CharismaticChristian TraditionsChurch HistoryTheology & Spirituality

Surprises in the History of Early Pentecostalism in Brazil

I remember, several years ago, learning for the first time about the demographic shifts in world Christianity that took place over the course of the 20th century. Pie charts from the Pew Research Forum compared the “Regional Distribution of Christians” in 1910 with the distribution a century later in 2010.[1] The 1910 chart showed about 96% of the world’s Christians to be located in Europe or the Americas, while the 2010 chart showed significant Christian growth in “Asia/Pacific” and “Sub-Saharan Africa.” This same Pew report proposed a huge shift in Christian population from the “Global North” to the “Global South,” with the Global North holding 82% the world’s Christian population in 1910, only to hold just 39% in 2010. Alternatively, the Global South went from holding only 17% of the world’s Christians to holding 60% over the course of the century.[2]

As I learned about the different factors that caused this shift, the one that stood out to me was the rise of pentecostal and charismatic Christianity. Several aspects of this form of Christianity—its missionary zeal, its easily attainable criteria for church leadership, attentiveness to this-worldly needs (especially the need for physical healing), focus on deliverance from evil spiritual forces, and its ability to provide supportive community in new urban areas—are said to have connected well with audiences in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the 20th century. Since this tradition was unlike my own, but apparently very important in the story of recent Christian history, I set out to understand as much as I could about this pentecostal movement.

Of course, that sort of generalized explanation for pentecostal growth is not the sort of thing to stand up very well when it is held up to particular case studies. However, those explanations do provide starting points from which to ask questions about how the progress of pentecostalism varies in different sites around the world. Here, I would like to share some of the surprising things that I have found when looking closely at the history of early Brazilian pentecostalism, the origins of the Assembleias de Deus.

Today, when people think of Brazilian pentecostalism, they may think of the relatively well-known Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD). Often classified as a “neo-pentecostal” group, this body and its churches are known for their focus on divine healing, financial prosperity, and deliverance from demonic powers. In 2015, the IURD was the third largest church in Brazil (making up 3% of the country’s population), behind only the Roman Catholic Church (72%) and the Assembleias de Deus (10%).[3] The churches typically have services every weekday, each with prayers for special themes, such as prosperity, health, family life, spiritual life, deliverance, and help in “impossible cases.” Edir Macedo, who founded the church in 1977, has received criticism for financial indiscretions, which the church has presented as wrongful attacks in a movie series on Macedo’s life, called Nada a Perder (available on Netflix). The church has spread itself to many countries, including the United States.

The emergence of the IURD in the late 1970s, however, is just a later phase in the longer history of the pentecostal movement in Brazil. The older and more numerically significant form of Brazilian pentecostalism is the Assembleias de Deus (AG), which was started in the 1910s.

Two features of early Brazilian pentecostalism may be particularly surprising to those with only a general knowledge of the movement. First is the importance of European, specifically Swedish, pentecostalism for the origins of Brazilian pentecostalism, and the second is the complexity of women’s roles in the history of the Swedish pentecostal missions. For my comments here I rely on AG historian Isael de Araujo’s helpful biography of Swedish missionary Frida Vingren.[4]

Since so much of the study of contemporary pentecostalism focuses on the movement in the U.S., Africa, Latin America, or Asia, it is very easy to forget the importance of European pentecostal missions in the early part of the 20th century. However, the two earliest pentecostal groups in Brazil, the Congreção Cristã no Brasil and the Assembleias de Deus (AG) owe their origins to European missionaries to the country. The Congregação Cristã was founded by an Italian immigrant, Luigi Francescon, who evangelized mainly among other Italian immigrants in the São Paulo area. By 2015, this church had become the fifth-largest pentecostal denomination in the country.[5] The AG, for its part, was founded by Swedish missionaries coming out of Swedish Baptist churches that had embraced the doctrine of Spirit baptism.

The key leaders of the Swedish missions were Gunnar and Frida Vingren and Daniel Berg (later accompanied by his wife Sara), who were joined by other Swedish missionaries such as Samuel and Lina Nyström and Otto and Adina Nelson.

While Gunnar was a Swedish immigrant to the US, and was in Chicago when he received the prophecy that he was to become an evangelist in a place called “Pará” (which he learned was a state in northern Brazil), many of his connections were with his Swedish homeland. He frequently returned there for missionary furloughs to connect with the Swedish pentecostal church at Stockholm. Frida herself never was an immigrant to the US. In 1915, when she was about twenty-five years old, she decided that she would become a missionary, so she started studying at the Svenska Bibel-Instititet.[6] About this time, Frida met Gunnar on one of his trips home after he had begun his work in northern Brazil, and the two began a relationship. Frida was ordained a missionary by the Philadelphia Church of Stockholm, and they traveled separately by boat to New York, from where they then set sail separately to Belém (capital of Pará).[7] Gunnar and Frida worked in Brazil from 1917 to 1932— first at Belém, and later in Rio de Janeiro in the south. During this time, Frida often wrote for the Evangelii Härold, a Swedish journal, as well as for the Portuguese-language mission journals published in Brazil. When the AG held a nation-wide convention in 1930, Lewi Pethrus, the Swedish pastor of the Philadelphia Church in Stockholm, was a special visiting dignitary.[8] At least as far as the Vingrens’ ministry was concerned, their sense of home base appears to have been Sweden much more so than the United States.

Another surprising aspect of the early Brazilian AG was the controversy over the roles of women in the churches. Scholars commonly highlight the way pentecostal groups allow women to serve in church leadership positions because of their theological ideas about how any Christian person may receive the gifts of the Spirit. In addition, one of the key passages about speaking in tongues (Acts 2) contains a reference to Joel 2, which mentions women’s prophecy. However, the early missions to Brazil show some of the conflicts which arose over the question of what women ought to do in public services.

Gunnar and Frida Vingren often worked together. After the family had moved to Rio, however, Gunnar would travel out of the area, leaving Frida behind to lead the church. In addition, Gunnar often suffered from debilitating illnesses. On many occasions, therefore, Frida would preach in worship services. In addition, the Swedish missionaries set apart Brazilian women for specific leadership roles— such as Emília Costa, who was named a deaconess in 1928, and Deolinda Evangelista, who was named an evangelist in 1929.[9] However, Gunnar came into conflict with fellow missionary Samuel Nyström over the question of women’s preaching. Nyström worked along with the Vingrens in publishing the periodical Boa Semente, which came out on a monthly basis. Frida frequently contributed articles to the journal, so Nyström and the Vingrens were close enough for this disagreement to become a dividing point between them. Nyström held the position that women could not “preach or teach, but only testify.”[10]

Their division on the question split the publication efforts of the mission, as Nyström continued to produce Boa Semente from Belém, and the Vingrens started up O Som Alegre from Rio de Janeiro.[11] Frida soon published a translation of an article by a German pentecostal writer, Fredrik Franson, entitled “Prophesying Daughters,” and Gunnar wrote to Nyström, describing how it was through women’s teaching that he was saved and learned of Spirit baptism. In September 1930, the AG held a national meeting at which this issue was addressed. The Assembleias decided that women could testify, evangelize, and “teach when necessary,” but not serve in “pastor” or “teacher” roles.[12] The conflict continued, however, as Frida wrote an article describing how in Sweden, women were set apart as full-time evangelists, and wishing that this would be the case in Brazil as well. In this article, Frida also articulated the connection she saw between women’s modesty in dress and their ability to preach—what biblical submission meant was modesty, and modest and simple clothing was required in order for a woman to preach. Wearing ornate and revealing clothing would mean that a woman was exercising inappropriate authority in the church.[13] Frida herself continued to preach on occasion. However, when Gunnar went traveling in 1932, though he left the church under Frida’s leadership, it was Pastor Paulo Macalão who was to lead the Lord’s Supper.[14] Nyström and the Vingrens later reconciled, but only just before the Vingrens returned to Sweden permanently because of Gunnar’s deteriorating health.

The story of early Brazilian pentecostalism is fascinating for these kinds of unexpected connections. While people may be familiar with more contemporary Scandinavian charismatic Christianity, such as the Livets Oord church under the leadership of Ulf Ekman (who was influenced by Kenneth Hagan of Texas), the story of the highly influential role of early Scandinavian pentecostalism in the missionary movement is little known.[15] And while many may be familiar with the early 20th century debates over whether or not women’s ability to evangelize and serve as deaconesses and missionaries logically led to an affirmative position on women’s ordination, less well known is how this debate showed up in various mission fields. The early experiences of the Assembleias de Deus helps us see the complicated nature of the mission networks of the early 20th century, those same networks that led to the demographic shifts in world Christianity that we are familiar with today.

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Morgan Crago

Morgan Crago

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