William J. Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival
(continued from Part Two)
The second floor housed the office of the mission and rooms for several residents including Seymour and his wife Jenny. It also had a large prayer room to handle the overflow from the altar services below. One seeker described it as follows: Upstairs is a long room furnished with chairs and three California redwood planks, laid end to end on backless chairs. This is the Pentecostal upper room where sanctified souls seek Pentecostal fullness and go out speaking in new tongues.4
Still, the revival advanced slowly during the summer months with only 150 people receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost and the Bible evidence. But this changed in the fall as the revival gained momentum and people from far and wide began to attend. Missionary Bernt Bernsten traveled all the way from North China to investigate the happenings after hearing that the promised latter rain was falling.
Stories of the revival spread quickly across North America to Europe and other parts of the world as participants traveled, testified, and published articles in sympathetic holiness publications. Particularly influential was the Apostolic Faith (Los Angeles), issued occasionally between September 1906 and May 1908 through the labors of Seymour and Clara Lum, editors. Distributed without charge, thousands of ministers and laypersons received copies at home and overseas: 5,000 copies of the first edition (September 1906) were printed, and by 1907 the press run reached 40,000.
Most who visited the mission came to receive the empowerment of Spirit baptism and be equipped with intelligible new languages for gospel preaching overseas. This would enable them to bypass the nuisance of formal language study. The Apostolic Faith reported: God is solving the missionary problem, sending out new-tongued missionaries on the apostolic faith line, without purse or scrip, and the Lord is going before them preparing the way. Missionaries home on furloughs also attended and spoke in tongues and in a few instances identified the languages being spoken. The recipients, however, usually depended on the Lord to identify the languages they had received.
African-Americans, Latinos, whites, and others prayed and sang together, creating a dimension of spiritual unity and equality, almost unprecedented for the time. It allowed men, women, and children to celebrate their unity in Christ and participate as led by the Spirit. Indeed, so unusual was the mixture of blacks and whites, that Bartleman enthusiastically exclaimed, The color line was washed away in the blood.5 He meant that in the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, the sin of racial prejudice had been removed by the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, in late summer 1906, Charles Parham had begun leading another Pentecostal revival in Zion City, Illinois, among the followers of the nationally known faith healer John Alexander Dowie. Not until October did Parham leave for California, hoping to consolidate the faithful in Los Angeles within the wider network of Apostolic Faith believers, and second, to harness what he considered to be an unbridled religious enthusiasm. As it happened, the emotional worship and particularly the mingling of whites and blacks together deeply offended him. Parham laid the blame at Seymour's feet.
The majority of the Azusa faithful remained loyal to Seymour after Parham left with some of the people to establish a rival mission. Within just a few years of its beginning, the Apostolic Faith Mission had become predominantly black with Seymour remaining as pastor. Years later prejudice surfaced there as well, however, when Seymour himself excluded whites from leadership posts at the mission, reserving those for people of color.
On a worldwide scale, the Azusa Street revival contributed to a new diaspora of missionaries who anticipated that global evangelization would be achieved by gospel preaching accompanied by miraculous signs and wonders (Acts 5:12). While only a small number of missionaries traveled from Azusa Street to minister overseas, it impacted many more who started other Pentecostal revival centers that surfaced as a result of hearing the news of the outpouring of the Spirit in Los Angeles. For many, the Azusa Street revival had inaugurated at long last the great end-times revival.
Much more could be said about the long-term influence of the revival and that of Bishop William J. Seymour (an honorary title that he later received, probably from his congregation). The limitations of this article, however, preclude such a lengthy discussion. We will look specifically at the legacy of Seymour.
To begin with, it must be noted that he modeled a genuine humility that many acclaimed. He desired to foster unity among the seekers of the Holy Spirit at Azusa and encouraged them to be sensitive to the Spirit's direction of the services there. Photographs depict him as a warm, friendly, and smiling person of average physical stature. Seymour's bout with smallpox had left him blind in his left eye.
Nevertheless, Seymour's ministry did not come without a price. He personally endured the biting criticisms of his opponentsholiness leaders not sympathetic to Pentecostalism, as well as the contempt of Parham and later that of Frank Bartleman. As white Pentecostal denominations formed and told their stories, Seymour was forgotten, partly because he did not contribute to their founding, partly due to their seeing Topeka as the fountainhead of the Movement, and partly due to prioritizing evangelism above preserving the historical record. Seymour also departed from the teaching that speaking in tongues was the initial physical evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. These all contributed to Seymour becoming an almost-forgotten figure in Pentecostal history.
Seymour's greatness today can be found in his concern for spiritual empowerment and unity. The attention at Topeka and other Pentecostal revivals centered on the need for Christians to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit to win souls to Christ. The unique interracial and intercultural dynamics at Azusa, however, accented both holiness of character and power to witness in an unusual demonstration of love and equality in the body of Christ. In this respect, it powerfully reminds us that the fullness of Pentecostal power will elude those who seek for power in their ministry above that of Christlike character.
The missionary expansion of the Early Church as recorded in the Book of Acts highlights the fact the Pentecostal outpouring led to the embrace of people who were normally considered impure by Jewish standards. The outpourings of the Spirit at Samaria (Acts 8) and among the Gentiles (Acts 10) taught early Christians that God's redemptive work transcends racial and cultural lines. Fallen humanity always accords such differences more important than what God designed and by so doing tyrannizes His creative handiwork. Because they had now been baptized into Christ and put on Christ, Paul alerted the Galatian Christians, There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
On the Day of Pentecost, Jewish visitors from many countries stood bewildered as they heard the praises of God in their native languages (Acts 2:513). Some seriously asked, What does this mean? Others poked fun and failed to consider the significance of the occasion. Nonetheless, Peter, placing things in divine perspective, referred them to the words of Joel: In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people (Acts 2:17, NIV).
In September 1906, the first issue of the Apostolic Faith reported: In a short time God began to manifest His power and soon the building could not contain the people. Proud, well-dressed preachers come in to 'investigate.' Soon their high looks are replaced with wonder, then conviction comes, and very often you will find them in a short time wallowing on the dirty floor, asking God to forgive them and make them as little children.
The Azusa Street revival illustrated the fundamental truth about the acquisition of spiritual power: The desire to love others and win the world for Christ begins with brokenness, repentance, and humility.
- Frank Bartleman, Azusa Street (South Plainfield, N.J.: Bridge Publishing, 1980), xviii.
- Ansel Post, Way of Faith, quoted in Frank Bartleman, Azusa Street, (South Plainfield, N.J.: Bridge Publishing, 1980), 61.
- Bartleman, 58.
- Stanley H. Frodsham, With Signs Following (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1941), 34.
- Bartleman, xviii.
Bartleman, Frank. Azusa Street. S. Plainfield, N.J.: Bridge Publishing, 1980; originally published in 1925 as How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles.
Creech, Joe. Visions of Glory: The Place of the Azusa Street Revival in Pentecostal History. Church History 65 (September 1996): 405424.
Hollenweger, Walter J. Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.
Martin, Larry, comp. and ed. The True Believers: Eye-Witness Accounts of the Revival That Shook the World. Joplin, Mo.: Christian Life Books, 1998.
Seymour, William J., ed. The Azusa Street Papers: A Reprint of The Apostolic Faith Mission Publications, Los Angeles, California (190608). Foley, Ala.: Together in the Harvest Publications, 1997.
Robeck, Jr., Cecil M. Azusa Street Revival. In Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. Ed. Stanley M. Burgess and Gary B. McGee. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988, 3136.
_________. William J. Seymour and the 'Bible Evidence.' In Initial Evidence: Historical and Biblical Perspectives on the Pentecostal Doctrine of Spirit Baptism, ed. Gary B. McGee, 7295. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.