Of all the outstanding black American religious leaders in the twentieth century, one of the least recognized is William Seymour, the unsung pastor of the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles and catalyst of the worldwide Pentecostal movement. Only in the last few decades have scholars become aware of his importance, beginning perhaps with Yale University historian Sidney Ahlstrom, who said Seymour personified a black piety “which exerted its greatest direct influence on American religious history”—placing Seymour’s impact ahead of figures like W. E. B. Dubois and Martin Luther King, Jr.
William Joseph Seymour was born in Centerville, Louisiana, on May 2, 1870 to former slaves Simon and Phyllis Seymour. Raised as a Baptist, Seymour was given to dreams and visions as a youth. At age 25, he moved to Indianapolis, where he worked as a railroad porter and then waited on tables in a fashionable restaurant. Around this time, he contracted smallpox and went blind in his left eye.
In 1900 he relocated to Cincinnati, where he joined the “reformation” Church of God (headquartered in Anderson, Indiana), also known as “the Evening Light Saints.” Here he became steeped in radical Holiness theology, which taught second blessing entire sanctification (i.e., sanctification is a post-conversion experience that results in complete holiness), divine healing, premillennialism, and the promise of a worldwide Holy Spirit revival before the rapture.
In 1903 Seymour moved to Houston, Texas, in search of his family. There he joined a small Holiness church pastored by a black woman, Lucy Farrow, who soon put him touch with Charles Fox Parham. Parham was a Holiness teacher under whose ministry a student had spoken in tongues (glossolalia) two years earlier. For Parham, this was the “Bible evidence” of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. When he established a Bible school to train disciples in his “Apostolic Faith” in Houston, Farrow urged Seymour to attend.
Since Texas law forbade blacks to sit in classrooms with whites, Parham encouraged Seymour to remain in a hallway and listen to his lectures through the doorway. Here Seymour accepted Parham’s premise of a “third blessing” 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 journeyed 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.
Seymour was then invited to stay in the home of Richard Asberry at 214 Bonnie Brae Street, where on April 9, after a month of intense prayer and fasting, Seymour and several others spoke in tongues. Word spread quickly about the strange events on Bonnie Brae Street and drew so much attention that Seymour was forced to preach on the front porch to crowds gathered in the street. At one point, the jostling crowd grew so large the porch floor caved in.
Seymour searched Los Angeles for a suitable building. What he found was an old abandoned African Methodist Episcopal church on Azusa Street that had recently been used as a warehouse and stable. Although it was a shambles, Seymour and his small band of black washerwomen, maids, and laborers cleaned the building, set up board plank seats, and made a pulpit out of old shoebox shipping crates. Services began in mid-April in the church, which was named the “Apostolic Faith Mission.”
What happened at Azusa Street during the next three years was to change the course of church history. Although the little frame building measured only 40 by 60 feet, as many as 600 persons jammed inside while hundreds more looked in through the windows. The central attraction was tongues, with the addition of traditional black worship styles that included shouting, trances, and the holy dance. There was no order of service, since “the Holy Ghost was in control.” No offerings were taken, although a box hung on the wall proclaimed, “Settle with the Lord.” Altar workers enthusiastically prayed seekers through to the coveted tongues experience. It was a noisy place, and services lasted into the night.
Though local newspaper coverage spoke cynically about the “weird babble of tongues” of “colored mammys,” on street corners and trolley cars, the news intrigued the city. Whole congregations came en masse to Azusa Street and stayed while their former churches disappeared. Other Pentecostal centers soon sprang up around town.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today