This is an edited transcript of a podcast put out by Bridgetown Church in Portland Oregan, the link to the original podcast site is below.
February is Black History Month in the United States. This is an opportunity to spend time learning about the legacy of black folks in our history as a nation and ruminating on the unique aspects of God’s kingdom that came and comes to us through our black brothers and sisters.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a man named William J Seymour. As you know, Bridgetown we’ve been on a journey through many years of leaning into a life of abiding in the Holy Spirit, and especially with Pentecostal church history in mind William J Seymour played a very large part in that.
Seymour was born in Louisiana, in 1870, during a time when the KKK violence made his formal education impossible. Within the first decade of his life history tells us that more than 2500 citizens of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana were lynched or burned at the stake by the pseudo Christian Klansmen.
So Seymour was mostly self educated, until he was able to finally attend to Bible school, but only kind of, he was still refused to actually attend class, but was made to sit just outside of the classroom with the door slightly ajar. Can you imagine what Seymour must have been thinking and feeling with such open animosity and disgust that surrounded him and for something outside of his control, something actually in fact that was God given and God designed. the colour of his skin.
What compelled him to keep going? Why keep trying?
Well, like for many of our black brothers and sisters, it certainly wasn’t the system, which wasn’t even attempting to hide its bias. The only thing I can imagine, was that Seymour knew the voice of his shepherd. He was called by someone higher, and he refused, along with the prophets and even our own Lord to bow before the powers and principalities, and instead chose to listen to the voice of his true King who shared in his sufferings, transforming them into the glory of God’s own kingdom, how much we have to learn from William Seymour’s example. (Pic is kkk March)
After classes. Seymour would go preaching in a predominantly black part of Houston with one of his professors who was white, but his professor would not allow him to preach in the front alongside him but made him sit in the back. This Professor even went as far as segregating the altar, not allowing black and white members of the same kingdom to kneel together.
Fast forwarding through more years of faithfulness and perseverance and racism. Seymour left Houston and began pastoring a small church in California. And on April 9 1906, something extraordinary happened. The Holy Spirit broke out in that congregation with people experiencing God’s presence in all the ways the Scripture tells us, speaking in tongues and translating them, miraculous healing, overwhelming joy and so much more.
Over the next three days there were moments of loud worship and dancing and also times of reverence silence and stillness. These were not professional theologians the congregation was made up of cooks and railroad porters, wash women and janitors. These are some of God’s favourite kinds of people to encounter.
Near the end of the three days the crowd began to dwindle, until only Seymour and one friend remained on their knees begging God for revival. Eventually even Seymour’s friends gave up saying it’s just not time. But Seymour, ever the man of perseverance and conviction in God’s goodness, stayed, saying,
I am not giving up.
And the Lord heard his prayer. Within days huge crowds of people from virtually every skin colour, nationality, and social class began filling the building, until they had to move to a new two storey warehouse at 312 Azusa Street.
The bottom floor was for preaching singing and dancing and at the top of the stairs, there was a sign that said, no talking above a whisper, designating the second floor for silent prayer.
There was no choir. No offering taken, no advertising, and yet the room was packed and about 800 people filled the building, day and night and about four to 500 more were in the streets surrounding the building trying to look in and see what was happening.
In 1906, the same year the revival started, Seymour launched a newspaper about it. People were asking questions what was happening. That newspaper grew to about 50,000 readers.
This revival wasn’t just about gathering in the Azusa Street building. Within a few short weeks this prayer meeting started sending out missionaries to Scandinavia, India, China, Africa, Korea and many other places, each of which would experience revivals of their own.
These meetings in that building on Azusa Street continued day and night for three years and that’s just the kind of thing the Holy Spirit does isn’t it. In the words of Richard Foster
The miracle Seymour had been seeking had happened.
By the power of the Spirit, a revolutionary new type of Christian community was born. One in which as a journalist who reported on this revival at the time said quote
The colour line was washed away in the blood.
As this revival went on though, filled with all kinds of signs and wonders Seymour realised he needed to clear something up. He wrote this quote
Tongues, speaking in tongues are not the real evidence of the baptism of the Spirit in everyday life. If you are angry, or speak evil or backbiting, I care not how many tongues you have, you have not the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost, or being filled with the Holy Spirit, makes us love Jesus more and love our brothers more. It brings us all into one common family .
For Seymour, as for the Apostle Paul and as for us. The primary evidence of the Holy Spirit was and his divine love.
And so, in modelling this, and in continuing in his rigid conviction of fellowship across the colour line Seymour reached out to his old Bible school professor. Yes, the one who wouldn’t allow him to sit in the classroom and invited him to be a part of the revival. He wanted to share leadership, with a white preacher so he could Shepherd with him, what God was doing in this prayer meeting.
Now to me this was the greatest symbol of Seymour’s character and integrity. But it was also unfortunately in this vulnerable, humble attempt at reconciliation, that the Azusa Street Revival met its end. Richard foster writes,
Right at the moment of Seymour’s greatest influence white supremacy reared its ugly head denouncing and rejecting this grace filled work of God.
While this professor did indeed show up at the meeting house in LA. Once inside his atrophied sickly vision of God’s kingdom could not hold what he saw. And in a self Righteous Fury he marched past the co-mingled worshippers, past this vision of God’s kingdom and revelation in chapters 21, and 22, and stepped up to the podium and shouted, “God is sick, to his stomach.”
He proceeded to demand allegiance to the demons of segregation and racism explaining that God would not stand for what he called quote such animalism. Now when the people of the revival would not heed his words the professor rallied up a couple hundred of the worshipers and set up a rival revival in a nearby building. And I can only wonder, at what point this man thought that anything he was doing looked, anything like the way that Jesus lived and ministered.
But wielding the social power, that was his as a white man over and against that which Seymour did not have as a black man, this professor proceeded to gut Seymour’s revival by condemning it in the strongest possible terms. And slowly, most of the white leaders in Seymour’s movement gave up worship of the true God and went after the golden calf of power.
Even while his multicultural expression of worship became more and more severed along the colour line, Seymour never stopped preaching the unity of God’s kingdom and about how division, especially by the colour line, was antithetical to what God had in mind. One scholar has even said that Seymour resolutely refused to segregate or Jim Crow the movement, and for this reason and this reason alone Seymour was rejected and forgotten by the movement he created and in late September of, 1922 at 52, years old, william j seymour died in almost total obscurity.
Now, while we mourn the reality of how this whole thing ended, we must remember that it was not a defeat, but a resounding victory. As we shift our metric of success we recall that Seymour was never after acclaim or power. He was after seeing God’s kingdom bring people to life in ways they never thought possible, regardless of colours, social status or prestige.
So, while he was forgotten by the world, and we grieve that we can only imagine the reception he had as he stood before God’s throne and heard the words. “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
In the words of Richard Foster.
Seymour stood at the forefront of one of the most revolutionary social movements in history, a movement, intent upon erasing the colour line. This was a movement that did not just seek prophecy, but sought to prophetically embody the in breaking kingdom of God.
Brothers and sisters, may we continue in the legacy of William Seymour who sought to break colour, gender and nationalistic barriers and fought for our paradoxical oneness and uniqueness in Christ.
May we believe the Holy Spirit for another revival of this kind, in which we lift up the one who would draw all people to himself, and would we make much of Jesus. Trusting in his power, listening to his people looking for his kingdom and living in his presence.