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William J. Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival

(continued from Part One)

William J. Seymour

William J. Seymour

William J. Seymour, an African-American, was born May 2, 1870, in Centerville, Louisiana, to former slaves Simon and Phillis Seymour, who raised him as a Baptist. Later, while living in Cincinnati, Ohio, he came into contact with holiness teachings through Martin Wells Knapp's God's Revivalist movement and Daniel S. Warner's Church of God Reformation movement, otherwise known as the Evening Light Saints. Believing that they were living in the twilight of human history, these Christians believed that the Spirit's outpouring would precede the rapture of the Church. They deeply impressed the young Seymour.

After moving to Houston, Seymour attended a local African-American holiness congregation pastored by Lucy F. Farrow, a former governess in the household of Charles F. Parham. Parham led the midwestern Apostolic Faith movement, the original name of the Pentecostal movement, that had begun in his Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, in January 1901. By 1905, he had relocated his base of operations to the Houston area where he conducted revivals and started another Bible school. Farrow arranged for Seymour to attend classes. However, because of the “Jim Crow” segregation laws of the time, Seymour had to listen to Parham's lectures while sitting apart from the other students. Seymour accepted Parham's view of baptism in the Holy Spirit—the belief that in every instance, God would give intelligible languages—speaking in tongues to believers for missionary evangelism.

Neeley Terry, an African-American and member of the new congregation led by Hutchinson in Los Angeles, visited Houston in 1905 and was impressed when she heard Seymour preach. Returning home, she recommended him to Hutchinson, since the church was seeking a pastor. As a result, Seymour accepted the invitation to shepherd the small flock. With some financial assistance from Parham, he traveled by train westward and arrived in Los Angeles in February 1906.

Azusa Street Revival

Seymour immediately encountered resistance when, just 2 days after arriving, he began preaching to his new congregation that speaking in tongues was the Bible evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. On the following Sunday, March 4, he returned to the mission and found that Hutchinson had padlocked the door. Condemnation also came from the Holiness Church Association of Southern California with which the church had affiliation. Not everyone in the congregation, however, was troubled by Seymour's teaching. Undaunted, Seymour, staying at the home of church member Edward S. Lee, accepted Lee's invitation to hold Bible studies and prayer meetings there. After this, he went to the home of Richard and Ruth Asberry at 214 North Bonnie Brae Street. Five weeks later, Lee became the first to speak in tongues. Seymour then shared Lee's testimony at a gathering on North Bonnie Brae and soon many began to speak in tongues.

214 North Bonnie Brae Street

Word of these events traveled quickly in both the African-American and white communities. For several nights, speakers preached on the porch to the crowds on the street below. Believers from Hutchinson's mission, First New Testament Church, and various holiness congregations began to pray for the Pentecostal baptism. (Hutchinson herself was eventually baptized in the Spirit as was Seymour himself.) Finally, after the front porch collapsed, the group rented the former Stevens African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church at 312 Azusa Street in early April. A Los Angeles newspaper referred to it as a “tumble down shack.” It had recently been used as a livery stable and tenement house. Discarded lumber and plaster littered the large, barn-like room on the ground floor.

The meetings at the Apostolic Faith Mission quickly caught the attention of the press due to the unusual nature of the worship. Between 300 and 350 people could get into the whitewashed 40- by 60-foot wood frame structure, with many others occasionally forced to stand outside. Church services were held on the first floor where the benches were placed in a rectangular pattern. Some of the benches were simply planks put on top of empty nail kegs. There was no elevated platform. There was no pulpit at the beginning of the revival.

Although several people could be considered leaders, the best known was the unassuming William J. Seymour. Frank Bartleman, an early participant, recalled that “Brother Seymour generally sat behind two empty shoe boxes, one on top of the other. He usually kept his head inside the top one during the meeting, in prayer. There was no pride there…. In that old building, with its low rafters and bare floors, God took strong men and women to pieces, and put them together again, for His glory…. The religious ego preached its own funeral sermon quickly.”3

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Endnotes

  1. Frank Bartleman, Azusa Street (South Plainfield, N.J.: Bridge Publishing, 1980), xviii.
  2. Ansel Post, Way of Faith, quoted in Frank Bartleman, Azusa Street, (South Plainfield, N.J.: Bridge Publishing, 1980), 61.
  3. Bartleman, 58.

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