"Pentecostalism and Ethnic and Racial Diversity"

by Ronald A. Nathan

World Council Of Churches


Padare : Pentecostal Movement World-wide


Thursday 16:30-18:00


Pentecostalism at the turn of the century was multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and ecumenical. The claim made was that "the color line was washed away by the blood."(1) The Movement was led by women and men under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as in the book of Acts 2. This communion of saints reflected the diversity of the Early Church and was demonstrated for example, at the Azusa Street revival, Los Angeles led by W. J. Seymour at turn of the twentieth century.



One of the major characteristics of this young movement was its missiological nature. Missions and evangelism is to Pentecostals what flour is to bread. From 1900 to 1940 the Pentecostal Movement, also called the 'third wave' of missionary activity, spread like wildfire across the world. This compounded the ethnic, cultural and racial diversity of the Movement. The last fifty years has seen Pentecostal Church growth extend beyond the imagination of its prophets.


Soon after its inception however, White Pentecostals succumbed to the pressures of Western culture and began to reflect the racial and cultural biases of their society, with few exceptions. This was true in the United States of America, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and on their respective mission fields. For example, on the mission field the feeling of White superiority was so great that Blacks could not be trusted with financial and administrative positions. Where these existed there were wide disparities in remuneration scales.

Inevitably, the above discrimination and cultural biases led to the separation of many Black Pentecostals and indigenous peoples from White Pentecostal structures. "This began in 1908 with Pentecostals in USA and according to one scholar was formalised in 1948 with the creation of the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America." (2) In Africa and other regions of the world this forced many Black Pentecostals to start their own Churches and other institutions.



It would be true to say that Pentecostalism has seen tremendous growth among people of color and poor communities around the world. Be this as it may, there still continues a sense of White superiority in much of Pentecostalism. Take for example, (1) the Pentecostal Movement in Latin American with its exceptional Church growth, Pentecostal leaders of African origin and Indigenous peoples still complain of having great difficulty in gaining access to training, resources and due recognition from their European colleagues.

(2) In Europe, many Pentecostals in the inner cities are poor and Black and marginalised from participation in theological reflection among their White colleagues. Having trained in a White Pentecostal seminary, I was never taught of the role of blacks in the development of the Movement. There is not one full time Black lecturer in any White Pentecostal theological Institution in the United Kingdom. It was then that I gained a new understanding of what White Pentecostals meant by a color blind approach.

(3) This marginalisation also existed in the World Pentecostal Movement where the Black participation was at best minimal. I was so concerned about this that I sought to put the record straight by submitting three articles for publication in The Pentecost, magazine of the World Pentecostal Conference. These articles did not even receive an acknowledgement.

This issue will have to be adressed anew, as over seventy percent of all Pentecostals are either from the two-thirds world or the ethnic minority communities of Australia, New Zealand, Western Europe or North America.


On 28 October 1994, the Memphis Miracle occurred, according to the journal Reconciliation: "it was a miracle because it ended the formal separation of predominantly black and white Pentecostal Churches in America".(3)

In the United Kingdom, there has been the formation of the Pentecostal Alliance of the United Kingdom as a step to closer relations between Black and White Pentecostals.

Two quotations summarise my own feelings on these attempts at reconciliation and co-operation.

In his book'Fire from Heaven Harvey Cox notes William J. Seymour's disillusionment with White Pentecostals: "finding that some people could speak in tongues and continue to abhor their black fellow Christians convinced him that it was not speaking in tongues but dissolution of racial barriers that was the surest sign of the Spirit's Pentecostal presence and the approaching New Jerusalem".(4)

Dr. R. Drew Smith surmises that "when white Churches show themselves to be systematically supportive of not only the spiritual, but the social and material interests of blacks, reconciliation between these groups may not seem such a difficult reach".(5)



We, as Indigenous and Black Pentecostal communities around the world, must gain confidence in our own cultural, philosophical and ideological heritage. We have leaned too heavily on Western Christianity for forms, models and frames of references. The adoption of the prosperity gospel is a case in point. It maybe fashionable, but it is theologically questionable, economically unsound, psychologically oppressive, morally deficient and selfish, and ideologically foreign to our communal way of live and Pentecostal roots.



Blacks, Hispanics and Indigenous peoples of the Pentecostal Movement will remain committed to a Pentecostal Spirituality, the ideal of ethnic diversity and human unity. We will also continue to resist attempts to be treated as though we are the step children of God. We will, however, see it as a just right to critique White Pentecostals on the basis of their actions and not their words.

We look forward to racial, social, economic, and cultural justice alongside spiritual fellowship. As Black and Indigenous Pentecostals we will not wait for the affirmation, resources or acceptance of our White colleagues before we move forward in the Spirit of God. We must do God's will.


1. Frank Bartleman quoted by Vinson Synan, "Memphis 1994: Miracle and Mandate," Reconciliation 1 (Summer 1998) 14.

2. Drew Smith, Morehouse College, 'Ecclesiastical Racism and the Politics of Confession in the USA and South Africa,"page 13.

3. Synan, "Memphis 1994," 14.

4. As quoted by Cheryl J. Sanders, "History of Women in the Pentecostal Movement," Reconciliation 1 (Summer 1998) 10.

5. Smith "Ecclesiastical Racism," 39.