From Azusa Street to the ends of the earth
“Pentecost Has Come,” roared the September 1906 headline of the Apostolic Faith newspaper, published by an obscure mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. New Testament Christianity finally was being restored to its charismatic fullness: “The gift of languages is given with the commission, 'Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.'” Indeed, those who experienced “Pentecost” at the revival claimed that they spoke in Greek, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Zulu, “dialects of India,” Chippewa, and many more languages. While one Los Angeles paper decried this “Weird Babel of Tongues,” the faithful at Azusa declared that God had bestowed these unlearned human languages so that they could speedily evangelize the world before the coming of Jesus Christ.
April 2006 marked the centenary of the Azusa Street revival, an event that was crucial to the major global awakening we now call Pentecostalism. From the barrios of Latin America to the house churches of China and the villages of Africa, all the way to the corridors of the Vatican, its impact has been felt. Yet many still wonder how the goings-on at the Apostolic Faith Mission could have changed the face of 20th-century Christianity.
Best known of the early formative Pentecostal revivals, it began in an unlikely location, a little house tucked away on North Bonnie Brae Street. The pastor of the largely African-American congregation, William J. Seymour, had arrived only a few weeks before from Houston, where he had been mentored by Pentecostal pioneer Charles Parham. During a prayer meeting in this North Bonnie Brae Street house on April 9, 2006, a member of the congregation began speaking in tongues. Others followed suit. It seemed that the Day of PentecostActs 2:4!had been reborn in their midst. News spread quickly, and the crowds grew. Many sought the Pentecostal baptism; others came simply to observe the unconventional services.
Seymour and his flock then moved to larger facilities at the former Stevens African Methodist Episcopal Church on Azusa Street in an industrial part of the city. A local newspaper called it a “tumble-down shack.” For the next three years, waves of revival stirred the hearts of the few hundred who could get into the building for the daily meetings and the hundreds who listened outside. “We had no human program,” recounted one eyewitness, “the Lord Himself was leading– We did not even have a platform or pulpit in the beginning. All were on a level.”
Azusa carried a unique interracial dimension in a largely segregated America. Just as “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” worshipped together in the Jerusalem Temple on the Day of Pentecost, so at the mission African-Americans, Anglos, Hispanics, Armenians, and Christians of other nationalities studied the Bible, spoke in tongues, sang, prayed, and shared the charismatic gifts of the Spirit spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. “No instrument that God can use is rejected on account of color or dress or lack of education,” reported the Apostolic Faith. “This is why God has so built up the work.”
Whether through the pages of the Apostolic Faith or the testimonies of the Azusa participants who became evangelists and missionaries at home and overseas, news of the renewal sparked more revivals. “The baptism with the Holy Ghost gives us power to testify to a risen, resurrected Savior,” wrote Seymour. “Our affections are in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.”
In time Pentecostals came to view tongues-speech as prayer in the Spirit and have remained convinced of its transforming nature. “This baptism puts more love in us for God and his people and for the lost than anything that has ever come to this world,” said one early Pentecostal. Another exclaimed, “No wonder people get the missionary spirit as soon as they get the baptism because they become partners with the Holy Spirit.”
Interest in the ministry of the Holy Spirit for personal holiness and spiritual vigor had long preceded Azusa. Concerned for world evangelization, some 19th-century evangelicals prayed for the outpouring of the Spirit promised in Joel 2:28-29, hoping this special conferral of God's power would break the iron grip of non-Christian religions over the mission lands. “Since the church has lost her faith– in the supernatural signs and workings of the Holy Ghost,” wrote A. B. Simpson, president of the Christian & Missionary Alliance, “she is compelled to produce conviction upon the minds of the heathen very largely by purely rational and moral considerations and influences.” Unfortunately, the “Brahmins of India can reason as wide as we. The intellects of China are as profound as ours; [and] the literature of heathen nations is full of subtlety and sophistry that can match all our arguments.”
Furthermore, premillennial eschatology left little time for evangelism before the imminent return of Christ. Hence, these evangelicals believed that the Spirit's intervention, bringing the same miraculous “signs and wonders” that accompanied gospel proclamation in the Book of Acts, would empower missionaries to reach the nations with the gospel before it was too late. Sharing this outlook, a burgeoning diaspora of Pentecostal missionaries went abroad from Azusa and other key centers of Pentecostal revival. They numbered more than 200 by 1910, with the majority being women. Confident of the Spirit's enablement, they preached, prayed for the sick, and exorcised demonic spirits.
Azusa Street left a deep imprint on the collective memory of the Pentecostal movement, crafting a heritage that later would inspire majority world Pentecostals because of its egalitarian character and the dispensing of supernatural gifts for the building of Christ's church. Pentecostals' confidence in the restoration of charismatic Christian spirituality, along with the charismatic renewals that subsequently followed, challenged virtually every sector of Christianity to re-evaluate its understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in the mission of God in the world.
By Gary B. McGee
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #90 in 2006]Gary B. McGee is professor of church history and Pentecostal studies at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri.
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