DAVID du PLESSIS 1905-1987
His birth and family
David Johannes du Plessis was a South African-born (but naturalised American) ecumenical and international Pentecostal spokesman whose influence amongst international denominations earned him the nickname ‘Mr. Pentecost.’ He was born on February 7, 1905in a small town called Twenty-Four Rivers near Cape Town, at the far south-western tip of South Africa. His parents became Pentecostal Christians 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.
In 1916, David’s family moved to Basutoland (renamed Lesotho in 1966) as missionaries, then a year later to Ladybrand where David’s father applied his carpentry skills to aid the missionaries. It was here that David became impressed with the joyfulness of the black believers and was converted during a thunderstorm, aged 12 years .
He decided to try to outrun the storm, but 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 his horse, followed by a deafening thunderclap. Half thrown from his horse already, he slid off the rest of the way and called out, ‘Jesus! Save me! Save me!’ Assurance of salvation was immediate. When home his mother asked how he managed to get through the storm. His answer was simple, ‘Well, Jesus saved me.’
Baptised in the Spirit
In 1918 at about of thirteen years of age, David was baptised in the Holy Spirit at meetings held by Charles Heatley in the storehouse of a coffin maker! The waiting was spread over two days and he realised that a long-time secret sin was restricting the Spirit’s flow. After he confessed he had a 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.’ His 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.
After this David began preaching in his church’s the weekly outdoor evangelistic ministry. With increasingly bold and persuasive voice, whenever he told his testimony he received strong responses from all of his hearers.
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 Pentecostals were still looked upon in those times 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.”
As a young pastor of the ‘Upper Room’ he was asked David to speak to Anna Cornelia Jacobs, who had left the church because her ‘word from the Lord’ given to one of the more distinguished women in the congregation had not been received. David asked about the genuineness of her conversion, and in telling him about it she began weeping. Clearly she was wrong in leaving the church but she also clearly loved Jesus. She was soon estored to the faith, and David received her a word from the Lord about her which shocked him. The Lord told him, ‘That’s your wife.’ After an eighteen month courtship they married on August 13, 1927, later having seven children! Their marriage lasted almost sixty years.
David was ordained in 1932 at the age of twenty-five, and was elected as the general secretary of the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM, the strongest Pentecostal church in S.A.) in 1936, a post he held until he resigned in 1947. It in his first year as general secretary of the AFM that David organised Smith Wigglesworth’s itinery and acted as the interpreter in Afrikaans congregations. David was still a young man of thirty at the time.
Smith Wigglesworth’s Visit to South Africa
During the visit Smith Wigglesworth shared a prophecy that was destined to redirect his life. The prophecy was 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. Wigglesworth pinned this young man to the wall of his AFM office in 1936 and told him where God would lead him for decades to follow. All he had to do was to remain obedient and faithful to the Lord.
His first trip outside of South Africa was in 1937 when he addressed the General Counsel of the Assemblies of God in Memphis, Tennessee. Ten years later, in May 1947, the first Pentecostal World Conference was held in Zurich, Switzerland. David gave the keynote address entitled “Gather the Wheat—Burn the Chaff,” about coming into the maturity Christ has for all of us. Soon after this, God spoke to David about a worldwide ministry, and he resigned as secretary of the AFM and moved his family to Basel, Switzerland, moving to America the following year.
Early Ecumenical Influence
One day as he was reading the newspaper 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.” But 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 had a change of heart about the Pentecostals 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.” McKay was du Plessis’ gate into organised ecumenism and from this point he became increasingly involved in the ecumenical movement.
As his influence grew amongst global ecclesiastical representatives denominational leaders were surprised to meet an impressive and ‘rational Pentecostal,’ while the Pentecostals became very uneasy about his apparent ‘compromises.’ In 1962 David the Assemblies of God revoked his ministerial credentials, which he received shortly after moving to the United States. There were no reasons given, just notice that he was no longer ordained by their body. Nevertheless, if Pentecostal’s didn’t want his ministry there were many who did.
The 1960s and 1970s were years of spreading the Gospel wherever the doors were opened—he averaged over 100,000 miles of travel each year, ministering to the broadest group of people imaginable, including Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics. David’s work was slowly accepted by 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. Because he did not belong to any of the formal Pentecostal denominations, he became the ideal person 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 first 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.
David even 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 would be involved officially, despite the best efforts of both sides. But the work went on. Pentecost had invaded the denominations. The charismatic Movement had been born in 1960 when Dennis Bennett had been baptised in the Spirit in Van Nuys, California and a major influence on its growth was ‘Mr. Pentecost.’
The Scope of His Ministry
David was a significant leader 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. Kilian McDonnell spoke of him as a ‘national treasure.’
In May 1978, he finally received a D.D. that honestly gave him the title of “Dr. du Plessis,” at 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 honoured 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.
He died on February 7th 1987. Well done, good and faithful servant!
Bibliography: R. P. Spittler art. 'International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements' 2002.; David du Plessis ‘A Man called Mr. Pentecost,’ 1977 and ‘The Spirit Bade Me Go’1970.