William J. Seymour:
Peril and Possibilities for a New Era
By Leonard Lovett
What can today’s church leaders learn from the life and legacy of William Joseph Seymour, one of the most significant progenitors of modern Pentecostalism?
Seymour’s impact on the Pentecostal movement stemmed from his Afro-centric roots that evolved from the traditions of radical black slave religion. The role of theodicy also helped shape his faith. What can pastors discern from Seymour’s deep commitment to his mission in the face of overwhelming odds. Seymour’s leadership paradigm presents new directions and possibilities for ministry in a new era.
William Joseph Seymour was born May 2, 1870, in Centerville, Louisiana, to Simon and Phillis Salabar Seymour, former slaves. Centerville, in St. Mary Parish, is located between Lafayette and Houma, Louisiana, in Bayou Teche country. During the late 1800s, the principal agricultural commodities were cotton, sugar cane, corn, and cattle. Seymour emerged from the womb of black slave religion with its roots in African soil. True leaders are born with potential, but are also made from the cauldron of adversity.
While the importance and significance of African religious culture surviving in the New World has been debated by anthropologists, sociologists, and historians, evidence suggests that Seymour was indeed the fruit of black slave religion, which has its historic roots anchored deep in African and Afro–Caribbean religion. His deep religious yearnings were decisive in the formation of his faith.
Since most of the first slaves who were brought to the American colonies came from the Antillean subregion, it is possible that some of them had already made a partial transition from their native religions to Christianity prior to any systematic evangelization on the American mainland. It was from slave religion that an unstructured black style of worship developed as slaves encountered the almighty God of their fathers. Seymour maintained a deep sense of continuity with his historic roots. One’s identity is bound up in one’s own historicity.
While slaves were not educated in terms of Western standards and cultural ethos, their ancestral religions and the religious consciousness engendered in them were highly complex. Specific religious beliefs salvaged from Africa often came under vigorous assault by Protestant missionaries. It was the slaves’ adaptation to Christianity without being completely divested of their native religious worship style that later impacted black religious lifestyle. This issue became problematic during the post-Azusa Street era.
Information on Seymour’s childhood is scant. Around 1894, when Seymour was a young man, he moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal church. It is speculated that his reason for moving to this urban center was employment. He worked as a waiter at several upscale hotels. His sojourn at Indianapolis was brief.
He later moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Between 1900 and 1902, Seymour came in contact with the Holiness movement. During this time, Seymour was attracted to the Evening Light Saints, a religious movement that was a precursor to the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). Their biblical prophetic credo was based on Zechariah 14:7 “It shall come to pass, that at evening time it shall be light” (KJV). The influence of the Evening Light Saints had hardly waned when Seymour adopted their eschatological perspective that history was approaching a rapid cataclysmic ending. Seymour’s premillennial escha-tological perspective, however, ran counter to the Evening Light Saints. They were amillennialist and rejected special revelations.1
Seymour contracted smallpox while in Ohio and lost his vision in one eye.2 He viewed this incident as a rebuke from God for avoiding his earlier call to ministry. At the turn of the century he moved to Houston, Texas, and reconnected with relatives and friends. Seymour conducted evangelistic campaigns in Louisiana and Texas, as he tried to live out the mandate of the gospel. He sought the counsel of Charles Price Jones, founder of Church of Christ Holiness usa, and pastor of Charles Harrison Mason (founder of the Church of God in Christ). Seymour returned to Houston where, for a brief time, he shepherded a small group under Lucy Farrow. Farrow encouraged Seymour to study with Charles Fox Parham.
Evolution Through Adversity
To accommodate Seymour at his Bible school,Parham allowed him to sit in the hallway and listen to classroom instruction. Segregation and Jim Crow laws prevailed to keep races separate. Seymour’s treatment was not a snub, but was typical of the day. Here Seymour learned a new teaching: the baptism in the Holy Spirit was subsequent to salvation and the sign of the Baptism was speaking in other tongues. This doctrine became the distinguishing feature of modern Pentecostalism.
The egalitarian climate for Seymour’s mission was set when Julia W. Hutchins, pastor of a small Holiness mission in Los Angeles, California, invited him to preach. Seymour preached what he had learned from Parham about the baptism in the Holy Spirit with tongues as a sign. When Seymour returned to preach later that day, he was locked out of the building.
Edward S. Lee offered Seymour a room in his home. While there, Seymour started a home Bible study and prayer meeting. The meeting quickly became too large for the small Lee home, so it was moved two blocks to the Richard and Ruth Asberry home at 214 North Bonnie Brae Street.
Several black washerwomen fueled the daily prayer in their thirst for God. They danced before the Lord until the floor caved in. Persons of various races appeared as curiosity seekers. The locked door became for Seymour “an open door that no one can shut” (Revelation 3:8).
With an intense hunger for God, Seymour began fasting and praying. John G. Lake recalled Seymour’s testimony during this period. In Seymour’s own words: “Prior to my meeting with Parham, the Lord had sanctified me from sin, and had led me into a deep life of prayer, assigning 5 hours out of the 24 every day for prayer. This prayer life I continued for 3 1/2 years, when one day as I prayed the Holy Ghost said to me, ‘there are better things to be had in the spiritual life, but they must be sought out with faith and prayer.’ This so quickened my soul that I increased my hours of prayer to 7 out of 24 and continued to pray on for 2 years longer, until the baptism fell on us.”3 God continued to do great things with ordinary people. On April 9, 1906, several members of the informal Bible study began to speak in tongues. Lee asked Seymour to lay hands on him and pray. When Seymour laid hands on Lee, he fell to the floor as a dead man. Jennie Moore, who later married Seymour, spoke in six languages under the influence of the Spirit and played the piano as she sang in tongues. On April 12, Seymour received his baptism in the Spirit, “falling to the floor like a dead man as he spoke in tongues.”4 People coming off the street came under the influence of the Spirit as they entered the house. Seymour frequently preached from Mark 16 and Acts 2:4. He is said to have interpreted Scripture literally as he spoke under the anointing of the Spirit. The crowds were overwhelming and they were forced to move to a larger facility.
The Stable At Lots Seven And Eight
Seymour and company found a rundown former sanctuary of the Stevens African Methodist Episcopal Church (now First AME Church) at 312 Azusa Street. The legal description of the property was “lots seven and eight of orange tract, City of Los Angeles, County of Los Angeles, State of California.”5 A square, structured building, measuring 40 feet by 60 feet near downtown Los Angeles and close to a freight terminal, became the new home of this band of believers. Revival continued there nonstop for 3 years, night and day. The building had been converted into a stable. A crude pulpit was made from wooden shoe crates and placed on a level floor. The building was humble in appearance. The pews were made from nail kegs and rough wooden planks. An altar was built. Seymour and other church workers lived on the second floor. A long narrow room on the second floor became the Pentecostal upper room.
In spite of the ridicule from news reporters, the revival continued drawing crowds from every walk of life. Everything was spontaneous. People prayed, sang hymns, spoke in tongues, read Scripture, gave their testimony, shook, prophesied, and fell as they were “slain in the Spirit.” The most popular song was “The Comforter Has Come.”Frank Bartleman wrote: “the color line was washed away in the blood. Indeed, the “color line was overcome by the blood.”6 Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. To be racist and Spirit-filled is a logical contradiction.
In October 1906, Parham visited the Mission and was extremely critical of Seymour. He ridiculed Seymour’s behavior as animalistic and disgusting. Parham attempted to take over but was rebuffed by Seymour’s followers. William H. Durham was invited to preach at the Mission and lobbied for control. Seymour eventually regained control and locked out Durham.
William J. Seymour and his
wife, Jennie Evans Moore
Seymour’s marriage to Jennie Moore became a point of controversy for Clara Lum and Florence Crawford. Lum, editor of The Apostolic Faith, seized the mailing list and moved to Portland, Oregon, to join Crawford. Seymour was unable to retrieve the mailing list despite several attempts. Several ministers began siphoning off members from the mission and this proved painful to Seymour.7 In a letter addressed to The Apostolic Faith, just 2 years after the Azusa Street revival began, Mason wrote: “The fight has been great. I was put out, because I believed that God did baptize me with the Holy Ghost among you all. Well, He did it and it just suits me. ... His banner over me is love.”8
Religious and civil persecution began to plague African-American Holiness–Pentecostal adherents. Mason and D.J. Young were sent by Charles P. Jones to investigate the explosive revival in Los Angeles in 1907. After receiving the baptism in the Holy Spirit, Mason returned and parted ways with Jones and founded the Church of God in Christ. His friend, the late Bishop Mack E. Jonas (See eyewitness account.) was among the first African-Americans to have received the baptism in the Holy Spirit at the Azusa Mission. In later years, Mason provided a covering for many Assemblies of God ministers.
A few years after this 3-year revival, however, many converts of the Apostolic Faith Mission were suffering from within and without their celebrated enclaves. Soon they were in triple jeopardy — African-American, poor, and Pentecostal. To view the world only from the vantage point of the privileged can impose severe limitations on our spirited vision. The insults and abuse inflicted on these early pioneers caused them to develop a worldview that was much closer to reality than the views of the privileged few. The unjust suffering these faithful servants endured gave them special insight into the work of the Spirit in the world. Their suffering forced them to reject the abstract god of the philosophers for a more concrete God who could be encountered and known at a deeply personal level. Their God was more than Paul Tillich’s Ground of Being but rather a Battle Axe in the time of trouble and a Shelter in the time of a storm.
It was in God’s providence that Seymour would start the revival that ushered in 20th-century Pentecostalism. The converted livery stable in the ghetto of Los Angeles became a beacon to the world and the birthplace from which virtually all 20th-century Pentecostals trace their lineage. At least 26 church bodies trace their Pentecostal doctrine to Azusa Street. No prior revival bore such interracial and ecumenical fruits. Not only did persons of various races in North America participate, but adherents from more than 52 nations also responded to the Holy Spirit. Seymour died on September 28, 1922, and lies in repose at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. He now belongs to the ages, but his spiritual legacy lives on.
Possibilities For The Future
What can pastors learn from the life and legacy of William J. Seymour?
First, 21st-century observers of religion have noted that the geocentric shift of Christianity has moved from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere. The most visible manifestation of this shift is the rapid rise of charismatic renewal within the body of Christ. Following the cloud of God’s decisive movement in our time has far-reaching implications for the Church. First Corinthians 1:27–29 says: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” An ordinary person can do extraordinary things when fully yielded to God.
Second, from adversity we discover our identity. The New Testament church grew during persecution. It is through the scattering that God’s decisive kairos (time) is realized. Seymour was vigilant and steadfast during the dark days of adversity.
Third, from Seymour we learn that oral theological discourse is valid within a literary culture. Many New Testament gospel narratives survived through the medium of oral tradition. George Buttrick stated: “Scholars grope through deserted shrines in search of God, while He can be found by a lowly saint upon his knees.” When leaders seek God’s will through prayer and postpone their selfish agendas, they can be assured of the advent of surprise by God.
Fourth, God does not promise success, but does require faithfulness. Seymour’s premature death at 52 years old is troubling. Though dead, the historical legacy of William J. Seymour speaks from the grave. God rewards faithfulness.
Fifth, when the debate regarding the progenitor of modern Pentecostalism has ended, we must make a choice. Walter J. Hollenweger, renowned authority on world Pentecostalism, has succinctly stated: “In the final analysis the choice between Parham and Seymour is not an historical but a theological one. Where does one see the decisive contribution of Pentecost: in the religious experience of speaking in tongues as seen by Parham, or in the reconciling Pentecostal experience as seen by Seymour (which of course includes glossolalia as an important role)?”9 Will your choice be tongues of men and angels or agape love? Athens or Jerusalem? Africa or Europe? Topeka or Los Angeles? Babel or Pentecost? Polarization or unity? Separation or reconciliation? Bondage or liberation? The Azusa Street revival bore fruit that was reconciling, ecumenical, and reflective of authentic koinonia between God and His creation. Ought we do less?
1. Mel Robeck, “William Joseph Seymour,” in The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, ed. Stanley M. Burgess and Eduard Van Der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, 1053–1058; Corroborated in Douglas Nelson, “For Such a Time as This: The Story of William J. Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Birmingham, England); and in Cheryl J. Sanders, Saints in Exile: The Holiness Pentecostal Experience in African-American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
2. C.W. Shumway, “A Study of the Gift of Tongues” (A.B. thesis, University of Southern California, 1914).
3. Larry Martin, The Life and Ministry of William J. Seymour (Joplin, Mo.: Christian Life Books, 1999), reprinted from John G. Lake, “Origin of the Apostolic Faith Movement,” The Pentecostal Outlook, September 1932, originally written in 1911.
4. Lake, “Origin of the Apostolic Faith Movement.”
5. Martin, 155.
6. Frank Bartleman, How Pentecost came to Los Angeles (Los Angeles, Calif., 1925).
8. Leonard Lovett, “The Black Origins of the Pentecostal Movement,” in Aspects of Pentecostal-Charismatic Origins, ed. Vinson Synan (Plainfield, N.J.: Logos, 1975); German Ross, History and Formative Years of the Church of God in Christ(Memphis, Tenn.: Church of God in Christ Publishing House, 1969).
9. Walter J. Hollenweger, Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997) 23.