William Joseph Seymour (1870–1922) was a prominent African-American religious leader in the early twentieth century. An ordained minister and the son of freed slaves, he is regarded as one of the founders of modern Pentecostalism.
Seymour was one of the most influential African-American religious leaders of his time, and his impact can be felt even today. Seymour was largely responsible for the establishment of the modern Pentecostal movement. Moreover, many aspects of his message resonate with the concerns of today's religious and social leaders. He advocated for racial integration, as it would lead to unity with Christ, and he also had no objections to women taking leadership roles in the church.
Seymour was born on May 2, 1870, in Centerville, Louisiana, within the St. Mary Parish. His parents, both recently freed slaves, were Simon Seymour and Phyllis Salabarr. During Seymour's infancy and childhood, his family had affiliations with the Baptist and Catholic churches. On September 4, 1870, he was baptized in a Catholic ceremony at the Church of the Assumption in Franklin, Louisiana.
Not much else is known about his early life, except that he was raised in poverty, received little formal education, and claimed to have visions of God. During his years as a young man, he traveled a great deal. In 1895, when he was 25 years old, Seymour moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. While working as a waiter in upscale restaurants and hotels, he joined the Simpson Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church, which was an African-American congregation of the predominately white Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 1900 he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he joined the Church of God Restoration Movement, which was also called The Evening Light Saints. The group was part of the growing Holiness movement that embraced a radical doctrine that included faith healing and a belief in the imminent return of Christ, an event that would be indicated by the integration of races in worship—a conciliation that Seymour tried to bring about, often with great success, throughout his career. The group also believed in the doctrine of sanctification, a concept dating back to nineteenth-century Protestantism. However, the group believed in an immediate, and not gradual, conversion and sanctification following the acceptance of Christ and a baptism of the Holy Spirit.
While living in Cincinnati, Seymour suffered a bout of smallpox. The attack caused him to lose his left eye (later in life he used a glass eye). His recovery from the potentially fatal illness compelled him to become a preacher, and in 1902 he was ordained as a minister in the Church of God.
For the next three years, he traveled as an evangelist, stopping in Chicago as well as in Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. In 1905 he settled in Houston, where his family had moved. That summer he served as the temporary replacement pastor for Lucy Farrow, a Holiness minister and niece of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Through Farrow, Seymour would meet the man who would have a strong impact on his spiritual direction and career.
Farrow encouraged Seymour to contact Charles Fox Parham, a white evangelist who ran a Texas Bible school, as Seymour was interested in the concept of "speaking in tongues," or glossolalia. Farrow had once worked in Topeka, Kansas, as a servant for Parham, who had founded the first Pentecostal Bible school in that city and who taught that speaking in tongues was a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit. Parham had moved to Texas, and, in December of 1905 he opened the Bible Training School in Houston.
Seymour asked Parham if he could join the Bible school. Parham agreed, but because of his segregationist tendencies he would not provide Seymour with a seat in the class. Instead, Parham would only allow Seymour to listen to lessons through an open door or window. Seymour's attendance did not last very long (according to different sources, it only lasted from a few days to a few weeks), and he was offended by Parham's racism, as he believed that racial integration in worship was a sign of Christ's return. But through Parham, Seymour appeared to have learned more about speaking in tongues, and his exposure to Parham's teachings, particularly concerning glossolalia, would soon have an enormous impact on the development of Pentecostalism in the United States and even the world.
While living in Houston, Seymour also met Neeley Terry, a woman who had moved from Los Angeles and who was part of the Holiness movement. What happened next is hard to verify: Seymour was either led to Los Angeles by Terry, or he traveled there on his own, intrigued by Terry's descriptions of what was happening in the city's religious community. Also, he may or may have not been aided in his trip by financial backing from Parham. Whatever the exact details, Seymour wasted no time making his presence felt.
On February 22, 1906, Seymour preached in a church established in Los Angeles by Julia M. Hutchins, who had been expelled from the Second Baptist Church in that city because of her Holiness views. Seymour's sermons extolled the importance of an interracial religious community and of speaking in tongues as a sign of the Holy Spirit. However, Hutchins was upset that he included glossolalia in the Holiness doctrine, and she subsequently and literally locked Seymour out of her church.
Following his lockout, Seymour was invited by the more spiritually sympathetic Mr. and Mrs. Richard Asberry to hold services at their home on North Bonnie Brae Avenue. It was at the Asberry home where Seymour finally experienced speaking in tongues for himself. Events leading up to his own glossolalia began on April 9, 1906, when his enthusiastic preaching caused several members of his congregation to start speaking in tongues. The religious fervency continued for three nights, and on April 12 Seymour began speaking in tongues as well.
As excitement increased about the events taking place at North Bonnie Brae, more and more people came to witness the meetings, and the Asberry home quickly became too small to accommodate the services. Seymour moved the congregation into an unused church on Azusa Street.
The building, located at 312 Azusa Street and situated in the business district, measured 40 by 60 feet. It had once housed the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but it was now being used as a warehouse and livery stable. Seymour's integrated congregation cleaned out the building and then filled the interior with makeshift church furnishings. The pulpit was made of two boxes nailed together and pews were made from planks nailed to empty barrels. Seymour made his home on the floor above the church and began holding services three times a day, seven days a week. A diverse volunteer staff, including blacks and whites and men and women, assisted Seymour in holding the services.
The dilapidated building would quickly gain national attention as the Azusa Street Revival, but its prominence lasted for only a short time, from 1906 to 1909. Still, it was a huge catalyst for the expansion of the Pentecostal movement, which in subsequent years, grew to include 20 million U.S. members and more than 200 million international members.
Soon after it opened, the church became overwhelmed by great numbers of people—including both the faithful and the curious—due to word of mouth, an important newspaper story about the church, and a force of nature: the San Francisco earthquake.
The newspaper story, which ran in the April 18, 1906, edition of the Los Angeles Times , provided extensive coverage of the church's activities. As fate would have it, the article ran on the very same day of the San Francisco earthquake, and the two occurrences became connected in many people's minds. A rumor had even started that the earthquake had been predicted at the Azusa mission. Soon after, more than 100,000 pamphlets were printed up that tied together the emergence of the church, the earthquake, and the impending end of the world. In this way, the San Francisco earthquake is sometimes regarded as a significant factor in the growth of Pentecostalism on a national scale.
By May, the Azusa Street Revival was always filled beyond capacity, as it attracted more than a thousand people a day. It had also gained a reputation as a setting for "wild scenes," as participants reportedly spoke in tongues and engaged in exuberant, physically active prayer. The church garnered a great deal of local press coverage that in turn attracted reporters from newspapers throughout the country. However, published stories were sensationalistic and often not favorable.
However, the press coverage only generated more interest in the revival, and Seymour's congregation continued to grow. In the ensuing months he ordained ministers for his church, established other congregations, and began publishing the church newspaper The Apostolic Faith . Introduced in September of 1906, the publication eventually garnered a national and international circulation of 20,000 readers. In 1907 Seymour incorporated the Azusa mission as the Pacific Apostolic Faith Mission, Los Angeles.
Throughout 1909 the Revival continued holding three services a day and conducting prayer meetings 24 hours a day. Services communicated elements of Holiness teachings, but Seymour had begun to downplay the importance of speaking in tongues.
During its brief three-year peak, the church managed to exert a profound influence, as Seymour's message was disseminated across the country. People seemed impressed that Seymour had realized his vision of a completely integrated religious community, and many religious leaders who visited the church took the Pentecostal teachings back to their own congregations, and soon more Pentecostal churches were being established across the United States. Its impact was even felt overseas.
But even as Pentecostalism went on to flourish across the country, the Azusa mission's importance diminished. After 1909 the Revival no longer attracted large crowds. Problems within the organization alienated the faithful and factors from without decreased its influence. Some of Seymour's followers were put off by the "throne" he had built for himself. Also, as happens with other movements that forecast the soon-to-come end of the world, followers' interest in and expectancy of the supposedly imminent "Last Days" began to dwindle. Moreover, Seymour's vision for racial integration suffered. Starting in 1908, white Pentecostals were separating from the black. White members were forming their own groups, while in areas such as the South, black members were encouraged to form separate denominations. Even in Los Angeles, white members were moving toward segregated Pentecostal churches.
The church's hugely successful newspaper, The Apostolic Faith , also faced substantial problems. After Seymour married Jennie Evans Moore on May 13, 1908, the paper's administrative assistant, Clara Lum, moved to Portland, Oregon, where she became the paper's editor. She took with her the paper's large subscription list, and after the paper failed under her leadership, Seymour was never able to recover the valuable list.
Problems continued to mount. In 1911, while Seymour was traveling, William H. Durham, a white preacher, attempted a takeover of the mission. The coup was unsuccessful, but when Durham was forced to leave, he took about 600 members with him. By 1913 there were only about 20 members left in Seymour's congregation.
Seymour spent the final years of his life traveling across the country, speaking mostly to black audiences. In 1915 he published a handbook, The Doctrines and Discipline of the Azusa Street Apostolic Faith Mission of Los Angeles , but his influence as a religious figure was waning.
On September 28, 1922, Seymour died of a sudden heart attack in Los Angeles. He was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in East Los Angeles. After his death, Jennie became pastor of the church and continued her husband's work until she died, even after she lost the Azusa mission in 1931. She died in 1936.
William Seymour died before he could accomplish many of his goals. He had planned to establish schools and rescue missions and form other congregations, but these dreams were never fulfilled. Still, despite the rapid decline in his influence, Seymour had tremendous impact on the Pentecostal movement, which grew to include more than half a billion believers throughout the world. Indeed, the Azusa Street Revival is often cited as one of the roots of modern-day Pentecostalism.
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"William Joseph Seymour (1870–1922)," Spirit of Life Ministries , http://www.holytrinitynewrochelle.org/yourti84643.html (December 11, 2006).