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Vision of a Colorblind Faith Gave Birth to Pentecostalism

Fate deprived William Joseph Seymour of sight in one eye, but the fiery African American preacher’s vision of a colorblind Christianity, reinvigorated by what its adherents called “the gifts of the spirit,” changed the face of American religion.

In 1906, from the porch of an unpretentious, wood-frame house on Bonnie Brae Street near downtown Los Angeles, Seymour--the son of slaves and a former waiter--began proclaiming his enthusiastic version of the Gospel, attracting ever-growing multiracial crowds.

It was the beginning of what we now call Pentecostalism.

The unbridled fervor of his multiethnic flock soon drew the enmity of the neighbors, and Seymour was forced to move to a onetime stable in what is now Little Tokyo. This small mission became the vortex of an ecstatic Pentecostal worship--known as the Azusa Street Revival--that rapidly spread throughout the world.

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But the racially integrated aspect of Seymour’s joyous revival was short-lived. As Pentecostalism spawned new Protestant denominations, white believers who were willing to countenance speaking in tongues and faith healing increasingly drew the line at sharing their pews with blacks and Latinos.

Louisiana-born in 1870, Seymour worked from childhood in the cane fields with his parents and siblings. While struggling with his conventional Methodist upbringing, he felt what he believed was a spiritual calling, and left home to attend a Texas bible school.

Armed with a rudimentary scriptural education, he came to Los Angeles, where he began holding prayer meetings in the home of Richard and Ruth Asbery, a black couple living at 216 N. Bonnie Brae St. What began with less than a dozen worshipers soon overflowed into the street. Jennie Evans Moore, a neighbor who would become Seymour’s wife, walked over to see what all the fuss was about and began speaking in tongues and banging out tunes on the piano--though she had no musical experience. For five days, seekers came to listen and see “a plain, common-looking man with a short beard, glass eye and not given to outburst,” the Rev. Lawrence Catley of Pasadena told The Times years later, recalling the meetings he attended as a 10-year-old.

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But when the porch caved in under the visitors’ weight, the neighbors complained, and the group moved to Azusa Street in what was then a predominantly black neighborhood. There, revival meetings began at 10 a.m. and often lasted past midnight.

For three years, Seymour and his partner, a white Methodist preacher named Hiram Smith, were considered the “best show in town for free.”

As 1,500 people jammed into the 40-by-60-foot sanctuary, vigorous hand-clapping blended with the sounds of “bones” (cows’ ribs), a washboard and thimbles, creating what was called music of the spirit. Seymour’s wife, Jennie, added the sound of the piano, followed by someone playing the violin. But the fiddle didn’t last; too many people believed that it had the devil in it and associated it with dance hall music.

“The power of the Lord was so great . . . it seemed to tingle your spine and your hair stood on end,” Catley recalled.

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Hundreds of spirit-filled seekers received baptism by water at Terminal Island, while others were baptized in the Holy Spirit--without water--in the upper prayer chamber, or “tarrying room,” at the church. The walls were lined with canes, crutches and pipes left by the lame who claimed cures and the smokers who reformed.

Offerings were placed in tin mailboxes nailed to the walls of the barn-like main room. Seymour’s fund-raising approach always was low-key, never pleading for more money or passing a plate or basket.

From 1906 to 1908, the Azusa Street Revival church printed a religious newspaper called the Apostolic Faith. It had a national circulation of 50,000 until two women on his staff left the paper, took the subscription list and started their own publication in Oregon.

Seymour also had to contend with newspaper reports ranging from the condescendingly skeptical to the racially hostile.

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One contemporary account described the Azusa Street services thusly: “Disgraceful intermingling of the races, they cry and make howling noises all day and into the night. They run, jump, shake all over, shout to the top of their voice, spin around in circles, fall out on the sawdust-blanketed floor jerking, kicking and rolling all over it. Some of them pass out and do not move for hours as though they were dead.

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“These people appear to be mad, mentally deranged or under a spell. They claim to be filled with the Spirit. They have a one-eyed, illiterate Negro as their preacher who stays on his knees much of the time with his head hidden between wooden milk crates. He doesn’t talk very much, but at times he can be heard shouting ‘Repent!’ ” and he’s supposed to be running the thing.”

Seymour responded with leaflets proclaiming, among other things, that “One token of the Lord’s coming is that He is melting all races and nations together, and they are filled with the power and glory of God.”

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While some were quick to criticize, others were even quicker to emulate.

The humble and famous from around the country, eager to catch the spiritual fever, flocked to the church, including Arabella Huntington, wife of industrialist Henry Huntington.

Out-of-town ministers--concerned even then that Sunday is the most segregated day on the American calendar--secretly sought to learn Seymour’s success in bringing blacks and whites together.

But in 1909 his own congregation bowed to the racial prejudices of the time and split along black-white lines. Members left and began constructing separate churches and denominations that still exist apart today.

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Against formidable odds, Seymour’s ministries survived for almost three decades. After his death in 1922, his wife continued preaching until about 1930, when the members were working-class families who had the spirit but not the money to help the church grow.

Seymour’s radical experiment in faith ultimately failed because whites were unable to accept a sustained role by black leadership, said Cecil M. Robeck Jr., a professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary who is writing a book on Seymour.

Later this year, Pentecostal Heritage Inc., a nonprofit organization that represents several Pentecostal groups, plans to honor the birthplaces of the movement with a plaque and memorial wall at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, where the mission stood, and with a museum and bookstore at the little house on Bonnie Brae Street.


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