May 2, 1870 - September 28, 1922
Preacher at the Azusa Street Revival
From Centerville, Louisiana
Served in Los Angeles, California
"There are many wells today, but they are dry. There are many hungry souls today that are empty. But let us come to Jesus and take Him at His Word and we will find wells of salvation, and be able to draw waters out of the well of salvation, for Jesus is that well."
William Joseph Seymour was born May 2, 1870 in Centerville, Louisiana to Simon and Phillis Seymour. His parents had been slaves prior to the Civil War. Seymour was the oldest of ten children, but only three lived to adulthood. Information about Seymour's early years is generally sketchy. The family's religious affiliation appears to have been Catholic as the children were registered and baptized in the local Catholic church. There is a suggestion that Seymour had prophetic visions early in his life and would later emphasize the need for "special revelation" from God. Larry E. Martin in his book titled "William J. Seymour a History of the Azusa Street Revival" gives the best historical and geographical overview of Seymour's birthplace and family history.
Seymour left the rural south and moved north to Memphis in 1890, hoping to have a better life than was found in the south. While there he worked as a porter and a truck driver. In 1893 he moved on to St. Louis and worked as a bartender. In 1895 Seymour moved yet further north to Indianapolis, Indiana, working again as a waiter in hotels. In Indianapolis he attended a revival at the Simpson Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church and was subsequently saved. There was something radical in Seymour's heart, however, and he left looking for a church which embraced a more supernatural and revelatory view of God.
Seymour joined the "Evening Light Saints" for a short time. They were later to identify themselves as "The Church of God" headquartered in Anderson Indiana. The church embraced strict holiness standards, sanctification, and divine healing as a foundational doctrines. The "Saints" regularly saw people supernaturally healed and even a few raised from the dead. Seymour adopted their teachings and carried them forward as he developed his own ministry. They credentialed Seymour as a minister, but it appears he did not step into a full-time work. In 1900 Seymour moved to Chicago, the center of the Divine Healing Movement under John Alexander Dowie. Around 1901 Seymour moved on to Cincinnati, Ohio. It is suggested that, while in Cincinnati, Seymour attended "God's Bible School" started by Martin Wells Knapp. The school taught holiness, divine healing and premillenialism which directly aligned with Seymour's belief system. He was feeling a tug on his life to become a full-time minister of the gospel, but was reluctant to make the move. He succumbed to smallpox and was blinded in one eye. He believed that it was God's judgment for resisting the call into ministry.
Around 1902 Seymour left Cincinnati. In 1904 he was listed as a resident of Columbus, Ohio where he worked as a traveling salesman. He went on to Houston, Texas to be near family. He also began holding evangelistic meetings in Texas and Louisiana. By 1905 he felt that God had spoken to him clearly to go to Jackson, Mississippi to meet with a "significant colored clergyman" who would give him more direction. It is believed to have been Charles Price Jones, a well-known Holiness preacher. Seymour remained there a short time and then returned to Houston. Once back in Houston Seymour took on a small congregation which had been started by a woman named Lucy Farrow. Farrow subsequently took a job, as a governess, with Charles F. Parham. Parham had been teaching on the Pentecostal baptism and speaking in tongues since 1900. Parham opened the Houston Bible School in 1905, holding 10 week training sessions on Pentecostal theology. That theology included divine healing. Lucy Farrow encouraged Seymour to attend the school. Due to Jim Crow laws Seymour was not allowed to sit inside the classroom but had to sit in the hall and listen through the doorway. Seymour's Holiness theology expanded to include the Pentecostal experience. He worked with Parham as an evangelist in the African-American community for the next several months.
Then in February 1906 Seymour received an invitation to move to Los Angeles and take over a small Holiness Mission. He took the position and immediately began teaching on the Pentecostal experience. The doctrine was considered suspect by the Holiness community and Seymour was immediately rejected and locked out of the church. Edward Lee, one of the congregants, took Seymour into his home and Seymour began teaching a bible study. On April 9, 1906 the Spirit of God fell and several people began speaking in tongues. Once news of this phenomena got out the bible study began to grow very quickly. The group moved to 312 Azusa Street and began a revival that would impact the world. The meetings in Azusa Street were dramatic. People "fell under the power", shook violently, jerked, and made loud noises. Fire was seen rising from the building to heaven and returning back down again. The "cloud of the Spirit" was so thick that children would play hide and seek in the midst of the meetings. Bands of angels were seen at the mission. Tongues given were often interpreted by visitors from other nations who recognized the language. Miracles and healings were common events. One man who had lost his arm in a machinery accident received a new one instantaneously. Seymour's cry was that God would receive the glory. He often would pray through the beginning of the meetings with his head inside or beside the box that was his pulpit. For three years there were meetings three times a day. Often people stayed all day and well into the night to be in the presence of God.
Resistance to the move came in several ways. Charles Parham, hearing of the events, came from Houston to visit the mission. He felt that it was disorderly and accused the mission of being given over to spiritualism. Feeling that he was the true leader of the new tongues movement he attempted to take over the meetings but was rejected. He started a competing meeting close by that advertised itself as being more decorous. It drew some people but eventually failed to gain a significant following. The local Ministerial Association complained to the police about the meetings, but since none of the surrounding businesses would lodge a complaint it failed. Local newspapers made fun of the meetings and Seymour. Still hungry people came from all over the world.
There were other breakthroughs for Seymour. As the meetings grew they changed from primarily African-American in numbers and style to an inter-racial congregation. People said that there was no color recognition, just a recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit. Seymour started a newspaper called "The Apostolic Faith" that had around 50,000 subscribers at the height of its popularity. The church ran a rescue mission, sent out missionaries and evangelists, and planned to develop training schools. The church was being written up in newspapers world-wide. If people didn't always agree with what was going on, they certainly could not ignore the impact it was having. Pentecostal churches were springing up everywhere. Seymour was invited to speak and traveled extensively sharing the Pentecostal message beginning in 1907.
Like seeds blown by the wind of the Spirit many people came to Azusa Street and then took the message to other states and countries. They began works that no longer reflected Seymour's theology or drew upon his leadership. In 1908 Seymour married Jennie Evans Moore and she became the primary co-leader with him of the Azusa Street Church. This caused a split with Clara Lum, the editor of the newspaper. Lum subsequently took the national mailing list and moved to Portland, Oregon thereby crippling Seymour's national voice and fundraising abilities. While Seymour was traveling his wife Jennie invited guest speakers to lead the meetings. In 1911 she invited William H. Durham, a man who had received the baptism of the Spirit in 1907 at Azusa Street. Seymour had prophesied over him and Durham had seen the power of God fall in Chicago in ways that were similar to Azusa Street. Durham had dropped the Holiness theology of Sanctification as a second experience, and taught that everything Christ had to offer was available when Christ died on the cross. Durham also rejected Seymour's leadership and attempted to wrest control of the mission from him. Seymour returned from a trip to find out what was happening and locked Durham out of the mission. The church split and a large portion of Seymour's congregation joined Durham in a competing church close by. Those who left were primarily white. Another long-time supporter, Frank Bartleman, left with Durham for a time as well.
Azusa Street's influence waned over the next several years. Various members left to join other churches and Seymour was no longer seen as the driving force in Pentecostalism. Seymour felt betrayed by friends, congregants, and outsiders and believed much of the loss was due to racism. The greatest emotional, financial, and physical losses were primarily due to white participants and competitors. In 1915 the church changed its policies to only allow "people of color" to be church officers. The church dwindled in size and once again became a small African-American congregation. Seymour's heart was broken by the rejection he felt. He continued to faithfully serve his church until he died September 28, 1922 of a heart attack. His wife Jennie continued to lead the church until her death in 1931.
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