William J. Seymour defies the stereotype of being a “one-eyed, poorly-educated black man” that was put upon him by some. True, Seymour was blind in one eye due to a small pox infection and didn’t have what one would call today formal theological training. But, despite the barriers segregation erected, Seymour took advantage of what education was available to him and was a capable spokesman for the revival.
Invited early in 1906 to pastor a small holiness congregation in Los Angeles, Seymour came preaching a new Pentecostal message: Speaking in tongues was the “Bible evidence” of being baptized in the Spirit, just as it was in the beginning in the book of Acts. This, Seymour argued, is a recovery of New Testament Christianity. As a result, a revival began that lasted nearly three years, and would ebb and flow for another three.
Though undoubtedly a humble and gentle man, he proved himself up to the leadership task in facing down a number of takeover attempts of the mission by other leaders, including Charles F. Parham, who had first introduced the Pentecostal message to Seymour.
Several remarkable years of revival at Azusa Street sparked outbreaks of Holy Spirit fire which have transformed the landscape of global Christianity in just 100 years. But the Azusa Street revival was much more than a quest for spiritual experiences. Seymour preached a vision of racial equality where “the color line is washed away in the blood.” In the early days of the renewal, whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians all mingled freely in the mission’s meetings, genuinely countercultural for the times. Sadly, this passion for love and unity among the races was eventually overwhelmed by the entrenched racism of American culture in the early 20th century. Seymour would be deeply hurt by this, yet he continued to preach the message of racial unity for years.
Seymour was also a theologian of sorts. As he observed the racial bigotry of those who claimed to have been baptized in the Holy Spirit, with tongues-speech as proof, he gradually adjusted his view on “Bible evidence,” putting the emphasis on the fruit of the Spirit as the most important evidence that one was Spirit-filled. He would still believe speaking with tongues was a genuine and significant gift from God, one that could be a sign of the Spirit’s empowering but not the sign. Church historian Mel Robeck has suggested that Seymour is a forerunner to the way charismatics formulize Spirit baptism in contrast to classical Pentecostals and their notions of tongues as “initial evidence” of Spirit baptism. Ironically, though the acknowledged father to their movements, Seymour’s moderated position on the evidential value of tongues wouldn’t allow him to hold ministerial credentials in many Pentecostal denominations.
Whatever the case, Seymour believed that the baptism of the Holy Spirit should have an ethical impact on the lives of those who received it. In his mind, those who persisted in racism or other sins were not necessarily Spirit-filled just because they spoke with tongues.
In addition to its ethical dimensions, Seymour, and those who had influenced him, saw Spirit baptism as coming with a purpose, a “commission.” It was an experience that empowered the believer to be a more effective witness for the gospel, and speaking in tongues was more than a “badge” verifying the reception of the Spirit.
For Seymour, Spirit baptism was fundamentally an anointing from God to evangelize a world in need of Christ.Looking back after a century, a spiritual passion is evident at the Azusa revival, making it what historian Vinson Synan calls an “American Jerusalem,” a beginning place and sending center for the expansion of Christianity.
This passion helped form the headwaters of the mighty river of renewal we see flowing around the world today. And this is the lasting legacy of William Seymour and the Azusa Street revival. May it spur the 21st century church—so often inwardly focused on marketing religious goods and services to Christian consumers-—to a fresh outward focus in missional engagement to people in need of Christ. This would be the truest continuation of our “Pentecostal” heritage.