Today is Pentecost. Many Christians wear red today to symbolize the fire of the Holy Spirit. The Book of Acts describes the moment when the disciples received the Spirit: “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” [Acts 2:3]
Like the disciples, the Pentecostal movement believes in baptism by the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism is spreading like wildfire; it’s the fastest-growing branch of Christianity. So where did the fire start? Credit it to William Seymour, a black preacher whose Azusa Street Revival ignited a movement that burns brightly to this day.
Born to former slaves in Louisiana in 1870, Seymour was one of eight children. His family struggled to make ends meet as subsistence farmers.
In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Seymour became involved with Holiness groups like the “Evening Light Saints” in Indianapolis, which taught that the Second Coming was imminent and practiced faith healing. This might have particularly appealed to Seymour, who was blind in one eye after a bout with smallpox.
In 1903, Seymour moved to Houston and became a student of Charles Parham, a pioneer of Pentecostalism. Seymour’s dedication impressed Parham, who arranged for him to preach to black audiences from pulpits and street corners around Houston.
In 1906, Seymour was invited to preach at a Holiness church in Los Angeles, but the church removed him from the pulpit mere weeks after his arrival due to theological disagreements. Undaunted, he started a prayer meeting at a friend’s home in LA. The meeting grew quickly; according to one account, “The people came from everywhere. By the next morning there was no way of getting near the house. As people came in they would fall under God’s power, and the whole city was stirred.”
Quickly outgrowing the house, the congregation moved to a run-down old African Methodist Episcopal church building on Azusa Street. This was the beginning of the Azusa Street Revival.
During its height, the revival drew crowds of over 1,500. They worshipped seven days a week, from morning until midnight. Services were filled with people shouting, speaking in tongues, sharing stories of miracle healing and receiving the Holy Spirit.
The church was unorthodox for more than the content of its services. The revival was racially integrated, with black, white, and brown people worshipping side by side. This was shocking at a highly segregated time in American history. The revival also did not discriminate on the basis of sex; Seymour allowed and encouraged women to take leadership roles.
Racial and gender equality were essential to Seymour’s vision of the Holy Spirit bringing people together across social boundaries. “He is melting all races and nations together, and they are filled with the power and glory of God,” Seymour wrote. “He is baptizing by one spirit into one body and making up a people that will be ready to meet Him when He comes.”
The revival became a national sensation. People traveled across the country to worship with them. Seymour ordained ministers and commissioned missionaries to spread the faith. Seymour planned to leverage the revival’s meteoric rise to create a new denomination, the Apostolic Faith Movement. “‘Love, Faith, Unity’ are our watchwords,” he said, “and ‘Victory through the atoning blood’ our battle cry.”
Unsurprisingly, the revival had its detractors. Local newspapers ran stories with lurid headlines like “Holy Kickers Carry on Mad Orgies” and “Whites and Blacks Mix in a Religious Frenzy.” The L.A. Times described the meetings this way: “[D]evotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal… [N]ight 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.” Ministers at other churches called the police, trying to shut the mission down.
The fire at Azusa Street burned brightly but briefly. It was Seymour’s fellow Pentecostals who brought down the revival. These included his former mentor, Parham, who was disgusted by the integrated services. Other Pentecostal preachers challenged Seymour for control of the movement, destroying his dream of a unified organization.
By 1914, the revival was over. The Azusa Street congregation shrank to a small, local black church that Seymour led until his death from a heart attack in 1922.
But while the revival burned out, its influence continued to spread. The evangelists Seymour had commissioned carried the Pentecostal movement around the world. By 1909, Azusa Street missionaries had reached every region of the US, as well as South America, Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia. By 1914, Pentecostalism was present in almost every major American city.
Today, estimates of worldwide Pentecostal membership range as high as 500 million. Every major American Pentecostal denomination, and most of them worldwide, can trace their roots to William Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival. Far from flickering out, the fire that Seymour started wound up spreading around the globe.
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