“William Seymour and Pentecostalism”
The story of the modern Pentecostal Movement has its roots with a black preacher named William Seymour. He came from poverty, but played an important part in creating a movement that brought life back into Christianity. While the element of tongues may be questioned, the breaking of color barriers and the renewal of worship that sprung from the movement starting on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California energized millions of Christians around the world. It may have led to some major, sickening abuses, but it also led to a new missionary zeal and a growing new segment of Christianity.
Even as a Reformed Southern Baptist, I can embrace the revitalization that occurred while I reject the sensationalism and the abandonment of Scripture found in some branches of Pentecostalism. Much like the First Great Awakening there are questionable practices, however, as Jonathan Edwards surmised, the benefit was important and valid despite the deviations. In some ways the Azusa Street movement was a successor to the so-called Second Great Awakening, and William Seymour was at the forefront. In fact, the modern Pentecostal Movement might well be considered the Third Great Awakening.
While it is true that throughout history there were movements including the use of tongues or prayer languages, the modern movement is the most widespread. An example of Pentecostal-type events is found in the 19th century story of a Pastor within the Church of Scotland, Edward Erving, who led his congregation in prayer and the outcome was people speaking in tongues and prophesying.1
Additionally, the reach for Christian perfectionism springing from John Wesley's teaching evolved into a teaching of a “second blessing” and finally into the teaching of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. From there followers of Charles Finney moved toward tongues and a change in the understanding of the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” within the Holiness movement at that time. This, no doubt, came to influence the teachings of Parham and as a direct result, William Seymour.
William Seymour was born in Centerville, Louisiana in 1870. His parents were both former slaves, and his father fought in the War Between the States for the Union Army after the Emancipation Proclamation ordered the freedom of slaves held in the Southern States. William was baptized in a Catholic Church when he was about four months old. He was later converted through a Methodist church in Indiana and eventually joined the “Church of God Holiness Reformation Movement.2” It was with this group that William Seymour received his call to preach.
Seymour moved from Indiana to Ohio and became ill with small pox. It left him blind and scarred. However, after this event William surrendered to the call to ministry.
William Seymour moved to Houston and became a student of Charles Parham at Parham's Bible School. Unfortunately, in Parham's school, William Seymour was required to sit in the hallway to learn during the classes because of his race. Additionally, when blacks were in attendance at Parham's revival meetings, they would often have to sit in the back or outside the meeting area. Parham kept things well segregated as was typical, and often required by law during that time. Seymour was greatly influenced in his theology and methodology by Parham.
He received a call to pastor a small congregation in Los Angeles, California while studying in Houston. Parham assisted Seymour in moving to Los Angeles to pastor the church.
Due to the content of his message, specifically the Baptism of the Holy Spirit with evidence of speaking in tongues, William Seymour soon found himself out of favor with leaders of the church and the association with which they were affiliated. Some members of the church continued to support him and opened their home to his ministry. Soon after, people began to experience the phenomenon of speaking in unknown tongues and the following grew. They eventually moved to 312 Azusa Street, a building that was an African Methodist Episcopal Church and a stable in the past. The meetings grew and the media focused attention on the events. In these meetings people worshiped together across racial and gender boundaries. Seymour also used lay people in the ministry frequently, a break from the common traditions of the day.
When Charles Parham arrived to oversee, and in his intention, to consolidate the ministry, he was displeased with the lack of segregation and the “unbridled religious enthusiasm.3 ” Parham attempted to lead a rival congregation, but Seymour continued on in the Pentecostal Holiness ministry.
In later years, Pentecostalism would become more segregated once again, even Seymour excluded whites from leadership positions after a while. However, the barriers would be easier to cross because of his earlier work.
Several Pentecostal groups have ties to Azusa Street's revival and the work of William Seymour. Growing denominations over the twentieth century included the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ. The Pentecostal movement would grow to include many smaller denominations or organizations, some of which are within orthodoxy like the Assemblies of God and others that denied cardinal doctrines such as the United Pentecostal Church.
The Pentecostal movement that gained steam at Azusa Street under the watch of William Seymour became known for excitement in preaching and in musical worship. Throughout the 20th century Pentecostal worship songs grew in popularity while providing energy and enthusiasm during the worship service. Toward the end of the 20th century the Pentecostal worship style, with its roots in the Azusa Street ministry, was even further popularized by Integrity, Hosanna and Vineyard music productions. They produced albums of worship sings in various styles that may have been seen as non-traditional. Many of the songs released have become staples across denominational lines.
Finally a new zeal for missions can be seen in the efforts of Azusa/Seymour influenced work of groups such as the Assemblies of God. They have established many churches in nations across the world with evidence being seen in that Pentecostalism has become very popular in Hispanic nations.
William Seymour is not as famous as many who followed him in the 20th and 21st centuries, but his work on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California had a lasting impact on the groups that would follow. From Azusa there was a beginning of the softening of lines of a racial barrier in worship (especially in the Pentecostal world), a fresh breeze of worship music and new zeal for missionary work. William Seymour may be the leading influence in the fastest growing segment in Christianity during the 20th century.
1. Martin, Dr. Larry. "William J. Seymour Biography." 312 Azusa Street. River of Revival
Ministries. 08 July 2008 <http://www.azusastreet.org/WilliamJSeymour.htm>.
2. "William J. Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival." Enrichment Journal. Assemblies of God
USA. 08 July 2008 <http://www.ag.org/enrichmentjournal/199904/026_azusa_2.cfm>.
3. "Azusa's Founding." Dunamai. 08 July 2008
4. Brown, Christopher E. "Pentecostalism." Religious Movements Homepage. 11 Aug. 2001.
University of Virginia. 10 July 2008