Durham was originally from Kentucky and his first religious affiliation was in the Baptist church, which he joined in 1891, but was not converted to Christ until seven years later while in Minnesota, where he experienced a vision of the crucified Christ. After this life-changing experience Durham immediately devoted the rest of his life to full-time ministry and became pastor of Chicago’s North Avenue Mission in 1901. Interestingly, this holiness mission was located in an area populated by immigrants; an experience which ably prepared him for his future ministry to mixed congregations in Los Angeles. Though he preached salvation, sanctification, and healing, he also taught that denominational structures were “the greatest hindrance to the advancement of the real cause of Jesus Christ.” This, too, was a factor that must have endeared him to the undenominationalism and “anti-structural” position and of the Azusa Street Mission leaders.
When news of the Pentecostal outpouring and manifestations of spiritual gifts reached Chicago Durham was initially encouraging and positive. But soon, he began to question the emphasis on ‘tongues’ as the initial evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Growing numbers of testimonies from people that he knew who spoke in tongues provoked him to prayer and study of the subject. He concluded that “all experiences [he] had ever seen, [his] own included, were far below the standard God lifted up in the Acts.”
Durham eventually visited the Azusa Street Mission in 1907 and received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues on Mar. 2, 1907. It was at this time that W.J. Seymour prophesied that wherever Durham preached, the Holy Spirit would fall upon the people.
When Durham returned to his the North Avenue Mission in Chicago, the Pentecostal revival spread quickly through his own church and he became a key figure in establishing the Pentecostal movement in Chicago. His overcrowded meetings lasted far into the night and sometimes until morning. Durham reported in his periodical, The Pentecostal Testimony, that “it was nothing to hear people at all hours of the night speaking in tongues and singing in the Spirit” (Brumback, 1961, 69. Suddenly…from Heaven (1961)). A “thick haze ... like blue smoke” often rested on the mission. When this was present, those entering the building would fall down in the aisles (Miller, 1986, 123. “The Significance of A.H. Argue For Pentecostal Historiography”, Pneuma 8 (Fall 1986).
Many ministers came from far and near to hear the Pentecostal message and receive the Holy Spirit in Chicago. Many who later became prominent Pentecostal pioneers attended Durham’s meetings, including A. H. Argue, a holiness preacher from Winnipeg, who later pioneered with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada and pastured the largest Pentecostal church in that nation; E. N. Bell, former Baptist pastor and student at the University of Chicago and first general superintendent of the Assemblies of God; Howard Goss, former student of Charles Parham and later superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church; Daniel Berg, founder of the Assemblies of God in Brazil; and Luigi Francescon, a pioneer of the Pentecostal movement in Italy. Aimee Semple, before her marriage to Harold McPherson, was instantaneously healed of a broken ankle through Durham’s ministry in Jan. 1910. Clearly, Durham’s church soon became a leading center for the Pentecostal movement worldwide.
Durham was able to spread his message of Pentecost and his new theological teaching of the “Finished Work,” from his Pentecostal Testimony and Hammer Piper’s Latter Rain Evangel. Piper was pastor of the Stone Church, Chicago, where the constituents were predominantly disillusioned ex-Dowie followers from Zion City. He had embraced the new Pentecostal teaching and practices through Durham’s influence.
In 1911 Durham transferred most of his work to Los Angeles for two reasons: Firstly, there were internal problems within the leadership of the North Avenue Mission. Secondly, he wanted to base his ministry in the birthplace of modern Pentecostalism.
He began a preaching mission at the Upper Room Mission in Los Angeles but, despite his brilliant oratory and pulpit presence, the congregation ejected him over sanctification teaching of the “Finished Work.” This teaching repudiated the holiness doctrine of sanctification as a second work of grace and instead declared that everything a believer would ever need was included in the finished work of Christ on the cross. This repudiation of the Holiness doctrine of sanctification as a “second work of grace,” argued that the “finished work” of Christ on Calvary becomes available to the believer at the time of justification. The benefits of Calvary are therefore appropriated for sanctification over the entire period of the Christian’s life, rather than at a single subsequent moment, as was believed by most Pentecostals in Durham’s day.
It was at this time that W.J. Seymour was out of town on a cross-country preaching tour. The two young men in charge at the mission invited Durham to hold meetings at Azusa in his place.
Hundreds flocked to the meetings to hear Durham’s dynamic preaching and his new, refreshing message of sanctification, without the heavy and condemning ‘works’ doctrine, and there were great signs following. Frank Bartleman states, “The fire began to fall at old Azusa as at the beginning.” Even oversees visitors returned from mission stations to catch the new fire. They called it “the second shower of the Latter Rain.” Many other missions and churches suspended services in favour of hearing Durham. The
The, now disturbed elders of Azusa Street Mission contacted their pastor, William Seymour, who returned immediately to Los Angeles. Despite long discussions, Seymour and Durham couldn’t come to agreement over the doctrines so, in May 1912, Seymour barred Durham from the mission.
Remaining resolute, Durham and his workers secured a large, two-story building that seated more than one thousand people. Upstairs housed a prayer room, which was open twenty four seven. The crowds from Azusa followed Durham and in the ensuing months thousands were saved, baptized, and healed, while the old Azusa Mission work rapidly diminished.
Unfortunately, soon after this, Durham return to Chicago, contracted a head cold which later led to a fatal pneumonia attack. He died in Los Angeles during the summer of 1912.
Bibliography: F. Bartleman, How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles (2d ed., 1925) S. Frodsham, With Signs Following (1946) R. M. Riss art. William Durham, The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements 2002; Robert Owens, The Azusa Street Revival, The Century of the Holy Spirit, ed. Vinson Synan, 2001; Charles Edwin Jones, Finished Work of Calvary or Baptistic Tradition, A Guide to the Study of the Pentecostal Movement, 1983, Vol. 1, p411; Edith Blumhofer, William H.Durham: “Years of Creativity,Years of Dissent,” in Portraits of a Generation: Early Pentecostal Leaders. Ed. James R. Goff Jr. and Grant Wacker University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 2002, pp123-142.