At almost precisely 5:12 a.m., local time, on April 18, 1906, an earthquake foreshock rudely awakened San Francisco Bay Area residents and it was followed by a massive earthquake about 20 to 25 seconds later, with its epicentre near San Francisco. Violent shockwaves punctuated the strong shaking which lasted some 45 to 60 seconds. The earthquake was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and inland as far as 70 kilometres into central Nevada.
It was the most destructive earthquake in North American history. A devastating fire, fed by ruptured gas lines, completed what the earthquake, later estimated as 8.3 on the Richter scale, failed to destroy in its 90 deadly seconds. Some 700 people lay dead among the decimated 514 city blocks.
It was awesome! The unpredictable San Andreas Fault, 800 miles (1287 km) long and passing through the entire State of California, had shifted. At the time angry men and women, predictably, blamed God. Indeed, within hours a gospel tract, was printed and widely circulated in the area, calling the tragedy a judgment and a warning from the God some were cursing.
But that earthquake could have had another cause. In Romans 8:19-21 the apostle Paul declares that ‘The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.’
For some time spiritual shock waves had been felt, particularly at two centres, in Topeka, Kansas and Houston, Texas. These early tremors called Christians to pray throughout America and in early April, 1906 a massive spiritual awakening erupted at Azusa Street, Los Angeles. The event was so great that the after-shock waves have been felt throughout the world for almost a century impacting almost every nation of the world. A new Pentecost had come. God had opened up his heavenly portals again and had sent great power to his people once more.
This marked the beginning of the beginning of the Pentecostal Church. Thousands of pastors and leaders from all over the world visited this place of divine visitation, especially during its vibrant early years between 1906 and 1908, and took away the fire of God to kindle the Pentecostal flames in their nations. It grew very rapidly and has continued to spread like wildfire. There are today over 600 million Pentecostals and Charismatics who trace their spiritual ancestry back to this awesome event. Currently they are growing at an estimated rate of 50,000 new converts a day! Thank God for the continuing aftershock!
Is it possible that Paul’s ‘frustrated earth’ was somehow aware that ‘the glorious freedom of the children of God’ was paramount on God’s agenda andthat this great outpouring was evidence that the creation itself would soon ‘be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.’
Before the turn of the century many were seeking for more from God, particularly in the holiness groups. Some were offering divine healing prayer with notable results. Others were asking God for a Pentecostal outpouring of holiness and power. From 1901 reports of the baptism in the Holy Spirit accompanied by speaking with other tongues and other supernatural manifestations, associated with the ministry of Charles F. Parham, began to circulate. These early shock waves reflected the spiritual ferment that was increasing in Christian holiness communities.
In Los Angeles, Frank Bartleman, a journalist and holiness preacher corresponded with the main leader of the great Welsh revival, requesting special prayer. One letter from Evan Roberts reports his response: “I pray God to hear your prayer, to keep your faith strong, and to save California.” From these letters, Bartleman said he received the gift of faith for the revival to come. And he went on to believe that the prayers from Wales had much to do with God’s outpouring in California, later saying that “The present worldwide revival was rocked in the cradle of little Wales?
Bartleman’s frequent appeals in newspapers, the Christian press and by his tract distribution, inspired many to seek the Lord. Joseph Smale, pastor of first Baptist Church in Los Angeles, personally visited Wales and spoke with Evan Roberts and on his return helped fan the flames of prayer for Revival even more.
On November 16, 1905, Bartleman, published a statement in a small holiness newspaper called the Way of Faith, which was later seen as truly prophetic. “Los Angeles seems to be the place and this the time, in the mind of God, for the restoration of the Church.” Little did he realise that this longed for revival was about to break loose amongst the Los Angeles African-American community.
William Seymour arrived in Los Angeles on February 22nd, 1906 and proceeded to hold meetings at a small store front church Santa Fe Street. This small church plant had resulted from some tent meetings at First and Bonnie Brae Streets held by W. F. Manley’s group, the Household of God. The members came from various holiness backgrounds, particularly the Nazarene Church, and were seeking a holiness preacher to be their pastor. Neely Terry, one of these members, recommended Elder William J. Seymour. She had first met this black, one-eyed preacher on a recent visit to relatives in Houston, Texas where Seymour was standing in for the regular pastor, Mrs. Lucy Farrow.
Lucy Farrow was a friend of Seymour’s who first told him about the baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. She had received the experience herself through the ministry of Charles Parham, founder of the Apostolic Faith Movement, a growing holiness movement having about 8-10,000 followers in 1906. He was at first interested but had many questions. When Parham moved to Houston and began a Bible School she persuaded Seymour to attend. Because of the countries segregation laws called the ‘Jim Crow laws,’ Seymour was not allowed to stay overnight in the school. Nor could he even share the same room as white folk. (The words ‘Jim Crow’ had become a racial slur synonymous with black, coloured, Negro in the vocabulary of many whites, or the worse ‘Sambo’ or ‘coon’; and by the end of the century acts of racial discrimination toward blacks were often referred to as Jim Crow laws and practices.)It is generally accepted that Seymour was positioned outside the classroom on the veranda and had to learn ‘at a distance.’
Parham had been preaching foundational Pentecostal doctrine (or the ‘apostolic faith,’ as he called it) for some years and had first-hand experience of Holy Spirit baptism with the sign of tongues. The first occasion was at his Bible School in Topeka, Kansas on January 1st 1901 and in 1903 he was part of an outbreak of revival, which included Pentecostal baptism and divine healing, at Galena, Kansas. Subsequently he began a string of churches, mostly around the suburbs of Houston, Texas, where he also began another college to train missionary evangelists.
It was here at Houston that William J. Seymour, became convinced that Parham’s teaching on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, with the initial evidence of tongues, was soundly Biblical and added it to his well established Wesleyan-Holiness theological system.
It was in February 1906 that Seymour received the invitation from Neely Terry to move to Los Angeles and take on the small holiness pastorate. Armed with great Pentecostal doctrine but little personal experience he eagerly set out on this new and exciting adventure. In his own words:“It was the divine call that brought me from Houston, Texas, to Los Angeles. The Lord put it on the heart of one of the saints in Los Angeles to write me that she felt the Lord would have me come there, and I felt it was the leading of the Lord. The Lord provided the means and I came to take charge of a mission on Santa Fe Street.”
Coincidentally, spiritual tremors were beginning to be felt before Seymour arrived. Indeed, it seems the city’s entire Christian populace was eagerly awaiting the outpouring of the Spirit, like water coming to the boil.
For his first Sunday morning sermon Seymour boldly preached on the text in Acts 2:4, preaching in no uncertain terms that ‘tongues’ were the evidence of the true baptism with the Holy Spirit. Without this ‘evidence’ no one could claim that he or she had been baptised in the Spirit. Unfortunately this was not part of the accepted teachings of the holiness movement, which generally taught that sanctification and the baptism with the Holy Spirit were the same experience, an experience that most of them claimed to have had. Seymour’s teaching was taken badly because it challenged one of the most distinctive and cherished doctrines of the holiness church.
The teaching on tongues so upset Sister Julia W. Hutchins, who founded the church, that when Seymour returned for the evening service he found the doors padlocked. Fortunately Seymour had been hosted for lunch at the home of Santa Fe Mission member, Mr. Edward Lee, who took pity on this homeless and penniless preacher and offered him temporary accommodation.
Seymour spent much time here in private prayer and fasting, becoming known as a man of unusual prayerfulness. Thereafter Seymour invited his host and hostess to share in his prayer times. Much to the consternation of Mrs. Hutchins, other Santa Fe members began to feel a spiritual compulsion to attend these prayer meetings. Lee invited Seymour to minister in a small home Bible study and prayer meeting in the home of Richard and Ruth Asberry at 214, North Bonnie Brae Street. He agreed to this and continued to do until mid-April 1906.
In the beginning, these meetings were attended mainly by “Negro washwomen,” and a few of their husbands. Despite the lack of personal experience of the ‘baptism’ with the ‘Bible evidence’ of speaking with tongues and the apparent lack of results in his hearers, Seymour ploughed on in faith and assurance that the blessing was on its way.
News of the meetings soon began to spread despite the lack of a breakthrough. Other local church pastors heard about the holiness preacher who was preaching and expecting the next “move of God.” Gradually, certainly by late March 1906, these white believers had joined the little group of African-Americans at the house on Bonnie Brae Street and were actively seeking the baptism with the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking with other tongues.
It was at this point that Seymour was divinely guided to request ministry from long-standing friend, Lucy Farrow. He obviously felt that she had received the Holy Spirit and was therefore more able to communicate the gift to others. He explained this to the group and money was collected to bring her from Houston.
When she arrived, Seymour announced a ten-day fast to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The entire group fasted and prayed through the weekend. On the evening of Monday, April 9, 1906, before he left for the Asberry home, Seymour stopped to pray with Edward Lee for a healing. Lee, had, earlier, related a vision he had had the night before in which the twelve apostles came to him and explained how to speak in tongues. Lee then asked Seymour to pray with him to receive the baptism with the Holy Spirit. They prayed together, and Lee immediately received and began speaking in other tongues. This was the first occasion of anyone receiving the baptism with the Holy Spirit when Seymour prayed for them.
Rushing to the meeting at the Asberry home, Seymour related what had just happened to brother Lee to the packed meeting. Lee then lifted up his hands and began to speak in other tongues. Spontaneous and passionate prayer for the baptism with the Holy Spirit broke out throughout the house. Soon their prayers were answered when “Seymour and seven others fell to the floor in a religious ecstasy, speaking with other tongues” as they received the Holy Spirit baptism.
Jennie Evans Moore, who would one day become Seymour’s wife, began to play beautiful music on an old upright piano, and to sing in what people said was Hebrew. Up until this time she had never played the piano, and although she never took a lesson, she was able to play the instrument for the rest of her life. The phenomenon of tongues and the dynamic message of a personal Pentecost was so exciting that the next night even larger crowds gathered in the street in front of the house to hear Seymour preach from a homemade pulpit on the front porch.
They could hardly keep what had happened a secret neither did they have any desire to do so. God came in great waves of power and refreshing. The doors and windows were open and “they shouted three days and nights. It was Easter season. The people came from everywhere. By the next morning there was no way of getting near the house. As people came in they would fall under God’s power; and the whole city was stirred. They shouted until the foundation of the house gave way, but no one was hurt.”
Meetings at the Bonnie Brae house ran twenty-four hours a day for at least three days. People reported falling under the power of God and receiving the baptism with the Holy Spirit with the evidence of tongues while listening to Seymour preach from across the street. Groups from every culture and race began to find their way to 214, Bonnie Brae Street desperately seeking for more of God.
The crowds grew so large it became impossible to get close to the house, and the press of people who tried to get into the house became so great that the foundation collapsed, sending the front porch crashing into the steep front yard. Miraculously, no one was hurt. Within one week it became necessary to find a larger location to house the growing numbers of seekers, hungry for God.
A suitable place was soon found and rented at 312, Azusa Street, and the mission was begun. It was an abandoned two-story building located in the old downtown industrial district, which was a part of an African-American ghetto area. Once used as the Stevens African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church home it had also been employed as a wholesale depot, a warehouse, a lumberyard, a stockyard, a tombstone shop, and had most recently been used as a stable on the ground floor with rooms for rent upstairs.
It was surprisingly small, approximately 60 x 40 feet, flat-roofed and rectangular in design. Outside it was adorned with weathered, whitewashed wooden boards. The Gothic-style window over the front entrance betrayed its former Christian use, but it was generally in bad shape, looking quite derelict. Windows were broken and it was filled with rubbish.
The first secular news reports of the revival appeared, on April 18, 1906 – on the very day of the San Fransisco earthquake. The Los Angeles Daily Times sent a reporter to an evening service on April 17, and he filed reports that were highly critical of the meetings as well as of the people who attended them. The introductory headlines to the article were ‘weird babel of tongues,’ ‘new sect of fanatics is breaking loose,’ ‘wild scene last night on Azusa Street,’ ‘gurgle of wordless talk by a sister,’ all carefully calculated to give the appearance of religious mania or madness. (See separate article) Nevertheless, Bartleman reported that this brought the crowds! Many of them were true seekers but there were also the ‘crooks and cranks,’ even hypnotists and spiritualists came to investigate!
An article published in ‘Way of Faith,’ October 11, 1906 probably penned by Frank Bartleman gives a friendlier description: “The centre of this work is an old wooden Methodist church, marked for sale, partly burned out, recovered by a flat roof and made into two flats by a floor, It is unplastered, simply whitewashed on the rough boarding. Upstairs is a long room, furnished with chairs and three California redwood planks, laid end to end on backless chairs. This is the Pentecostal “upper room,” where sanctified souls seek Pentecostal fulness, and go out speaking in new tongues and calling for the old-time references to new wine.” There are smaller rooms where hands are laid on the sick and “they recover” as of old. Below is a room 40 x 60 feet, filled with odds and ends of chairs, benches, and backless seats, where the curious and the eager sit for hours listening to strange sounds and songs and exhortations from the skies, In the centre of the big room is a box on end, covered with cotton, which a junk man would value at about 15 cents. This is the pulpit from which is sounded forth what the leader, Brother Seymour, calls old-time repentance, old-time pardon, old-time sanctification, old-time power over devils and diseases, and the old-time ‘Baptism with the Holy Ghost and fire.’
Meetings begin at 10 o’clock every morning and are continued until near midnight. There are three altar services daily. The altar is a plank on two chairs in the centre of the room, and here the Holy Ghost falls on men and women and children in old Pentecostal fashion as soon as they have a clear experience of heart purity. Proud preachers and laymen with great heads, filled and inflated with all kinds of theories and beliefs, have come here from all parts, have humbled themselves and got down, not “in the straw,” but “on” the straw matting, and have thrown away their notions, and have wept in conscious emptiness before God and begged to be “endued with power from on high,” and every honest believer has received the wonderful incoming of the Holy Spirit to fill and thrill and melt and energize his physical frame and faculties, and the Spirit has witnessed to His presence by using the vocal organs in the speaking forth of a ‘new tongue.’”
There were no hymnbooks nor musical instruments, and no collections were taken. A sign on the wall over an free-will offering box declared, “Settle with the Lord.” No teachings or ministries were prepared; everything was left to the spontaneity of the Spirit. The pulpit was composed of two large wooden “shoe boxes.” Elder Seymour would usually sit behind these, deep in prayer with his head buried inside the top box. The preaching was simple and direct and covered themes taught in many other holiness missions: salvation by a personal acceptance of Jesus as Saviour sanctification by renunciation of sin and turning from worldiness, abandonment of rigid traditions and the legalisms of man-made religion, the baptism of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues, divine healing and the premillennial return of Jesus. Often personal testimonies were given or were read from correspondence from those elsewhere.
In Bartleman’s ‘What really happened at Azusa Street’ he states, “ Suddenly the Spirit would fall upon the congregation. God himself would give the altar call. Men would fall all over the house, like the slain in battle, or rush for the altar en masse to seek God. The scene often resembled a forest of fallen trees…. Some claim to have seen the (shekinah) glory by night over the building.”
“Especially did the enchanting strains of the so-called “Heavenly Choir,” or hymns sung under the evident direction of the Holy Spirit both as to words and tune, thrill my whole being. It was not something that could be repeated at will, but supernaturally given for each special occasion and was one of the most indisputable evidences of the presence of the power of God. Perhaps nothing so greatly impressed people as this singing; at once inspiring a holy awe, or a feeling of indescribable wonder, especially if the hearers were in devout attitude.”
“Divine love was wonderfully manifest in the meetings. They would not even allow an unkind word said against their opposers or the churches. The message was ‘the love of God.’ It was a sort of ‘first love’ of the early church returned. The ‘baptism,’ as we received it in the beginning, did not allow us to think, speak or hear evil of any man. The Spirit was very sensitive, tender as a dove.”
One man at Azusa said, “I would have rather lived six months at that time than fifty years of ordinary life. I have stopped more than once within two blocks of the place and prayed for strength before I dared go on. The presence of the Lord was so real.”
Scores of people were seen dropping into a prostrate position in the streets before they ever reached the mission. Then many would get up , speaking in tongues without any influence from the Azusa people. God had come to accomplish His work!
G. H. Lang reports that some who came to investigate were baptised in the Holy Spirit in their lodgings.
“Scores of personal and eyewitness accounts attest that many who came to ridicule the meetings were knocked to the floor where they seemed to wrestle with unseen opponents, sometimes for hours. These people generally arose convicted of sin and seeking God. One foreign-born reporter had been assigned by his paper to record the “circus-like” atmosphere in a comic-relief fashion. He attended a night-time meeting, sitting far in the back. In the midst of the meeting a young woman began to testify about how God had baptized her with the Holy Spirit when she suddenly broke into tongues.
After the meeting the reporter sought her out and asked her where she had learned the language of his native country. She answered that she didn’t have any idea what she had said, and that she spoke only English. He then related to her that she had given an entirely accurate account of his sinful life, all in the language of his native tongue .” IDFC art.
Other eyewitnesses reported seeing a holy glow emanating from the building that could be seen from streets away. Others reported hearing sounds from the wooden building like explosions that reverberated around the neighbourhood. Such phenomena caused onlookers to call the Fire Department out on several occasions when a blaze or explosion was reported at the mission building. The Child Welfare Agency tried to shut down the meetings because there were unsupervised children within and around the building at all hours of the day and night. The Health Department tried to stop the meetings because they said the cramped quarters were unsanitary and a danger to public health. God-hungry Christians flocked in from everywhere.
Bartleman states that “about a dozen saints,” met at Azusa on Thursday, Apr. 19, although this may be how many were there when he arrived. Arthur Osterberg, an early member, later claimed the first service at Azusa, was made up of 100 people. The Los Angeles Times reported a “crowd” that included a majority of blacks with “a sprinkling of whites.” Weekend crowds were larger than those on weekdays.
Growth was quick and substantial. Most sources indicate the presence of about 300 to 350 worshipers inside the 40-by-60-foot whitewashed, wood-frame structure, with others mingling outside before the end of summer, including seekers, hecklers, and children. At times it may have been double that.
By summer, crowds had reached staggering numbers, often into the thousands. The scene had become an international gathering. One account states that, “Every day trains unloaded numbers of visitors who came from all over the continent. News accounts of the meeting spread over the nation in both the secular and religious press.”
Needless to say, such phenomena attracted a lot of attention. Hundreds of local believers heard about the baptism of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues and went to check it out. The response was mixed. On one hand there was much misunderstanding, disagreement and hostility. Verbal and printed denunciations were common.
On the other hand multitudes had their spiritual thirst quenched by meeting with God. New ‘Pentecostal’ churches began to appear, most being ‘additions’ to the denominational churches as Azusa Street was, rather than ‘alternatives.’ The leaders never encouraged the formation of separate “Pentecostal” denominations. They referred to themselves and their movement as “undenominationalism.” They genuinely attempted to remain within their previous affiliations and spread the new Pentecostal theology throughout the churches.
The Azusa Street Mission spawned many local congregations like Elmer Fisher’s Upper Room Mission; Bartleman and Pendleton’s Eighth and Maple Mission; William Durham’s Seventh Street Mission; W. L. Sargent’s Florence Avenue Pentecostal Mission; A. G. Osterberg’s Full Gospel Assembly; John Perron’s Italian Pentecostal Mission; James Alexander’s Apostolic Faith Mission on 51st Street (Alexander was one of Seymour’s original trustees) as well as one other Apostolic Faith Mission, at Seventh and Sentous; W. F. Manley’s Pentecostal Assembly; G. Valenzuella’s Spanish Apostolic Faith Mission; William Saxby’s Carr Street Pentecostal Mission; and an Apostolic Faith Rescue Mission on First Street.
Further afield, right across America, significant churches became ‘Pentecostal’ in the following months as visitors came and caught the fire that returned home with them. Seymour and others toured the nation spreading their new-found revelation and experience.
But the most significant growth was seen abroad. Thousands came from around the globe for a fresh touch from the Master. Most were pastors and missionaries. The result of this was a new and passionate host of missionaries, newly baptized in the Holy Spirit, who were dispatched around the world. Both Parham and Seymour were passionate evangelists and the Azusa Street Mission fuelled missionary fires in the hearts multitudes. Soon men and women were now departing for Scandinavia, China, India, Egypt, Ireland, and various other nations. Even Sister Hutchinson, who initially locked Seymour out of her mission, came to Azusa, received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and left for Africa.
Owen Adams travelled to Canada where he met Robert Semple, Aimee Semple McPherson’s first husband. Adams told Semple of the supernatural events at Azusa and of his experience of speaking in tongues. Semple then went with his new bride to China, where Robert Semple would die. But Adam’s news had birthed a burning desire in the heart of young Aimee. When she returned to America, she would make Los Angeles her ministry base from where her phenomenal ministry would rise.
John G. Lake visited the Azusa street meetings and wrote of Seymour: “He had the funniest vocabulary. But I want to tell you, there were doctors, lawyers, and professors, listening to the marvellous things coming from his lips. It was not what he said in words, it was what he said from his spirit to my heart that showed me he had more of God in his life than any man I had ever met up to that time. It was God in him that attracted the people.”
Cecil Polhill was one of the first Britons to receive the Spirit in Los Angeles and take its message of power and mission back to the UK, where he became a catalyst for the world’s first organised Pentecostal missionary organisation – The Pentecostal Missionary Union.
Bibligraphy: Bibliography: C. M. Robeck Jr., Art. Azusa Street Revival, The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, ed. Stanley M. Burgess, 2002; Robert Owens, The Azusa Street Revival, The Century of the Holy Spirit, ed. Vinson Synan, 2001; S. Frodsham, With Signs Following,1946.