Earthquake Evangelism: the San Francisco Quake & the Azusa Revival


At 5:12 AM on the morning of April 18, 1906, San Francisco, California was struck by a deadly and powerful earthquake. Most seismologists believe the quake exceeded 8.0 on the Richter Scale. Though it only lasted between 45 and 60 seconds, the earthquake and subsequent conflagration left over 3,000 people dead, destroyed over 28,000 buildings, and rendered over a quarter of a million people homeless (“San Francisco Earthquake”). The devastating disaster caused panic throughout southern California, and the saints of the newly-formed Azusa Street Mission, who viewed the convulsions as a sure sign of God’s judgment and might, used the opportunity to escalate evangelism and call men to repentance.

Frank Bartleman, who chronicled the early Pentecostal revival in Los Angeles, was spiritually spurred by the event and went to great lengths to spread the Gospel in the weeks following the earthquake. Before the quake, Bartleman had written a tract entitled “The Last Call.” He and other Christian workers in the city distributed over 10,000 of the pamphlets on April 22. According to Bro. Bartleman, many preachers in California were “working overtime to prove that God had nothing to do with earthquakes and thus allay the fears of the people.” Bartleman, along with other Pentecostals, aptly attributed the destruction to God’s hand and felt compelled to warn others of their need to speedily repent before incurring the further wrath of the Almighty.

Bartleman clearly saw the disassociation of God with the quake as an infernal campaign: “The devil put on a big propaganda on this line . . . He [God] showed me all hell was being moved to drown out His voice in the earthquake, if possible” (Bartleman 50). In 1907, John Casper Branner, a renowned geologist published a chapter in an anthology about the earthquake, which denies the divine origin of tectonic activity:

But whatever theory one adopts regarding the remote causes of earthquakes, the conclusion is inevitable that they are produced by natural causes, one of which is the relief of strains within the earth’s crust along the lines of fracture. The knowledge that they are due to natural causes ought to contribute to a philosophical view of them and rid them to some extent of the terror they inspire in the minds of those who attribute them to the wrath of God and other supernatural causes. (76-77)

In Bartleman’s view, scholars, scientists, clerics, and schoolteachers were all involved in the diabolical conspiracy to undermine God’s voice in the earthquake.

On 28 April 1906, God began to give Bro. Bartleman a firm message about the earthquake, and he penned a tract on the subject. He finished writing at 12:30 AM and interceded in prayer for California until 4 AM, rising at 7 to take the tract to the printer. The pamphlet was primarily a conglomeration of Old and New Testament Bible verses, systematically strung together to demonstrate the sure judgments of the Lord against evildoers with repeated references to the shaking, turning, quaking, trembling, and melting of the earth. He concludes the tract with a quote from John Wesley, the primogeniture of the Holiness Movement, from which the Pentecostals in Los Angeles had emerged: “Of all the judgments which the righteous God inflicts on sinners here, the most dreadful and destructive is an earthquake” (Bartleman 52-53).
Bro. Bartleman and a network of Pentecostal and Holiness workers throughout southern California distributed 75,000 of the tracts throughout Los Angeles and the surrounding cities. Frank Bartleman personally carried the publication to “missions, churches, saloons, business houses, and in fact everywhere, both in Los Angeles and Pasadena.” He documents resistance to the message by both people on the streets and “nearly all the preachers.” He was even followed by a policeman, but he claimed: “The Spirit warned me and I saw him coming. I was enabled to dodge him” (Bartleman 51).

The atmosphere in Los Angeles was frenetic. Bro. Bartleman reported that business in the city was at a standstill and that “the people were paralyzed with fear” (Bartleman 52). “Men were at the breaking point,” writes Bartleman, “They would fly to pieces even on the street, almost without provocation” (53). Despite the palpable terror, Bartleman says: “I found the earthquake had opened many hearts” (50).

In October 1906, William Seymour, pastor of the Azusa Street Mission, published an article entitled “Earthquakes” in The Apostolic Faith, the official organ of the mission. Bro. Seymour claimed prophetic warning of the San Francisco quake in 1905 and believed it to be a harbinger of future destruction.

The Lord says that earthquakes will come as they never have before and more often, because of the wickedness of the people. He wants His people to get ready. The only way He can get you ready is to bring disaster. If you do not repent, a great many of you will be lost. (2)
Bro. Bartleman certainly saw the cataclysm as a catalyst for the Azusa revival: “The San Francisco earthquake was surely the voice of God to the people on the Pacific Coast. It was used mightily in conviction, for the gracious after revival” (Bartleman 53).

There is no way to quantify the impact of the great San Francisco earthquake upon the Apostolic Faith revival that swept Los Angeles and the surrounding cities in 1906. However, considering Frank Bartleman’s passionate account of his own personal burden after the earthquake and the swift response of Christian workers throughout southern California, we can well imagine the evangelistic emergency sensed by the Azusa saints. Undoubtedly, the reverberating effects of the seismic rupture created a social and spiritual juncture that facilitated the spread of the Gospel message and attracted seeking souls to the humble mission at 312 Azusa Street, the true epicenter of Pentecostal revival in California.

Sources:

Branner, John Casper. “Geology & the Earthquake.” The California Earthquake of 1906. David Starr, Jordan, Ed. San Francisco: A.M. Robertson, 1907. Pgs. 64-7.

Seymour, William Joseph. “Earthquakes.” The Apostolic Faith 1 (2), October 1906, pg. 2.

“San Francisco Earthquake.” The Great American History Fact-Finder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Credo Reference. 09 November 2008 <http://www.credoreference.com/entry/6601476/.&gt;.

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