Pentecostal Movement Celebrates Humble Roots
L.A.'s Azusa Street to Mark Centennial of Fast-Growing Religion Centered on Holy Spirit

By Marshall Allen
Religion News Service
Saturday, April 15, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- One hundred years ago, a series of boisterous revival meetings in a converted stable on Azusa Street launched a global movement that overcame differences in class, gender and race to unite around the belief that the Holy Spirit still works miracles.

Today, there are about 600 million Pentecostal and charismatic Christians whose roots are in the Azusa Street revival. They make up the fastest-growing segment of Christianity, thriving especially in the Southern Hemisphere, with their beliefs having an impact on nearly every Christian denomination.

The 100th anniversary will be celebrated worldwide, with thousands expected to participate in an Azusa Street Centennial in Los Angeles from April 25-29.

But what is now known as the Pentecostal movement had humble beginnings.

It started in early 1906, not on Azusa Street, but in a small house at 214 Bonnie Brae St. There, a black pastor named William Seymour, 35, preached for several weeks about baptism in the Holy Spirit, the belief that Christians can receive empowerment beyond their first baptism to heal, prophesy and speak in a spiritual language called tongues.

On April 9, 1906, the first person from the group spoke in tongues. Then another, and soon several spoke in tongues. It was considered evidence of being baptized in the spirit.

The believers saw it as a modern-day fulfillment of Acts 2:4, the biblical passage in which the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples after Christ's crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. That night in Los Angeles, several others in the African American congregation spoke in tongues.

Word spread and crowds became so large that services were held outside, with Seymour using the house's front porch as a pulpit, according to Cecil M. Robeck Jr., professor of church history and ecumenics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

"This was no quiet demonstration; it was full of noisy manifestations, shouts, speaking in tongues, moaning, and singing in tongues that undoubtedly would have frightened any uninitiated within audible range," Robeck wrote in his new book, "The Azusa Street Mission & Revival."

Seymour moved the group to a ramshackle building used to shelter livestock at 312 Azusa St. in working-class Los Angeles. There, on the sawdust-covered dirt floor of the Apostolic Faith Mission -- popularly known as the Azusa Street Mission -- thousands of people came to worship at three services a day, seven days a week for almost three years.

The congregation met in the round, with Seymour facilitating the interactive gathering from the center of the room. The meetings were in the style of the black church, with hand-clapping, foot-stomping and shouting. But, at the height of the Jim Crow era, they included blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians from the Los Angeles melting pot -- up to 1,300 people at a time.

Newspaper reporters covered the rowdy meetings, and the reviews were less than flattering.

Believers were described as "Holy Rollers," "Holy Jumpers," "Tangled Tonguers" and "Holy Ghosters."

Christians from other traditions were also critical, saying the movement was hyper-emotional, misused Scripture and lost focus on Christ by overemphasizing the Holy Spirit.

Undeterred, the Pentecostal Christians were motivated to share their faith with urgency. According to Robeck, they considered salvation a personal experience and expected physical healing and other miracles to occur when the Gospel was preached.

Believing the Second Coming of Christ was imminent, Azusa Street missionaries were sent throughout the world. And Evangelists from other countries traveled to the mission to experience the revival before bringing it to their own congregations.

Robeck said social factors contributed to the movement's spread. Los Angeles was in the middle of a wave of immigration, and people in the midst of such change were desperately seeking answers. Seymour preached a message of empowerment that appealed to them.

While the mainstream media ridiculed Azusa Street, Frank Bartleman, an evangelist, kept a diary of what he saw and experienced. His vivid accounts, more than 500 in all, were published in Christian newspapers across the country. The Azusa Street mission also published a newspaper, the Apostolic Faith, which was distributed to 50,000 people, some of them overseas.

"That spread curiosity around the world and brought pilgrims from around the world," said Vinson Synan, dean of the school of divinity at Regent University in Virginia Beach, who has researched Azusa Street history.

Services continued to be racially mixed, with Bartleman writing that "the color line was washed away in the blood of Jesus."

Synan points out that having a black man, Seymour, in charge "with white men under his authority" was considered miraculous.

"From that day on I would say Pentecostalism has had more crossing of ethnic boundaries than any movement in the world in Christianity."

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