The Charismatic Renewal: As I Experienced It
This will not be a history of revivals or an academic approach. I have been asked to write about the Charismatic Renewal as I experienced it, so this will be a personal account and its impact upon me and many, many others. Only God knows the complete story. I do not consider myself an expert on the topic, but I was a participant.
My father was a faith missionary in the bayous and swamps of South Louisiana from around 1930 until 1941. My mother like almost all South Louisianians was Roman Catholic, one of 12 children, born to German, French-speaking Cajuns though they did not like that label. My earliest words were French and my memories are rooted there in South Louisiana.
Dad went to South Louisiana because his father; who lived and worked in Alabama, had lost everything during the Great Depression, so Dad had to drop out of college and moved to New Orleans to find work. While in New Orleans, Dad became involved with a church that had a vision to reach the bayou people. In between trips to bayou areas, dad attended what is now New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He also met and married my mother who had received Christ. Because of the difficulty associated with their vision, dad and others involved began weeks of prayer and were powerfully touched by the Holy Spirit. I did not know the full story until many years later, and after I had received my own experience with the Holy Spirit.
In 1941, World War II broke out and at the same time, dad and mom became involved in a small Southern Baptist church in Mobile County, Alabama. In 1942, our family moved there. So I grew up a preacher’s kid in a small community. I met the Lord at age 14. The Lord touched me powerfully, but I had no realization that I had been given to God at birth or what that meant for my future.
I grew up under fervent prayer and Bible preaching for which I am deeply grateful! For a year or two, I remained fervent, but as time went on I “cooled off” and succumbed to my own fleshly desires and teenage culture. While I loved and respected my wonderful parents, I had no intention of ever entering the ministry. I had a close up look at what that entitled: hard work, the pressures, temptations, financial leanness, and my own personal preferences. At 17, I became aware that God had a plan that was very different than mine. I loved sports, girls, and racing cars. So I had a two-year-long war with God. I have often said that I wasn’t called, I was threatened! That is another story, but one that nearly took my life. At age 18, I surrendered. That is what you do when you are defeated. Dad was happy for my decision, but I wondered why. The truth is that after a 2 year battle with the Lord and my parents giving me back to God, I was afraid to say no to God.
The Story Begins
I commuted to college in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and worked on weekends in my junior and senior college years. I gave up college boxing on Friday nights because I had been invited to preach at a small gathering each Friday night a few miles from my father’s church. Soon, I was invited to be an interim pastor and then I was invited to be an interim pastor at another small struggling Baptist church in Mobile.
Speaking wasn’t my problem. I won several public speaking contests while in high school and had gone to the state finals. Bible knowledge wasn’t my problem. I had grown up in a very biblical family and church. Hard work was not my problem. Dad and mom had taught me to work in our home; they were both hard workers. I had gotten a job sweeping rooms at age 9. I was driving a pickup at age 13, and learning how to butcher meat. I had worked in a shop during summers, building Venetian blinds and awnings. So, as a pastor, I worked hard at visitation in homes, hospitals, and preaching. But I still had a problem; it was me, my will, intensity and insensitivity to the Holy Spirit, and often to others. I was driven, not led.
Now I was pastoring a church deep in debt, 32 people in size, so broke that all they could afford was me. So I worked, talked to our bankers, met with prospects, and did almost all my flesh could do. The church began to grow, and we began to make our payments. Finally, the church asked me to become the full-time pastor, so at age 20, I was ordained to the ministry. Ready? Of course not.
I continued my education, commuting to a college 100 miles away in Hattiesburg. After graduating, I married beautiful Carolyn Dix in 1960, and we went to seminary together, again commuting to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 150 miles away, and again ministering on weekends. In seminary we were introduced to “Neo Orthodoxy,” another term for liberalism. I reacted and dove into “fundamentalism.” After a year-and-a-half, I quit seminary. The strain, conflict and my calling were too much. I had all the symptoms of a heart attack at 25 years of age and went to the hospital. The doctor told me that I had to give up something so I gave up seminary.
Becoming full-time in my focus on the church was a great relief. I looked forward to investing myself in the work. Of course we prayed, but mostly for God to bless our plan. I was enjoying the work and achieving some success. We were reaching new people, baptizing new believers, increasing our budget, and I was elected secretary of our local pastors conference composed of over 90 churches, at age 27. And I joined the Lions Club.
I still had a problem; it was me. I soon ran out of grace. I preached a year from the book of Revelation, 6 months from the book of Daniel, and about 3 months from Ezekiel before I realized my weakness on many fronts. One thing I realized as I preached through the book of Acts, was that what I saw in the Bible was not what I saw in the church or in me. The Lord seemed to say, “If you had it, they would have had it by now.” For all that I thought I knew, I knew very little about the Holy Spirit.
I was dry, and the church was dry, so dry that people came but would not come to the altar. I could say, “If you love your mother, come to the altar,” no one would come. We had a revival meetings, but no revival. I was filling the building with empty people, yet increasing the size of our auditorium and building a new educational building. Our building contractor was a spiritual man, and I had worked for him in my teens. One day he brought me a book on the Life of Charles G. Finney. Finney preached in the mid-1800’s and influenced the Second Great Awakening.
Finney described his conversion and his baptism in the Holy Spirit vividly; I was awed. Dad had often quoted Finney, now I knew why. Finney and his close friend “Father Nash” were heavily invested in prayer and the power of God. The effect upon me was seminal. I began to search and hunger in a new way.
I have often been amazed at how events seem to come together to provide clues to God’s purpose. And I have been amazed at how many clues I have missed due to my insensitivity and “driven” personality.
Shortly after reading Finney’s book, a mutual friend told me, “Ken Sumrall has gone Holy Roller.” Ken and I met back in seminary and became close friends, and we had exchanged pulpits. When we first met, he was working on a second Master’s degree. Earlier he had graduated from Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Bob Jones was no place for Pentecostalism!
I had spoken at Ken’s church in Pensacola, a 900 member Southern Baptist Church. I discovered that he had been fired and started a small group in a store front in Brownsville, a suburb of Pensacola. His chapel was next door to a liquor store. I decided to visit because he was a close friend.
It is difficult to describe something you have never seen before. I had previously visited a Pentecostal church, because one of our members invited me to a revival service in Mobile. That meeting was not wild, the music was fervent, but fine. The evangelist though sincere, seemed too caught up in his own emotion for my taste, but I was neither impressed or “put off.” But this meeting would be different than any I could recall.
The “store front” was not in an impressive area and was next door to a liquor store. As I entered the room, the lights were low except for the altar area. It was a weekday morning prayer meeting and the group of perhaps 25 were primarily women. I sat down in the back.
It was difficult to know who was leading; it was quiet, casual, and spontaneous. Eventually someone prayed aloud; after awhile someone led a chorus; at some point someone gave “a word.” I can’t recall anything Ken said. I sat trying to read my Bible in the dim light. It seemed like a Quaker meeting with no “quaking.” However, I did sense the presence of God and a sense of waiting on Him and seeking Him. That was where I was, too.
Eventually, the meeting ended and I stepped out in the bright sunlight and realized that I had been there more than 4 hours! I resolved to return.
The following week, I skipped Lions Club again and drove to Pensacola in expectation. The meeting was much the same as the previous week and I sat a little closer. As I sat reading my Bible, I found myself reading Romans 14:17: verses 17, “The Kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost” (KJV). As I read “joy in the Holy Ghost,” I chuckled. Then I heard a woman’s voice, “He is going to get it laughing.” I turned to see two ladies behind me praying.
I wasn’t sure what “get it” meant or what it might look like. I excused myself to avoid embarrassment, and looked around to see if there was another room where I could pray privately. There was none. I spied a small petition in a back corner near the door and went to it. It was not as high as my head nor did it go all the way to the floor, so I bent over to pray. It was like bending over to take a shower except it was not water, it was the Holy Spirit!
I started to beg God for the Holy Spirit, but the words that came out were “Praise God” over and over! Then I began to laugh. I don’t know how long I was behind the petition but as I began to walk back toward the group, someone began to sing the old hymn “Higher Ground.” I knew it well and joined in. “Lord lift me up and let me stand, by faith on heavens table land, a higher plane than I have found, Lord plant my feet on higher ground.”
The second verse was especially relevant: “My heart has no desire to stay where doubts arise and fears dismay, though some may dwell where these abound, my prayer, my aim is higher ground.”
Then, another lady began a rather lengthy utterance in a language I did not know. I knew from scripture that an interpretation had to follow. As I contemplated that, without warning, I began to prophesy that there would come a great revival around the world. I felt the power of God upon me, and as I concluded, I said, “Thus saith the Lord!” My mind said, “He did?” My spirit answered, “He did!”
I knew nothing of a great revival or how to prophesy. All of this had moved beyond me or anything I could have imagined.
Finally, the meeting ended. Ken and I had lunch and discussed what was happening. He had encouraged me to allow the Holy Spirit to speak through me in a tongue. I had thought of several words that sounded Hebrew, which I had studied, but was not quite ready. I knew that I could avoid a lot trouble if I did not speak in tongues; that would come later. I did not believe that the experience and the expression of “tongues” had to be together.
On my way home, I had a lot of questions as to what might occur next. Carolyn and I had a new baby boy. Would I be fired like Ken was? What would I tell her? She grew up in a rather formal Baptist church. She was a quiet lady with a peaceful spirit. Her father was a physician, her mother a nurse. Her paternal grand-parents’ home was virtually library with hundreds if not thousands of books. They were intelligent believers, cautious about emotions. Would I be rejected by my denomination that had educated and honored me? Those were all serious questions.
It was April of 1964 when I was baptized in the Holy Spirit. I was born in April, born again in April, and committed to the ministry in April. Each event had been preceded by serious struggle, sometimes life and death. It was April again.
Our nation was in a struggle as well. The 1960’s brought a lot of division and chaos. President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Later his brother Robert, attorney general, was assassinated. Then Martin Luther King was assassinated. The Vietnam War began and with it, war protests along with civil rights protests. There were campus riots and later the Kent State University massacre, students who were killed while confronting the National Guard. The Hippie culture, free love, drugs, and the generation gap were in full bloom. Communism and revolution were spreading across the world. It was tough time to be a political leader standing in the midst of division and chaos. Ministry was also being affected by liberal theology and the effort to somehow reach beyond the growing distance between religion and culture. Then there was the removal of public school Bible study and prayer and the institution of legal abortion. There wasn’t much good news.
Fortunately, there were small groups of people gathering to pray and share their experience. Women gathered to pray for husbands and children. Businessmen gathered to pray. One such group was Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship that had influenced my friend, Ken. But there were many gatherings in homes, restaurants, and hotels.
I did not realize, nor did most Christians, that this would be the context for a revival. The forest was very dry, then lightning struck.
Back in the Pulpit
When I returned home from Pensacola, I didn’t tell Carolyn the whole story. I wanted her to see, and she needed to see if it was all real.
The following Sunday, I preached with new passion. The church had been as dry as I was. We were in an upwardly Mobile community, suburbanites. Our, worship leader was vice president of a bank, our finance chairman was vice president of our areas largest bank. Another deacon managed a large industry, but we were very dry with successful programs yet dry spiritually.
I could put a $100 bill on the altar but no one would have come there to get it! I could say, “If you love your mother, come to the altar,” but no one would move. But this Sunday would be different. People surged to the altar before I concluded my message. I thought that they misunderstood the message on the need for a spiritual baptism. Many were weeping. One lady said after the meeting, “I don’t know where you have been, but I want to go there!” She did.
After the service was over, Carolyn, our new baby boy and I, drove the 7 miles to have Sunday lunch with mom and dad. As usual, dad called on me to pray over the food. I don’t know what I prayed but it became quiet around the table as we ate. After the meal, dad invited me back to their bedroom. That is what he did when I was young and he had correction in mind. So I went. Dad had a serious look, beady blue eyes, and premature grey hair.
“Charles, you have somehow gotten into the spiritual world, and I don’t know how, but you did. I am your father; can I tell you something?”
“You have just gotten there but the devil has been there since before time. So, just don’t get to thinking that you are smart, ok?”
“Yes, Dad. I won’t.”
It would be years before he would tell me his full story, but I know that he knew something that I did not. I knew that he loved me, was not trying to discourage me, but he had given me some sound advice about spiritual pride.
For a season the church grew, but as some people contemplated the introduction of “Pentecostalism,” they left. There had been no fanaticism or even demonstrations of any kind, but a lot more fervor. There were those being filled with the Holy Spirit in prayer meetings and I could not keep that quiet and didn’t want to. Soon, 7 out of 9 deacons resigned. An unofficial meeting was called by critics to vote on my tenure, but even in that meeting, my tenure was secure. Later in an official business meeting, the overwhelming majority voted for me to remain. But still, there were concerns, and rather than vote me out, about 150 people just left. We roped off the back pews. I was saddened to see friends that I loved depart. But as they went out stories went with them.
The church began to grow again and pruning does that. As criticism and testimonies spread, people came to see for themselves as I had done with Ken. But the growth was unlike anything I might have expected. This was South Alabama in 1965, and the Hippie culture was growing in our area, so hippies came. People who wore sunglasses at night came. In segregated Alabama, African Americans came. Interracial marriages came. Liberals and conservatives came. Both the poor and successful came and to my surprise, nuns came to a Southern Baptist church!
Due to our early experience with the Catholics in South Louisiana where dad and mom did mission work, I had no fondness for Catholics. Now, nuns were coming. I was invited to speak at Spring Hill College, a local Jesuit College. Then I was invited to speak at a local Catholic high school. I couldn’t understand what was happening!
One of the most surprising things was the guru who came, the addicts who came, those in immoral lifestyles, lesbians came and at least one prostitute. Slowly, I began to realize that Jesus loved everybody, a big change from my fundamentalist mentality! I did not have to approve, but I did need to love.
I have given some of my early story in order to give an example of what revival looked like in my life, our church and the world. My main purpose is to point to what another revival might look like.
Every revival is different in how it happens, its scope and major thrust. Revival is not an end but a means to God’s unfolding purpose. Like waves, revivals purify the water, bring the dead sea-life and trash to the beach. Waves also flow back to fight the next wave with undertow, and they influence the next wave.
The “Charistmatic wave” was certainly influenced by previous revivals. I was influenced by George Whitfield of the First Great Awakening and Charles G. Finney of the Second Great Awakening. Pentecostals, Latter Rain, the Healing Movement each influenced the Charismatic Movement. The Welch Revival, the Shantung Revival and the Hebrides Revival had their influence as well.
I personally interviewed participants in the China Shantung Revival and the Scottish Hebrides Revival. Both were powerful and influenced my thinking after receiving my own baptism in the Holy Spirit. There are common principles in all true revivals but each revival is unique in its purpose. I would like to share some commonalities from my own perspective that might be helpful and hopeful. I am no expert or even historian of revival, just a grateful participant.
Common Principles of Revival
Cultural and Church Decline
We could deal with those separately but they often go together. When the culture decays, churches can shine brighter but often do not. The great revivals come when the nation and the church are dry, not only dry but decadent and facing great difficulty. Some revivals occur near or during wars, military or just culture wars. This was true in both American Great Awakenings. The conditions seem to awaken people to the situation. Some will fight about it, others will began to seek God.
Hungering and Thirsting
There is much Scripture about hunger and thirst. Jesus clearly linked the blessing to both those desperate conditions: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Revival is not planned or forced. God must be seriously sought. It takes fire to light a torch. Routine praying is good, but “not enough.” That seems to be why Jesus came for the poor, needy, captives, and those whose lives had become ashes; they were thirsty. Comfort and self-satisfaction will not motivate. Real humility is absolutely essential. (2 Chronicles 7:14) Humility is to begin with God’s people. Humility is realizing that – I AM the Problem.
When people seek God and find Him, He points out their problem, whatever it is – and it could be multipled problems. Repentance means grief over the way God sees it and deep concern for where our path has led or might lead. Therefore it means a change of direction and a commitment to follow Him – regardless. That will require humility, flexibility, and certainly change. Any message of accommodation without change, or without repentance will not bring revival. Change will require courage to face the conflict with the status quo. That is why desperate people are more likely to see revival; they have nothing to lose.
It takes power to lift the rocket – the bigger the rocket and payload, the more power is required. Quiet prayer may bring revival, but revival will not remain quiet! Noise will not produce revivals but revivals will make noise! Music will not bring revival but revivals will create new music. Preaching itself will not create revival – if it did, we would be in the Millennium by now. But revival will create powerful preaching.
If revival is about anything, it is about replacing our frail power with His mighty power! His power reverberates with sound and light into the darkness. It blows away opposition and structures built on sandy foundations! It is like a tidal wave hitting the beach.
While there is a destructive side to revival as it clears away the sin and problems. God’s purpose is to renew and rebuild in a better way. Some revivals are called “renewals.” It is my conviction that every true revival renews our love of Holy Scripture and our dependence upon Holy Spirit’s guidance. Foundation builders and various gifts are called forth in revival. These are not simply intelligent, “gifted people,” they are spiritually skilled like Bezalel (See Exodus 31:1-6. Bezalel means “in the shadow of God.” Bezalel builds as God overshadows him.
Revivals are usually like the large net cast into the sea that gathers all kinds of ocean life. When my father was a missionary in the swamps and bayous of South Louisiana, one group with whom he worked were some Filipinos who shrimped and fished for a living. You could only get to their village by boat. Sometimes a shrimp boat would drag a 1,800 foot long net (seine). That is 6 football fields long! All kinds of fish, shrimp and even debris would be hauled up to the boat. All of that had to be sorted, and that can take some time. Finally, what is desirable to the shrimpers remains.
It takes some time to sort out what has happened and some things will remain. One of the most difficult things for me was to see those who had enthusiastically participated then leave or be overcome by some issue. But eventually revivals do “sort out,” stabilize, and deposit some truth or mission to the larger Church and its history. Unfortunately, that truth can become a wall between the revivalist and the rest of the body of Christ. But unity in the Holy Spirit will enable us to receive and contribute to one another. This was Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21.
Not all revivals create systems, but many have. Because other believers want to label a particular emphasis of that revival and the revivalist rally around it, labels become walls. Hence we have denominations which are labeled groups with their own history, methods, officials, and rules. This is understandable and most denominations have made great contributions in missions, hospitals, schools, and ministries to the needy. But we are now facing a time when faith in Jesus by whatever group, is under attack. Will another revival raise the tide over the walls and open the ocean to us all? Will Jesus’ prayer finally be answered? Will we see the book of Acts again? I certainly pray so!
Much of this article has been personal in order to help you understand my perspective and hopefully how revival often happened in the 1960s and 1970s. But my desire is that God would move once again in His power, which we so desperately need. There is a lot more to my story. As I write this letter, I am nearing 85 years of age. There were more battles, more mistakes, and more “showers of blessings.” All of those stories are beyond my purpose here. But where are we now?
The Covid virus has done a lot of damage added to all kinds of other serious issues, including division. People, especially the young are losing trust – our most valuable possession. They are losing it in parents, churches, government, and education. No, not all, but too many youth are. Older people, like myself are seeing the legacy they worked hard to build, being rejected and that is extremely sad. The culture itself seems to be walking away from its history and heritage.
I know a realtor who specializes in selling church buildings that are only attended by the elderly, and property cannot be maintained. Sure, there are some mega churches, but cultural decline has continued. Many pastors are leaving the ministry that years ago seemed wanted and successful. Fewer young ministers are stepping into that gap. I know if churches searching for a suitable pastor without success.
Many churches are trying new methods to produce church growth and some are having success, but many are not. The denomination in which I grew up was the fastest growing in the world, but has not grown in recent years. Last year it lost over 400,000 members. Buildings once alive with growth are now empty and for sale.
Is it time to seek the Lord while He is yet near? I believe so! Having seen revival and interviewing those who were in earlier revivals, Heaven-sent revival is like a warm shower after working hard, getting dirty and sweaty. We and our nation need a cleansing, a bath that only God can give and I join you to pray that He will.