Faithful Through the Ages - Wednesday, August 27, 2014

William Seymour - Azusa Street Revivalist

The Azusa Street Revival of 1906 in Los Angeles is widely regarded as the key event that launched the twentieth-century Pentecostal and charismatic movements. In itself, however, it is just another in a series of revivals and "outpourings" that had begun in the late nineteenth century. What is profoundly different in the case of Azusa Street is publicity. Indeed, it could be argued that this is a revival spurred largely by religious journalism—most notably the widely distributed stories of journalist Frank Bartleman. His accounts of miracles and transformed lives distributed to religious magazines throughout the country and around the world prompt pilgrims to visit and seek the same experiences. Ministers among the crowds return home with Pentecostal enthusiasm and ignited revivals in their own congregations. But Azusa Street remains the "mother" of all Pentecostal revivals, thanks to Bartleman.

A skillful journalist, Bartleman zeroes in on a key personality. The man of the hour is William Seymour (1870 - 1922), a little-known African-American evangelist. That his ministry, despite his low-key style, could gain such a wide following prompts Bartleman to conclude that "the color line was washed away in the Blood." But others pounce on this "race mixing" perpetrated by the "dirty, collarless and uneducated" Seymour. From the Los Angeles Times comes the report that "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 supplication."

Born in Louisiana to parents who had spent their early years in slavery, Seymour moves to Indiana and later Ohio, where he abandons his Baptist background for holiness teachings of sanctification and divine healing. Employment as a railway porter and a restaurant waiter offer him opportunities to develop his interpersonal skills. From Ohio he moves in 1903 to Houston to study at Charles Fox Parham's Bible Training School. He is permitted to take courses, but only if he is properly segregated and listens from outside the classroom. Offended by such racism, he is convinced that integration will hasten the return of Christ. But through Parham's influence, tongues-speaking becomes a key aspect of his ministry as a lay preacher in Houston.

From Houston he accepts a call from a church in Los Angeles, only to be released soon after his arrival because of his Pentecostal leanings. Without a pulpit, he sets up shop in a run-down, abandoned building on Azusa Street. What is perhaps most unusual about the revival that follows is the personality of the preacher. "Meek and plain-spoken and no orator," observes a contemporary, "he spoke the common language of the uneducated class. He might preach for three-quarters of an hour with no more emotionalism than that there post. He was no arm-waving thunderer by any stretch of the imagination." While others are responding with great emotion, Seymour is typically kneeling in prayer with his head under a pulpit fashioned from shoebox crates.

Women play a major role in the ministry of the Azusa Street Revival. Among them is Forence Craawford, who angrily separates from Seymour in 1909, taking the ministry's critical mailing list with her to Portland, Oregon, where she establishes her own Apostolic Faith Mission. Rumors spread that she is jealous of Jennie Evans Moore, who had become Seymour's wife in 1908. Moore frequently preaches while he is traveling, and after his death in 1922, she carries on the ministry for nearly a decade.

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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