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Wednesday, February 3, 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 todayPentecostalism 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. Several books about Asuza have been written. A feature film about the mission is in the works. William Joseph Seymour’s significant contributions are enjoying renewed attention.

Because many, if not most, of my readers do not know what Pentecostalism is, I provide this brief primer. Pentecostalism is a renewal movement within Christianity which places special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through the baptism in the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues. Harvey Cox has referred to its primal hope, primal piety, and primal speech. Beyond this, I hesitate to venture for fear of treading on the same theological quicksand which nearly suffocated the nascent Pentecostal movement. Moreover, Pentecostalism has always resisted being a monolithic movement, in part because of its emphasis on direct personal experience.

What is generally accepted now is that while ... "some of the characteristics we now associate almost exclusively with Pentecostalism—such as healing, speaking in tongues, and prophesying—[have] a long history dating back to the earliest years of Christianity, and before ... they all came together [at Asuza Street where] the Pentecostal movement began its earth-encircling career. It was at Asuza Street that Seymour injected the rapturous intonations of African American spirituality into the ecstatic Holiness piety .... The mixture was highly flammable." [Harvey Cox]

In addition to Seymour's personal role in the rise of Pentecostalism, I find noteworthy the movement’s evolution from marginal to mainstream status in a relatively short period of time. I especially find interesting the religion’s early ability to transcend gender and racial constraints. Martin Luther King Jr. once observed that the most segregated hour in America was Sunday morning at 11 a.m., when churches hold their weekly service. While Pentecostalism later suffered its own glaring shortfalls in racial tolerance, its early days were markedly different. Seymour's dying plea for love was a, perhaps inadvertent, foretelling of Pentecostalism’s eventual global reach. In addition, it may have evoked a poignant reminder of his disappointment that the early multiracial cohesion had not lasted.

When I was growing up, I never heard about Asuza Street or William Joseph Seymour. What’s more, the thought of Pentecostalism becoming mainstream or the world’s fastest growing religion seemed ridiculously farfetched. One of the reasons, though, that the Asuza story resonates for me is that certain aspects of my parents’ ministry reprised those of the Asuza experience. Among these are the startling influence of people from humble walks of life and the complete and uplifting surrender of followers to the spiritual experience of speaking in tongues.

The other reason the Asuza Street story particularly resonates with me is even more deeply personal. Comments I still hear about my late father resemble those made about William Joseph Seymour by the people who knew him:

"He is the meekest man I ever met ... simple-hearted ... [yet] you feel the love and power every time you get near him ... The glow would be on that man's face .... He didn't talk much ... [yet when he spoke from the pulpit] His voice was like the roaring of a cannon." [Larry Martin, see below]

On a much smaller scale, the trajectory of my father's work also resembled that of Seymour's. For both, the original humble mission evolved into a more grand and institutionalized version of itself. After my parents left Puerto Rico for the mainland U.S., they served as missionaries for their Pentecostal faith. Meeting informally in apartments and boarding rooms, they spread the Gospel among Latino working class families. As the years progressed, they and other Hispanic ministers became seminal figures in the creation of Spanish-speaking Pentecostal congregations across the U.S. Midwest and eventually internationally. What started out in living rooms evolved into storefront churches which eventually became congregations now housed in expensive, high-tech buildings, producing TV and radio broadcasts, and experiencing socioeconomic diversity.

Indeed, it is sometimes startling for me to visit my parents’ successor congregation and see present the town’s mayor and council members or to watch the youth choir belt out a hip hop gospel hymn. My father did not live to see this happen, but I can’t help but think that, once past his surprise, he might have smiled at the broad reach of his beloved religion. After all, in their courtship letters, my parents talked more about “saving souls” all over the world than they ever did about being in love.

An interesting coincidence between my father and William Seymour is that the latter died the same year my father was born. Seymour represented the first wave of the Pentecostal movement. My parents and their evangelizing peers represented a subsequent wave into Hispanic communities. Today, Pentecostalism's mainstream status and breathtaking pace of growth are a fulfillment of the treasured dream both Seymour and my parents had about their beloved religion. For me, the irony is that in both instances the original missions they shepherded may have been the most pure representation of their Christian faith.

Related Post: Music in Pentecostalism

Additional Reading:

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.


Kathryn Magendie said...

This is my first time to come here to this blog - I want to look about! :)

Judith Mercado said...

So great to you see stop by here, Kathryn. This is the blog I use when my posts for Pilgrim Soul get too long and I want to provide a link to the full unabridged version

About Me ¿Quién soy?

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My writing frequently explores multicultural themes. Born in Puerto Rico, I moved at a young age to the U.S., where my parents became Pentecostal ministers. Early immersion in Latino and religious cultures preceded later experiences as a businesswoman, a White House Fellow, and life aboard a trawler cruising from Martha’s Vineyard to South America. These sometimes incompatible worlds have given me a respectful outlook toward differing points of view. My short stories, poems, and essays reflect my own inclusive, yet sharply defined, journey across cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. I recently published Peace on the Journey, a poetry collection which explores the theme of renewal in the face of adversity. @peaceonjourney