William Joseph Seymour was the co-founder of modern Pentecostalism; he will surely go down in history as one of America’s greatest African American religious leaders.
Thirty-one year old William Joseph Seymour attended Bethel Bible School in Houston, Texas, founded by Charles Fox Parham for a brief time from January through February of 1906. This Bible School was famous because Agnes Ozman was the first person to be baptized with the Holy Spirit on the first day of the new century with the initial evidence of speaking in other tongues. It was at this time that Joseph Seymour first heard teaching about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, something that would change his life and define Pentecostalism forever.
Since he was a black man, he was not allowed to sit in the main classroom where only whites were allowed to sit. Joseph Seymour listened to the class through the open door as he sat in the other room. At that time in history, segregation and racism were blatant in the Church. Even though Joseph Seymour didn't like it, he didn't let that stop him from pursuing God. Like other great historical leaders, he refused to let religious hypocrisy stop him from entering his high calling. Joseph Seymour truly possessed an unstoppable spirit of pursuit and hunger for God.
After a short time in Parham’s Bible Training School, Brother Seymour received a letter from Mrs. Neely Terry, who was living in Los Angeles, California, who asked him to consider pastoring a Nazarene group led by Mrs. Julia W. Hutchins. This was a small black group of about twenty believers who gathered together in worship. Brother Seymour agreed and arrived in Los Angeles sometime in late February or early March of 1906. Upon arriving, Joseph Seymour found the families meeting at 9th and Santa Fe Streets. The group had formerly met in a wood frame home owned by Richard and Ruth Asbery of 216 North Bonnie Brae Street. In just a short time the growing group found themselves with no room and looked for larger facilities that Mrs. Hutchins gladly rented at 9th and Santa Fe Streets.
Brother Joseph Seymour was well received and often preached topics of holiness and divine healing. Sometime in March 1906, shortly after arriving, Seymour began to preach about the baptism of the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in other tongues. At the time he had not yet experienced this baptism himself, but, nevertheless, he preached fervently on the subject, totally expecting the gift to be released in his new found Church. This new teaching totally shocked the congregation and Seymour found himself, like the Apostle Paul, in the middle of an uproar. One Sunday evening, in April, Brother Joseph Seymour discovered the door to the Church tightly shut up with a large silver padlock. Joseph Seymour was now locked out of Church and stranded in Los Angeles. A fearful and enraged Julia Hutchins had locked out the new pastor. Joseph Seymour was marooned on the street with no place to go. By the grace of God, however, the Lee family, former attendants of the Santa Fe meetings, reached out to him and gave him a place to stay in their home.
Shortly afterward, the Asbery’s invited Pastor Joseph Seymour to their house at 216 Bonnie Brae to conduct some Gospel meetings in their home. Today this house is known as the 216 Bonnie Brae House and is still standing. Religious scholars, researchers, and historians throughout the world acknowledge this house as a place to which modern day Pentecostals can trace their spiritual roots.
Surely Joseph Seymour continued to speak about the baptism in the Holy Ghost because on April 9th, 1906, something historical happened. Seymour's host, Mr. Edward Lee, had been sick and asked Pastor Joseph Seymour to pray for him. To pray, not just for his healing, but that he might also receive the baptism of the Holy Ghost. As Pastor Seymour began to pray, Lee was gloriously filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave him utterance. That same evening the two of them went to the Asbery home where the evening meeting was scheduled to take place. With faith high, seven more believers were gloriously filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke with other tongues. Something mighty was being birthed in that little house at 216 Bonnie Brae. Again, it is interesting to note that at the time Pastor Joseph Seymour was preaching about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, he himself had not yet been filled; but on April 12th, 1906, late that evening, Pastor Joseph Seymour received and was himself filled.
After many baptisms in the Spirit the small fellowship of believers began to tell others what was happening. This created much interest and the neighborhood residents began to come to the Ashbery’s house until there was literally no room at all inside the house. For a short time they even used the front porch of the house as a platform area, preaching to those who gathered on the lawn. It was at this time that the ministry moved to the famous 312 Azusa Street address.
The 40 by 60 foot Azusa street building had formerly been used as the meeting house of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church but had been vacated and was now being used as a livery stable and storage building for construction materials. After a few days of cleanup the building was opened for worship and wooden planks atop wooden nail kegs seated 750 people. There was no stained glass windows, no carpet on the floor, no bulletins at the door, and no air conditioning, but the Spirit of God was there.
Shortly after the first meeting the Holy Spirit filled the place with the glory of God and revival fires poured out into all of Los Angeles, California. Men and women were drawn from all over the world to this simple manager of a place that God chose to do a mighty work. Newspaper reporters from the Los Angeles news media wrote…
“Weird babble of tongues.”
“New sect of fanatics is breaking loose.”
“Wild scene last night on Azusa Street.”
“Gurgle of wordless talk by a Sister.”
“They make weird babbling sounds.”
“They never dismiss church.”
“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. 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. They repeatedly sing the same song, The Comforter Has Come.”
All of these efforts to ridicule the meetings did not hinder the work of God at 312 Azusa Street, instead worldwide curiosity of a mighty out pouring of the Holy Spirit was created. True word of the revival spread abroad through The Apostolic Faith, a paper that Seymour sent free of charge to some 50,000 subscribers. From Azusa Street Pentecostalism spread rapidly around the world and began its advance toward becoming a major force in Christendom.
The first addition of The Apostolic Faith newspaper printed in September, 1906, described the first meetings like this. “The meetings began about ten o'clock in the morning and can hardly stop before ten or twelve at night, and sometimes two or three in the morning, because so many are seeking, and some are slain under the power of God. People are seeking three times at the altar. We cannot tell how many people have been saved, and baptized with the Holy Ghost, and healed of all manner of sicknesses. Many are speaking in new tongues and some are going on their way to the foreign fields with the gift of the language. A drunkard got under conviction in a street meeting and raised his hands to be prayed for. They prayed for the devil of drink to be cast out, and the appetite was gone. He came to the meeting and was saved, sanctified and baptized with the Holy Ghost, and in three days from the time he was drunk he was speaking in a new tongue and praising God for Pentecost. He hardly knows himself.”
They continued, “We are not fighting men or Churches, but seeking to displace dead forms, creeds and wild fanaticism with living, practical Christianity. Love, faith, unity are our watchwords. Victory through the atoning blood is our battle cry.”
From Azusa Street, Pentecostalism spread rapidly around the world and began its advance toward becoming a major force in Christendom. Along with Charles Parham, William Joseph Seymour could be called the co-founder of world Pentecostalism and will surely go down in history as one of America’s greatest African American religious leaders.
(c) Apostle Jonas Clark
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