It was an unlikely location for an event that would change the face of Christianity. In the summer of 1906, revival erupted in the newly formed congregation meeting at the small, run-down Apostolic Faith Mission at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles. Critics attacked the congregation because its Black and mild-mannered Holiness preacher, William J. Seymour, preached racial reconciliation and the restoration of biblical spiritual gifts. The Azusa Street Revival, as it became known, soon became a local sensation, then attracted thousands of curiosity seekers and pilgrims from around the world.
The spiritual intensity of the revival was red hot for more than three years, making Azusa Street one of the most significant Pentecostal centers in the early 20th century. Just over 115 years later, the Pentecostal movement, broadly construed, now claims over a half billion adherents, the second largest grouping within Christianity after the Catholic Church.
Frank Bartleman, one of the participants at Azusa Street, wrote down his account of the revival and the precipitating events. In 1916, Bartleman wrote an article with his recollections of the revival that was published in the Weekly Evangel (the predecessor to the Pentecostal Evangel). He later wrote a book, How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles (1925), which became a widely read portrayal of the Azusa Street Revival. Bartleman’s eyewitness account captured fascinating details about the revival, which give insight into the spirituality and worldview of early Pentecostals.
Bartleman noted that the Azusa Street Revival did not occur in a vacuum. The immediate catalyst for the revival happened in the summer of 1905, when Joseph Smale, pastor of First Baptist Church of Los Angeles, returned from a visit to Wales. He had attended meetings during the great Welsh Revival, during which entire towns experienced an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Smale witnessed countless people repent of sin and turn toward God, and he prayed for God to do a similar work in Los Angeles.
Smale opened up his church for daily intercessory prayer meetings. Spiritually hungry people came from across Los Angeles and cried out to God for revival – praying specifically for a new “Pentecost.” Bartleman was among those who gathered at Smale’s church. He experienced a burden for “soul travail” – he sensed that God was calling him to win lost souls to Christ.
The prayer meetings attracted large numbers of people. However, some Baptist leaders opposed the spontaneous character of the prayer. They forced Smale to resign as pastor. He formed a new congregation, The New Testament Church of Los Angeles, which became a hub for people who committed themselves to pray for revival.
In the fall of 1905, Smale preached a series of sermons titled “The Pentecostal Blessing.” He encouraged believers to seek a restoration of the spiritual blessings described in the New Testament. Under Smale’s ministry, countless people developed a great hunger for God and engaged in deep prayer and Bible study.
When William Seymour came to Los Angeles in the spring of 1906 and began encouraging believers to seek biblical spiritual gifts, he found fertile ground for his message. People from varied backgrounds and from numerous churches – including Smale’s church – crowded into the Azusa Street Mission to experience the modern-day Pentecost for which they had been praying.
Bartleman offered some cautionary advice regarding the history surrounding Azusa Street. “It would be a great mistake,” he wrote, “to attempt to attribute the Pentecostal beginning in Los Angeles to any one man.” Bartleman stressed that the early Pentecostal revival was a sovereign move of God that had developed over time. He wrote, “Pentecost did not drop down suddenly out of heaven. God was with us in large measure for a long time before the final outpouring.”
Still, Bartleman reserved a special place in Pentecostal history for the Azusa Street Mission. He observed that the Pentecostal revival began “in earnest” under Seymour’s leadership at the humble, run-down location on Azusa Street.
Bartleman noted multiple ironies regarding the revival. The Azusa Street Mission, he wrote, took place in a dilapidated building and was led by “a quiet colored man, very unassuming.” Yet the revival attracted people from across the racial divides and news of the outpouring quickly spread across the world. Bartleman also noted that Seymour initially preached about the gift of speaking in tongues without having had the experience himself. Seymour did not receive the gift until several weeks into the Azusa Street Revival. Finally, Bartleman observed that many respectable Christian leaders looked down upon the revival because of its humble origins and interracial character. However, many of these critics ended up losing their own church members to the Azusa Street Revival.
The Azusa Street Revival has become iconic, symbolizing Pentecostal identity. Its emphasis on the restoration of biblical spiritual gifts certainly played a significant role in the early movement. Furthermore, the revival’s egalitarian character – men and women from varied racial and social backgrounds were both leaders and participants – is very appealing to our own 21st century egalitarian assumptions.
However, there is a danger that modern readers will boil down historic Pentecostal identity to consist merely of spiritual gifts and egalitarianism, while failing to understand the spirituality and worldview of early Pentecostals. The early Pentecostal worldview, at its core, encouraged believers to seek full consecration to Christ and His mission. The consecrated life, as illustrated in the Azusa Street Revival, was lived out through holy living and spiritual disciplines. Early Pentecostals committed themselves to prayer, fasting, and Bible study. They demonstrated a gritty determination to share Christ, no matter the cost. Importantly, they avoided worldly entanglements that would dilute their testimony, insisting that their heavenly citizenship should far outweigh any earthly allegiances.
With each year, we become further removed from the generation that birthed the prayer movement that became Pentecostalism. Testimonies from the iconic Azusa Street Revival provide insight into the spirituality that sparked the Pentecostal movement. Perhaps these testimonies will inspire future generations to likewise seek to be fully consecrated to Christ and His mission.
Read Frank Bartleman’s article, “The Pentecostal or ‘Latter Rain’ Outpouring in Los Angeles,” on pages 4, 5, and 8 of the March 11, 1916, issue of the Weekly Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “The Five Judgments,” by S. A. Jamieson
• “A Great Opportunity in the Mexican Work,” by H. C. Ball
And many more!
Gospel Publishing House has republished Frank Bartleman’s classic 1925 book, How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles. It is available here.
Weekly Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.