Pentecostalism in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Pentecostalism in Latin America and the Caribbean

The Pentecostal movement in Latin America and the Caribbean is part of the great missionary effort that followed the missionary movement among mainline denominations in Europe, Canada, and the United States in the nineteenth century. Three models of Pentecostal missions are predominant in the region in the twentieth century: classical Pentecostalism, indigenous (Creole, criollo ), and divine healing (Neopentecostalism).

Classical Pentecostalism came from the United States and Europe and brought its own missionary methods. It is economically and structurally dependent on foreign mission boards, and although the pastorate is indigenous, its education and training are clearly based on foreign models.

Indigenous Pentecostalism grew out of the local mainline Protestant churches. With strong roots in popular Catholic culture, it is economically and structurally independent of all foreign missions and has an indigenous pastorate.

Divine healing (Neopentecostal) churches, emphasizing exorcism and prosperity, are the offspring of dissident movements within the churches. Modeled on messianic patterns, they have an entrepreneurial structure, dependent on the charismatic hero-impresario leader.

Classical Pentecostalism

The major missionary efforts of Pentecostalism in Latin America and the Caribbean have been sponsored by four North American churches: the Assemblies of God, the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), and the Foursquare Gospel Church.

Founded in the United States as a fraternity of churches in 1914 at the Old Grand Opera House in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the Assemblies of God from the very beginning tended toward a Presbyterian form of government, with a general council as a governing board. The emphasis on the restoration principle of apostolic faith and practice, missionary zeal, and a cooperative effort in the missionary field gave the Assemblies of God its initial impulse and worldwide strategy. As these churches became more centralized and structured, they made Spring-field, Missouri, the venue for their headquarters.

Assemblies of God churches were established in each one of the Latin American and Caribbean countries. The Assemblies of God came to Jamaica in 1937 and made an impact on this country, but it was the Canadian branch of the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, that spread over the Caribbean region, planting churches in many countries and receiving many influences from the spiritual and revival forces coming from the nineteenth-century revivals in Jamaica. Today, the Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostal denomination in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The extensive presence of the Assemblies of God has been supported by the programs and publications of the Gospel Publishing House, the major publishing house for Pentecostal literature in Latin America and the Caribbean to this day, and by the Pentecostal Evangel, a missionary magazine. Besides Bible institutes, private elementary and high schools, and some universities, the Assemblies of God churches also sponsor radio programs, magazines in Spanish and Portuguese, and social services such as day-care centers for the elderly and children.

The Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) was initially part of the Holiness movement of the nineteenth century. In 1907 this church began missionary work in the English-speaking Caribbean (Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago). By 1910 missionaries had started work in Panama and afterwards in other countries: Costa Rica (1935), Mexico (1946), Peru (1962), Puerto Rico (1966), and Brazil (1970).

Founded as the "Christian Union," another offspring of the Holiness movement, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), embraced the Pentecostal movement with intense missionary fervor. The first missionaries left the United States in 1910 for the Bahamas. Later, they established themselves from Mexico (1932) through all Central American and South American countries over the next three decades. Today, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), is recognized as a Pentecostal church that combines an evangelistic fervor with a solid intellectual commitment. There are several seminaries and colleges in South America and the Caribbean that offer university-level education in theology and other fields.

The Foursquare Gospel Church originated in Oakland, California, in 1921, sparked by a fiery and charismatic leader. This church derives its name form the four-faced figures from the Bible (Ezekiel 1) that its founder, Aimee Semple McPherson, interpreted as Christological figures: Christ saves, baptizes, heals, and will return. The missionary work of this church began in Panama (1928) and is established in most South American countries, including Jamaica and Haiti in the Caribbean. The Foursquare Gospel Church has active women's and youth organizations, including the ordination of women. It places particular emphasis on theological education.

Indigenous Pentecostalism

The better-known revivals in the region include the Valparaiso movement in Chile (19071910) led by Willis C. Hoover, a Methodist missionary from the United States. All-night vigils, Bible studies, and prayer groups energized a movement that would soon reach to the capital city of Santiago. Soon the movement provoked a schism, as congregations in Valparaiso and Santiago left the denomination to form the Methodist Pentecostal Church. In the following decades the Pentecostal movement in Chile sustained growth, suffered schisms, and formed new Pentecostal churches.

With Hoover at the helm, the revival spread throughout Chile at a dizzying pace. Hoover mobilized believers for street evangelism, organizing them into squads of militants who shared songs, Bible readings, open-air preaching, and personal testimony. The purpose of these efforts was to animate the poor and marginalized with a simple but demanding faith.

A similar movement, which began in Brazil in 1909, became known as the Great Revival. Three foreigners were the protagonists. Luigi Francescon, an Italian immigrant to the United States, received the baptism of the Holy Spirit at the mission of William D. Durham, Pentecostal pastor in Chicago. Wanting to preach to his own people about his new experience in the spirit, Francescon founded churches among Italian immigrants in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and California. In 1909 Francescon felt a call from the Holy Spirit to work among Italian immigrants in South America. He started work in Argentina first among Italian immigrants and later moved to São Paulo, Brazil.

Francescon organized congregations of Italian immigrants in Buenos Aires and São Paulo, where he fostered social work between the immigrants and established the Christian Congregation of Brazil. He adapted Presbyterian ecclesial structures and developed a national church in Brazil that today is one of the largest Pentecostal churches in the country. The church continues to emphasize both the spiritual and social dimensions of the gospel, developing self-support programs for their members, including cooperatives.

The other foreigners were Gunnar Vingren and Daniel Berg, Swedish immigrants with a Baptist background, who met Charles Durham in Chicago, received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and went to the northern part of Brazil. They initially made contacts with Baptist churches in that region and finally established their own movement that later became affiliated with the Assemblies of God in Brazil. Despite the foreign roots of their founders, these Pentecostal churches became autonomous and autochthonous, in a self-support, self-governing model of mission.

Two Caribbean churches are good examples of indigenous Pentecostal churches. The first is the Pentecostal Church of God of Puerto Rico, founded by Juan L. Lugo. He was an immigrant worker in Hawaii and received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He returned to Puerto Rico in 1916 to establish the Pentecostal Church of God of Puerto Rico, the second largest Pentecostal church in the island. This church has established missionary work and organized churches in more than forty-seven countries in the world, including Latin America and the Caribbean. Lugo also emphasized the self-support, self-governing principle. Lugo founded congregations among Hispanics in California and New York.

Another important church in the Caribbean is the Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Cuba, founded by Francisco Rodríguez from Puerto Rico, Ana Sanders from Canada, and Harriet May Kelty of the United States in 1933. These missionaries were sent by the Assemblies of God to establish the Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Cuba. In 1956 a group of Evangelical Pentecostal Church members formed the Pentecostal Christian Church of Cuba. Two Afro-Cuban pastors, Avelino González and Francisco Martínez, became the leaders of this church and led the denomination during the initial years of the Cuban Revolution, transforming its ministry and presence into an ecumenical and preferential option for the poor. Today, the Pentecostal Christian Church of Cuba participates actively in the Cuban Council of Churches, Caribbean Conference of Churches, and Latin American Council of Churches, and has had an ecumenical partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada since 1976. It is the second largest Pentecostal Church in Cuba and it continues to grow primarily among the Afro-Cuban population in the eastern part of Cuba.

Divine Healing (Neopentecostalism)

A new offshoot of Pentecostalism concerned with divine healing has more recently emerged in the religious supermarket. This kind of Pentecostalism has become an alternative to indigenous Pentecostal churches. Exorcism and prosperity are its central elements. Energetic, charismatic leaders exhort huge gatherings and provide continuous worship services in old cinemas and auditoriums, open buildings in which the public meetings are conceived more as public spectacles than as community life and traditional worship. The hymns, sermons, and exhortations are a kind of therapy for the suffering masses. When the leader comes onstage, enough enthusiasm has already been created to generate an almost hysterical explosion of emotion in the congregation. Observers have noted that the flexible bond that results from these shared emotions demands little personal commitment and is a welcome alternative to the pain, needs, and conflicts that participants must confront daily. Faced with daily crises, people prefer a moment of ecstasy with this vibrant and untamed Jesus to the silence and existential vacuum of daily life.

From a doctrinal point of view, prosperity Pentecostals use the Bible as a fetish and a source of magical phrases as they perform exorcisms and divine healings. Rarely is the Bible actually studied, since the central acts of faith are healing and liberation. It is a Pentecostalism that emphasizes exorcism; the pastor becomes a moral agent who brings prosperity and stability. These pastors enjoy messianic authority that extends to the economic realm. This kind of Pentecostalism offers economic benefits to the pastors, incorporating them into the religious marketplace and converting the church into a commercial venture. Evangelists of this kind in Brazil, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela are known to own large properties in England, the United States, and Europe.

The Pentecostal movement that started as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Topeka (1901) and Azusa Street in Los Angeles (1906) became a global missionary movement that spread to all continents. The movement in Latin America and the Caribbean began as a foreign missionary enterprise, but it soon transformed into an indigenous, autonomous movement of independent and national churches. Today the movement is also expressed by divine healing churches led by a messianic-hero figure in which exorcism and prosperity theology dominate. These Neopentecostal churches, like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Brazil, are organized as religious transnational enterprises.

All three predominant models of Pentecostal mission in Latin America and the Caribbean have tried to respond to the cry of the oppressed and the poor sectors of society. In their attempts they also accompanied immigrants from Europe to Latin America (Italians in South America) and displaced persons in a diaspora that spanned from the Caribbean to other countries in Latin America and Hawaii. Today, new waves of migrants from the Caribbean, primarily Afro-Caribbean persons to Great Britain, are establishing a new kind of Pentecostal movement in the European diaspora.

See also Christian Denominations, Independent; Holiness Movement; Protestantism in the Americas; Religion


Álvarez, Carmelo E., ed. Pentecostalismo y liberación: Una experiencia latinoamericana. San José, Costa Rica: DEI-CEPLA, 1992.

Austin-Broos, Diane J. Jamaica Genesis: Religion and the Politics of Moral Orders. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Dayfoot, Arthur Charles. The Shaping of the West Indian Church, 14921962. Kingston, Jamaica: The Press, University of the West Indies, 1999.

Gutiérrez, Benjamin, and Dennis Smith, eds. In the Power of the Spirit: The Pentecostal Challenge to Historic Churches in Latin America. Louisville, Ky.: CELEP-AIPRAL-PC (USA) WMD, 1996.

carmelo Álvarez (2005)