“Lord, they’re enemies.” Then love them. “How can I love people that I don’t agree with?”
Forgive them. “I can’t justify them.” I never gave any child of mine authority to justify anyone. I gave you full authority to forgive them. That’s all you have.2
While ministers such as Smith Wigglesworth and Kathryn Kuhlman took the Pentecostal experience to the masses in crusades and revivals, David du Plessis became the theological backbone of the Charismatic Renewal. He uncompromisingly and loving presented the biblical and theological justification of the Pentecostal Movement to the leaders of the traditional denominations the world round. Though this role was critical to the historical denomination’s openness to the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the fifties and sixties, and the fact that David was recognized at one of the eleven greatest “shapers and shakers” of Christianity in the twentieth century in the September 9, 1974, issue of Time magazine, it is sad to note that David is relatively unknown despite the significance of the legacy he left. Regardless, this simple and unassuming South African is perhaps the most important figure in opening the door to Catholics, as well as other traditional denominations, for the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
An Early Hunger
David Johannes du Plessis was born in a small town called Twenty-Four Rivers near Cape Town, South Africa, on February 7, 1905—just over a year before William Seymour opened the mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles that would spark the Pentecostal Revival. Ever hungry for all that God had for them, David’s parents came into Pentecost in 1914 through the ministries of John G. Lake and Thomas Hezmalhalch, who had come out of the ministry of John Alexander Dowie in Zion, Illinois.3
In 1916, David’s family moved to Basutoland (which was renamed Lesotho in 1966) as missionaries. The area was often called the “Switzerland of South Africa” because of the beautiful, rugged, and often snow-covered peaks. Their mission station was halfway up one of these mountains. It was here David felt he first learned about simple and sincere faith. He knew that the Africans were illiterate, yet at the same time, much to his ten-year-old consternation, he also realized they knew Jesus in a much more real way than he did.
When Europeans were saved, noticeable change took some time to detect, yet among the Africans it seemed overnight. He saw that to them, if the Bible said it one way, then that was the way it was, no questions asked. He had been getting up and praying and reading his Bible every morning as long as he could remember, but at the same time he knew he did not know Jesus as these people did. A new cry came from his heart to know Jesus as authentically as the Africans did.
Jesus Saved Me
Later that same year, this cry began to be answered. While riding from their missionary compound to the distant post office and back again on a fellow missionary’s horse, David saw a thunderstorm in the distance behind him that put great fear into his heart. He decided to try to outrun the storm, but this proved futile, and soon he found himself in the midst of a downpour. He was about a third of the eleven miles home when a lightning bolt struck the ground no more than twenty feet in front of him and the galloping horse. Then came the deafening thunderclap. Half thrown from his horse already, he slid off the rest of the way and called out, “Jesus! Save me! Save me!”
Although no such appeal had before changed him, this call to Jesus broke through some spiritual barrier. Immediately upon his request, he knew in his heart that he was saved. Nothing around him had changed, but it was as if everything within had. The fear was gone and he felt God near to him. He looked into the clouds wondering if it was in such clouds Jesus would return to the earth. He wanted so strongly to meet Him face to face! He mounted his horse again and headed home. When the mail was delivered and the horse was rubbed down and dried in its barn, David returned home where, his mother asked how he had gotten through the rainstorm. His answer was simple and to the point, “Well, Jesus saved me.”4”
A Thirst To Be Filled
A few years later, in 1918 at about the age of thirteen, David longed to receive the infilling of the Holy Spirit with all of his heart. While it seemed a strange request, he asked his high-school principal for a day off from school so that he could spend the day in prayer. This was granted. Because the Pentecostals were still regarded with great suspicion in the area, the only place they could rent to meet was the storehouse of a coffin maker. So David, his father, and some half-dozen others interested in helping in his quest gathered in this warehouse with him to fast and pray until he received this baptism.
They prayed all day Friday, through Friday night, and into Saturday. By this time they were worn out, and David’s nerves were fraying with frustration. A quieter youth who had gathered with them, a farm girl about a year older than David, came to him to give him a message she felt she had from the Lord, “If you will confess the thing that is on your conscience, He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.”
Searching his conscience, he found that a lie he had told his parents seven years earlier still troubled him. It was the first sin he had ever been aware of making. He promptly confessed this to both parents who just as promptly forgave him, and with his conscience now cleared, he returned to prayer feeling anything but worthy of being filled with God’s Spirit. However, it was at this moment he received his first vision. He saw a book being held by two hands whose pages were totally white and clean. Then he heard a voice say, “There is nothing recorded against you. The blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God has cleansed you from all unrighteousness.”5His heart was filled with joy at this, and he broke forth in holy laughter which soon gave way to a flow of speaking in tongues.
David eventually arose from this to begin developing his skills and anointing as a street preacher in the weekly outdoor evangelism sponsored by his church in Ladybrand and elsewhere. In an increasingly strong and persuasive voice, he told his testimony again and again and received strong responses from all of his audiences.
David’s Early Years in Ministry
When David’s funds ran short for continuing at university, he moved to Pretoria to find work with the South African Railways engineering department. While in Pretoria, he became a regular minister in the Upper Room, a series of rooms and a meeting hall above a chemist’s shop a block from the largest Dutch Reformed Church in Pretoria. Since the Dutch Reformed looked upon the Pentecostals as false prophets, it was always interesting on Sundays to see the two churches emptying into the streets where the city’s and nation’s highest officials and business leaders mingled with the poor, outrageous “apostolics.”
It was as a minister in the Upper Room that one of the members of the congregation asked David to speak to his backslidden niece. When he met Miss Anna Cornelia Jacobs, he found out she had spoken a word from the Lord to one of the more distinguished women in her congregation and had been rebuked for it by the pastor. She had decided, because of this, that she would not return to church. At this, David asked about the genuineness of her conversion, and in telling him about it she melted and began weeping. While there had been no question about her offense, there was also no question about her love for Jesus.
Before the evening was over, she was restored to the faith, and David had had a very special word from the Lord about her. The Lord simply told him, “That’s your wife.” Shocked, he didn’t know what to make of it, but he was grateful that she was so pretty. Two days later they had their first date, and their courtship lasted for eighteen months. They were married on August 13, 1927. They had seven children together—Anna Cornelia “Corrie” (1928–), Eunice Elizabeth (March-December 1932), David Johannes (1933-1985), Philip Richelieu (1940–), Peter Louis le Roux (1944–), Matthew Kriel (1947–), and Basel Somerset (1949–). Their marriage would last just short of sixty years.
David was ordained at the age of twenty-five. In 1932, he finished second in the elections of the general secretary of the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) and won the post in 1936, which he held until he resigned in 1947. It was as general secretary of the AFM that David was in charge of organizing the tour and speaking arrangements of Smith Wigglesworth, when he came to the country the same year David was elected general secretary. David was still a young man of thirty at the time.
Smith Wigglesworth Visits South Africa
When Rev. Wigglesworth came to him, David was no fan of the mainline denominational churches. His run-ins with the Dutch Reformed Church, which considered Pentecostals little better than heretics at best, greatly colored his opinions of the traditional churches of the time. His hope was that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit would sweep true believers out of the mainline denominations and into Pentecostal churches. Yet the essence of Rev. Wigglesworth’s prophecy to him was that he would take Pentecost to them rather than the other way around—that this young man from South Africa would be chosen of God to travel to the United States and be a major catalyst of the Charismatic Renewal in the traditional denominations. Thus it was that Rev. Wigglesworth pinned this young man to the wall of his AFM office in 1936 and told him where God would lead him in the second half of the twentieth century.
In 1937, David was invited to address the General Counsel of the Assemblies of God in Memphis, Tennessee. This was not only his first trip to the United States, but also his first trip outside of South Africa. David was also key to the organization of the first Pentecostal World Conference that was held in Zurich, Switzerland in May 1947. David ended up giving the keynote address for the conference, a message entitled “Gather the Wheat—Burn the Chaff,” about coming into the maturity Christ has for all of us. Not long after this, God spoke to David about more of a worldwide ministry, and he resigned as secretary of the AFM and moved his family to Basel, Switzerland.
Disaster Leads to Revelation
While traveling and ministering in the United States in 1948, David and Pastor Paul Walker had a major accident when their Packard ran into a train on a foggy West Virginia mountain road. While he was recovering, David had great blocks of time to pray and seek the Lord. During this time, the Lord again spoke to him about Rev. Wigglesworth’s prophecy. He thought the Lord would bring him in like a prophet to pound them with the truth, yet God was asking him to go to them in meekness and humility and simply share. The revival would come through forgiveness offered without it being asked for. While David wanted to come in like Jonah and prophesy doom over them unless they repented, he was to come in as a servant and simply offer the truth. It would be a revival birthed from forgiveness, not fight. It took some time for David to get his mind around this fact, and he spent a lot of time meditating on 1 Corinthians 13 during the rest of his hospital stay.
David also continued to work on the details of the 1949 Pentecostal World Conference (PWC) from his hospital room and attended the meeting in Paris on his crutches. Here, armed with his more profound understanding of love and forgiveness, David was very effective in stopping the arguments so that the conference could go on in peace and growing unity.
The Door Opens to the Ecumenicals
One day as he was reading the newspaper (David and his family were living in Stamford, Connecticut, at this time), David came across a statement by Dr. John A. MacKay, who was president of Princeton Theological Seminary and a major Presbyterian leader. Previously, David had read that he had called the Pentecostal missionaries in Latin and South America “the fly in the ointment of Protestantism.” He had seen them as a hindrance to all that the Protestants were trying to accomplish in these areas, yet in this article Dr. MacKay said that the Pentecostal Movement was the greatest blessing to the church in the twentieth century. David was curious about such a change of heart. Could this be his open door?
He telephoned Dr. MacKay at Princeton and asked him about his quote. He found that Dr. MacKay had indeed had a change of heart about what the Pentecostals were doing, and he invited David to lunch. David went to Princeton, met Dr. MacKay and, as David himself described, “It was one of those rare and precious relationships in which both parties fully perceive the truth about the other—differences and all—and are in a twinkling of an eye united forever in the Spirit.”6 The friendship was indeed one that would last the rest of their lives.
A few days after this meeting, David felt prompted in the Spirit to visit the headquarters of the World Council of Churches in Manhattan. With little more than this, he went and fumbled in his introduction of himself to Dr. Roswell Barnes because he couldn’t explain why he had come. However, Dr. Barnes and his staff were fascinated to have a Pentecostal in their midst, and David ended up spending the entire day with them as they asked him questions, and he explained what Pentecostalism and the baptism in the Holy Spirit were all about.
When he contacted Dr. MacKay to thank him for his help, David was then invited to attend the world conference for the International Missionary Council (IMC) in Germany right on the heels of the 1952 PWC in London. David accepted, knowing he could easily extend his time for the PWC to attend the second event, but now he knew he was in the thick of it. The leading figures of the mainline denominations would be there, and he would be walking like Daniel into the mouth of a potential lion’s den. But it just happened that Dr. MacKay was still president of the IMC, and when David walked in Dr. MacKay greeted him quite warmly and introduced him around. David had planned on staying three days, but in the end he stayed for the full eleven days of the conference and had 110 interviews among the 210 delegates. It was from this meeting that people began to refer to David as “Mr. Pentecost.” David attended every WCC conference from 1956 until the end of his ministry.
In 1956, David was invited to speak at a retreat of ecumenical leaders in Connecticut. He was invited to speak candidly on the issues surrounding the Holy Spirit, the Pentecostal Movement, and the growing Charismatic Renewal. David poured out his heart to them, and they still wanted more. David remembered this later as one of the greatest meetings of his life.
The Door Opens to the Catholic Church
A new breakthrough came when David spoke at a gathering in St. Andrews, Scotland, by invitation of the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches. This was in preparation for the third assembly of the World Council of Churches, which was to meet in New Delhi in 1961. It was here that David had his first encounter with a Roman Catholic priest, Father Bernard Leeming, who just happened to be a personal friend of Pope John XXIII. Through this relationship, God would eventually open the door for David to minister in Rome and the Vatican.
Despite this growing flow of the Spirit, in 1962 David received a letter saying that his papers as a minister with the Assemblies of God were being pulled, credentials he had obtained shortly after moving to the United States. There were no reasons given, just notice that he was no longer ordained by their body. David had too much work to do for the Lord to worry about who was ordaining him or not. While the mainline Pentecostals were no longer calling him to speak at their meetings, the rest of the Christian world was.
While the 1950s seemed to be the crucial years of breakthrough for David, the 1960s and 1970s would be major years of spreading the Gospel wherever the doors were opened—he would average over 100,000 miles of travel each year, ministering to the broadest group of people imaginable. These decades proved to be incredibly busy times. By then, David’s work had been again validated in the eyes of most Pentecostals, although his credentials as a minister were not reinstated until 1979.
In 1972, and as a result of Vatican II’s desire to understand the growing Charismatic Renewal going on around the world in Catholic churches, David was crucial in initiating a series of dialogues between the Roman Catholic Church and a team of Pentecostals led by himself, and then eventually his youngest brother, Justus. Because he did not belong to any of the formal Pentecostal denominations, he became the perfect man for the job, as there were strained relationships between mainline Pentecostal denominational churches and Catholic churches around the world, especially in South America. These dialogues spanned four- or five-year periods continuing into the 1990s, but David served as the chairman of the Pentecostal side in the initial two, which spanned 1972-1976 and 1977-1982. It is easy to say that these dialogues would never have happened except for the constant efforts of David and his counterpart on the Catholic side, Father Kilian McDonnell. Martin Robinson described David as “the chief architect”7 of these talks, and as being instrumental to the tone and camaraderie of the discussions.
Another note of this incredible opening was that David himself ministered in St. Peter’s Basilica as part of the 1975 Congress on Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church. The one frustration was that, despite the impact this had on the Catholic Church in paving the way for the Charismatic Catholic Movement, none of the Pentecostal denominations, in either the West (such as executives from the Assemblies of God in the U.S.) or the third world (such as Pastor Paul Yonggi Cho of South Korea, who was also invited to attend) would be involved officially, despite the best efforts of both sides.
Years of Faithful Service Are Finally Recognized
David was recognized time and again for his work, having been the only significant leader to be part of the three most noteworthy Christian movements of the twentieth century: the Pentecostal Movement, the Charismatic Renewal, and the Ecumenical Movement. In the September 9, 1974, issue of Time magazine, David was mentioned alongside such people as Billy Graham, Hans Küng, Jürgen Moltmann, and Rosemary Ruether as one of the eleven greatest “shapers and shakers” of Christianity in the twentieth century. On May 23, 1976, St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, presented him with the Pax Christi award.
In May 1978, he finally received a D.D. that honestly gave him the title of “Dr. du Plessis,” when Bethany Bible College in Santa Cruz, California, awarded him an honorary doctorate. As a result of these things and a growing acknowledgement that David had been following God throughout his ecumenical involvement, his Assemblies of God ordination papers were reissued in 1979. Then on November 9, 1983, David was honored with the Benemerenti Medal by Pope John Paul II, an award for outstanding service to all of Christianity. It was the first time this award had been given by the Roman Catholic Church to someone who was not a Catholic.
At the invitation of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, David formally donated his personal papers and library to what would become the David du Plessis Archive, which still exists today. Then from 1985 until his death, David also served at the seminary as their Resident Consultant for Ecumenical Affairs with part of his duties being to organize this archive.
David’s final days came when, during a routine gall bladder operation in August of 1986, the doctors discovered David had inoperable abdominal cancer. David passed away within a few months on February 2, 1987, just five days short of his eighty-second birthday.
- Adapted with permission from The Smith Wigglesworth Prophecy and the Greatest Revival of All Time (Ft. Lauderdale, FL: Wilimington Group Publishers, 2005).
- David du Plessis, Simple and Profound (Orleans, MA: Paraclete, 1986), 120.
- John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907) purchased 6,800 acres of farmland in Lake County, Illinois and founded the city on Zion in 1890 as a community of faith and divine healing. For more information on the life and ministry of John Alexander
- Dowie, see God’s Generals (Whitaker House).
- David du Plessis, A Man called Mr. Pentecost (Plainfield, NJ: Logos International, 1977), 21-24.
- Ibid., 33.
- Ibid., 172.
- Martin Robinson, “To the Ends of the Earth: The Pilgrimage of an Ecumenical Pentecostal, David J. du Plessis (1905-1987).” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Birmingham, England, 1987), 233.