William Seymour and Charles Parham: Pentecostalism’s Odd Couple



Introduction

“Of all the outstanding black American religious leaders in the twentieth century, one of the least recognized is William Seymour, the unsung pastor of the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles and catalyst of the worldwide Pentecostal movement.”[1] And so begins an article in Christianity Today about the father of 20th-century Pentecostalism.


Seymour was a one-eyed, black man born to former slaves in 1870. The Civil War was over, and slavery had been abolished. But that didn’t mean that negative attitudes and stereotypes against blacks had miraculously vanished. In fact, they were still deeply engrained in many white Protestants. One of them was Charles Fox Parham, who would become Seymour’s mentor.


Parham and Seymour will be forever linked together. They were an odd couple, to say the least. Parham believed “in Anglo-Israelism, the racist theory that the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant nations (especially Britain and the United States) were descended from the ‘lost tribes’ of Israel.”[2] In this short paper, I want to show how Seymour’s humility overcame hate with love and made him the ideal candidate to usher in the Pentecostal movement in a post-slavery era.


Holy Spirit Baptism

Parham believed there was a third blessing. Wesley had taught that there were two blessings: “The first, justification, represents a believer’s conversion; the second, sanctification, signifies an individual’s purification.”[3] Some called this sanctification the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. But toward the end of the 19th century, people began to see this more biblically.


Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Spirit baptism in (the) Keswick (movement) and elsewhere was no longer understood in terms of holiness, but as empowering for service … Moody’s … successor … wrote that ‘the Baptism with the Holy Spirit’ was a definite experience separate from regeneration and ‘always connected with testimony and service’. … By the end of the nineteenth century, the idea of a ‘baptism with the Spirit’ as a distinct experience giving power for service was the major theme in American revivalism. The groundwork was laid for the birth of Pentecostalism.[4]


This is in line with Jesus’s words to his apostles:

You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high…But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Lk. 24:48-49, Acts 1:8)

While there was agreement towards the end of the century that enduement of power was promised, some saw that as a “second blessing” while others, like Parham, called it a “third blessing.” For our purposes, we will refer to this as the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.


Parham’s Breakthrough

Parham was stirred when he heard Frank Sandford. “In 1894, he received an experience of Spirit baptism which he described as an enduement of power.”[5] He talked about foreign tongues, xenolalia, which is different from glossolalia, unknown tongues—for what the Pentecostal movement became known. Xenolalia was the idea of speaking foreign languages supernaturally, as in Acts 2, for the purposes of evangelism.

Parham opened his own Bible school with a couple dozen students in Topeka.


Before leaving on a three-day preaching trip, Parham gave the students the assignment to discover in the book of Acts ‘some evidence’ of the baptism with the Spirit. He had already convinced them that they had yet to receive the full outpouring of a second Pentecost, and he called them to seek this with fasting and prayer. They reached the conclusion that the biblical evidence of Spirit baptism was speaking in tongues, which they told Parham on his return.[6]


On New Year’s Eve and into New Year’s Day 1901, they sought the Lord. At 11 pm, Agnes Ozman began to speak in tongues. “One night, the three of us girls were praying together, and I spoke three words in another tongue. This was a hallowed experience and was held in heart as sacred.”[7] Others soon followed, including Parham himself. Listening to Ozman, Parham concluded she was speaking a Chinese dialect, while he believed he was speaking Swedish.[8] “Of course, Parham and his students experiencing actual [Xenolalia] would be remarkable, though a quite improbable event. Proof would be almost impossible to verify.”[9]


By 1905, the movement had taken hold, and Parham was now in Houston. He held a Bible school, and he had an unlikely student.


The most important decision at the Houston school…was Parham’s decision to allow William Joseph Seymour, a black holiness evangelist, to attend the daily classes…Parham, sensitive to Jim Crow statues and yet sympathetic to the spread of Pentecostal doctrine among blacks, admitted Seymour to the Bible school but provided separate seating. Seymour attended daily and sat in an adjoining room where, through an open door, he absorbed Apostolic Faith theology.[10]


Despite Parham’s racist bent, he believed that God’s grace was available to all people.


Seymour’s Breakthrough

Seymour headed west to Los Angeles. While he soaked up Pentecostal theology, he was yet to experience it himself.[11] But the breakthrough was not far off.

At the house where Seymour was staying, his host Edward Lee asked the preacher to lay hands on him, after which he fell to the floor as if unconscious and began speaking in tongues. Later that evening at the meeting, seven others including Seymour and his future wife, Jennie Moore, received the same experience. For three days and nights the house was filled with people praying and rejoicing, continuously and loudly.[12]

They moved to 312 Azuza Street and continued to hold meetings. “Seymour’s core leadership team was fully integrated with black and white men and women being responsible for various aspects of the work.”[13] What’s more, is “at a time of ruthless racial segregation in American culture, brought about by the notorious Jim Crow segregation laws, the Azusa Street mission pointedly ignored racial issues.”[14]


For the black evangelist in an unfriendly world, the revival was not about a new phenomenon but about God. “The Pentecostal power, when you sum it all up, is just more of God’s love. If it does not bring more love, it is simply a counterfeit.”[15] As in Acts 2 and 10, unity was essential for this outpouring. “I can say, through the power of the Spirit 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, like as at Cornelius’ house.”[16]


Conclusion

Parham rejected Azusa Street and Seymour, calling it “darky camp meeting stunts,”[17] saying it made him “sick at my stomach … to see white people imitating unintelligent, crude negroism of the Southland, and laying it on the Holy Ghost.”[18] He would even “[speak] in glowing terms of the Ku Klux Klan.”[19] Frank Bartleman, however, the Azusa Street chronicler, who’d been praying for revival in Los Angeles, saw it differently and “rejoiced at the sight of whites and blacks worshiping God together … [saying]: ‘The color line has been washed away in the blood.’”[20]


Seymour pushed past his mentor’s cruel criticism attracting tens of thousands of visitors. Because he chose humility and love, pursuing his deep hunger for Jesus—and rejected bitterness and self-pity, his influence has reached as many as 600,000,000 people from all races. One would do well to remember Seymour’s character in the face of bitter backlash and repulsive racism in our efforts to spread Messiah’s marvelous message. The great evangelist John G. Lake said Seymour had “more of God in his life, than any man I had ever met.”[21]


The building at 312 Azusa St. may have been demolished, but “at least twenty-six different denominations trace their Pentecostal origins to Azusa Street, including the two largest: the Church of God in Christ and the Assemblies of God. Pentecostal missionaries were sent out all over the world from Azusa Street, reaching over twenty-five nations in two years.”[22]



[1] “Pentecostalism: William Seymour,” Christianity Today, accessed July 15, 2022, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-65/pentecostalism-william-seymour.html. [2] Allan Heaton Anderson, An Introduction to Pentecostalism, Global Charismatic Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), chap. 2, “The healing movement,” Kindle. [3] Karen L. Zipf, “Pentecostal Holiness Church,” NCPedia, 2006, https://roncan.net/3INA71p. [4] Anderson, chap. 2, “Revivalism and Keswick.” [5] Anderson, chap. 2, “The Healing Movement.” [6] Anderson, chap. 2, “Charles Parham.” [7] James R. Goff, Fields White Unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988), 71. [8] Anderson, chap. 2, “Charles Parham.” [9] Goff, 76. [10] Goff, 107. [11] Goff, 111. [12] Anderson, chap. 3, “William Seymour and the Azusa Street revival.” [13]Anderson, chap. 3, “William Seymour and the Azusa Street revival.” [14] Alister McGrath, Christian History, An Introduction (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 266. [15] J. Lee Grady, Set my Heart on Fire (Lake Mary: Charisma House, 2016), 187. [16] “Could of Witnesses” Circle of Hope, September 28, 2020,https://www.circleofhope.net/transhistorical/september-28-william-j-seymour. [17] Christianity Today, “Pentecostalism.” [18] Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishing, 1992), 190. [19] McGrath, 267. [20] Roberts Lairdon, Frank Bartleman's Azusa Street: First Hand Accounts of the Revival (Shippensburg: Destiny Image, 2006), 13. [21] John G. Lake, Adventures in God (Shippensburg: Harrison House, 1991), 19. [22] Henri Gooren, “An Introduction to Pentecostalism: Global Charismatic Christianity.” Ars Disputandi, 4:1, 206-209, DOI: 10.1080/15665399.2004.10819846, 2004.

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Shalom from Israel! I am Ron Cantor and this my blog. I am the GODTV Israel Regional Director host of the daily TV program, "Out of Zion". I also serve on the leadership team of a Hebrew-speaking, Spirit-filled congregation in Tel Aviv. We love Yeshua and we love Israel. Hope to see you here soon!

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