Though William J. Seymour was about as culturally disenfranchised as an American could be at the dawn of the 20th century, and though the time of influence was relatively short, he had the distinct honor to be the central figure in one of the largest movements in the last hundred years.
The son of ex-African American slaves, we don’t know as much about the details of Seymour’s life as we’d like, but we do know that he grew up very poor. He also resided in the South during his formative years when the Klu Klux Klan was terrorizing Black families and circumstances weren’t generally favorable for those of African descent living in this area of the country.
In his 20’s he bounced around Northern states working various jobs and being heavily influenced by various holiness churches. He also contracted Small Pox by this point of his life, and while his life was spared, he was left blind in one eye and with a partially disfigured face.
At some point he was drawn to Texas and was able to attend Charles Parham’s 10-week Bible course. Though, it must be said that because of Texan segregation laws, he wasn’t actually able to sit in the class room or be a formal student. He took advantage of a legalist loophole where Parham allowed him to sit in the hallway to listen in to his teachings.
It seems that Parham loved Black Americans but later also demonstrated racist tendencies which ultimately hurt Seymour. For the time being, however, Seymour learned from this Holiness teacher’s theology and, with only completing 5 weeks of the course, took off for Los Angeles where he felt called to pastor a small house church.
Parham had a conviction that the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” that Jesus spoke of was something that would only be demonstrated by speaking in tongues. It was at one of his schools in 1901 that students began to speak in tongues en masse and so, in 1906, when Seymour took over pastoral duties at the small Los Angeles church, he began to preach that every Christian should desire the gift of tongues (known as glossolalia), as it would be evidence of the gift of being immersed in God’s Spirit.
This theological position wasn’t received by all but a small band from the church rallied around Seymour and, after moving their reduced meetings to the home of one of the couples, the group began to experience the gift of tongues.
This of course blossomed into the Azusa Revival which later gave birth to the global phenomenon known as the Pentecostal movement and its mainstream offshoot, the Charismatic movement.
There is much to tell about this revival and its legacy, both arguably for the better and for the worse, but in this episode, Justin is joined by Jordan McCloud as they discuss not only the details of Seymour’s life but also the implications of both Seymour’s hallmark humility as well as his Christlike approach to race in the midst of one of the greatest eras of racial discord in U.S. history. Truly, the Azusa Revival is known by the famous line written by its primary documenter, Frank Bartleman: “The color line was washed away in the Blood [of Christ].”
Listen along as Jordan and Justin discuss the life of William J. Seymour and the ways they see that his walk with God could inspire salt, light and peace in today’s world.
- Seymour grew out a beard to cover his facial disfiguration.
- His family only owned two pieces of furniture.
- The revival was marked by black, white, hispanic and other ethnicities all communing and leading together.
- The quote referenced in the title was from influential Pentecostal forerunner, William H. Durham. The full quote about Seymour is as follows: "He is the meekest man I ever met. He walks and talks with God. His power is in his weakness. He seems to maintain a helpless dependence on God and is simple-hearted as a little child, and at the same time is so filled with God that you feel the love and power every time you get near him."