jesus chapters 7-9 in preparation for these discussions and then read the introductory material which will set up the questions I'd like you to answer.


1 Charles W. Nienkirchen, A.B. Simpson and the Pentecostal Movement, (Peabody [Mass]: Hendrickson, 1992), p. 27-8.

2 Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), p. 127, 147.

3 Nienkirchen, p. 73.

© Kenneth L. Draper, 1998.