First person to speak in tongues in the Assemblies of God was William Jethro Walthall of the Holiness Baptist Churches of Southwestern Arkansas
Although the modern Pentecostal movement relates its beginnings to Charles Parham, who formulated classical Pentecostal theology at his Bible school in Topeka at the turn of the century, throughout history, from apostolic times to the present, there have been certain religious groups and isolated cases of individuals who have experienced tongues-speaking and spiritual gifts.
William Jethro Walthall, who founded the Holiness Baptist Churches of Southwestern Arkansas, a group which later merged with the Assemblies of God, is an important figure who received his baptism in the Spirit prior to Parham’s launching of Pentecostalism in 1901.
Walthall’s Spirit baptism, which occurred 113 years ago, is one of the earliest documented cases of speaking in tongues in North America. Earlier instances of tongues-speaking have been reported among the Shakers, the Holiness Movement, the “Gift People” or “Gift Adventists” in New England, and others. It is very possible that Walthall is the earliest person to have received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and who later joined the Assemblies of God.
William Jethro Walthall was born in Nevada County, Arkansas, March 9, 1858, the son of Charles Featherston Walthall and Mary Jemima Meador. His father died in 1863 at Rock Island, Illinois, as a prisoner in the Civil War, and his mother died 2 years later. Orphaned at age 7, he was reared by his widowed grandmother. However he had no Christian upbringing, so it was not until 1877 that he was confronted with the claims of the Gospel. That happened when he attended an old-time Methodist meeting and conviction gripped his heart, resulting in his conversion at age 19. Two years later, on August 3, 1879, he was married to his first wife, Melissa P. “Missy” Beavers, who bore him two children, Millard and Ibber Mae. After Melissa passed away, he married Hattie Vaughn on March 24, 1915.
While a young Christian, Walthall had a yearning for more of the workings of God in his life. He earnestly began to seek for a fullness of power to witness and better serve the Lord. This spiritual hunger led him to carefully study the Book of Acts and other scriptures. There he found recorded an enduement with power of the Holy Ghost which had accompanied the Early Church. He wanted this same experience in his life.
During a season of fervent prayer, he received a mighty infilling of the Spirit on September 3, 1879. Since he had never heard of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, he did not receive his Baptism through any prescribed theory or method.
Until that time all he knew about the Holy Spirit came from the teachings of the Methodists and Baptists. But this was something new. His experience came about in answer to prayer and through his own study of the Word of God. From the outset he understood that his experience corresponded with the records given in the Book of Acts.
In his testimony, Walthall describes his infilling by saying, “I was carried out of myself for the time being.” From the time of his Baptism, he testified that he often felt the strong anointing power of God. At times he would fall under the power of God when the Spirit came upon him. He also spoke in tongues as the Spirit directed.
For two years, during which time the Holy Ghost would often fall on me, I walked with God. Sometimes while in service and sometimes when alone in prayer I would fall prostrate under His mighty power. While under this power my tongue seemed to be tied in the center and loosed at both ends. I knew nothing of the Bible teaching on the Baptism or speaking with tongues, and thought nothing of what had happened in my experience.
Walthall was ordained by the Missionary Baptist Church on May 29, 1887, and served several congregations in Southwest Arkansas. He was active in various associational committees including foreign missions and temperance. In 1891 he was pastor of Piney Grove Church at Boughton, Arkansas, which was a part of the Red River Baptist Association of the Southern Baptist Convention. In fact, the annual associational meeting was held that year at Walthall’s church. The next year he was pastoring two churches at Bluff City and Prescott. From 1894-1895 he was pastoring at Stephens. The last Baptist church he pastored was at Buena Vista. Because of the prevalent view of the Holy Spirit held by Baptists, Methodists, and other mainline churches, Walthall had some reservations about his experience, as he shares in his testimony:
The ordinary Methodist and Baptist teaching was all that I knew, and, of course, that served to diminish my experience and to paralyze my faith rather than build me up. In the meantime, I began preaching a work to which I was called when the blessed Spirit filled me. I always felt that there was a lost chord in the Gospel ministry. My own ministry never measured up to my ideal, nor did the teaching of my church (Baptist) measure up to my experience.
Then in 1895 Walthall came into contact with the Holiness revival. Its emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit impressed him. Its teachings approximated his ideal more nearly than anything else, but he never fully ascribed to the Holiness theology. He could not accept its theory of sanctification; nor could he accept its abridgement of the supernatural. Even so, the Holiness revival opened him up to a larger sphere of ministry, This in turn gave him the encouragement he needed to preach the full gospel message as he understood it from the Scriptures. As he began to preach a full gospel message, the Baptist leaders excluded him from his church and he was ostracized from the Baptist ministry in 1896. He continued preaching on his own.
After my new vision of the Word of truth, and my expulsion from the Baptist fellowship and ministry, I went alone with a new zeal in an independent, plodding ministry, with church and school houses closed against me. I was looked upon with suspicion, as unbalanced but was so animated by the divine presence that it seemed at times as if terrestrial bearing was almost lost. Baptist minister, J. C, Kelly, and other Baptists who became disfellowshipped because of their beliefs in entire sanctification and the work of the Holy Spirit.
He was soon followed by another Baptist minister, J. C. Kelly, and other Baptists who became disfellowshipped because of their beliefs in entire sanctification and the work of the Holy Spirit.