Number 312 Azusa Street, Los Angeles, entered the annals of church history 100 years ago on 23 April 1906. It was about to become what Vinson Synan calls ‘the most famous (street) address in Pentecostal-charismatic history’.
On that date a series of meetings began under the leadership of William Seymour. The chief feature of these gatherings was speaking in tongues. Many other expressions of excitement were also reported and huge crowds were attracted. The modern Pentecostal movement had begun.
Meetings were held almost continuously every day until the middle of 1909. By then the enthusiasm was abating and the schedule was wound down, but the legacy of those days remains.
Although 312 Azusa Street claims its place in Christian history as the venue where the modern Pentecostal movement started, it had originally been built as a Methodist church. It had long been vacated and the Apostolic Faith Mission acquired the premises as a redundant warehouse.
Actually, the first outbreak of tongues-speaking in Los Angeles occurred even before the Apostolic Faith Mission began to meet on Azusa Street.
William Seymour had come to Los Angeles from Houston, Texas, around 22 February 1906. He had been invited by Neelly Terry, the female pastor of a Holiness church, to join her and her colleague Julia Hutchins in their work.
The teaching of the Holiness churches in those days was that sanctification (becoming like Christ) was an instantaneous second work of grace after conversion. For some believers the two experiences might occur in quick succession – for others there might be a considerable time lapse between conversion and sanctification. It was necessary to have both experiences, they claimed, to be a fully mature Christian.
Seymour’s ministry with Terry and Hutchins lasted ten days. On 4 March he arrived at the church to take the evening service, only to find that his female colleagues had locked the door to keep him out.
The cause of the rift was some strange ideas which Seymour had begun to teach on his very first Sunday in Los Angeles (26 February). He had suggested that the two-stage spiritual experience which the Holiness churches taught was, in fact, incomplete. There was also a third experience known as ‘baptism in the Spirit’. The initial evidence that a person had received this crowning work of grace was speaking in tongues.
This teaching commended itself to some in the congregation, and when Seymour was barred from the church, two of its members, Richard and Ruth Asbery, opened their home.
Those sympathetic to the new ideas gathered here and Seymour continued to minister to them. The numbers increased rapidly, as people from other churches joined them, intrigued to hear the Pentecostal message.
Outbreak of tongues
The first outbreak of tongues in Los Angeles occurred on 9 April. Seymour was praying with a man named Edward Lee, when Lee broke out in tongues. Later that same day the first public tongues-speaking took place in the Asberys’ home. Among the few who had the experience on that occasion was Jennie Moore, who was soon to become Seymour’s wife. He was 36 at the time.
Seymour claimed that tongues were evidence of baptism in the Spirit because he was convinced that Scripture taught this doctrine. But interestingly, he had never himself had this experience until, on 12 April after some hours of seeking the Lord alone, he too spoke in tongues.
It seems that the congregation was prompted to seek more permanent accommodation when the Asberys’ porch collapsed under the weight of numbers! The lease of the Azusa Street premises was settled around 13 April. After ten days of hard work, making the place suitable for prayer and worship, services began on 23 April.
Before Azusa Street
Although modern Pentecostalism traces its origins to Azusa Street, the first twentieth-century occurrence of tongues-speaking happened several years earlier.
Agnes Ozman was at a New Year’s Eve watch-night service in Topeka, Kansas, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth. In the first few minutes of 1901 she spoke in tongues for the first time.
Ozman was a student at a Bible school in Topeka run by Charles Parham. Towards the end of December 1900, Parham was away from the school for a few days. Before he left he set the students the task of studying the Bible on the topic, ‘The baptism of the Holy Spirit’. When he returned they would report their findings.
Parham’s own understanding of the subject at that time corresponded to Holiness teaching, namely, that the baptism of the Spirit was equivalent to sanctification.
On his return on the last day of the nineteenth century, the students reported their findings to Parham. They had come to the conclusion that anyone who received the baptism of the Spirit would demonstrate this by speaking in tongues. Later that night Agnes Ozman became the first Topeka student to do so.
Parham was readily persuaded. Within a few weeks he had begun speaking in tongues, as had about half of his students. He closed the school and invited a few of his students to join him in an itinerant ministry to spread the Pentecostal message.
Their belief at this stage was that tongues were genuine human languages, and that the Lord was restoring the gift to his church as a tool to accelerate world evangelisation – in readiness for the imminent return of Christ.
Indeed, some of the early Pentecostal pioneers went to foreign lands confidently expecting to be able to speak the language there, only to be disappointed.
After nearly five years of travelling, Parham settled down again and opened another Bible school, this time in Houston, Texas. It was here that William Seymour encountered the teaching.
Seymour had come into contact with Holiness teaching during his early thirties. In 1903 he moved to Houston and sought out a Holiness church. The one he joined was pastored by Lucy Farrow, who had once worked for Charles Parham.
Farrow had already adopted the Pentecostal extension to traditional Holiness teaching. Seymour caught her attention as a man with great potential, and she suggested that he attend Parham’s Bible school.
At that time Texan law required strict racial segregation. Consequently Seymour (a black man) was not allowed to sit with white students in lectures, nor attend the same prayer meetings. However, Parham permitted him to listen from a seat in the corridor, and Seymour lapped up the Pentecostal teaching.
He must have been a quick learner. He was only at the Bible school for a couple of months before Neelly Terry’s invitation came from Los Angeles. Terry had heard Seymour preach while on a visit to Houston. On her return home she recommended to her church that the call to Seymour be issued.
What are we to make of these events? Was 1906 to 1909 a period of genuine revival – a true outpouring of the Spirit? Or was it, as some would say, a demonic delusion? Who is right?
Perhaps Professor Walter Hollenweger is right in rejecting both claims. He sees the Azusa Street events as an outburst of a kind of religious enthusiasm which was not uncommon in black churches in America at that time. The distinctively Pentecostal elements came about because the teaching being given created the expectation that such phenomena would occur.
However, we would be foolish to dismiss what happened as having nothing of the Holy Spirit in it. One amazing feature of those early Pentecostal gatherings was their interracial nature.
Seymour, the Asberys, Lee, Moore and Farrow were all black. However, in defiance of the segregationist policies which divided America then, many whites attended Azusa Street and worshipped gladly alongside their black brothers and sisters.
Seymour deliberately encouraged a mixed-race leadership for the Apostolic Faith Mission. Sadly, this state of affairs did not last for too long. But for as long as it persisted, it was an amazing testimony to biblical principles in a hostile society.
During the past century, it has been claimed, the Pentecostal movement (and its offspring the Charismatic movement) has spawned one of the greatest missionary endeavours in the whole of church history. To read Operation World is to be left with the impression that most of the worldwide ‘evangelical’ community today is Pentecostal.
We need, of course, to be cautious at this point. Numerical success is not necessarily evidence of a work of God’s Holy Spirit. However, where Pentecostals have retained their biblical moorings they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we must learn to give thanks for their effectiveness, even though at certain points we may profoundly disagree with them. Perhaps too we need to examine ourselves and face the question why we are not seeing more success in our evangelistic efforts.
It is an encouraging sign today that many Pentecostal pastors, especially in Third World countries, are becoming dissatisfied with a shallow, experience-based Christianity. They are seeking better to understand the biblical gospel of God’s grace in Christ. We need to pray for a true biblical and Spirit-born reformation and revival in the Pentecostal churches, as well as in our Reformed churches.
Editor’s note: This historical article is not intended to be a full theological critique of the issues involved.