Introductory Note: I am participating this weekend in Rochester College's annual Streaming Conference. This year the theme is "Baptized with Fire: The Holy Spirit and Missional Communities. I was invited to participate in a set of TED talk like presentations. I volunteered to speak of Azusa Street Revival. Below is my presentation, which I will have delivered at some point in the event!
I have been charged with saying a few words about the Azusa Street Revival, although I am a Disciples of Christ pastor. Before I get there, I need for us to go back to New Year’s Eve 1900, when a Holiness preacher named Charles Fox Parham and the students at his bible school in Topeka, Kansas were praying for a sign that the Holy Spirit had truly fallen upon them. At just after midnight, as a new century was being born one of Parham’s students, Agnes Ozman, began to speak in tongues. With this sign of what Pentecostalism calls the initial evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit the modern Pentecostal Movement was born.
I chose to speak of Azusa Street because I was once part of a church that has indirect roots in the Azusa Street Revival. For a time, I was part of a denomination founded by Aimee Semple McPherson, who was one of the most prominent evangelists of the first half of the 20th century. Sister Aimee, as she was known, came to the Pentecostal faith under the tutelage of a young evangelist named Robert Semple, whose own call was rooted in the Azusa Street Revival. He had come to her home town of Ingersoll, Ontario to preach, and before he left town he was married to Aimee Kennedy. Together they traveled to China as missionaries. Unfortunately, he died soon after they arrived, leaving Aimee pregnant and far from home. Nonetheless, she had received an abiding call to preach, and did so to the end of her life. I remain fascinated by her story, but I must return to the events of Azusa Street, which helped inspire her own ministry.
A few years later an African American Methodist lay preacher named William J. Seymour traveled to Houston where Parham had set up a new bible school. Seymour was seeking the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and despite Parham’s racism, Seymour persevered, received the blessing, and began to preach the Pentecostal message. In 1906 Seymour answered a call to plant a church in Los Angeles. By April of that year, Seymour and his fledgling congregation had taken up residence in an old storefront Methodist church that sat on Azusa Street. Before too long a powerful revival erupted under Seymour’s charismatic leadership. The revival fires erupted and thousands came to participate in the outpouring of the Pentecostal blessing. People spoke in unknown tongues as on the day of Pentecost. People were healed. It seemed that the latter rain had begun to fall and the end of the age was at hand. This revival continued on largely uninterrupted for the next several years.
Many who participated took the message outward from Los Angeles across the country and on to the ends of the earth. It is believed that while Parham and Ozman may have helped ignite the revival, it was Seymour and Azusa Street that set things ablaze. Most of the major leaders of the movement including Florence Crawford and William Durham were connected to Azusa Street.
In many ways Azusa Street was a paradigm shifting event. As the revival progressed fences that divided ethnic communities in an age of segregation were torn down. The marginalized of society found in the revival words of empowerment. Women found their voices and began to preach, even though the religious establishment told them that women should remain silent. At Azusa Street it was the Spirit who gave gifts and empowered voices to speak the good news. If one was gifted, then how could the community say no?
The concern for social equality that marked these early moments of the revival likely had their roots in the Holiness Movement, which had nurtured Seymour. But it was also Seymour’s own life experience as a black man trying to navigate a white majority world that helped form his vision of the church. But we cannot overlook the role of the Spirit in breaking down the walls of separation. Even prior to his encounter with Pentecostalism Seymour was committed to social equality as part of the Christian experience, and he brought this vision into the movement. Unfortunately, other forces were at work, which diminished the powerful witness of equality that marked the early days of the Revival.
Seymour, like Sister Aimee in later years, came under fire from both within and outside the movement. Among his fiercest critics was his mentor Charles Parham who was horrified by the mixing of races at Azusa Street. Nonetheless, something powerful occurred in these early years that broke down barriers and empowered new voices to speak the good news and to carry it to the ends of the earth. It is unfortunate that Seymour’s message of equality and empowerment eventually fell on deaf ears, even among those who embraced the Pentecostal message. As time passed and the revival fires cooled, conventional social patterns re-emerged. But, for a moment they were transgressed and set aside, as the Spirit gave voice to a new calling. What we can perhaps take away from this is that the Spirit cannot be fettered!