In April 1906, a small group of newly-baptized Pentecostals began meetings at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California. Moving meetings from a small, private cottage on Bonnie Brae Street, these zealous saints led by Bro. William Joseph Seymour could not have possibly anticipated their place in Pentecostal history. The revival that burgeoned in the humble mission at Azusa Street was destined to reach millions around the world, and Los Angeles became the veritable birthplace of all modern Pentecostal groups.
Worshippers at the Azusa Street Mission were determined to be led by the Holy Ghost, laying aside the structural trappings of orthodoxy. The meetings were largely unorganized guided by the supernatural spontaneity of inspiration and anointing. The rediscovered power of the baptism of the Holy Ghost had a completely democratizing effect on the saints, and these early Pentecostals recognized God’s sovereignty in ordering songs, testimonies, exhortations, and sermons. No vessel was too humble, and social class and ethnic distinctions dissipated in the egalitarian atmosphere. Bro. Frank Bartleman, a journalist from Los Angeles, reported: “The color line is washed away in the blood.” Azusa Street epitomized Paul’s declaration to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
The raucous, all-night gatherings brought complaints from local residents, and the police were dispatched on more than one occasion to break up the meetings held at the mission. The media reports in the Los Angeles Times throughout much of 1906 offer uncharitable depictions of the Pentecostals, criticizing their spirited worship, incessant preaching, and intermingling of class, race, and gender. The century-old newspaper stories represent the unfortunate prejudices of turn-of-the-century America and reveal a great deal about the unflappability of the Pentecostal pioneers who defied cultural norms to create a New Testament Christian community of believers.
In April, shortly after opening meetings at the converted stable on Azusa Street, the Times printed its first article on the revival: “Weird Babel of Tongues: New Sect of Fanatics is Breaking Loose.” The story notes the noise created by the saints: “. . . night is made hideous by the howlings of the worshipers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication.” The piece caricatures Bro. William J. Seymour, calling him “an old colored exhorter, blind in one eye.” While Bro. Seymour was, in truth, blind in one eye, the newspaper derides the fact, adding: “With his stony optic fixed on some luckless unbeliever, the old man yells his defiance and challenges an answer.” The congregation is described as largely “colored” with only a “sprinkling of whites.” Furthermore, the article pejoratively satirizes an African American sister speaking in tongues and questions the credentials of a Jewish rabbi who had been converted through the meetings (“Weird Babel . . .”).
In June, the LA Times wrote about the “rolling”, “diving” and “jumping” at Azusa Street. Patrolmen responded to complaints from vicinity residents about the late-night meetings and watched from outside the mission. A clear picture of Azusa’s demographics emerges in the article. The congregation is estimated at about 700 people again “mostly colored men and women with a sprinkling of whites” and is made up of a “queer mixture of rich and poor . . . all afflicted alike-with some peculiar impulse to perform astonishing gymnastic feats and shout so they may be heard for blocks.” A wealthy mining tycoon wearing diamonds that “would have attracted attention in the lobby of the swellest [sic] hostelry in town” is described in detail with obvious surprise at his attendance and greater surprise at his confession of conversion a “few nights ago” (“Rolling and Diving Fanatics . . . “).
In July, the newspaper’s new epithet for Azusa worshippers was “Holy Kickers”: ” . . . all the time the kickers who are ‘coming through’ and are about to be sanctified beat a tattoo on the floor with their heels.” Police finally caused several of the sisters to desist, which made them “wildly hysterical.” Ultimately, law enforcement officials were completely unsure about how to handle the phenomenon at Azusa Street:
The ‘holy kickers’ present a problem which the local police department has not as yet been able to solve. Every night worn-out kickers and shouters are seen stretched out on the dirty floor of the meeting room apparently unconscious and the meeting goes on just the same, those who still have breath jumping, kicking and making the night hideous with their yells and squeals. (“‘Holy Kickers’ Baffle Police”)
In August, police responded to a different kind of problem at Azusa Street. A meeting was held to protest the trial of Charles H. Moyer, the president of the Western Federation of Miners (“Police Asked to Raid Reds”). The case in question surrounded the murder of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenburg. The man who carried out the murder implicated the mining union officials who were arrested and tried for the crime (“Who Planned the Steunenburg Murder?”). The trial caused a national outrage, and the United States government was keenly alerted to the threat of the growing labor movement. According to the LA Times, a fervent protest was held on the night of 5 August 1906, and Azusa saints threatened to join a flash mob rebellion intent on freeing Moyer if he was convicted. Neighbors reported the incident to police but no arrests were made (“Police Asked to Raid Reds”). This is an interesting interlude because it demonstrates both the social awareness of Azusa attendees and an apparent departure from the usual holiness line that opposed organized unions.
Later in the month, two evangelists from the mission were taken down to Central Station by police for holding street meetings. Mrs. J. Wiley and C. Woodside were conducting curbside evangelism. Apparently, their fervency had “so disturbed the neighborhood that the police were forced to take up the permit allowing them to preach” (“‘Holy Roller’ Has It Bad”). Sis. Wiley, undeterred, continued to preach and sing to the patrolmen on her way to the police station.
The following months brought further criticism from reporters. An article entitled “Women with Men Embrace” vilifies the Azusa Street saints and includes the subtitles: “Whites and Blacks Mix in a Religious Frenzy” and “Disgusting Scenes at Azusa Street Church.” Perhaps more than any other, this piece evidences the revolutionary commitment of the Pentecostals to create interracial unity: “Whites and negroes clasped hands and sang together.” The paper decries the racial integration of the meetings, concluding: “The surprise is that any respectable white person would attend such meetings as are being conducted on Azusa street [sic]” (“Women With Men . . .”). Police were dispatched to monitor the actions of the Black participants.
Ultimately, the news stories spawned by the occurrences at Azusa Street Mission provide modern readers with a sense of Pentecostal tenacity. These empowered believers were unmoved by criticism or police harassment. They willingly bore the reproaches and continued preaching, singing, and shouting their way through to revival. The meetings at Azusa Street continued for nearly seven years, leaving behind a beautiful legacy of religious fervor and social and racial unity in the Family of God. The accounts in the LA Times provide us with a colorful picture of the genuine spirituality of our ancestors and encourage us to go forward with this faith, undaunted by the mocking of an on-looking world.
“‘Holy Kickers’ Baffle Police: Hold High Carnival in Azusa Street Until Midnight.” Los Angeles Times. 12 July 1906.
“‘Holy Roller'” Has It Bad.” Los Angeles Times. 14 August 1906.
“Police Asked to Raid Reds: Azusa Street Residents are Annoyed by Anarchists.” Los Angeles Times. 6 August 1906.
“Rolling and Diving Fanatics ‘Confess’.” Los Angeles Times. 23 June 1906.
“Weird Babel of Tongues: New Sect of Fanatics is Breaking Loose.” Los Angeles Times. 18 April 1906.
“Who Planned the Steunenburg Murder?” New York Times. 29 April 1906.
“Women with Men Embrace: Whites and Blacks Mix in a Religious Frenzy.” Los Angeles Times. 3 September 1906.