Bethel Bible College students in Topeka around 1900. Researchers recently received a grant to investigate Kansas ties to Pentecostalism, which was originally believed to have begun in California. 

Until recently, many believed that Pentecostalism was born out of a revolution in Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century. However, local researchers have set out to prove that Topeka was the origin of the religion that now boasts almost 280 million members.

“Pentecostalism is a Christian movement that believes in certain spiritual gifts, the best known of which is speaking in tongues and the second best known is faith healing,” said Timothy Miller, a professor of religious studies. “It is found in both Protestant and Catholic churches.”

Pentecostalism is a relatively modern religious movement that occurred within protestantism. It places emphasis on Acts 2:1-20 in the Bible, when the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” are restored, as experienced during the Pentecost.

“These gifts include healing, prophesying, the interpretation of prophecy and what Pentecostalism is most associated with: glossolalia or ‘speaking in tongues,’” said Patricia Cecil, archivist associate at the University’s Department of Religious Studies and program director.

William Seymour, of the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles, is given much of the credit by historians for popularizing Pentecostalism during the early 20th century. However, local historians say Seymour was a student of Charles F. Parham, a Kansas preacher who established glossolalia — a core tenant of the Pentecostal faith — in Topeka in 1901.

On New Year’s Day of 1901, a follower and student of Parham, Agnes Ozman, began speaking in tongues after attending a worship service the night before. Parham found this act as a sign that Ozman had been baptized by the Holy Spirit, according to Cecil.

Thus, the idea of divine glossolalia — the concept of speaking in an unknown language, especially in religious worship — was created and spread around the world by Parham’s many students establishing their own Pentecostal mission.

“In 1906 … Seymour visited Texas, where Parham was then teaching, learned to speak in tongues, and went back to Los Angeles where he headed up a massive revival that is often presented as the birth event of Pentecostalism,” Miller said.

With a $5,000 grant from non-profit Humanities Kansas, the project to prove Parham’s creation of Pentecostalism will begin with research and digital documentation to have relevant material publically available.

“Photographs, video, oral histories, ephemera, documents, and archival research will be collected by a research intern and stored in the Religion in Kansas Project, a digital archive maintained by the Moore Reading Room of the Department of Religious Studies,” Cecil said.

The Religion in Kansas Project will hire one to two interns, which will be upper-level undergraduate or graduate students, to be the primary researchers and help develop the presentation for this project.

Miller will be working as the humanities consultant for the project. He is also the director and founder of the Religion in Kansas Project, which he started in 2009. Cecil came on as an archivist in 2016.

This research will come together to create a digital exhibition and public presentation. Cecil wants the project to spark conversation about Kansas’ influence in shaping religion — specifically, Pentecostalism.

“We’re really hoping to examine what made Topeka and Kansas - geographically, religiously, economically, demographically, and socially - the place where Pentecostalism was formed and took hold,” Cecil said. “Many people don’t realize that Kansas is the one state, second to Utah, that has probably been most shaped by religion.”

The Religion in Kansas Project is aiming to have their research compiled and ready to present to the public sometime next year.

— Edited by James Buckley