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100 years ago this month a handful of worshippers gathered in a small Los Angeles bungalow to pray. And they did more than pray, they began speaking in tongues, feeling the Holy Spirit in ways they believed mirrored those of the Apostles 2,000 years ago. It was the birth of Pentecostalism, one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world and one that now claims more than half a billion followers around the world.
NPR's Greg Allen visited the place where it all began.
GREG ALLEN reporting:
Razine King (ph) is a member of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, one of LA's biggest Pentecostal churches. Today King is not in church but, to her, someplace that's equally holy.
Ms. RAZINE KING (Pentecostalist): Welcome to the Bonnie Brae (ph) Home.
ALLEN: King is a tour guide at the small house on Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles where Pentecostalism began. She walks a small group through the one story bungalow that today looks much the same as it did 100 years ago when an itinerate minister, William Seymour, began conducting prayer meetings here.
Seymour was a strong believer in the power of the Holy Spirit. To the two dozen people who attended his meetings, he preached a revolutionary idea that the experience of the Apostles on the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended and they began speaking in different tongues, could be repeated today.
On April 9, 1906 after much prayer, King says that's exactly what happened.
Ms. KING: The Lord's power came upon these people and the Lord showed Himself powerful and faithful to instill in each person who sought Him the speaking in tongues.
ALLEN: Speaking in tongues was just one sign to these early Pentecostalists of the power of the Holy Spirit. Some were stricken and fell on the floor, where they lay sometimes for hours. Holy rollers they were called in the popular press. Others experienced healing, claiming they were delivered of ailments, physical and spiritual.
Word quickly spread about the strange doings and the city's eight daily papers began sending reporters to the meetings. Cecil Robeck, author of THE AZUSA STREET MISSION AND REVIVAL, says one of the most shocking things about those early Pentecostal gatherings was that although William Seymour was black, his congregation was multiracial.
Mr. CECIL ROBECK (Author): From the first service they have white folk and Latinos who are present in those first meetings. So it becomes very much of a story in LA and the newspapers are scandalized by the fact that there is a breakdown of kind of the traditional norms.
ALLEN: The movement caught fire in this country and around the world. Missionaries soon took the teachings to Latin America, Africa and Asia. New churches were formed. Assemblies of God, the Church of God in Christ and in 1918, the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, founded by one of the first radio evangelists, Aimee Semple McPherson.
(Soundbite of radio sermon)
Ms. AIMEE MCPHERSON (Radio evangelist): Say it right now, everybody. Say, praise the Lord.
CONGREGATION: Praise the Lord.
Ms. MCPHERSON: Now some of you didn't say it. Now if you put your hand up, it will help you. Come on, radio land, everyone, Praise the Lord.
CONGREGATION: Praise the Lord.
ALLEN: Aimee Semple McPherson was Pentecostalism's first superstar, holding tent revivals around the country, even starting one of Los Angeles's first radio stations. In the collapse of her ministry, she also foreshadowed the scandals that had been part of Pentecostalist history. Today her church, Angeles Temple, is still an important Pentecostal cathedral. It's no longer a hangout for Hollywood celebrities as it was in her day, but it's as lively as ever.
(Soundbite of religious music)
ALLEN: It's a Thursday night, but there are well over 1,000 people, mostly young, at this service at Angeles Temple. The church has the same expansive dome and stained glass windows of Aimee Semple McPherson's day. But now there are also huge video screens, theatre seating and a nine-piece rock band.
The pastor is 32-year old Matthew Barnett.
Pastor MATTHEW BARNETT (Angelus Temple): Amen. If you prayed that prayer and you believe it, just raise your hands on this room and say, you know what? I believe God heard me tonight, forgave me, and He lives in my heart tonight. You believe that? Hey, welcome to the team. I believe God tonight's gonna speak a word over your life and --
ALLEN: There's enthusiasm and spirited preaching here but none of the displays of emotion and speaking in tongues often associated with Pentecostal services. Barnett describes himself as part of a new wave of Pentecostal ministers.
Pastor BARNETT: We've grown up in so many Pentecostal experiences where we couldn't bring our friends to church, cause they were turned off by shenanigans going on or guys that were making false claims and crazy outbursts of confessions of you're gonna be healed in three days. And God might choose to allow that person to walk that thing out that they're dealing with. A lot of the younger generation kind of be like, well, you know, there's gotta be more to the Holy Spirit than just let's put on a show.
ALLEN: With his father Tommy Barnett, who heads Phoenix's First Assembly of God, Matthew Barnett created the Dream Center. It's an old 400,000 square foot hospital in Los Angeles's inner city that's been turned into a Pentecostal mission with outreach services, a drug rehab center and homes for juvenile offenders and teen runaways.
The power of Pentecostalism has also been felt by mainline religions. Among Roman Catholics, as many as one out of every ten worldwide is believed to be charismatic, an outgrowth of Pentecostalism that took route in the 1960s and '70s.
Church historian Cecil Robeck says religious revivals come and go. To see where the fires of revival are raging now, he says you need to look to Latin America and Africa.
Mr. ROBECK: You go to Africa and you will find these huge gatherings of people and they come in their robes. And oftentimes, they don't even meet in church buildings. They meet out under the trees. But every one of them is preaching that you can have a personal experience with God that is so transformative that when you finish, you don't even have your own language.
ALLEN: Pentecostal churches in Latin America and Africa seeking to spread their message are finding that one of the most fertile areas for expansion is right here in America, where the movement began.
Greg Allen, NPR News.
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