the Spirit Who Seeks > Pentecostal History > Azusa Street
February 1906 : A Holiness church without a pastor decided to hear out a preacher which members Neely Terry and Julia Hutchins recommended: William Seymour. However, once Seymour got to Los Angeles, he raised the matter of speaking in tongues, which Seymour had come to see as the definitive mark of the entry of the Holy Spirit into a person. Result: Seymour was bounced even before he could get started. So, Seymour held his meetings at the home of Richard and Ruth Asberry (214 North Bonnie Brae Street). These meetings drew some of the exiles from first and Second Baptist, and a few from nearby Holiness churches. These meetings already had some of Seymour's trademarks: they were interracial, involved women, and lay people exercised leadership and specialized gifts.
April 9 1906 : Edward Lee (who was housing Seymour) and Jennie Evans Moore (Seymour's closest associate) broke out in tongues. Others soon followed. Word spread like lightning -- Seymour's group was already getting noticed in the community, but this really stirred things up. So, they rented an abandoned warehouse building on Azusa Street that was previously used as a livery stable, and started the Apostolic Faith Mission. Things shifted into high gear on Easter when Moore gave her testimony. The buzz was also about 'prophecies' and apocalyptic visions that predicted calamity, right before a major earthquake hit California.
Mid-May 1906: The mission was already overflowing their new site. The Pentecostal movement was born. Visiting pastors came from everywhere, especially from the South. Reporters from secular newspapers were sent to check out the scene. Charlatans of all sorts licked their lips at a golden opportunity. All eyes were on Azusa in a matter of weeks. (Remember, this speed took place before there were modern media and passenger airlines, and the telecommunications revolution had barely begun).
Seymour was not what most people would think of as a Black pentecostal preacher. He was usually a meek man with a direct style that was not often stylized or tricked-up; he could, however, become suddenly and volcanically emotional at times, in and out of the pulpit. He saw himself more as a teacher than a preacher, yet his mark was as a preacher and not as a teacher. He'd sometimes sit at the meetings with his head in a shoe box, to cut himself off from the hysteria surrounding him, apparently for two reasons: (1) to keep from becoming visually disoriented (he was blind in one eye); (2) so he could concentrate on prayer and thought, so that he would be most open to speaking in the Spirit. The people in attendance were already in a state of excited agitation long before Seymour spoke, thanks to what went on before him each night. When his thunder suddenly struck on such nights, it must've been more than most people could take.
October 1906: Charles Parham was invited to speak for a series of revival meetings -- and was quickly dis-invited. Why?
Parham stomped off to try to form a church nearby, which quickly became yet another of his many failures. His rough personality, his demands to be in charge, his increasingly angry racism, and rumors of sexual misbehavior (spread far and wide by opponents) pushed him further and further out of the picture. Long before his death, Parham had become a marginal figure in Pentecostalism.
This water/oil mix of Parham and Azusa (more like gasoline and flame) was the first sign of something that would plague Pentecostalism and become a part of its character: divisiveness. Two other problems that would later infect Pentecostalism showed themselves here : fraud, and the presence of occultic mysticism along its edges. Parham himself was an example of three other problems which would recur throughout Pentecostalist history: racism, authoritarianism, and sexual scandal. Also, one of the troubles with going by exciting experiences is that much of what went on was not thought through as thoroughly as was needed. So, not only were the greatest strengths of Pentecostalism born at Azusa, but also its most serious problems.
Before 1906 had ended, most Azusan leaders had spun off to form congregations, such as the 51st Street Apostolic Faith Mission, the Spanish AFM, and the Italian Pentecostal Mission. These missions were made up mostly of one or another immigrant or ethnic group. The US Southeast was a particularly fruitful area for them, since Azusa's approach gave a useful explanation for things that had already been happening there in fact or in rumor. Other new missions were based on preachers who had charisma or energy. Nearly all of these new churches were founded among the poor, the outcast, the new immigrant, and/or the low-wage laborer.
The bad news: this meant that Azusa Street started shrinking. The good news: once people had stopped paying attention to Azusa, those who were there for a piece of the action left there. (Why hang around the has-beens, why not go off to where the new action is?) Azusa was eventually able to straighten itself out and settle itself into being a Black Pentecostal church not all that different from others, doing a brief resurgence and then a slow fade. The bad thing is, the con artists found as many elsewheres to go as the Pentecostal movement had found, causing continued problems for the more legitimate leaders.
The congregation at Azusa continued at a reasonable size until Seymour's death in 1922, at which time Jennie Moore Seymour took over for several years of decline. The congregation folded soon after losing its building in 1931. The building was torn down and replaced by what became the Japanese-American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles.
In a way, the congregation's demise was fitting, for the Pentecostal movement has thrived on temporary sites, storefronts, old warehouses, and on congregations that often would last not much past their chief preacher. The constant shifting has made it harder for spiritual or functional rigor mortis to set in, and kept them open to new possibilities in changing neighborhoods. These characteristics would serve Pentecostalism well in its rapid worldwide spread, and serve it well in our current time of cynicism about all sorts of institutions.
The dimming of the Azusa Street revival by 1908 would have ordinarily spelled trouble for a young movement, especially if it were tightly organized. But the Pentecostal movement had rolled past Azusa, into the Pacific Northwest and the Southeast. There were now plenty of elsewheres to go. Schools, book and pamphlet printers, traveling evangelists, musicians, camps, and an absolutely sizzling network of word-of-mouth communication, all sprung up almost overnight seemingly out of nowhere. (This was before air transport and mass electronic media; cars were few and slow, package delivery technology was crude, and many of the areas where Pentecostalism grew fastest did not yet have electric or telephone service.) Pentecostalism's lack of organization served it very well. There were also plenty of others than Seymour and Parham to lead them. Some of them were charlatans, others honestly held bizarre 'the-end-is-here' beliefs. But there were many capable leaders who were faithful and able to step up to the front, like Charles H. Mason, founder of the Church of God in Christ.
Mason had been a Missionary Baptist, but left them in 1895 to co-found and lead his new denomination (a somewhat baptistic Holiness church). He was thus the head of an established church body before going to Azusa in 1907. Unlike Seymour, Parham and the other Pentecostal founders, Bishop Mason could ordain people so that they would be recognized as legitimate ministers by civil authorities and mainstream churches, capable of doing weddings and such. In the earliest years, Mason was a leading source of ordinations for both white and black Pentecostal churches, leaving his mark on the entire Pentecostal movement.
Mason's visit to Azusa was a moving moment for him : "Then I gave up for the Lord to have His way within me. So there came a wave of Glory into me and all of my being was filled with the Glory of the Lord. .... When I opened my mouth to say 'Glory', a flame touched my tongue which ran down to me. My language changed and no word could I speak in my own tongue. Oh! I was filled with the Glory of the Lord. My soul was then satisfied." (testimony found in *Bishop C.H. Mason and the Roots Of the Church of God In Christ*, by Ithiel Clemmons, Pneuma Life, 1996, p.146). Having gone through that, he knew he could not continue as he was doing. He had to bring it wherever he would go.
Mason brought the new Pentecostal experience back to his churches, and many of them dived in with both feet. Yet many others didn't like it at all, including co-founder C.P. Jones, and the church split into a holiness church with a baptist touch, and Mason's Pentecostal group. Mason, as a well-established leader, had a lot to lose by taking part in this new Pentecostalism. It is a tribute to the man and a mark of his following the Spirit that he made the change and took his losses in stride. His church quickly grew into a major African-American church and the largest Black Pentecostal body in the nation. Mason continued to lead his church until his death in 1961 at age 95; he lived to see it become 400,000 strong. It has since grown to around 5 million.
There were other existing Holiness churches which went into the early Pentecostal movement, including the Church of God (Cleveland TN). Their move came less because of a bold leader and more because of a full-scale grass-roots switch to the new movement. But the big news came as entirely new bodies were created when congregations from a wide range of revivalist churches were swept together into something new by the new movement.
One of the most remarkable, strange, and influential women of the early 20th century was Aimee Semple MacPherson (1890-1944). In the 1920s and 1930s she was certainly the top woman spiritual leader of her time. She had been widowed, then married and divorced, and then briefly married again. She obtained a Methodist exhorters' licence, started *Bridal Call* magazine in 1917, and became an Assemblies of God ordained minister in 1919, but had to give that up in 1922. In 1922, her preaching tour included Australia, and she drew support from what was an unusually wide variety of church leaders for a Pentecostal preacher. To start off the new year in 1923, she started the Angeles Temple and formed the Foursquare churches. The 'Foursquare' refers to the four facets of a vision she received, teaching Jesus as Savior, Healer, Baptizer, and Coming King (and thus creating the Foursquares' emphases on salvation, divine healing, baptism in the Spirit, and readying for the Second Coming). In 1924, she started the field of religious radio, opening station KFSG in Los Angeles. She was a major success not just for her church, but for the newly-born radio medium. In 1927 she started the Angeles Temple Commissary, which became famous during the Great Depression for its food and other free mercies. Her lesser doctrines kept shifting around, and her personal, financial, and family life were quite a mess, but that did not stop her from inspiring millions to have confidence in themselves and in God - no small feat once the Depression hit. She died in 1944 of a reportedly 'accidental' overdose of pills. The last years leading up to her death, and some aspects of the death itself, remain clouded by rumors and lack of hard evidence.
The "oneness" movement emerged when R.E. McAlister spoke at a Los Angeles revival in 1913 about how new Christians must be baptized in Jesus' name only. Frank Ewart encouraged him to speak more in this vein, and they started baptizing people "in Jesus' name only" rather than by the Trinitarian formula found in Matthew. Ewart, E.W. Doak, and Indianapolis preacher G.T. Haywood (1880-1931) set about to popularize this approach. When they tried to get the Assemblies of God to accept a Jesus-only approach to baptism, a struggle took place. The end result was that the Assemblies overwhelmingly chose to remain strictly Trinitarian in both theology and baptismal formula. This left Haywood and Ewart on the outside, along with several leaders of the Assemblies, including one of its co-founders, Howard Goss. They formed several separate church bodies, including, in 1916, the Haywood-led Pentecostal Assemblies Of the World (PAW), and in 1925, what later became the United Pentecostal Church (UPCI). The Oneness bodies drew into their camp many of the "Apostolic" congregations that stemmed from the original Azusa revival. Some of the Oneness churches had a strong class consciousness. For instance, Haywood's church actively opposed taking part in World War I (and wars in general), saying that it was poor folks being sent off to fight the rich folks' war. Unfortunately, racial differences would cause Oneness churches to separate from each other. The PAW currently has over a million members, while the UPCI now has 3.5 million.
Look here for an early Pentecostalist time line, and on the Spirit in the churches between the early church and the Reformation.
"The Pentecostal power, when you sum it all up, is just more of God's love. If it does not bring more love, it is simply a counterfeit."
------- William J. Seymour (quoted in *Apostolic Faith*)
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|ver.: 23 February 2012
Pentecostalist history. Copyright © 1997-2012 By Robert Longman.