William J. Seymour, an African-American preacher, was born in the American south, and raised a Roman Catholic, the son of former slaves. As a young man, he lost an eye to smallpox. He took this as as sign that he was to become a minister, for though he had gotten training at a "holiness college" in Cincinatti, he had resisted the idea of ordination. He believed in faith healing, in personal holiness, and in supernatural "gifts" of the Holy Spirit.
In Houston, he met people who spoke in tongues. He never had spoken in tongues himself at that point, but he became convinced that glossolalia, as the practice is termed, is a sign of the Holy Spirit.
He moved to Los Angeles from Texas. He preached his belief in glossalia to his first church in Los Angeles, but came into his own after he and a group of believers rented an industrial space on 312 Azuza Street. On Easter Sunday 1906, the Azusa Street Revival began.
By all accounts, services at 312 Azusa Street were unstructured, and bordered on chaotic. The congregation alternated between songs, sermons, and displays of religious enthusiasm, such as faith healing and speaking in tongues. The Apostolic Mission group published a newsletter which Seymour edited, which described a "new pentecost" of people who spoke in tongues, healed by faith, and believed that they lived in "end times".
The local Los Angeles press derided the movement. In addition to its fervency, the movement was racially integrated, which raised some hackles. Some ministers derided the Azusa Street Revival as based on ignorance and pure emotional response. Apparently, all agreed that some attendees held doctrinal views different than Seymour's, including various theosophists, mental science folks and other non-Christian religionists. People from many traditions, energized by the ecstatic experiences, gathered amid the congregation, to the chagrin of some.
Seymour edited The Apostolic Faith, whose issues are, amazingly, largely preserved today, and which tell of a sweeping change in American life. In some ways, the changes foreseen by the Azusa Street Revival pale beside the massive cultural changes brought by the two world wars, the invention of anti-biotics, the technological and information revolutions and the socio-economic changes which swept America.
Nonetheless, this unheralded man preaching in an industrial space rented on the cheap began a three year revival which provided the seeds for the spread of a burgeoning Pentecostal faith.
His road was not without controversy. Charles Parham, a Texan, tried to take over the Azusa Street Mission, arguing to Seymour that God was "sick at his stomach" at the integrated nature of the services. Parham's efforts did not succeed, and Parham himself got caught up in a sex scandal. William Durhan, a Holiness leader from Chicago, joined the effort for a time, only to lead many white members to form their own church. When Seymour married in 1908, an appparently resentful church co-editor and assistant actually made off with the newsletter mailing list, and published the newsletter remotely, without his input.
The Azusa Street Revival nonetheless provided the seeds of many denominations. The Church of God in Christ was founded by a Jackson, MS bishop who attended in 1907 and then went home to form a denomination. In 1914, white pentecostalists formed the Assemblies of God denomination. The rift caused by racism in these charismatic churches only began a process of reconciliation in any effective way in the 1990s.
In a time when racism was an American norm, particularly in the churches, the Azusa Street Revival stood as an effort to unite all races and many branches of charismatic Christianity. Sadly, the unity did not last, and late in his life, Seymour himself sought to exclude whites from positions of power in his church.
In this time, pentecostal churches sometimes get noticed for their shortcomings. Some ministers of Pentecostal churches have been responsible for efforts to end the separation of chruch and state, and charismatic televangelists sullied these churches in the eyes of many.
But for all the flaws that charismatic religionists possess, it's also possible to point out many good things. Unlike their more fundamentalist rivals, many charismatic churches emphasize the experience of the divine over strict interpretation of doctrine. Seymour apparently combined a humility about himself with a belief that he lived in times he was "called upon" in which to preach. "The Apostolic Faith" pointed out that "Proud, well-dressed preachers come in to ’investigate.’ Soon their high looks are replaced with wonder, then conviction comes, and very often you will find them in a short time wallowing on the dirty floor, asking God to forgive them and make them as little children".
I must admit that faith for me has never come in glossolalia. I tend to shy away from the kind of enthusiastic ways of speaking of faith that Seymour delighted in using. For that matter, I tend to think that the experience within is so indivdual, that the "ranks of the saved" may be universal, and certainly does not exclude atheists, agnostics, Buddhists or any of a myriad of other faiths and skepticisms.
I am never sure of the value of Heaven and Hell, except as descriptions of an internal state. To me, Grace is not a thing that you can achieve only by speaking in tongues at the Azusa Street Mission. Grace is a trait within, or a trait in the fabric of everything, or grace is a wonderful idea. I believe in the power of ideas.
But I do not underestimate the immense impact that a faith in ultimate things can mean. I like that story about the German theologian Bonhoeffer, whom, as I've written, is one of my intellectual heroes.
Bonhoeffer came to the US in 1930, to attend the Union Theologial Seminary, a center of progressive thinking on theology in this country. But Bonhoeffer detected at arrogance and condescension towards people of more conservative faith. Bonhoeffer told an audience at Union: "At this liberal seminary the students sneer at the fundamentalists in America, when all the while the fundamentalists know far more of the truth and grace, mercy and judgement of God.". I feel a bit the same way about the Azusa Street Mission.
I think people sneer too much at other people's beliefs in general. I remember my college girlfriend, whose discussions in class would cause self-important Christians to advise her she was bound for Hell. I think of my own derision, sometimes, at certain New Age ideas I find dated and derivative. Who appointed me God? Why, nobody.
There's some tag in the Bible about knowing folks by their fruits. There's also that neat story about helpful Samaritans being more welcome than "devout" unhelpful folks. I think of Oskar Schindler, a vain, selfish man not oblivious to profit, who helped saved many Jews from the Holocaust. I do not believe that religion is the acid test--I can parade out a hundred stories of saints and sinners with and without faith.
I find too many people try to make it so well-defined. But it seems to me that the Spanish Inquisition and Stalin's Purges both killed a lot of people, although the religious views of the reigning regimes could not have been more different. I never worry about whether Bob Geldof was an atheist when he helped those people by setting up concerts for the starving. I don't care which side of the egg people open first. I want to live in a world in which Baha'is are not persecuted and killed as "heretics", in which preaching faiths is not illegal, and in which people without faiths are not tyrannized by majority faiths.
My own theology, such as it is (mottled, thank you, when it not just grey and theoretical), differs entirely from Pastor Seymour's. But I still pause for a momment, and think of people in religious ecstasy, anglo, African-American, latino and Asian; rich and poor; educated and uneducated. I think of three years in an industrial warehouse, where the parishioners believed they were nearing the Kingdom of Heaven, and for just a moment, I'll imagine in this Easter season that they were finding something I'll call very near to Heaven.