In The Azusa Street Mission and Revival, Cecil M. Robeck, Jr. brings to bear expertise from decades of focused study in church history to reveal the captivating story of the Apostolic Faith Mission in Los Angeles, which became known as the Azusa Street Mission.
Sometimes the largest blaze begins with the tiniest spark.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, William J. Seymour, the son of Louisiana slaves, began meeting with a tiny congregation in a two-story wooden building in downtown Los Angeles. What began as a spontaneous gathering of believers quickly grew into a passionate revival and renewal of the work of the Holy Spirit. The movement spread at breathtaking speed. With little more than a printing press, a trolley stop, and a powerful message, the spiritual fire emanating from the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street rapidly crossed strict cultural and national borders—into Mexico, Canada, Britain, Scandinavia, Africa, India, and China. Led by William J. Seymour, the revival became the catalyst for the modern Pentecostal movement.
Today, the more than 500 million Christians who identify as Pentecostal or Charismatic can trace the roots of their faith to this humble beginning at Azusa Street. The Azusa Street Mission and Revival tells the full story of how this uniquely diverse and inclusive group grew into a powerful movement that forever changed the landscape of Christianity.
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
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Read an Excerpt
WILLIAM J. SEYMOUR
AND THE BEGINNINGS OF PENTECOSTALISM
God raised up Ezekiel to prophesy to the dry bones and they lived. He was a blessed Holy Ghost man, though he did not have the baptism with the Holy Ghost. ...
He preached as he was commanded and the bones all came together, bless His holy name, and a great army was raised up. So we have this same privilege in these last days when God is pouring out His Spirit upon all flesh and our sons and daughters are prophesying in His mighty name.
William J. Seymour
The story of the Azusa Street Mission must begin with the story of its pastor, William Joseph Seymour. Just as our own experiences affect the way we come to think and act later on, so too, the circumstances under which William J. Seymour grew up played a role in forming him into the person he became. Each of us has a different starting point even when we are reared in the same family. But to grow up in the American South, as an African American, the child of former slaves, during the period of Reconstruction immediately following the Civil War (1861-1865), is an experience that the majority of the world has never had. As a result, I want to review some of the facts of life from that period that undoubtedly affected the way Pastor Seymour later thought and acted.
Centerville and Verdunville, Louisiana
William Seymour was born to Simon and Phillis Seymour on Monday, May 2, 1870, in Centerville, Louisiana. Centerville lies in the heart of bayou country, in St. Mary Parish, a dozen miles from the southern coast of Louisiana. In 1682 the explorer, Robert Cavalier de La Salle, claimed for France the entire Mississippi Valley including what would later become Louisiana. The region quickly became the realm of explorers, trappers, traders, and settlers. While most immigrants came directly from France, a sizable group of French settlers who had been driven by the British from the Maritime Province of Acadia off the coast of eastern Canada joined them after 1755. They would become known as Cajuns and they would settle in and around St. Mary Parish.
Most immigrants entered the region through the port of New Orleans. They fanned out across the region, moving as far west as Lake Charles and as far north as Alexandria. With them, they brought their languages and cultures as well as their hopes and dreams. And they brought their Roman Catholic faith. To help them tame this new land, many of them also brought slaves. The fact that control of this region moved back and forth between the Spanish and the French meant that ultimately a rich mix of French, Cajun, Spanish, Portuguese, and Afro-Caribbean cultures such as Creoles dominated in the region. This also resulted in a population of slaves who came in varying shades of color.
Slaves were typically graded according to color. Those of a lighter hue — often the offspring of forced interracial unions between female slaves and their white owners — generally drew higher prices. Slaves with light skin were often given the more highly prized designation of "mulatto" and frequently, though not always, they were assigned work in and around the homes of their owners. The rest, the darker skinned slaves who were designated as "blacks," typically bore the brunt of the field labor in the region's stiflingly hot and humid corn and sugar cane fields. Many of them made bricks and brick furnaces, and then built and worked in small plantation refineries where the sugar cane was crushed, then boiled down to produce molasses and sugar under sweltering summer conditions.
William Seymour's father, Simon, was born about 1837. He was known as Simon Simon until sometime between 1867 and 1870 when he changed his name to Simon Seymour. William Seymour's mother, Phillis Salaba, was born November 23, 1844. Both of William Seymour's parents were born into slavery Their parents had been slaves before them. Simon would later be described in census reports as a "mulatto." In spite of this designation denoting a lighter skin color, he was assigned to work as a brickmaker and was undoubtedly employed in sugar production. Phillis, described as "black" in these same reports, worked the fields alongside her parents and her sisters and brother.
We do not yet know who owned William Seymour's father, but we do know who owned his mother. It was Mr. Adelard Carlin, among the wealthiest plantation owners in St. Mary Parish. It is difficult for most people who live today to imagine what slavery was like. Simon Simon and Phillis Salaba were not merely farm workers who worked the fields when the corn ripened or it came time to harvest the sugar cane. They were not treated with such respect. They were simply viewed as property.
It might help to put things into perspective if we look at a report that Mr. Carlin filed with the U.S. government in i860, the year before the Civil War broke out. That year, Adelard Carlin reported that he owned 2,110 acres of land. A quarter of the land, some 560 acres, was in production, with two crops — corn and sugar cane. The rest was pasture land or simply undeveloped real estate. In addition, Mr. Carlin claimed that he owned 112 slaves, 80 horses, 40 mules, 30 milk cows, i6 oxen, i50 sheep, i50 pigs, and i50 "other" cattle. The placement of the slaves in a list that also reports the number of animals by species may seem crass by today's standards, but in reality, this is the way slaves were viewed at the time. They were nameless pieces of property that could be bought and sold without any consideration of their desires. Many reports merely gave them a number instead of a name.
In this report, William Seymour's mother, Phillis Salaba, her parents, Michel and Lucy Salaba, and all of her siblings were numbered among those 112 slaves. They provided the back breaking labor that produced Mr. Carlin's crops and made him rich. They cared for the animals that contributed to the farming, processing, and marketing of Mr. Carlin's products. They sowed, tended, and harvested the fields that yielded five thousand bushels of corn and 105 tons of cane sugar that year. And they refined 13,200 gallons of molasses for which Mr. Carlin was paid. They worked hard, had few rights, and carried many responsibilities, while Mr. Carlin grew wealthy from their sweat.
On two occasions during the Civil War, there were skirmishes between Union and Confederate forces in and around Centerville, Louisiana. On the whole, however, the region was relatively stable. Union forces captured New Orleans early in the war and carefully occupied and patrolled the coastal sugar parishes of southern Louisiana to ensure stability in the region. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued his famous "Emancipation Proclamation." With a couple of notable exceptions, Lincoln declared that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves would be free. The exception clauses included the sugar parishes of southern Louisiana, and St. Mary Parish where Seymour's parents were slaves, was one of them. While slaves throughout the South would be freed with Lincoln's "Proclamation," Simon Simon and Phillis Salaba would remain slaves.
The primary reason for Lincoln's exception was a pragmatic one. While slavery was an abominable institution and Lincoln was committed to ending it, as long as the people of this area continued as slaves, they had housing, clothing, food, "full employment," and their masters were forced to keep them healthy if they wanted their slaves to work. If the slaves in that strategic area were freed while the military was fighting a war, the Union army would immediately be confronted with caring for a huge, unemployed, homeless population and it would be unable to complete its military duties. Thus, the status of these slaves would change only with the end of the war and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, December 18, 1865.
There was, however, another exception clause. Immediate freedom would be granted to those slaves who would willingly join the Union army and take up arms against the South. Simon was among some fifteen thousand African American volunteers who made the decision to join the Union army On October 10, 1863, he became an infantryman in the famous Corps d'Afrique, later called the U.S. Colored Infantry He served for three years in Louisiana and in Florida and was honorably discharged September 7, 1866.
Religious life in southern Louisiana was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. The French who had settled in the region in the 18th century were indisputably Catholic. In 1724, the mayor of New Orleans, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Bienville had issued Le code noir, "The Black Code." It required all slave owning settlers to instruct and baptize their slaves in the Roman Catholic faith shortly after their arrival in the region, or forfeit their slaves. While this law was never evenly enforced, most slave owners did what the law required. As a result, Louisiana still boasts the largest number of African American Catholics in the nation. The Seymours were among them.
At one level, when "The Black Code" became law in 1724, it could be understood as a measure intended to guarantee a single, consistent faith among the people of the region. It was viewed as an evangelistic tool. At another level, it was a means of mass control. It was intended to destabilize the slaves so that they would do the bidding of their masters. Slaves had been treated this way for centuries. Think for a moment of Daniel and his friends (Dan. 1:3–10). King Nebuchadnezzar took them from their native land and made them slaves. He did six things that most subsequent slaveholders have also found to be useful control mechanisms.
He separated them from their families.
He changed their names.
He forced them to learn a new language.
He attempted to change their cultural patterns.
He attempted to change their diet in keeping with their new culture. And ultimately,
He ordered them to change their religion by requiring that they bow down to an idol (Dan. 3:1–30).
The African slaves that came to Louisiana were subjected to all of these same forces. For most people in the United States, this experience is foreign. For African Americans, it holds profound implications. Most African Americans do not know from which African country they came. Many have a family tree that extends back no more than three or possibly four generations. As a result, these changes have contributed significantly to questions of identity and self-esteem among many African Americans.
One of the problems with forced conversions such as the French attempted to undertake is that they do not always produce the desired results. Most slaves embraced the faith of their masters under duress. They did not want to become Christians, and many of them found ways to maintain their traditional religions. They embraced the Christian faith by giving the correct answers and submitting to the forms or rites presented to them by the Catholic church. They participated in the liturgical life of the church, but they quickly filled that Christian form and ritual with double meanings. In a sense, they treated Christian forms and rituals in much the way they told the tales of Uncle Remus, with Brer Bear, Brer Fox, and Brer Rabbit. They told these colorful and entertaining tales even to their owners and the children of their owners. What the owners did not know was that Brer Rabbit represented the clever slave, while Brer Bear and Brer Fox represented what the slaves thought of their masters. They were dumb, bumbling, and incompetent. Thus, even in a story, they entertained the whites at one level and ridiculed them at another. At the same time, they entertained and empowered the blacks through their hidden ridicule of whites.
Many of the slaves that came to southern Louisiana in the late 18th and early 19th centuries came by way of various Caribbean islands. Sometimes they wove new religions using Catholic forms. Their syncretistic efforts gave rise to some kinds of "popular Catholicism," that is, expressions sometimes viewed by outsiders as "Catholic," although they may not be approved expressions, and in some cases they may even have been condemned by the church. One of the most dominant in Louisiana was one or another form of Voodoo. Voodoo took Catholic forms and rituals and wedded them to the religious realities that the slaves had brought with them from Africa. While Catholics might pray to or venerate specific saints, for instance, those involved in Voodoo gave their African gods new names, names that corresponded with those of the saints. Thus, when it appeared that they were venerating Christian saints, they were actually worshipping their African gods, all under the guise of being good Catholics.
Most slaves in southern Louisiana did not embrace classic Voodoo as such, but they did bring many of their beliefs, superstitions, and fears with them and they passed them on to the next generation of slaves. It was part of their attempt to remain African, to be faithful to the beliefs and practices that they remembered from their African past. What had developed by Seymour's time was a popular variation known as Hoodoo. Many of the slaves participated in a slave culture in which symbols, spells, incantations, sympathetic magic, and root work were a regular part of life. In spite of their differences, they held many things in common with the Christian worldview. They believed in a Divine spirit, in the supernatural including the empowerment of individuals, signs and wonders, miracles and healings, invisible spirits, trances and spirit possession, visions and dreams as a means of Divine communication, as well as other phenomena described in the Bible. They sang, clapped, trembled, shouted, danced, played drums, and developed a "call and response" preaching style. William J. Seymour was undoubtedly well aware of such things even as a child, for they formed an important part of African American slave culture and in many places in southern Louisiana they continue to exist into the present.
It was within this context that William Seymour's parents came of age. When Simon Simon and Phillis Salaba married July 27, 1867, neither of them was able to read or write. They signed their wedding license by placing an "X" on the license and having it witnessed. They soon had a daughter named Rosalie, and in 1870 Phillis gave birth to William. Over the next fifteen years, they would be joined by Simon, Amos, Julia, Jacob, Isaac, and finally in October 1885, by Emma. In each case, the children were taken to the Catholic Church in nearby Franklin, Louisiana, where they were baptized. William Seymour was baptized when he was four months old, on September 4, 1870. He would be reared a Roman Catholic. Seymour's formative years in the context where the supernatural was taken for granted, where spirits, both "good" and "evil" were commonly discussed, and where dreams and visions were understood to contain messages that sometimes foretold the future should be remembered as he moves through his spiritual pilgrimage.
During William Seymour's childhood, the road that ran through Centerville and connected it to Franklin was unpaved. The sidewalks that traversed the two-block length of Centerville were constructed of wood. Transportation was either by foot, on horseback, or by horse and buggy. Centerville is still a small, sleepy community, surrounded by verdant fields of corn, sugar cane, and open pastures where cattle are raised. While the majority of the homes there are small, wood-frame structures, a few old plantation mansions still stand guard along the nearby banks of Bayou Teche, which meanders slowly eastward toward nearby Morgan City before emptying into the Gulf. While the Catholic Church was in the county seat in Franklin, about six miles west of Centerville, the Presbyterians established a congregation in Centerville in i860.
In 1883, when William Seymour was thirteen, his parents purchased a little over four acres of land in nearby Verdunville, about a mile and a half east of Centerville. The following year the family moved there. Adjacent to the Seymour home, the Baptists had started a church. It is very likely that because the Baptists were so close, the Seymours attended it from time to time while they maintained their membership in the Catholic Church in Franklin.
Before and during the Civil War, most slave owners prohibited their slaves from learning to read or write. They feared that such communication tools would enable the slaves to rebel against them. Thus, because Simon Seymour could neither read nor write, he had few options for employment after the war. He continued to make bricks for a living, but he also planted crops on the small family plot. Like most parents, however, Simon and Phillis Seymour wanted things to be better for their children. During the period of Reconstruction, when William Seymour was a child, things slowly began to change. The Methodists and Baptists sent evangelists and teachers throughout the South to establish schools for the children of former slaves. The Freedmen's Bureau, a grossly over-burdened and under-funded Federal agency bore primary responsibility for their ongoing welfare. The census for 1880, when William Seymour was ten years of age, reveals that William and his younger brother, Simon, were both enrolled in school where they were receiving basic literacy skills. When they were not in school, they worked as farm laborers.
Excerpted from "The Azusa St Mission & Revival"
Copyright © 2006 Cecil M. Robeck, Jr..
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Significance of "Azusa Street", 1,
1. William J. Seymour and the Beginnings of Pentecostalism, 17,
2. Revival Comes to Los Angeles, 53,
3. Leading the Azusa Street Revival, 87,
4. Worship at the Azusa Street Mission, 129,
5. Evangelizing a Continent: Spreading the Revival, 187,
6. Evangelizing the World: Azusa Street's Missionary Program, 235,
7. The Fire Begins to Cool, 281,
Afterword: Summing Up Three Powerful Years, 313,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A little methodical in its approach, but for an individual that grew up in the faith it provides a substantial amount of history for the roots of the Pentecostal denomination.