Monday, August 23, 2010

The Origins of Pentecostalism: Azusa Street

In February of 1906, William Seymour, a soft-spoken Black minister originally from Louisiana (but who was at the time studying at a Bible College in Texas), was invited to preach at a church in Los Angeles. However, as soon as the congregation discovered that Seymour was a proponent of speaking in tongues as a sign of baptism in the Holy Spirit, he found himself abruptly disinvited.

But Seymour was then asked to come preach at a nearby home church, and by the summer of '06 this home was filled with people manifesting the gifts of the Holy Spirit (especially glossalalia). Word spread and soon the congregation was renting an abandoned warehouse on Azusa street, and this became the Apostolic Faith Mission.

These were the beginnings of the modern Pentecostalist movement. Much more about this can be found here: Azusa Steet Timeline: Seymour and the Apostolic Faith Mission, and also here: History of Pentecostalism. Both of those links are connected to the "Association of Former Pentecostalists". For the view of non-former Pentecostals, you can check out the website of the world's largest Pentecostalist group, the Assemblies of God, or that of the Church of God in Christ, another prominent branch of Pentecostalism. The Pew Research Forum also has an extensive offering of materials on Pentecostalism.

The Pentecostalist movement, of course, did not spring fully formed out of thin air. It was born out of the "holiness" movement, which in turn was rooted in Methodism and the teachings of John Wesley (1703-1791) and his brother Charles (1707-1788), and especially their ideas on sanctification and theosis.

Methodism, in turn, was just one of an ever increasing number of Christian sects that were breaking away from the Church of England, which, in turn, had broken away from the Catholic Church as part of the Protestant Reformation.

It must be recalled that the three original bastions of Protestantism -- Lutheranism, Calvinism and Anglicanism -- had no intention of setting off a wave of religious experimentation and institutional fragmentation. Indeed, they each separately imagined themselves not as just one among many initiators of an ongoing process of reform, but rather as the endpoint of that process -- as it's proper goal. This attitude then carried over to all the successive generations of sectoids and grouplets that continued springing up like mushrooms. As it turns out, once these things are set in motion they have a tendency to get out of hand.

And just so in 1906 on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, William Seymour was concerned that the revival that he had started was getting out of hand. Seymour's Bible School mentor, Charles Parham, had preached the message of baptism in the Holy Spirit, and he had also preached that the gift of tongues was the sign of that baptism in it's fullness. But in addition Parham taught that manifestations of the Holy Spirit should not be overly emotional or boisterous, and that when such occurred it was not the Holy Spirit but rather "the flesh" that was being manifested.

Parham's caution was due at least in part to the fact that evangelical Christians weren't the only ones fooling around in the spirit realm at the time. Throughout the 1800's (and reaching even back to the late 1700's) a wide variety of mystical (and sometimes, but not always, ecstatic) spiritual movements swept through America and Western Europe: mesmerism, spiritism, spiritualism, theosophy, etc were all the rage. And sometimes it was difficult or even impossible to know where "genuine" Christianity left off and New Age tomfoolery (or worse) took up.

At any rate, Seymour arranged for Parham to be invited to come and preach at Azusa Street, in the hope that together they could reign in these "manifestations of the flesh." If anything, however, Parham's attempts to bring things under control only exacerbated the situation. First hand accounts differ, however, and this is obviously a controversial subject within Pentecostalism itself.

To this day, over a century after Azusa Street, Pentecostal "outpourings" still have a tendency to get out of hand. In 2008 a revival began in Lakeland Florida led by evangelist Todd Bentley. The manifestations of the Holy Spirit during this months long revival included visits from an angel named "Emma", the magical appearance of gold dust, and two cases of individuals being raised from the dead.

The outward signs of religious enthusiasm, whether they be manifestations of the spirit or the flesh, are the hallmark of Pentecostalism. Although speaking in tongues in particular has come to be seen as the distinguishing feature of Pentecostalism, various physical manifestations of the holy spirit (jumping, shouting, rolling on the floor, etc) were a characteristic of certain trends in Christianity going back at least to the founding of the "Quakers" in the mid 17th century. And any student of comparative religion immediately recognizes that there is nothing new or unique in such ecstatic behaviors.

The term "holy roller", now commonly associated with Pentecostalists, appears to have been originally directed at the more demonstrably enthusiastic adherents of American Methodism. The first known use of the term was by American writer, scholar, adventurer and pioneer of modern Paganism Charles Godfrey Leland (who also is credited with coining the phrase "Old Religion"), in whose Memoirs (published in 1893) it appears in reference to a former boss of his, who was a Methodist:
Mr. Cummings, to tell the truth, pursued a somewhat torutuous course in politics and religion. He was a Methodist. One day our clerk expressed himself as to the latter in these words: "They say is a Jumper, but others think he has gone over to the Holy Rollers." The Jumpers were a sect whose members, when the Holy Spirit seized them, jumped up and down, while the Holy Rollers under such circumstances rolled over and over on the floor.
[p. 216]
Such designations as "Jumper" and "Holy Roller" also bring to mind similar apellations: Shakers ("United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing" founded in 1747), and Quakers ("The Religious Society of Friends" founded in the 1640's).

Personally, I think that the current version of the wikipedia entry on the "holiness movement" provides a very good summary of the main influences that came together in this progenitor of Pentecostalism:

The roots of the holiness movement are as follows:

In fact, almost two full centuries before the Azusa Street revival, "revivalism" itself was already becoming a distinctive sub-type of Christianity. And this revivalism, in turn, was just one manifestation of a brave new world of experimentation in Christian beliefs and practices. However, most of these experiments still fit the basic mold of the so-called Protestant Reformation of Zwingli, Luther, Calvin and Henry VIII: a new form of Christianity is proclaimed to be the one and only true Christianity, while all other Christians are denounced as heretics at best, or the handmaidens of Satan at worst.

Although there are important European influences here (including the Wesley's themselves, who were British), the First (mid 1700's) and Second (early 1800's) Great Awakenings were a decisive point of departure for the development of what is today thought of as "evangelical" Christianity as a quintessentially American religious phenomenon.

Along with the "holiness movement", which eventually gave rise to Pentecostalism, Latter Day Saints ("Mormons"), Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses all came out of the Second Great Awakening. The First Great Awakening did not so much give rise to new denominations as it did greatly strengthen and energize the already existing Baptists and the Methodists of America and in particular to imbue them with the spirit of "revivalism".

Pentecostals today also trace their roots to other "movements of the spirit" near the same time as the 1906 Azusa street revival, such as the Welsh Revival (1904-1905) and other similar "manifestations of the spirit" that appeared in India and Korea. Pentecostalists, quite naturally, ultimately trace their movement back to Jesus and the apostles.

[Also see: An overview of Pentecostalism]


Anonymous said...

Another excellent and thorough piece of research. My biggest objection to these movements - aside from their propensity to be exploited for financial gain - is their tendency to be staunchly conservative, much moreso than a lot of mainstream Christian churches. Which is too bad because I love the madness and ecstasy and profound strangeness of the charismatic churches.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

I'm glad you liked it!

Yes, the madness and ecstasy and strangeness is, in itself, something that I also admire about these folks. In theory they are also staunchly individualistic and also anti-authoritarian. But it all goes back to Savonarola, who railed against the rich and the powerful, and set the pattern for turning "the masses" into instruments of totalitarianism.

Anonymous said...

I think the two go hand in hand. All over the world you find these sorts of ecstatic and charismatic cults among societies that are poor, oppressed and rigidly structured. They don't really have any other outlets to vent the psychic energy that's created through repression, so it bursts out in a collective, somatic madness. But instead of completely abolishing the restrictive social and religious structure, it becomes enmeshed in it, strengthening and justifying it. In other words, the wilder they are during the outburst the tamer and more conventional they are the rest of the time, to show that they're not really like that. It's just the spirit acting on them.

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Liberal, liberated folks have a much harder time getting into such states. Hence why most of the Pagan rituals I've attended have been so damned boring.

Chas S. Clifton said...

I am currently editing an academic biography of Aimee Semple McPherson, with a section on Azusa Street (including the first photos of the place and the people that I had seen).

It started interracial and with some female leadership, but it soon ended up racially segregated and with mostly male leadership -- McPherson being an exception.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Another early woman Pentecostal pioneer was Alma Bridewell White, who, from what I've read, was an out-and-out KKKer.

SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

We are discussing, in part, Dionysos, who comes through the gateway of the Holy Spirit, but who is then chained down by the Pentheus of the Scriptures. It is a curious paradox, an odd machine.

I would like to hear more, if you have such wisdom, of the connection between pentecostalist/holy-roller type phenomena and pagan ecstatic movements.

Michael Ventura (in an essay I believe is called "Hear that Long Snake Moaning" or somesuch) has written about connections between Voudon and Pentecostalism.

It seems to me that there is here something very important, a subterranean archetypal flow, that is tripped up by the pentecostalist's ideology themselves, but is neglected altogether by those who dismiss its emotionalism.

And while people in my camp might be loathe to so say, we are also discussing manifestations of "wod", of which, of course, Woden/Odin is the Master.

SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Here it is :

Amazing essay. Worthy of reading and rereading again in full.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Thanks, Siegfried! I still haven't had a chance to look at it yet. I really need to get back to this Pentecostalism series. I'm probably going to break out a separate series of posts just on Pentecostalism in Africa, which is a really fascinating and important phenomenon just on its own -- and not just because of the whole "child-witches" thing.