The Azusa Street revival is perhaps the most famed event in modern Christian history. Nearly every Pentecostal and Charismatic sect traces its roots to the ramshackle Los Angeles stable and livery converted into a house of worship by a small group of newly-filled Pentecostals. The humble work, which birthed global Pentecostalism, was directed by an equally humble man, William Joseph Seymour. His remarkable life of ministry was an undeniable catalyst in the development and spread of the Apostolic Faith, and his unassuming personality and Christian character made him an ideal servant of God to advance the Pentecostal Movement.
William Seymour was born to freed slaves in Louisiana and was baptized at the Church of the Assumption in Franklin, Louisiana on 4 September 1870 (Martin 53-54). While the family had a long Catholic heritage, Seymour’s childhood was not particularly religious, and he was 25 years old when he joined the Simpson Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church at Eleventh and Missouri Streets in Indianapolis, Indiana. Here Seymour began his spiritual odyssey toward Pentecost. In Indianapolis, he associated with the Evening Light Saints, an egalitarian Holiness group that formed the Church of God headquartered in Anderson, Indiana. The Church of God was irrevocably committed to inter-racial fellowship, a principle of unity that would play a key role in Seymour’s ministry in Los Angeles. Some historians suppose the Seymour moved to Cincinnati for a time where he was influenced by the Wesleyan Holiness teachings of Martin Wells Knapp (Sanders 50-51; Martin 79-80).
In 1903, Seymour journeyed to Houston, Texas to search for relatives that left Louisiana after Emancipation (Sanders 55). It was there that Seymour began attending the Holiness Church pastor by Lucy Farrow. In 1905, Farrow traveled to Kansas where she encountered the teachings of Charles Fox Parham and received the baptism of the Holy Ghost in one of Parham’s meetings. Seymour was reluctant to embrace Farrow’s newfound experience but was eventually persuaded and joined himself to Parham’s Apostolic Faith ministry when Parham moved operations to Houston later in 1905 (Martin 89-91).
William Seymour demonstrated a passionate hunger to learn more about the Pentecostal experience. Jim Crow was fully enforced in Texas, and Seymour willingly listened outside of the classrooms at Parham’s school, absorbing the theology of the Apostolic Faith (From Tragedy . . . ). Parham’s own racial views were complex, but he was committed to evangelizing blacks in the Houston area with the Pentecostal message and believed that Seymour would be a powerful influence on other African Americans to join the revival (Goff 108).
In February 1906, William Seymour received an invitation to assume the pastorate of a small Holiness work in Los Angeles. Even though he had not received the baptism of the Holy Ghost himself, Seymour felt led of God to answer the call and arrived on the 22nd of February in the bustling metropolis (Martin 139). The interim leader of the group, Julia Hutchins, did not accept Seymour’s ideas on speaking in tongues and locked the mission on Sante Fe Street against him. Sympathetic members of the congregation, Mr. & Mrs. Richard Asbury, took Seymour into their home, and prayer meetings ensued. On 9 April 1906, “Brother Lee” became the first to receive the baptism of the Holy Ghost, and scores were filled thereafter, including William Seymour (Sanders 84-86).
The burgeoning group moved to Azusa Street and began round-the-clock services. In September, Seymour began publishing The Apostolic Faith, a monthly periodical that spread the news of the Pentecostal outpouring in Los Angeles, and thousands arrived to receive their own Pentecost. Despite much criticism from the religious and secular press, Seymour proved a capable and humble leader. A truly spiritual man, William Seymour was afraid to grieve the Spirit and allowed the saints to freely operate under the anointing, believing God would deal with excesses.
His humility has become legendary and is probably best revealed in those who wrote about him. Bro. Frank Ewart describes the pastor with his face hidden in stacked shoe boxes in deep prayer (175). Seymour lifted no offerings and did not schedule himself or others to preach, allowing God to move in true sovereignty (Sanders 97). Bro. William Durham, who led a Pentecostal mission in Chicago wrote:
He is the meekest man I ever met. He walks and talks with God. His power is in his weakness. He seems to maintain a helpless dependence on God and is as simple-hearted as a little child, and at the same time is so filled with God that you feel the love and power every time you get near him. (“A Chicago Evangelist’s Pentecost”)
Another account by A.S. Worrell reads:
The writer has not a single doubt that Brother Seymour has more power with God, and more power from God, than all his critics in and out of the city. His strength is in his conscious weakness, and lowliness before God; and so long as he maintains this attitude, the power of God will, no doubt, continue to flow through him. (“Work Increases”)
Despite his lack of formal training, Seymour was a powerful preacher and exhorter. C.H. Mason, first presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ, received his Pentecost at Azusa in 1907 and remarked: “I also thank God for Elder Seymore [sic] who came and preached a wonderful sermon. His words were sweet and powerful . . .” (Mason 26). He longed for revival and not fame, declaring:
The first thing in every assembly is to see that He, the Holy Ghost, is installed as the chairman. The reason why we have so many dired up missions and churches today, is because they have not the Holy Ghost as the chairman. They have some man in His place . . . Jesus Christ, is the archbishop of these [Apostolic] assemblies, and He must be recognized. (“The Holy Spirit Bishop of the Church”).
Seymour died on 28 September 1922. His last words, aptly spoken, were, “I love my Jesus so.” The mission that had been a hotbed of revival had declined in its latter years, and Seymour’s ministry had become peripheral when he did not accept the revelations of the Finished Work of Calvary or the revelation of the Mighty God in Christ. Despite their theological differences, Bishop G.T. Haywood wrote: “Though he did not agree with the brethren in many things yet he was loved and respected” (“Death of W.J. Seymour”). Ultimately, Seymour served as an important catalyst in the fledgling Pentecostal Movement. He never assumed or coveted a position of ecclesiastical authority and has only recently been recognized in scholarship for his monumental contributions to the Apostolic Faith, but surely the great Azusa revival can only have been possible under such surrendered, servant leadership, a powerful ministry model for today’s Church.
Durham, William. “A Chicago Evangelist’s Pentecost.” The Apostolic Faith 1(6) Feb-
Mar 1907, p. 4.
Ewart, Frank. The Phenomenon of Pentecost. Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press,
From Tragedy to Triumph, the William Joseph Seymour Story. Dir. Tim Storey and
Leon Isaac Kennedy. 1992. VHS. CTL Productions, 1992.
Goff, James R. Fields White unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary
Origins of Pentecostalism. Fayetteville, AR: Univ. of Ark. Press, 1988.
Haywood, G.T. “Death of W.J. Seymour.” The Voice in the Wilderness 2(13), p. 7.
Martin, Larry. The Life and Ministry of William J. Seymour: and a history of the Azusa
Street Revival. Joplin, MO: Christian Life Books, 1999.
Mason, Charles H. The History and Life Work of Elder C.H. Mason, Chief Apostle and
His Co-Laborers. Memphis: Church of God in Christ, 1924.
Sanders, Rufus G.W. William Joseph Seymour: black father of the twentieth century
Pentecostal/Charismatic movement. Sandusky, OH: Alexandria Publications, 2001.
Seymour, William J. “The Holy Spirit Bishop of the Church.” The Apostolic Faith 1(9)
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Worrell, A.S. “Work Increasing.” The Apostolic Faith 1(6) Feb-Mar 1907, p. 5.