From brutal exorcisms that saw people tortured to death, to a pastor sentenced to life in prison for attacking his wife with rattlesnakes, the astonishing history of the Pentecostalist church has been revealed in a new book.
Elle Hardy Hurst’s Beyond Belief offers a fascinating expose of the fastest-growing religion on earth, detailing how a religion founded at the turn of the 20th century became a tech-savvy Christian movement loved by A-list celebrities.
Hardy is a US-based journalist and foreign correspondent who has spent years researching the religion, touring 12 countries, including the UK, and six American states to visit various churches and prayer groups.
The movement is a form of Christianity that focuses on the Holy Spirit and the believer achieving a ‘third blessing’ – direct experience of the presence of God – and many subsects of the movement are biblical literalists and religious fundamentalists.
It’s predicted that by 2050 around one in ten people will be part of the movement, which is estimated to be accumulating 35,000 new followers each day.
A quarter of the globe’s Christians are said to be Pentecostal, though many members of the movement around the globe don’t refer to themselves as such – with Koreans dubbing it the Presbyterian movement and in Brazil and Latin America, evangélicos.
Detailing her global tour of Pentecostalism, Hardy details more recent stories including an evangelical celebrity singer who adopted more than 50 boys with the young husband she has been charged with murdering.
Elsewhere, she tells the story of the movement’s founders, two of whom became embroiled in scandal, from a kidnapping plot to disguising a suspected affair – to accusations of demonic posse causing a riot among the congregation.
Here, Femail reveals the book’s most fascinating anecdotes from the past and present of the rapidly growing movement.
MOVEMENT’S FOUNDING FATHER: ARRESTED OVER HOMOSEXUAL AFFAIR AND SPARKED BRUTAL EXORCISM DEATHS
Born in Iowa in 1873, Charles Fox Parham became the founding father of the Pentecostalist movement before his career was left in tatters after sexual scandal and an incident in which his followers murdered three during a brutal exorcism
Born in Iowa in 1873, Charles Fox Parham was raised as a member of the Methodist Church, and by his teenage years was already preaching the word of the bible.
By 22 though, he had become frustrated by the Methodist hierarchy and decided to go out on his own, travelling from place to place with a ‘silver tongue that could clock 250 words per minute’.
His main belief was of the ‘third blessing’ – the first to be born again as a Christian and the second being sanctified – which was a visible outpouring of the Holy Spirit in action.
Parham and his family settled once again in Topeka, Kansas, in 1901 after his son was apparently saved from a serious illness by divine intervention and started a Bible college in a suburban mansion called Stone’s Folly.
It was here that a 30-year-old worshipper named Agnes Ozman became the first person to speak in tongues, speaking and writing in ‘Chinese’ and apparently unable to return to her native English language for three days.
By 1905, Parham had befriended William J. Seymour, the son of emancipated slaves who later led the ‘Azusa Street Revival’, an outpouring of ‘babbling tongues’ at a church in downtown Los Angeles.
Two years later, Parham was arrested in San Antonio after being accused of having a homosexual relationship with a young man, and despite the case being dropped his reputation was left in tatters in a time when same-sex affairs were illegal.
The preacher maintained his innocence, insisting he had been set up by rival evangelist and prominent flat earther Wilbur Glenn Voliva.
The final nail in Parham’s coffin was an incident at a ‘Parhamite’ in Illinois in which the preacher’s followers became crazed with anticipation that the end of the world – the ‘End Times’ – were drawing near.
Accusations of demonic possession among the congregation led to a riot resulting in a spate of brutal exorcisms that saw three people tortured to death.
SISTER AIMEE: PREACHER ACCUSED OF FAKING HER OWN KIDNAP
Aimee Semple McPherson took the religion to the masses and despite being accused of faking her own kidnapping while having an affair with a married lover remains an icon of the movement
While Parham’s career was left in tatters, the movement had vastly expanded throughout America and Aimee Semple McPherson took the religion to the masses.
The last of Pentecostalism’s founding trinity, Aimee ‘shaped the modern conception of a Pentecostal preacher’ by creating a traveling roadshow promising miracles, supernatural healing and prophecy.
With a flair for self-promotion, Aimee Semple McPherson wrote the script for the public evangelicalism that can be seen today…’
She produced radio shows which acted as a precursor to today’s televangelism and built the first ‘mega-church’, the Foursquare Gospel.
Despite her hoards of loyal followers, Sister Aimee, as she became known to her followers, battled with obsessive compulsive disorder and was said to have engaged in numerous affairs.
She became embroiled in scandal in May 1926 when she vanished from a Los Angeles beach, with her disappearance hitting headlines across the country before she emerged in a Mexico desert five weeks later ‘with a sordid tale of capture and escape’.
Rumours soon began that Aimee had run off with her married lover and when she returned she was trialled for conspiracy and obstruction of justice – however, the case only served to raise significant funds and publicity for the movement.
While Charles Parham’s sex scandal had ended his public career, the alleged kidnapping – which courts deemed impossible to prove – boosted Sister Aimee’s and she resumed her life preaching in California.
Despite her own scandal, Sister Aimee became known for her church’s charitable work during the Great Depression, and in her later years she even became involved in politics – briefly supporting Herbert Hoover and later Franklin D. Roosevelt.
‘With a seemingly endless ability to raise money and a flair for self-promotion, Aimee Semple McPherson wrote the script for the public evangelicalism that can be seen in her many heirs today’, writes Hardy.
CRIMINAL TURNED PENTECOSTALIST WHO ATTEMPTED TO MURDER HIS WIFE WITH 17 VENOMOUS SNAKES
Glenn Summerford (pictured) was a criminal turned born-again serpent handling minister for the fundamentalist Church of God with Signs Following who attempted to murder his wife, Darlene with a rattlesnake in October 1991
At what Hardy calls the ‘most literal end of the Pentecostal spectrum’ are what the movement calls ‘with signs’ churches where attendees handle venomous snakes and drink poison to prove their devotion to god.
The idea comes from a bible verse stating ‘In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.’
Many Pentecostals believe this is a metaphor, but those who attend ‘with signs’ churches take the scripture literally and believe that handling snakes, a demonic presence, is a sign of God’s power over Satan and drinking their poison is a sign of faith.
The author visited the Rock House Holiness Church in Alabama, one of the few ‘snake-handling’ churches in the country that still exists, where she met an attendee called Cylus Crawford Cylus.
He revealed to her that he’d been bitten ‘pretty bad’ on the leg, chest and hand because of his faith and said he hates it when he receives unwanted medical assistance because ‘you have no say, they have full control.’
These types of churches came under the spotlight in 1991, when Pastor Glenn Summerford, cousin of the Rock House’s lead pastor, tried to murder his wife Darlene.
In a drunken rage he stuck a gun to her head before dragging her by her hair to the shed where his seventeen poisonous snakes were kept in a cage.
After rattling and banging the cage to rile up the snakes, he told his wife to put her hand in and said that if she refused he would forcibly shove her face into the cage.
When she had recovered from the life-threatening bites, Darlene testified that her husband had tried to kill her because he wanted to marry another woman and he was sentenced to 129 years in prison.
HOW PENTECOSTALISM IS BECOMING HOLLYWOOD’S FAVOURITE RELIGION
Singer Justin Bieber is pictured with disgraced pastor Carl Lentz, who was accused of sexual misconduct and found to have cheating on his wife of 17 years Laura, in 2017
Justin Bieber’s Hailey Baldwin is pictured with Lentz, his wife Laura, Kylie Jenner and Kendall Jenner in 2014
Selena Gomez is pictured after attending a Hillsong service with a group of friends in 2014
The recognisable face of Western Pentecostalism in modern days comes in the form of the Hillsong – a worldwide chain of churches attended by the likes of Justin Bieber and various Kardashian-Jenners.
‘It has been called Australia’s most powerful brand, a money machine, and even a cult’, writes Hardy.
Other A-listers who have been spotted attending the church in the past, according to reports, include; Hailey Baldwin, Chris Pratt, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Nick Jonas and Hailee Steinfeld.
Since the movement was founded in 1983, with 45 people gathered at a school hall in Western Sydney, Hillsong has 150,000 weekly worshippers and locations in thirty countries on six continents.
It was founded by Brian Houston, an Australian pastor and evangelist, with his wife Bobbie and was originally known as the Hills Christian Life Centre.
Houston and other pastors of the church are biblical literalists, however stay away from the controversial bible-bashing rhetoric and spread their message in way that appears to be benevolent.
‘Instead of delivering a thundering sermon against gay marriage, a Hillsong preacher is more likely to tell you that you must love yourself first and then find love—albeit with the coda that you should find love in the way God tells us to in the Bible’, Hardy explains.
Within three years Hillsong hosted its first worship music conference and in 1988 the church’s self-titled group released their debut album, Spirit and Truth.
Hillsong has become one of the most successful music brands in the world today with an estimated 50 million people around the world sing their songs each week.
In fact, the movement was so influential in the music industry that in 2007, the Church had so many members appearing on Australian Idol a whistleblower producer contacted the media fearing the movement was manipulating the vote.
An Australian news programme claimed five of the nine finalists – a claim which has been disputed – were from Hillsong and interviewed two ex-Hillsong followers who alleged they had been ‘pressured’ to vote for Christian contestants in the past.
The church has evolved into a ‘multilevel marketing industry’ streaming preachers on YouTube and selling miracle oils, self-education and the ‘Holy Spirit’s ability to manifest everything from private jets to Covid cures.’
While tithes once accounted for the majority of the church’s income, up to 80 per cent of their revenue now comes from music and merchandise sales.
Hardy claims their streaming numbers are ‘comparable to those of its most famous alumnus, Justin Bieber’.
In the words of Hardy, the third-wave church has ‘morphed into a global, digital corporate culture’ which is ‘much more than a building: it’s a conglomerate.’
Researchers found that two thirds of those who attend the tech-savvy church are under 50 while the pandemic has only served to cement the faith of young worshippers further.
Hillsong has been tarnished by a series of alleged sexual indiscretions in recent years after celebrity pastor Carl Lentz – who baptised Bieber – was accused of sexual misconduct and found to have cheating on his wife of 17 years Laura.
Lentz, who co-founded the New York City branch of the Australian church back in 2010, was fired by the organization’s leader Brian Houston, who accused the pastor of ‘moral failures’ and ‘breaches of trust’ in a statement issued.
However in August 2021, Houston stepped down from the church’s board two months after being charged by Australia police with concealing his late father’s sex offences in the 1970s. Houston has denied the charge.
PENTECOSTALISM AND THE TRAVELLING COMMUNITY
Caravans surround a big top where a religious ceremony is held by Evangelist gypsies, on the former military airfield of Semoutiers, north-eastern France, in August 2010
It’s estimated that around three million people in the UK are part of the broad Pentecostal movement with an estimated 17,000 Pentecostal churches in the UK—about one congregation for every two pubs in England.
And the movement is growing at a rapid rate among the traveller community, with the author meeting members of the Light and Life boys, who believe their born-again Christian identity is linked to their ‘Gypsy heritage’.
The group claims to be evangelising at lightning speed, with thirty-three congregations and around 20,000 followers in the UK – one tenth of the estimated Gypsy population.
The Dartford-based church has five pastors, whom the author met up with in Bexleyheath, Kent in December last year.
One of the group’s pastors, Uncle John, admitted to previously being a ‘ten-out-of-ten sinner’ having ‘plotted a couple of murders’ and prize-fight for money before turning to the Holy Spirit.
Another of the pastors, Bill, says he’s anxious about his life before being saved, admitting: ‘I was brought up to lie and con to get money, and if I couldn’t, I was a thief.
‘If it were up to us Gypsies, we wouldn’t have done it. But God is calling his people now. It’s the most vague and most precise answer I can give.’
Light and Life recently built a church in Soroca around 300 kilometres north-east of Marius’ village, Toflea, in Romania and, in the UK, they hold a regular religious service in the Surrey town of Leatherhead.
Like many Pentecostalists around the globe, Light and Life take the bible literally – with John claiming that ‘Satan got to the Catholics’ because they believe in the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception, and only Christ can be a ‘mediator with God’.
The majority of Gypsy evangelicals disagree with modern ideas filtering into churches such as female clergy and welcoming LGBTQ+ people.
Addressing further spread of Pentecostalism in the UK, the author claimed the movement appeals to immigrant and minority groups.
She claimed those arriving in the country for economic opportunities ‘are being born again; or renewing their faith as a way of coping with the transition and of making connections in a big, cosmopolitan city.’
Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World by Elle Hardy, Hurst, is available for £20