On a foggy evening in April 1906, a handful of black saints gathered in a small house in Los Angeles to seek the baptism in the Holy Ghost. Before the evening was over, they were singing and shouting in strange languages. Several days later the group moved to an abandoned warehouse on Azusa Street in a run-down section of the city. Soon they were discovered by a Los Angeles Times reporter. The “night is made hideous … by the howlings of the worshippers,” he wrote. “The devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement.”

From these inauspicious beginnings Pentecostalism has mushroomed into the largest Christian movement in the twentieth century. No one knows how big it really is, but the statistics are staggering. David B. Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia lists more than 100 million adherents worldwide. The three largest Protestant congregations in the world are Pentecostal, including Paul Cho’s Full Gospel Central Church in Seoul, Korea, which boasts 500,000 weekly attenders, 370,000 members, and 50,000 neighborhood prayer cells. A 1979 Gallup poll revealed that in the United States alone, 19 percent—or 29 million—adult Americans considered themselves “Pentecostal or charismatic Christians.” Of these, 5 million claimed to have experienced the hallmark of the Pentecostal tradition, speaking in “unknown tongues,” technically called glossolalia.

In this country, one-third of those who identify themselves as Pentecostal belong to one of the 300 or so historically Pentecostal denominations. Most are quite small, yet the two largest, the Church of God ...

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