Without Form and Fashion: the Early Pentecostal Service


 When the Holy Ghost baptism was given at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, the seekers of the Father’s promise were caught up in a state of spiritual ecstasy. Their Upper Room experiences inspired curiosity and ridicule as onlookers surmised that these passionate Pentecostals were early-morning drunkards (Acts 2). Along with the restoration of Apostolic truth in the early part of the twentieth century came a return to an authentic style of worship and service, driven not by dead liturgy or ritualistic tradition but rather infused with anointing and fresh power. Countless descriptions of early Pentecostal services help us recapture the spiritual spontaneity of our Apostolic ancestors. Universally, the narratives recreate an atmosphere of divine direction unfettered by denominational traditionalism and formality.

Some of the most poignant vignettes of Pentecostal meetings come from Los Angeles, the humble cradle of worldwide Pentecostal revival. Bro. Frank Ewart gives an early description of the earliest Pentecostal baptisms received in the home of one Sister Asbury of 214 Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles:

When Brother Lee walked into the house, he threw up his hands and began to speak in other tongues. Six people were already on their knees praying, and the power fell on them and all six began to speak in tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. This happened on April 9, 1906. This was followed, as at Pentecost, by a great noise that was spread abroad. The new recipients were beside themselves with joy. They shouted and praised God for three days and nights. It was the Easter season. The people came from everywhere. By the next morning there was no way of getting near that house. Those who could gain an entrance would fall under God’s power as they entered and commence to speak in other tongues; and this continued until the whole city of Los Angeles was mightily stirred. (Ewart 66-67)

When services moved to the mission at 312 Azusa Street, the saints operated with great spiritual freedom. Bro. William J. Seymour, the African American leader of the group, assumed no position of direct authority or governance over the proceedings at Azusa. Bro. Frank Bartleman’s early depictions of the Azusa mission demonstrate both Bro. Seymour’s personal humility and the liberty of the Spirit:

Brother Seymour generally sat behind two empty shoe boxes, one on top of the other. He usually kept his head inside the top one during the meeting, in prayer. There was no pride there. The services ran almost continuously. Seeking souls could be found under the power almost any hour, night and day. The place was never closed nor [sic] empty. The people came to meet God. He was always there. Hence a continuous meeting. The meeting did not depend on the human leader. God’s presence became more and more wonderful. In that old building, with its low rafter and bare floors, God took strong men and women to pieces, and put them together again for His glory. It was a tremendous overhauling process. Pride and self-assertion, self-importance and self-esteem, could not survive there. The religious ego preached its own funeral sermon quickly. No subjects or sermons were announced ahead of time, and no special speakers for such an hour. No one knew what might be coming, what God would do. All was spontaneous, ordered of the Spirit. We wanted to hear from God, through whoever [sic] he might speak. We had no “respect of persons.” The rich and educated were the same as the poor and ignorant, and found a much hard death to die. We only recognized God. All were equal.” (Bartleman 58-59)

The services at Azusa were truly free, and early practitioners of the Apostolic Faith were afraid to grieve the Spirit or to hinder God’s sovereign work in their midst.

Worship, testimonies, and even preaching were spontaneously conducted. An early issue of The Apostolic Faith, the periodical published by the Azusa Street mission, describes how the saints sang in other tongues:

One of the most remarkable features of this Apostolic Faith movement is what is rightly termed the heavenly anthem. No one but those who are baptized with the Holy Ghost are able to join in-or better, the Holy Ghost only signs through such in that manner. Hallelujah! . . . a beautiful song was sung in tongues: Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest” (Matt. 21:9) . . . We afterward learned of a remarkable coincidence. The same song was being sung at the Pentecostal Mission at 3271/2 S. Spring St., and was interpreted there the same.” The saints worshiping in these two places were in perfect harmony of spirit, and the Holy Ghost witnessed to it. (“The Heavenly Anthem” 3).

Bro. Bartleman himself experienced this Pentecostal phenomenon:

Friday, June 15 [1906], at “Azusa,” the Spirit dropped the “heavenly chorus” into my soul. I found myself suddenly joining the rest who had received the supernatural “gift.” It was a spontaneous manifestation and rapture no earthly tongue can describe . . . In the beginning in “Azusa” we had no musical instruments. In fact we felt no need of them. There was no place for them in our worship. All was spontaneous. (Bartleman 56-57)

Preaching was also impromptu, wholly inspired by the Spirit:

The Lord was liable to burst through any one. We prayed for this continually. Some one would finally get up anointed for the message. All seemed to recognize this and gave way. It might be a child, a woman, or a man. It might be from the back seat, or from the front. It made no difference. We rejoiced that God was working. No one wished to show himself. We thought only of obeying God. (Bartleman 59)

Likewise, the altar invitation was spiritual and spontaneous:

Some one might be speaking. Suddenly the Spirit would fall upon the congregation. God himself would give the altar call. Men would fall all over th house, like the slain in battle, or rush for the altar enmasse [sic] to seek God. The scene often resembled a forest of fallen trees . . . God himself would call them. And the preacher knew when to quit (Bartleman 60).

The space allotted here is not ample enough to depict the composite service enjoyed by early Pentecostals in the glorious days of the Los Angeles outpouring. But the details, fortuitously preserved for us, recapture a time when worship was not synthesized from syncopation, sermons were not recycled from revival to revival, and altars were not gratuitously graced by passionless penitents. We must be careful not to replace spiritual unction with modern function, extinguishing the flames of revival with form and fashion. Rather, we must reserve spacious room in our contemporary worship for a Pentecostal visitation of the Holy Ghost, allowing God’s Spirit to direct and define every service for by His divine power and for His eternal purposes.

Sources:

Bartleman, Frank. How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles: as It was in the Beginning, 2nd. Ed. Los Angeles, 1925.

Ewart, Frank. The Phenomenon of Pentecost. Word Aflame Press: Hazelwood, MO, 2000.

“The Heavenly Anthem.” The Apostolic Faith 1 (5). January 1907, p. 3.

 

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