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Fifty years (and more) of the charismatic movement

23 February 2010

For the last ten days or so I’ve been working flat out on the History of the Charismatic Renewal Movement project, and it seemed that this post and the ones it refers to, were well timed:

What Now, Charismatics?” and, more to the point of this post, “Charismatic Boons and Busts“, where he evaluates, as the title suggests, the good and the bad of the charismatic movement.

By way of summary, he offers the following mirrored commendations and critiques:

  1. Boon: More focus, both theological and practical, on the person and work of the Holy Spirit; Bust: A lot of bad theology of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Boon: An outburst in compassion ministry; Bust: Personality cults.
  3. Boon: An increase in “lay ministry”; Bust: The “Prophetic Movement”, where certain people are always prophesying/projecting “the next big thing”.
  4. Boon: Worship music; Bust: Worship music.

In South Africa the heyday of the charismatic renewal movement was the 1970s and 1980s. There has been a considerable decline since then. In trying to get information for the history, some of the people I’ve asked have said “it was before my time”, but they think they may be able to put me in touch with someone who remembers it.

Americans tend to put the beginning of the movement in Van Nuys, California in 1960, where an Episcopalian priest, Dennis Bennett, was ‘baptised in the Holy Spirit’. In South Africa we can put the beginning 16 years earlier, in 1944, in Zululand, where an Anglican priest, Philip Mbatha, had a similar experience. Four years later Philip Mbatha and another priest, Alpheus Zulu (who later became Bishop of Zululand) founded the Iviyo loFakazi bakaKristu — the Legion of Christ’s Witnesses. Its aim wasn’t to promote charismatic gifts, but rather Christian proficiency — living a disciplined Christian life of prayer, fasting, sacraments, Bible reading, confession and evangelism. And as people did these things the spiritual gifts (charismata, from which the movement gets its name) appeared among them.

Outside Zululand the movement appeared later, in various denominations, and in many places it was influenced by Dennis Bennett, whose tapes were duplicated and circulated. Though in one Anglican parish, the predominently coloured parish of St Gabriel’s, Wentworth, near Durban, when things started happening they cut themselves off. They wanted to be sure that was was happening was coming from God, and not from America via tapes and books.

One of the factors in its rise and fall was a now-obsolete technological invention, the cassette tape recorder. It’s interesting the part that technology plays in church history. Church historians note that Christianity spread and took root because of when and where it started — Roman roads, the Greek lingua franca, and Hebrew religion met at the right place and time for the spread. And when the expansion of Islam blocked the further expansion of Christianity to the east and the south, the magnetic compass and improved ship-building techniques made it possible for missionaries to by-pass the Islamic lands by sea.

And so cassette tape recorders, which were becoming popular in the late 1960s, played a huge role in the spread of the charismatic movement. The problem, however, and one of the “Busts” listed above, is that the “prophetic movement” and the “personality cuilts” spread in exactly the same way, and after about 1980 this became a disintegrating force. There were hundreds of “ministries” usually bearing the name of the founder (and it wasn’t Jesus, it was names like “Joe Bloggs Ministries”). And they propounded their new teachings, and kept having to come up with new things and new “moves of God”. And people listened to these tapes too, and their contradictory teachings.

One of the ones I’ve discovered fairly recently is that some people in the Catholic charismatic renewal seem to be very interested in Vassula Ryden, who recently visited South Africa and spoke at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Johannesburg. She claims to have been brought up as an Orthodox Christian, but the Orthodox Church has considerably more reservations about her teachings than the Roman Catholic Church does. Her teachings appear to be more along the lines of the New Age movement than Christian, and she claims that they come from the “Angel Daniel”. As far as I know, the only “Angel Daniel” known to Christian tradition was a fallen angel, mentioned in the Ethiopic Book of Enoch. And that’s just one example of the way in which prophetism and personality cults have led to the decline of the charismatic movement. Perhaps the people of St Gabriel’s, Wentworth, had the right idea.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 February 2010 5:11 am

    Having grown up in the Charismatic movement (albeit in the US), I agree with your assessment of the boons and busts. As I still have parents and friends in the Charismatic movement, I get tired of hearing about the latest move of God. For Someone who is omnipresent, He sure is on the move a lot.

    As for the last bit, when someone gets their teachings from an angel. I assume they’ve already fallen off the theological wagon. Interesting info about fallen angel Daniel in the Book of Enoch.

    • Colin LaVergne permalink
      24 February 2010 6:46 am

      Fr. Dennis Bennett was influential in the beginnings of the modern charismatic movement in the sense of denominational Christians getting baptized in the Spirit and staying in their churches. Prior to him, most left to join Pentecostal churches. However, he was not directly involved in starting the Catholic charismatic renewal, although many Catholics went to his church in Seattle and were baptized in the Spirit and at his urging were sent back to their Catholic parishes to bring the Renewal to the Catholic Church. It was a small group of his church members who helped Fr. Fulton start the first Catholic Charismatic prayer group in Seattle in 1968.

  2. 23 February 2010 5:11 pm

    Thanks for mentioning the cassette tape. I was thinking about spending some time on it myself. There is simply no way to describe the massive influence of this little invention. Not only was it an inexpensive way to spread teaching, but it also became the key vehicle for everyday people to record the tremendous number of new worship songs and choruses that were bursting forth at the time.

    Father Rick Thomas of “Viva Cristo Rey” fame recalls that it was the taping of a prophecy (on cassette, of course) given by one of the Sisters in their little prayer community that inspired them to begin serving the poor across the border in Mexico, starting with an Easter feed in the city dump. From there, a full-fledged renewal/revival broke out, as chronicled by the “Viva Cristo Rey” documentary — thanks to the help of the lowly cassette!

  3. Colin LaVergne permalink
    24 February 2010 6:53 am

    While there are some Catholic charismatics in the U.S. who are impressed with Vassula, there are no leaders that I am aware of who propose her teachings. The CCR leaders I know think of her as a deceived individual.

    The prophetic movement has had some impact in the CCR but has not significantly affected mainstream CCR. The closest the CCR in the U.S. came was to have John Wimber speak at one of the national conferences. But that was more intended to highlight the ‘signs and wonders’ approach he fostered.

    In the 80’s, there was some on-going contact between the Kansas City Prophets and Ralph Martin, but that fizzled out after a short time. Ralph has found the lives of the saints to provide a much firmer foundation for building a spiritual life and has written and spoken extensively on that in recent years.

  4. 26 February 2010 3:37 am

    Hi Steve. Do you know if the (possible) Zululand charismatic activity beginning in 1944 is related in any way to David Du Plessis

    • 26 February 2010 4:15 am

      Fr Orthohippo

      No, it wasn’t related to David du Plessis at that stage, though he had a fair bit to do with the spread of the charismatic renewal in other parts of South Africa in the 1970s.

  5. 26 February 2010 10:43 am

    G’day, Steve (from Oz)!

    I stumbled upon your piece on the Charismatic Renewal, and thought you might be interested in an article I wrote on the same in Australia. I suspect similar processes happened ion your country. The article is here:

    May the Lord bless you.

    • 26 February 2010 1:46 pm

      David Chislett

      Very interesting article indeed. And yes, the parallels between Oz and RSA are very clear.

      The point you make about music is especially true. When I became Orthodox the Western charismatics were all singing scripture, and some of it would have fitted well with Orthodox Liturgy — in fact we even sang some in our Orthodox Church at Theophany “Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation” as people we goign up to get blees water from the font.

      But recently I came into contact with the Western scene, and it did all seem rather sentimental. And it wasn’t called music, it was called “worship”.

  6. 26 February 2010 3:57 pm

    Hi Steve. Good article and responses. I also spent time in the charismatic renewal, and for six years was a district head in The Word of God Ann Arbor community in the 1970s-1980s.

    May I have permission to reprint, with credits of course, this article?

    • 26 February 2010 9:59 pm

      It would be interesting to know more about your experience in Ann Arbor.

      Reprint, sure, but it might be better to quote a bit and link, and then add your own comments, as I have done to the articles linked to above.

  7. 26 February 2010 10:43 pm

    Thanks. I’ll probably do some, including your description of yourself. I enjoy thoughtful differences in Christians.
    As for our experiences, I have done a bit of posting about them. June 4, 2009 “cultural blinders primer” is the start of a 4 part series. Any cultural blinders post will contain some as well [].
    I’ll have to make sure I know how to link. At 71, it takes me a while to learn this newfangled technology.

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