THE PENTECOSTAL MOVEMENT IS one of the most rapidly growing religious movements in the world.1 It is the largest and most important religious movement that originated in the United States.2 Beginning in 1901 with a handful of students in a Bible school in Topeka, Kansas, the number of Pentecostals has increased exponentially through the world. By 1995 they had become the largest family of Protestants in the world.3 This explosive growth has forced the world to pay increasing attention to the entire movement.
The first “Pentecostals” in the modern sense were Charles Fox Parham of Topeka, Kansas, and his Bible school students. Historians agree the movement began during the first days of 1901, just as the world entered the Twentieth Century. The first person to be baptized in the Holy Spirit was Agnes Ozman, one of Parham’s Bible school students, who spoke in tongues on the very first day of the new century, January 1, 1901.
It was not until 1906, however, that Pentecostalism achieved worldwide attention through the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, California, led by the African American preacher William Joseph Seymour. From there Pentecostalism spread rapidly around the world becoming a major force in modern Christianity.
The Pentecostal movement came to India in the early 20th century. The revival that took place in the Mukthi Mission Ashram in Pune in June 1905 is considered to be the beginning of Pentecostalism in India.4 The organized, and structured growth of the Pentecostal movement in India was through a number of foreign missionaries. Several men of God who were baptized in the Holy Spirit at the Azusa Street revival came to India as Pentecostal missionaries. A. G. Garr, Thomas Barret and George Berg were prominent among them.
George Berg is the first missionary who came to Kerala (in 1909) with the message of Pentecostalism. In 1913 Pastor Robert F. Cook also came to India as a missionary. He came to Kerala and began his ministry there in 1914. By 1923, Pastor Cook had established 36 churches in Kerala, known collectively as the South India Full Gospel Church. Pastor K. E. Abraham, who was associated with Pastor Cook until 1930, was baptized in the Holy Spirit in 1923, an event considered as the foundation for the establishment of the India Pentecostal Church of God. In 1930, Pastor K.E Abraham who believed that local Keralite churches must be independent from foreign organizations for effective evangelization within India, split from Pastor Cook and formed the South India Pentecostal Church of God. He later changed the name of the church to India Pentecostal Church of God.
In addition to the work begun by Pastor K. E. Abraham, Pentecostalism grew rapidly in Kerala through the ministries of the Ceylon Pentecostal Mission (CPM), the Church of God (Cleveland), and the Assemblies of God.
Pentecostal groups continue to grow in India, especially in the four South Indian states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka.
Table 1. Chronology of Important Events
AD 52 Apostle Thomas arrives in India.
72 Thomas’ martyrdom.
345 Thomas of Cana arrives on Malabar Coast.
1498 Vasco da Gama arrives at Kozhikode (May 17).
1599 Synod of Diamper formed.
1653 Coonen Cross oath taken at Mattancheri.
1706 First Protestant missionaries arrive at Tanquebar.
1793 William Carey arrives in Bengal.
1809 LMS establishes work in South Kerala.
1816 First CMS missionary arrives in Kottayam.
1827 Serampore college begun.
1833 Plymouth Brethren missionary, Anthony M. Groves, arrives in Tirunelveli.
1834 Basal mission enters north Travancore.
1905 Revival at Mukthi Mission in Pune.
1909 George Berg arrives in Kerala.
1913 Pastor Robert F. Cook arrives in India as a Pentecostal missionary.
1924 US Immigration Act establishes “national origins” quota.
1930 Pastor K. E. Abraham establishes the Indian Pentecostal Church (IPC).
1947 Pastors A. C. Samuel and C. Kunjummen arrive in the US.
1948 Pastor P. J.Thomas comes to the US from Australia.
1948 Pastors K. E. Abraham and K. C. Cherian visit US.
1965 US Immigration and Nationality Act opens door to immigrants from India.
1968 India Christian Assembly formed in New York.
1982 First Pentecostal Conference of North American Keralites organized.
1990 US Immigration act revises preference classifications.
Keralite Pentecostals in the United States
America is a land of immigrants. The United States Immigration and Nationality act of 1965 is one of the most important laws enacted by the US Congress in the last 50 years. This resulted in a fundamental change in the cultural and religious environment in the US.
Keralite Pentecostals have been in the United States for more than four decade now. The first direct contact to the United States took place in 1947 when Pastors A. C. Samuel and C. Kunjummen of the Assemblies of God came to the US.5 In January 1948, Pastor P. J. Thomas came to Wheaton College in Chicago for graduate studies. Later, in May of the same year, Pastors K. E. Abraham and K. C. Cherian arrived in the US during their third missionary trip to the West.6 Pastor P. J. Thomas returned to India in 1952. It is reported that about 300 to 400 young men came to study in American Bible schools because of him.7
Nearly all of the Keralite Pentecostals who reached North America in the early 1960s came as students in Bible schools. With the signing of the Immigration Act of 1965 by President John F. Kennedy, it became possible for professionals to immigrate in search of jobs. Nurses from India started gaining entry into US in the 1970s and early 1980s through the category of ‘members of professionals’. The Keralite Christian community in Dallas grew from 75 to 620 in the six-year period from 1973-78 out of which nurses accounted for half the employed adults. .8
A major shift took place in immigration patterns during the late 1980s when the majority of immigrants arrived using the family unification provision in the law rather than through employment. Out of the 45,000 plus persons of Keralite origin admitted to the United States in 1991, more than 35,000 were sponsored by members of their families who were either permanent residents or citizens of the US.9
Keralite Pentecostal Congregations in North America
Pentecostals are allegedly the fastest growing religious group among Keralite immigrants in North America. They are reported to be among the best-educated and most wealthy members of the Keralite Pentecostal community in America. In a 1993 survey, conducted by Professor Williams, about thirty six percent of the Keralite Pentecostals hold graduate degrees and another 30 percent have a college degree.10 Five of the eight people in the total survey who reported their family income above $250,000 are Pentecostals.
As the Keralite Pentecostals, particularly Pentecostals began increasing in number, prayer meetings started among them. . The first such meeting was started in October 1967 by the late Pastor C. M. Varughese at the Nurses Cottage Auditorium in Newark, New Jersey. About 40 people attended those meetings that continued until 1970.
In the meantime, Keralite Pentecostals in New York City desired to establish a Keralite church of their own, a place of common identity and style. On February 8, 1968, India Christian Assembly, the first Indian (Primarily Keralite) Pentecostal church in the United States, was formed in New York. Rev. Achoy Mathews was the first pastor. They organized their first convention in 1968 with Rev. K. E. Abraham and Rev. George Varghese as the guest speakers from India.11
Currently there are about 42 Keralite Pentecostal churches in New York with a combined membership of about 5,000 people, the largest number of Keralite Pentecostals in the United States. This is followed by Texas with about 3,000 people in the cities of Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. At present, the largest Keralite Pentecostal congregation in North America is the IPC Hebron church in Dallas, Texas.
The first Keralite Pentecostal church in New Jersey began in 1971. The first one in Philadelphia started in 1974.
There have been Keralite Pentecostal fellowships in Boston (Massachusetts) since 1981. Connecticut has two Keralite Pentecostal churches, one in Danbury and the other in Bridgeport.
International Pentecostal Assembly, established in 1972, was the first Keralite Pentecostal church in Illinois. Currently there are eight churches and about 500 believers in the Chicago area. Michigan has had Keralite Pentecostal fellowships since 1974About 100 families living in Pontiac and the adjoining suburbs of Detroit currently worship in eight different Keralite Pentecostal churches.
There are only a few Keralite Pentecostal churches in the western states of the United States. There is one fellowship in Colorado. Although there are about 50 Pentecostal families of Keralite origin in Seattle, Washington, half of them attend local non-Keralite churches. Three churches have been established there in recent years. Of the six churches in California, three of them are in Los Angeles and the others are in San Jose.
The first church in Oklahoma began in Oklahoma City in 1971. Currently there are 13 churches in Oklahoma State. Tennessee has 4 Keralite Pentecostal churches. There are 3 churches in Atlanta, Georgia, and one each in North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D. C.
Keralite Pentecostal churches in Florida are mainly in the Miami-Hollywood area and in the central Florida cities of Orlando and Lakeland. The first such fellowship began in 1977. Currently there are several churches and about 175 families attending these churches.
Table 2 shows the estimated number of Keralite Pentecostals in various states in the U.S.
Table 2. Keralite Pentecostals in Various States.
State Approximate Number
New York 5000
New Jersey 600
These numbers are based on available membership rolls for Keralite Pentecostal churches in these states. This does not include New Testament Church members and Keralite Pentecostals who attend non-Keralite churches. These numbers are from statistics available in 1996
Table 3. Keralite Pentecostal Churches by State or City*
State or City Before 1970 1971-1980 1981-1990 1991-1997
New York 3 10 16 13 42
Dallas - 2 13 5 20
Oklahoma - 4 4 5 13
Illinois - 3 1 8 12
Florida - 1 4 7 12
Houston - 10 - 10
New Jersey - 1 4 4 9
Michigan - 2 4 2 8
Philadelphia - 3 3 1 7
California - - 2 4 6
Washington - 2 - 3 5
Tennessee - 1 1 2 4
Georgia - - 1 2 3
Massachusetts - - 3 - 3
Ohio - - - 2 2
Colorado - - 1 1 2
Connecticut - - 2 - 2
Virginia - - - 1 1
North Carolina - - - 1 1
Washington, D.C. - - - 1 1
Austin - - - 1 1
Oregon - - - 1 1
Canada** 1 3 2 4 10
Total 4 32 71 67 174
* Based on a survey conducted by P. S. Philip for the 15th Pentecostal Conference of North American Keralites.12 (1996)
** Keralite Pentecostal churches in Canada are in Toronto (7), Vancouver (1), Edmonton (1) and Calgary (1).
There are a handful of Keralite churches in various cities in Canada. The highest number of Keralite Pentecostals are in Toronto. There are Keralite Pentecostal fellowships and churches in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.
Currently there are a total of about 174 Keralite Pentecostal churches in North America.12 Almost all of them were established since 1970. More than two-third of all the Keralite churches began in the 1980’s and 1990’s (Table 3). Because the family reunification provisions of the 1965 Immigration act allowed people who came in the 1960’s and 1970’s to bring their relatives to US, the number of Keralite immigrants increased dramatically in the 1980’s and 1990’s. This explains the dramatic increase in the number of Keralite congregations in this period.
Keralite Pentecostal churches have affiliated themselves with various denominations or organizations. The largest number of churches in North America, approximately 60 churches and 70 to 80 pastors, identify themselves with India Pentecostal Church (IPC). IPC has three regions in North America. A few churches are similarly affiliated/associated with Sharon Fellowship in India and they call themselves Sharon Fellowship Churches of North America.
There are approximately 20 churches and 40 pastors associated with the Assemblies of God Fellowship of Keralite Churches, and about 25 churches and approximately 30 pastors affiliated with the Church of God (Cleveland).
The largest Keralite Pentecostal conference of its kind in North America is the annual Pentecostal Conference of North American Keralites (PCNAK). The 15th conference held in July 1997 in Lansing, Michigan, drew about 5,000 participants.
These annual conferences can be considered as the best available example of the desire for united fellowship and ministry among Keralite Pentecostals in North America. The conferences began in 1982 in Oklahoma with 300 participants. The late Rev. Oommen Abraham (younger son of IPC founder Rev. K. E. Abraham) was the leader of that first conference. It has been conducted in various US and Canadian cities since then and the number of participants has grown substantially every year.
Several churches in western Canada and the western states in the US come together for an annual conference in July, called the Western Pentecostal Conference.
Pentecostal Youth Fellowship of America (PYFA), begun in 1981, is another example of the desire for unity that exists among Keralite Pentecostals in the US. Although originally envisioned as a forum for Keralite Pentecostals throughout the US, it has been focused primarily on young people in New York City. Following the example of PYFA in New York, combined youth fellowships have begun among Keralite Pentecostals in other US cities. Pentecostal Youth Conference of Dallas (PYCD), begun in 1982, is one example. Similar groups exist in other cities such as New Jersey (PYFA New Jersey, Florida (PYFF) Oklahoma City and Houston.
In addition to the youth fellowships, Christian Graduate Prayer Fellowship (CGPF) chapters in various cities and combined women’s fellowships in New York and Dallas have also been established.
Churches in various cities that are not too distant from each other, such as those in Boston, Massachusetts, and Danbury, Connecticut, hold joint meetings on a regular basis.
According to P. S. Philip, who conducted an informal survey12, approximately 174 Malayalee Pentecostal congregations exist in the US and Canada as of 1997. He estimated that about 3,000 families worship in these churches. [A similar survey done in 1991 by P. S. Philip estimated that there were about 1,700 Malayalee Pentecostal Families in North America at that time].13
Philip’s survey did not include the New Testament Church (known as The Pentecostal Mission in India) which has several congregations in the U.S. with a sizeable number of Keralite members. As the New Testament church congregations are of a mixed ethnic configuration, they cannot be added to the number of Keralite Christian Fellowships. There also are many Keralite Pentecostals who worship in non-Keralite local congregations. Together there may approximately be 20,000 Keralite Pentecostals in North America.
According to estimates by the Federation of Kerala Associations of North America (FOKANA), there are approximately 350,000 Keralites in US and about 40,000 in Canada.14 Hence, approximately 5 percent of the Keralites in North America are Pentecostals.
While the current growth of the Keralite Pentecostal community is mostly based on immigration or biological growth, it is safe to say that there are many new believers who are converted from other Christian and non-Christian groups. With growth comes problems and crises. The Keralite Pentecostal community is also faced with various types of conflicts and crises especially among the second and third generations which are discussed elsewhere in this book.
1. David Barret, World Christian Encyclopedia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 815-848.
2. Walter J. Hollenweger, Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 2.
3. Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 285-286.
4. Saju, Kerala Pentecosth Charithram. In Malayalam. (Kottayam, India: Good News Publications, 1994), 22.
5. L. Sam, Pastor A. C. Samuel. (Biography) 1983.
6. K. E. Abraham, Yeshukristhuvinte Eliya Dasan. In Malayalam. (Kumbanad, India: Pentecostal Young People’s Association, 1965).
7. P. S. Philip, “North American Malayalee Pentecostal Churches: Beginning and Growth.” 9th Pentecostal Conference of North American Keralites - Souvenir, 1991. 37-52.
8. T. J. Thomas, D.Min. Thesis. Southern Methodist University, Dallas, 1978.
9. INS, 1991: 40-45.
10. Raymond. B. Williams, Christian Pluralism in America: Indian immigrant experience (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 42-46.
11. India Christian Assembly Silver Jubilee Souvenir, 1993, 31.
12. P. S. Philip, “The Four Decades of North American Malayalee Pentecostal Churches.” 15th Pentecostal Conference of North American Keralites - Souvenir, 1997, 97-114.
13. Philip, 1991.
14. FOKANA President in a private communication to P. S. Philip conveyed this number. Philip subsequently quoted it in his 1997 article.