Azusa Street Revival Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

From a follower’s porch and later from an abandoned church in Los Angeles, African American pastor William Joseph Seymour launched what would become one of the best-known series of revival meetings held in the United States in the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

In February, 1906, a church in Los Angeles was looking for a new pastor. Two members, Neely Terry and Julia Hutchins, suggested William Joseph Seymour, who had attended Charles Fox Parham’s Bible school in Houston, Texas. Under Parham’s tutelage, Seymour had accepted the idea of sanctification, or second baptism, as a spiritual step beyond salvation. One of the signs of sanctification was speaking in tongues, also known as glossalia, which was described in the biblical book of Acts, in a scene in which the Holy Spirit comes to Jesus’ apostles after the Crucifixion. Seymour considered the ability to speak in tongues to be a great gift, and he preached about it at his first and only sermon at Terry’s and Hutchins’s church. Azusa Street Revival Religious movements;Pentecostalism Apostolic Faith Mission Pentecostalism [kw]Azusa Street Revival (Apr., 1906-1908) Azusa Street Revival Religious movements;Pentecostalism Apostolic Faith Mission Pentecostalism [g]United States;Apr., 1906-1908: Azusa Street Revival[01620] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Apr., 1906-1908: Azusa Street Revival[01620] Seymour, William Joseph Seymour, Jenny Evans Moore Bartleman, Frank Parham, Charles Fox

Most members of the congregation disliked the message so intensely they locked Seymour out of their church, but the idea resonated deeply with some of Seymour’s listeners. One couple, Richard and Ruth Asberry, opened their home to Seymour and his meetings, and people from area Baptist and Holiness churches came to hear the message. Ultimately, crowds grew so large that the front porch of the Asberrys’ home collapsed.

In April, Seymour’s associate Jennie Evans Moore—who would later become his wife—and Edward Lee, who was providing Seymour with lodging, started speaking in tongues. Within a week, Seymour had followed suit. Curious, various spiritual seekers quickly flocked to the emerging group, prompting the need for a larger meeting space. The Apostolic Faith Mission, as Seymour’s group called itself, moved from the Asberrys’ home on Bonnie Brae Street to an old building on Azusa Street. This structure had previously been used as a warehouse, a livery stable, and an African Methodist Episcopal church.

Services were held nearly continuously seven days a week, and many people, including Seymour, claimed the gift of tongues. Other signs of religious ecstasy included laughter, shaking, and jerking, physical manifestations that have been seen in other revivals and have parallels with spirit possession in other cultures and religious traditions. Revival witnesses reported hearing various songs and different stanzas being sung simultaneously. Sometimes Seymour would preach, but this was somewhat rare. For the most part he remained in silent prayer as others spoke and sang, and he reportedly kept his face in a box to limit distraction.

In the beginning, there was no order of service. Anyone who wanted to preach at Azusa could stand up and do so. This openness would later cause conflict with some other Christians, who were concerned that not all the people speaking at Azusa were presenting sound Christian doctrine. As with many nascent religious groups, the powerful experience of divine presence was privileged over issues of authority and doctrine. In fact, the Azusa doctrine can be summed up in five basic points: It stressed salvation, sanctification or holiness, the ability to speak in tongues (as evidence that a believer had been baptized in the spirit), divine healing, and the return of Christ at some time in the very near future. This last element brought a sense of urgency as well as a validation of the group’s activities. The Azusa congregants viewed themselves as twentieth century parallels to the first Christians, whose dramatic experiences they studied in the Book of Acts. In both, speaking in tongues and participating in spontaneous worship while feeling filled with the spirit of God were common experiences.

Preachers from around the world came to witness and bring some of the Pentecostal excitement back to their own congregations. Missionaries were also sent out from Azusa to spread the word and start new congregations. Among these missionaries was Frank Bartleman, an evangelist and author, who wrote extensively about the movement in religious newspapers. Bartleman had been inspired and encouraged by the Welsh Revival Welsh Revival taking place in Europe at about the same time, and he wrote that he had prayed for revival in California before the Azusa Street phenomenon began. Seymour and Clara Lum also used the printed word to diffuse the movement. Their newspaper Apostolic Faith was distributed free to thousands of pastors during the revival’s three years. The secular press also reported the story, focusing on the physical oddities of spiritual ecstasy and the growing crowds.

The group’s leadership and makeup were unconventional for the time: African Americans and whites kneeled, danced, and spoke together. Rich and poor, educated and working-class joined together on makeshift pews. Women held positions of authority at Azusa, including Jennie Moore, who was the group’s copastor. Seymour had attended a female-pastored church before he moved to Los Angeles, and so the notion of women in positions of spiritual power did not bother him. Some later Pentecostal groups, however, would draw back from this egalitarianism, reserving priestly authority for men.

The mixing of races did not sit well with some, including Seymour’s old mentor Parham, who spoke out against both the racial inclusion and physical manifestations at the Azusa Street Revival. After being invited to speak at Seymour’s revival—and then disinvited once his views became known—Parham unsuccessfully tried to start a rival church nearby.

The church on Azusa Street lasted years after the intense revival period ended. Numbers did decline, however, especially after Seymour’s death in 1922. Moore pastored the group alone after her husband’s death, but the congregation lost its building in 1931, and the group folded shortly thereafter. The Azusa Street Revival, however, lives on as a vital part of Pentecostalism’s history.

Significance

The Azusa Street Revival is an important historical event for two main reasons. First, the movement cut across lines of gender, race, and social standing, at least in its early stages. Second, many American Pentecostals point to the Azusa Street Revival as the founding of their faith. Some scholars of religion, however, question this claim by pointing to earlier events, such as the Topeka outpouring of 1901, which was led by Seymour’s teacher Charles Fox Parham. Still, the Azusa Street Revival is an important focal point in the history of Pentecostalism, which has had a tremendous impact on American cultural and religious history and on Christianity around the world. Azusa Street Revival Religious movements;Pentecostalism Apostolic Faith Mission Pentecostalism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bartleman, Frank. Azusa Street. 1925. Reprint. New Kensington, Pa.: Whitaker House, 1982. A firsthand account of an evangelist and author active in the Azusa Street Revival. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the work reads like a sermon on the urgency of spreading the Pentecostal message. Despite the book’s title, not all the work focuses on that revival; it centers more on Bartleman’s life and work outside of it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cox, Harvey. Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century. Reading, Mass.: Perseus Books, 1995. Cox sees Azusa Street as the real beginning of Pentecostalism. After giving a history of the revival, he describes a number of contemporary Pentecostal services and discusses the forms this movement has taken in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Larry Edward. Doctrines and Disciplines of the Azusa Street Apostles. Colorado Springs: Christian Life Books, 2000. Martin takes material from William Seymour’s only book, published in 1915, and organizes the material for modern readers. Seymour’s focus is on providing policies, doctrines, and rituals for churches inspired by the Azusa movement. Martin has also written extensively on Seymour’s life and Azusa’s history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Explores the history, lives, and beliefs of everyday Pentecostals from 1900 to 1925 and questions the stereotypes often attributed to this group.

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