- William J. Seymour was born in 1870 on a sugar plantation in Centerville, Louisiana, the oldest child of two former slaves. (Slavery had been legally abolished just five years earlier).
- After working as a waiter in several different states, Seymour settled in Indianapolis, Indiana. There he was converted and received a call to preach in a Holiness church. (The Holiness movement was an offshoot of Methodism. Its members believed it is possible for a Christian to live without voluntary sin, once the Holy Spirit accomplishes a “second work” in one’s heart.)
- Seymour nearly died from an episode of smallpox which left his face scarred and made him blind in one eye. He grew a beard afterward to hide the scar.
- He was drawn to the teaching of revivalist Charles F. Parham, who taught that the Spirit’s second work was marked by the gift of speaking in tongues, as described in Acts and 1 Corinthians. Seymour attended some classes of Parham’s in Houston, Texas, though he had to sit outside the door of the classroom due to strict segregation laws of the day (Parham was white).
- After a short time learning under Parham, Seymour went to Los Angeles to promote his Pentecostal teaching (named for the dramatic events of Pentecost described in the second chapter of Acts). Soon he was drawing large crowds, who gathered in a run-down warehouse on Azusa Street to hear his preaching and worship. From 1906 until around 1913, hundreds of people of every color and status came together daily to seek the second work of the Spirit and the gift of tongues. Miracles and wonders were reported, though the revival was not without critics. The Azusa Street Revival is considered the origin of the Pentecostal movement, which today is the fastest growing form of Christianity, boasting 500 million adherents.
Learn more – sources for this post
- River of Revival Ministries’ page on the Azusa Street Revival with a biography of Seymour
- Wikipedia pages on Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival
To Christians outside the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition, it can seem strange and somewhat controversial. (The Charismatic movement actually started several decades after the Pentecostal, but they are commonly linked because of their similar beliefs and historical connection.)
I grew up in a conservative Bible church and was first exposed to believers from this tradition in college. We crossed paths through InterVarsity, an inter-denominational para-church group. I thank God for bringing these brothers and sisters into my life. While I would not consider myself a Pentecostal Christian (in a formal sense), I have always appreciated the unblushing love for Jesus Christ that characterizes so many within this group. We all need the balance Paul taught the Thessalonians, remaining open to God’s Spirit but weighing everything against the Word of God (1 Thess. 5:20-21):
“Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.”