“William J. Seymour”
Administration for Children and Families
West-Central Hub – Dallas Office
Black History Month Celebration
February 22, 2001
THEME: “Creating and Defining The African-American Community: Family, Church, Politics and Culture”
Note: Most of the following was gathered from various articles on the Internet, and some came from my copy of A Voice Crying In The Wilderness by Charles F. Parham. Though much of it is written in my own words, I have at times used sentences or phrases or quotes from those sources without specifically crediting them. Hence, I claim no copyright for this document. Due to discrepancies in my sources, there may be minor errors of fact. The photographs and captions were originally taken from http://ag.org/enrichmentjournal/199904/026_azusa.cfm, but I don’t know if they’re still available there, so I’ve used other links from the Internet. Some of the most extensive information on William Seymour and Azusa Street, as well as copies of all the issues of Seymour’s newsletter THE APOSTOLIC FAITH, used to be found at http://www.dunamai.com/azusa/index.html, but the Website is no longer active.
The theme for this year’s Black History Month is “Creating and Defining The African-American Community: Family, Church, Politics and Culture.”
I wish to speak a little about a member of that community—specifically, a member of the “church” of that community.
When I gave the “Inspirational” for Black History Month four years ago, I shared on the Black Presence in the Bible.
I shared how the “mixed multitude” who left Egypt with the Israelites and stood together with them at Mount Sinai—and there became part of the covenant nation of Israel—likely included many Africans, and how Moses himself had a Cushite wife (that is, from the region now called The Sudan).
I shared how an African man, a Cyrenian (Cyrene is present-day Libya), was said to have carried Jesus’ cross.
And about how Africans likely figured among the prophets and teachers of the early church.
And how some of them—men from Cyrene—may have been among the first evangelists to the Gentiles, setting what was originally a small Jewish sect on its path to becoming a religious movement that would go—and still goes—into all the world and to all peoples.
We are now entering the twenty-first century in the history of the Christian church. And the effect of the Black Presence on that history is still being felt. Indeed, what has rightly been described as the most significant movement in Christianity in centuries—and certainly in the last century—very likely owes its success to the dedication and effort and piety of a Black man, a son of former slaves, a man whose name has been forgotten by many, and is unknown to many more.
I hope to do my small part to change that.
Let me ask: How many here have heard of Charles Fox Parham?
I used to live and work in Kansas City, Missouri, and one of the states we covered was Kansas. Topeka is the capital, and on October 15, 1900, Charles Fox Parham and some others, in their efforts to recapture the power and witness of the Holy Spirit possessed by the early church, opened a Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, called “The College of Bethel.” In Parham’s own words: “Its only text-book was the Bible; its only object utter abandonment in obedience to the commandments of Jesus, however unconventional and impractical this might seem to the world today.”
A few days before the New Year, the students set to studying the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” in order to discover for themselves “the real Bible evidence of this Baptism so that we might know and obtain it.” And “on New Year’s night,” at the very beginning of the twentieth century, a young woman, Miss Agnes N. Ozman, asked that hands be laid upon her in prayer that she might receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. While they were praying for her, she was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues like, they believed, the first Christians on the Day of Pentecost. Two days later, on January 3, 1901, twelve more of the students had the same experience.
This marked the beginning of what became known as the Pentecostal Movement (which later evolved into the Charismatic Movement), a movement which even today is the fastest-growing one in Christendom, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and China, having close to 100 million adherents as of 1982, with many millions more since then. The largest church in the world, Yoida Full Gospel Church pastored by David Yonggi Cho in Seoul, South Korea—a church whose membership exceeds 800,000—is a Pentecostal Church. This movement has likely impacted and affected every church and denomination worldwide—some, by their ready acceptance of its activity, and others by their rejection of it or resistance to it.
Parham began preaching throughout the Midwest and elsewhere, and after preaching a revival message in Houston, Texas, he was approached about helping train and teach people there. In December 1905, he opened a Bible Training School at 503 Rusk Street in Houston.
For a short time, perhaps January and February 1906, a certain William J. Seymour attended the classes at Parham’s school in Houston.
Let me ask: How many here have heard of William J. Seymour?
William J. Seymour was born May 2, 1870, in Centerville, Louisiana, the son, as I mentioned, of former slaves. Raised as a Baptist, he had dreams and visions as a youth. At about age 25, he contracted smallpox and lost his sight in his left eye.
In 1903 Seymour moved to Houston, Texas, to try to find some relatives who had been lost due to slavery. He later accepted an interim pastorship of a small Holiness church there, whose pastor, Lucy F. Farrow, a Black woman, had gone to Kansas to be a governess for Charles Parham. When Farrow returned, she described her Pentecostal experience, and encouraged Seymour to attend Parham’s school in Houston.
Because of the segregation laws in Texas, Seymour, a Black man, was not allowed to sit in the classroom, but sat in the hallway, listening through the doorway. I do not know if Parham, a White man, agreed with this practice, or just complied with it. His writings indicate that he believed in the separation of the races, but I don’t know if he believed in the superiority of one race over another, though he believed and taught that the Anglo-Saxons were descended from the Tribes of Israel. It seems that later on he did hold strong (or stronger) racist beliefs.
Though Seymour himself did not speak in tongues at this time, he agreed with Parham’s teaching about the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, though he did not like Parham’s racial beliefs. After no more than a few weeks of learning from Parham, Seymour was invited to pastor a small Black Holiness Church in Los Angeles. Neeley Terry, a member of that church who had heard him preach while visiting relatives in Houston, had recommended him to her pastor, Miss Julia Hutchins.
On fire with this new teaching, Seymour arrived in Los Angeles. As the story goes, he preached his first sermon there using Acts 2:4 as his text: “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” His message that speaking in tongues was the “Bible evidence” of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, though well-received by the congregation, did not sit well with the pastor. When he next returned to the church, Seymour found the door to the church padlocked, and himself out of a job!
Some members of the congregation—first, Edward S. Lee, and then Richard and Ruth Asberry—let Seymour stay with them and conduct Bible studies in their homes. At the Asberry’s house at 214 (now 216) North Bonnie Brae Street, after several days of intense prayer, preaching and praise, on the evening of April 9, 1906, seven persons were baptized with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. Seymour himself experienced his own “Pentecostal blessing” three days later, on April 12, the same day that the first White man in the meetings also spoke in tongues.
The crowds had become so large—indeed, their weight finally collapsed the porch of the Asberry’s house that same April 12—that they had to move the meetings to larger facilities. In a few days they found and rented a livery stable and storage building that had formerly housed an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Its address: 312 Azusa Street, Los Angeles, perhaps the most famous address in Pentecostal and twentieth-century church history.
On Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906, the residents of San Francisco, California, were awakened at 5:12 a.m. by The Great 1906 Earthquake.
A few hundred miles down the coast in Los Angeles, morning readers of the Los Angeles Daily Times were awakening to a front page story which read:
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
The story continued: “An old colored exhort, blind in one eye, is the major-domo of the company. With his stony optic fixed on some luckless unbeliever, the old man yells his defiance and challenges an answer…. Clasped in his big fist the colored brother holds a miniature Bible from which he reads at intervals one or two words—never more.”
That “colored exhort” was, of course, William J. Seymour.
For the next three years, approximately 1,000 days, there was continuous revival at the Azusa Street Mission under the leadership of Seymour, with three and sometimes up to nine services conducted each day, beginning in the morning and extending well into the night and often past midnight. Visitors came from everywhere and from around the world, and carried the Pentecostal message back to their homes, their towns and cities, their states, and their countries. By September the church reported that 13,000 people had “received this gospel.” The Apostolic Faith newsletter, which Seymour published and distributed free of charge, had at one time 50,000 subscribers, and carried reports from 20 countries.
At the beginning, Seymour’s ministry and the churches and ministries that sprang from it were completely interracial. Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians and newly-arrived European immigrants prayed and sang together. A 1907 Azusa staff photo shows Blacks and Whites, men and women—all in leadership. A newsletter described one communion service and footwashing that lasted until daybreak, saying: “Over twenty different nationalities were present, and they were all in perfect accord and unity of the Spirit.” Seymour or an unnamed staff member wrote: “No instrument that God can use is rejected on account of color or dress or lack of education. This is why God has built up the work [at Azusa].” As mentioned, women, too, were treated with fully equality in the worship and ministry.
One participant and witness of the early days of Azusa Street, Frank Bartleman, wrote: “At Azusa Street, the color line was washed away in the Blood”—that is, the Blood of Jesus. Bartleman also left us with this description: “Brother Seymour generally sat behind two empty shoe boxes, one on top of the other. He usually kept his head inside the top one during the meeting, in prayer. There was no pride there…. In that old building, with its low rafters and bare floors, God took strong men and women to pieces, and put them together again, for His glory…. The religious ego preached its own funeral sermon quickly.”
Sidney Ahlstrom, noted church historian from Yale University, said that Seymour personified a Black piety “which exerted its greatest direct influence on American religious history,” and wrote that “Seymour exerted greater influence upon American Christianity than any other black leader,” placing his impact ahead of figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr. Indeed, Seymour influenced every Pentecostal strand—and, hence, churches all over this country and all over the world—either directly or indirectly, through the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles. Many churches today can trace their beginnings to or through Azusa Street and the ministry and message of William J. Seymour.
Those Christians who are of the Pentecostal or Charismatic tradition, and even those who are not, owe a debt to this humble servant of God. Seymour himself said: “Don’t go out of here talking about tongues; talk about Jesus.”
As the African-American Community, indeed the whole Christian community—Black, White, Brown, Red, Yellow—engages itself in its task of defining the role of the church, may it and may its members remember the great work and contribution of William J. Seymour. May his name no longer be forgotten or scarcely known, and may his vision and desire for the church—that it be GOD’s church, and a place where GOD and His Spirit supremely reign—be its foremost rule of faith and practice.
Can I get an “Amen!”?