Azusa Street - Fresh Wind at the Turn of the 20th Century - Part I
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
Not much intrigues me more than the study of our nation's great and authentic moves of God, and since this blog series does focus on revival, I do want to offer a distinction concerning revival and evangelism first. These are often confused but the disparity between the two was captured best by the theologian J.B. Phillips about a half century ago.
"Revival is the work of the Spirit of God in the Church, evangelism is the work of the church in the world." J.B Phillips
The reason they're confused and possibly interchanged, I believe, is that so few of us today in the church (even charismatics) have tasted true revival. Because of this, we're not sure what it looks like. Another metric for authentic revival that I like very much is Leonard Ravenhill's assessment: he says that it's not revival unless it changes the "moral atmosphere" of the district, community, or region. In other words, we may enjoy a nice prayer meeting or engage in effective evangelism, but unless the community transforms in the way it thinks, acts, and behaves, it's something short of "revival." Transformation happened indeed for the campmeetings of the 1800's in the American midwest, and the Rochester, NY crusades under Finney. Crime rates dropped, unparalleled unity was experienced, and people were visibly and markedly born again. True revival has an effect on society and future generations of people.
For more about other great revivals, moves of God, and uncommon people that ushered these moments in history, access our blog series below.
A Short History
Azusa Street is named, and this may seem obvious, for the street in which a very powerful, accelerated, and concentrated move of God overtook its people. It began with prayer meetings involving just a few people in early 1906 and developed into a global pentecostal movement by 1909. Azusa Street Mission, or its official name: The Apostolic Faith Mission, is located in the heart of Los Angeles, CA. The Azusa Street Revival was headed by its Pastor, William J. Seymour, an African American son of former slaves from the bayou region of southern Louisiana. This relatively short but contagious cleansing flame gave birth to countless missionary movements abroad, new denominations, like the Assemblies of God, and a general re-dedication nation-wide to signs, wonders, miracles, and the power of the Holy Spirit. There were critics and naysayers, of course. There were folks who didn't understand or want to understand, there were mainline, traditional Christians who were offended by the droves of people flocking to the mission, and there were also plenty who felt they had just reason to disagree biblically with the often times strange manifestations of the Spirit. All were and are common for such moves of God historically, but the most important group of people at the time were the people who came and were touched. It was an astoundingly eclectic and diverse bunch, but regardless of race or background or wealth, the Holy Spirit moved and purged and spoke, according to faith and hunger, not ethnicity or status. This is perhaps the greatest characteristic of this movement; that is in a time of racial and economic inequity, a unity unseen perhaps ever, other than the Acts church, was present and normal at Azusa Street Mission.
Two Key Ingredients
In my research of revival, from Acts chapter 2 all the way up to the present day, there are two or three variables that are always, without fail or lapse, very much a part of how and why revival came to certain people and specific areas. I wasn't surprised as I began my reading about Azusa Street, to find these variables immediately and clearly referenced in the documents, journals, articles, and so forth chronicling this great rejuvenation. The two essentials that I found were A. Prayer, and B. Unity. This move of God began with prayer meetings. They simply met often and they prayed a lot, and they did this for a season before revival landed at the mission. Unity was also paramount, as I briefly explained above. An uncanny unity was evident at the mission, and it was proven by the people of all types of backgrounds gathering together to pray and prophesy. Contextually, it was abnormal in the early 1900's for blacks, whites, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans to be in the same place with the same freedoms, all at once. But those barriers were gone at the Azusa Street Revival and equally as vital, the people were generally of one accord and one mind.
A key that was not as emphasized with this revival, at least in my findings, was the focus on preaching repentance. In past revivals, I've found, this was of most importance and was a prelude to several revivals. What did take center stage at Azusa Street, though, was an emphasis on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. I find this necessary but also interesting, considering the timing. 1906 California, of all the revivals we've covered so far, was probably the most removed from the power of the Holy Spirit. What I mean is the teaching had become very traditional and the gifts of the Spirit had been neglected, generally speaking, so it makes perfect sense to me that this was a focus. In fact, one of Seymour's main missional points at the outset of this movement was the idea that one could not become an effective witness for Christ unless they were first baptized in the Holy Ghost (Acts 1:8). The fact that this idea had so much backlash from the church was evidence of how far the Holy Spirit, and being baptized in Him, was removed from church teaching and preaching. Does that sound a little bit similar to the state of the Holy Spirit in the church in America today?
Another Common Denominator - The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
In April of the very same year that Azusa Street was launching and gaining steam, the most destructive earthquake in modern U.S. History struck just up the coast of California. The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 killed 3,000 people and accounted for about 80% of the city of San Francisco being burned and/or destroyed. This phenomenon is similar to the New England Earthquake of 1727, which preceded the 1st Great Awakening. Not nearly as much damage was done in New England some 175 years earlier, although as a result of the quake, which left large fissures in the ground, people flocked to churches because they believed it was a sign from God. Sign or not (I don't think these weather events were coincidence), these events did bring a sense of awe or fear of God, which prepared the ground for seed, germination, and a harvest.
One other Observation - The Role of Women
Another of Pastor Seymour's tenets for revival was from Joel chapter 2, which is quoted also in Acts chapter 2.
“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke." Joel 2: 28-30
This passage brings to light a couple of things. The first is more applicable to our previous paragraph: in these "last days" God will show us wonders in the heaven and the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. I would pose two questions from this. #1. Are we in the end times that Joel prophesied about? #2 Would earthquakes and consequently burning buildings, like that of the Frisco earthquake, possibly fall under what Joel categorizes in this scripture? To me, both answers are "yes," which is why I think these natural events are closely linked to these supernatural occurrences.
The second thing that this passage brings to light is its inclusion of women, in terms of having the same access as men to the Spirit being poured out. Seymour saw this verse and interpreted it appropriately, even though American parochial society was lagging behind with regard to women in the church. Interestingly, as it became more common and acceptable for women to assume ministry roles, prophesy, and teach at this time (women became eligible to vote in America in 1920) Seymour's Pentecostal movement and the rest of the church arrived at this place in two very different ways. The mainline, traditional, "old lights," if you will, felt pressure from secular feminists and changed their tune, while Pentecostals simply started believing and practicing it, while taking verses like that of Joel 2:29 at face value. The result was magnificent: Unity, as stated earlier in this blog, transcended race, wealth, status, AND gender.
In Part II of "Azusa Street - Fresh wind at the turn of the 20th century," we'll see what A.W. Tozer has to say about unity, Azusa's most prized commodity.
- JF D'Orsie - Communications Director