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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

An American Faith’s 100th Birthday

With many religious sects, it’s hard to identify exactly when, where, and by whom they were founded. With the Pentecostal Church, the fastest-growing denomination in the United States, it’s not a problem. Pentecostalism was born in a simple church in Los Angeles exactly a hundred years ago this month. There an unusual man began preaching a revolutionary theology. Before his arrival in Los Angeles, William Joseph Seymour traveled throughout the American South and West. Born in Louisiana to freed slaves, he was a wandering preacher. In Texas he met a man who would change his life. Charles Parham, a Methodist evangelical, was a traveling minister not unlike Seymour himself, and was stirring up controversy in the Christian community. In 1901, preaching in Topeka, Kansas, Parham proclaimed that the true sign of salvation, the sign of what some would call “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” was the experience of speaking in tongues. Parham laid hands on a member of the congregation, a woman named Agnes Ozman, and she immediately burst out in incoherent, ecstatic speech. Parham’s assertion was unconventional and far from winning wide acceptance among American Christians. But when Seymour met Parham he was drawn to his radical idea. Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, was not new at the turn of the twentieth century. It had a long tradition. However, Parham and Seymour advanced a new hypothesis about its importance to salvation. Passages in the New Testament served as evidence, especially one describing the Pentecost (the seventh Sunday after Easter, when the spirit of Jesus descended on his disciples), in which a group of listeners speaking various languages could miraculously all understand the words pronounced by the disciples. Other passages, too, could be read as describing the existence of a mystical, universal language, for instance a section in Paul’s letters in which he mentions “speaking in a tongue.” The theology of Pentecostalism’s founders met with fierce resistance from certain Christian quarters, but it was not without scriptural grounding. Leaving Houston, Seymour took his new idea west to Los Angeles. Los Angeles was then the fastest-growing city in America—and a good place for an enterprising young minister to find converts. There he began preaching in the storefront church of a woman he had met in Texas named Neely Terry. But he soon found the congregation turning against him and his radical theology, and eventually they literally locked him out of their church. In a strange city with no obvious place to go, he started showing up at private working-class prayer meetings. Many of the people at the meetings were African-American, like Seymour himself. As he met more and more people, he began to gather a following. With his ideas winning gradual acceptance and his meetings growing in size, Seymour decided to seek a hospitable space for his congregants. He chose a building on Azusa Street that had previously housed an African Methodist Episcopal Church, and moved his daily meetings there on April 14, 1906. In their new home he and his followers held lively prayer sessions in which a racially diverse group of Californians joined together in speaking in tongues. It was partly because of demonstrably superhuman forces, too, that Seymour’s budding Pentecostal church began to rapidly expand. On April 18, 1906, only days after the foundation of the Azusa Street congregation, San Francisco was devastated by its massive earthquake. The country at large and Californians in particular began to search for new ways to make sense of the tragedy. Growing numbers of them turned to Seymour’s iconoclastic, millenarian theology. Full Story: http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/web/20060425-pentecost-william-joseph-seymour-charles-parham-evangelicals-pentecostalism-speaking-tongues-glossolalia-azusa-oral-roberts-christianity.shtml

3 Comments:

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  • At 3:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I find this story very uplifting. I am troubled in my faith by the facts you do not mention: that Charles Parham came to visit Azusa Street and condemened what was happening there as Demon Possession. He even went so far as to chain the doors shut at Azusa street, and set up his own ministry a few blocks away preaching against William Seymour's ministry.

    I have yet to find a way to reconcile these facts with my faith. What are your thoughts?

     
  • At 3:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I find this story very uplifting. I am troubled in my faith by the facts you do not mention: that Charles Parham came to visit Azusa Street and condemened what was happening there as Demon Possession. He even went so far as to chain the doors shut at Azusa street, and set up his own ministry a few blocks away preaching against William Seymour's ministry.

    I have yet to find a way to reconcile these facts with my faith. What are your thoughts?

     

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