The room was quiet save for the man who stood at the front of the class. Standing there in his shirtsleeves, the preacher spoke with passion and conviction. The heat was stifling, oppressive, but the man sitting outside in the hallway didn’t notice. He was caught up with what he was hearing. Finally, he had found what he had been searching for! So, he sat, outside and alone - separated from the others by the color of his skin and the prevailing laws of the land. The occasional glares from them did nothing to dim the excitement building in him. He silently thanked God for Lucy and let the preacher’s words wash over him. “Thus was the Church militant again permitted to receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.”*
William J. Seymour, was born in 1870 in Centerville, Louisiana, to former slaves Simon and Phillis Seymour, who raised him as a Baptist. Growing up during the Reconstruction era, William experienced abject poverty and the intense discrimination that was the way of life in the Deep South. He left his home and moved around for a while before ending up in Houston.
While in Houston, Seymour attended a church led by Lucy Farrow, former governess in the home of Charles Parham - considered by many to be the father of the modern-day Pentecostal Movement. At around the same time, Charles Parham was in Houston, conducting revivals and teaching Bible School. In 1905, Lucy arranged for Seymour to attend some of Charles Parham’s classes and that was where his life was transformed. Despite having to sit outside the class, due to the ‘Jim Crow’ laws in the South, Seymour was hugely impacted by Parham’s belief in the baptism of the Holy Spirit—the belief God would give believers the gift of tongues to enable missionary evangelism. Parham began ministering with Seymour, preaching to white congregations while Seymour preached to the black ones.
Later that same year, a woman who lived in Los Angeles - Neely Terry - visited Houston and was impressed when she heard Seymour preach. Her church in Los Angeles was searching for a new pastor, so when she returned home, she recommended Seymour for the position. He got the job and left Houston for Los Angeles, arriving there in February 1906.
On resuming his new duties, Seymour started preaching that speaking in tongues was the Bible evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. This ‘new’ doctrine encountered resistance from some, but was welcomed by others. On March 4 1906, Seymour was locked out of the church and began ministering out of a congregant’s home. Unknown to everyone at the time, this would be the beginning of a movement; a revival that would ripple through time – the Azusa Street Revival.
The church at Azusa Street was a humble place, referred to in the press as a “tumble down shack.” Previously used as a livery stable and tenement house, discarded lumber and plaster still littered the large, barn-like room on the ground floor.
The revival grew slowly during that summer but gained traction later in the year as stories spread quickly across the continent and to other parts of the world. Azusa Street provided a unique atmosphere because people of different races – White, Hispanic, Black, and many others – all worshipped together as one, despite racial prejudice and the prevailing laws of segregation. This aspect annoyed Parham so much that he severed ties with Seymour and established a rival mission.
Under Seymour’s ministry, many – including missionaries – received the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues. On a global scale, the Azusa Street revival contributed to a new crop of missionaries who felt that preaching the gospel would go hand in hand with signs and wonders, like speaking in tongues. Though only a few missionaries traveled from Azusa Street to overseas mission fields, it had an impact on many more who started other Pentecostal revival centers as a result of what happened at Azusa street. For many, the Azusa Street revival had finally ushered in the great end-times revival.
Seymour’s name should have been etched in the history of the Pentecostal movement, however, he was largely forgotten as prominent white leaders formed Pentecostal movements and told stories from their own perspectives. He faced severe criticism and eventually departed from the teaching that speaking in tongues was the initial physical evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. He also reserved leadership positions at Azusa Street for people of color, discriminating against the white members. As a result, the membership became almost exclusively black.
After several years, the mission at Azusa Street began to decline and Seymour’s health followed suit. He died on September 28, 1922 after experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath. The building was later destroyed and the property was lost. However, Seymour’s work left a lasting legacy, which is finally being acknowledged.
Of average size and blind in one eye due to a bout of smallpox, there was nothing physically remarkable about William Seymour. But, the Lord he loved deeply and served so faithfully used him in an extraordinary way.
Though flawed like all of us, William Seymour yielded himself to his Savior and left an imprint in a world where almost everything worked against him.
*Though rooted in fact, the section in italics was embellished in the writer’s imagination.
Read more detailed accounts of William Seymour, Charles Parham and the Pentecostal Movement here: