This Pentecostal River1: Azusa the Originating Effluence
By George O. Wood
At its beginning in 1914, the Assemblies of God comprised only 300 persons. April 2006 will be our 92nd birthday; we have existed more than 33,000 days. Worldwide, our Assemblies of God family numbers 53 million. If we were a country, we would be the 24th largest in the world.
To grow from 300 to 53 million, an average of 6,226 persons must be born again for every day the Assemblies of God has existed, assuming no one has died in these 92 years.
Our church in Africa, Latin America, India, and other parts of the world grows exponentially. Yet, for the past several years, the Assemblies of God in the United States has only experienced a slow, incremental rate of growth. If the dynamic of the Holy Spirit’s presence brings empowerment for witness, then the present lack of growth should gravely concern us.
Our future, should Jesus tarry, lies in a return to those foundational principles that birthed us as a Pentecostal movement.
Christians are meant to be a river from which life flows to the nations through the work of the Spirit in us. Concerning the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him”(John 7:37,38).
The river of the Spirit comes from within, but also has an external source: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people”(Acts 2:17). God is going to pour out His Spirit with or without the Assemblies of God; we choose whether we will exist within this mighty river of the Spirit.
Let us look back to the headwaters of this Pentecostal River. April 2006 marks the centennial of the Azusa Street revival of 1906–09. I call Azusa, in river terminology — the originating effluence.
Effluent means something that flows out. Without a doubt, and whether or not they realize it, what flowed out of Azusa Street has touched the lives of almost every Pentecostal or charismatic person living today. The early leaders of the Assemblies of God were directly or indirectly influenced by the Azusa revival, as was the leadership of every other Pentecostal denomination.
What made Azusa such a powerful revival? What can we learn from it? How should the outflow from Azusa affect this generation at the onset of the 21st century?
The Azusa revival began in the home of Richard and Ruth Asberry at 214 N. Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles, California.A one-eyed, African-American preacher named William J. Seymour had become persuaded of the reality of Acts 2:4 while attending a short-term Bible institute in Houston, Texas, led by Charles Parham.As a person of color, Jim Crow laws prevented him from sitting in the same classroom as the white students, so he humbly took a seat in the hallway and listened through the door. Seymour did not receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit in Houston, but he was persuaded that speaking in other tongues was the Bible evidence. He journeyed to Los Angeles to proclaim the availability of this experience. A woman pastor of a holiness mission in Los Angeles invited him to preach. He used Acts 2:4 as the text for his first sermon. When he returned to preach again that afternoon, he was locked out.
Seymour began holding cottage prayer meetings at the Asberry home on Bonnie Brae Street. On Monday night, April 9, 1906, the Spirit fell and approximately seven people were baptized in the Spirit. One of them, Jennie Moore — who later became Seymour’s wife — not only spoke in other tongues as the Spirit gave utterance but also went to the piano and began to play hymns and gospel songs. She had no previous knowledge of how to play the piano. This God-given ability remained with her the rest of her life. Several days later, Seymour received the baptism in the Spirit.
Within 3 days the crowds streaming to the house had become so great the group needed to find a larger meeting place. Within a week they found a church that had been converted into a stable. For the next 3 years continuous daily revival was experienced in the Mission at 312 Azusa Street.
The Azusa revival began 10 days prior to the San Francisco earthquake of April 19, 1906. This earthquake lasted for moments, but the Azusa spiritual earthquake continues to reverberate and intensify worldwide.
Five effluences or outflows of the Azusa Street revival must characterize life on the river for the Pentecostal church.
First Effluence: A Great Hunger For God
During the Azusa revival, there were many churches, good preachers, stirring liturgical services, and solid, fundamental doctrinal formulations. Azusa pioneers were driven by a hunger; not to know about God, but to know God; not to hear about God, but to hear God. They wanted to know the Lord in His fullness; thus, the term full gospel.
They took to heart what Jesus declared about the Spirit — that any who believed in Jesus could have streams of living water flow from within (John 7:37,38). The words streams or rivers represent a substantial body of water, surging powerfully — flowing out of the inner core of life. At Pentecost, as at Azusa, believers experienced this powerful infilling and outflowing through the Baptism and fullness of the Holy Spirit.
People came to the Mission on Azusa Street expecting an encounter with God. That expectancy and the reality of God’s presence made them oblivious to things that seem to matter so much today: well-designed, comfortable sanctuaries; neatly packaged services that begin and end on-time; the hype of star-quality guest speakers and singers; homogeneity and upward mobility of church members; social recognition; and ecclesiastical power.
The Mission stood in prophetic contrast to all that the world represents as wise, powerful, and wealthy. The people who came to Azusa Street knew only the wisdom, power, and wealth of God. Their humble meeting hall at 312 Azusa Street was described by Azusa participant and later editor of The Pentecostal Evangel, Stanley Frodsham, in this manner: “The place had at one time been a Methodist Church, but it had been converted in part into a tenement house, leaving a large, unplastered, barn-like room on the ground floor. It was in the vicinity of a tombstone shop, some stables, and a lumber yard, a vicinity where no one complained of all-night meetings.”
A leading Methodist layman, after visiting Azusa Street, wrote: “I bless God that it did not start in any church in this city, but in a barn, so that we all might come and take part in it. If it had started in a fine church, poor [African-American] people and Spanish people would not have got it, but praise God it started here. God says He will pour out His Spirit upon all flesh. This is just what is happening here.”
I am not suggesting that God’s presence cannot fill a cathedral or well-built sanctuary, but such edifices are worthless if the Spirit is absent, the poor are excluded, and the gospel is not proclaimed in its fullness.
The Azusa Street revival forces us to ask whether tightly structured services are a straitjacket to the Holy Spirit. While no one should place a premium on slovenliness in worship, disorder, and rampant emotionality; nevertheless, is it not possible that a tendency toward controlling the service may preclude an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to move in sovereign fashion among the people of God?
Frank Bartleman, an Azusa Street veteran, described the services: “Brother Seymour [who was the Elder] 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. The services ran almost continuously. Seeking souls could be found under the power almost any hour, day and night. The place was never closed nor empty, the people came to meet God. He was always there. Hence, a continuous meeting. The meeting did not depend on the human leader. God’s presence became more and more wonderful. 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. It was a tremendous overhauling process. Pride and self-assertion, self-importance and self-esteem, could not survive there. The religious ego preached its own funeral sermon quickly.
“No subjects or sermons were announced ahead of time, and no special speakers for such an hour. No one knew what might be coming, what God would do. All was spontaneous, ordered of the Spirit. We wanted to hear from God, through whomever He might speak. We had ‘no respect of persons.’ The rich and educated were the same as the poor and ignorant, and found a much harder death to die. We only recognized God. All were equal. No flesh might glory in His presence. … Those were Holy Ghost meetings, led of the Lord. It had to start in poor surroundings to keep out the selfish, human element. All came down in humility together at His feet. They all looked alike, and had all things in common in that sense at least. The rafters were low, the tall must come down. By the time they got to ‘Azusa’ they were humbled, ready for the blessing. The fodder was thus placed for the lambs, not for giraffs [sic]. All could reach it.”
The September 1906 issue of The Apostolic Faith, the Azusa Mission’s publication, described the meetings this way: “[They] begin about 10 o’clock in the morning and can hardly stop before 10 or 12 at night, and sometimes 2 or 3 in the morning, because so many are seeking, and some are slain under the power of God. People are seeking three times a day at the altar and row after row of seats have to be emptied and filled with seekers. We cannot tell how many people have been saved, and sanctified, and baptized with the Holy Ghost, and healed of all manner of sicknesses. Many are speaking in new tongues. … We are going on to get more of the power of God.”
God is no respecter of persons. He did not respect the Azusa Mission any more than the finest cathedral in the world. It is not the place that impresses Him, but the heart of those who come. Is there a hunger for the Lord?
When the time comes for you as ministers of this Movement to open God’s Word to His flock, will you do it only to fill the appointed time, or will your heart be full of God first? Will you proclaim to hear others say to you, “Well done,” or to have the Word of God confirmed with the authority of the Spirit’s power as He comes to demonstrate the fullness of God in the assembly of His people? Will the services you lead be designed to entertain and motivate, or will they prayerfully be intended to reach the deepest hunger of saint and sinner alike? Will life in the church you lead be a gloss, a thin veneer laid over a secular culture and mindset; or will a new life in Christ radically change the way people think and act?
Arthur Osterberg, an early leader in our Movement, visited Azusa as a young man while he was pastoring a small church at 68th and Denver in Los Angeles. He wrote concerning his own experience at Azusa: “Suddenly the Spirit would fall upon the congregation. God himself would give the altar call. Men would fall all over the house, like the slain in battle, or rush to the altar en masse, to seek God. The scene often resembled a forest of fallen trees. Such a scene could not be imitated. I never saw an altar call given in those early days. God himself would call them. And the preacher knew when to quit. When He spoke we all obeyed. It seemed a fearful thing to hinder or grieve the Spirit. The whole place was steeped in prayer. God was in His holy people. It was for man to keep silent. The Shekinah glory rested there. … I have stopped more than once within two blocks of the place and prayed for strength before I dared go on. The presence of the Lord was so real.”
Would it not be appropriate for us to humble our hearts before God and ask Him to grant us a sacredness of His presence whenever we meet for worship so all might be in awe of the Holy One whom we serve?
When one considers himself full and in need of nothing, he will block God from working in or through his life. God sends the rich away empty. But to the poor who hunger for Him — like Moses who longed to see God face to face — to them He grants the demonstration of His presence.
Second Effluence: A Love For Others
The Azusa Street revival witnessed the breakdown of barriers that normally divide people from one another: race, class, gender, wealth, language, education, church affiliation, and culture.
Seymour served by divine appointment rather than successful political manipulation. The Mission had an integrated leadership and congregation. Although it was decades before the Civil Rights Movement, the Mission had an amazing lack of discrimination. This did not please all who observed, including Charles Parham,the spiritual father to Seymour. Parham, who was radically prejudiced, came to Azusa Street and denounced the mingling of races. Thereafter, his ministry declined. God will not bless such hostility toward anyone for whom Christ died.
Stanley Frodsham said of Azusa: “If a Mexican or a German cannot speak English, he gets up and speaks in his own tongue and feels quite at home, for the Spirit interprets through the face and the people say, ‘Amen.’”
Of the 13 issues of The Apostolic Faith, the only publications from the Azusa Mission that survive, none list the publisher or editor, preferring instead that the Lord get the credit. But most of the issues contain a small inset setting forth some of the important principles Azusa stood for. Several of the insets contain this statement: “We are not fighting men or churches, but seeking to displace dead forms and creeds or wild fanaticisms with living, practical Christianity. ‘Love, faith, unity’ is our watchword, and ‘Victory through the Atoning Blood’ our battle cry.”
In Vinson Synan’s history of the Pentecostal Holiness Church, The Old-Time Power, he explains how the Holiness Church became Pentecostal largely through the instrumentality of G.B. Cashwell’s ministry. Cashwell came to the Azusa Street Mission in 1906 from North Carolina. Synan states: “One of the major problems necessary for him to overcome was his ingrained … racial prejudice. It was unsettling to this tarheel visitor to sit under the preaching of the black minister Seymour; but to have blacks lay hands on his head and pray for his Baptism was almost more than he could bear. Rather than receive the Baptism he admitted this caused ‘chills to go down my spine.’ Nevertheless, he sought for 5 days and nights in the mission’s upper room before the Baptism came. During the latter part of his seeking, he discarded his racial problem and invited Seymour and several Negro [men] to lay hands on him in supplication. Finally, in early December, 1906, the ‘power fell’ and Cashwell received his Pentecost.”
With this love for God’s family, is it any wonder that the roots of American Pentecostal denominations and the modern charismatic renewal can be traced back to Azusa Street? A torch was passed to the present day.
Unfortunately, the Pentecostal movement quickly caved into culture, with its racism, Jim Crow laws, and segregation. For decades, the multi-racial, multicultural aspect of the Azusa revival was not lived out in our churches.
Charles Mason, an African-American minister and leader in a Baptist-Holiness group, visited Azusa in February/March 1907, receiving the enduement from on high. He returned to Memphis where he and a leading colleague differed on the baptism in the Spirit. They went separate ways. Mason formally incorporated the Church of God in Christ in August 1907. One benefit of incorporation was travel discounts that ministers of the organization received from various railroads.
Between 1907 and 1910, white ministers who had associated with Charles Parham’s Apostolic Faith movement began distancing themselves from him because of questions regarding his moral character, his divisive spirit, and racist statements. Some of these leaders — E.N. Bell, Howard A. Goss, D.C. Opperman, and Arch P. Collins — would later form the Assemblies of God. They approached Charles Mason regarding white Pentecostal ministers holding credentials with the Church of God in Christ. Mason approved. About 350 ministers were credentialed. Mason did not lay hands on them, but gave that authority to Bell, Goss, Opperman, and Collins. These brothers, however, ultimately felt the need for a separate organization. In April 1914, the formational meeting for that new organization, the Assemblies of God, was held in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Bishop Mason came to that first General Council, his choir sang, and he preached one of the sessions, giving his blessing and prayers to the new organization.
This racial segregation continued for decades. When the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America was formed 45 years ago, the black Pentecostal Church of God in Christ was not invited to join. In recent years, though, the Holy Spirit has intensified the pressure to return to the biblical model of Azusa, where the phrase “the colorline was washed away in the Blood” was common. In October 1994, at a historic meeting in Memphis, the leaders of the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America, of which the Assemblies of God is the largest member, met to hold a dialogue of reconciliation with the black Church of God in Christ. The Pentecostal Fellowship of North America was dissolved. A new organization — The Pentecostal Charismatic Churches of North America, that embraced Pentecostals without regard to color — was formed.
Nearly 200 official delegates attended. Hard-hitting papers dealing with the racism of the past were presented in the day-time sessions. The evening sessions were open to the public and featured great worship and preaching. On the last morning, a spirit of brokenness and repentance prevailed among the delegates. A white Assemblies of God pastor requested to wash the feet of one of the leading African-American ministers, Bishop Ithiel Clemmons (now deceased). (See photo above.)Afterward, a black bishop of the Church of God in Christ, from Los Angeles, Charles Blake, asked if a white minister would permit his feet to be washed. General Superintendent Thomas Trask raised his hand. Bishop Blake then washed the feet of our general superintendent. Grown men wept, and went to their knees in prayer, and then rose to embrace each other — without regard to color.
When the foot washing was finished, Bishop Clemmons, cochair for this conference, went to the podium and requested that Trask stand by his side. In a dramatic and symbolic statement, Bishop Clemmons said to Trask: “In 1914 we went our separate ways. But God has brought us together again.” They embraced, kissed each other on the cheek, and wept. I doubt that there was a dry eye in the house.
The Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ did not merge organizations, but both expressed regret that they ever parted because of race. A pledge was made to never let culture divide them again from the richness of friendship and fellowship in the gospel.
The Holy Spirit intended the Azusa revival — which embraced whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, rich, poor, middle class, young, mid-life and old, men and women — to become a model for shaping the 20th-century church. But participants failed to keep the Holy Spirit’s ideal. In the present hour, however, the church is witnessing the coming down of the dividing walls — and this Pentecostal revival will yet bear witness to the fact our unity in Jesus Christ transcends our differences.
What lesson can the church learn from Azusa today? Our relationship is monastic only if it is marked by hunger for God. God desires we not only love Him, but we also love one another. Do we love our brothers and sisters? The oppressed? The sinful? The outcast? The wounded? The rich and the powerful? The low and the needy? The different? Do our communities know us by our love?
Third Effluence: A Commitment To God’s Word
The early Pentecostals of Azusa did not desire experience for experience sake. While there were a few minor, misplaced emphases at Azusa, their quest for a subjective, personal experience with God was within the boundaries of God’s Word. They believed the Spirit did not go where His Word did not permit.
The Pentecostal movement has had its problems with personalities who emphasized and taught as truth matters not found in God’s Word. The Assemblies of God has been much criticized at times for its insistence that God’s Word must corroborate experience. Such criticism should be worn as a badge of honor. Scripture admonishes us not to be tossed about with every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14).
The Azusa revival unabashedly proclaimed that the sure plumb line of truth was God’s Word. Seymour and others were criticized sharply for their insistence on checking everything out with the Word. But they were unashamed. Seymour responded to these criticisms in the September 1907 issue ofThe Apostolic Faith: “We are measuring everything by the Word, every experience must measure up with the Bible. Some say that is going too far, but if we have lived too close to the Word, we will settle that with the Lord when we meet Him in the air.”
Throughout this century, the Pentecostal church has occasionally taken on the character of Flip Wilson’s satirical congregation: “The Church of What’s Happening Now.” Unashamedly, we want something to be happening in our midst, but at the same time, we must forsake novelty, the latest charismatic- or church-growth fad, and insist instead on an experience in God that is corroborated by Scripture.
Fourth Effluence: A Dedication To Evangelism And Missions
The baptism in the Holy Spirit, as understood at Azusa, was not just for personal blessing; its central purpose was empowerment. This is a vital distinction because some have sought the Spirit for the experience itself, and not for a new boldness and competence to bear witness of Christ.
The first issue of The Apostolic Faith, page 1, September 1906, took up the cause of missions and sending missionaries. Missions did not develop later — it was front and center to their existence. And, they did not wait until they became big; they started missions emphasis and giving in their first hours.
Leaders at Azusa Street took no offerings. There was a collection box in the back, but that did not mean giving was absent. Here is what they printed on that first page: “When Pentecostal lines are struck, Pentecostal giving commences. Hundreds of dollars have been laid down for the sending of missionaries and thousands will be laid down. No collections will be taken for rent, no begging for money. No man’s silver or gold is coveted. The silver and the gold are His own to carry on His work.”
From Azusa came a stream of missionaries, ministers, and Christian workers.
The lack of missionary zeal in any church or church leader is the most direct evidence possible that no revival is present. When people do not have God’s heart for the world they do not have God’s presence — even if they think they do.
No one can be a disciple of Jesus Christ and ignore the Great Commission, or treat it as the Great Suggestion. The lack of a missionary emphasis is a spiritual death rattle for any pastor or church. It will be inexcusable on the Day of Judgment
From the missionary-mindedness of Azusa came a Movement of foot soldiers in the army of the Lord to the nations. Perhaps the greatest evangelism today is being done through Pentecostals. Azusa Street made a critical difference. Giant strides have been made toward completion of the unfinished task.
We need a rebirth of missionary zeal for our own country and the world. May the Lord help us emphasize the Azusa watchword: “When Pentecostal lines are struck, Pentecostal giving commences.”
Fifth Effluence: A Commitment To The
Restoration Of The New Testament Church
Azusa pioneers were not interested in changing the mechanics of church traditions. Their desire was to become the Church described in the New Testament. Thus, they were part of what was called the Restoration movement.
Frank Bartleman well stated their intention: “Los Angeles seems to be the place, and this the time, in the mind of God, for the restoration of the church to her former place, favor, and power. The fullness of time seems to have come for the church’s complete restoration.”
The promise of Joel 2:28, quoted by Peter on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:17, is, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.”
This pouring forth may be likened to the rain from heaven. Prior to the Pentecostal experience, the Church was in Egypt where the land was watered by human effort, the foot on the irrigation treadle. But Pentecost became the spiritual land of Canaan where the inhabitants drank “rain from heaven” (Deuteronomy 11:10,11).
The rains God sent to Canaan were both early and latter rains (Joel 2:23). The autumn or early rains of October and November were to soften the parched ground so seed could be sown. Then came the heavy rains of winter in December, January, and February. Finally, the latter rains of April — the most highly appreciated because they ripened the fruit and stayed the drought of the long dry summer. The latter rain was directly related to the ripening of the harvest.
What is our spiritual water source for this last day? Is it our own efforts to build a church? Is it our smart church strategies, well-laid plans, and church-growth proven methodologies? Or, is there a better water source — an outpouring of God’s Spirit on all human flesh?
In the last century, Azusa Street was the early rain. It infused the body of Christ with a restored sense of biblical identity and mission. It insisted on empowerment for witness. It compelled believers to desist from a passive mode of Christianity and personally seek a continued and vital experience with the living God.
Today, 100 years downriver, is it not time for a latter rain, the rain that ripens the final harvest?
Is not the Lord saying to His church: “If you will humble yourselves, and seek my face as you did in the beginning, I will pour out the latter rain on you. What I purpose to do in this latter rain is so copious that Azusa Street will seem as a small shower compared with the new visitation I will send. Cast aside your dependence on man, and the artifices of the flesh. Renew your heart toward Me, and I will visit you yet again.”
The second issue of The Apostolic Faith, October 1906, contained a message entitled,“This Same Jesus.” Its salient observation of the modern Pentecostal movement’s relationship to God’s prophetic purpose is even more relevant today than when the words were first given: “When the Holy Ghost fell on the 120, it was in the morning of the dispensation of the Holy Ghost. Today, we are living down in the evening of the dispensation of the Holy Ghost. As it was in the morning, so shall it be in the evening. This is the last evangelistic call of the day.”
Let’s summarize the effluences of the Azusa revival. Will this Pentecostal river continue to flow ever more strongly? Will the outflows from Azusa characterize your experience until Jesus comes?
- A hunger for the Lord.
- A genuine love for others.
- Commitment to His Word.
- Dedication to evangelism and missions.
- Commitment to the restoration of the New Testament Church.
May God work among us in such a way that Azusa Street will only be a shower compared with what He does in the latter rain, which He will give in the final years of this decade, century, and millennium.
1. The author served as secretary to the 1991 General Council Spiritual Life Committee and wrote the report that the Committee presented to the General Council in session. The above article copies or adapts some portions of that report.