Vinson Synan has written a delightful new book in which he combines historical events of Pentecostal and charismatic history with his own memories of the people, places, and events surrounding them. Many of the historical facts in this book he takes from some of his other sixteen published books, but what is new is the addition of his anecdotes and personal reflections on these events, as well as his predictions for the future. Although Synan was born in 1934, he begins with the Azusa Street revival of 1906 and traces his family and denominational roots to show how he is a “child of Azusa.” He may not have been an eyewitness to all the events, but he recounts many fascinating renewal moments by the Holy Spirit, both within the church and within himself by finding links to past revivals and ideas to help understand the “new” revival.
Synan describes many intriguing movements within the American Pentecostal/charismatic churches which he observed or in which he participated. He highlights the following : the Later Rain and Healing Revivals, the Jesus Movement, the charismatic renewal within mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic church, Charismatic conferences and controversies, the New Orleans Congress, the Prosperity Gospel, the Third Wave, Racial Issues and Reconciliation, the Toronto Blessing, the Brownsville and Lakeland Revivals, the New Apostolic Reformation Movement as well as many leaders of the various movements Synan met along his amazing journey. He finishes the book with the chapter, “Things I Never Expected to See in My Lifetime” which is based on a commencement address he gave in 2006 at the Evangelical University in Sophia, Bulgaria. Some of these include the falling of the Berlin Wall, the ending of the Jim Crow system of racial separation in the American South, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism, the rise of the “Christian Right” within politics, the growth of Pentecostal churches, healing ministries, televangelists, secular interest in speaking in tongues and healing, the Catholic charismatic renewal, and serving as the Dean of Regent University Divinity School.
The strength of An Eyewitness Remembers the Century of the Holy Spirit lies in Synan’s personal accounts of both triumphs and transformations. He shares reminiscences about famous people he has met and his own reactions to various events or teachings. Most stirring is Synan’s description of his first meetings with Neo-Pentecostals and Catholic Charismatics. He describes his own preconceived notions on the method a person must use to receive the Holy Spirit as well as how God helped him overcome his prejudice against Catholics. Synan states, “Indeed, I was probably more afraid of Catholics than of Communists or rattlesnakes” (64). Even when he reported what God was doing among the Catholics at his denominational General Council meeting, he expected to be ostracized by his denomination. Instead, to his great surprise, Synan was elected General Secretary during that council. Another turning point for Synan included being part of racially mixed leadership teams and watching the Spirit move at the “Memphis Miracle” (148-53). These Holy Spirit moments in his own life helped shape his destiny to work across denominational and racial barriers and become a force for unity during the charismatic renewal and beyond. Not only was the Holy Spirit transforming the church, but also the one who would help the Spirit initiate unity among various Christians.
Most of the events described in this book take place in the United States, yet Synan has traveled all over the world. The lack of a global perspective on the revivals in the 20th century is a weakness of this text. Synan visited Chili more than twenty times (48), met Pope John Paul II in person in Rome (198), and preached several times in David Younggi Cho’s megachurch in Seoul, Korea (199). Certainly these brief mentions of international travels are but the tip of the iceberg for further elaboration. Perhaps more international and cross denominational stories can be included in Synan’s next publication.
The addition of An Eyewitness Remembers the Century of the Holy Spirit continues Synan’s tradition of bringing historical writing into the church pew. This book will appeal to the general public and especially North American Pentecostals, Charismatics, and those looking for a personal view of the events Synan describes in more detail in his other books. In Pentecostal flavor, it is as much a testimony to what God has done in and through Synan as well as an encouragement to the reader to be used by God without prejudice in the next move of the Holy Spirit. Understanding historically what the Holy Spirit has done allows Synan to take a tentative stance rather then quickly condemn a new move of the Spirit. When Jimmy Swaggart did not support the Catholic charismatic renewal movement, Synan stated “It is spiritual suicide to attack a genuine move of the Holy Spirit” (106). This and other life lessons are passed on to his readers and his students.
This book is dedicated to all of Vinson Synan’s history students over the years, and particularly to the first graduates of the PhD program he established at Regent University in Renewal Studies. Besides his many books, this PhD program will be Synan’s lasting legacy for future generations. He ends his book with optimistic predictions about the future of global Pentecostalism and the growth of Charismatic Churches as well as added encouragement for his students. He exhorts his readers to “Go as far as you can until someone turns you back” (206). Synan clearly demonstrates through his testimony that the Holy Spirit often takes a person on a surprising life journey.