Pentecostalism began in 1906, with a son of freed slaves named William J. Seymour.
Seymour and some cohorts were waiting around in a place called Bonnie Brae street, and their account of what happened is that all seven of them, one by one, began to fall on the ground and speak in unknown languages given to them by God. As their numbers grew, Seymour and his new followers found a home on Azusa Street, in a movement now known as the Azusa Street Revival.
It was the sparking moment for what became modern Pentecostalism, one of Christianity’s most spirited, outrageous, and closed-off denominations. Some call it a congregation; others call it a cult.
These are the stories, including mine, of those who've endured, what they overcame, and where they are now.
ANDREW: My name's Andrew, and I am fifth generation Pentecostal. I should use past tense
My great, great grandfather was one to God, the story goes, when he was in his twenties or thirties, I believe. And it's been passed down on my dad's side for five generations, and I have nieces and nephews that are now making the sixth generation.
I was gung ho into church three times a week, at least more than that some weeks. And youth group working at the church, I was homeschooled from seventh grade on, so spent a lot of time working in the church, cleaning and vacuuming out the vans and mopping gym floors and that sort of thing.
I'm the only one in my family. Who's no longer with the church.
ISAAC: My real name is Isaac
My church that I attended was kind of interesting because they're sort of an offshoot of an offshoot. And that was what I was immersed in for 30 years. Went to the private school. I was as far committed to that as I think any other member would be considered, you know, it was it was my life.
Pentecostalism, we accept Jesus as. A dual nature. He was both divine and human. He had a physical body that was a real human body. And so he suffered and died and he went through that pain and suffering so that we could have healing and deliverance today in the modern time
If you call them the name of the Lord, Jesus, you shall be saved
The Baptist or the Presbyterian or Lutheran, they're going to say we cannot be saved "by works." We have to simply accept God's grace and the sacrifice of Jesus. And we accept that and we say, we want to be saved. We pray and we call out to Jesus. That's all you have to do.
Where a Pentecostal person differentiates... they don't accept that argument of just praying and ask for salvation. You have to follow this formula that's laid out in, in the book of acts chapter two, verse 38, which is simply: "Then Peter said unto them repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of your sins. And you shall receive the gift of the Holy ghost."
ANDREW: And it was sort of a new revelation that differed from the rest of the Protestant movement in its emotional vigor and specifically the works of the spirit. And even more specifically the speaking in tongues. Flamboyant, flamboyant worship running the aisles, rolling on the, on the floor lifting of the hands and, and singing very vibrantly, you know, and they tend to. Prioritize worship and outspokenness in church and, you know, affirming the pastor and saying amen and things like that.
ISAAC: the word I use is fundamentalist. Very strictly and very literally interprets the Bible.
The Language of Angels
ISAAC: Some Pentecostals think that it's absolutely essential to speak in other tongues in order to be saved, you have to speak a foreign language or a tongue of an angel, something that's completely unintelligible to you. If you don't do this, then you don't have the sign of the Holy Spirit in filling your life. And if you don't do this, then you're not safe. You know, you're going to, you're going to burn.
ANDREW: The Holy Spirit would just be, in one sentence, God's manifestation in the world today. And so how he moves, you know, in the supernatural realm, through the, the natural realm and manifests himself today.
Paul, one of the apostles and his letter to the Corinthian church, the first first Corinthians chapter 12, he lists the gifts of the spirit and they are the word of knowledge, word of wisdom, gift of prophecy, the gift of faith. The gift of healing, working of miracles, the discerning of spirits what's called diverse tongues or various tongues and the interpretation of tongues. Pentecostals believe that all of them are still relevant today and still available to the church today. And not everybody has them.
I've been told by people who have claimed to have seen miracles, such as blind eyes, open them, deaf ears, unstopped, according to them you know, people walking out of wheelchairs, even the dead, coming back to life. I spoke to people who were there when a man supposedly died and was God raised him back to death.
ALEC: What did you think when, when you were first hearing that?
ANDREW: When I first heard of it, I was 12. I had no connection with the outside world. Literally, no connection with the outside world. Didn't watch TV. Didn't read any books that weren't approved by my parents and had no friends outside of the website.
I had no, I had no reason to think that that was crazy. Lazarus was raised from the dead. Why wouldn't, you know Brother Barret?
ALEC: Did you witness people speaking in tongues?
The first time I was, I think, seven or eight. Lots of crying and, you know, laid out on the, on the floor by the, the front of the church and people all around me and lots of tears and just exhaustion of, of trying to, you know, that, that sort of, that sort of feeling in the pit of your stomach when you cried so hard and just exerted so much emotion that your, your, your body is convulsing and, and, and contracting, you know, your abdomen muscles are contracting and your, my, your, your head hurts.
Everybody's praying and somebody just stands up or no leans over from praying and just starts hollering and tongues so that everybody can hear,
You're praying and someone's just yelling in your ear, full volume. And they're speaking in tongues full volume. And I remember just kind of like I'm in this, I'm in this moment and I'm just kind of chattering, you know, and making sounds with my mouth and.
I'm just going along with the, with the flow, you know, I'm just kind of doing what I, what I've always done technically, and they're listening and you can tell they're listening too, cause like their heads right in front of your face and you're totally disliked. Okay.
ANDREW: And everybody just goes silent.
All the music stops and it's, it's sort of a hushed tone. You know, it's like the, what they would call the Shekhinah glory of God has fallen upon the service. Your eyes hurt from, from closing them so hard because you don't dare open them or don't break the trance, you know -- and that's literally what it is.
ISAAC: Some people will just chatter and they'll just dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, you know, and they, they don't make any actual words. They're just making this really excited, chattering and stuttering with their tongue and lips
ANDREW: It was a sense of relief. Like I've never felt before and I can clearly remember it.
It was goosebumps and literally it was bumps hair standing up and. And just peace. I say that because that's what they told you is, you know, Oh yeah. This is a peace that passes all understanding. This is God's peace. He is giving you. It's just, I felt calm because I knew it was over. And I had gotten God's attention. I had gotten God's approval and that meant everything to me.
I felt like I was like, somebody was actually listening on the other end, but you know, whether or not that's true. I was asking, I sure was asking and. Every time that I spoke in tongues, I felt answered. I felt heard, I felt validated. I felt like my faith had been validated. And I spoke this language and so God must exist. God must be here with me right here in a spirit form. And he's approved me. He's he's he likes me. He wants me to be, he wants me to go to heaven and he's, you know he's given me what I asked for.
AVIE: I'm going to go by Avie. I grew up a third-generation UPCI member. I left the church about 13 years ago when I was 19 and have just been slowly working through what that means for myself ever since. It was my grandmother who originally got into the church when she was 16 years old, back in. That would have made it, she was born in 29. So like right in 1945, when the Pentecostal movement started,
We would have wild services where people were running the aisles, jumping on chairs, rolling on the floor you know, dancing at the front all of that different stuff.
We would also have services where there was just this sort of, deep grief almost, that would go through the congregation. And so very emotional, usually those kinds of services were associated with like foot washing and communion rituals. Those were very somber and serious affairs. And so the response to it was very somber and deep emotion.
I quote unquote, received the Holy ghost when I was 10. I was sitting and I was writing a letter to my favorite uncle because my parents had been talking and like his drug problem was getting worse and I was worried about him and I just started crying.
And my mom asked me what was wrong. And I told her that I was worried about my uncle and she was like, well, now is the perfect time to go pray for him. And so this emotional ten-year-old gets pulled up to the alter and, you know, I was surrounded by adult.
Like I'm, I'm already sobbing because I'm upset and You know, that's interpreted by the adults around me that the spirit is coming over me. And so all of these adults surround me and there's a lot of shouting and, you know, everybody's touching me. And I like, I was just overwhelmed with the situation and the emotion.
And after that it's blank, I don't remember anything. I like keen to about an hour later and didn't know what was going on. And my mom told me that I'd been speaking in tongues for over an hour and I didn't remember it. I had no memory of it.
It was kind of a traumatic experience.
And um, from that point forward, you know, I was told like, I've received the gift of the spirit.
Now I can speak in tongues. And so that's what I was supposed to do when I prayed going forward.
ANDREW: Every other time after that first time I mean, it was probably six or seven years after the first time that I spoke in tongues again the second time. And then, you know, years in between that, but it was always, I had done something wrong and I knew the Holy ghost was no longer inside me or in my spirit.
It wasn't approved, but I didn't think I have God's stamp of approval. And I wanted it. So it was that same scenario over and over again, wanting to be approved by God, wanting to be, you know like you said, the shame of not having that. And just seeking for that. I felt that I was asking a deity for that.
AVIE: One of the teachers that I, of that kind of took me under her wing, like I, I was in a very like fragile, emotional state.
And she noticed that, that I was dealing with a lot of, a lot of things. So she kind of became, you know, a confidant and a mentor. And when she found out that I was Pentecostal, she asked about speaking in tongues and I was like, Oh yeah, that's part of it. And she's like, you know, I've tried for my entire life and I just can't do it.
I wish God would give me that ability. But like for her, the justification was that she talked too much to begin with. So she didn't think God was going to give her that gift, which I thought was hilarious. And also like. Brought to brought to reality, the fact that not everybody who follows God can do this.
SARAH: So I never personally spoke tongues in the sense of, I was possessed by the spirit.
My name is Sarah. I have spent most of my life from birth to adulthood in church.
I feel like I was really my most really developed in my relationship with Carla. I used to be so religious. It's not even funny. I was never to the point of wearing skirts and covering your ankles, but I wanted to speak in tongues so bad, but I fall on my father's belief of that. The spirit has to possess you.
So it was a matter of, for me. You know, I'm doing my very best for God. I'm donating my gifts of the spirit. I am doing all these things. I am so into my church and my people, and I do everything that God says, and I listened to the sermons and take notes as best as possible. But I have yet to be possessed by the spirit in speak the language of God.
It was almost as if by, I wouldn't want to say obsession, but it was like an obsession of compulsion with. My relationship with God. It was the one part that was missing of it.
I remember praying as I would go to bed every night that the Holy spirit. Possess me and make itself known so I can see the things and the ways of God, which was, it was parsley taught to me by my grandparents that the Holy spirit can come over you. And it has happened to them. So for me, it's like, I've, I've been so deep in this and it hasn't happened.
My mental health at the time had really degraded users of personal trauma I had encountered when I was younger. So between that trying to search for some reconciliation, some hope that I will stop feeling this way that I did mentally. And then also being constantly told. By the individuals that believed in the Pentecostal doctrine, you know, there was probably a good reason why, and it had something to do with me.
If I hadn't felt the Holy spirit and perhaps it could have been my negative mindset, it could have been my depressive tendencies. It could be the grudges that a hold against people. It was always an element of, there was something that I was doing, which was why I wasn't ever experiencing the presence of God.
ISAAC: I usually try to mention, you know, it was, it was like being Amish. So much of what defines Pentecostals, especially. Just to the average person that may not have that much religious background is really how they live. It's you're not allowed to watch movies, you know, allowed to go dancing. You're not allowed to go to the bar.
And so you live by this code and even more so than just like the code is the fear of being. Turned in by your, by your friends
They defined everything you did, you know, you couldn't, you couldn't just go out with someone and just say, Hey, you know, let's go out and grab a cup of coffee. Every decision you made, went through the church leadership. It was a cult, I mean, that's really the best way to describe it.
SARAH: There was always some type of leash on the content that I had read or seen when I was younger or watched to the extent that, you know, when you're younger, you don't really notice those things because you only see what is given to you or shown to you.
ISAAC: I really enjoy a good movie and I enjoy a good TV show, but that's like against the rules, nobody has a TV in their house. Nobody even goes to the movies, but I would go by myself. And again, mid twenties, early twenties, I'm just sitting in a movie theater, maybe a couple towns away. So I don't bump into anybody by chance. And nobody's going to recognize my car cause I'm, you know, stuffed on the back lot of a movie theater somewhere and I would enjoy it.
And then I would feel guilty about it. Just. Immediately after, and then like the next church service. Oh, you know, I'm going to pray and ask forgiveness and next weekend, I'm going to do it again and see, it was like they had this double life where you wanted to be normal. You wanted to experience normal things, but you couldn't, and you were just kind of locked into this controlling mindset where. You were feeling guilty about things you enjoyed, just because somebody stopped, it was a road. It was a good idea. And it was just the most ridiculous way to live. But that was reality.
ANDREW: I knew at an early age that I was not straight, I didn't know what that meant. I thought it was just a temptation, a sin, a spirit, you know, like we're talking about And I didn't know what to do with those thoughts.
So I just prayed, literally prayed them away and pushed them out of my head. And they kept coming and. So instead of acting on them or, or letting you know, my finding my identity, as I would say now, I just pushed it away and, and even became homophobic. And so I knew to make my dad happier, make my youth pastor happy.
The man that I'm in a relationship with right now we had been friends for years before becoming an item, and I ran into him at Walmart.
This is, you know, early on in our friendship. I ran into him at Walmart and I stood there in the produce section and talk to him for a few hours. And here comes walking through the door. One of a man who knows who, who went to church with me and knew that other person.
And he knew that, that other person by my current partner, he knew that that man was gay and he looked at me and he looked at him, this man from church and. He nodded and he said, hello. And he kept walking. And my heart just dropped because this is like we were talking about earlier discerning of spirits.
I knew that I was instantly labeled as gay or, or, or, you know, I was at least teetering because I was seen in public with a man who is a known homosexual. And that man who went to my church, I'll call him David. But David went to the pastor and told pastor, he said, hi, I passed her.
I saw Andrew with a known homosexual in Walmart. They were talking and my pastor called me aside and he said, is this true? And I said, yes, sir. I ran into him at Walmart and I was talking to him. And I said, well, just, you know, be careful about your, your reputation, your reputation, you have reputation to, to protect
and I went back to David and I said, w what gives, I mean, I, I just ran into him at Walmart. And I was talking to him. What if I was witnessing to them? I wasn't obviously, and I asked him point blank.
I said, so how long should I speak to somebody? Not in church. If I run into them, if they're not in church and I run it, how long should they speak to them before it becomes too long before I'm associating with them. And he said, 20 seconds.
SARAH: God, I remember I don't know, anointing oil. We might've regularly might cross over the door posts and stuff in the windows. And you know, you were taught to do that. If you're having nightmares or you're having bad thoughts, and then you have that reinforcement of.
You should constantly be in fear. So if you feel guilty watching something, Oh, that's the Holy spirit speaking to you. You're not supposed to be watching that or the end times are coming. You should always be ready because Jesus could be coming back any minute. So then there's that paranoia that you're supposed to be on the lookout for the signs.
And then after a while, you know, you're thinking the world's getting worse. So. Start connecting all these dots that don't even exist living in constant fear of something. It there's an every doctrine, everything. There's just that reinforcement of fear that that's how you're supposed to live and living in fear is what keeps you in line with God.
It's the shame and guilt that comes with the concept of sin. I mean, I, I think thought crimes are just, it's an insane concept to, to say that that someone is going to be punished eternally with, with such a horrific.
Concept of punishment, you know, burning in fire tortured for eternity because they had a thought that was lustful. They didn't go and rape someone. They didn't go murder someone. They didn't even steal anything. They just saw someone attractive and lusted after them. To concept that. That is worthy of infinite punishment
that anything that any finite crime should be worthy of infinite punishment boggles my mind.
AVIE: You know, when the, the structures of authority can't police, you're policing yourself.
I've called you to be a separate people. That whole thing, I don't know if your church mentioned that or not, but there's a scripture that, you know, God wants us to stand apart
This is part of the reason that I feel that Pentecostalism is a form of cult because they tell you that you have to rely only on the people who are part of the church with you, that anyone outside of it is dangerous and that you should expect to feel isolated by everyone, around you, who isn't in the church, because that's how it's supposed to be.
You're, you're young kid, you barely know what's going on. This is just what you're, you're raised in that you don't know any better and he just kind of, you do whatever you gotta do to. To just do what people tell you
SARAH: Everything is devoted in some way.
You're thinking about it. You're planning something about it or reading something for it or about it, or you're there and you can't really escape onto this war unless you're sleeping. And even in shoot, you might be dreaming about it.
It turned into not long after it turned into paranoia dinner, it spiraled into psychosis. And I remember therapy times where I would do my. Prayers to God at night. And I would just get so frustrated because I wouldn't hear God saying anything back to me.
I wouldn't hear God. I wouldn't hear a very. Sinister voice in my head. And I at least had a smarts about where to go. That's not God, why can't I stop this voice in my head? It, I think after a while, it really started to drive me crazy that. I was trying to revamp my, my relationship even more like, okay, maybe if I fixed it up a little, you know, get better, you know, read even more.
Maybe I've been slacking. That's kind of what was going on doing that. It, it didn't get better.
it was almost as if I had become so obsessive compulsive with my relationship with God and how I try to make it perfect. I wanted everything to be perfect.
A gender divide
AVIE: Women weren't allowed to cut their hair, no sleeves above the elbows. Skirts had to fall below the knees colors.
Couldn't be more than the width of three fingers from the collarbone. No makeup.
What I was told was that like all of this interests would make me a good wife in the future that, you know, all of this was good because I would be a good support perhaps to a pastor. It was never in the context of like, you, you, you can establish your own foothold in the faith and influence in your own, right? It was always in the context of me being attached to the authority of a man,
SARAH: There was a level of sexism. If a girl was talking to a boy and every fellow class, they're always be watching him like a Hawk, not so much watching him, watching her, there would always be that, that double standard of things that they were caught to.
AVIE: I don't know why, but for some reason I just started being painted as like this sort of like there was like this temptress aspect to it.
That, that I was being overly sexual . And I like, I, I don't know where they got that. Cause I, I was kid, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no experiences like that. But it was still suggested, you know, that there was this dangerous aspect to me.
SARAH: I always wear dresses. I love to wear dresses and I would wear them and we randomly got a complaint. Okay. I think during one of our girls night or like girl's youth group. That there were some of the boys standing down at the bottom of the stairs, watching the girls go up so they could look under their skirts and that pretty much they wanted us to wear shorter dresses and or pants and.
So that really rubbed me wrong because many years before, I experienced sexual assault and I was wearing a uniform shorts for school when I experienced that. So for me in a, someone that even at that point, which was kind of radical, I believed in women's rights and something that I never spoke about while I was going to church
AVIE: I was at a youth convention, and I was coming down from getting ready in my hotel room and I got on the elevator with my youth minister and I was wearing a black turtleneck.
A black it was the early two thousands. So pleather was in at the time. So I was wearing this black pleather skirt. It's embarrassing to think about in retrospect it was, but it was, it wasn't tight. It was just a black pleather pencil, like a straight skirt and then black boots black knee-high boots.
So it was just all black, pretty much all of my skin was covered and it wasn't tight clothing, but he looked me up and down and said that I looked like a $2 whore. And I'm 14 years old and I like just stunned and he just walked off the elevator to go to the service. And so I went upstairs and I changed.
I was like, Holy shit, like, sorry, again with the swearing. But um, you know, like that, I can't understand. What about you know, what about our belief system would ever make it okay to speak to a child like that? You know, and sorry, it makes me emotional to think about still, but um, so instances like that though, were what were pushing me sort of away from the church is that I didn't feel valued for my own intellect.
For what I could contribute on my own. And I was attacked a lot for, for just trying to figure out ways to express myself that made me feel more comfortable in my own skin
Um, sorry, I need to take a second.
Pentecostal churches make space for abusers like this.
'You have to just leave'
If you walk out the door and you turn your back on us immediately, you're cut off. You're shunned. There's okay. I went to this church for every year of my life, literally from, I was born till I was early thirties. And. These people knew me from a, a newborn baby throughout my entire life. All 12 years of school and virtually nobody even tried to send an email or a text or a phone call.
You walk out the door, you vanished completely from their life. Like you disappear. And I think. I can count on one hand the number of people that I stayed in contact with that I had some kind of relationship with after I left.
ANDREW: I don't have a lot of contact with my family. I speak to my parents, you know, maybe every other week or so, but the fact that I'm not in church anymore is definitely a big part of that. It's also due to my sexuality. I'm bisexual, so that's definitely brings a lot of baggage to the table
ISAAC: I was married for six years. And as soon as I sat down and had an honest conversation with my wife, like, this is what I'm experiencing, I have doubts about things. And I have good reasons to think that maybe this isn't the right way to go. And it's just like, you threw a switch and it's, I'm the outsider. I'm the, I'm the enemy all of a sudden. And it was just downhill from that day on.
AVIE: I was sick of being the girl who wore skirts to school and Told them. I told my parents that I wanted to go shopping and I wanted jeans and I was tired of dressing that way. I'm going to do what I want. You can, you guys can either accept it and like, just let me do it. Or you can make it a fight and me go around behind your back. So it's basically up to you, you know?
SARAH: They didn't used to regularly talk about me actually. Kind of a disappointment. That I left and that they can tell that I've changed as a person because I'm not as in touch with God as I used to be, that that just changed me as a whole person. And you know what? I definitely agree. I am a completely different person since I've left the church and it's for my own better.
ANDREW: You have to just leave. I don't. I don't speak to anybody that from former life as I'll call it, none of my friends some of them probably would speak to me. But I choose not to. I don't hate them. I don't have any ill will towards them.
It just, there's just, there's a disconnect. I mean, what would we have to talk about?
ISAAC: We kind of had this back and forth where he's going to tell me this old rambling, sob story. That's supposed to make me feel guilty about leaving and draw me back in. And, and I'm just sitting there, like, I know exactly what you're doing. I'm just smiling and nodding. And, and then I'd say, you know, Hey, what about this? What about this? And, but when it came to my parents, they're just like, I grew up with these people. I knew what they. Their mentality and their thought patterns. There's no chance of that conversation going well. So like, I just thought, why would I even waste my time?
ANDREW: I feel like the people that hurts is the kids. They didn't choose to come into that. They didn't choose to believe this they're they're thrown in there and told what to believe. And told that they can't think for themselves critical thinking skills aren't taught. And if you don't have critical thinking, well, you're going to stay in the church.
You're going to, you're going to believe what you're taught. I think that's what causes harm.
AVIE: It creates this anxiety that just isn't necessary, you know? You know, what's the meaning of life? What is my purpose? What am I supposed to do? And like, if you, if you just step away and you're like, why, why do I need that frame? Why can't I just exist in this moment and experience it and then move on to the next thing.
ISAAC: You hear in the church over and over again, all these people in the world, they're all, they're all sad and they're lost and they're going to get addicted to drugs. They leave the church, they're going to lose everything and end up homeless. That's what the narrative that like to push. And, and yet it's the complete opposite. Everybody that I know that left the church. I mean, they're, they're happier. I got a job where I traveled more often and I got to see New York city flew around Atlanta and North Carolina got to see San Francisco by myself.
You know, just, I was just exploring life in feeling that freedom. And I was just like this incredible rush.
ANDREW: I was what, 16, 15 at the start. And it was a culture shock if you've ever, if you've ever.
You know, if everyone, if, if you ever see one, it was like being splashed with cold water. I didn't have any friends outside of church. I had never heard secondary music or, well, I mean here and there, but not to speak of, I hadn't watched TV and I was just thrown into the deep end
AVIE: It was a culture shock. It was pretty scary at first, but it was also exhilarating because like, I was surrounded by so many different people and none of them followed the rules that I had been brought up to follow.
SARAH: Yeah, it felt like a culture shock. It was like a pit in my stomach at the time, really that, you know, I felt like in a way have, have I wasted my time at this church after trying to do so, you know, trying to do good, you know, as the way God would intend me to in the original sense of what Jesus preached, which is what we were supposed to be following, but we're. That it ended up leading to nothing. So what was, what was, what was the point of me devoting all my time and my effort and resources, and I never genuinely saw any reward come out of it.
There would still be mornings where it would just feel wrong, not waking up early on Sunday or not going out on Wednesday to go to youth group or not going somewhere on Sunday night.
ANDREW: s a kid, when you're being taught right from wrong, you're not just being taught, don't kill and don't steal. You're being taught to think these things. And don't say these certain words, and there's no reason given, except this book that's 2000 years old. So you're constantly second guessing. Is this. Okay. Is this okay? Is this okay? And that's just that causes things to break down over time and I lose cognitive function because some of it is so much of it is, is focused on second guessing myself.
And it's not great for a relationship because I. I spent so many years trying to make my parents happy, trying to make my pastor happy, trying to make my youth pastor happy and trying to make God happy.
ISAAC: For years after leaving, you will dream about going to church, you know, because your brain is so wired to think about it.
I see it as I lost a third of my life to those people. It's really hard to say if I went back to being, you know, if I left at 18 years old, you know, what would I have done differently? Would I have chosen a different career? Would I have chosen the different partner? Certainly, you know, like the possibilities just explode
I would have probably enjoyed life more. I mean, that's, that's pretty much what it boils down to. I would have been like everybody else.