William J. Seymour was born the son of former slaves in Centerville, in the U.S. state of Louisiana. As a grown man he became a student at a newly formed bible school founded by Charles Parham in Houston, Texas, in 1905. It was here that he learned the major tenets of the Holiness Movement. He developed a belief in glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”) as a confirmation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit when he witnessed it from one of his followers. Itinerant, he moved to Los Angeles to minister. As a consequence of his newfound Pentecostal doctrine he was removed from the parish where he had been appointed. Looking for a place to continue his work, he found the Apostolic Faith Mission in a run-down building in downtown Los Angeles on Azusa Street.
From his base on Azusa Street he began to preach his doctrinal beliefs. Seymour not only rejected the existing racial barriers in favor of “unity in Christ”. This revival meeting extended from 1906 until 1909, and became known as the Azusa Street Revival. It became the subject of intense investigation by more mainstream Protestants. The resulting movement became widely known as “Pentecostalism”, likening it to the manifestations of the Holy Spirit recorded as occurring in the first two chapters of Acts as occurring from the day of the Feast of Pentecost onwards.
Seymour died of a heart attack in 1922.
In its “Millennium” issue, Life magazine described the beginnings of Pentecostalism in 1906 Los Angeles as No. 68 among its choice of the 100 most significant events to take place during the second millennium of Christianity. (1) What makes this movement so significant is that it currently has roughly 643,661,000 members, or 25% of all Christians worldwide. (2) This family of churches is second in size only to the Catholic Church. Yet most people, even in Los Angeles, know little if anything about it or its origins.
Los Angeles has been linked to early expressions of Pentecostalism for years, but this connection has only rarely been explored, and then only casually. In an essay included in Discover Los Angeles published in 1997 by the J. Paul Getty Trust, Mary Jane O’Donnell called attention to the connection between Los Angeles and Pentecostalism and mentioned several related sites for the inquisitive to explore. They included the house at 216 North Bonnie Brae Street where William J. Seymour first led a prayer meeting and Bible study, the site of the Azusa Street Mission in the heart of “Little Tokyo”, and several of the churches that have a direct relationship to the movement or were heavily influenced by the Azusa Street revival. (3)
The following year, in her Los Angeles Times column titled, “L.A. Then and Now,” Cecilia Rasmussen highlighted the relationship between Los Angeles and the origins of Pentecostalism in an overview article on William J. Seymour, pastor of the Azusa Street Mission. (4)
In May 2001, the City of Los Angeles erected a small historical marker at the northwest corner of Azusa Street and San Pedro. It reads, “Site of the Azusa St. Revival from 1906 to 1931 – Cradle of the Worldwide Pentecostal Movement”.
In April 2006, Krista Tippett, host of “On Being”, a weekly show aired on National Public Radio, produced a show titled “Spiritual Tidal Wave: The Origins and Impact of Pentecostalism”. It was recorded in Los Angeles and is still available online at: http://www.onbeing.org/program/spiritual-tidal-wave-origins-and-impact-pentecostalism/transcript/1172. In this episode, Tippett interview’s Azusa Street historian on the significance of this revival for the world today.
In spite of these facts, Azusa Street still remains a hidden site for most Angelinos. It is a site that deserves to be re-discovered by Los Angeles in these troubled times.
1.“No. 68, Pentecostalism Catches Fire,” Life, 20:10a (Fall 1997), 57. 2. Todd M. Johnson, Gina A. Zurlo, Albert W. Hickman, and Peter F. Crossing, “Christianity 2015: Religious Diversity and Personal Contact,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39:1 (January 2015), 28-29. 3. Mary Jane O’Donnell, “Finding God in the City of Angels,” in Letitia Burns O’Connor, Ed. Discover Los Angeles: An Informed Guide to L.A.’s Rich and Varied Cultural Life (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Trust, 1997), 143. 4. Cecilia Rasmussen, “Vision of a Colorblind Faith Gave Birth to Pentecostalism,” Los Angeles Times (June 14, 1998), B:3; reprinted in Cecilia Rasmussen, LA Unconventional: The Men and Women Who Did LA Their Way (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times 1998), 100-103. It is significant to note that of the 60 biographical accounts in this volume, only six are given over to religious figures, and two of them, William J. Seymour and Aimee Semple McPherson were participants in the Pentecostal Movement.
Until relatively recently, we have not known much about the Azusa Street Mission or the revival that brought it into existence. Most of what we have known about the revival was written by Frank Bartleman. The title of his book, How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles, first published in 1925, leads people to believe that it is the story of the Azusa Street Mission and revival. Yet of the ten chapters found in this book, only one of them actually focuses on “Azusa Street”. There are brief comments about the Mission and the revival in two or three other chapters, but it really contains only a single chapter on “Azusa Street”.
Between 1906 and 1909 when the revival was in full force, others wrote about it as well. Far too many stories that have come down to us based uncritically upon a relatively small number of oral or written accounts, many of them highly biased. Historians have used a few of them to sketch the basic storyline, but in the past 100 years, very little new and useful material has been referenced. As a result, our knowledge of the depth and impact of the revival has been very limited until now.
In recent years, however, many new sources have been unearthed including a plethora of public documents such as maps, City Directories, court records, census materials, newspaper articles, birth, marriage, and death records, and private documents such as correspondence and diaries written by participants and critics alike. These discoveries now provide new ways of assessing what is arguably the most far-reaching and significant revival to take place in years, if not centuries.
During the primary years (1906-1909) of the Azusa Street Revival, Pastor William J. Seymour sent our scores of evangelists, church planters, and missionaries. Wherever they went, they scattered the message of salvation, holiness, and power, rooted in Acts 2:1-41. Today, the following groups in the United States look to Apostolic Faith Mission that stood at 312 Azusa Street as having a role in their very existence: Church of God in Christ, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel whose headquarters stands at Glendale Blvd and Sunset, the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, the United Pentecostal Churches, Church of God (Cleveland, TN), the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, Victory Outreach, the Macedonia International Bible Fellowship, the Apostólica Fe en Christo Jesús, and the Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.
Among the hundreds of congregations in the Los Angeles area that are part of the Pentecostal Movement spread by this Mission are Aimee Semple McPherson’s historic Angelus Temple (Glendale Blvd near Sunset) currently led by Matthew Barnett, Bishop Charles Blake’s West Angeles Cathedral (Church of God in Christ, Crenshaw Blvd.), the Reverend Frederick K. Price’s Cathedral of Faith (Crenshaw Blvd.), Bishop Kenneth Ulmer’s Faithful Central Bible Church, Bishop Noel Jones’ City of Refuge Church (Gardena), and Pastor Tim Clark’s [Formerly, Jack Hayford’s] Church on the Way (Van Nuys), each of which ministers to between 10,000 and 25,000 members weekly. The region hosts a wide range of independent congregations that are part of this Movement as well.
The Church historian, Henry Chadwick once remarked that, “Nothing is sadder than someone who has lost his memory; and the church which has lost its memory is in the same state of senility.” Pentecostals have not always been known for appreciating either history or tradition. Indeed, when the Azusa Street site was available for purchase in the 1930s, it was said to have been offered to the Assemblies of God. The response that was received was that they were “not interested in relics”. Today, after a century of existence, Pentecostals have begun to sense that there is something important about recognizing historical sites and that the act of Pilgrimage to such sites can help to bring about spiritual renewal.
Memory and memorials are inevitably linked together. Memorials are intended to transplant us back into the reality that they memorialize. Think for a moment of the Lord’s command to Joshua that led to the memorial set up in the middle of the Jordan River. It became a teaching aid for future generations of Israel’s people.
“When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua, 2 ‘Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, 3 and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.’
4 So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, 5 and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, 6 to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 7 tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” (Joshua 4:1-7, NIV)
Think, too, of the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. 23 “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”.
The celebration of the Eucharist, Communion, or the Lord’s Supper is rooted deeply in our memory of the past event of Jesus’ death. In the act of participation in the Eucharist, we remember, and thereby also participate in this past event. This is not merely a memory that stays in the past, but one that is made a present reality through its continuing efficacy on our behalf, and it forms the basis of Christ’s promise that He will come again!
It should come as no surprise that nearly 50,000 people from around the world came to Los Angeles and many of them made their way to the house on North Bonnie Brae Street and to the Azusa Street site in 2006, the centenary of the opening of the Azusa Street Mission and the beginning of the revival. More and more people see the importance of keeping the memory of this revival alive, preserving something of the history of this revival for future generations. Azusa Street has become a pilgrimage site for thousands of people around the world. The Azusa Street historian, Dr. Cecil M. Robeck of Fuller Theological Seminary has personally led some 15,000 Pentecostal and Charismatic pilgrims on a day long pilgrimage to the Pentecostal sites in Los Angeles.
Learn how you can invest in a permanent display that can carry the message of salvation and Pentecost to all who visit the wall. Information is available regarding this important project at: www.azusastreetmissionfoundation.com.
For further reading on William Seymour, the Azusa Street Mission, and the Azusa Street Revival, see:
Craig Borlaise, William Seymour: A Biography (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2006).
Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
Larry Martin, The Life and Ministry of William J. Seymour and a History of the Azusa Street Revival CASL, 1 (Joplin, MO: Christian Life Books, 1999).
Cecil M. Robeck, Jr, The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006).
Vinson Synan and Charles R. Fox, Jr., William J. Seymour: Pioneer of the Azusa Street Revival (Alachua, FL: Bridge-Logos, 2012), 355 pp.