The Azusa Street revival was a revival meeting held by the Pentecostal church at Los Angeles in California. The revival took place between April 1906 and late 1910 and was headed by a black American pastor called William J. Seymour. It is the Azusa Street Revival that gave birth to the modern Pentecostal churches. The revival was preceded by Wales Revival which occurred between September 1904 and mid 1905 in which hundreds of thousands of people were converted to Christianity1. With reports from the concurrent revival in Wales, there existed great anticipation and heightened expectancy that something unique would happen. People started gathering around the city ahead of the prayers.
During the revival, there was blissful spiritual experience that was evidenced by performance of miracles, speaking in strange utterances, racial intermingling and unity. It brought together both the black and white American Christians, both the rich and the poor. Everybody at the revival was considered the same and equal, and it did not matter whether an individual was black or white, green or grizzly2. According to Hanegraaff, nobody had it in mind that the issue of skin color could be done away with. It is further stated that the color line which used to symbolize a divide between the people was washed away by blood.
The revival was neither a political nor activism movement, but rather a complete religious and spiritual union. Even though those who were associated with the movement hailed from different traditional backgrounds, the Pentecostalism was predominantly from the Holiness movement at the end of 19th century. Pentecostalism converged from a common experience which they termed as the baptism of the Holy Spirit which involved the ability to supernaturally speak in tongues. It believed in divine healing and individual holiness. It is primarily based on shared experiences as opposed to strict doctrinal stance and, hence the diversity of believers’ backgrounds.
In the early years, those involved normally abominated denominational restrictions and formal organizational structures. However, as the movement quickly begun to gain more followers and started to receive more attention, associations and fellowships that were resistant to earlier believes begun to arise. These segregationists began opposing the Pentecostals on the grounds of their racial unity. In response to defend themselves, the Pentecostals insisted that they were not out to organize or create new sects, but rather spread the word of God3.They were confident that they were accomplishing the word of God as indicated in the Bible.
Theological research studies have shown that there are over 10 million people confessing the Pentecostal faith in United States of America and more than 600 million followers worldwide. In the past century, it was estimated that Pentecostalism had the second largest stream of Christians worldwide after the Roman Catholic4. . While the Pentecostal movement grew progressively among many races and in diverse cultures, in particularly America, the movement quickly began to fragment along racial differences. This was evidenced by Pastor Charles Parham, who was one of the forerunners of the movement criticizing the Azusa revival that was led by his immediate former student William Seymour.
This period of short-lived racial unity and subsequent division provides a unique ground and interesting case study in investigating the discursive nature of racial interaction and its influence on growth and spread of Christianity. The issue of racism itself provides an important basis for analyzing the integration and segregation of believers in the early Pentecostalism. Many scholars especially Leonard Lovett and Howard Nelson have researched with great passion on issues relating to the racism and its influence in the church. In his view, Strom described the Azusa Street Revival and Pentecostal movement as an intercultural agent that threw a bridge across the troubled waters between two cultures that would otherwise never meet5.
A detailed scrutiny of the rhetoric of early Pentecostals in regard to race issues is helpful not only in regard to seeing how leaders of the Pentecostal movement responded to racial tensions and pressures, but also in how the rhetoric shaped the relationship between the blacks and whites Christian in the early Pentecostal movement.
Early life of William Seymour
William Seymour was an African American preacher born in May 1870, son of a slave in Louisiana and the founder of the Azusa Street mission. He grew up to become a student in the newly formed Bible school of his own spiritual father Charles Parham. It was during this period that he acquired the major belief of Christian holiness and as a consequence founded the Pentecostal doctrine. He also developed a belief in speaking in tongues and sanctification by the Holy Spirit.
During his missionary works, he did not only reject the racial barriers in Christianity but also, unchained the universal setback of women leadership in churches. Seymour made a conscious choice to use white preachers as the figurehead for the meetings when he was away on evangelistic missions, it was nonetheless an effective way to convey the message that the Azusa Mission was open to both races Most of the charismatic groups are linked with William Seymour and his Azusa Street Revival.
Occurrence of the revival
When Seymour arrived in late February in 1906, he came with the doctrine of Pentecost and spiritual gifts to the people who were highly thirsty for salvation and ready for the new change. There were small groups already anticipating bizarre, earth-shattering acts of God. Most of the congregation came from both Keswick and Holiness movements.
There was religious awakening that eventually resulted in the worldwide movement of the Pentecostal faith. Seymour first started by holding indoor preaching in the neighborhoods but later on carried revival meetings that lasted for several years and attracted hundreds of people from all over the country, thereby igniting a religious movement that has since then altered the religious scenery of America and beyond. The most significant meeting he ever held was the Azusa street revival.
The Azusa revival suddenly became the major catalyst of the rapid growth of Pentecostal movement. Through their own newsletter, it was reported that people all over America, and without doubt from all over the world, came to Azusa to experience the strange happenings at the meeting, after which they would return home and spread the message to the rest of the human race. The revival started as a small meeting then gradually developed into a series of revival meetings that attracted people worldwide.
At the beginning, Seymour got criticism and condemnations from the media and Holiness Association Church elders who did not believe in his teachings. Despite of these impediments and challenges, the revival later developed to be the principal vehicle for the spread of Pentecostal faith in the 20th century. During the first sermon in a church at Ninth Corner in Los Angeles, Seymour preached over speaking in tongues saying that it was the foremost biblical evidence of the inevitable baptism in the Holy Spirit7. The message preached remained nearly the same as it focused on the beginning of the great end-times, the long awaited come back of Jesus Christ and the imminent judgment to be carried on the unrighteous people.
At its commencement, only 150 people received the new blessings. It later advanced slowly and then gained full momentum, thereby attracting massive crowds of people. People came from different parts of the globe to witness for themselves the mysteries of the Holy Spirit and its power. A good example is the Chinese missionary Bernt Bernsten who travelled there to investigate what was taking places8. Stories about the revival then started evolving very quickly across North America and even Europe. The sect then started publishing a journal called the Apostolic Faith.
Happenings at the meeting
As the prayer meetings continued, more people were joining and a couple of people saw supernatural visions and experienced other spiritual experiences including falling on the floor, trembling fiercely and speaking in tongues. A woman called Jennie Moore was heard saying that she felt as if a vessel broke within her and water surged up through her being and she began speaking in tongues. Another American was said to have been speaking and writing in unidentified language when he was brought into contact with a visitor from India. Unlike other protestant churches, prayers were the focal point of the meetings, and participants had to kneel down every now as they prayed for their diverse needs
As the attendance figure grew in numbers, the need to accommodate the ever-enlarging crowd arose and the meeting had to be relocated to a two-story building at 312 Azusa Street, from which the revival was named.
There were increased numbers of positive testimonies of salvation as attendance rose. There meeting which merely started as a congregation of the white people of Los Angeles city now grew into huge revival too large for just an individual race and single city. According to Seymour, God makes no difference in nationality. Besides crossing the racial divide by joining both blacks and whites as one, Pentecost brought together people from all nations, ethnicities and social classes. According to Valdez and James, it was an astonishing fusion of both rich and poor9. At the height of events, services were held three times a day throughout the whole week, with huge masses of people crowding in the undersized building and additional hundreds waiting outside, incapable of accessing the mission hall.
Progress of the revival
A few months commencement of the revival, the Apostolic Faith reported that over 13,000 had received the Pentecostal experience and that the good news had vastly spread to two more hemispheres. Before many people could realize, the Azusa street revival had become a house of worship for many nations10. Each of its meetings was packed with people from different diversities. Both men and women, black and white, rich and poor, gathered at the meetings for one common goal-they wanted to receive the Holy Spirit.
The Azusa Revival and Pentecostal Movement
While the Pentecostal movement is said to have sparked in 1906 at the Azusa revival meeting in Los Angeles, the practices, beliefs and supernatural experiences were certainly not peculiar to this period of Christian history. The movement derived its beliefs and practices experiences from earlier Christian groups. To be particular, the practice of speaking in tongues can be traced back to the very beginning of Christianity about AD 31. This is recorded in the book of Acts chapter 2 of the New Testament which explains how followers of Jesus Christ gathered in a room after his ascension to heaven waiting for baptism in the Holy Spirit. According to the Bible, the followers gathered together and were suddenly astonished by a sound of violent blowing wind which descended from heaven and rested on each person, filling them with ability to speak in tongues of fire. The bible further states that all of them were filled with Hoy Spirit and began to speak in strange tongues that could not be understood by the other non-followers. Even though the exact reoccurrence of these events have never been seen, they have continued to form the foundation of Christians being filled with Holy Spirit and talking in extraordinary languages. It is this doctrinal point of view that distinguishes the Pentecostal movement from other groups within Christianity.
The Pentecostal Forerunners
Pentecostalism can be compared with a sea that receives waters from different rivers. It borrowed beliefs and practices from diverse perspectives. It first started as a result of combination of two distinct movements; the Keswick and Holiness movements. The Keswick movement brought together Christians from England and United States who had passion and interest in living a life influenced by the divine while the Holiness movement believed in perfection and sanctification of Christian. A combination of the two movements initiated the Christian desire for profound spirituality beyond mere salvation. Consequently, they provided the principal foundation for the inception of modern Pentecostal experience and doctrine of baptism. It is evident that many Pentecostal leaders came from the Holiness movement, and this thus describes the direct link between the two movements.
Apostolic Faith Newsletter
This was a publication produced as a result of joint initiative between Seymour and Clara E. Lum. The newsletter was to purpose serve as an informative instrument around the world. Its copies were distributed free of charge to thousands of mission ministers and other potential followers. According to Valdez and James, more than 5,000 copies were produced in distributed in the first edition of September 190612. It conveyed very strong messages and prophesies that swept out racial conflicts within Pentecostalism by the end of 1913.
This was a periodical publication of Seymour based on his biblical teachings and prophesies. The newsletter was to be published on a monthly basis and copies sent to different people across the nations. Its main objective was to help spread the Pentecostal faith, beliefs and practices. A few months later, Seymour was able o reach thousands of people by mailing them copies of the newspaper. The persuasive power of the newsletter was notable as it led to a massive flow of new visitors to the church. Within a short period of time, it experienced a global recognition and gospel outreach through this popular religious publication.
Ironically, after years of recommendable success, the newsletter turned out to be a downfall to the mission. Trouble started when Seymour took Jennie Moore as his wife. Two women, Clara Lum and Florence Crawford, who greatly helped in publication of the Apostolic Faith were not contented with Seymour’s marriage to Moore and they decided to part after a great rift existed between them and Seymour. By the time Clara and Crawford were leaving, the number of copies of the publication that were circulation had hit more than 50,000. Miss Lum felt seriously offended by the marriage to an extent that she formed a very influential group to condemn the act of the pastor12. Her critics said that she was secretly in love the pastor and thus could not uphold her jealousy for the newly married couples. She finally left and took with her the entire list of mails which had over 50,000 names. She joined Crawford in Portland where she had started a new church.
After their departure, Seymour was not able to continue with the publication, and the next issue of the Apostolic Faith prepared by Clara at Portland did not mention his name. a few months later, there was complete omission of the Los Angeles and Azusa revivals in the newspaper, and all correspondence were requested to reply and remit their contributions to the Portland Mission.
Mode of Worship
Worship services at Azusa were carried out continually and instinctively with prayers going throughout the day. The prayers attracted different people who not only members on the Holiness Movement but also members Baptists and Presbyterian churches. Neither there were musical instruments used during the prayers meetings nor were they needed. A brief description of the services which headlined the Los Angeles times read that the meeting were held in a tumble-down cabin. It further claimed that the devotees were committed fixated rites.
From its very beginning, Seymour’s Apostolic Mission attracted great attention because of the extraordinary features of its worship services. One reporter of the Los Angeles Times commented, “Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication14.” As Seymour and his initial small group of worshippers persisted in prayers and worship, more and more people were paying attention to the services and willed to attend.
There were numerous testimonies of people receiving different types of miracles among them sight restoration, healing of the sick on the spot and the non-educated blacks being able to translated languages that were not well conversant with before. The meetings wares characterized with periodic singings and in certain occasions, a cappella. The members would also observer extended moments of silence. In between the services were sporadic calls to the altar for repentance and salvation, and cleansing with by the Holy Spirit.
Beliefs of the Pentecostal Family
The teaching of Charles Parham focused majorly on three important works of the Holy Spirit, which include Baptism, Salvation and Sanctification. He taught that sanctification was a work of grace and divine healing. According to Seymour, the salvation process consists of three major stages; conversion, sanctification and being filled by the Holy Spirit15. To Seymour, the Holy Spirit was a gift of the power given to those who were sanctified only. He purely linked the ability o speak in tongues with baptism by the Holy Spirit. The Azusa street revival laid its foundation on three major beliefs, that is, spiritual cleansing by the blood of Jesus, the comeback of Jesus and unity amongst the believers.
Criticism and challenges
The interracial aspect of the meeting sparked different responses, both positive and negative. As the success of Azusa street meetings continued to develop, so did the ridicule and ill-treatment from external sources, resulting in more sarcastic, derisive and disdainful stories in the print media. The Los Angeles Times described the revival as a “disgraceful intermingling of races”. It further stated that the participants were crying and howling noises all day and night as mad and mentally deranged people. When referring to Seymour, the journal described him as a “one eyed, illiterate Negro” who would have his head hidden between wooden milk crates16.
Whereas some people viewed the inter-cultural unity as a mighty work of God, some thought it was a complete scandal and was done against the biblical principles. Occasionally, critics came from the media as well. The Los Angeles times at one point reported that the movement was satanic. More disparaging and disapproving critics evolved around the interracial aspect of the revival. Moreover, critics were confident to stick a tag on Seymour as colored man with greasy looking characters. Other religious critics claimed that the colored people are descendants of Ham and thus had evil missions. According to Sanmore, the movement was a false doctrine used by Satan to capture individuals and to scatter the people of God17. Another challenge it experienced was denigration and disparagement by some religious leaders. In some extreme cases, its propagators of the message had to be arrested.
The greatest challenge, however, was the split of some of its members from the movement. While there was newcomers to the revival who embraced racial amalgamation, as the meetings progressed, some racial unity was being lost. There were several disputes that even though were not directly connected to racial discrimination, were generated along racial disparities. This left behind a threatening shadow of swift decline of the movement. The revival later experienced a decline in its missionary prominence and a corresponding deterioration of inter-racial harmony.
Another drawback was the exit of some of its leaders, for instance, Florence Crawford who was a member of the administrative board and editorial team. After her relocation, she broke ties with the Los angles mission and thus the publication of the Apostolic Faith, which was the voice of the mission church become strained. Apart from spreading the gospel, returns from sales of the extensively circulated newsletter were used to fund missionary activities. This implied a double stroke on the efforts of the church to reach more people.
In 1911, a battle erupted between William Durham and Seymour over the church leadership. Followers of Durham felt the mission was over-controlled by the blacks and demanded for a change in the leadership structures18. The proposed new leadership structure would leave out Seymour as the rightful church leader, a suggestion that he did not in agreement with. This led to a wrangle within that resulted in separation of the congregation. Seymour was seen to be curing another wound after having a similar experience before. This further drifted the congregation apart and hence interrupted its upward growth curve.
To others, the disagreement between the two was a conflict of interest caused by difference in visionary focus. Seymour focused in desegregation and unity of the mission while Durham focused mainly on the dangers of universalism and his feeling of being endangered by the liberation of theology. The revival’s mission was hard-hit by Parham’s malicious declaration of God’s discontentment with Seymour’s observation and efforts in restoring of racial integration in early 1907.
Most Holiness churches were integrated before the civil war, but they however begun to split along racial lines around the year 1965. This resulted from the expression of freedom exercised by the African Americans who were allowed to start and run their own churches and denominational groups. One significant ruler, John Dowie, tied his best to end this racial disintegration by including African Americans in his church leadership boards. He went ahead and fought for interracial marriage as he viewed it as the only long term solution for racial prejudice. Even though he created a great impact on racial harmony at the Azusa revival did not accept the Pentecostal doctrine of speaking in unknown languages. He further became an isolationist and built a city called Zion outside Chicago in which only the born again Christians would live. Before his death in 1907, he had impacted so many who thereafter became prominent leaders of the Pentecostal movement, among them pastor Charles F. Parham who is referred to by many as the “Father of the Pentecostal Movement” and William Seymour, the leader of the Azusa Street Revival.
Racial discrimination was best manifested during the teachings of Parham in his Bible school and ministry headquarters in Houston where Seymour was forced to listen to classroom teachings from outside through a cracked door, basically because he was black and could not mix with the other white students.
In attempts to curb racial differences, the building was designed in a manner created no raised platform. Instead, benches were arranged all facing the center, which reflected the group’s sense of equality and the expectation that everyone would be involved in the services.
The spread of Azusa Revival Spirit beyond Los Angeles
The Los Angeles revival spread rapidly to all nations a few months after it inception. The spirit stacked in many locations that Seymour visited for evangelistic missions, and it could be felt many years after he had left. The spread was further facilitated by the international call for missionary action, thus the movement was gaining significant footing even if the Los Angeles mission was itself vanishing.
During his missionary tours, Seymour was able to visit various cities including Houston, New York, Washington D.C, and Chicago just but a few to mention. He further helped in establishing Pentecostal churches in different locations within the United States and abroad.
Seymour was not alone in his work; he got assistance from his fellow leaders. For instance, Gaston Cashwell who came to Azusa during the revival experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and went back to North Carolina to extend the missionary work, thereby drawing more people to the movement20. Cashwell’s teachings intensified and made two different churches merge forming one united Pentecostal Church. This speeded the stretch of the missionary message.
Success of the revival
Despite all these criticisms and heartbreaking reports, the revival observed a continued growth. It still retained its sense of spiritual victory over their formidable opponents. According to Etta Huff, it was a unique movement that has was never expected in this earth. She further describes this work of Pentecostal evangelism to have been started by some underprivileged, uninformed people who she refers to as the most appropriate chosen instruments of God, and it has spread to reach some of the most intelligent and well educated people. These best explains the joy that Seymour had on realizing that the color line had been washed away. The people were now able to gather in a common place and worship together regardless of their creed, color, social background and ethnic.
This marvelous growth was experienced when several missionaries were sent out across the globe to reach more potential followers of the faith. Most people in the mission were heard saying that the revival was beyond human understanding, it was a supreme move from the Most High, and it was bigger than Los Angeles.
The backbone of the success of the revival greatly depended on Seymour’s teachings. He was often heard saying that the congregation was like one body, though made up of different parts but would still function as one. The church was thus united by the Holy Spirit. It did not matter whether a person was Jew or Greek, black or white, slave or free, rich or poor.
Impact of Azusa Street
The Azusa revival missions formed the soils for the growth and thriving of the Pentecostal faith. This growth was facilitated by the missionaries from the Holiness movement who were sent to disseminate Pentecostal ideas, as well as those who went out directly from the revivals. In 1905, it was reported that revivals previously held in Wales and India heightened both national and international spread of the Pentecostal message22. The Azusa Street revival was perhaps the most renowned of the earliest centers of Pentecostalism in North America. It also formed the source of the foremost gesticulate of Pentecostal missionaries.
The Azusa street revival spearheaded the turning of a reasonably localized and insignificant new Christian sect into an international movement that sent missionaries to over 20 countries within a short time span of only two years.Like John Wesley, the other early Pentecostals equally perceived the world as their parish, the space into which they were to expand.
They were persuaded and had no doubt that they would overcome all obstacles through the power of the Spirit and defeat Satan and conquer his territory. This formed the trans-national, collective view and acquaintance that was a very fundamental part of Pentecostalism from its beginnings. The revival’s global impact is well stipulated in the Apostolic Faith. One of its paragraphs bristled with the exhilaration of the event reads that: “It would be impossible to state how many have been converted, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Ghost. They have been and are daily going out to all points of the compass to spread this wonderful gospel.”
Without a doubt, this new Apostolic Faith was a missionary movement, and the going out from Azusa Street was immediate and in ever-widening circles. Hundreds of visitors came to see what was happening and to be baptized in the Spirit. Many of these converts later left Azusa Street and began Pentecostal centers in various American cities and overseas.
However, there are certain theological scholars who have referred to the great importance laid on the Azusa revival as a mere myth. They claimed that the role that was played by the revival was not the heart of the missionary work and development of Pentecostalism as many believe23. In their view, this importance has been overlooked and given excessive weight and consideration
In my opinion, the Azusa revival requires adequate recognition and should be regarded as the foundation stone of the modern day Pentecostal movement. Statistic has shown that Pentecostal and charismatic believers are in excess of 500 million.
The Azusa revival’s case has left many people more questions to seek answers for. For instance, how can the evangelical revival be best defined? Does it merely involve the down-pouring of extraordinary powers from the heaven above? Do Christians get sanctification, cleansing and receive gifts of the Holy Spirit by sheer repentance of their sins, and how does God manifest Himself in this batch of new believers?
It was argued that for God to manifest His bizarre works in Christians, they must first become intensely aware of His presence. It is for this reason that magnitudes of people flocked the Azusa Street mission church and seek with great zeal an opportunity to meet God. They must show unquestionable level of obedience and close personal relationship with God. The realization of unique presence of God during revival times is consistently manifested in the testimonies of the congregation.
Another issue of concern is the way in which God reveals himself during revival times, and how the revival atmosphere is created. According to the New Testament, the revival spirit is not measured by individual feelings alone, but it is demonstrated by its fruits, for example, the power to speak unknown languages.
As demonstrated above, the Azusa Street revival that began among a small group of believers praying together in Los Angeles in the leap of 1906 became significant to the modern Pentecostalism and Christian community as a whole. Not only did the revival ignite the Pentecostal movement, bringing the Holiness message to a new stage in its expansion, sending missionaries around the world, introducing spiritual wave that had been almost forgotten since the first century, and changing the religious landscape of America, it also served as a milestone in the healing of America’s prejudices and racial wounds. Of course, the overarching significance of the racial integration of the Church at the Los Angeles meetings would depend on whether or not Seymour’s message of unity was carried on to other local Pentecostal bodies, and whether or not those continuing the Pentecostal message would feel that the racial integration experienced at Azusa was worth the consequences of being counter-cultural in a Jim Crow world.
It is evident from the above discussion that there was important role played by the Azusa revival in racial integration amongst the Christians. I can conclude that even though there were many challenges, this goal was realized. The above discussion purely gives a true reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of the early Pentecostal revivalists. For instance, Parham had a strong disagreement with Seymour over issues pertaining to Holy spirit and speaking in tongues, yet he (Seymour) was one of his students and they might have at one point had similar beliefs.
While Seymour and his fellow leaders emphasized the unity that the Holy Spirit would bring and sought it with incredible efforts, once they had achieved that unity, they failed to bring it back down to earth. He himself lacked a practical expression of the significance of racial integration for Pentecostal believers. In addition to the primary factor of extreme racial culture that hindered the unity amongst the Christians, there were other factors that significantly contributed to further disintegration of the church.
Though it may be argued that the worldwide spread of the Pentecostal movement was as a result of the noble initiative of the missionaries, in my opinion, it was a combined effort and initiative of the passionate native believers. The number of new converts grew steadily and thus surpassed the ability of the missionaries to cater for their spiritual needs. The people themselves had much commitment towards this new change.
A similar contrary view is displayed from a research carried by Liardon in Latin American, Asia and some parts of Africa. Liardon believed that the Pentecostal churches possessed a contemptible idea. He argues that the missionaries set goals for themselves that were utterly unattainable by any normal being.
Many of the churches were extremely large and the worship often dynamic. These large churches had to cope with ever-growing magnitude of new believers. Most of the churches later had to come up with small groups in order to maintain individualized touch and experience amongst members. The groups were to facilitate evangelism and equip the people with leadership skills via social outlet ministries. However, to the surprise of the pastors and other church leaders, some these groups formed sects and separated themselves from the parent churches.
No one can ever talk of the Azusa revivals without having in mind the formulation and progressive development of small sects into global religious denominations, just as the mission started in a small room in Azusa Street then spread to touch the whole world. Incredible considerations should be given the issue of leadership and racial difference amongst Christians.
The numerous critics that Azusa revival faced leaves me with no doubt that the church should be ready to face countless challenges that may generate either internally or externally. The exits of Clara and Crawford from the church depicted the severe drawbacks to the missionary objectives. This was a test to the firmness of the church.