Tongues speaking, healings, and modern-day prophecy—such traits of contemporary Pentecostalism are perplexing enough. But these are only things Pentecostal Christians do. The picture can become even more confusing when someone asks what Pentecostals believe.

Outsiders almost invariably view speaking in tongues as the most important characteristic of Pentecostalism. But Pentecostals will tell you the center and core of their life is a personal, vital relationship with Jesus Christ. They believe this relationship begins with a sudden, instantaneous conversion, and they tend to view with suspicion any person who cannot pinpoint the day and the hour of his encounter with Christ.

That said, the baptism of the Spirit is an important distinctive for Pentecostals. This “second blessing” plainly follows the Wesleyan model of sanctification, but with a particular twist: Speaking in tongues is the sign of the baptism. No other gift of the Spirit can substitute. (Young Pentecostal scholars have challenged this doctrinal statement, but so far the lines have held.)

A historical distinctive of Pentecostalism was the “tarrying meeting,” in which people “prayed through” until they spoke in tongues. The procedure for “praying through” was emotional, colorful, and sometimes humorous. I recall the story of a dignified colleague who went forward to receive the baptism. As hands were laid on his bowed head, he heard one stentorian voice yelling, “Hang on! Hang on!” But behind him was an equally authoritative voice bellowing, “Let go! Let go!”

Vestiges of the “tarrying meeting” and “praying through” remain distinctive to Pentecostalism.

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