Some events happen and fade away as quickly as they come. While other events occur and last forever—The Azusa Street Revival.
The background for Revival
Throughout the later half of the 19th century in the United States, Protestants from various backgrounds began to ask themselves, why their churches did not display the same vibrant, faith-filled life like those in the New Testament. Numerous believers who joined the evangelical or Holiness churches were engaged in ardent prayer and earnestly sought God. It was in this spiritual hunger that people began experiencing spiritual gifts described in the Bible.
Pentecostal pioneers were longing for authentic Christianity, and they studied the previous spiritual outpourings, such as the First Great Awakening (1730s-40s) and the Second Great Awakening (1800s-30s), for inspiration and instruction. They identified themselves in the tradition of reformers and revivalists such as Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Dwight L Moody and sought after similar occurances in their ministries.
On May 2, 1870, William Joseph Seymour was born in Centerville, Louisiana to former slaves, Simon and Phyllis Seymour, during the period of racial unrest and injustice. Seymour later joined the Union Army during the Civil War. Remarkably, he learned his English by reading the Bible. When he was 25, he moved to Indianapolis. He toiled as a railway porter and a waiter in a classy restaurant. He contracted smallpox and went blind in his left eye
William J Seymour, leader of the Azusa Street Revival.
Raised as a Baptist, his insatiable hunger for the truth of God’s Word increased throughout his youth. Since his early years, he had experienced divine visions and looked fervently to Christ’s Second Coming.
In 1900 he went to Cincinnati and became immersed in the radical Holiness theology. This theology is a belief that sanctification is a post-conversion experience that results in complete holiness, divine healing, premillennialism, and the promise of a worldwide Holy Spirit revival.
In 1903 Seymour moved to Houston, Texas, in search of his kin. It was there that he was connected to a small Holiness church pastored by an African American woman, Lucy Farrow, who soon put him touch with Charles Fox Parham.
Parham was a Holiness teacher, where under his ministry, a student had received the gift of tongues (glossolalia) two years before. For Parham, this was the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit as stated in the Bible. After he founded a Bible school to train disciples in “Apostolic Faith” in Houston, Farrow urged Seymour to attend the school.
Since Texas law forbade African Americans to sit in the same classrooms with the white people, Parham encouraged Seymour to remain in the hallway and listen to his lectures through the doorway. Here, Seymour accepted Parham’s premise of a “third blessing” of baptism in the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues. Though Seymour had not yet personally experienced tongues, he sometimes preached this message with Parham in Houston churches.
In early 1906, Seymour was invited to help Julia Hutchins pastor a Holiness church in Los Angeles. With Parham’s support, Seymour travelled to California, where he preached the new Pentecostal doctrine using Acts 2:4 as his text. Hutchins, however, rejected Seymour’s teaching on tongues, and padlocked the door to him and his message. This rejection was God’s providence to fulfill His supreme purpose.
The early leaders of the Azusa Street Mission, 1907. William J Seymour, front, 2nd from right. Mrs Jennie Seymour, back, 3rd from left.
The Beginning of Revival
Seymour was then asked to stay in the house of Richard Asberry at 214 Bonnie Brae Street, where on April 9, after a month of intense prayer and fasting, he and several others started speaking in tongues. The news was broadcasted as “the strange events” on Bonnie Brae Street, and attracted so much attention, that Seymour was forced to preach on the front porch to crowds gathered in the street. At one level, the jostling crowd grew so large that the porch floor caved in.
Seymour searched Los Angeles for a suitable building to continue his ministry. He found an old abandoned African Methodist Episcopal church on Azusa Street that was used as a warehouse and stable. Although it was in shambles, Seymour and his little band of African American washerwomen, maids and laborers cleaned up the building, set up a board, plank seats, and built a stump out of old shoebox shipping crates. Services started in mid-April in the church, which was called the “Apostolic Faith Mission.”
The building measured only 40 by 60 feet. 600 people crammed inside, while hundreds more looked in through the windows. The main attraction was the gift of tongues, and traditional “black worship styles”— shouting, trances and the holy dance. Jennie Evans Moore, who later became Seymour’s wife, reportedly spoke Spanish, French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Hindustani—none of which she knew before.
Once, when preaching ended, the crowds would retire to the Upper Room to pray. As preaching resumed, someone would ring a bell and all would come downstairs for the services.
Kathleen, a teenager, was praying in the Upper Room. During this time, a Jewish man entered the building, and hearing people praying, he ventured upstairs to the prayer room. When he entered, Kathleen, moved by the Spirit, arose and pointed to the man as he stood at the head of the stairway, and spoke in an unknown language for several minutes.
Kathleen had, in fact, spoken in the Hebrew language. She had told him his first and last name, and had stated his original purpose of entering the city—to listen to the messages and use them to lecture against Christianity. She then stated his occupation, and then she urged him to repent. She exposed things about his life that was impossible for any other person to have known.
The Jewish man then dropped to his knees, cried and prayed as though his heart would break.
They had no order of service, since the Holy Ghost was in control. No offering was collected, although a box that hung on the wall proclaimed, “Settle with the Lord.” Altar workers zealously prayed for the seekers till they received the coveted experience of speaking in tongues. It was a noisy place, and services lasted well into the night, seven days a week, and three times a day.
Marvellously, some even started speaking in tongues once they came close to the church building. Similarly, others received instant healing once the Holy Spirit filled them, without the help of the altar workers during services. People without limbs got new limbs; the ones with shortened arms had their arms made longer in full view of worshippers. Everyone was amazed!
The last two survivors of the Azusa Street Revival was a pastor, who was healed of tuberculosis, and a deaf girl, then a teenager, who was healed and could then hear and also go to school. They both lived till the 1970s.
The local newspaper spoke cynically about the “weird babbling of tongues” of “coloured mummies” on street corners and trolley cars. The news intrigued the city. Whole congregations came to Azusa Street and stuck around after their former churches disbanded. More Pentecostal centers soon started springing up around town.
Although many came to mock and scorn, others heard messages in known earthly languages which was uttered by uneducated black and white people. This convinced them of the reality of the revival.
Soon after, many white people came and made up the majority of members and visitors. Black hands were placed on white heads to receive this new experience of speaking in tongues. An avalanche of “Azusa Pilgrims” came to get what were supposed to be “missionary tongues,” which would enable preachers to go to the far recesses of the world proclaiming the gospel in languages they had never known before.
The Benefits of the Revival
From Chicago came William Durham, who later developed the “Finished Work” theology that gave birth to the Assemblies of God (AG) in 1914.
To Seymour, the gift of tongues was not the only message that came out of Azusa Street. “Don’t go out of here talking about tongues. Talk about Jesus,” he admonished.
Another underlying message that came out of the revival was that of racial reconciliation. Both black and white people worked together in harmony under the direction of a black pastor—a marvel in the days of segregation. This miracle led American Pentecostal writer Frank Bartleman to exult, “At Azusa Street, the color line was washed away in the Blood.”
While Charles Parham was still a racialist and believed in the British-Israelism theory; Seymour visualized that what was happening at Azusa Street was creating a new kind of church—one where a common experience in the Holy Spirit tore down old walls of racial, ethnic, and denominational difference. He was like the Apostle Paul, who tried to reconcile Jews and Gentiles, and form a new Christian community. But he never imagined the emergence of the AG.
As the revival quickly spread, countless Pentecostals—thrown out by their own denominations—recognized the obligation for greater governance and accountability. They became the founding fathers and mothers of the AG assembled in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on April 2 to 12, 1914. Their aim was to promote unity and doctrinal stability, establish legal standing, coordinate the mission enterprise and constitute a ministerial training school. They constituted the first General Council and elected two officers: Eudorus N Bell as president (title later changed to General Superintendent) and J Roswell Flower as secretary, as well as the first executive presbyter.
At the 1915 conference, held in Malvern, Arkansas, Rev EN Bell (sitting in the middle, front row) was chosen to serve as chairman of AG.
Doctrinally, these churches emphasized personal salvation, water baptism, divine healing, the baptism in the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues, and the pre-millennial second coming of Jesus Christ. The Bible is recognized as the inspired word of God that provided the rule for faith and practice. The church’s four-fold mission was expressed through Evangelism, Discipleship, Worship and Compassion.
The Three Lessons From the Revival
- A Global Outlook. The revival on Azusa Streetlasted seven years, during which thousands of missionaries went forth to spread Pentecostalism. Men and women set off to Scandinavia, China, India, Africa, Egypt, Ireland and many other countries. And noticeably, single women, who devoted their entire life to church planting, exceeded the men that went out to the missions field.
Interestingly, the General Superintendent of AOG (USA), Dr George Wood’s parents, George R and A Elizabeth Wood, were pioneer missionaries in northwestern China and Tibet, along with his uncle and aunt, Victor and Ruth Plymire. His other uncle and aunt, Paul and Virginia Weidman, were pioneer missionaries in Africa. Surprisingly, lots of African churches were planted by the AG’s missionaries. I had the privilege to meet a few of the AG’s women missionaries, as I was on board the Ship Logos visiting the African continent in 1976 to 1977.
- A God Certainty I noticed that most Pentecostalmissionaries and pastors were real men and women of faith. Once God called them to a home mission or abroad, they inherently trusted God for His provision and protection—I had heard and read testimonies of missionaries and pastors who shared about God’s intervention.
In those days, once a missionary felt called, he packed his bags, took his family, and set out for his assignment. Without any promised support from their home churches, they came with all they had, not knowing what the future held—except the assurance of God’s
faithfulness. You can say they had “reckless faith”. It is this kind of faith that enabled them to launch out into the deep to be “fishers of men” for Christ. There won’t be any AG church in Singapore, if not for those dedicated American Pentecostal missionaries. Missionaries of such calibre is in short supply today.
- A God-Chosen Vessel Unlike the Church Fathersand The Reformers, who were of a certain status, and had their names recorded in the church’s history, the one-eyed, despised Seymour—son of a former slave—had only a few years of schooling, and picked up English by reading the Bible.
Paul said, “God chose the weak things of the world… and the despised things …, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29) “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”(I Samuel 16: 7) God was pleased to use this humble man who had an insatiable hunger for the truth of His Word and persistence in prayer—he could pray for hours—to start a revival. “All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on God being with them.” – Hudson Taylor
“The most successful Holy Spirit meeting is one you prepare with prayer and more prayer until God says, you’ve prayed through.” This was written on a poster of Azusa Street.
By the year 2000, the spiritual heirs of Seymour, the Pentecostals and charismatics, numbered over 600 million adherents, making it the second biggest family of Christians in the world.
From a small beginning in 1914 in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the AG has grown to over 66 million adherents in 250 countries, territories, and provinces. Today, an AG church will be planted somewhere in the world every 39 minutes, according to Dr George Wood.
Today, virtually all Pentecostal and charismatic movements can draw their roots directly or indirectly to the humble mission on Azusa Street and its minister. To God Be The Glory!
“The Azusa Street revival illustrated the fundamental truth about the acquisition of spiritual power: The desire to love others and win the world for Christ begin with brokenness, repentance, and humility.” Gary B McGee.
1.Enrichment Journal, Assemblies of God (USA)
2.Articles from Assemblies of God (USA) Home page.
3. Liardon, Roberts, God’s Generals, Springdale, PA, United States, Whitaker House, 2003
4. Espinosa, Gaston, Durham and London, William J. Seymour And THE ORIGIN OF GLOBAL
PENTECOSTALISM: A BIOGRAPHY & DOCUMENTARY HISTORY, Duke University Press, 2014.
5. Synan, Vinson, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition, (Eerdmans, 1997).
6.Lecture on Pentecostalism by Ryan M. Reeves (PhD Cambridge) is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon- Conwell Theological Seminary.
7.The Azusa Street Revival 1906 – Documentary by The AzusaStreetProject.com
(Photo credits: AG USA Website)