William J. Seymour is my third greatest American of all time. He was born in 1870 in Centerville, Louisiana to former slaves. He grew up in the midst of poverty and racism and had little education — although he did teach himself to read. He became a believer in Christ at a young age and moved to Houston, TX as an evangelist in 1903.
While living in Houston, Seymour met Charles F. Parham, a white evangelist from Topeka, KS who in 1901 along with a small group of Bible school students had experienced the ancient Christian gift of speaking in tongues. Parham had been preaching about this gift every since, but had received very limited interest from people.
Parham had started a Bible school in Houston and William J. Seymour wanted to attend it. Because Parham and his students were white, Seymour had to sit outside the classroom listening through an open door because of the racist Jim Crow laws of that time.
In January 1906, William J. Seymour was invited to pastor a small holiness church in Los Angeles, CA. Although Seymour had not experienced it, he began preaching that speaking in tongues was for today and was kicked out of the church.
On April 9, 1906, William Seymour prayed for a friend to be healed of an illness and the friend began to speak in tongues. That night Seymour held a meeting in a private home and 7 people began to speak in tongues. As the news spread, crowds began to gather and more and more people began to speak in tongues.
As their numbers grew, they needed a larger place to meet, so they rented an old church building at 312 Azusa Street. For the next three years services were held three times a day, every day at 10:00 am, noon, and 7:00 pm. The crowds grew to 700-800 people inside the building with several hundred more people outside. The meetings were multi-racial and international, as people flocked to Azusa Street from all over America and all over the world.
As thousands experienced the Christian gift of speaking in tongues, their love and passion for Jesus soared to high levels. Many missionaries left Azusa Street and went to countries around the world. They were known as “missionaries of the one-way ticket” because they went to stay and to show God’s love. Many other people went back to their homes and spread “the message of Pentecost” there.
William J. Seymour preached that the main sign of the “Pentecostal experience” was not tongues, but love for all people. In a time when it was illegal for races to meet together in most of America, Azusa Street attracted all races. Seymour began to publish a newspaper called “The Apostolic Faith” and it quickly grew to 50,000 in circulation. The paper did not use by-lines and listed no editor, as Seymour wanted himself and others to keep a low profile and for God to get the glory.
Seymour and others who led and attended Azusa Street received much persecution. In September 1906, the “LA Times” wrote: “Disgraceful intermingling of the races. They have a one-eyed illiterate Negro (Seymour) as their preacher who stays on his knees much of the time with his head hidden between wooden crates.” Seymour’s attitude was: “No instrument that God can use is rejected on account of color or dress or lack of education.”
After three years, the persecution and attacks against Seymour and Azusa Street began to have an effect and the crowds gradually began to drop off. Seymour continued to pastor the Azusa Street Mission until his death in 1922. At that time only a handful of members remained.
So why is William J. Seymour my third greatest American of all time? Because of the impact of his ministry and of the Azusa Street Revival. When Seymour received the Pentecostal experience only a few thousand people in the world had received it. Through Azusa Street tens of thousands of people received it and spread it all around the world. Today it is estimated that more than 500 million people (of all Christian denominations) speak in tongues.
Pentecostalism has been called the “third force” in Western Christianity after Catholicism and Protestantism and all of the Pentecostal denominations trace their founding back to Azusa Street. This includes: Assemblies of God, United Pentecostal, Apostolic, Church of God in Christ, Four Square Gospel, and thousands more around the world. Millions of charismatics in mainline denominations and in charismatic non-denominational churches also can be traced back historically to the Azusa Street Revival.
Another reason William J. Seymour is my third greatest American is humility. Unlike modern preachers, he was not a self-promoter — he never named anything after himself. He wouldn’t even put his name or his picture in “The Apostolic Faith” newspaper. The Azusa Street services were open for anyone to testify and Seymour frequently shared the pulpit with others. He lived above the building and received a very modest salary. Most of the offering money was used to send out missionaries, to publish the paper, and to help people — not as today, to build beautiful buildings and to pay big preacher salaries.
The third reason, Seymour is my third, is that he embraced people of all “races” and demonstrated that racism can be overcome. Someone said about the Azusa meetings: “The color line is washed away in the blood of Jesus.” Azusa Street and the early Pentecostal churches were multi-racial (even in the South) in the most racist time in American history. Unfortunately the racism of America influenced the early Pentecostals and they soon began to separate along the color lines.
If God could use William J. Seymour to so impact the Church, black history, American history, and the world, what can he do with you? Why not fully give God your life and see?
Seymour knew how to go beyond church. Read more in my book: Beyond Church — An Invitation To Experience The Lost Word Of The Bible, available at Amazon.