It is the 28th of September 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Church history is filled with the overlooked, the underrated, and the passed over… in part because those who imitate Jesus will be humble and seek to elevate him over themselves. Also, because religion is a big business, there is no shortage of those who would be attracted to the spotlight and be none too slow to horde acclaim. I believe both of these things have led to the erasure, or at least cover, of one of the modern church’s most important leaders- a man who is responsible for one of the largest traditions in the global church and often given a paragraph or footnote in surveys of church history (and often as a curiosity- a one-eyed former slave who made it to Los Angeles).
He was William J. Seymour. We don’t know when he was born, likely in the mid-1850s in Louisiana. His family was enslaved and emancipated when the boy was around 10. His father died soon after, and William became the primary breadwinner for the family. The reports we have are few, but he began to travel- perhaps in search of extended family- and ended up in Houston, Texas, at the turn of the century. There, he made acquaintance with the Evening Light Saints- a split off of the Methodist church and holiness movement. In 1905, he met Lucy Farrow, who had attended Charles Parham’s bible college in Kansas, where the first report of speaking in tongues had recently taken place. Parham had moved his Bible college to Houston, and Seymour would attend. Well, he would sit outside the classroom and take notes, as state laws wouldn’t allow for an African American to attend a white school.
As Seymour planned to start his own church in Houston, he received a letter from a former classmate (or fellow sitting just outside of a classmate), and she invited him out to her church in Los Angeles. In April of 1906, Seymour made his way out west and preached his first sermon on the coast- he preached on Acts 2 and claimed the need for a baptism in the Holy Spirit. It was well received, but when Seymour came back to preach the afternoon service, he found himself locked out. The church leadership disagreed with his teaching on a second blessing, and Seymour was invited to the house of sympathetic church members at 312 Bonnie Brae Street near what would become downtown Los Angeles.
Needing more space, he moved to the home of the Asbury’s nearby, where he witnessed his first case of glossolalia- or speaking in foreign tongues (in an unknown language, unlike Parham’s followers who were said to have spoken recognizable foreign languages). Hundreds flocked to the Asbury’s, where the porch crashed under the weight of the curious. Seymour found an abandoned mission at 312 Azusa Street, and for the next three years, tens of thousands from around the world flocked to Seymour’s humble services. He did have a glass eye, which the press mocked as “hypnotizing,” and the press had a field day with the exuberance. And while the church was undoubtedly growing and sending out emissaries for this new “Pentecostal” movement, many came looking to cash in, including his old teacher Charles Parham, who came out and condemned the mixing of races and the teaching that one could be entirely sanctified by a second blessing. He and other white ministers would begin their own churches, borrowing from Seymour many of his teachings, but remained segregated.
In 1908, Seymour married Jennie Moon, one of the mission’s original members. This upset two of his followers, Florence Crawford and Clara Lum, who objected- ostensibly because they claimed the rapture was imminent, and this betrayed his faith in that. They moved to Portland and took Seymour’s greatest asset- his mailing list. They began mailing out a version of Seymour’s newsletter, eclipsing the original. Another former follower, William Durham, came to the mission to criticize Seymour’s theology of sanctification and started a rival church. The Pentecostal movement would grow exponentially around America and into the rest of the world. Parham would be given a footnote as the shabby, one-eyed itinerant (he was, by most accounts, quite dapper, polished, and humble). William J. Seymour would die of a heart attack on the 28th of September in 1922. He had remained faithful to his church, now a skeleton of itself but to be recreated the world over with millions of adherents- perhaps the fastest-growing movement in 20th-century global Christianity.
The last word for today is from Acts 2- let’s take a look at a portion of the text that sparked a movement:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
(To verse 14)
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 28th of September 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite monophthalmics include William Seymour, Mike Wazowski, and the Goonie’s One-Eyed Willie- “Hey You Guuuuys”- he us Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who knows what you call a dinosaur with one eye: a “do-you-think-he-saur-us” I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be OK.