What do you think of the Azusa Street revival with William J. Seymour?


The events at the Azusa Street revival in 1906 is frequently cited as the beginning of the Pentecostal movement. Numerous charismatic denominations refer to this revival as the beginning of their particular beliefs. Four denominations which were founded in the late 1890's: the Church of God in Christ, the Pentecostal Holiness Church, the United Holiness Church, and the Church of God, took on Pentecostal beliefs as a result of what happened on Azusa Street. From these groups came further divisions, the largest being the Assemblies of God, which divided from the Church of God in Christ in 1914. For a good history of these churches, see Ethan Longhenry's article, "Pentecostalism / Charismatic Movements"

The roots of Azusa Street were planted in a Houston, Texas, Bible school taught by Charles Fox Parham. William Seymour was a student of Charles Parham in 1903 and was convinced of the need to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, such baptism being evident by the ability to speak in tongues. Seymour was invited to work with a small holiness group in Los Angeles, California. On the way, he stopped in Denver, Colorado, and visited Alma White's Pillar of Fire movement. Alma White was not impressed with Seymour. She later said, "I had met all kinds of religious fakers and tramps, but I felt he excelled them all." Upon arriving in Los Angeles, William Seymour preached only one sermon at the church who had invited him. The group then rejected him. Seymour continued his meeting though, preaching about Holy Spirit baptism in a warehouse on Azusa Street.

The primary difficulty in commenting about what happened is in locating witnesses whom one feels are reliable. One would expect those who accept the events as real to be biased in favor of what happened. Those who reject the events would be biased against them. There is an additional problem of terminology. For example, we spoke in past articles that the Bible defines speaking in tongues as speaking in another language (see "What is an unknown tongue?"); yet, Pentecostal writers will include speaking in no language (gibberish) as tongue speaking by claiming that it is a heavenly language. Actions which would be reject by many are glossed over in Pentecostal writings because they are seen as normal events. Yet writers from non-Pentecostal denominations will focus on these same actions.

With all that in mind, there is a book titled From Holy Laughter to Holy Fire by Michael L. Brown which quotes five respected Bible scholars from that era who witness the events that occurred on Azusa street. Mr. Brown quoted them to say they were wrong, but these men were contemporaries of the events and Mr. Brown, an Assemblies of God minister, is not. Since his denomination evolved from the events of Azusa Street, he also has strong motivation to put its origins in the best light that he can. I do appreciate the fact that he was willing to quote his detractors. G. Campbell Morgan described the activities on Azusa Street as "the last vomit of Satan." R. A. Torrey declared that this movement was "emphatically not of God, and founded by a Sodomite." H. A. Ironside said in 1912 that the movement was "disgusting ... delusions and insanities ... pandemonium's were exhibitions worthy of a madhouse or a collection of howling dervishes," causing a "heavy toll of lunacy and infidelity." W. B. Godbey saw the movement as a result of spiritualism and that the participants were "Satan's preachers, jugglers, necromancers, enchanters, magicians, and all sorts of mendicants." Clarence Larkin said, "But the conduct of those possessed, in which they fall to the ground and disgraceful scenes, is more a characteristic of demon possession, than a work of the Holy Spirit. From what has been said we see that we are living in 'Perilous Times,' and that all about us are 'Seducing Spirits,' and that they will become more active as the Dispensation draws to its close, and that we must exert the greatest care lest we be led astray." It is clear that these biblical scholars were not pleased with the events at Azusa Street.

Seymour's teacher, Charles Parham, visited the revival in October of 1906. David McCloud, in his book The Strange History of Pentecostalism said of this visit that "even he was shocked by the confusion of the services. He was dismayed by the 'awful fits and spasms' of the 'holy rollers and hypnotists.' He described the Azusa 'tongues' as 'chattering, jabbering and sputtering, speaking no language at all' (Synan, p. 102). The Azusa Street meetings were so wild that Parham condemned them with the term 'sensational Holy Rollers.' He testified that the Azusa Street meetings were largely characterized by manifestations of the flesh, spiritualistic controls, and the practice of hypnotism (Sarah Parham, The Life of Charles F. Parham, Joplin, MO: Tri-State Printing, 1930, p. 163). According to Parham, two-thirds of the people professing Pentecostalism in his day 'are either hypnotized or spook driven' (Parham, Life of Charles F. Parham, p. 164). In his writings about Azusa Street, Parham described men and women falling on one another in a morally compromising manner." It should be noted that the following year, 1907, Parham was arrested and charged with sodomy in Texas; so, he is not necessary a highly credible witness.

The revival on Azusa Street lasted seven years, during which time thousands of missionaries went forth to spread Pentecostalism. Many believed that with their gift of tongues they could teach in foreign fields. It wasn't long before they realized that they were unable to speak in other languages and so the movement changed to state that the Holy Spirit required interpreters for the tongue speakers. This continues to this day. I know of no first-hand accounts of people speaking in languages they had not learned. Yet, most in the Pentecostal movement will claim to speak in a heavenly language (though to everyone listening it sounds as gibberish).

The events at Azusa Street match none of the events in the Bible. The conduct of the participants, even when saying the "nay-sayers" are stretching the truth, appear to be completely opposite to the conduct required of Christians in the New Testament. "Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless" (II Peter 3:11-14).

In addition, Jesus told us, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!' " (Matthew 7:15-23). Since those who speak glowingly of the events of Azusa Street teach doctrines contrary to those found in the New Testament, such as the continuance of miraculous gifts or that Jesus is the only person of God, I must conclude that the events at Azusa Street were deceptions. "The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness" (II Thessalonians 2:9-12).

April 25, 2008