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The rise and fall of the charismatic renewal movement

19 September 2009

A couple of years ago I embarked on a research project to try to chart the history of the charismatic renewal movement in southern African Christianity. It seemed to me that its influence and aftermath had been underplayed in much of the church history I had read, and that if it wern’t recorded, many things that happened would be difficult to understand.

My research has got bogged down, mainly because of the difficulty of making contact with people who had reliable information about it, and then even when I did make contact, people were reluctant to say anything about it. One church historian I asked about it would not say anything, because it was “divisive”.

I was able to get some responses from some Anglicans, but nothing so far from Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Lutherans or Roman Catholics (my research is mainly focused on non-Pentecostal denominations). They have either refused to give information, or ignored all attempts to contact them, or I haven’t been able to locate and make contact with the people concerned.

Some of the Catholics I knew who were involved in KwaZulu-Natal were Fr George Purves and Fr Ignatius Heer. There was Bea Gallow who had a prayer group in her home. There was Cliff de Gersigny, who published the newsletter Dove Tale with news of charismatic renewal groups of all denominations, though he later left the Roman Catholic Church and joined a Neopentecostal group. But in his RC days there was a monthly charismatic Mass at the Catholic Church in Kloof that drew people from as far away as Eshowe. There was Wilson Dunn, who had prayer meetings at his farm near Stanger, and several others. If anyone reading this knows how to contact any of them, or knows anything about these or similar activities, I hope they will let me know.

There was also a “Bluff Group” of clergy (of various denominations) who were involved in the charismatic renewal. Two of the Presbyterians who were involved were Charlie Gordon of Durban North and Gus Hunter of the Bluff. Is there anyone who attended any of those meetings, and remembers what went on at them?

I haven’t managed to collect enough material for a book, but there’s enough for an article and a couple of blog posts, so perhaps I should start with those.

Also, hat-tip to Fr David MacGregor, there is a new book, which while not directly related to the charismatic renewal in South Africa, undoubtedly has some bearing on it.

Days of Fire and Glory:The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community Days of Fire and Glory:The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community by Julia Duin

And there is a review of it at VirtueOnline – News – Reformation, Renewal and Revival – Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community:

‘Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community’ is the story of God, sex and power, how a huge 20th century religious experiment in the life of one cleric led to the rise and fall of many. The author, Julia Duin, is the award-winning religion editor of the Washington Times and the author of five books. She worked for the Houston Chronicle from 1986-1990.

Her book traces the journey of Graham Pulkingham, an Episcopal priest who led Church of the Redeemer, one of the nation’s fastest growing and most vibrant churches in a Houston slum and left a legacy that lasts to this day. He held thousands spellbound with his Gospel preaching and influenced millions with his daring vision of a compelling, charismatic Christianity made visible by a system of worldwide communities. Yet, Pulkingham hid from his followers a dark double life that he at first resisted, then secretly pursued and finally allowed to twist his personal theology into a gordian knot of accommodation and self-deceit and finally death.

Father Michael Harper, now an Orthodox priest in the UK, wrote a book about this parish and its communities in its glory days (Harper, Michael. 1974. A new way of living. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN: 0-340-19147-3). Those who are interested in the new monasticism should probably read this book, or both these books.

As Fr David MacGregor says, he and others from South Africa visited the Church of the Redeemer in Houston. Books about it were quite widely read in South Africa, and some of the factors that were at play in that situation influenced South Africa too, and they are still relevant today.  Here I will mention just one of the factors mentioned in the review

Things began to unravel in the mid 1970s after CBS’s laudatory hour-long special in 1972 drew overflow crowds, overwhelming the church and its households. Pulkingham traveled to England to extend his influence by planting communities there, but left a cadre of authoritarian elders ruling the church in his absence. These elders began implementing the principles of a ruinous “discipleship movement” that was also sweeping contemporary Christianity – and devastating lives. The top elder at Redeemer was caught in adultery and the unrelated Jim Jones Guyana tragedy cast a pall over the notion of communal living. The household communities rapidly split up and even though Pulkingham moved back into 1980 to fix up the place, it was too late.

Today there is much talk of “a missional ecclesiology”, with the indefinite article implying that there could be more than one ecclesiology. And here is a a case in point, where people tried to cobble together different ideas about ecclesiology without really thinking about what they were doing. It is worth remembering that eclectic theology (which includes ecclesiology) is diametrically opposed to holistic, that is, catholic theology. There were Anglican parishes in South Africa that introduced these “elders” too, without apparently thinking about it theologically or ecclesiologically, and I suspect that this was one of the factors in the decline of the charismatic renewal movement here.

I won’t dwell much on the sexual sins, though they undoubtedly played a part, but that is universal, and not confined to this situation. Christian ministry everywhere, and in all circumstances, is hampered by temptations to sexual sins, embezzlement and drunkenness, not to mention the things that are harder to pin down, like pride, anger and arrogance. Those are universal, and not peculiar to any particular movement. All are tempted, some fall. Of those who fall, some repent, and some try to justify their sin, and fall still further. That canhappen anywherel.

The problem with the charismatic renewal movement is not that some of those involved in it fell into these sins, because the same thing happened and happens to many outside it. Part of the problem was perhaps just the opposite — that the charismatic renewal movement to some extent absorbed or inherited theological ideas of instant sanctification that misled people into thinking that they were somehow made immune to sin and temptation by the baptism in the Holy Spirit, and so the way to repentance was made very much more difficult for them. They were led into what in Orthodox theology is called prelest or plani, spiritual delusion. And in the charismatic renewal movement it was perhaps the notion of a spiritual shortcut that led to the downfall of many.

The communal living practised by many members of the Church of the Redeemer in Houston was an inspiration to many, and were similar to the ideas of a “new monasticism” that people still talk about today. This is why those interested in new monasticism should pay attention to the experience of the Church fo the Redeemer, and see what can be learned from it.

As far as my own research into the charismatic renewal movement in South Africa is concerned, I’ve gathered enough to formulate a thesis, or produce a scenario, but it needs more research to be able to confirm it.

The charismatic renewal movement appeared in the non-Pentecostal Christian denominations in southern Africa after about 1950, but its real growth occurred towards the end of the 1960s, and by the 1970s it was one of the most influential movements in southern African Christianity. Central to it was a spiritual experience that was variously termed “being baptised in the Holy Spirit”, “being filled with the Holy Spirit” or “being renewed in the Holy Spirit”, depending on the theological interpretation given to it.

With the experience was coupled the idea that the gifts (charismata in Greek, sometimes Anglicised to “charisms”) of the Holy Spirit were available to all Christians. Those who were baptised in the Spirit were thereby empowered to exercise these spiritual gifts. The problem with Christians, and the weakness of the church, was caused by too many Christians trying to do God’s work in their own strength and not in the power of the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit was avalable to all, there was no ro0om for passengers in the church, all were members of the crew; or, to use another metaphor, there was no room for spectators, all were players, members of the team.

This, however, led to some negative responses. There were many Christians who actually liked being spectators. They preferred to be passengers. They were suspicious of “enthusiasm”, and regarded the “charismatics” as dangerous fanatics who were rocking the boat. They accused the “charismatics” of arrogance, and regarding themselves as first-class Christians and the rest as second-class Christians. And the charismatics in turn regarded the “passengers” as shirkers who were unwilling to pull their weight. As one charismatic preacher once put it, “the church is like a football match — twenty thousand people who desperately need exercise watching twenty-two people who desperately need rest” (Juan Carlos Ortiz).

The charismatic renewal started independently in many different places, not just in southern Africa, but throughout the world. In some places it was influenced by classical Pentecostals. People who experienced “baptism in the Spirit” would turn to Pentecostals to help them to interpret their experience if there was no one in their own denomination who could help them. In Zululand Anglicans who followed a rule of life developed by a religious order for its lay associates began speaking in tongues, and their fellow Anglicans accused them of being Zionists. Speaking in tonges (glossolia) was quite a common feature of the charismatic movement, but unlike the classical Pentecostals, the charismatics did not regard it as a rigid doctrine: that speaking in tongues was the “initial evidence” of being baptised in the Holy Spirit.

In the non-Pentecostal denominations the charismatic renewal went along with two other movements. Godfrey Ashby, an Old Testament lecturer at Rhodes University, and later Dean of Grahamstown Anglican Cathedral, said that there were three movements that were renewing the life of the Anglican Diocese of Grahamstown in the 1970s — Group Dynamics, Challenge Groups, and the Charismatic Renewal. Where they worked together in synergy it was good, but there were problems when they worked at cross-purposes.

I would say that without understanding these three movements and their interaction, one would be missing several important factors in the history of Christianity in southern Africa. In the Anglican form, for which I have most data, Group Dynamics, also referred to as “sensitivity training” or “T-groups”, or just “Christian Education” swept the Anglican Church in the 1960s (like the charismatic renewal, among Anglicans it started in Zululand, where the two movements were closely linked). It was regarded with suspicion by the government of the day, because it promoted racial mixing, and a government commission of inquiry was set up to investigate it, among other things. It was not confined to Anglicans; Methodists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Congregationalists and others also became involved in it.

“Challenge Groups” was a peculiarly Anglican name for something that appeared under other names in other denominations. In 1970 the World Council of Churches (WCC) set up a Programme to Combat Racism (PCR), which, though it had a worldwide remit, had a particular focus on South Africa. The South African member churches of the WCC, somewhat miffed that they had not been consulted about the setting up of the Programme to Combat Racism, scurried to set up their own programmes, which the Anglicans called the Human Relations and Reconciliation Programme (HR&R). This involved setting up groups to challenge instances of racism in the church (hence the name “Challenge Groups”). Other denominations set up similar programmes under different names, such as “Justice and Peace” or “Justice and Reconciliation”.

The charismatic renewal was a worldwide phenomenon, however, and soon the renewal in South Africa was soon influenced by what as happening in other countries. Books were published, like those that described what was happening in the Church of the Redeemer in Houston. South African groups and churches began inviting overseas speakers (the Anglican diocese of Zululand, for example, invited Juan Carlos Ortiz of Argentina). There was no Internet in the 1970s, certainly not in South Africa, but audio cassette tapes circulated widely, and were listened to in prayer groups and by people travelling by car. Video tapes were also used, but to a lesser extent. Audio tapes were much more easily and quickly duplicated.

In 1977 a national charismatic renewal conference was held at Milner Park, Johannesburg. Several thousand people attended, and the national and international speakers became household names. In 1979 the South African Christian Leadership Assembly (SACLA) was held in Pretoria, attended by about 5000 people from all over the country. Though it wasn’t specifically billed as a “charismatic” event, probably a third to half the people who attended had been involved, at least to some extent, in the charismatic renewal movment. It was probably the high point of the charismatic renewal movement in South Africa, the pinnacle of its growth and influence for good. After that, things began to go pear-shaped.

A second charismatic renewal conference was held in 1980. Those who had attended it and the 1977 one reported that they were disappointed. Those who only attended the 1980 one were generally happy with it. The ones who had attended the previous conference or SACLA, or both, were disappointed.

This is where more research is needed. My evidence is anecdotal, impressionistic, enough to form a thesis or suggest a scenario, but not for established conclusions.

People who attended the 1980 conference said that there was less unity. They reported a feeling that there was rivalry among the speakers, that some of the speakers were trying to promote themselves and put the others down.

After the conference, this became more open. The ones who were promoting themselves had “ministries”. One example is “Derek Prince Ministries”, but there were many others. “Ministry” was not what it meant in other Christian circles. It was more like a business or a company. The spirit of ecclesiastical entrepreneurship moved into the charismatic renewal, and the entrepreneurs tried to carve it up into captive markets. In South Africa this led to the formation of several Neopentecostal megachurches (not all of them had been formed in this way,  some of them had been formed independently earlier, like the Rhema Bible Church). Sometimes the leaders called themselves, or thought of themselves as apostles, though most preferred the title “Pastor”. But there could be no such thing as twelve apostles. There must be one leader, one person in the driving seat, one Fuehrer.

I heard one of these leaders speak once, and afterwards I asked a question. He had been influenced by the “discipleship teaching” mentioned above, and was promoting that kind of leadership. I said I had reservations about it — wasn’t there a danger that we would be leading people to follow us instead of following Jesus? He quoted St Paul: be followers of me, as I am of Christ.” For him that settled it, but it didn’t for me.

Many of those with “ministries” also developed distinctive and novel teachings, so that they could have a unique “product” that the others didn’t have. These had names — prosperity teaching, faith teaching, disciple ship teaching, restoration teaching and so on. I’ve no doubt that many of those who came up with these “teachings” believed that they had had a unique and distinctive revelation from God, but the effect it seemed to have, all to often, was to make them see themselves as a uniquely God-appointed and anointed leader, and therefore one who deserved more followers than any other.

The rise and growth of “ministries” also coincided with the rise of the “religious right” in the USA, with which some of the “ministries” became associated, and whose views and sentiments begant to percolate into the audio and video tapes still listened to by many in South Africa.

Thereafter, many of the people with “ministries” only attended interdenominational meetings if they themselves had called them, and only called them if they saw an opportunity to steal sheep from other flocks. The charismatic renewal movement had been marked by cooperation between different denominations, but the cooperation was replaced by suspicion and people became more inward looking. Rivalry then appeared between the “charismatics” and “non-charismatics” within each denomination, and so the charismatics became a kind of party or interest group, and played ecclesiastical politics, trying to promote members of their party at the expense of those of other parties. They also came increaingly to be seen by non-charismatics as being linked to the “religious right” in the USA, and probably some of them had been influenced by those views as well. This in turn led to many charismatics who did not share these right-wing political views to dissociate themselves from the charismatic movement, and to say that it was time to “move on”.

This is a hugely oversimplified picture, of course, and it needs a lot more research to make it more accurate, or see if it is anywhere near accurate. Now if only someone would give me a research grant to pursue it!

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Dana Ames permalink
    19 September 2009 11:12 pm

    Good documentation of the North American stream of the charismatic movement, by Rob McAlpin, Canadian, now associated with YWAM in Mexico.

    I read it in digest form on his old blog a few years ago, before it got published.

    I was very interested to learn that Michael Harper had become Orthodox- came to my attention while I was on my journey into the church. He was a very good friend of John Wimber. I was involved in the Vineyard in S. California in the 1980s, so read what Harper was writing at that time, and knew about the Vineyards in S. Africa.


    • 21 September 2009 4:19 am


      Thanks for that. Unfortunately neither that book, nor the one I mentioned in my post, are in our university library, so I’ll have to save up to buy them.

      Michael Harper visited South Africa in his Anglican days, and we visited him in the UK a few days ago, since he became Orthodox.

      I have another thesis too, that many of the discoveries of the charismatic movement were things that had been in Orthodoxy all along, and even some of the new “teachings” were rediscoveries of things that had been dropped along the way, and the problem with them was not that they were wrong in themselves, but that they were pushed as the “only” thing, in isolation from the others. We can recognise, for example, in the “discipleship teaching” a grotesque distortion of the Orthodox understanding of spiritual eldership. And many of the spiritual entrepreneurs realised that something was wrong, something was missing, so they came up with the “teaching” of “covering” to make up for the lack of apostolic succession.

      • Dana Ames permalink
        22 September 2009 2:27 am

        I see what you mean. I’ve “been there and done that” with certain of those isolated elements. One of the things that has been most attractive to me about Orthodoxy is its “seamless wholeness”. My own experience was that each of those “separate” things eventually came to a dead end, or ran out of steam, or led to the fringes of Christianity rather than to the core.


  2. Philip Thomas permalink
    20 September 2009 5:23 pm


    I can’t comment on the southern African situation, but your ‘interim report’ raises interesting issues about theological interpretation.

    I’m provoked to say something now though by your reference, in the blog entry, to Graham Polkingham. I met him during his ‘glory days’ and recall a remark he made about charismatic renewal: when God does something new it is beautiful and then as people try to copy it, it becomes progressively more bland and even ugly.

    Quite apart from Polkingham’s subsequent history, I think that was a useful observation for viewing new religious movements in general. It goes with an earlier maxim – that the course of such movements tends to be ‘a man (it had to be a man in those days, even without the alliterative necessity) – a movement – a machine – a monument’.

    The theological principle this suggests to me is the contrast between flesh and spirit. And incidentally this perhaps put the stories of charismatic leaders’ feet of clay (of which there are many) into perspective. Nothing is either as good or as bad as it might be; human failings do not negate the grace of human potentialities; at the same time justified and sinners.

    Polkingham’s comment was made to try to overcome tensions between charismatics and ‘non-charismatics’. I think he accepted the suggestion that the renewal would reach maturity when it was no longer an issue in the church as to who was or was not a ‘charismatic’.
    And while it can perhaps be said that at present the charismatic renewal has become rather second-hand, degenerated from a movement into a bit of a machine, I think that a lot of the changes – many of them for the better – that have taken place in the main-line churches over the past 40 years have to some extent been influenced by charismatics.

    Philip Thomas

    • 20 September 2009 7:57 pm


      Thanks very much for that. A college friend of mine once said something similar about the Puritans. He said that they didn’t deserve their reputation as dour old killjoys, because actually they were very joyful. It was later generations who thought to recover the lost joy by imitating the things the Puritans did — if only we do the things that they did, we will experience the joy that they experienced. But it doesn’t work quite like that. You can’t reverse-engineer the power of God.

  3. LuceMichael permalink
    25 September 2009 8:37 pm

    that was informative and insightful. thank you.

  4. 3 March 2010 7:26 am

    I believe that the Holy Spirit was poured out in the 1960’s-70’s to bring those who named the name of Christ into the Holy Orthodox Faith. We saw the sell-out of the charismatics to the “Word of Faith” Gnostic cult, and the grab for money and fame. After prayer, the Holy Spirit gave us a “word of knowledge” with ” St.Irenaios” and the term “gnosticism” in large letters. That began our journey out of pentecostalism and into the Holy Orthodox Faith – the “original” pentecostal church! With St. Irenaios’ “Against Heresies”, we were able to expose the Gnostic heresy in Word-Faith teachings (our book “Christian Answers to Gnostic Charismatic Heresies”) and at the same time, discover the Ancient Faith. The teaching of Christ’s triumphant descent into Hades was the wonderful Answer to the Word-Faith’s blasphemous teaching about a “born-again jesus” ! Now, we have a Mission dedicated to telling our pentecostal friends about the fullness of the Christian Faith in Orthodoxy. Glory to God forever for His great mercy!

  5. Errol Narain permalink
    19 May 2010 4:59 am


    I am surprised that the flagstaff church, St. Gabriel’s in Wentworth does not get a mention. In the late 60s and early 70s, the experience of speaking in tongues by Ross Cuthbertson , the then Rector, catapulted the hierarchical, high Anglo-Catholic style of worship church , into the experience of what was then understood by the the members as the baptism of the Holy Spirit, later known as renewal, etc.

    The experience began in weekly Monday prayer meetings. The Spirit was initially experiencedd through the performance of an exorcism on one of the church members. Tongue- speaking/ singing in tongues was a regular occurrence during the prayer meetings. These meetings included much music from the Baptist (Sankey) hymns, reading the scriptures, and laityled sharing of understandings from these scriptures. A central emphasis in these meetings were prayers for healing.

    At a Diocesan synod, under the presidency of the Bishop Inman, a resolution was passed, accepting speaking in tongues as a valid expression of the presence of the Spirit . The local newspaper, the Natal Mercury, had a field day in reporting that during the deliberations, Ross Cuthbertson spoke in tongues, in earshot distance of Antony Perry (SSM).

    The historical context of this experience in a minority Coloured congregation must be noted. In the broader context, this was at the height of apartheid. St. Gabriel’s was mainly blue collared artisans.
    The need to be recognized and empowerment to play a part in an institution that preached equality was important. The institution by its organization as hierarchy did not help in these aspirations for self-esteem.

    The way the church was organized compounded the situation. Indigenous clergy not in abundance, mainly because of church policy. The liturgy and worship only included a few lay participants in the congregation. The greater number of the congregation was treated as cryogenic embryos. Lay people were not allowed to be creative fully participate in preaching, etc.

    The experience of the Spirit satisfied and fulfilled longings for immediate experience of the divine and participation more fully in the life of the church.

    The neighbor Pentecostal churches. smaller that St Gabriel’s, were thrilled and even began to welcome those who experienced the Spirit at St. Gabriel’s, as brothers and sisters. Very soon afterwards , the issue of water baptism reared it ugly head and the fellowship ties were quickly broken.

    St. Gabriel’s also collected various individuals from other places which included Northern Natal, Kloof, Bluff and many other Anglican churches in Natal. Roman Catholics, Baptists , Methodists and Congregationals, saw St. Gabriel’s as as oasis of refreshment and their churches as deserts. They visited regularly the Monday prayer meetings.
    These visitors kept their membership in their respective churches because they understood the experience of the Spirit as empowerment for their personal life and living, as well as apostolic witnesses to their churches.
    St. Gabriel’s led the way of Renewal in Natal, influencing Anglican churches as a whole or in part( individual members).

    The young adults and youth were a strong movement at St. Gabriel’s and the Diocese, shaping program and experience of the Spirit in the Diocese. The Renewal challenged the Sensitivity (Education) and Challenge programs in the Diocese, accusing them of putting horse before cart. Horse in this sense meant Spirit and cart meant human program. The Spirit, it was believed for transforming persons for the purpose transforming the world.
    Those involved in the Sensitivity and Challenge programs were seen as untransformed persons, prophets without spirit.

    I was one of the leaders among the young adult movement.

    Out of this movement, the Diocese since the Renewal has gained many clergy. St. Gabriel’s continues to produce clergy, local community priests or stipendiary ministers in the Diocese. These still believe that they are experiencing the Spirit.

    The Spirit in the Charismatic Movement has been merely an experience for worship. People’s lives were changed. This testimony of change gave rational for converting others to one’s doctrinal beliefs. This laid the foundation for the movement towards evangelical fundamentalism which puts belief before faith in the way of Jesus- compassion and love.

    Charismatics can be mean. The fruit of the Spirit since the movements beginning has not been lived out. This does not mean that it was not preached.

    Charismatics are mission minded. As such they aim to convert the minds of people to beliefs that often are aligned to modern conservative politics, materialism, disregard for the environment, etc.

    Charismatics are not missional. Those that are hurting and hoping in the world are not responded to in a timely fashion.

    These may be extreme comments but I believe the basic dichotomy between world and Spirit leads to a pious spirituality, divorced from reality. We need a prophetic spirituality in this postmodern era.

    In 1984/5 I wrote an article for the Natal Witness, entitled: Is God the Holy Spirit Racist.
    This is where I believed that movement in the institution had gone. The spirit or spirit experience was complacent and aligned itself with the center of power. The church resembled the State of Apartheid, especially when it came down to the question of leadership. The charismatic movement did now see this as a problem in the church.

    • 19 May 2010 10:37 am


      Thanks very much indeed for that.

      As an update, I should say that I have made contact with John de Gruchy, who sent me his unpublished manuscript, and I have been editing it and adding my own material to bring it up to date. St Gabriel’s is mentioned in it, but I’d like cot chat to you more by e-mail to get a bit more detail if you don’t mind.

      I’m also very interested in what you say about CELT and Challenge Groups. My impression was that in Zululand CELT and charismatic renewal were closely integrated, while in Natal they either went separate ways or clashed. What you say tends to confirm that, and I’d like to discuss that in more detail by e-mail too. I knew of St Gabriel’s when I was in Durban, and would have liked to have visited it, but was unable to do so because I was banned at the time and coloured/Indian areas were “out of bounds”.

      But thanks once again for this. It’s very interesting indeed.

  6. Lynn Church permalink
    24 June 2013 2:45 pm

    If you are still interested in finding any of the abovementioned people, I can assist with details about Bea Gallow. She’s mother-in-law to my sister and living in the United Kingdom. Email me if you’re interested and I can obtain Bea’s email address and or phone number in the UK.

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