Christian history in every generation, has been marked by humble men and women whom God raises up and use for a special work. William J. Seymour was such a man.
Biography, Life and Ministry of William Seymour, The Catalyst of Pentecost and The Man Behind Azuza Street Revival
An African American, holiness preacher who initiated the Azusa Street Revival, an influential event in the rise of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Seymour was the second of eight children born May 2, 1870, in Centerville, Louisiana, to former slaves Simon and Phillis Seymour, and was raised in extreme poverty.
His parents continued working on a plantation, even after being freed, and Seymour spent much time while growing up doing the same. Lacking formal education, Seymour taught himself, mainly through reading the Bible.
Fleeing the poverty and oppression of life in southern Louisiana, Seymour left his home in early adulthood. He traveled and worked in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and other states possibly including Missouri and Tennessee. He often worked as a waiter in big city hotels.
In Indianapolis, Seymour was converted in a Methodist Church. Soon, however, he joined the Church of God Reformation movement in Anderson, Indiana. At the time, the group was called “The Evening Light Saints.” While with this conservative Holiness group, Seymour was sanctified and called to preach.
In Cincinnati, Ohio after a near fatal bout with smallpox, Seymour yielded to the call to ministry. The illness left him blind in one eye and scarred his face. For the rest of his life he wore a beard to hide the scars.
In 1905, Seymour was in Houston, Texas where he heard the Pentecostal message for the first time. He attended a Bible school conducted by Charles F. Parham. Parham was the founder of the Apostolic Faith Movement, and is the father of the modern Pentecostal/Charismatic revival.
The social climate of America at that time was highly prejudiced and black people were largely segregated from much of mainstream American society.
He attended the Houston Bible school, but when the head of the school prayed for the students to receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, Seymour was forced to sit outside the class room in the hall way– because he was black.
Even though he missed the prayer meeting, he took the message of Pentecost to a small church in Los Angeles. After his first fiery sermon on healing and prayer languages, he was locked out of the church and told not to come back.
So Seymour joined a small prayer group at 312 Bonnie Bray Street. As he preached the message there, the fire of the Holy Spirit came down. People spoke in tongues and were healed.
The prayer meeting became the famous Azusa Street Revival, and from this humble location, the message of Pentecost was spread around the world.
Over the next few days huge crowds gathered for interracial services, in spite of segregation laws. Many received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, including Seymour himself.
In fact, so many were drawn to the powerful meetings the front porch collapsed under the weight of all the people.
The Azusa Street Revival
The meetings were filled with prayer, testimonies, worship and supernatural phenomena. As excitement increased about the events taking place at North Bonnie Brae, more and more people came to witness the meetings, and the Asberry home quickly became too small to accommodate the services. Seymour moved the congregation into an unused church on Azusa Street.
The building, located at 312 Azusa Street and situated in the business district, measured 40 by 60 feet. It had once housed the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but it was now being used as a warehouse and livery stable. Seymour’s integrated congregation cleaned out the building and then filled the interior with makeshift church furnishings. The pulpit was made of two boxes nailed together and pews were made from planks nailed to empty barrels. Seymour made his home on the floor above the church and began holding services three times a day, seven days a week. A diverse volunteer staff, including blacks and whites and men and women, assisted Seymour in holding the services.
The dilapidated building would quickly gain national attention as the Azusa Street Revival.
Services ran constantly for three years, from 1906 to 1909. As people from around the world came to hear Seymour’s messages, the modern Pentecostal movement quickly went global. It was a huge catalyst for the expansion of the Pentecostal movement, which in subsequent years, grew to include 20 million U.S. members and more than 200 million international members.
By 1907, missionaries from Azusa Street had reached Mexico, Canada, Western Europe, the Middle East, West Africa, and parts of Asia.
A tremendous revival had broken out and there was seemingly no end to the testimonies, healings and supernatural phenomena. Meetings were sustained by God and the revival ran for years.
Seymour was described as “humble,” “quiet” and “soft spoken.” William Durham said of him: He walks and talks with God. His power is in his weakness. He seems to maintain a helpless dependence on God and is as simple-hearted as a child, and at the same time is so filled with God that you feel the love and power every time you get near him.1
Seymour loved the Scriptures and spoke especially from the Gospels, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Hebrews and the book of Revelation.
Seymour gave leadership to the Azusa Mission for many years, up until the time of his death. At times, he would accept invitations to speak in other locations. He saw Azusa at its highest peak times and he persevered through some lean years as well. Seymour died on September 28, 1922, from a heart attack. The leadership of Azusa was then given to his wife, Jeanne Evans Seymour.