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In the early twentieth century, many mainline Protestant churches were in the process of redefining the Christian faith. New academic theories undermined the authority of Scripture, and a faith in science replaced faith in the God of miracles as described in the Bible. These theological liberals pioneered a “Social Gospel” movement defined by doing good works, even as they left behind the seemingly antiquated notion that “Truth” could be found in Scripture.
In America, evangelicals and Pentecostals often responded to the social gospel movement by re-asserting biblical truths. Some tried to reform older denominations from within; others formed new, purer churches. Some backed away from social action, concerned that an emphasis on good works could distract from what they believed was the more important duty to preach the Word.
Outside America, missionaries were often surrounded by great suffering and felt compelled to minister in both word and deed. One such missionary was Albert Norton, an early Assemblies of God missionary to India.
In a 1919 Pentecostal Evangel article, he wrote the following bold statement, which argues that Christian preaching must be accompanied by works of compassion:
"A Christianity that coldly sits down, and goes on its routine of formal work, and allows its fellowmen to starve, or to be obliged to go through all the hard sufferings and exposure connected with famine, without effort to help them, might as well quit its preaching."
Norton, who was witnessing an unfolding human tragedy, asked that "all missionaries, Mission Boards and Committees and all Christian Workers to do what they can to save their brothers and sisters in India from dying of starvation or from the kindred train of evils following famine."
Pentecostal Evangel editor Stanley H. Frodsham responded and devoted the entire front page of the Feb. 22, 1919, issue to the desperate situation in India. He asked readers to send famine relief to Gospel Publishing House, which he promised would "be promptly sent to the field."
Frodsham provided three justifications for this request to save bodies as well as souls. First, he stated that Scripture required it, quoting Proverbs 19:17 and 24:11-12. Second, he noted that the Methodist church had asked its members to forego luxuries for a few months and to instead provide money for Indian relief. He challenged Pentecostals to do likewise.
Third, he noted that the future of the church depended upon rescuing those who are starving now. He again quoted Norton, "There are young men and women in India today, who were saved as famine orphans several years ago, and now they are filled with the Holy Spirit, and being greatly used in the extension of Christ's Kingdom.” Meeting the physical needs to the starving today would yield preachers tomorrow. He continued, “How unutterably sad it would have been if they had been allowed to die of starvation."
Early Pentecostal missionaries such as Norton had very limited physical resources to share, but they still recognized the need to minister in both word and deed. When the Assemblies of God, at its 2009 General Council, added compassion as the fourth element for its reason for being — joining worship, evangelism, and discipleship — this was an affirmation of a long-standing practice.
Read Frodsham's entire article, "Plague and Famine Raging in India," on pages 1-2 of the Feb. 22, 1919, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
* "Run to Help the Dying," by A. E. L.
* "Hints Regarding Divine Healing," by Florence Burpee
And many more!