The Roots of Pentecostal Scandal—Romanticism Gone to Seed


A wave of criticism quickly followed the first publication–in 2004, on Christianity Today’s history website–of the two-parter that begins with the article below. Along with that wave, however, came another, larger wave of responses from those within the Pentecostal and charismatic movements who affirmed my analysis.

Now, six years later, I still stand by the argument I present here, which first dawned on me as I was at Duke in the late 1990s, studying the “emotional culture” of the 19th-century holiness movement. The holiness movement was the precursor of modern Pentecostalism, and its emotional DNA contained the troubling “anti-domestic” gene that I describe in this pair of articles. The first of the two articles, below, sets up the argument. The second, to be posted here soon, offers further evidence.

To be clear, I owe my faith to this movement, and I affirm the tremendous blessings it has brought. For more on that, see this article.

The Roots of Pentecostal Scandal—Romanticism Gone to Seed
The sexual stumblings of prominent ministers point to a hidden flaw in Pentecostal spirituality.
By Chris Armstrong

The sordid 1980s scandals of Pentecostal ministers Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart will incline some to presume that Paul Crouch, president of Pentecostal-linked television network TBN, did engage in the alleged homosexual liaison.

But whether the allegations in this case are eventually substantiated or not [update, Feb. 2010: Crouch has weathered the scandal and is still atop TBN], the question arises again: why does the Pentecostal ministry seem particularly susceptible to sexual scandal?

It may turn out, in fact, that statistically, Pentecostal ministers fall in this way no more often than do other ministers. I’m sure we make this connection at least partly because of the long cultural shadows of Bakker and Swaggart.

But I don’t think the connection is accidental.

It all started in the time when Pentecostalism’s parent, the holiness movement, was born: the 19th century, the Victorian period. In that warm-hearted, dewy-eyed era, both marriage and the Christian life promised to satisfy all emotional desires and meet all emotional needs.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries—the time of the First and Second Great Awakenings, both marriage and revivalistic conversion were communal events. They were fostered, supported, and celebrated by friends, family, and church members. Courting in the colonial era involved the couple’s whole social network. It took place under the watchful eye of all who knew the young people involved. Communal customs and ceremonies marked every stage of the relationship, through the wedding and beyond into the couple’s early married life.

Similarly, in the mid-18th-century Great Awakening or the early 19th-century Second Great Awakening, friends and loved ones brought you to the evangelistic meeting. They “prayed you through” to joyous conversion. They received you into the church family with open arms—announcing your rebirth all around town. And they pledged to help you, over the long years, become the best Christian you could be.

But then came the transatlantic 19th-century cultural movement called “romanticism.” Romantic philosophers, writers, musicians, and artists—facing the rationalist Enlightenment destruction of the old traditional, communal values of Christendom—turned inward in their search for spiritual meaning. If you were of the leisured class, you found meaning by diving to the depths of your own heart with the help of art, music, and travel. What you hoped to find there was a personal connection to the Spirit of things—a Spirit many among the secular romantic elite preferred to call Nature rather than God.

Plain folks without the leisure or inclination to pursue rarified experiences through travel, symphony, the opera, and so forth turned to a more obvious source for meaning—and a more obvious (and, as it turned out, longer-lasting) translation of the term “romantic.” They plumbed their hearts to “find themselves” in a spiritual connection not with some nebulous spirit of nature but with another person—specifically, a soul mate and life partner of the opposite sex.

Victorian courtship represented a tectonic shift from the old, communal modes of wooing. In the newly intense, individualistic post-Enlightenment environment, courting lovers separated themselves from family and friends. They sequestered themselves to write and read long, intense, soul-searching correspondence. They avowed total, exclusive love to each other. They no longer, as had been the custom, sought the blessing of their parents or consulted with friends. Since the prospective mate would be, as popular romantic philosophy had it, the source of all spiritual meaning and support—of all that was good and true and beautiful—courting lovers poured all their time and affection into each other, to the neglect of other relationships.

One must wonder, in that still vaguely Christian era when divorce was simply not countenanced, how many miserable couples lived and died in marriages that had long since ceased to fulfill the overblown promises of the romantic ideal. Certainly when, in the 20th century, the romantic expectations for marriage continued at white heat and the proscription on divorce began to be loosened, countless couples fled such misery.

This tortuous emotional longing and loss represented the unpaid bills of a society that had overthrown the communally held sacred beliefs and traditions of Christendom, replacing them with the romantic individualism of the Enlightenment. No longer did each person find meaning by walking with a community of believers down well-worn paths of Christian belief and practice. Now each young man and woman had to work out their own romantic salvation—find Ultimate Meaning in the beating of two hearts as one.

But of course, not everyone in the Victorian period actually left the church. And not all those who stayed had only a nominal faith. For the era of the romantic was also the age of the evangelical.

So what of those evangelicals? In America, especially within the warm-hearted ranks of John Wesley’s Methodists, they continued to worship and live in community. But a subtle shift took place, as romanticism morphed into an intense Christian version. This was a high-powered “heart religion” whose script for the fulfilled Christian life followed, line-by-line, the plot of the age’s blockbuster sentimental novels.

The shift happened in the intense revivalism of the Methodist “holiness movement.” If you were a holiness believer, you understood conversion as, yes, an experience of being forgiven and made right before God. But it was also an experience that left your sinful nature—your bad emotions—intact. Like the wandering, seeking young person of a sentimental novel, you had to push on to full redemption—through an experience of pure, whole-souled romantic love. This experience was called “entire sanctification.” Only through this emotional cleansing could you reach your true goal: a heart filled with perfect love for God—with no affection stinted or spared for lavishing on anyone else.

Sound intense? It was. Believers wrestling for sanctification often reported that God challenged them in the manner of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac: Would they, God seemed to thunder, give up that (idolatrous) affection for their wife, their husband, or their child, giving their whole heart to Jesus alone? Only when they made this “entire consecration” could the holiness folk receive the desired heart-cleansing and the new level of romantic union with God.

This hyper-vertical version of the Christian life—bequeathed from the holiness movement to the Pentecostal movement—assumes that God has made us so that all our emotional needs and all of the meaning of our lives comes through a direct, mystical relationship with Him. Almost accidentally, it turns out that no human relationship can hold a candle to this romantic God-tryst.

A pause for theological reflection:

God created human beings to have relationship not only with Him but with each other. A man who finds a wife, Scripture insists, finds a good thing—for many reasons. Children around the table are a blessing. Same-sex friendship, such as that between David and Jonathan, can be as important and rewarding as romantic love.

And just as important, the church—the community of believers—exists not only to glorify God but also to uphold each member spiritually and emotionally: you pray together, says Paul, but you also laugh together, you weep together. No Christian is saved alone. To enter relationship with God is to be adopted into a human body of Christ.

Anchoring it all—the “sum” of the whole Law, Jesus said when asked—is a two-part law of love. This law does not stop at “Love the Lord your God with all your heart … ” but continues ” … and your neighbor as yourself.”

But against all of this biblical evidence, “Christian romanticism gone to seed” loads everything into the central spiritual, emotional relationship with God. Worship—in the prayer closet; or in the eyes-shut, hands-raised solitude of the Pentecostal service—absorbs all one’s time, energy, and attention.

Now in fact, many Pentecostals and charismatics (and no doubt holiness believers) do experience some of the rich communal “body life” mandated by Scripture. I did, myself, for many precious years in a Pentecostal assembly in Nova Scotia—the church into which I was converted. Small group prayer, communal worship, and the support of those whose hearts were also given to God—all helped me to grow and thrive as a young Christian. And I slowly learned how to give of myself to others in the community.

But the isolation caused by intensive romanticism—focused on God—still prowls Pentecostal church culture like a lion. And nobody is more isolated than the Pentecostal preacher/celebrity. Let’s review a short list of Pentecostal preachers dogged by relational dysfunction.

Maria Woodworth-Etter, a fiery holiness (later Pentecostal) evangelist at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, launched into evangelistic “signs-and-wonders” ministry soon after her 1879 conversion in a revival meeting. She went into this ministry against the will of her husband, who eventually, grudgingly, accompanied her on the circuit. Left behind, however, in the dust of her whirlwind ministry, he began to speak publicly against it. She divorced him in 1891 on grounds of adultery.

The founder of Pentecostalism himself, Charles Parham, was brought up on charges of sodomy (finally unproved).

Flapper-era Pentecostal super-preacher Aimee Semple McPherson went through serial marriages during her life and ministry. It is suspected (though unproved) that, between marriages, she concocted a kidnapping story to cover a tryst with the man who ran her evangelistic radio station.

Though these and the more recent failures have complex causes, I point towards the same cultural root that I believe is largely responsible for the soaring divorce rates of the past hundred years: Romanticism gone to seed. And this is not simply a Pentecostal problem. Indeed, the kind of intensive Jesus-romanticism I have described can be found today in many churches with no “Pentecostal” label on the door.

This is a simple matter: We can’t load of all of our need for emotional sustenance and spiritual meaning into a single relationship. God didn’t make us that way. Whether we focus all our need for affection and support on a spouse or even on God himself, we are bound to be disappointed—and the temptation may be irresistible to turn elsewhere, to unsanctioned human relationships, to fill the void.

This is not because God cannot meet our emotional needs. Rather, he has designed us to have them met in a range of human relationships.

In short, his “law of love” is cross-shaped. Without either the vertical or the horizontal beam, its structure fails.

God help us attend to both.

Chris Armstrong is managing editor for Christian History & Biography magazine.

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3 responses to “The Roots of Pentecostal Scandal—Romanticism Gone to Seed

  1. Thanks, Chris. Very insightful article for me personally.

  2. Dear Chris, this is a very insightful article. Coming from a Pentecostal background, I can relate to many of the things you mentioned.

  3. Pingback: Roots of Pentecostal scandal: Romanticism gone to seed –part II « Grateful to the dead

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