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City of angels, and Pentecostals too

IN religion, as in so many other domains, Los Angeles is to California what California is to America and America to Europe: a version of itself in which separate ingredients are stirred together into a scandalous stew. Established religions were the rule in the 13 Colonies, as they had been in Europe, and religious establishment at the state level remained legal in the United States until after the Civil War. The Constitution, however, created a historic novelty: a nation without a religious test for public office and without a nationally established religion.

In the first stage, this encouraged a promiscuous mingling among the forms of Christianity already well established on the American scene. In the second stage, as the frontier crossed the Appalachians, an American demotic style, fusing many disparate elements, emerged. Methodism thrived as never before; Baptist churches came into their own. In the third stage, a distinctively American religious entrepreneurialism took hold, and the first entirely made-in-USA churches began to appear: Mormonism (1830s), Adventism (1840s), Christian Science (1860s), Jehovah's Witnesses (1870s) and others.

The latest, though surely not the last, surge of American religious entrepreneurialism arose in Los Angeles exactly a century ago. World Pentecostalism, which is now growing explosively throughout Asia, Africa and South America, began in this city with the charismatic oratory of a black preacher, William J. Seymour, during the Azusa Street Revival of 1906. "Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation," the prim and proper Los Angeles Times sniffed, "and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication." The birthplace of this world religious phenomenon was 312 E. Azusa St., just east of Little Tokyo.

Los Angeles would go on, of course, to be home to a variety of spiritual movements and revivals, from the Foursquare Gospel of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson to Billy Graham's historic 1949 Los Angeles Crusade. Christian fundamentalism would take its name from a series of texts called "The Fundamentals," first published in 1909 and reprinted by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles in 1917.

In religion, as in so much else, Southern California became a landscape where the extremes of American life came together, before breaking back over the nation — and indeed, the world. The Azusa Street Revival was the first crest of that wave.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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