does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Hero's Journey - A Son of Slaves Sparks an International Religious Movement

In 1906, William Joseph Seymour, a pockmarked, half-blind son of former slaves, began a religious revival in a former stable in working class Los Angeles. Within two-and-a-half years, members of his multiracial Asuza Street mission had fanned out across the U.S. and 50 countries. By the end of the 20th century, this spiritual gold rush had converted Pentecostalism into a mainstream, even dominant, form of Christianity in many areas of the world. Today, with half a billion followers on all continents, Pentecostalism is the world’s fastest growing religion. Some scholars describe Pentecostalism as "the most important event in religious history since the Reformation."

Before I proceed, I want to disclose that, in speaking of Pentecostalism’s vertiginous rise, it is not as adherent. Though I am the daughter of Pentecostal ministers, I left the religion in my teens. If I sometimes sound admiring of what has happened globally to Pentecostalism, it is because I appreciate a fascinating story about how an ordinary black man changed the religious landscape and, by extension, the world. In so doing, he met one of the Encarta definitions of a hero: "somebody who is admired for outstanding qualities or achievements."

On Azusa Street, William Joseph Seymour inspired viable multiracial and socioeconomic fraternizing at a time when such a thing was unprecedented; indeed, criminalized. Though the revival began with poor blacks, it soon spanned the color, gender, and socioeconomic spectrum. Seekers from around the globe—European; Asian; American Hispanic, white and black; et al.—quickly converged on Asuza Street, lured by the riveting stories heard about Holy Spirit baptism, prophesying, and physical healing. Charwoman, business owner, and university president worshipped side by side, drawn to Asuza Street’s fiery revival, which many believed hearkened back to the earliest days of Christianity. And all this was led by an impoverished black man with limited educational and social resources, a man whose dying words would be “a plea for love among the brethren everywhere.”

Unfortunately, Asuza’s early bridging of racial divisions soon ran into rough weather. Its racially diverse worship devolved in less than five years into numerous Pentecostal sects, largely organized along racially segregated lines. It would take until the latter part of the 20th century for these divisions to start healing, and today Pentecostalism is one of the least segregated forms of Christianity. What seems undeniable is that, despite the racial and theological conflicts that emerged later, what many recognize today as Pentecostalism unleashed its global spiritual storm at Los Angeles' Asuza Street under the direction of William Joseph Seymour.

The remainder of this post can be read at my other blog, where I also discuss what Pentecostalism is, more about William Joseph Seymour and the Asuza Street mission, and my family’s involvement in the rise of Pentecostalism in the U.S. Scroll down to the fifth paragraph if you do not wish to reread the above.

Related Post: Music in Pentecostalism


The Life and Ministry of William J. Seymour and a History of the Azusa Street Revival by Larry E. Martin, a Pentecostal minister.

Fire from Heaven: the Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century by Harvey Cox, a Harvard University professor. One of the most interesting chapters in this book is the comparison of jazz and Pentecostalism. Professor Cox, a jazz musician but not a Pentecostal, found parallels in the birth, development, and style of both movements.

Another post in the A Hero's Journey series:

Nelson Mandela


melissashook said...

thank you. This is really interesting. And he's well worth a place in your pantheon, mine, too. Multi-racial, cross-class, how remarkable.

Sun Singer said...

Very interesting story.


Nevine said...

An interesting background on a religious movement about which I know so little. It's always amazing to me that something that lives to become a major movement would have had such humble beginnings. Thank you for sharing this with us, Judith.


A Cuban In London said...

Fascinating. I am more and more drawn to the history of Puerto Rico than ever before. I love how you respect Pentecostalism despite not having been a practitioner for many years. You migth be interested in this programme currently being shown on BBC4 on Friday evenings here in the UK.

I've enjoyed seeing these salsa luminaries whose names I first heard when I was a young chap.

Great post.

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

Melissa: You honed in some of the reasons I chose to write this story.

Malcolm: Hollywood couldn’t write it better.

Nevine: The humble beginnings part of this story to me is just as compelling as the multi-racial and cross-class features.

Cuban: Learning how to respect this religion has, in a way, been the challenge of my development as a mature individual. In the process, I’ve learned valuable lessons about peacemaking. Thanks for the BBC link.

Kathryn Magendie said...

Always always I come here and there is something interesting and engaging - alternatively, I feel like an old boring hen on my blog lately!

I'm glad I'm still peeking thru my fingers here *smiling*