God Makes No Differences in Nationality:
The Fashioning of a New Racial/Nonracial Identity at the Azusa Street Revival
By David D. Daniels, III
The Azusa Street revival offered all races the opportunity to wear a new racial identity fashioned out of the new charismatic experiences of the revival. Far from being fully developed, this racial identity was a work in process that was being crafted during the glow of the revival. People soon began modeling this new identity within the confines of the revival and the emerging Pentecostal movement.
The new racial identity at the Azusa Street revival looked beyond the racial divide of the era and reflected a racial vocabulary, symbolism, and vision that differed drastically from the dominant society of that day.
“The ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood” was the radical statement Pentecostal Pastor Frank Bartleman later attached to the Azusa Street revival of 1906. This phrase described the contours of the new racial identity. Bartleman’s phrase captured the social and religious implications of the identity-making process the revival had undertaken. As the heart cry of the Azusa Street revival, this phrase expressed the aspirations of Christians envisioning a racial identity, rejected the racial etiquette of its era, and reached beyond the color line that separated the races to define itself.1
An analysis of the racial rhetoric in the Apostolic Faith papers points to the material utilized during the revival to design this new racial identity. Since identity making is often dynamic, this article is only proposing that the new racial identity was made available at the Azusa Street revival. How it was donned is beyond the purview of this article. This article also examines the racial context in which this new identity was fashioned and the features that adorn it.
An Azusa Alternative To Race
The Azusa Street revival built a racial identity around a text in the “Pentecost” book. Acts 17:26 says, “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth.” At the revival, this text was recast in terms of nationalities instead of nations. The participants believed all classes and nationalities meet on a common level. The revival leveled racial hierarchy by placing all nationalities and classes on an equal footing before God and each other. While the concept of race informs the Apostolic Faith papers, the language of race escapes it. Nationalities, a key term of the early 20th century, functioned as the term of choice.2
The constructing of racial identities in early Pentecostalism preceded the invention of white as a racial category that described the people of European descent. While the differences in language, food, fragrances, and custom heightened the differences between European immigrants more than it emphasized the commonalities in United States immigrant society pre-World War I, the major differences among European nationalities or races, according to scientists, were identified as biological.3
Race making as a term broadens the process of identity formation to review the changes, clustering, and the alliances of the race-making process. More than a black-white exchange, race making engulfs the internal debates in the making of whiteness as well as the making of Hispanicness or Asian-Americanness.
During this era, nationality and language were the key markers of race. In the conversations, politics, and scholarship of the time, the term race was nearly synonymous with nationality. The speakers of this time referred to the Germans, Irish, Italians, Polish, Lithuanians, and Persians as different races. Discrimination against certain European races (the Irish, Poles, Italians) was rampant.
At the revival, however, race competed with nationality as the category used to organize the society. While the racial categories of white and colored were used in the Apostolic Faith papers, its usage was rare and limited. There were few instances where white was used to refer to people of European descent and where colored was used to describe African-Americans. Surprisingly, Negro was never used.
The word nationality was regularly used in the Apostolic Faith papers. The various articles reinforced the perspective of one writer: “God makes no difference in nationality.” Throughout the Apostolic Faith papers, the nationalities present at the revival were listed: Chinese, Ethiopians, Germans, North American Indians, Mexicans, and others.4
In a sense, in the Apostolic Faith, the world was organized linguistically. The revival offered an alternative to the trilogy of races (Causasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid), or the four European races (Alpine, Mediterranean, Nordic, Semitic) and the four others (Ethiopian, Mongolian, Malay, American), or nationalities grouped into 40 races (Irish, Italians, Syrians, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, Serbo-Croatians, Japanese, Filipinos, Mexicans, Negroes, et al.).
The revival focused on organizing people around their languages. These included the languages of “India, China, Africa, Asia, Europe, and islands of the Sea, as well as the learned languages of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Zulu, Hindu, Bengali, and Chippewa.” Among the languages of Africa, they cite Cru (Kru), Zulu, and Ugandan. These languages were listed on par with all languages of the world. The linguistic framework or the languages of the world provided a lens through which one could view humanity in terms other than race.5
Possibly, the Azusa Street revival through its linguistic organization of humanity advanced a nonracialism. The revival stressed language and downplayed race as a marker of identity. Nonracialism avowed human commonality and equality. Nonracialism served as a new basis for Christian unity, bridging the racial divide and the color line.
Leveling Hierarchy Of The Races
The Azusa Street revival became a place where an African-American congregation opened itself to a new racial arrangement. The revival introduced a framework that grounded the racial identity of early Pentecostals and challenged the racial hierarchy of the United States. The various races at the Azusa Street revival shared power, exchanged culture, and promoted a new racial identity framed by languages.
The impact of the new racial framework introduced by the revival differed depending on where the races fit within the racial hierarchy of society. For whites the myths of racial superiority were deflated. The singularity of white identity was not only supplanted by the plurality of nationality, but also by the equality of nationalities. Along with the nationalities of Europe were the nationalities of Asia, Africa, and South America. For African-Americans, the myth of inferiority was undercut.
Intertwined with the dismantling of the racial hierarchy of people was the racial hierarchy of power. Structurally, the races shared power. Blacks and whites constituted the leadership during the revival. In addition, there was also the dismantling of the racial hierarchy of culture. Revival participants engaged in the exchange of culture across the races. Thus, the new racial identity created cultural, social, and ecclesiastical expressions where blacks and whites learned from each other.
The racial symbolism of the Azusa Street revival countered the schema society associated with the terms dark/darkness. At Azusa Street, these terms were never applied to African-Americans or their institutions, whereas, among the general American public phrases such as darkies or darky camp meetingwere bantered about.
The Azusa Street revival used the term dark/darkness theologically, referring to being benighted and non-Christian, applying the term to African indigenous religion and Roman Catholicism. Both religions were deemed different from Christianity, defined as synonymous with Protestantism. Consequently, African indigenous religion and Roman Catholicism were placed theoretically on an equal plane.6
Beyond The Color Line
The Azusa Street revival rejected the premise of the color line based on a scheme of racial superiority and inferiority, and of white purity and pollution. They rejected the purported need for a color line to protect and preserve the purity of the white race from racial pollution biologically through anti-miscegenation laws, and socially through pro-segregation practices. While it is unclear whether they supported interracial marriage, some scholars contend they did theoretically.
To appreciate the revival’s daring venture in identity making, the pervasiveness of the color line needs to highlighted. The color line was drawn in new ways during the harrowing years between the post-Reconstruction Era and World War I to help visualize the contours of the racial boundaries. As the color line demarcated the spaces restricted to different races, these spaces expanded during this era to embrace congregations, neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, restaurants, and cemeteries and determined where different races worshiped, resided, learned, received health care, dined, and were buried. For most Americans at the dawn of the 20th century, the color line was not washed away, rather it was being drawn in starker terms; it burrowed more deeply through United States religious, social, and political institutions.7
While the racial order of the United States was being organized in terms of colored, white, and in-between, all nationalities were grouped into one of these groups. On the colored side were: African-Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos. On the white side were: English, Scottish, French, Dutch, Danes, Germans, and other northwestern Europeans. Not yet included as white were the Irish, Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, and other eastern Europeans. According to many scholars, it would take from 15 to 35 years after the beginning of the Azusa Street revival for more of these European nationalities to become classified as white.8
Yet, the existence of racial in-betweens among the Europeans makes the identity making of the revival more stunning. The color line divided more than blacks from whites; it also divided Italian, Irish, and Persian immigrants from the native-born Americans of English and German descent. Unless we view this period through the lenses of mid-20th century segregation and racism, we fail to capture the complexity of the racial context in which the Azusa Street revival engaged in identity making.
Within the racial context of its era, the Azusa Street revival broke with the dominant racial arrangement. Within the world of the color line or a world fractured by the color line, the new racial identity of the Azusa Street revival was fashioned. At the revival, the dominant racial identity in the society was removed and a new racial identity was donned. Thus, they challenged the biblical appropriateness of Christians adhering to the color line and encouraged the races to crisscross the spaces freed from the barriers of color, engaging in racial intermingling that trespassed into new racial zones.
Essential to the fashioning of the new racial identity was the racial history and identity of the revival. Leaders of the revival described it as a work begun among the colored people, noting whites later joined, and were followed by multitudes from different continents. This work began in an African-American holiness congregation and, later, moved to an African-American house church that relocated first to Bonnie Brae Street and next to 312 Azusa Street.
Historian Cecil M. Robeck Jr., has tracked the revival from its beginning as a small all-black revival in February 1906, to a black revival with a few whites in April 1906, to 300 whites and about 25 blacks by September 1906. Robeck contends official membership was interracial, albeit predominately black, with a disproportionate number of whites in leadership positions. The Azusa Street revival, according to Robeck, included two periods of high visibility within their global circle, periods where the revival attracted an interracial audience, 1906–08 and 1911. In Robeck’s assessment: “Clearly, Seymour may be credited with providing the vision of a truly color-blind congregation.”9
In addition to a color-blind congregation, Seymour and the Azusa Street revival developed a nonracial identity. Besides a variety of nationalities integrating a previously all-black revival, what is astonishing about the Azusa Street revival is the conversions that occurred in the racial consciousness of whites such as Frank Bartleman, G.B. Cashwell, and others. These individuals had admitted to being prejudiced but experienced a conversion in racial consciousness that led them not only to reject prejudice and willingly associate with other races, but also to educate their networks about interracial association. Their change of racial consciousness was a component in their formation of a new racial or nonracial identity.
The racial miracle of the Azusa Street revival advertised the virtues of this new racial identity that founded ecclesial, liturgical, organizational, and social expressions, expressions embedded in interracial leadership, interracial structures, and multiracial worship. By making the crossing of the color line a constitutive element of their identity, they fashioned a new racial identity that defied the racial categories of their era.
From the revival, participants who traveled to Asia, Africa, and Europe most likely viewed the world linguistically rather than racially. They contended that God revealed to some people the country of their missionary service through the gift of tongues they received.
Amidst And After The Revival
The racial/nonracial identity advanced by the Azusa revival failed to receive universal acceptance within the ranks of the early Pentecostal movement. The Azusa identity stood in contrast to the framework of Charles Parham and others. Parham spewed out the dominant racial epithets: “buck” and “darky camp meeting.” He disassociated himself from the new racial/nonracial identity promoted by the revival.10
Yet, a vital interracial or nonracial sector within Pentecostalism found expression in various cities across the United States. Black holiness congregations in Portland, Oregon; Memphis, Tennessee; Indianapolis, Indiana; and New York City, embraced the nonracialism of the Azusa Street revival, replicating nonracial relations in their respective cities.
The nonracialism possibly explains the relationship between Howard Goss and other Assemblies of God pioneers who, prior to 1914, held credentials in the Church of God in Christ. The nonracialism might also illuminate the relationship between the Church of God in Christ and at least three other white fellowships led by L.P. Adams, William Holt, and August Feick, respectively from 1910 to 1932. The multiracial or nonracial relationships in the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World also reflect the vision of the revival.11
The fragility of the new racial/nonracial identity can be seen in the differences in the breadth of the equality of the races. Some advocated racial and social equality between the races. All color and racial barriers were to be dismantled. Others distinguished between racial and social equality. They supported racial equality, affirming the equality of the races and the rights of all races to equal and fair treatment, but they rejected social equality, the rights of all races to interact as equal in social settings — ranging from churches to homes. These distinctions offer a context to map the range of early Pentecostal responses to the new racial/nonracial identity.
The color line, at least symbolically and discursively, was washed away in the blood. For some of the participants, the revival introduced a new racial/nonracial identity. The mere existence of this new identity was in itself the self-understanding of the emerging Pentecostal movement. The opportunity for different races at the revival to practice a new racial/nonracial identity opened up new possibilities for being Christian in the United States. The new identity espoused a racial vocabulary defined linguistically, a racial symbolism that minimized racial prejudice, and a racial/nonracial vision of the church and society that anticipated a postracist era. It most likely became the framework that oriented the multiracial congregations and fellowships that dotted the nascent Pentecostal movement. To even imagine a way of worshiping and living that looked beyond the color line created space for power sharing, culture exchanges, and institution building between the various races.
1. Frank Bartleman, Another Wave Rolls In!: What Really Happened at Azusa Street(Monroeville, Pa.: Whitaker Books, 1970), 55.
2. The Apostolic Faith 1:5 (Los Angeles), 1; reprinted in Fred T. Corum and Rachel A. Harper Sizelove, comp., Like As of Fire; republished by E. Myron Noble (Washington, D.C.: Middle Atlantic Regional Press, 2001), 17.
3. Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man(New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1981).
4. The Apostolic Faith 1:1 (Los Angeles), 3; reprinted in Fred T. Corum and Rachel A. Harper Sizelove, comp., Like As of Fire; republished by E. Myron Noble (Washington, D.C.: Middle Atlantic Regional Press, 2001), 3.
5. David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White(New York: Basic Books, 2005), 50; The Apostolic Faith1:4 (Los Angeles), 1; The Apostolic Faith 1:1 (Los Angeles), 1; The Apostolic Faith 1:6 (Los Angeles), 1,3; reprinted in Fred T. Corum and Rachel A. Harper Sizelove, comp., Like As of Fire; republished by E. Myron Noble (Washington, D.C.: Middle Atlantic Regional Press, 2001), 13,1,21,23.
6. The Apostolic Faith1:5 (Los Angeles), 3; The Apostolic Faith 1:1 (Los Angeles), 2; reprinted in Fred T. Corum and Rachel A. Harper Sizelove, comp., Like As of Fire; republished by E. Myron Noble (Washington, D.C.: Middle Atlantic Regional Press, 2001), 19,2.
7. August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Along the Color Line: Explorations in the Black Experience (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1976).
8. David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 138.
9. Cecil M. Robeck, “Azusa Street Revival,” in Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements,ed. Stanley M. Burgess and Gary B. McGee (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 33.
10. The Apostolic Faith 1 (Baxter Springs), December 1912, in D. William Faupel, The Everlasting Gospel: The Significance of Eschatology in the Development of Pentecostal Thought by D. William Faupel (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd., 1996).
11. David D. Daniels, “Charles Harrison Mason: The Interracial Impulse of Early Pentecostalism” and David Bundy, “G.T. Haywood: Religion for Urban Realities” in Portraits of a Generation: Early Pentecostal Leaders, ed. James R. Goff and Grant Wacker (Fayetteville, Ark.: University of Arkansas Press, 2002), 255–270,237–254.