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William J. Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival

by Gary B. McGee

To read the newspapers in 1906, one might have wondered about all the excitement in an old building on Azusa Street in the industrial part of the city. According to the Los Angeles Times, a bizarre new religious sect had started with people “breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand.” Furthermore, “Devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories, and work themselves into a state of mad excitement.”

If that didn't grab the reader's attention, the article continued by saying that, “Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication.”1 To top it all off, they claimed to have received the “gift of tongues,” and what's more, “comprehend the babel.”

Nonetheless, for the spiritually hungry who came from far and wide to receive their Pentecost, “the very atmosphere of heaven” had descended, according to one.

A visiting Baptist pastor said, “The Holy Spirit fell upon me and filled me literally, as it seemed to lift me up, for indeed, I was in the air in an instant, shouting, 'Praise God,' and instantly I began to speak in another language. I could not have been more surprised if at the same moment someone had handed me a million dollars.”2

Little could the subscribers of the Times have guessed that in years to come, historians would say that the Azusa Street revival played a major role in the development of modern Pentecostalism—a Movement that changed the religious landscape and became the most vibrant force for world evangelization in the 20th century. Azusa Street became the most significant revival of the century in terms of global perspective.

While comparable in many ways to other Pentecostal revivals at the time, several dynamics at the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street set it apart. To understand what happened and why it still has relevance for believers after nearly a century, one must look at the events leading up to the revival in Los Angeles, the leadership of William J. Seymour, and its unique features and legacy.

The Welsh Revival

Expectancy of revival intensified in Los Angeles, California, when believers there heard about the remarkable revival in Wales, where from September 1904 to June 1905, 100,000 people were converted to Christ. For the evangelicals around the world who had been praying for the outpouring of the latter rain of the Spirit as promised by the Old Testament prophet Joel (2:23–29), the spectacular results in Wales suggested that the great end-times revival had begun. The world could now be evangelized in the power of the Spirit before the imminent return of Christ and the impending judgment on the wicked.

The news of the Wales revival piqued the interest of Joseph Smale, pastor of First Baptist Church in Los Angeles. He traveled to Wales to see the revival firsthand. After returning home and telling his congregation about the revival, he wrote that “fully two hundred of them came out of their seats and wept in penitence before the Lord.” Smale began holding daily services both in the afternoons and evenings, and continued to hammer away at the need for revival in Los Angeles and America. Church members then sought earnestly for the power of the Holy Spirit and His gifts. But after a 15-week diet of this preaching, the church board complained and Smale left to found First New Testament Church.

Another congregation, Second Baptist Church, also experienced division when Julia W. Hutchinson—an African-American—and several other members embraced the holiness belief that a second work of grace following conversion would purify the soul of its sinful nature. These new groups of believers, however, continued to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

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Gary B. McGee Ph.D., is professor of church history at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri.

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