“The Catalyst of Pentecost”
When people run out of the love of God, they get to preaching dress, and meats, and doctrines of men and preaching against churches. All these denominations are our brethren… So let us seek peace and not confusion… The moment we feel we have all the truth or more than anyone else, we will drop.
William J.Seymour is best known for ushering in the Pentecostal Movement that began with the Azusa Street mission in 1906. He was one of the first to preach and minister around the importance of being baptized in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues. As hungry believers sought this experience, as they prayed and pressed God to baptize them with fire, revival broke out in Southern California that gained momentum and sparked a Pentecostal “wave of the Spirit” that revolutionized evangelism and worship across the nation. Seymour’s “Azusa Street Revival” gave rise to several charismatic denominations, as well as introducing the “nondenominational” Christianity so common today.
The Journey to Self-Discovery
Born in Centerville, Louisiana on May 2, 1870, to newly freed slaves, William J. Seymour grew up during a time of racial unrest and injustice. Although they were free, his family continued to work the plantation afraid to go elsewhere. Seymour taught himself to read primarily through studying the Bible. It was there he learned his freedom lay in Jesus Christ. His hunger for the truth of God’s Word increased throughout his youth, and from early in life he experienced divine visions and looked fervently for the return of Christ.
It wasn’t until William was twenty-five years old that he broke through a self-imposed bondage that he was inferior because of his race, and finally ventured away from the mentality of the plantation to seek a livelihood in the North. He settled in Indianapolis, Indiana where he joined a Methodist Episcopal Church that had a strong evangelistic outreach to all classes and races. However, it wasn’t long before racial lines began to harden in Indianapolis and Seymour was forced to move to Cincinnati, Ohio to pursue his dream of cross-racial ministry. As a follower of John Wesley, Seymour aligned with his doctrine that there should be no discrimination in Jesus Christ, but the Methodist church in general was moving away from her original roots. Eventually Seymour joined the “Evening Light Saints” which would later become known as the Church of God Reformation Movement.
These believers were strict in their beliefs about purity and holiness. They did not use musical instruments, wear rings or make-up, dance or play cards, but they were joyful in their faith and warmly accepting of William. It was among this group that Seymour received his call to ministry. He did not immediately yield to the call with his whole heart, and felt that a serious bout of smallpox, which left him blind in one eye and permanently scarred on one side of his face, was retribution for not more expediently obeying the call of God.
Heeding the Call
And so when he recovered after three weeks of horrible suffering, William Seymour left Cincinnati and traveled to Texas, evangelizing along the way. He found family in Houston so settled down there, and in the summer of 1905, came upon Charles Parham’s evangelistic crusade in full swing. Parham had established a school of ministry in Houston where Seymour enrolled. After completing his studies there, the events that led Seymour to Los Angeles quickly transpired.
It was early 1906 when William Seymour, in the midst of making plants to start a Pentecostal church, received a letter from a woman who had sat under his leadership during the short period of time he was substitute pastoring in Houston. She invited him to Los Angeles to lead a small congregation that had just broken away from a Nazarene church. Convinced the letter revealed his destiny, Seymour left for California late in January.
When he arrived in Los Angeles, there was already evidence of a growing spiritual hunger. Turn of the century evangelists had sown the seeds of revival through Southern California and many groups of people were praying and witnessing throughout the city. The entire city was on the verge of a great spiritual happening as many local congregations were earnestly seeking God. One such congregation eagerly waited the return of their pastor who had been on a three-week trip to Wales. He had gone to sit under the great Welsh evangelist, Evan Roberts. This pastor hoped to bring the same revival that swept Wales home to Los Angeles.
The congregation that sought Seymour as their pastor was meeting in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Asbery when they grew so large that they had to rent a small mission hall on Sante Fe Street. Believing a stranger to the Los Angeles area could be more effective at commanding respect among them, a cousin of Mr. Asbery remembered Seymour from her visit to Houston. After hearing her testimony and praying at length, they all agreed to extend Seymour the invitation.
Delivering the Message
Because there was already a revival climate city-wide, Seymour felt he had stepped into divine destiny as he began to deliver his message to the group assembled at the mission hall on Sante Fe Street. He did not hesitate to make the most of this opportunity to expound on the gospel of divine healing and the soon return of Christ. He made no hesitation in setting forth his belief, based on Acts 2:4, that a person is not baptized in the Holy Spirit unless they speak with other tongues. He admitted that he had not yet received this manifestation, but nevertheless, proclaimed it as God’s Word.
His message was received with mixed reactions. He was invited home to dinner by a couple in the congregation, and found upon returning, that he had been locked out of the mission where he was staying. Having no place to go, and little money, the couple who hosted him for dinner felt obligated to invite him to stay overnight in their home. Seymour remained in his room behind closed doors fasting and praying for several days. He then invited his hosts to join him in prayer, and soon other members of the mission gathered with them upon hearing of the prayer meetings. Seymour gained new respect as his reputation grew as being a man of prayer.
Not long after he was invited before the Holiness clergy in the area to discuss his doctrinal beliefs. He clung to his interpretation of Acts 2:4, and told the Holiness preachers that unless they had the same experience as those who had gathered in the Upper Room, they could not claim to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. He declared that their dispute was with the Word of God and not him.
One minister who had been against Seymour would later say, “The contention was all on our part. I have never met a man who had such control over his spirit. No amount of confusion and accusation seemed to disturb him. He would sit behind that packing case and smile at us until we were all condemned by our own activities.”
The Mantle of Leadership
The calming leadership of William Seymour was noticed by all. Following his investigation, in February 1906, the Asbery’s asked him to move into their home where he began holding regular meetings. The meetings grew in attendance and hunger for the Holy Spirit, and soon Seymour announced they would hold a ten-day fast until they received the blessing of the baptism of the Holy Ghost. The group fasted and prayed through the weekend and by Monday one of the members called Seymour to his home to pray for his healing. He was healed instantly and when Seymour was asked to lay hands on him to pray for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, Seymour did and the man began shouting in other tongues. The two walked together back to the Asbery house for the evening prayer meeting.
When they arrived, every room was packed with people already praying. Seymour took charge of the meeting, leading the group in songs, testimonies, and more prayer. When Seymour told the story of this man’s healing and subsequent baptism, the man raised his hands and began to speak in other tongues. The entire group fell to their knees worshipping God and crying out for the baptism. Then, six or seven people lifted their voices and began to speak in another tongue.
People rushed outside prophesying and preaching. It was said that the front porch became the pulpit and the street the pews. For three days they celebrated what they declared “early Pentecost restored.” It was during the third night of these meetings, on April 12, 1906, after everyone had left, that Seymour himself was finally filled and began speaking in other tongues.
312 Azusa Street
Everyone knew another meeting place had to be found quickly as so many were flocking to the Asbery house to see and experience what was happening in the Spirit. On April 14, 1906, Seymour and his elders set out find the perfect place. They wandered the local area until they came upon a dead-end street where an industrial business section once flourished. It was in a former Methodist Church that had been remodeled for other purposes. When a fire destroyed the second floor, the cathedral-shaped roof was flattened and covered with the tar. Now the building was being used for storage upstairs and a stable below. Seymour was offered the building for eight dollars a month.
People came from all over to help restore the property. They did a quick job of renovating the building, and it was just in time to receive the swell of crowds who would come seeking hope and restoration after the great San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906. The next day shocks were felt throughout Los Angeles, and even the wealthy fled to Azusa to seek refuge in God’s Word and the infilling of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes the services ran continuously for ten to twelve hours; sometimes they ran for several days and nights. Some said the congregation never tired because they were so energized by the Holy Spirit. Many gathered after the services in the early morning hours talking about the Lord under the streetlights. Azusa began operating day and night. The entire building had been organized for full use.
Great emphasis was placed on the blood of Jesus, inspiring the group to a higher standard of living. Divine love began to manifest, allowing no unkind words to be spoken of another. The people were careful to make sure that the Spirit of God wouldn’t be grieved. Both rich and poor, unlearned and educated, sat together on the makeshift pews.
Gathering Spiritual Momentum
It was said that the power of God could be felt at Azusa, even outside of the building. Scores of people were seen dropping into a prostrate position in the streets before they ever reached the missions. Then many would rise, speaking in tongues without any assistance from those inside.
By summer, crowds had reached staggering numbers, often into the thousands. The scene had become an international gathering—one witness described it as follows: “Every day trains unloaded numbers of visitors who came from all over the continent. New accounts of the meeting had spread over the nation in both the secular and religious press.”
Many newly baptized in the Holy Spirit, would feel called to a certain nation. Men and women were now departing for Scandinavia, China, India, Africa, Egypt, Ireland, and other nations. Robert Semple had a friend tell him about the miraculous events he had experienced at the meetings. Semple excitedly told his new bride, Aimee Semple McPherson, all he had heard before they left for China. When Robert later died there, Aimee returned to America and settled in Los Angeles from where her phenomenal ministry would rise.
When John G. Lake visited the Azusa Street meetings, he was deeply touched by Seymour. He would later recount in his book Adventures With God, “It was not what he said in words, it was what he said from his spirit to my heart that showed me he had more of God in his life than any man I had ever met up to that time. It was God in him that attracted the people.”
In September of 1906, due to popular demand, Seymour began a publication entitled, The Apostolic Faith, which grew to twenty thousand subscribers within a few months. This number had more than doubled by the following year.
The Rising Tide of Persecution
When some members arrived at the mission early one morning to find the words “Apostolic Faith Mission,” they felt betrayed by Seymour’s willingness to align himself with the denominational influence of his former mentor Charles Parham. They did not want to become just another in Parham’s large network of churches and Bible schools. One observer wrote, “From that time, the trouble and division began. It was no longer a free Spirit for all as it had been. The work had become one more rival party and body, along with the other churches and sects of the city.”
Division continued to plague the Azusa mission. Seymour’s trusted secretary left with the mailing list of fifty thousand names to rally the support of the centers that had earlier been established in Seattle and Portland. She mailed the May, 1908 edition of Seymour’s popular publication from Portland requesting that all contributions be sent to the offices in Oregon from now on. No article written by Seymour appeared by the June issue and by midsummer 1908, all references to Los Angeles were omitted entirely. The lists were never returned so that Seymour was unable re-establish his subscription base and thus ended the dramatic era of Azusa.
The Sun Sets on Azusa Street
Throughout 1909 and 1910, Seymour continued his ministry at Azusa, though the number of people decreased dramatically. He was forced to leave two young men in charge of the mission and take to the road in order to raise the needed funds to maintain the mission. While he was on his cross-country preaching tour in early 1911, a man by the name William Durham was invited to hold meetings at Azusa in Seymour’s place. Hundreds once again flocked to the mission to hear Durham’s dramatic preaching. Many of the old Azusa workers, from various parts of the world, returned to the mission for what they called “the second shower of the Latter Rain.” At one service, over five hundred people had to be turned away.
The last conflict at Azusa took place between Seymour and Durham. The two differed greatly in their theology. Durham preached that people could not lose their salvation if they sinned, but were saved by faith. Seymour, believing that sins of the flesh would indeed cause a believer to lose their eternal reward, quickly returned to Los Angeles to confront Durham.
Unable to come to an agreement in their doctrine, Seymour locked Durham out of the mission. Durham, unshaken, secured a nearby two-story building that seated more than one thousand people, and continued to hold his increasingly popular meetings. The second story of his building served as a widely sought prayer center that was open day and night. Thousands were saved, baptized, and healed there while the old Azusa Mission became virtually deserted.
Finishing the Race
In 1921, William Seymour made his last ministry campaign across America. When he returned to Los Angeles in 1922, people began to notice he looked very weary. He attended many ministry conventions, but was never publicly recognized from the platform. Finally, on September 28, 1922, while at the mission, Seymour suffered a heart attack. Later that day his heart failed him completely and he went home to be with the Lord.
Though the legacy and ministry of William J. Seymour seems heartbreaking, the results of his efforts between 1906 and 1909 produced and exploded the Pentecostal Movement around the world. Today, many denominations attribute their founding to the participants of Azusa. Most of the early Assembly of God leaders came out of Azusa—and probably everyone in the Pentecostal Movement today can attribute his or her roots in some way to Azusa. Regardless of doctrinal disputes, William Seymour’s ministry ignited Pentecostal revival around the world.