I want to talk about William J. Seymour, the African-American evangelist that God used mightily during the outpouring of the Holy Spirit termed Azusa Street revival. Like in the days of Pentecost, it was recorded that the tangible glory of the Lord was manifested through the Holy Spirit to many. The Lord descended mightily upon the earth and many witnessed the raw demonstration of God’s glory and power. Many were saved. Many received miraculous healings. God was glorified. The revival spread across the world.
Let me share with you a summary of the revival. Amazing story. The bold sentences in the write-up below are my emphasis.
“William J. Seymour, an African-American, was born May 2, 1870, in Centerville, Louisiana, to former slaves Simon and Phillis Seymour, who raised him as a Baptist. Later, while living in Cincinnati, Ohio, he came into contact with holiness teachings through Martin Wells Knapp’s God’s Revivalist movement and Daniel S. Warner’s Church of God Reformation movement, otherwise known as the Evening Light Saints.
Believing that they were living in the twilight of human history, these Christians believed that the Spirit’s outpouring would precede the rapture of the Church. They deeply impressed the young Seymour. After moving to Houston, Seymour attended a local African American holiness congregation pastored by Lucy F. Farrow, a former governess in the household of Charles F. Parham. Parham led the midwestern Apostolic Faith movement, the original name of the Pentecostal movement, that had begun in his Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, in January 1901. By 1905, he had relocated his base of operations to the Houston area where he conducted revivals and started another Bible school. Farrow arranged for Seymour to attend classes. However, because of the “Jim Crow” segregation laws of the time, Seymour had to listen to Parham’s lectures while sitting apart from the other students. Seymour accepted Parham’s view of baptism in the Holy Spirit—the belief that in every instance, God would give intelligible languages—speaking in tongues to believers for missionary evangelism.
Neeley Terry, an African-American and member of the new congregation led by Hutchinson in Los Angeles, visited Houston in 1905 and was impressed when she heard Seymour preach. Returning home, she recommended him to Hutchinson, since the church was seeking a pastor. As a result, Seymour accepted the invitation to shepherd the small flock. With some financial assistance from Parham, he traveled by train westward and arrived in Los Angeles in February 1906.
In Seymour’s 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.”
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 (who was now accommodating Seymour) 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, the 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 (watch from this point what happened next), 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. (I’m sure this sounds familiar to what most of us would have done. Me too.) 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. Glory be to God!
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. News travelled fast. 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.
Manifestation of the Azusa Street Revival
A reporter stated, “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!
“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.”
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 neighborhood. 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.
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.
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 marvelous 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.”
Our cry Lord is that You will visit us with the Mighty Outpouring of Your Spirit again in this age! Draw men to You by Yourself. And bring healing, comfort, prosperity, strong intimacy to Your People. Do that which is impossible to man. Turn the hearts of men to you. Come Lord and fill us afresh!
God be praised forever and ever!
Culled from Shiloh Trenton: William Seymour and the History of the Azusa Street Outpouring by Tony Cauchi (2004)
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