One hundred years ago, in the afternoon of Easter Sunday, April 16, 1911, in an unremarkable wooden rental building on New Gower Street, Bethesda Mission became the first Pentecostal Assembly in Newfoundland.
That building in which the first Newfoundland Pentecostals met to worship survives as a commercial and rental accommodation near the Delta Hotel.
Alice Belle Garrigus — 52 years old, single, a former school teacher from New England — and an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. William D. Fowler — retired American evangelical ministers — had arrived in St. John’s on Dec. 1, 1910.
To the charismatic trio, their mission appeared as the direct wish of the Lord. According to Garrigus, God had personally called them with mysterious voices and led them to Newfoundland.
While the Fowlers quickly returned home, Alice Belle Garrigus remained.
Growth in membership in the eventual Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland (PAON) would first be quite slow, but soon picked up speed and became a religious success story, particularly in the developing industrial areas of central and western Newfoundland.
Here, an experiential message accompanied by openness to lay and female involvement, spoke to Methodists, Salvationists and even Anglicans. Only lately has the growth of Pentecostals abated somewhat. But with 6.7 per cent of the province’s population — as opposed to 1.2 percent Canada-wide in the 2001 census — growth among Pentecostals has been as remarkable as that of the other provincial religious success, the Salvation Army.
For quite a while, Pentecostals struggled, but new life arrived through a singing and preaching campaign by Victoria Booth-Clibborn Demarest, which in 1919 brought together several separate evangelical and holiness groups in St. John’s.
True growth, however, ensued when two Bethesda laymen, Charles L. March and Herbert Eddy, took the Pentecostal message westward and established a congregation at Humbermouth, whence it spread to other rapidly growing communities, including Deer Lake, Grand Falls Station (Windsor), Twillingate, Botwood and Bishop’s Falls.
New but familiar
For Methodists and Salvationists, who had experienced similar emotional satisfaction in earlier revivals, the deeply felt religiosity of Pentecostals seemed familiar.
What was new was the experience of tongues-speaking, as well as the notion that spiritual gifts of the early church, including healing and miracles, had not ended with the death of the apostles, but were very much alive.
Early 20th-century Pentecostals found charismata, “gifts of the Spirit,” to be a vital, eschatological travel pack with which a revived church could journey toward an imminent end-time when Jesus would return.
Pentecostals recruited their early Newfoundland leaders from Methodists and the Salvation Army.
Robert Chauncey English, a Methodist jeweller from Water Street, became the first (albeit, brief) overseer of the PAON in 1925, succeeded in 1928 by Eugene Vaters, a more forceful Methodist school teacher and ministerial apprentice. He, in turn, was followed by a former lumberman and Salvationist, A. Stanley Bursey.
Today, Pentecostals face challenges similar to those of other religious groups, not only in continuing growth and vital involvement among members, but also in finding vision and direction as they confront so many alternative ideas and values.
I asked Pastor Burton K. Janes, the well-published historian of Newfoundland Pentecostalism, how he views the traditional strength, as well as present and future challenges facing the PAON during its next century.
Q: To what do you attribute the success and inordinate strength of Newfoundland Pentecostals in the past 100 years?
Janes: I would note two factors, especially with regard to early growth. First would be the leadership roles assigned to both men and women. For example, in one of the earliest conference photographs, there are 10 female and 14 male preachers. This trend continued for many years. Second, the marginalized sector of society, often disenfranchised by the more established denominations, were given a voice to express their own personal religious sensibilities.
Q: What, in your estimate, is the distinctive contribution that Pentecostals have made to the religious landscape of our province? What are some of the present challenges that Pentecostals and the PAON are facing in our province?
Janes: One of the biggest challenges facing Pentecostalism is how to remain an agent for social and spiritual change without engaging in triumphalist tendencies. There is a delicate line between denominationalism and sectarianism. With a maturing of theological reflection, it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend a theologically distinctive Pentecostalism. For example, Pentecostals have traditionally taught that Spirit-baptized believers must experience the so-called initial evidence of tongues speaking. In an increasingly pluralistic world, what is it that actually distinguishes Pentecostals from the rest of Christendom?
Q: If you could enter a time machine and travel 100 years into the future, what kind of Pentecostalism do you think you would encounter in Newfoundland and Labrador?
Janes: It may well be unrecognizable when compared with, let’s say, Pentecostalism at the turn of the 20th century. A postmodern society will not allow for a religion that engages in navel gazing. Pentecostals will have to engage with society in an effort to leave a spiritual footprint without leaving the impression that we have the so-called “full gospel,” while the rest of the Christian Church has only a partial gospel. If, as Dennis McCallum says, “Postmodern people distrust arguments and truth claims, but want to trust friends,” then a Pentecostalism of the future will have to be a relational movement rather than a doctrinaire one.
Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.