William J. Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival
Article contributed by:
Gary B. McGee, Ph.D.
Assemblies of God Theological Seminary
To read the newspapers in 1906, one might have wondered about all the excitement in an old building on Azusa Street in the industrial part of the city. According to the Los Angeles Times, a bizarre new religious sect had started with people "breathing strange utterances and mouthing creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand." Furthermore, "Devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories, and work themselves into a state of mad excitement."
If that didn't grab the reader's attention, the article continued by saying that, "Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshipers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication." To top it all off, they claimed to have received the "gift of tongues", and what's more "comprehend the babel".
Nonetheless, for the spiritually hungry who came from far and wide to receive their Pentecost, "the very atmosphere of heaven" had descended, according to one.
A visiting Baptist pastor said, "The Holy Spirit fell upon me and filled me literally, as it seemed to lift me up, for indeed, I was in the air in an instant, shouting, 'Praise God', and instantly I began to speak in another language. I could not have been more surprised if at the same moment someone had handed me a million dollars."
Little could the subscribers of The Times have guessed that in years to come, historians would say that the Azusa Street revival played a major role in the development of modern Pentecostalism - a Movement that changed the religious landscape and became the most vibrant force for world evangelization in the 20th century. Azusa Street became the most significant revival of the century in terms of global perspective.
While comparable in many ways to other Pentecostal revivals at the time, several dynamics at the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street set it apart. To understand what happened and why it still has relevance for believers after nearly a century, one must look at the events leading up to the revival in Los Angeles, the leadership of William J. Seymour, and its unique features and legacy.
William J. Seymour
William J. Seymour, an African-American, was born May 2, 1870, in Centerville, Louisiana, to former slaves Simon and Phillis Seymour, who raised him as a Baptist. Later, while living in Cincinnati, Ohio, he came into contact with holiness teachings through Martin Wells Knapp's God's Revivalist movement and Daniel S. Warner's Church of God Reformation movement, otherwise known as the Evening Light Saints. Believing that they were living in the twilight of human history, these Christians believed that the Spirit's outpouring would precede the rapture of the ChurcThey deeply impressed young Seymour.
After moving to Houston, Texas, Seymour attended a local African-American holiness congregation pastored by Lucy F. Farrow, a former governess in the household of Charles F. Parham. Parham led the mid-western Apostolic Faith movement, the original name of the Pentecostal movement, that had begun in his Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, in January 1901. By 1905, he had relocated his base of operations to the Houston area where he conducted revivals and started another Bible school. Farrow arranged for Seymour to attend classes. However, because of the "Jim Crow" segregation laws of the time, Seymour had to listen to Parham's lecture while sitting apart from the other students. Seymour accepted Parham's view of baptism in the Holy Spirit - the belief that in every instance, God would give intelligible languages - speaking in tongues to believers for missionary evangelism.
Neeley Terry, an African-American and member of the new congregation led by Hutchinson in Los Angeles, visited Houston in 1905 and was impressed when she Seymour preach. Returning home, she recommended him to Hutchinson, since the church was seeking a pastor. As a result, Seymour accepted the invitation to shepherd the small flock. With some financial assistance from Parham, he traveled by train westward and arrived in Los Angeles in 1906.