Tongues of Fire in Kansas

by Mike Mariani


Pentecostalism, a branch of Christianity that grew out of Protestantism in the early 20th century, has 280 million adherents worldwide. The movement is twice the size of the Baptists; three times the size of Lutheranism; and six times larger than Presbyterianism.[1]

It’s almost unfathomable that the Pentecostals—often referred to as the “third force” in Christianity behind Protestantism and Catholicism, which trace their roots back to the Reformation and the life of Christ, respectively—have been around for little more than a century. Their distinguishing feature, the raison d’être that has made them spread through Christendom like flames licking through a bone-dry forest, is their belief in “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” For Christians the world over, baptism with the Holy Spirit is a way to experience God under your skin, to have him rip through your viscera like an electric current and make your religious conviction dynamically manifest. This subjective miracle of contact, a private thirst for God that is suddenly slaked, is the heart of the Pentecostal movement.

In the summer of 1898, Charles Fox Parham, a promising 25-year-old evangelist, moved his family from Ottawa to Topeka, Kansas. By then the fiery young preacher had already been leading religious services for over a decade, since he was 15. He had risen rapidly in the Methodist Episcopal Church, taking an appointment as supply pastor in Eudora, Kansas, in 1893, at the age of 20. Two years later he somewhat abruptly left the Methodist Church, choosing instead to align himself with the growing Holiness movement and its more radical gospel. When he left in 1895, Parham founded his own ministry, one that would, over time, come to emphasize divine healing.

It was in Ottawa that Parham would first gain renown for the healing powers of his services. His wife, Sarah, recalled the miraculous healing of Ella Cook, afflicted with dropsy.[2]:

In a few moments she opened her eyes, smiled, and we assisted her to her feet. She not only walked down the stairs alone, but walked for over a mile to her home, shouting and praising the Lord; people along the way followed to see what would take place. Neighbors came running in and until three o’clock in the morning people were getting to God and others were wonderfully healed.

The infectious fervor surrounding Parham’s mission grew rapidly, as members of his congregation claimed themselves cured of heart disease and consumption.

To meet the growing demand for his services, which incorporated not only faith-based healing but also the evangelist style and doctrines of the then-vogue Holiness movement, Parham moved his wife and young son to the Kansas capital. In Topeka, he set up the Bethel Healing Home, which was to be the centerpiece of his fledgling ministry for the next two years. In addition to the Bethel Home, Parham established a Bible institute, an orphanage, and the Apostolic Faith magazine. Parham hoped subscription fees for the magazine would offset the cost of running the Bethel Healing Home, which charged no rent to its convalescing residents. Apostolic Faith also served as a platform to run testimonials from Bethel residents who had experienced extraordinary recoveries. While the healing home may not have been financially profitable, it helped to build Parham’s reputation as a powerful, charismatic force in nondenominational Christianity and the Holiness movement.

But the placid healing home alone could not contain Parham’s ambitions. The preacher wasn’t merely interested in maintaining a small, faith-based sanitarium in downtown Topeka. He had always been a passionate theologian at heart, relentlessly analyzing Christian doctrine and evolving his own views on sanctification, immortality, and baptismal immersion.[3] After all, it was his radical interpretation of Christian rituals, including a prolonged renunciation of water baptism, that contributed to his departure from the Methodist Church in 1895. So in June 1900, after feeling a sense of disenchantment with his ministry and its firmly established financial limitations, Parham left the Bethel Healing Home in order to “know more fully the latest truths restored by latter day movements.” It was during this three-month sabbatical that Parham visited Frank Sandford’s ministry in Durham, Maine, galvanizing what would become his most important theological views and setting the stage for a new, more visceral wave of the Christian Restoration Movement.


Like Parham, Frank Sandford left his denomination, the Baptist Church, to start his own evangelist ministry. Claiming that God spoke to him and told him to build a Bible school on a sandy hill, Sandford began construction on the massive compound known as Shiloh with three cents in his pocket. By the time Parham arrived in the summer of 1900, it had a seven-story chapel, a school, a healing home, and a 500-room dormitory. But it wasn’t just the scope of Sandford’s ministry that had an intoxicating effect on Parham. The original name of Sandford’s movement was The Holy Ghost and Us, and it operated as if on call for divine inspiration: classes were frequently surrendered without warning to long prayer sessions; there was no faculty save Sandford; no curriculum save the Bible; and schedules were always at the mercy of what students called “the Holy Ghost’s latest.”

At Shiloh, Sandford claimed that the Holy Ghost spoke directly through him, making the school and its pupils subject to his every holy whim. Parham wasn’t exclusively interested in Sandford’s autocratic rule, though; it was the passion and fervor of the students and the Shiloh community that inspired him. At Shiloh, worship services were long, unpredictable, and featured a near-feral zealotry: worshippers testified at great length; “fought” off the devil, exorcising themselves through violent spasms; and prayed at all hours. The January 6, 1900, edition of The Lewiston Evening Journal even claimed that during Shiloh’s New Year’s Eve prayer services “the gift of tongues… descended.” One observer described the school thusly: “This is the Holy Ghost’s work. This is real teaching. This is supernatural.” Parham was captivated. He left the Methodist Church so that he could escape its rigid structure and dispassionate formalism. Here was the complete antithesis to that frigid propriety: an assembly of followers who writhed with direct inspiration from God and the Holy Spirit; men and women who met each day not with pious decorum, but pious abandon, rapt and breathlessly awaiting the “Holy Ghost’s latest.” Parham returned to Topeka determined to found his own school and ministry in the fashion of Shiloh.

Upon his return to the Bethel Healing Home, Parham found the ministers he had left it with unwilling, or at least highly resistant, to turning it back over to him. Although he would later denounce the ministers for stealing his mission, his focus at the time was elsewhere. After a period of intense prayer in which Parham sought guidance from God for his next step, he took advantage of an opportunity to rent an old mansion known as Stone’s Folly from the American Bible Society of Philadelphia. Built around 1887 by Erastus Stone but never finished, it was constructed in the style of an English castle. The three-story, 18-room building featured parapets on multiple floors, ornate towers topped by gilded spires, and decorative white columns framing the third-story windows. It was as bizarre as it was beautiful, a conspicuous hybrid of plantation country houses and 18th century Gothic castles. Here, in October 1900, Parham founded the Bethel Bible College.

One of the attendees at the building’s dedication to the school that fall was Captain L.H. Tuttle, a friend of Parham’s who would later write the preface to his book A Voice Crying in the Wilderness. Looking out from one of the steeples during the dedication, Tuttle reported seeing “a vast lake of fresh water about to overflow, containing enough to satisfy every thirsty soul.” Tuttle’s vision synchronized perfectly with Parham’s own conviction that, despite the surge in evangelism throughout the country and popularity of the Holiness movement at the time, there was something much greater to come. The vision would later be seen as a prophecy of the coming of the Pentecostal Church.

Classes began at Bethel on October 15, with some 40 students in attendance. According to A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, Parham’s central aim for his school was “utter abandonment in obedience to the commandments of Jesus, however unconventional and impractical this might seem.” In this way, he was clearly taking after Sandford, who emphasized the Bible as sole text and claiming to be a medium for the Holy Spirit. The room of Tuttle’s precognition became known as the “Prayer Tower,” and in it students created a 24-hour prayer chain, each taking turns completing three-hour shifts. The Prayer Tower became a powerful symbol of Bethel’s unceasing relationship with God. Although the congregation remained small and money tight, the students were ferociously dedicated, living and worshipping together on a seemingly continuous loop.

Even while teaching his students and claiming himself an instrument for the Holy Ghost, Parham’s theological beliefs remained in flux. When he was still with the Methodist Church, Parham rejected the water baptism, viewing it as an empty ritual emblematic of the Church’s complacent formalities. Instead, he sought out a “true baptism” that emphasized divine inspiration and a more direct relationship with God. He found it in the gospel preached by the Holiness movement, which introduced “baptism with the Holy Spirit” as a religious phenomenon distinct from the initiation sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist.

But there were other thorny theological concerns. Developed by John Wesley, co-founder of Methodism, Christian perfection (also known as entire sanctification and the second blessing) is the idea that the born-again Christian may achieve not only freedom from overtly committed sins but also be released from the state of original sin handed down by Adam. The absolution from original sin was the “second blessing” that cleansed the human vessel and allowed an inpouring of the Holy Spirit. In other words, this second blessing and completion of entire sanctification was the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

This didn’t sit well with Parham, who became obsessed with finding evidence of the Holy Spirit baptism as a religious experience independent of Wesley’s Christian perfection. His convictions were buoyed by the teachings of an outsider preacher from Lincoln, Nebraska, by the name of Benjamin Hardin Irwin. A onetime Baptist minister with his own unorthodox views, Irwin believed in a third blessing which he called “baptism with the Holy Ghost and fire.” When he bestowed this third gift on followers during his evangelist services, the results were rapturous. According to Fields White Unto Harvest, “seekers receiving the third Christian experience exhibited an emotional release and, flooded with religious joy, they would shout, scream, and experience the ‘jerks.’ ” Even for the charisma-inflected Holiness movement, this was heresy, an explicit flouting of their sanctification tenets. But the Fire Baptism, as it was often called, encouraged Parham to continue on his obscure path toward a more direct experience with God.


It was December 1900 and classes were coming to an end. Parham was to give his students exams on repentance, consecration, sanctification, and the second coming. But, as he put it, “We had reached in our studies a problem.” Parham’s infatuation with how the Holy Spirit might reveal itself had not abated, and he decided to recruit his students to aid him in the inquiry.

Around Christmas, before leaving for a trip to Kansas City, Parham gave them a special assignment: find biblical evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Parham’s sister-in-law Lillian Thistlewaite recalled what he told them before leaving:

Students, as I have studied the teachings of the various Bible schools and full gospel movements, conviction, conversion, healing, and sanctification are taught virtually the same, but on the baptism there is a difference among them. Some accept Stephen Merrit’s teaching of baptism at sanctification, while others say this is only the anointing, and there is a baptism received through the “laying on of hands” or the gift of the Holy Ghost. Yet they agree on no definite evidence. Some claim this fulfillment of promise “by faith” without any special witness, while others have wonderful blessings or demonstrations, such as shouting or jumping. Though I honor the Holy Ghost in anointing power both in conversion and in sanctification, yet I believe there is a greater revelation of His power. The gifts are in the Holy Spirit and with the baptism of the Holy Spirit the gifts, as well as the graces, should be manifested. Now students, while I am gone, see if there is not some evidence given of the baptism so there may be no doubt on the subject.

What happened immediately upon Parham’s return to Topeka remains largely in dispute. According to the 27-year-old minister, when he returned and asked his students what they’d found, their response was unanimous: every instance of baptism of the Holy Spirit in the Bible was accompanied by speaking in tongues. Parham was obviously satisfied with their conclusion, as he’d arguably nudged them toward it by suggesting that they focus on the second chapter of the Book of Acts. Regardless, the matter was settled: Baptism by the Holy Spirit was conferred through speaking in tongues.

This revelation had a powerful effect on one particular student, 30-year-old Agnes Ozman. Ozman was an itinerant believer, wandering from one Bible school to the next without ever settling down. Having joined and left multiple ministries throughout her 20s, she was clearly in pursuit of something—though what, specifically, she probably didn’t know. Ozman later confessed that “when I learned that the Holy Ghost was yet to be poured out in greater fullness, my heart became hungry for the promised comforter and I began to cry out for an enduement with power from on high.” On the night of January 1, 1901, on the first day of the 20th century, she would get her enduement “from on high.”

On January 1, 1901, Charles Parham and his 40 students held a 10:30 p.m. prayer service at Stone’s Folly. About 75 people attended from outside Bethel, bringing a total of 115 people to the “watch night” service. At around 11 p.m., Agnes Ozman asked Parham to lay his hands upon her so that she might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. He refused at first, having not yet himself received the Holy Ghost, but eventually laid his hands on her head and began reciting from Hebrews 13:20: “Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will…” Suddenly a halo appeared to surround her face and head, and Ozman began speaking in tongues. Parham and the other students later reported that Ozman spoke in Chinese. In recalling that night, Ozman herself asserted that the “Holy Spirit fell upon me and I began to speak in tongues, glorifying God. I talked several languages, and it was clearly manifest when a new dialect was spoken.” The sudden burst of alleged xenoglossia was only the beginning of an extraordinary paroxysm of faith and the supernatural at Stone’s Folly.

Parham reported that, following the initial incident, Ozman could only speak in Chinese for three days. When she tried to write, all that came out were Chinese characters. This was disputed by a local newspaper, which contended that Ozman’s writings were not symbols at all but rather crude, indecipherable scrawl. Nonetheless, over the course of the next few days, at least a dozen other students at Bethel Bible College began speaking in tongues. As if to overpower any doubters, Parham claimed that his students were speaking many languages, including Japanese, Hungarian, Syrian, and Hindi. At one point Parham recounted the paranormal story of returning to Stone’s Folly and finding a room on the second floor filled with white light, in which 12 ministers were simultaneously speaking in tongues as “cloven tongues of fire” hung over their heads. Blurred lines between fact and fabrication notwithstanding, Ozman’s New Year’s Day outburst seemed just the beginning, merely the struck match for a much greater fire baptism of the Holy Ghost that swept through Parham’s congregation.

Before long, Bethel Bible College began attracting attention from the press in Topeka and other major cities. Newspapers like the Topeka Capitol and Kansas City World reported “Strange Acts… Believers Speak in Strange Languages,” dubbed Bethel “The School of Tongues,” and wrote that the congregation had “a faith almost incomprehensible at this day.”

Despite Parham’s quixotic accounts of his students speaking in foreign languages they had never learned, most newspapers reported witnessing glossolalia rather than xenoglossia.[4] For example, the Topeka State Journalwrote of an encounter with Lillian Thistlewaite: “She at first answered that the Lord had not inspired her to say anything but soon began to utter strange words which sounded like this: ‘Euossa, Euossa, use rela sema calah mala kanah leulla ssage nalan. Ligle loge lazie logle. Ene mine mo, sah rah el me san rah me.’ ” Whatever the intelligibility of the words spoken, the religious frenzy had Kansas transfixed. In late January when Parham and his students visited Galena, Kansas, the experience left the town rapt and mystified. In addition to the steady influx of reporters, language professors and even government interpreters descended on Stone’s Folly to get a read on the thrilling religious phenomenon.

But just as quickly as the fever had struck, it was silenced. After failing to secure enough support or funding, Bethel Bible School was forced to close in July 1901, just over a year after it was founded. The reverberations of that January gust of supernatural faith, cult contagion, or simply The Topeka Outpouring, as it has since been called, would not be felt for some time.

Five years later, in 1906, a scarred, one-eyed black preacher named William J. Seymour would hold his first services at 214 Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles. On April 9 of that year, after weeks of praying to receive baptism by the Holy Spirit, parishioner Edward S. Lee spoke in tongues. Seymour was ecstatic. After all, he was one of Parham’s original students at Bethel Bible College; he had been committed to this new form of baptism, this physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit for years now. A few days after the first incident of tongues, Seymour moved the congregation to a derelict old building on 312 Azusa Street. In the years that followed, thousands of people would report speaking in tongues at the Azusa Street Revival. The cloven tongues had finally broken out of the Gothic belfries and cupolas of Stone’s Folly. The spiritual gift cited in the Book of Acts spread like wildfire through cities, churches, denominations. The Pentecost had arrived.


1.  That figure—280 million—which counts among its flock congregations in Brazil, Mozambique, Myanmar, and South Korea, does not even include mainline churches swept up by the charismatic movement, which gained traction in the 1960s and draws largely from the style and practices of Pentecostalism.

2. Dropsy is an antiquated term for edema, or an accumulation of fluid in body tissue, often resulting in severe swelling.

3. Parham had, at different times, practiced both single and triple immersion baptism. Triple immersion is a threefold baptism in which the person is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It cites Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 as evidence. Single immersion prescribes baptism “into the name of Christ” or “into the death of Christ” only. It’s biblical support can be found in Acts 8:16 and through John the Baptist, who likely administered single immersion.

4. Glossolalia is the act of uttering incomprehensible syllables imitating speech, usually during a period of religious ecstasy. Contrastingly, xenoglossia is the paranormal phenomenon in which a person speaks in foreign languages previously unknown to him or her. Typically the religious act of “speaking in tongues” is more closely associated with glossolalia.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 2, January 15, 2015.