The Witness

To Shape A New World: William Seymour and Black Faith in the Drama of Civil Rights – Part 2

Dante Stewart

Read Part 1 here.

Black Pentecostals

Though this Black Great Awakening had long taken place, in the early 1900s, the battle for Civil Rights found a spark in a forgotten place: the Azusa Street Revival of 1906. 

Jonathan Chism highlights this when he writes, “Many religious and Civil Rights scholars have ignored Black Holiness-Pentecostal involvements” in the freedom struggle, and instead have focused on the roles of Black Baptists and Methodists. It must not be forgotten that the most renowned leader of the movement, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., preached his last sermon at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ (COGIC) after having received the “Macedonian Call” to help the sanitation workers of Memphis.

Forerunner of Civil Rights

Though often treated as outsiders, Pentecostals played a pivotal role in the movement through many channels. One such Pentecostal, many years before the movement, found himself at the heart of these revivals. His name was William Seymour, the “Father” of Black Pentecostalism.

Azusa, which would have far-reaching effects in the nation, was initiated by Seymour’s preaching but would soon give way to White flight. Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians all worshiped together. It was such a phenomena that one said, “The interracial character on Azusa Street was indeed a kind of miracle.” One preacher went so far as to proclaim, “The color line was washed away by the Blood.” Such optimism buckled once again under the segregationist theology of White Christians, causing Seymour to question the central expression of the movement: speaking in tongues.

Black Fire

It’s unfortunate that Charles Parham, Seymour’s mentor and leader in the Pentecostalism movement, seemed not to be listening to the voice of the Spirit but to the voice of the world. In her excellent book, “Black Fire: One Hundred Years of African-American Pentecostalism,” Estrelda Alexander tells the story of the meeting between the young, eager Seymour and Parham. Seymour had “expected that Parham would be excited that his vision” was finally finding a home in the West. Believing that Parham would rejoice and approve of the Spirit’s movement, Seymour quickly found that instead, Parham was repulsed by what he saw as “worshipers’ scandalous, unrestrained and disorderly race-mixing.”

What Parham would call “crude negroisms” led to his disapproval and departure from the revival. He simply could not hear what the Spirit was speaking. William Seymour would have none of this.

Joining the Spirit

These attacks made Seymour “rethink the power of glossolalia alone as a force to eradicate racism and separatism.” Seeing that those speaking in tongues could still practice racism, he was convinced that tongues were not most important, but “the dissolution of racial barriers was the surest sign of the Spirit’s Pentecostal presence.” He cared not how many tongues people spoke. If you didn’t participate in this new world of love, “you have not the baptism of the Holy Spirit.”

For Seymour, life in the Spirit, was not simply a life made alive to God but also a life made alive in the world. To be made alive is to at once share all things in common and to take upon oneself another’s history, conflict, and struggles, and seek to cultivate community, hope, and change at all levels of the human experience. Real people must cross real barriers. As the Spirit completely disrupted the cycle of nationalism, racism, dehumanization, and all that threatened human life in the days of old, in “these last days,” as Seymour called it, we must join the Spirit in that same work.

As Daniel Miglioire writes, the “Spirit keeps awakening hope, yearning, and restlessness for the completion of God’s redemptive work and the establishment of justice and peace throughout the creation..and incites fresh visions of God’s new world.” The Spirit of redemption is also the Spirit of resistance.

For Seymour, to consider oneself baptized in the Spirit was to also be baptized in the pursuit of freedom. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is joining in God’s struggle for liberation and reconciliation. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the Church being the Church. In the resurrection of Jesus, a new world has begun. In the life of the Spirit, the new community is formed. Nationalistic separatism and paternalistic assimilation has no place in this community. The mark of this life of freedom in the Spirit would be the prophetic proclamation and presence of love and justice. And this new community of the Spirit, as Jurgen Moltmann writes, “can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.”

Seymour’s impact cannot be understated. Fueled by this Resurrection Power, he indeed embodied what would be Black engagement during Civil Rights: participating with the Spirit in shaping a new world by challenging racist attitudes and social structures, spiritual renewal as foundational to social change, and participating in the Spirit’s work in the creation of the Beloved Community.

The question for him, for the Civil Rights Movement, and indeed for us now, is not how many tongues or have we any tongues at all, but do we hear what the Spirit is speaking? Are we joining in the Spirit’s liberating and reconciling work?

1 Comment

  1. stephen matlock

    This is a beautiful description of a wonderful time of the Spirit’s release in the body of Christ. A class I attended wrote and performed a word & power presentation about Rev. Seymour, tracing the background of his spiritual journey across the US, from well to well, from altar to altar, until he found his home in a home in Los Angeles. The Spirit fell, yes, with power but also with amazing, blazing love. For a few years, at least, the Spirit was expressing through lively witness and demonstrated acts of power and healing, and the move of the Spirit in this dramatic new way was kindled in a converted storehouse where the walls were lined with crutches cast off by the healed.

    And yes, his main message was wrapped around the Spirit baptizing us all into one body, separated not by blood or nation or tongue. For God’s own sovereign reasons the Spirit continued to be poured out in fresh ways every day upon the congregation, and the word spread in a polyglot city and then to a polyglot nation and world. Seymour’s vision was that the church would be united by the Spirit in the last days and within that communion of union the Lord would return.

    What also struck us in our class was how the fresh move of the Spirit was eventually throttled by men who asserted control against the wishes and direction of Seymour, attempting to oust him from his own ministry. The movement at Azusa Street died, and Seymour died a few years later, still toiling to bring the word to hungry and thirsty people. Today the site of the revival/restoration/renewal is a plain commercial building with a few signs noting the events.

    But the movement of Azusa Street continues to flourish worldwide–Pentecostal denominations are among those seeing the higher rates of growth, not to mention growth itself in a world of declining church attendance.

    It’s my belief people are hungry for revival and the word, yes, but they are hungry to be empowered and lifted into new life. What is new life in Christ if it is not life? The Azusa Street revival was, in my opinion, God’s sovereign move to refresh the people of the kin-dom. You could pick no better site for a movement that would travel the nation, from “A-to-Z in the USA.”

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