In April 1906, William Joseph Seymour and a small band of newly-baptized Pentecostals moved cottage services from a small bungalow on Bonnie Brae Street to the Azusa Street Mission at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California. This humble building was to become the legendary epicenter of the Apostolic Faith movement that emanated in concentric waves of revival from its ramshackle frame structure to the farthest reaches of the world. The story of the building that housed the mighty move of God in the twentieth century is a fascinating chapter in Pentecostal history and reveals God’s penchant for exalting the humble and glorifying the lowly. Azusa Street is a modern euphemism for the boundless faith of our Pentecostal predecessors, who cared nothing for form or fashion but sought the face of God for the mighty revival that we still enjoy today.
Azusa Street was never much more than a rutted alleyway and has never been longer than about one city block. The street was formerly known as Old Second Street. In 1888, the Stevens African American Episcopal Church was constructed on the site. A small house was moved to the back of the lot and served as a parsonage. The Los Angeles City Directory (1898) reveals that the neighborhood included a mix of African Americans, Jews, and immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia, and Japan. Incipient businesses began to fill in the vacant lots near the church. A lumberyard is clearly marked next door to the A.M.E. church (Robeck “Uncovering . . . “ 12).
A single extant photograph of the Stevens African American Episcopal congregation reveals a large staircase in front of the church that ascended to the sanctuary, located on the 2nd floor of the structure. Three gothic windows are visible across the front of the frame church. In 1903, the congregation outgrew their facility and relocated to 8th and Towne and was renamed First African Methodist Episcopal Church (Robeck, “Uncovering . . . “ 14). Today, the First A.M.E. congregation is still the oldest and largest A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles.
After the church vacated the property, an arsonist set fire to the building, destroying the roof and damaging its structure. In order to sell the real estate, First A.M.E. elected to remodel the building as tenement housing and partitioned the interior 2nd floor into apartments with a central corridor. The first floor became a stable and housed horses and lumber. This was the condition of the building when William J. Seymour negotiated a lease with purchase option from First A.M.E. (Robeck, “Uncovering . . . “ 15).
The Pentecostal mission at Azusa Street was serviceable but far from sumptuous. Arthur Osterberg organized a work crew that consisted of the interracial converts from Bonnie Brae and some Mexican workers, who worked with Bro. Osterberg at the McNeill Construction Company during the week. Much of the debris was hauled away in a wagon, and straw and sawdust were scattered on the mission floor. The walls, which were eventually painted, were exposed down to the studs in the earliest days. The saints decided to worship on the first floor, which had a low ceiling of only 8 or 9 feet. The assembly room was lit by a single row of incandescent lights. Redwood planks supported by nail kegs made up benches, which were shortly supplemented by an assortment of mismatched chairs, which were arranged in a square around the makeshift pulpit. Mr. McNeill, Osterberg’s employer, donated lumber for a proper altar in the mission despite the fact that he was himself Catholic (Robeck 72-73).
Other interesting fixtures in the building included a mailbox inside the entrance for offerings. Following the precedent of his mentor Charles Parham, Bro. Seymour did not receive offerings in the mission. As miracles began to take place, walls were covered with the leavings of the healed and delivered, including crutches, braces, and smoking pipes. This tradition also had precedent amongst others in the earlier holiness movement.
There was also some signage in the mission. Interestingly, the words of God’s judgment to Belshazzar “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharisin” were displayed in the mission, painted in green (Robeck 74). A sign hung in the upstairs tarrying room where many prayed for Spirit baptism that read: “No talking above a whisper” (Bartleman 62). The most controversial sign at Azusa proved to be the crudely painted name of the mission: “Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission.” Many early Pentecostals were fiercely anti-denominational, and some feared that this nomenclature indicated sectarianism. Bro. Bartleman, who chronicled the early revival in Los Angeles, lamented:
The truth be told, “Azusa” began to fail the Lord also, early in her history. God showed me one day that they were going to organize, though not a word had been said in my hearing about it . . . Sure enough, the next day after I dropped this warning in the meeting, I found a sign outside “Azusa” reading “Apostolic Faith Mission.” The Lord said, “That is what I told you.” They had done it. Surely a “party spirit” cannot be “Pentecostal.” (Bartleman 78-79)
All said, the Azusa Street Mission was never to grow into an ecclesiastical showplace. The people were hungry for God and eschewed the trappings of denominational decorum—no stained glass, organs, or choir robes for these humble people! Money was not used to embellish the edifice but to build the Kingdom of God—to send forth missionaries and to distribute the Apostolic Faith, a free publication that was instrumental in disseminating the Pentecostal message around the world.
Despite its initial status as the focus of Pentecostal revivalism, Azusa Street was not destined to remain at the center of the spreading movement. The very evangelistic nature of Pentecostalism meant that revival was carried place to place, and the enthusiasm of Azusa was replicated over and over again around the globe. After 1915, the mission reverted to the home of a small, mainly black congregation led by William J. Seymour. After Seymour’s death in 1922, he was succeeded by his wife, Jennie Evans Moore Seymour, who continued to lead the Apostolic Faith Mission. In 1931, the old mission, which had fallen into greater disrepair, was declared unfit for use as a church by the Building Department of the City of Los Angeles. The small congregation vacated the structure. The property was offered for sale to the Assemblies of God for preservation, but church leaders reportedly said: “We are not interested in relics” (Synan xxxiii). Sadly, only a commemorative plaque marks the spot of the Azusa Street Mission in modern Los Angeles. It is perhaps fitting that God chose this ephemeral edifice as a tinderbox for Pentecostal fire. Christ seems to have a penchant for humble abodes. He, who was born in a stable, returned to a converted stable in Los Angeles, favoring a rundown construction over an opulent cathedral.
Bartleman, Frank. Azusa Street, an Eyewitness Account: the Roots of Modern-day Pentecost. Alachua, FL: Bridge-Logos, 1980.
Robeck, Cecil M. “Uncovering the Forgotten Story of the Azusa Street Mission.” Heritage (11 Dec 2005), 12-17.
Robeck, Cecil. Azusa Street Mission and Revival: the Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc. 2006.
Synan, Vinson. Frank Bartleman and Azusa Street. Azusa Street, an Eyewitness Account: the Roots of Modern-day Pentecost. By Frank Bartleman. Alachua, FL: Bridge-Logos, 1980.