On the morning of April 18, 1906, a headline on the front page of the Los Angeles Daily News screamed of “Weird Babel of Tongues” heard from a “New Sect of Fanatics Breaking Loose” at a former livery stable at 312 Azusa St. in downtown Los Angeles.
The reporter described a racially mixed congregation, which in itself was news at the time, howling and swaying for hours and “breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand.” The tone of the sensational account was one of utter disbelief. But the growing city of 228,000 woke up that morning to a more literal form of shock. At just after 5 a.m., the earth quaked with a seismic revolt that destroyed much of San Francisco and killed hundreds.
The violent tremors could be felt as far south as Los Angeles. As the shouts of “Repent!” fell on more receptive ears, the reverberations from the ridiculed Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission, whose services would be known as the Azusa Street Revival, eventually were felt around the world. Tagged “the American Jerusalem” for the thousands of seekers who descended on the City of Angels from 1906-1909, the Azusa Street Revival is acknowleged as the birthplace of the Pentecostal movement, whose doctrine of speaking in tongues as the only true evidence of being baptized in the Holy Spirit is practiced today by an estimated 500 million churchgoers worldwide.
The Azusa revival was led by a black, one-eyed preacher from Houston named William J. Seymour, who ended up marrying a woman from Austin. He first heard the Pentecostal message sitting in the hallway outside a segregated classroom in 1905.
Founders of both the Church Of God In Christ and the Assemblies of God, which grew into the largest black and white Pentecostal denominations, respectively, attended the Azusa Street Revival. And yet Seymour, the relatively soft-spoken preacher who often focused on prayer during the hopped-up proceedings by putting his head inside a milk crate atop a makeshift pulpit, is virtually unknown today. That the impoverished and uneducated Seymour, described as “an old colored exhorter” in the newspaper account, would inspire such a profoundly wide-reaching spiritual movement is remarkable. That he did it as a black man during the Jim Crow era of segregation and racism, is nothing short of miraculous.
In 1972, Yale University church historian Sidney Ahlstrom called Seymour “the most influential black leader in American religious history” and yet only recently have the churches he inspired started acknowledging his role in the ignition of Pentecostalism. That the message he preached is embraced more strongly today than ever is as much of a monument as the humble Houstonite could’ve hoped for. But his dreams of congregations that mirror the racial makeup in heaven did not go much further than the Azusa Street Revival’s glory period.
Promiseland in Austin is one of the few racially diverse Pentecostal churches around. Bishop Kenneth Phillips peppers his sermons with Hebraic-sounding “glossolalia,” then sets his hands on parishioners, causing them to also speak in tongues. “The apex of an experience with God is when he tames the tongue, the body’s most unruly member, and allows it to speak in a language that he can understand,” Phillips said.
The history of Pentecostalism, Phillips says, is the most spectacular movie not yet made. “‘The Passion of the Christ’ was the first part of the story, but the sequel’s better,” he says. “Mel Gibson made the same mistake so many mainline churches do. They stop at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but the greatest story comes later, in the Book of Acts.”
Pentecost (known as Shavuot in Judaism) was the annual festival of the harvest that came 50 days after Passover. On the first Pentecost after the Crucifixion, the 11 apostles, Jesus Christ’s mother Mary, and more than 100 disciples from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem, promising they would carry on Christ’s work. The New Testament describes a strong wind coming from heaven and filling the house in which they all were sitting. “And then appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire . . .,” it is written in Acts 2:1-4. “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit granted them utterance.”
Charles Fox Parham, a white preacher who opened the Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kan., in 1900, seized on that passage and became the first to teach that speaking in tongues was the only true evidence of a baptism in the Holy Ghost. During the same period, Seymour, who was born in Centerville, La., in 1870 to former slaves, had developed a fascination with special revelations and faith healing. Drifting north for work and more racial tolerance, Seymour joined a Holiness church in Cincinnati. The Holiness doctrine taught that besides conversion to Christianity, a second act of grace, a conscious physical experience of “sanctification,” was required for entry into heaven.
“Holiness or hell” was the motto that made Baptist and Methodist mainliners bristle. Meanwhile, “the holy rollers,” who experienced sanctification by shouting, stomping and rolling around on the ground, were becoming a national joke. Blacks keen on assimilation in the years following slavery were embarassed by such savage displays.
The Pentecostal movement, a spinoff of the Holiness church, was similarly scoffed at in the beginning. Seymour moved to Houston in search of relatives in 1903 and began attending a Holiness church, later serving as temporary pastor. As fate would have it, Parham relocated to Houston in 1905, where he opened a new Bible school at 503 Rusk St. Seymour was forbidden to attend the classes because he was black, but Parham cracked the door so he could listen outside. In a short time, Seymour became Parham’s messenger to the black community, spreading the word of the new Pentecost, a doctrine that allowed churchgoers to experience the Holy Spirit in the same way the apostles did.
By most accounts, Seymour, who lost an eye to smallpox, was not a fire-and-brimstone preacher, but a meek man of Scriptural fluency who won over churchgoers with his devout demeanor. According to “The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement in the United States” by Vinson Synan, Seymour’s sojourn west came about after a visitor from Los Angeles named Neely Terry caught one of Seymour’s sermons. When Terry returned to the West Coast and found that she and several other churchgoers had been expelled from the Second Baptist Church because of their Holiness views, she suggested they send for Seymour to preach for their fledgling group. When he arrived in February 1906, Seymour addressed a small congregation that wasn’t ready to hear about the third act of grace, the speaking in tongues baptism. When Seymour admitted that he had not yet experienced “glossolalia” himself, he was dismissed.
With no money and no place to go, Seymour was taken in by sympathetic church members Richard and Ruth Asbery, who would hold gospel concerts in front of their house at 214 Bonnie Brae St. and then invite those interested inside for prayer meetings. On April 9, 1906, with Seymour using Acts 2:1-4 as the text of his sermon, several of the group began speaking in tongues for the first time. Some were in trances for hours and neighbor Jennie Evans Moore, who had just moved to Los Angeles from her native Austin, sat at the piano and started playing a song even though she’d never played before. (The piano is still in the Asbery home, maintained as a museum by the Church of God In Christ.)
Word of the event quickly spread through both the black and white religious communities and the house on Bonnie Brae Street was soon hosting packed services nightly. After three days, Seymour spoke in tongues for the first time. So many people showed up that night that the porch collapsed. Needing a bigger building, the group rented a 40-foot-by-60-foot wood-frame structure at 312 Azusa St. without indoor plumbing, for $8 a month.
The building originally held an African Methodist Episcopal church, but in recent years it had been used as a stable and to store construction supplies. Seymour moved into a room upstairs. From the start, Seymour established that the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission would be integrated. “No instrument that God can use is rejected on account of color or dress or lack of education,” Seymour wrote in the monthly newsletter, The Apostolic Faith. Wealthy orange growers lay prostrate on the ground beside fieldhands, government officials held their arms aloft next to drifters weeping under the spell. The religious world had never seen anything like what was happening at Azusa Street. Crowds grew to the 750 capacity, with hundreds more outside. Dramatic conversions occurred around the clock. Some whites, although intrigued by what they were hearing, were reticent to worship with blacks.
One such preacher was A.G. Osterberg, according to “The Life and Ministry of William J. Seymour” biography by Larry Martin. Osterberg was won over when he saw tears rolling down the eyes of parishioners “slain in the spirit.” The theme of the meeting, Osterberg wrote, was “we are hungry for more God.” Unsatisfied with the stodgy services of mainstream religion, he had felt the same way and soon became one of the Azusa leaders, lending his construction crew to fix up the old building.
In October 1906, Seymour was proud to host Parham, the father of the Pentecostal doctrine, but the mentor, an avid segregationist, was aghast at the intermingling of races, as well as the feverish proceedings, which often found churchgoers banging on tambourines and running up and down the aisles. “God is sick to his stomach,” he told his former student. Parham opened a rival mission in Los Angeles, but it failed to attract followers and he returned to Texas. A year later, Parham was arrested in San Antonio and charged with sodomy with young males. Although Parham vigorously denied the charges and the case was dropped, the scandal ruined him with the religious community and he quickly became distanced from the religion he founded.
Eventually, the Azusa Street Revival, born of unity, developed a split along the lines of doctrine, race and even romance. In May 1908, Seymour married Moore, which reportedly angered one heartsick female administrator so much that she left with the mission’s
mailing list and established her own church in Portland, Ore. In 1911, a white preacher named William Durham contested some of Seymour’s views, while filling in at Azusa Street when Seymour was away. When Seymour returned and confronted Durham, the white preacher left and took an estimated 600 white members with him to his new church. By the time of Seymour’s death from a heart attack in 1922, the congregation of the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission was almost entirely black.
His wife kept the historic mission going through tough times until 1931, when the city declared the building a fire hazard and tore it down. She died in 1936. The two-block-long Azusa Street is now just a parking lot in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood.
The business of saving souls is filled with those who know every word of the Bible, forward, back and sideways, without studying much about the people who galvanized the message. The once-dismissed doctrine William J. Seymour preached from a former livery stable, the manger of the Pentecostal movement, has endured and is indeed gaining more acceptance a hundred years after Seymour first learned of the Holy Ghost baptism of speaking in tongues. As a man of God, that’s everything Seymour could’ve hoped for. But as a black man who brought the races together in a time of segregation, it’s regrettable that he didn’t leave a social legacy as well.
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