William Seymour and the Original Pentecostal Movement
Pentecostalism: Seymourian Unity vs. White Men's Dogma
Formative Years -- Life on the Color Line
The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.
-W. E. B. DuBois1
The Civil War, while not exclusively caused by disagreement on slavery, was nonetheless strongly divided on those lines, and though the War ended in 1865, America remained far from racial reconciliation. When the 14th and 15th Amendments were passed in the following years, counting blacks as whole people and giving black men the right to vote, the South responded with the "Black Codes," attempting to severely limit the new freedoms of blacks. Even as late as 1896 the Supreme Court upheld segregation, ruling in favor of "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites. The war was over, but not the battle.
Into this setting of racism and segregation was born a black man who would become a prophet of reconciliation, a mouthpiece for Holy Spirit-induced unity. He would later become known as one of the key leaders in the formation of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. And, as Christ was rejected in Nazareth, he would be rejected by the very movement he helped create. His name was William J. Seymour.
William Joseph Seymour was born on May 2, 1870 in the town of Centerville, Louisiana to Simon and Phillis Seymour. C. M. Robeck, Jr. notes that the region was noted for "its sugercane plantations, the dominance of Roman Catholics, the presence of syncretist expressions of religion such as voodoo, a heavily Cajun culture, and the home of the Knights of the While Camellias, a white supremacist group patterned after the Ku Klux Klan."2 Although little is known about his youth, we know that he and his family, including a younger brother and sister, worked very hard to make a way for themselves during the Reconstruction. During this time, Seymour attended school, learned to read, and pursued his own education.3 He also gained a love of the tradition of spirituals.4 It is remarkable that Seymour resisted succumbing to hatred or resentment, despite growing up in this hotbed of traditional racism. Certainly he learned very early the building blocks of unity and racial reconciliation.
The next thing we know, Seymour turns up in Indianapolis, IN in 1894, most likely looking for work. Even though Indianapolis was a center for the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, it was difficult for Seymour and many blacks to find work even here. Yet still Seymour very significantly pursues reconciliation, choosing to become involved with the Simpson Chapel, part of the Methodist Episcopal Church (as opposed to the closer African Methodist Episcopal Church).5 Robeck points out that we have evidence that Seymour was converted during his involvement with the MEC.6
Seymour soon moved to Cincinnati, OH around the turn of the century, about the same time W. E. B. DuBois made the above statement recognizing the racial problem as crucial to the 20th century. And in unwitting agreement with DuBois, in Cincinnati he again sought racial reconciliation in the church, joining up with the "Evening Light Saints." This congregation was part of a mainly white denomination that was vigorously reaching out to blacks.7 It is a testament to Seymour's heart that he naturally falls in with groups pursuing church unity, particularly racial unity and the erasure of the color line.
Seymour became involved with this church, traveling as a preacher. During these travels, he evidently discovered some relatives in Houston (they had been separated), and decided to move there.8 He was soon holding evangelistic meetings, and pastoring a small black congregation founded by Mrs. Lucy Farrow while she was serving as governess for another important man in Pentecostal history: Charles Parham.9
Parham himself came to Houston shortly to begin his second Bible school.10 On the recommendation of Farrow, Seymour gained admittance to Parham's school, where despite "local Jim Crow laws," he was allowed to attend Parham's classes, although he could not physically enter the classroom. He had to sit just outside the door to the classroom, which Parham carefully left ajar. Parham and Seymour would also venture together into the black community to preach.11 It was from Parham that Seymour learned about the Holy Spirit. Parham taught Pentecostalism as many have it today: a segregated church that believes in a "second blessing," the charismata, and a special emphasis on speaking in tongues as the evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit.
Whether they had a working relationship or a genuine friendship is unknown, but we do know that Seymour did not think Parham actually preferred segregation. Seymour assumed that Parham was only enforcing the racial segregation in his meetings and school as a temporary concession to the social environment, and that eventually he would phase in greater racial equality. As we will presently discover, that loving assumption would lead to Seymour's downfall.
312 Azusa St. -- The Line Blurs
The "color line" was washed away in the blood.
Although the color line was a national problem, it was painted in the South by a thick brush. Attempts to cross or blur it met with discouragement at best, violence at worst. But in other parts of the United States, the line was drawn thinner. And whether Seymour knew this or not, he found himself excited about an invitation to pastor a church out in Los Angeles.
One Mrs. Neely Terry had visited Farrow's church while Seymour was pastoring there, was quite impressed with him, and gushed about him to her prayer group back home in L.A. Sensing "divine urgings," they ended up sending him an invitation including travel expenses to come start a "holiness congregation."13 Seymour did not consider the invitation long. In fact, he jumped at it, feeling the invitation to be a "divine call."
The prayer group had no idea that Seymour was anything other than a godly pastor in the Holiness tradition. Until he arrived and began teaching, of course. Seymour began teaching a hybridization of Methodist/Holiness beliefs and the new Pentecostalism he had learned under Parham, including Spirit baptism with speaking in tongues. Controversy erupted in the small group, to the point that some of the members padlocked the doors of the church to keep Seymour out.14
Banned from the church he had been invited to pastor, Seymour did not wallow in despair or seek revenge. Rather, he responded by undergoing a vigil of prayer and fasting for many days. Through this unflappable humility, he earned the respect of many, even of some of his opponents, and a reputation as a man of prayer.15 Nor was he left alone. Several of the members of the church had been interested in what Seymour had to say, and one of the members invited Seymour to come teach at her fairly old house. Seymour began teaching there regularly, not like a typical modern Pentecostal pastor, with raised voice and full of passion, but as a calm teacher sure of his subject. John Sherrill described him as "quietly and logically presenting the Biblical background to his position."16 Keep in mind that Seymour, though he has been taught about the Holy Spirit, has not been baptized with the Holy Spirit himself at this point.
God was about to do something remarkable through Seymour, and perhaps the church rejecting him, like his early years amid severe racism, was a kind of test. Seymour remained godly and faithful through both of these occurrences. And if, as Christ said, "whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much,"17 then Seymour had proven himself trustworthy to handle the storms of life without capsizing or even losing direction.
So God entrusted Seymour with much. As he was teaching about the Holy Spirit on April 9, 1906, a janitor by the name of Edward Lee was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues.18 Presently Seymour and Lee walked over to the prayer meeting. Seymour began preaching from the book of Acts (likely teaching about Pentecost, one of his favorite sources of sermon material), but before he got very far, Edward Lee "electrified" the room with a charge of glossolalia. The Holy Spirit fell and almost as one, the people fell to their knees and were filled with divine love and joy as the Holy Spirit filled them. Laughter, praise, and speech in other tongues filled the room.
Without even a Spirit-filled leader, the Spirit's movement was begun. For three straight days, the group of "cooks, janitors, laborers, railroad porters, and washwomen carried on in exuberant celebration" as the Holy Spirit continued to move. At the end of the three days Seymour himself was filled with the Holy Spirit, after seeking the Baptism earnestly in prayer. As Foster tells it, Seymour and a white friend were praying, seeking the Holy Spirit, and as it grew late, the exhausted friend got up to leave, saying, "Now is not the time." But Seymour refused to leave, seeking the Holy Spirit, until finally he reported feeling an overwhelming sense of God's love as the Holy Spirit filled him.19 This may have been another way of God's continuing to refine Seymour into the leader He wanted to handle so volatile a thing as revival.
The supernatural so blatantly interacting with the natural is bound to attract a curious crowd, and as the news spread of the goings-on in the meeting house, the attendance grew rapidly. The old house was full to bursting with Pentecostals, both black and white, praising the Lord in styles frequently borrowed from African-American tradition.20
And burst it did. One night, as the group was in a moment of enthused praise, there came a crack and a shudder, and the floor of the old house gave way beneath them.21 This may have spelled the end of the group had it been a church like many modern churches, dependent on the facility and the "services" to attract and hold congregants. But this group was church, no matter where they met -- and now they really needed somewhere to meet.
The group searched and eventually discovered an unlikely place for a church by today's standards. It was a former livery stable, partially destroyed by fire and then abandoned. Its neighbors, far from being wealthy suburbs or attractive commercial developments, were a lumberyard, a stable, and a tombstone factory.22 But it was to become one of the most famous addresses in Pentecostal history: 312 Azusa St.
The group set to work fixing up the building, but didn't bother expending massive effort because of primary importance was continuing to worship God, and being filled with the Holy Spirit. After whitewashing the exterior, and setting up some planks to serve as pews, the group got down to the serious business of church. And the word continued to spread like wildfire -- over on Azusa St., the people speak in other languages! Over on Azusa St., whites and blacks worship God together! And the new building filled almost immediately, as huge crowds of both races augmented their numbers. Officially, they scheduled three meetings daily, but more often than not, the three "meetings" blended into one continuous worship experience.23
And Azusa Street was off and running, the whitewashed walls like giant sails open to catch the wind of the Holy Spirit. Seymour was of course the leader, but as Sherrill observes, "he led more by suggestion than by direction." The group was led primarily by the Holy Spirit, sometimes breaking forth into prayer and tongues, other times silently waiting on the Lord, other times erupting into exuberant praise. And occasionally, Seymour would preach. He would sit quietly at one end, "preaching rarely and praying often."24
The revival was to go on without stopping for three years, one of the most remarkable revivals in history. "Without fanfare," says Sherrill, "without advertisements, or choirs, or bands, or any of the usual accompaniments of revival, the movement which was born in an old livery stable swept ahead. All day, all night, for over 1000 days."25 The Azusa St. revival attracted people from all over the world, in turn sending missionaries all over the world. Many of the existing Pentecostal denominations (even worldwide) can trace their roots back to Azusa St.
But perhaps most remarkable about the Azusa St. revival is the demographics of its attendees. If we examine churches today, we find that most are clearly divided along racial lines, or social class. There are white churches and black churches, Somali churches and Chinese churches. And today we claim to have greatly reduced racism since the Reconstruction a century ago. In 1906, we claim, things were much worse. Yet racism notwithstanding, at Azusa St., typically divisive categories meant nothing. On any given day the crowd at 312 Azusa may have included both rich and poor people, both white and black, old and young, educated and illiterate. People came from all across America, from Canada, from as far afield as Great Britain.26
There is no denying the unique significance of the Azusa St. revival in spawning the Pentecostal movement. Up for debate, however, is the question of why. Sherrill has already mentioned the lack of publicity the movement made for itself. As one mystified observer of the revival put it, there was "No choir... No collections are taken... No bills have been posted to advertize the meetings. No church organization is back of it... You find a two-storey white-washed old building. You would hardly expect heavenly visitations there."27 Beyond that, Seymour was not a dynamo of authoritative leadership. He was calm, believing in empowering and involving everyone that he possibly could in the furtherance of the Gospel of love, rather than charging ahead with his own plans. He did not have the contacts or the influence of other religious leaders, nor was he as well educated as many of them.28 His race prohibited him from having influence in many white-dominated settings. Yet still Seymour and the people he led at Azusa St. are responsible for the birth of an entire movement, with many millions of believers today.
Other people and places had already begun teaching about tongues, most notably Parham, cited by many as the father of Pentecostalism. But none of these were chosen for God's explosive work. Parham's schools disintegrated, whereas Azusa St. spread across the world. If Parham is Pentecostalism's father, the revival at Azusa Street is its mother, because Parham's seed of Pentecostalism only birthed a movement through Seymour and the revival in L.A. All of this information intensifies our question: why? Why did God choose Seymour and Azusa St.?
While we must not forget the sovereignty of God in choosing to do His work however He wants, Foster suggests four important factors. First, he cites Seymour's understanding of glossolalia as existing for the purpose of interracial reconciliation and community. Seymour consistently connected the Holy Spirit's movement at Azusa St. with Pentecost, "where the result... was reconciliation between nations and races and cultures."29 In fact, Seymour viewed the interracial miracle of Azusa as equally astounding as glossolalia, viewing them both as supernaturally wrought by the Holy Spirit.
Second, Seymour saw all people as potential leaders, the same as he saw all people as brothers and sisters in Christ. Neither gender, race, education, nor wealth was a factor for Seymour; anyone could assume leadership in ministry.30
Third, Seymour recognized the primacy of love. For Seymour, love was more important than anything else, even tongues, and it was in this context that he understood the Holy Spirit. "The Pentecostal power, when you sum it all up, is just more of God's love," says Seymour. "If it does not bring more of God's love it is simply a counterfeit." For Seymour, love was "the standard."31
Foster's last reason is Seymour himself. Seymour was a holy, godly, meek man with a bent towards reconciliation, unity, and ecumenism.32 He had an empowering leadership style, and a godly presence, and was a man of prayer. As we have seen, he had been tested and proven in the fires of racism and rejection.
Seymour recognized that the unity of the church is crucial to the believability of the Gospel, and that unity must transcend race, gender, education, and culture. This belief, when coupled with his understanding of the Holy Spirit's role in achieving this unity, was a radical new teaching for its time, different entirely from Parham's brand of Pentecostalism. And this is the Pentecostalism God allowed to reproduce across the nation. "In the midst of the most racist era of a totally segregated society," writes Foster, "Azusa St. was an all-inclusive fellowship beyond the color line."33
The Heart of a Leader
In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.
(In essentials unity, in doubtful questions liberty, in all things charity)
We have examined Seymour's beliefs as they relate to the Azusa Street Mission's success. But it would be unfair only to deal with his beliefs in this fashion. Although Seymour led more by "suggestion," he nonetheless represented the heart of the mission; as the leader, Seymour was the Azusa St. revival personified. His take on the Holy Spirit catalyzed one of the most profound revivals in church history. It therefore behooves us to examine his beliefs in greater detail.
Augustine and Seymour would likely have been great friends, sharing as they did their love of church unity. The Azusa St. revival has been criticized as anarchic, lacking sound doctrine to give meaning and direction to the spiritual activities. Seymour apparently felt as did Augustine that in these "doubtful questions," liberty and charity should prevail. Seymour used different terminology, referring instead to the "standard" of love as dominant in a Christian's life. The Holy Spirit, although giving gifts of prophecy, tongues, etc., primarily fills the baptized believer with divine love. This is why love is listed as the primary fruit of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians. Seymour went so far as to say, "Pentecost means to live right in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, which is the standard."34 Just as Christ (and Paul) summarized the Law and the Prophets as "love God completely and love your neighbor selflessly,"35 Seymour described love as the goal and fruit of Spirit-filled Christianity. Love leads to a unified church, as opposed to doctrine, which often divides the church (particularly about something so controversial as the Holy Spirit).
Seymour took Christ's prayer for the church as his own. When Christ prayed that "they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me,"36 Seymour prayed in turn, "O how my heart cries out to God in these days that He would make every child of His see the necessity of living in the 17th chapter of John, that we may be one in the body of Christ, as Jesus prayed."37 Seymour's vision for the church is directed by his understanding that "God makes no difference in nationality; Ethiopians, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, and other nationalities worship together" and "He is no respecter of persons or places."38
Seymour's emphasis on love and unity cannot be stressed enough, particularly given the direction that Pentecostalism has gone since. For his time, it was a radical idea, and now, for our time, it is just as radical. Many kinds of different (even antithetically so) people uniting through God and very little else is perpetually radical. Seymour took John 17 seriously, and we may comically suggest that so did God: Christ said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,"39 and when the people at 312 Azusa demonstrated love through racial reconciliation, many were added to their number, lending both Seymour's pneumatology and God's Word further credence. Lamar Vest describes Seymour's emphasis on love and unity concisely:
[The] Azusa Mission, both through verbal and printed proclamation, declared itself as standing for the unity of God's people everywhere. The baptism of the Holy Spirit was seen as the unifying factor, baptizing believers by one Spirit into one body. Seymour also recognized interracial inclusiveness to be a central mark of the church. For Seymour there appeared to be a definite relationship between sanctification, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and racial unity. Sanctification required racial unity because the heart of sanctification was love. Tongues and love were the evidence of the Holy Spirit baptism. Seymour seemed to understand that tongues could be falsified but that love could not be faked over a long period of time.40
When Vest describes "love and tongues" as the evidence of Holy Spirit baptism according to Seymour, we may wonder how that fits in to a typical Pentecostal view of tongues exclusively as the initial physical evidence. We must here mention Seymour's view of tongues. Seymour learned about tongues under Parham, and when he began teaching in L.A., this was the teaching he promulgated. But as the revival proceeded, Seymour's understanding changed. He came to view the Holy Spirit practically, as an agent of God's love, filling the believer with divine love, with tongues as more of a side effect. He found himself agreeing strongly with the Apostle Paul's words, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal."41 Perhaps this is why Seymour "opposed those who insisted on speaking in tongues as the 'Bible evidence' of baptism in the Spirit without an equal insistence that the speaker manifest the fruit of the Spirit."42
In 1915, Seymour published The Doctrines and Disciplines of the Azusa Street Apostolic Faith Mission of Los Angeles, Cal., a 95-page book containing largely doctrines copied (sometimes verbatim) from the Doctrines and Disciplines of several Methodist organizations, and from the "Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion" of the Anglican Church. Some of these doctrines were subtly edited. The remaining text was Seymour's own "apostolic address," warning against many of the dangers Seymour felt were threatening the Mission, including "soul sleep, annihilationism, spiritualism, baptism in Jesus' name, triple immersion baptism, and the observance of Saturday as the Sabbath."43 But of greater relevance to us was Seymour's warning against two things, warnings which Pentecostalism as a movement did not heed. Seymour warned first against disunity, and second against tongues as the only evidence of baptism in the Spirit.44 Seymour saw the fruit of the Spirit, particularly love, as more important than tongues for determining Spirit baptism. (Of course, he viewed love practically, which may mean that in a way he viewed love as physical evidence.) "If you get angry," he says, "or speak evil, or backbite, I care not how many tongues you may have, you have not the baptism with the Holy Spirit."45
How is it that this focus on divine, all-inclusive love as "the central reality of the Spirit's presence" and the primary evidence of the Holy Spirit, with tongues relegated to a less important doctrinal position, is not found in today's Pentecostalism? Although the answer is unpleasant, we cannot overlook it. Division took place all too quickly in Azusa St.'s history, and unfortunately it smacked of racism, or at least an unwillingness on the part of white leaders to accept this newfound racial unity, an issue on which Seymour would not budge. "Seymour championed one doctrine above all others: there must be no color line or other division in the church of Jesus Christ because God is no respecter of persons," writes Douglas Nelson. "He resolutely refused to segregate... For this reason, and this reason alone Seymour was rejected and forgotten by the movement he created."46
As the doctrinal consequence of this rejection, "many white leaders never understood his [Seymour's] insight here [that love was primary to the movement], and so they made glossolalia the distinctive mark of Pentecostal fellowship."47 As we will see, this departure from its foundational belief reflects more than just a theological position -- it reflects the triumph of prejudice over unity, of power over humility, pride over reconciliation.
Subversion and Disunity -- The Line Redrawn
Theology conceived as dogmatics has helped the Western church become
accustomed to the idea that its own divisions are a normal state of affairs.
-Prof. Bruce Marshall48
During the height of the revival, Seymour's radical notion of racial unity empowered by the Holy Spirit seemed to be realized. Perhaps the newness of glossolalia, the Holy Spirit's other manifestations, and such iconoclastic racial unity led visitors to humble themselves in wonder, surrendering prejudices and pride to such an obvious move of God. Several sources report that white leaders came in great numbers, encountered the revival and the humble leadership of Seymour, repented of their racism, and worked alongside Seymour at the Mission. "Never in history," reports Foster, "had any such leadership surged into the church of a black pastor."49
But it was not to last forever. Not all Pentecostals felt the same about the Holy Spirit as did Seymour, the Azusa Street revival's success notwithstanding, and some of these were key figures in Pentecostal history. Most notable in the beginning of Pentecostalism's departure from racial unity was the division wrought by Charles Parham.
Seymour invited Parham to join the movement at Azusa, recognizing his culturally imposed limits as a black pastor, and needing the help of white leaders to achieve maximum impact. Parham came to Azusa in October of 1906 and reacted poorly.50 When he came and saw the goings-on at Azusa, he pushed his way through the crowd, stood at the pulpit, and declared emphatically, "God is sick at His stomach!" Parham was obviously not ready for the racial unity of the church. In fact, he was never planning on racial unity in the church. Foster reports that Parham "maintained close affinities with the Ku Klux Klan, believed that the mixing of the races had caused the flood in Noah's time, and viewed the Anglo-Saxon race as the lineal descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel."51 He consequently viewed the emphasis on racial unity (and the preponderance of black leadership) as misguided, to say the least. Parham described the Azusa happenings scornfully as nothing more than "trances, falling under the power, holy-rolling-dancing-jumping, shaking, jabbering, chattering, wind-sucking and giving vent to meaningless sounds and noises as practiced by the Negroes of the Southland."52
Parham, despite his scathing critique of the Azusa St. revival, moved to take control of it, explaining that it was merely an extension of his own ministry that had gone awry. But Seymour's followers were offended at Parham's intrusion, and would not accept his leadership. So since Parham thought Seymour and Azusa to be in the wrong, he stubbornly started a rival movement only five blocks away.53 This was the beginning of the division that eventually pulled the Azusa Street revival apart, and started the trend toward aggressive, segregated Pentecostalism that viewed the Holy Spirit as empowering for ministry, evidenced by tongues, without a significant emphasis on divine love enabling racial reconciliation.
Many white leaders, following the example of the supposed father of Pentecostalism, rationalized splitting from Azusa Street for a number of reasons. Foster describes them as wanting glossolalia and the experience with the Holy Spirit, but not the associated interracial mingling and equality.54 As these leaders separated from Azusa physically, the doctrine separated accordingly. The emphasis could no longer be on church unity (the hypocrisy would be tangible), and so the distinctive characteristic of Pentecostalism for these leaders became glossolalia. In rejecting racial unity, these leaders chose to reject a central tenet of Seymour's pneumatology. In this sense, perhaps Parham was the father of modern Pentecostalism.
Parham was not the only white leader to attempt to wrest leadership of the revival away from Seymour. Robeck gives a concise account of another such tragedy:
During one of his [Seymour's] trips in 1911, Mrs. Seymour invited William H. Durham to preach a series of services at the mission. Durham, believing that Seymour was not capable of leading the revival any longer, used the opportunity to lobby for control of the mission. Seymour's early return set the stage for an explosive conflict that exposed Durham's plot. Seymour managed to regain control of the mission only when he and his supporters locked the doors against Durham. Durham retreated, only to found another competing congregation just blocks away.55
It says something about the authenticity of the movement at Azusa that people who came and saw the Spirit's move wanted it. Although people usually wanted it in the sense that they repented and sought the baptism of the Holy Spirit, obviously some white leaders (such as Parham and Durham) wanted to lead or control it.
After this fragmentation had begun, there was no returning to the previous radical unity. Foster reports, hopefully too strongly, that "the movement split irreparably along racial lines."56 This racial schism began the trend toward denominationalism and away from ecumenism. In trusting his "white brethren" completely, Seymour was a casualty of his own radical beliefs.
Toward the end of his life Seymour felt as though he had been "rejected by those he had been called to serve, and feelings of inadequacy attended his later years."57 He died of a heart attack (some say a broken heart) on Sept. 28, 1922, at the age of 52.58
Towards a New Old Pentecostalism -- Reviving the Revival
Wherever God can get a people that will come together in one accord and
one mind in the Word of God, the baptism of the Holy Ghost will fall upon them.
We have seen that the history of Pentecostalism is a sad story of the triumph of segregation over the upstart unity achieved through the Holy Spirit during the Azusa Street revival. The greatest tragedy of the story, however, is that if William Seymour was correct in his understanding of the Holy Spirit's work, then Pentecostalism as a whole has misunderstood the work of the Holy Spirit. Vest addresses the problem: "If, indeed, racial unity was a vital part of the foundation of the Pentecostal Movement (as I believe it was), this vision has been drastically eclipsed."60
The tragedy begs the question: can Pentecostalism recover its heart? Can Pentecostals forgive each other, view the world as primarily unsaved vs. saved, instead of Pentecostal vs. non-Pentecostal, or Pentecostal vs. Charismatic, or even Pentecostal vs. Pentecostal? Is there a united future for Pentecostalism?
Possibly so. Pentecostalism has as an advantage a past that tended to avoid drawing up legislation, preferring instead freedom to allow the Holy Spirit to move as He chose through whomever He chose. This meant that most Pentecostal fellowships were not denominations, and welcomed people from varying denominations. Though in recent times the trend toward denominationalism has led to the formation of specifically Pentecostal denominations, understanding of several critical areas may help the Spirit of Pentecost to break forth once more.
First, we must understand the primary importance of unity, and the Holy Spirit's role therein. Seymour was not the first one to see a fundamental link between the Holy Spirit's work and unity, nor is his idea something new. In challenging Pentecostals today to "revive the revival," we are not recommending an exclusive revival of William Seymour's brand of Pentecostalism. We propose instead a revival of Pentecost itself, of which the revival at Azusa St. was one example.
Before we examine Pentecost, let us clarify what we mean by the term "unity." Elsewhere I have described what I call the "unity paradox" -- that is, the principle that "the more diverse a thing, the more it is unified."61 Uniting involves a minimum of two diverse things to unite. Put simply, unity involves conjoining diversity, not eliminating it. It follows that the greater the diversity, the greater the potential unity.
This idea of unity growing as its diversity grows is easily demonstrated by looking at our celestial future: "The heavenly church represents the ultimate triumph of unity, as every possible us/them is represented in a single body. I believe this means that in heaven, we will not be homogenized into a One. Our differences will remain, most likely expand (as every culture that has ever been is represented in heaven)."62 The Kingdom of God is united in Christ through the Holy Spirit to glorify God, and the greater the diversity of His Kingdom, the greater His glory. And, as Christ taught us to pray for God's Kingdom to come, and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven,63 the Church today ought to attempt to achieve some level of this diversified unity. We ought therefore to keep in mind a principle that Seymour understood well: "Unity thrives amid diversity. If we seek unity, let us therefore seek diversity."64
At Pentecost, "they were all together in one place"65 when the Holy Spirit came upon them. When they began to speak in tongues, people from all nations heard them speaking and were amazed. Consider the impressively diverse list of people present at Pentecost: "Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs."66 Representatives of most of the known world were present for the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and it began when the believers were all together in one place, in agreement with the opening quote of Seymour's. Scripture places narrative weight on the significance of all nations being represented.
On a related note, it is interesting to consider the Holy Spirit's chosen function for tongues at Pentecost. God first implemented diverse tongues at Babel to separate humanity (cf. Gen. 11). But here, God employs diverse tongues to accomplish the opposite. "At Pentecost [as opposed to Babel]," suggests Dr. James Allen, "God used tongues to unite people."67
Acts 10 records the coming of the gospel (and with it the Holy Spirit) to the Gentiles. After a series of divine urgings prompts the unusually counter-cultural meeting, Peter and other circumcised believers meet at the Gentile household of the centurion Cornelius. This unusual meeting of circumcised and uncircumcised results in the entire household of Cornelius receiving salvation and the Holy Spirit, and speaking in tongues, another example of diversified unity bringing the Holy Spirit.
We have examined specifically several of the verses Pentecostals hold dear, those verses where the Holy Spirit came powerfully and the believers spoke in tongues, to demonstrate the importance of unity to the Pentecostal movement. The Pentecostals place an emphasis on experiencing God through the Holy Spirit, yet today, less than 50% of Assemblies of God speaks in tongues.68 Statistics are similar throughout the Pentecostal denominations, and we are herein suggesting that a major cause is their lack of unity. A survey of Pentecostal denominations reveals a church that is overwhelmingly segregated. It thus becomes difficult to see the connection between loving unity and the fullness of the Spirit, the connection which was so obvious at Pentecost and Azusa St.. These two settings attracted people from every race and religion and culture. Understandably, Pentecostalism as a movement could not include people from every religion, but that should not preclude people from every race and culture, because truth transcends these distinctions.
Modern Pentecostals face a great difficulty in correcting their doctrine, because Pentecostalism has reached a point where changing the doctrine would condemn the movement. In addition, it must overcome a dual history -- first, the history of segregation and denominationalism, and secondly, the national history of racism, and the trend towards segregation. Granted, denominations seem to function as reinforcements for the segregation of the church (cf. Marshall's opening quote in the previous chapter). It is the opinion of this author that no denomination has a complete picture of God's Word, and that by institutionalizing differing personal interpretations of Scripture, they jeopardize both the efficacy of the Church's evangelism and the accountability of the Church to itself. But that is a related topic for another day.
Crucial to a healthy recovery is an understanding of the relative importance of (Pentecostal) theology and doctrine. Certainly these are important aspects of the Church and the Christian faith, but we must understand their place and purpose. In Jesus' words, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."69 It would not be an inventive extrapolation to say that "doctrine was made for the Church, not the Church for doctrine." God is Lord even of our theology about Him. Often in academia or science we perceive the object of study as beneath the study, coming "under" our scrutiny, and the study is outside the object being studied. But we cannot apply that principle to theology; God is well above and outside our theologizing. All our study may show us approved, but it cannot limit God to anything other than His Word.70
Is doctrine unnecessary? We may think that so vague a concept as "love" makes a very poor central doctrine, and an unsatisfying central purpose of the Holy Spirit. Can we replace systematic doctrine with just "love"? Yet Seymour's emphasis on love above doctrine matches Christ's summation of the law with two love commands. Pharisees and church leaders in Christ's day used doctrine as a trap, to attempt to limit the ministry of Christ. Sadly, some church leaders seem to do this today, particularly to limit the Holy Spirit. A Pharisaical obsession with the law (rules and doctrine) is still leading much of our church, while the fulfillment of that law, i.e. the love mentioned by Christ and reiterated by Seymour, is relegated to an understood backbone supporting the flesh of the law.
An interesting thing happened at the second assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, outside Chicago, in August 1954. The situation, brought about largely by the work of David du Plessis, was almost an experiment in getting people from various groups within Christendom to dialogue. Tensions were high, and it seemed doubtful that steps toward unity could be made, given doctrinal differences. But, as Cecil Robeck describes, the result was unexpected: "None of these men was willing to give any ground on what he perceived to be the truth of the gospel for the sake of unity. But in each case the conclusion was the same. They had expected to see a triumph of liberalism. What they found was in fact something quite different. Unity was not coming at the expense of truth."71
Uniting with a fellow believer does not necessarily mean assuming his interpretation of Scripture. Walter Hollenwager describes how British Pentecostal Donald Gee could successfully cultivate relationships with others who differed from him in doctrine: "Gee saw very clearly the doctrinal differences between Pentecostals and the member churches of the WCC. But since doctrine was not his only yardstick, he could cultivate fellowship beyond the bounds of doctrinal agreement, an experience which every genuine ecumenist will have sooner or later. That does not invalidate theological debate but it puts it in its place."72
What future then has Pentecostalism? It appears that returning to original Pentecostalism must first involve an understanding of what made Pentecost and Azusa St. such spectacular, powerful, and lasting moves of the Holy Spirit. Then, we must understand the primary importance of unity, as well as the relative importance of theology. We must, if we expect the Holy Spirit to move on a grand scale, value unity over theology on a grand scale.
It follows that we would then seek to modify our doctrine to avoid exclusivism. It must be possible to maintain a Pentecostal focus on the Holy Spirit without excluding so many believers as Pentecostalism currently does. One obvious example is the insistence of the glossolalia as the initial physical evidence of being filled by the Spirit. Irregardless of that doctrine's correctness, the history of Pentecostalism reveals it as an inferior brand of Pentecostalism, the one that divided and segregated the work at Azusa, the white man's "Pentecostal distinctive" to replace the unwanted distinctive of inter-racial unity. In a previous position paper, I discussed how this doctrine is certainly allowed Scripturally, but there is not enough evidence to make it an essential, fundamental tenet of a denomination. I felt that was making an essential issue out of a nonessential issue, and, contrary to both Christ's prayer and "original Pentecostalism," limits the unity of the church by placing an inferred doctrinal issue in the same category as the explicit fundamental doctrines of Christianity.73
Our challenge today is monumental but clear. Can we restore a unity to the church? Can we use doctrine not to exclude or draw divisive lines, but to unite? Seymour understood that "Wherever God can get a people that will come together in one accord and one mind in the Word of God, the baptism of the Holy Ghost will fall upon them." If we endeavor to place a focus on the Holy Spirit's work, we are missing the boat if we do not therefore place an emphasis on Christian unity. Bruce Marshall sums up eloquently:
Christian theology, if it is to have any future, ought therefore to strive for the identification, not of a hidden fundamental difference but of an ecumenical consensus, hidden or otherwise, in the historic belief and practice of the divided churches on all topics essential to the gospel or historically divisive. Identifying such an ecumenical doctrinal consensus will not by itself unify the divided churches, and there are many other tasks to which theology must attend. But if there is no such consensus, then the gospel is false, and all other theological projects are, in the nature of the case, quite useless.74
1 DuBois qtd. in Foster, Richard J. Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. HarperCollins Publishers Inc. New York, NY. 1998. p. 119.
2 Robeck, C. M. Jr., "Seymour, William Joseph," in Burgess, Stanley M. ed. The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI. 2002. p. 1053.
3 Ibid., 1053.
4 Foster, 113.
5 Ibid., 113.
6 Robeck, 1054.
7 Foster, 114.
8 Ibid., 114.
9 Robeck, 1055.
10 Foster, 114.
11 Robeck, 1055.
12 Foster, 117.
13 Ibid., 115.
14 Ibid., 115.
15 Ibid., 115.
16 Sherrill, John L. They Speak With Other Tongues. Fleming H. Revell Co.: Old Tappan, NJ. 1964. p. 41.
17 Luke 16:10. All citations NIV (© 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society) unless otherwise noted.
18 Foster, 115.
19 Ibid., 116.
20 Sherrill, 41.
21 Ibid., 41.
22 Ibid., 41-42.
23 Foster, 117.
24 Sherrill, 42.
25 Ibid., 43.
26 Ibid., 42.
27 Foster, 118.
28 Ibid., 118.
29 Ibid., 119.
30 Ibid., 119.
31 Ibid., 120.
32 Ibid., 121.
33 Ibid., 113.
34 Ibid., 120.
35 Matt. 22:37-40 (paraphrase). Also found in Mark 12:29-31. See also Luke 10:26-28 and Romans 13:9,10.
36 John 17:23.
37 Foster, 121.
38 Apostolic Faith Sept. 1906 p. 3 and Dec. 1906 p. 1.
39 John 13:35.
40 Vest, Dr. Lamar. "The Past: Historical Roots of Racial Unity and Division in American Pentecostalism -- Response to a Paper Presented by Dr. Cecil M. Robeck." Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America (PCCNA). http://www.pctii.org/pccna/papers/vest.html, p. 1.
41 1 Cor. 13:1.
42 Robeck, 1057.
43 Ibid., 1057.
44 Foster, 124.
45 Ibid., 120.
46 Nelson qtd. In Foster, 124.
47 Foster, 120.
48 Marshall, Bruce D. "The Disunity of the Church and the Credibility of the Gospel." Theology Today, Vol. 50, April 1993. p. 88.
49 Foster, 119.
50 Robeck, 1055.
51 Foster, 123.
52 Robeck, 1055-1056.
53 Ibid., 1056.
54 Foster, 123.
55 Robeck, 1056-1057.
56 Foster, 123.
57 Robeck, 1057.
58 Foster, 125.
59 Ibid., 124.
60 Vest, 1.
61 Bardon, Zachary. "The Unity Paradox" in On Community. 2004. p. 6.
62 Ibid., 6-7.
63 Matt. 6:9 (also cf. Luke 6:2)
64 Bardon, 7.
65 Acts 2:1.
66 Acts 2:9-11.
67 Allen, Dr. James, in lecture at North Central University 12/2/2004.
69 Mark 2:27.
70 cf. 2 Tim. 2:15: "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (KJV) Studying the Word is Biblical, but its purpose is to change ourselves, not to fashion or limit the role of God.
71 Robeck, Cecil M. The Ecumenical Review. January 1995. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2065/is_n1_v47/ai_16420085
72 Hollenwager, Walter. The Ecumenical Review. July 2000. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2065/is_3_52/ai_66279079
73 Bardon, Zachary. "On Initial Physical Evidence(s)". 2001.
74 Marshall, 89.
© 1998-2023 Zach Bardon
Last modified 7.19.2019