Born MAY 2, 1870
No matter how hard William Seymour tried, he couldn’t open the church door. The pastor had padlocked it to keep him out. She had invited William to California to preach. He answered the call, proclaiming to the Holiness congregation a spiritual experience they’d not heard preached before. The pastor who invited him didn’t like the message, so there William stood, locked out. But God would open other doors. The message would soon have an explosive effect, transforming lives as it expanded around the world.
William Seymour, the son of former slaves, grew up in Louisiana. In his mid-20s he went north. He worked in Indiana as a railroad porter and as a waiter in a restaurant. He joined a Methodist Episcopal Church where he came to faith. A few years later William moved to Ohio where he sat under the influence of Holiness preaching. He accepted sanctification as a second work of God’s grace in a person’s life.
William felt a call to preach. He resisted God drawing him that direction. When he contracted smallpox which left his face scarred and his left eye blind, William took it as God’s chastisement for his reluctance. In 1903, William moved to Houston, Texas where he began preaching as an evangelist.
His Houston pastor introduced William to Christian Bible school founder, Charles Parham. Charles invited William to attended his classes. Because William was black, Jim Crow laws forbade him to share a classroom with white students. So Charles gave William a chair in the hall outside the opened classroom door.Charles taught an additional spiritual experience for those who desired it: the infilling of the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues. William accepted that as the third work of God’s grace in a Christian’s life.
In 1901, Charles Parham himself had spoken in tongues along with some of his students at the Bethel Bible School he oversaw in Topeka, Kansas. Promoting the infilling of the Holy Spirit, evidenced by speaking in an unknown language became a key feature of his Houston Bible school.
Meanwhile, Christians in California sensed a greater hunger for God. They wanted the blessings of the spiritual awakening that recently occurred in the Welsh revival (1904-05). They prayed. They fasted. They anticipated.
A NEW LANGUAGE IN CALIFORNIA
When invited to preach to a Los Angeles church wanting a deeper experience, William Seymour accepted, declaring his new understanding of Acts 2:4. While some of his hearers embraced the message of the Pentecostal experience as a modern-day reality, their pastor did not. So William found himself standing outside the church building, both he and his message, rejected.There were other believers who were more open to the message. Some of them invited William to their prayer meetings held on Bonnie Brae Street. Beginning April 9, 1906, prayer in those services led to individuals speaking in tongues and receiving healings. William himself, although he believed and preached it had not experienced glossolalia, until then.
The crowds that gathered soon outgrew the building. When too many people on the front porch caused it to give way, William and the other leadership sought a different location.
AZUSA STREETA bigger building, at 312 Azusa Street, sat in a less attractive part of town. The former warehouse and livery stable had been cleaned but offered neither comfort nor style. Some of the pews were planks laid across nail kegs. The pulpit was cobbled together from discarded shoe crates. But worshippers gathered for a different reason: to experience God. And gather they did! In a month’s time, the building called “The Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission” filled to capacity.
For the next three years, people thronged to the mission. Word spread as visitors took stories back to their own churches in other states. Reports of physical healings and other spiritual encounters were also published in the mission’s newspaper, The Apostolic Faith. It reached as many as 50,000 subscribers.
Although Pentecostal worship and practice emphasize glossolalia, William declared that the meetings were not a single-note revival. He told worshippers, “Don’t go out of here talking about tongues; talk about Jesus.” He also preached that displaying the gifts of the Spirit and bearing the fruit of the Spirit go hand-in-hand.
At the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission, a person’s race didn’t matter. One observer noted, “The ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.” Stories of the Azusa Street revival kept spreading. Worshippers of various nationalities visited from other countries, including China.
As events, spiritual revivals last for only a few years. Their influence, however, can make a difference at the moment and for many generations to follow. The lasting impact of William Seymour’s meetings at Azusa Street was a worldwide spread of Pentecostalism. Right away within the United States, new church groups sprang up.
A few of the organizations tracing their doctrine and practice to Azusa Street include The Church of God of Cleveland, Tennessee ( which officially became Pentecostal in 1908), the Apostolic Faith Church, and The Assemblies of God (organized in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1914). By then, thousands of former Holiness churches wore the Pentecostal label. When William Seymour died in 1922, dozens of church groups existed as children of Azusa Street. The 1960s would begin a new wave of Pentecostalism when the charismatic movement tapped people in centuries-old mainline churches.According to historian Vinson Synan, today as much as a quarter of Christians worldwide identify themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic.
The Azusa Street model also set the tone for more racially integrated, classless congreg-ations. Sadly, racial discrimination would continue to thrive for decades in churches throughout the United States.
WILLIAM, DURING AND AFTER REVIVAL
William Seymour was a humble man. During the height of his meetings, other congregations sprang up in Los Angeles, offering the same message. Each new work usually took a few of his sheep. More than once, William advertised the other meetings.He eventually married Jennie Evans Moore. Afterwards, disapproval from Clara Lum, the editor of The Apostolic Faith, led her to leave town with most of the mailing list. That diminished William’s influence among people in other states.
William traveled and preached. He ministered throughout the Midwest and the South. He remained the pastor of the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission until his death.
William left this life on September 28, 1922, following a heart attack. His wife, Jennie, led the Azusa Street congregation until her death in 1936.
- Burgess, Stanley, ed. The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. Grand Rapins, MI: Zondervan, 2002.
- Larsen, Timothy, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
- Rabey, Steve and Onte Unger. Milestones: 50 Events of the 2oth Century that Shaped Evangelicals in America. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002.
- Synan, Vinson. “William Seymour.” Christian History 65, (2000): 17-19.
- Books about William Seymour and the Azusa Street Gospel Mission can be here at Christian Book Distributors- http://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/easy_find?Ntt=william+seymour+azusa+street&N=0&Ntk=keywords&action=Search&Ne=0&event=ESRCG&nav_search=1&cms=1&search=.
- The books at Amazon.com begin on this page- http://www.amazon.com/gp/search/ref=a9_sc_1?rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Awilliam+seymour+azusa+street&keywords=william+seymour+azusa+street&ie=UTF8&qid=1398893957.
- Here’s a link to the William Seymour YouTube channel- http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=william+seymour+azusa+street+revival.