The Lasting Legacies of the Azusa Street Revival
By Vinson Synan
Christianity was forever changed by the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles at the beginning of the last century. Services were held three times a day, 7 days a week during its glory days from 1906 to 1909. Led by an African-American pastor, William J. Seymour, the meetings were held in a run-down mission under the name Apostolic Faith. As unlikely as it seemed at the time, the Azusa Street revival was destined to become a major turning point in world Christian history.
Those humble believers who gathered at Azusa Street in 1906 could not have imagined the historic results of the revival they helped unleash in Los Angeles. Today, the worldwide Pentecostal movement is the recipient of many lasting, influential, and far-reaching legacies of the Azusa Street revival.
The Message Of Azusa Street
The message that attracted multitudes to the Azusa Street Mission was considered new, novel, and revolutionary. Modern Christians could receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit as the apostles did on the Day of Pentecost with the Bible evidence of speaking in tongues. The theological father of this message was Charles Fox Parham, a former Methodist pastor who had joined the Holiness movement. At the Bethel Bible School (founded in Topeka, Kansas, 1898), Parham’s students affirmed that speaking in tongues was the evidence of this Pentecostal blessing. The first person to receive this phenomenon at Bethel was Agnes Ozman, whose experience on New Year’s Day, 1901, became the prototype for modern Pentecostalism.
In 1905, Parham mentored William J. Seymour at another Bible school in Houston, Texas. Seymour then brought the Pentecostal message to Los Angeles when he came to pastor a small Black Holiness church. Church members quickly rejected his message. After a month of home prayer meetings on Bonnie Brae Street, Seymour and several others spoke in tongues. This drew large crowds to the small house. While searching for a larger building in downtown Los Angeles, Seymour and his flock found an abandoned African Methodist Episcopal Church on Azusa Street. In April 1906, the historic services began.1
The Man Of Azusa Street
The central figure at Azusa Street was African-American William Joseph Seymour.Seymour was born in Louisiana and as a child was a somewhat mystical Baptist. As a young man, he moved to Indianapolis where he joined a mostly white Methodist church. He later joined the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), a Holiness group also known as the Evening Light Saints. Seymour, hungry for more Bible knowledge, attended classes at God’s Bible School in Cincinnati led by Martin Wells Knapp, and later at Parham’s Bethel Bible School in Houston, Texas.
Contrary to stereotypes, Seymour was a soft-spoken pastor known in the African-American church as a teacher rather than as a dynamic preacher. He was a deeply spiritual man who impressed all who met him.
William Durham said Seymour was “the meekest man I ever met,” a man who maintained a “helpless dependence upon God” and a man who was “so filled with God that you felt the love and power every time you got near him.”
John G. Lake said,” I do not believe that any man in modern times had a more wonderful deluge of God in his life than God gave that dear fellow, and the glory and power of a real Pentecost swept the world.”
As to his preaching style, Arthur Osterberg said he was “meek and plain spoken and no orator. He spoke the common language of the uneducated class. He might preach for three-quarters of an hour with no more emotionalism than that there post. He was no arm waving thunderer by any stretch of the imagination.”
In contrast to critics who described Seymour as “dirty, collarless and uneducated,” he was an effective leader and entrepreneur of revival. His articles in Apostolic Faith,the Azusa Street paper, reveal him dealing with the historical and theological challenges of the Movement that was being unleashed from his church. Christian History Magazine listed Seymour as one of “the 10 most influential Christians of the 20th Century.”2
The Messenger Of Azusa Street
Few people recognize the critical role of Frank Bartleman. His articles on Azusa Street were published and republished in the Holiness press of the time. His hundreds of glowing reports of the Azusa Street services spread news of the revival around the world. The two periodicals that had the greatest influence were the Way of Faith in Columbia, South Carolina, and God’s Revivalist in Cincinnati, Ohio. Articles in Way of Faith were read avidly in the South and helped account for the fact the first part of the world where Pentecostalism took deep roots was the American South.
In How “Pentecost” Came to Los Angeles (1925), Bartleman gave most vivid eyewitness accounts of the Azusa meetings. Without Bartleman’s journalism, it is doubtful the Azusa Street revival would have made the worldwide impact it did. The power of the religious press is one of the lasting legacies of Azusa Street.3
One lasting and influential legacy of Azusa Street is the modern Pentecostal movement and its offspring, the charismatic movement. In many ways, the Azusa Street Mission was the prototype for modern Pentecostalism. Most of the news of the new Movement came from Los Angeles rather than from Topeka. The historical record shows that throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa the first reports of the new movement claimed that it began in Los Angeles under an African-American pastor. Years later, leaders such as J. Roswell Flower drew attention to the roots of the Movement in Topeka under Charles Parham.
The Movement spread around the world under the exciting ministries of the Azusa Street Pilgrims who received their Pentecostal experiences at Azusa Street. Among them were G.B. Cashwell (the American South), C.H. Mason (The Church of God in Christ), William H. Durham (Chicago, the American Midwest, and Canada), Mary Rumsey (Korea), A.H. Argue (Canada), and John G. Lake(South Africa). Later, those indirectly influenced by Azusa Street took the Pentecostal message and experience around the world. These included Thomas Ball Barratt (Western Europe and Great Britain), Daniel Berg and Gunnar Vingren (Brazil), Luigi Francescon (Italy, Argentina, and Brazil), and Ivan Voronaev (Russia and the Slavic nations).
The first Pentecostal denominations were located in the American South where Pentecostalism initially gained a mass grassroots following. Most of these denominations had been formed before 1900. They were made up of churches that added the Pentecostal experience as a third blessing — an addition to salvation and entire sanctification. These included: the Church of God in Christ (Memphis, Tennessee), the Pentecostal Holiness Church (North Carolina), The Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), the United Holy Church (North Carolina), and the Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church (North Carolina).
Later American Pentecostal churches from non-Wesleyan backgrounds included the Assemblies of God (Missouri), the Pentecostal Church of God (Missouri), the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (California), as well as the Oneness denominations: the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (Indiana), and the United Pentecostal Church (Missouri). Every classical Pentecostal movement around the world can trace its spiritual roots, directly or indirectly, to the humble mission on Azusa Street.
In 1960, the Pentecostal movement entered the mainline Protestant churches led by Los Angeles Episcopal pastor, Dennis Bennett. Afterward, the Movement made rapid headway in major Protestant traditions under the name charismatic renewal. By 1967, Pentecostalism made major inroads into the Roman Catholic Church growing to more than 100 million participants by the year 2000. By 2005, statistician David Barrett estimated the number of Pentecostals and charismatics in the world at about 600 million. This massive movement is the major legacy of Azusa Street.
After only one century, the Pentecostal/charismatic movement had grown at such an amazing pace that by the year 2000, they were second in size only to the Roman Catholic Church as a worldwide family of churches.4
The Lasting Legacies Of Azusa Street
Perhaps the most important legacy of Azusa Street was the renewal of the charismata (gifts of the Spirit) for the modern church. For centuries, Western churches, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, had adopted the view that the gifts of the Spirit had ceased at the end of the Apostolic Age. Known as the cessation theory, this view became especially dominant among Fundamentalists and some Holiness groups that rejected Pentecostalism. With the explosion of tongues at Azusa Street, the attention of the Church was also drawn to the other gifts of the Spirit. In addition to glossolalia, the gifts of prophecy and healing came into prominence.
Pentecostals were the first Christians since the Early Church to associate speaking in tongues with the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Before 1901, thousands of people in Holiness and Keswick groups had claimed a baptism in the Holy Spirit with various evidences to validate their experience. After 1908, Pentecostals chose the phrase initial evidenceto describe their understanding of the Pentecostal experience. This meant the other gifts of the Spirit were also evident, although tongues was the first to be manifested, as it was in the Book of Acts. Since the major text used to validate the experience was Acts 2, the Movement was given the name Pentecostal movement.
After 1960, the charismatic movement claimed that other charismata,including the fruit of the Spirit, could be evidence of the Pentecostal experience. Referencing passages in Corinthians, the new Pentecostals in mainline churches chose to be called charismatics rather than Neo-Pentecostals, as they were first called. Thus, the name charismatic implied that all gifts of the Spirit were equally validating for the Holy Spirit baptism.
The most striking and unusual feature of the Azusa Street meetings was the racial harmony that prevailed under the leadership of Seymour. This led Bartleman to say, “The color line was washed away in the Blood.” Many people were amazed. In the most racist period of American history, thousands of whites came to Azusa Street and submitted to church leadership that in the beginning was essentially African-American. Although whites soon became the majority, Seymour continued as pastor and exercised pastoral and spiritual authority over the meetings. As African-American hands were laid on the heads of white seekers, they were baptized in the Holy Spirit. They also looked to Seymour as their teacher and spiritual father.
Although the Movement began among whites in Topeka under Parham, many historians now believe the Movement became a worldwide phenomenon with the African-Americans at Azusa Street. African-American worship styles spread worldwide from Azusa Street. The unscripted, Spirit-led services became the pattern for early Pentecostals. Other Azusa Street practices such as giving messages in tongues with interpretations became standard in Pentecostal services around the world. Another Azusa Street practice — singing in the Spirit (also known as the heavenly choir) — spread around the world. Prayer for the sick, although widely practiced before 1900 among Holiness evangelists, became as important as tongues in most Pentecostal services.
Pentecostalism spread widely among African-Americans after 1906, especially under C.H. Mason and the Church of God in Christ. Building on the Black Holiness movement that began in the African Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia in 1878, most of the sanctified churches eventually became Pentecostal. By the year 2000, the Church of God in Christ was the largest Pentecostal denomination in America with approximately 6 million members.
Although the color line reappeared among Pentecostals after 1910, the dream remained alive. This was demonstrated in 1994 with the Memphis Miracle when the all-white Pentecostal Fellowship of North America was succeeded by the Pentecostal/charismatic Churches of North America, an interracial and intercultural group.5
Women In Ministry
The Azusa Street revival also brought women’s ministries to the forefront. One of the most influential ladies at Azusa Street was Jennie Evans Moore, who married William Seymour in 1908. She served faithfully at his side during the great revival days and often filled the pulpit while her husband was away. After her husband’s death in 1922, she pastored the church until 1931. She died in 1936. Other African-American women who played leading roles were Lucy Farrow and Julia Hutchins. Farrow, Seymour’s prayer warrior, prayed hundreds of seekers through to the tongues experience. She later led a missionary band to Liberia where she planted Pentecostal churches. Julia Hutchins, who had locked Seymour out of her church, soon became a Pentecostal and helped run the Mission.
Other important women at Azusa Street were Florence Crawford and Clara Lum. These white ladies served as staff at the Mission and helped with church administration. When Seymour started his paper Apostolic Faith, in 1906Lum and Crawford were the leading editors and promoters of the paper. At its height, Apostolic Faith was mailed free to 50,000 subscribers. Lum was important in that she had served earlier as private secretary to Phineas Bresee, founder of the Church of the Nazarene.
In 1909, Crawford and Lum moved to Portland, Oregon, where they founded a congregation using the same name as the mother church in Los Angeles — Apostolic Faith Mission. When Lum moved, she took the Apostolic Faith mailing list with Seymour’s initial blessing and continued publishing the paper from Portland. This cut off Seymour from his followers and caused the eventual decline of the Azusa Street Mission.
Jennie Moore, Lucy Farrow, Julia Hutchins, Clara Lum, and Florence Crawfordbecame the first of many women Pentecostal ministers who spread the message around the world. Women preachers had flourished in Holiness circles for decades before 1900, Maria Woodworth-Etter being the best known. After Azusa Street, Ida Robinson,Aimee Semple McPherson, and Kathryn Kuhlman carried forward the tradition. Indeed, Crawford, McPherson, and Robinson founded entire denominations.
One reason women flourished in the Pentecostal movement was the anointed use of the gifts of the Spirit. Using the prophet Joel as a guide, Pentecostal women included themselves in the “sons and daughters” who would prophesy and the “servants and handmaidens” on whom the Spirit would be poured out at the end of the age (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17). Looking back, Azusa Street was a significant breakthrough for the cause of women in ministry.6
Historians and sociologists now view the Azusa Street meetings as essentially a third-world phenomenon. In a way, Seymour represented the poor, disadvantaged, and disinherited people of the world. Since about 80 percent of the world population falls into that category today, Azusa Street symbolizes God’s love for the many people who have little of the world’s goods or esteem. Some have spoken of Pentecostalism as the haven of the masses. Others have said Pentecostalism is the religion of choice for the third world.
After Azusa Street, the major qualification for ministry was not education or respectability, but Holy-Ghost anointing to minister effectively. Not all people at Azusa Street were poor and uneducated. Reports often spoke of people in the meetings who were refined, well dressed, and educated. But most were disadvantaged people from the lower classes who left to establish mass Pentecostal movements around the world.
One reason for the massive growth of Pentecostalism is the acceptance of the miraculous. Most people around the world believe in the existence of spirits, both good and evil. For millions in pagan environments, a new believer does not need to change paradigms to become a Pentecostal Christian. In much of the world, demonic forces are cast out of those who are seeking deliverance and salvation. While much of Christianity holds the Western scientific worldview that denies the existence of demons, Pentecostals know demons are powerful, evil beings, and cast them out.
Those who become committed Christians break the power of sin in their lives, become honest, hard-working citizens, and begin to prosper. Pentecostals experience what Donald McGavran called “redemption and lift,” which brings them out of poverty and into relative prosperity. Most Pentecostals did not plan to stay poor, however, and were often attracted to teachings of wealth and prosperity.
As Grant Wacker has shown in Heaven Below, many of the children of Azusa Street were people of great native intelligence who, despite their economic disadvantages, used their native intelligence and entrepreneurial skills to build great churches and ministries.7
A far-reaching and rarely noticed legacy of Azusa Street is the new style of worship music that ultimately spread around the world. Since Azusa Street was a mixture of both white and black Holiness worship styles, it was inevitable that the music ethos of black Pentecostalism would have increasing influence among Pentecostals. Even though Azusa Street worshipers sang the old Methodist and Holiness hymns such as the Azusa favorite “The Comforter Has Come,” the black musical ethos gradually spread and ultimately influenced white churches. The fact Elvis Presley was raised in a Pentecostal church helps explain the development of today’s popular music styles that reflect the influence of both country music, and rhythm and blues.
Around the world today, churches of many traditions are singing worship songs inspired by the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. Along with the music are Pentecostal styles of worship such as lifted hands, singing in the Spirit, prophetic utterances, and prayer for the sick.
Perhaps the most far-reaching legacy of Azusa Street is its teaching and practice of Holy-Spirit empowerment for evangelism. Above all, Azusa Street was a missionary movement. Many missionaries were coming and going during the revival. A few months after the meetings began, the Apostolic Faith reported Pentecostal revivals in New York, London, Oslo, Stockholm, and India.
Not since the Early Church had a revival movement spread so far and so fast. The fascination with tongues, healing, and exorcisms attracted multitudes — without the use of advertising media. Throughout the glory days, Azusa Street did not advertise with local newspaper ads or posters. News of the revival was spread locally by word of mouth. The Los Angeles newspapers wrote scurrilous and racist articles, but this only drew more crowds.
In the end, Azusa Street pilgrims spread the news worldwide, thousands of churches were planted, and millions of people were converted. Today, it is estimated that most conversions from paganism occur under Pentecostal and charismatic evangelism efforts.
A century after the opening of services on Azusa Street there are more than 600 million Pentecostals and charismatics in the world. This attests to the evangelistic success of the Movement.8
The little band of worshipers who gathered at Azusa Street in 1906 could not have dreamed of the historic results of the revival they helped unleash in Los Angeles. They never belonged to a large denominational group. None of the large Pentecostal denominations of today, such as the Assemblies of God or the Church of God in Christ, can lay exclusive claim to the mission.
Azusa Street belongs to the whole body of Christ. Seymour cannot be claimed by African-Americans alone, or by Pentecostals alone; he belongs to the whole body of Christ — of all nations, races, and peoples. And the baptism in the Holy Spirit, with the accompanying gifts and graces, does not belong only to Pentecostals, but to the whole body of Christ.
1. Melvin Robeck, “William Joseph Seymour,” Stanley Burgess and Eduard M. Van Der Maas, International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, 1053–1058; Robert Owens, “Azusa Street,” in Vinson Synan, The Century of the Holy Spirit (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 39–68.
2. Vinson Synan, “William Seymour,” Christian History, (Issue 65), 17–19.
3. For more on Bartleman and Azusa Street, see Vinson Synan, ed. Azusa Street (Plainfield, nj: Bridge Publishing, 1980), IX–XXV. This is a reprint of Bartleman’s How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles.
4. See Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
5. See David Daniels, “African-American Pentecostalism in the Twentieth Century” in Vinson Synan, Century of the Holy Spirit,265–291.
6. Susan C. Hyatt, “Spirit-Filled Women” in Vinson Synan,Century of the Holy Spirit, 233–264.
7. Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.)
8. For a summary of statistics and projections, see David Barrett, “The Worldwide Holy Spirit Renewal” in Vinson Synan, Century of the Holy Spirit,380–453.