Jonathan Ellsworth Perkins was an early Assemblies of God pastor who served from 1924-1926 at the “5th and Peoria” Assembly of God in Tulsa. Perkins was an important early leader who wrote The Brooding Presence, one of the first AG books on the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Perkins also served with Stanley Frodsham as Associate Editor for the Pentecostal Evangel for a time during this era.
Perkins was a passionate, and sometime controversial, early AG leader. Perkins had a bit of a temper that got him into numerous controversies and confrontations even with some of his fellow AG leaders. One such controversial encounter came before he joined the Pentecostal Movement.
In his testimony, Perkins shares the story of how the baptism in the Holy Spirit helped him confront his prejudice against people of color. A Methodist Episcopal pastor reared in Virginia by his Scottish parents, Perkins admits he was deeply prejudiced toward black Americans. This prejudice was evident when in 1909 Perkins was invited to a Pentecostal mission in Wichita, Kansas. When he arrived he noted that the Pentecostal service was integrated with both white and black attendees.
During the testimony service, the meeting went long and Pentecostal spirituality took over. Perkins became uncomfortable and deeply annoyed. He recalls in his testimony in the Pentecostal Evangel, “One old colored Auntie got up and began to praise God and soon gave hilarious vent to her religious ecstasy.” When things got even more raucous, Perkins felt the bitterness and prejudice stir up in him, and he stormed out, declaring, “I was not called upon to worship God with n_____s!”
Back at home, Perkins felt remorse for his outburst, but refused to return and apologize because he felt the leadership of the meeting was wrong for not keeping the “colored people” “where they belonged.” Little did he know that because of his act of bigotry, for the next fourteen years God would keep him from being exposed to the Pentecost message.
In 1923, Perkins became ill and was given Aimee Simple McPherson’s book about Pentecost. Reading her writings, he became hungry for the baptism in the Holy Spirit and for healing. It was then that a friend invited him to a service at her black Pentecostal mission on the north side of Wichita. When the pastor conducting the meeting found out Perkins was a minister, he asked him to preach, and surprisingly he agreed.
During his sermon, the irony of the moment got to him. This man who had rejected Pentecost because of a black woman’s experience was being asked to preach in a black Pentecostal camp meeting. In that moment, God convicted him and he admitted to the congregation his remorse over his prejudice and his own need for the baptism in the Spirit. He repented and that night received the baptism in the Spirit and spoke in tongues. He recalls, “I turned down the Pentecostal truth fourteen years before because of a black-skinned woman, but I had to wade through a whole campmeeting of them when I got the baptism. God surely broke me over the wheel of my prejudice.” Perkins continued to struggle with his temper and confrontational personality throughout his life. But in that struggle, the Holy Spirit confronted his prejudice against his black brothers and sisters.
I believe that Perkins’s story helps us discern where we are today as a society. There are many in America today that have discomfort over the black community discussing ideas like systemic racism and continued prejudice in our society. Some even want to silence the conversations all together. But that is a mistake, especially for Pentecostals. From the very beginning, the outpouring of the Spirit was a radical alternative to the culturally embedded prejudicial attitudes of the first century. As the Holy Spirit fell and inspired languages from all nations were spoken on the Day of Pentecost, Peter declared the promise of the Spirit is that it would fall “on all flesh.” But that moment didn’t solve all of Peter’s cultural racism. Though he felt comfortable to preach “all flesh” at Pentecost in Act 2, he became uncomfortable again later when God was trying to address his prejudice against Gentiles in Acts 10. By pouring out his Spirit on the Gentiles in Cornelius’s house, the Holy Spirit was once again dealing with Peter’s prejudice by showing him “God does not show favoritism.” This is message of not just inclusion, but mutual identification and empathy for all cultures is essential to our Pentecostal framework.
If we want an outpouring of the Spirit, we have to continue to be humble enough to “wade through the camp meeting” of the experiences of the African American community to listen and understand what issues the Spirit is asking us to confront in our culture. Only in this space will we experience a fresh Pentecost like Perkins and like Peter. After all, speaking in tongues is a sign of the Spirit enabling people speak the language of foreign peoples and cultures. It is this unique experience that should engender in Pentecostals the ability to culturally empathetic about the experiences of others in ways that draw people together in unity. As Howard Ervin used to say, “The number one priority of the Spirit is the healing of the Church.” That is still true today. I am praying the at the Spirit-empowered church will embrace the discomfort of conversations about race in America as a gift of the Spirit to help us discern the continued way forward to unity in the body of Christ.
This is why I wrote the book Pentecost in Tulsa in which I share this story and others about the neglected experience of black Pentecostalism in Tulsa. Perhaps through these stories of the past, our community can learn to listen and continue to allow the Spirit to confront the areas in our own hearts where God needs to “break us over the wheel of our prejudice.”