On June 22, 2010, a crowd of some 35,000 Evangelical Christians gathered in a football stadium in Manaus, the Brazilian city located in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest. They met about two hours after Brazil beat Ivory Coast at the World Cup. But the purpose of the rally was only partly to celebrate this victory. Organized by something called the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (which has been staging similar events in other countries), the rally was intended to show support for Israel. Given what we know about Brazilian Protestantism, it is safe to assume that the majority of those attending were Pentecostals, the sub-category of Evangelicals which has grown phenomenally in Brazil over several decades. Football has been described as the true national religion of Brazil. If so, the rally symbolizes a synthesis between an old and a new religion.
Until recently Brazil was quite correctly perceived as a Catholic country. It is still the largest such country in the world, if one counts all those who are nominally Catholic. The new Protestantism has been challenging this Catholic hegemony. As in all the Global South, Protestantism is mostly of the Evangelical variety—characterized by a strong belief in Biblical authority, the importance of a personal (“born again”) conversion experience, the efficacy of prayer and the duty to engage in missionary activity, and, last not least, conservative morals. Pentecostals share all these characteristics, but they add their own defining ones—glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”), spiritual healing, exorcisms and other alleged miracles. And it is Pentecostalism which has been exploding in Brazil and all over the developing societies—throughout Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia (most recently in China).
The new faith was introduced into Brazil in the early years of the twentieth century, by missionaries from the United States via Europe. It began very modestly indeed. The big explosion, as elsewhere in the Global South, began in the 1950s. Out of a total population of about 175 million, it is estimated that there are some 20 million Brazilian Pentecostals and other “charismatic” Christians (the dividing lines between these groupings are somewhat vague, and certainly flexible). São Paulo has been called the Pentecostal world capital. There exists a multiplicity of Pentecostal denominations. The largest, with about four million adherents, is the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. It is living up to its name, engaging in missionary work in Portuguese-speaking Africa, in Portugal itself, and in the Brazilian diaspora in the United States.
It is important to understand that what has happened in Brazil is part of a vastly larger global phenomenon. The characteristics of Pentecostalism have been around throughout Christian history, all the way back to the gathering of the early followers of Jesus in Jerusalem at the Jewish feast of Pentecost (from which the movement derives its name), when the Holy Spirit is believed to have descended “like the rush of a mighty wind” and caused people to speak out in strange languages (Book of Acts, chapter 2). But most scholars date the beginnings of modern Pentecostalism from the so-called Azusa Street Revival of 1906, when William Seymour, a one-eyed African-American Baptist preacher moved from Texas to Los Angeles, where he started services in an abandoned stable in a run-down part of town.
He must have been a remarkable man. Within months he managed to assemble a sizable congregation—an interracial one, to boot—no mean feat in California at that time. Then all the Pentecostal practices began—healing services, glossolalia, the lot—covered with superior amusement in the local press. It turns out that Seymour, wherever he may be now (no theological hypotheses in this blog), is having the last laugh. Estimates of the global number of Pentecostals in the world today hover around 400 million. At least 50 million are in Latin America. Every fifth person in southern Africa is believed to be Pentecostal. Some years ago a Nigerian Pentecostal started preaching in Kiev, founding a congregation called the Embassy of God, which is now reported to have 40,000 members (almost all white Ukrainians, including for a while the mayor of Kiev). Similar statistical wonders are reported from all over the world (with some notable exceptions, like the Middle East and Europe—whatever else makes Arabs and Scandinavians different from each other, they share a reluctance to yield to the blandishments of the Pentecostal message). There is no reason to think that the dynamism of the movement has exhausted itself.
One can say with some confidence that modern Pentecostalism must be the fastest growing religion in human history. How can one account for this astounding success story?
There is general agreement on some of the reasons. Pentecostalism has been growing mainly among poor and marginalized populations in regions undergoing rapid social change. This change has undermined traditional institutions that had given meaning and stability to life. Inevitably, this has led to what sociologists call “anomie”—a pervasive sense of disorientation—and, by the same token, an openness to new sources of meaningful orientation. Pentecostalism provides strong communities, giving practical and psychological support to people going through wrenching transformations in their circumstances. At the same time, it legitimizes individual agency—at the heart of the faith is an individual act of decision. (For that reason I have called Evangelical Protestantism the most modern religion around—but not everyone will agree with me on this.) And the style of Pentecostal worship, including its linkage with spiritual healing, provides a much needed emotional catharsis. Beyond these factors, however, there is an interesting disagreement about the social function of Pentecostalism.
The most active individuals in the area of Pentecostal studies are careful scholars and not inclined toward polemics. Thus the disagreement is not without nuance. Still, there are two distinct views on how Pentecostals relate to society. David Martin, the British sociologist who has pioneered in this area since the mid-1980s (Tongues of Fire, 1990), has been proposing that Pentecostals are a new embodiment of what Max Weber called the “Protestant ethic”—a morality of self-discipline, hard work and saving—which, he argued, was an important factor in the birth of modern capitalism. The research center which I founded in 1985 at Boston University supported Martin’s early work, which focused on Latin America. I liked to give nicknames to our projects. This one I called “Max Weber is alive and well and living in Guatemala” (that country, for reasons I don’t quite understand, has the highest proportion of Pentecostals in Latin America, somewhere between one third and one half of the population). If Martin is right, Pentecostalism is a modernizing force, certainly in terms of economic behavior, possibly also as a “school for democracy”. Not least of its revolutionary qualities is the transformation it seeks in family life and the role of women—broadly speaking, toward gender equality. Bernice Martin, David’s wife and collaborator, has paid special attention to this aspect.
The other interpretation sees Pentecostalism very differently—as a kind of “cargo cult”. This was a curious movement in Melanesia in the first half of the twentieth century. Its core belief was that ships (and, later, airplanes) would come and shower the inhabitants of those Pacific islands with all the material goods of modernity—and that magic and ritual practices could make this happen. No special effort was required by the recipients of the “cargo”, other than the faith that the magic would work—certainly not sweaty Protestant entrepreneurship. Two scholars who, cautiously, tend toward such a non-Weberian approach are Birgit Meyer in the Netherlands (Translating the Devil, 1999) and Paul Freston, who has been teaching in Brazil and North America (Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Latin America, 2008). If that interpretation is correct, Pentecostalism is not modernizing at all—in fact, is a carry-over from a pre-modern worldview that actually inhibits modernization.
Both interpretations have data for backup. My view of the matter is quite simple: Given the enormous number of people involved in the Pentecostal phenomenon worldwide, it is very plausible that both types can be found—the busy Protestants working to produce the “cargo”, and those who sit back and wait for the magic to bring the goodies to them (though this outcome can be positively influenced by giving money to the preacher-magician). For obvious reasons, the first type is sociologically much more important. It represents a vanguard of modernity. Social transformations are always carried forward by vanguards, even while others just sit around.
Be this as it may, Pentecostalism is an exceedingly important movement in the contemporary world. The Manaus incident brings this out very lucidly. Its relation to Israel is interesting in itself. We know that Evangelicals (not just Pentecostals) in the United States are more pro-Israel than any other non-Jewish group. I don’t know of comparable data about Evangelicals in the Global South, though there is anecdotal evidence that they too, because of a literal reading of the Bible, believe that God’s promise of the Holy Land to the Jews still holds. I’m sure that Israeli foreign policy has caught on to this possibility.
But American foreign policy should be interested as well. Here is a global movement which has its roots in America, which probably tends toward capitalism and possibly toward democracy. Evangelicals in the Global South (very many of them Pentecostals) have become strongly indigenous everywhere, and are not dependent on American missionaries or funds. But they retain strong ties with their American co-religionists—preachers go back and forth, as do books, videos, audio cassettes. And as do ideas.
Pentecostals in Guatemala sing American revival hymns in the Maya language.