Since the early twentieth century, Oneness Pentecostalism has grown to make up a quarter of Pentecostals in the United States today. The Pentecostal movement that began at Azusa Street in Los Angeles, in 1906, laid the foundation for many denominations. Several of these denominations formed beliefs that required water baptism in the Name of Jesus and a differing view of the Godhead. Relations between Trinitarians and Unitarians became frayed over these beliefs. However, the depth of conviction held by Oneness Pentecostals has helped them overcome their humble beginnings and be an effective witness for Jesus Christ.
Analysis of modern day Pentecostal movements has at times created strained dialogue between Christians. The Charismatic renewal among many mainline denominations during the 1960s gave credence to the idea that God works miraculously today just as He did at the start of the early church. Still, many skeptics within the Christian community remain. John MacArthur, a skeptic, acknowledges that, “Literally millions worldwide believe God is giving signs, wonders, and miracles on a scale unprecedented since biblical times” (1992, p. 18). Within the United States, many Pentecostals are ostracized by other Christians for their experiential beliefs.
Now take into consideration the twenty-five percent of Pentecostals who belong to the Oneness movement and the ostracizing becomes even more abundant. The Oneness movement (also referred to as ‘Jesus Only’ or Apostolic Faith) has two major strikes against it among Christians who refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of Pentecostal experiences and consider anything other than Trinitarian viewpoints as heresy (Lenz, 2004, p. 381). Despite these controversial divisions, Oneness Pentecostalism is still strong in the United States today.
The purpose of this paper is to view the historical development of Oneness Pentecostalism in America, not to make theological cases for one side or the other. Whether the historical development lends itself as a devise used to make a point in the controversial debate is entirely up to the reader and was not intended by the author.
The bulk of the research will focus on the time period between the Azusa Street Revival in 1906, and repercussions of the controversy at Fourth General Council of the Assemblies of God in 1916. Perhaps by knowing more about the early historical development of this group, a clearer dialogue will be formed among those on both sides of the theological aisle.
The Azusa Street Revival
In February of 1906, William Seymour accepted an invitation to pastor a small congregation in Los Angeles. This congregation had recently been expelled from the Second Baptist Church for accepting the holiness teaching of a second blessing of sanctification. Seymour appeared to be an adequate fit for this congregation, but his views on a third blessing that involved speaking in tongues did not go over well with the congregation. After preaching only one time, the door was padlocked the next day to prevent him from entering (Hyatt, 2006, p.17).
This third blessing also known as baptism in the Holy Spirit was taught to Seymour by Charles Parham. Seymour had spent time at Parham’s Bible school and although he had not yet experienced this phenomenon, he felt convicted to preach about it. Unable to preach in the church, Seymour was taken in by members of the church who took pity on him. During this time, Seymour began praying even more earnestly for an outpouring of God’s Spirit. Seymour stated, “I got to Los Angeles, and there the hunger was not less but more. I prayed, ‘God, what can I do?’ The Spirit said, ‘Pray more.’ ‘But Lord, I am praying five hours a day now.’ I increased my hours of prayer to seven, and prayed on” (Lake, 1980, p. 13).
Seymour, along with others praying in the house, received a mighty answer from God. The Holy Spirit moved dramatically and manifestations were prevalent for several days. One eyewitness described the experience this way: “As the people came in they would fall under God’s power; and the whole city was stirred. They shouted there until the foundation of the house gave way, but no one was hurt. During those three days there were many people who received their baptism (i.e. speaking in tongues) The sick were healed and sinners were saved just as they came in” (1946, p. 6-7).
Soon the house on Bonnie Brae Street was too small to hold the numbers of people coming, so larger facilities were found at 312 Azusa Street in downtown Los Angeles. The revival would last for several more years with people from all over the United States coming to experience the move of the Spirit. One of these people was Glenn Cook who played a prominent role in the development of Oneness Pentecostalism a few years later. He stated in The Apostolic Faith newspaper, “I fell under the power, and God began to mold me and teach me what it meant to be really surrendered to Him.”
From this dramatic event at Azusa Street, many preachers went from Azusa Street to spread revival to other parts of the country. Soon camp meetings were taking place all over the country that emphasized this supernatural experience. It would be at one of these camp meetings that the seeds of the modern day Oneness Pentecostal movement began.
In April of 1913, well-known evangelist Maria B. Woodworth-Etter held a camp meeting in Arroyo Seco near Pasadena, California. Many people testified to dramatic moves of God. One attendee stated, “The lame walked, the blind received their sight, the deaf heard. Cancers were cured, tumors and tape worms passed away, and dropsy and consumptives healed” (Woodworth-Etter, 1997, p. 240). It was at this meeting that John Schaeppe experienced a revelation.
John Schaeppe, noticing that all the miracles took place when “the name of Jesus” was evoked, spent an entire night in prayer. While praying, a comment by R.E. McAlister kept coming back into his head. McAlister casually mentioned during a baptismal service that “the apostles invariably baptized their converts once in the name of Jesus Christ” and “that the words Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were never used in Christian baptism” (Synan, 1971, p. 156). Many ministers rebuked McAlister for saying such a thing, but the idea kept nagging at Schaeppe. By morning, Schaeppe claims a revelation about “the power of the Name of Jesus” was given to him (Blumhofer, 1993, p. 128). That morning he ran through the camp shouting about baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to anyone who would listen.
One of those who heard about Schaeppe’s claim was a pastor all the way from Australia named Frank Ewart (Hyatt, 2006, p. 47). Intrigued by these series of events, Ewart met with McAlister to further discuss this question of baptism. The camp meeting ended several days later, but Ewart quietly spent a year studying Scripture and praying about this doctrinal issue. He did not publicly preach on this revelation, but did begin discussing the concept with other ministers such as Glenn Cook who was at Azusa Street at the very beginning (Synan, 1971, p. 157).
Over the next year, Ewart and Cook had become convinced on several key doctrinal points. First, because of the use of Jesus’ Name in baptism formulas in the book of Acts and no mention of the Father, Son, Holy spirit among the Apostles, the conclusion was made that all Christians should be baptized in Jesus’ Name. In fact, Ewart was convinced that if a person was not baptized in this way then he/she was never baptized in the first place. Second, this line of reasoning led to Ewart rejecting the three persons of the Godhead and formulating a “oneness” concept. “Just as one person in different relationships may be a father, a son, and a brother, so Jesus is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Hyatt, 2006, p.47). Ewart and Cook were convinced that the idea of a “trinity” was a incorrect view of God that was not biblical, but had been formed through the traditions of men at the Council of Nicea, in 325 AD.
Having taken a year to formulate this doctrinal position, Ewart and Cook rebaptized each other in Jesus’ Name. They set up a tent in Belvedere, California near Los Angeles and began preaching about their revelation. A baptismal tank was set up for people to be baptized again, but this time in Jesus’ Name. Additionally, Ewart spread the message across the nation in a periodical called Meat in Due Season (Synan, 1971, p. 157). Many people were converted to this mode of thinking, while many more people vehemently opposed the doctrine.
The Assemblies of God
News about the Oneness doctrine spread, but it was relatively dismissed until prominent names associated with the Assemblies of God denomination began converting to this form of thinking. In 1915, Glenn Cook set out from California to teach and preach in the eastern portion of the United States. One of the churches Cook was invited to preach in one of the largest Assemblies of God churches in Indianapolis.
Garfield T. Haywood, an African-American preacher and leader of the Assemblies of God church in Indianapolis, was convinced of Cook’s teaching of the oneness doctrine. Haywood and 465 of his followers were all baptized in Jesus’ Name during Cook’s stay. The leadership of the Assemblies of God were very alarmed that this belief would engulf the entire organization, so the newspaper Word and Witness was distributed to combat the oneness doctrine (Synan, 1971, p. 158).
Much to the dismay of the leaders within the Assemblies of God, more and more prominent preachers, teachers, and pastors were converting to oneness viewpoint. Messages all over the country were focused on correcting “old” Trinitarian viewpoints. Even songs were written to reflect the oneness belief. Haywood wrote this chorus:
Preach in Jesus’ Name, Teach in Jesus’ Name
Heal the sick in His Name;
And always proclaim, it was Jesus’ Name
In which the power came;
Baptize in His name, enduring the shame,
For there is victory in Jesus’ Name.
(Dugas, 1984, p. 22)
In an attempt to unify the fractured group, a meeting was formed to discuss how to address the situation. A council listened to proponents on both sides of the issue and proposed a compromise on five points of the issue. These points stated: 1. Slight variation in the formula of baptism did not affect the validity of baptism; 2. General rebaptizing was discouraged; 3. No New Testament law mandated the use of a certain formula; 4. Itinerant preachers were told not to interfere in the leadership in local congregations; 5. A line should not be drawn preventing any one group from having fellowship with another group (General Council Minutes, 1915, 5, AGA).
Although a valiant attempt was made to preserve the fellowship, problems still persisted. Those who stood on opposite sides of the aisle felt the Bible backed up their claims and that experiential revelation solidified the belief. In October of 1916, in St. Louis the official split between Trinitarians and Oneness proponents finally happened. A committee was appointed to prepare a “Statement of Fundamental Truths” to help with doctrinal positions for the future. The statement was strongly Trinitarian in language and did not allow for dissention from this position. As a result, after only being in existence eighteen months, the Assemblies of God lost 156 ministers out of 585 in attendance (Synan, 1971, p. 160). The sheer numbers that stayed with the Assemblies of God eventually led to the majority of Pentecostals believing in the Trinity. However, several oneness denominations were formed after the meeting.
A Plethora of Oneness Denominations Formed
Many of the denominations formed were a direct result of separation from the Assemblies of God. However, some denominations had already formed independently of this split much earlier, such as the Latino Apostolic Assembly of the Faith in Christ Jesus (Wacker, 2001, p. 7). For the most part, the denominations formed stayed within North America.
In 1916, under the leadership of Haywood, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World was formed at a convention in Indianapolis. Amazingly, the group of churches who joined this new denomination consisted of equal numbers of blacks and whites. This type of racial togetherness had not been seen in the church since the Azusa Street Revival. The denomination found unity in the oneness view. However, in 1924, the interracial harmony ended when white ministers withdrew membership to form a new denomination. Their rationalization for leaving was because “mixture of races prevented the effective evangelization of the world” (Synan, 1971, p. 160). The white ministers eventually became a formal denomination known as the Pentecostal Church, Incorporated (Kendrick, 1961, p. 172). Despite this split, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World remained one of the largest oneness denominations.
Another very large oneness denomination is known as the United Pentecostal Church. The denomination got its start in 1913 when it was known as the Pentecostal Assemblies of Jesus Christ. Its membership grew as word about the Assemblies of God controversy were reported. By 1936, this group included 245 churches with 16,000 members in twenty-seven states. Also in 1936, the Pentecostal Church, Incorporated had 168 churches with 9,861 members in twenty-three states. Because of the similarities in doctrinal positions and a predominantly white contingency, in 1945 the two denominations became the largest oneness denomination in the United States and became known as the United Pentecostal Church (Synan, 1971, p. 161).
While the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World and The United Pentecostal Church are the largest oneness denominations, many other smaller groups were formed throughout the 20th century. In 1916, the Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God was founded by a black Methodist preacher named W.T. Phillips in Mobile, Alabama. In 1919, the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith was founded in Columbus, Ohio, by R.C. Lawson, another African American preacher (Mead, 1965, p. 86). Additionally, the Full Salvation Union was founded in 1934 in Michigan, the Apostolic Church was founded in Texas, in 1945, and the Jesus Church was founded in Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1953 (Synan, 1971, p. 162). This list only includes those who formally became a denomination. Many other independent churches exist today that have no denominational ties. Some groups completely separate themselves from others like the snake-handling groups of the Appalachian Mountains. While other groups such as the Bethel Ministerial Association maintain a loose fellowship with other oneness churches (www.bmaministries.com).
One of the main reasons Oneness Pentecostalism continues to reside on the fringes of the Pentecostal movement is due to the plethora of so many different organizations that virtually share the same beliefs. However, in more recent history movements have taken place to give the Oneness Pentecostal churches a larger voice. In 1971, the Apostolic World Christian Fellowship was formed which gave way to greater unity among churches, fellowships, and small denominations. This organization has grown to include 3.5 million people (Burgess, 2002, p. 940).
Similarities and Differences in Pentecostal Churches
When visiting a Pentecostal church, the average visitor would probably not notice anything of significant differences between Trinitarians and Oneness services. Unless a baptism takes place, or a preacher chooses to preach on the subject, the observer will see a charismatic worship with the openness for spiritual manifestations to occur. Like many other Pentecostal groups, Oneness denominations have given women a great opportunity to serve as evangelists and leaders in the church, but hardly any women are pastors or elders (Wacker, 2001, p. 168).
Additionally, like other Pentecostal groups, racial diversity is prevalent. As mentioned before, Anglo Americans, African Americans, and Latino Americans are well represented in Oneness denominations. Although there are still too few interracial congregations, the doctrinal beliefs and practices cross of racial lines. Thus, the Pentecostal movements of God’s Spirit are breaking through in churches regardless of Trinitarian or Oneness beliefs.
The issue of intelligence has plagued many with a Pentecostal background. With many mainline denominations, rigorous schooling was required before ever setting foot in a pulpit. This was not a necessity for many in Pentecostal circles. Rather a commitment to God and an ability to “preach under the anointing” was preferred over someone with higher education. In some Pentecostal circles, education was at times considered something that would lead people away from God. Training has always been needed for pastors of Oneness circles, but not necessarily formal training. “Individuals who possessed or were perceived to possess exceptional learning, and who demonstrated an ability to integrate that learning with daily life, found honor among their fellow believers” (Wacker, 2001, p. 153). The richness of the “priesthood of believers” has always been viewed as a refreshing line of thinking in Pentecostal churches.
“Non-Pentecostals have tended to see little difference between Trinitarians and Unitarians (oneness), since both are intensely evangelical and charismatic” (Synan, 1971, p. 163). Despite similarities among Pentecostal groups—concerning worship service practices, women’s roles in the church, racial diversity, and thoughts on education—this major doctrinal issue still causes strife.
Many Trinitarians refuse to consider Oneness congregations as even Christian in the first place. Within the first few centuries of the church, this belief was referred to as modalism and was condemned as heresy. Thus, many Trinitarians feel the churches of today should do the same. Those in the Oneness camp would simply state that the term Trinity, which is never mentioned in Scripture, was developed incorrectly through the mistakes of the Church (Lang, 2002, p.60). Many in the Oneness community consider Trinitarians to have too close of a view to the heresy of tritheism.
From outside observers, “the Oneness movement occupies a kind of cloudy no man’s land between orthodox Christianity and the various groups that, because of their beliefs and practices, are decidedly unorthodox” (Lang, 2002, p. 60). These groups have been side-by-side the last 100 hundred years and this issue will probably still be around much longer.
The most disheartening aspect of the controversy is seeing the meanness propagated from both sides. On a personal note, I have been grieved at the number of people condemned to eternal damnation because the right formula wasn’t given during baptism. I have heard those from the Oneness camp inform Trinitarians that Hell awaits them because they were not really baptized. I have been told by the other side that my baptism was not legitimate because I was baptized in Jesus’ Name rather than in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The historical development of Oneness Pentecostalism in America is a fascinating study in the pursuit to follow after deep conviction regardless of the cost. Pentecostalism is ostracized by many outside the tradition who fail to understand the spiritual manifestations that take place. Oneness Pentecostalism takes this ostracizing to a new level with its view on the Godhead. This group of people care very little for what the world thinks of them; rather they are concerned with what their Lord Jesus Christ thinks of them. Oneness Pentecostals will continue their mission to spread the Gospel just as other dedicated Christians are doing. However, the Oneness Pentecostals may have to take a bit more grief for their convictions than their Trinitarian counterparts.
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