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Los Angeles - Modern Pentecostalism's Spark

Worshipping Hands

Photo by Jaefrench via Pixabay.com.

Pentecostalism, the Christian fundamentalist movement now found worldwide, traces its early 20th Century ascent to Los Angeles. Historians credit much of the movement’s blossoming to William J. Seymour (1870-1922), an African American preacher who moved from Texas to Los Angeles in February 1906. He was initially invited to Los Angeles to be pastor of a holiness mission founded by Julia Hutchins, who was to leave for missionary work in Liberia. Heavily influenced by early Pentecostal preacher Charles Parham who held that “speaking in tongues” was a sign of “infusion by the Holy Spirit,” Seymour tried to introduce this form of worship at the mission, to the dismay of Southern California holiness leaders. After being dismissed from this new position shortly thereafter, Seymour began holding prayer meetings at the home of friend Edward Lee where Seymour’s Pentecostal teachings were accepted. When Lee’s home became too small for the growing meetings, they were moved two blocks away to the home of Richard Asberry.

William J. Seymour

William J. Seymour, circa 1910s, via Azusa Street Mission.

By April 1906, Seymour’s meetings had grown beyond the capacity of Asberry's home (the porch, it was reported, had collapsed under the weight of people). Seymour moved the meetings to a church building that had been an African Methodist Episcopal church at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles, and there formally established the Apostolic Faith Mission, also known as the Azusa Street Mission. The church became the center of what would be called the "Azusa Street Revival." Crowds at services quickly grew as high as 1,500 and, unlike at almost all American churches of the day, were racially mixed. In September 1906, Seymour introduced a newspaper, The Apostolic Faith, which became influential in the Pentecostal movement and reached a circulation of 40,000. Seymour had become the most prominent Pentecostal leader on the west coast and, besides being invited to preach outside Los Angeles, was visited by other prominent Pentecostal preachers from around the country.

Azusa Street Mission meetings drew media attention due to their then unconventional style of worship. The most controversial practice, however, also unconventional for the time, was the racial mixing of its crowds. Even Seymour’s early mentor, Charles Parham, whose teachings Seymour propagated, objected to racial mixing at Azusa Street Mission, denouncing it as a false revival and going so far as establishing a rival church a short distance away. Parham declared himself to be the true leader of the Pentecostal movement, but his split with Seymour did more to hurt Parham’s prominence in the Pentecostal movement than it did Seymour’s. In 1907, one of Seymour’s evangelists, Florence Crawford, broke with him and established an independent Pentecostal church in Portland, Oregon, and sought to challenge Seymour’s west coast leadership. In 1908, Seymour’s secretary and newspaper editor resigned and joined Crawford and also stole the mailing list for The Apostolic Faith for use by Crawford. Without the list, Seymour lost control of his newspaper and, consequently, his influence in the growing Pentecostal movement.

Azusa Street Mission, Circa 1907

Azusa Street Mission, circa 1907.

In 1911, Seymour, while on a preaching tour, arranged for William Durham to be a visiting preacher at the Azusa Street Mission in his place. Durham took the opportunity to advocate doctrinal teachings that were considered by some too extreme for the mission, causing controversy among congregants and Seymour being asked to return immediately. Durham was locked out from any further preaching at the mission and he did not take this lightly. Durham launched into public attacks on the religious credibility of Seymour; further accelerating Seymour’s declining influence.

By 1914, the Azusa Street Mission had become a small, African American-only church, considerably less prominent and attention-getting than years earlier. Seymour continued to serve as its pastor until his death in 1922.

Although a number of Seymour’s contemporaries sought to discredit and minimize his leadership and influence in the Pentecostal movement, Azusa Street Mission is credited with being a key catalyst for what became the modern Pentecostal movement. The mission’s evangelists and missionaries deployed across the country and the world. By 1914, Pentecostal gatherings were being held in almost every major American city. Every major American Pentecostal denomination can trace its origins to Seymour’s work. Today, an estimated 75 million people worldwide are believed to adhere to the Pentecostal (or charismatic) form of worship.

The Pentecostal movement led to the first rift over the style of worship in a mainline American church when the congregation of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Van Nuys split over the issue in 1960.