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Section I: Then

Rivers of living water: Radical social behaviors and religious innovations on Azusa Street, 1906-1909

Caroline Bunnell Harris

Frank Bartieman was anxious as he walked briskly through the streets of Los Angeles. White-haired Mother Wheaton, a friend and itinerant prison evangelist, trailed behind him. Bartieman later described his exasperation: “She was so slow that I could hardly wait for her ... I have always been a ‘lone wolf for this very reason. My time is not my own.” God’s judgment was at hand, and Christ would soon appear. All of the signs pointed to this. Sanctified men and women in Los Angeles had prayed for miracles and wonders, for deeper experiences of God’s power. When a massive earthquake and subsequent fire nearly destroyed the city of San Francisco on April 18, 1906, many felt it was an answer to their prayers. Bartieman and others felt the aftershocks during a meeting in Peniel Hall in Los Angeles. “It was an earnest time,” Bartieman wrote later, and it drew him to prayer. His passion for the Second Coming of Christ led him to print tens of thousands of tracts urging people to turn to God immediately after the earthquake. It also came to him that he must attend a meeting in Los Angeles led by a Black preacher from Texas.

A group of the faithful had been meeting for several weeks, first at the house of an African American couple, and then, as it grew, moving to a former A.M.E. Church building when the house no longer afforded enough space. The earthquake convinced him the end times were imminent and he needed to attend this meeting on Azusa Street. Mother Wheaton had been staying with his family and asked to join Bartieman (Bartelman 1925, 11, 47-48).1

Los Angeles was ripe for religious innovation and for strange social and cultural behaviors in the first decade of the twentieth century. Swiftly moving streams of religious fervor reached a torrent in the city’s multiethnic neighborhoods near downtown. While the atmosphere surrounding Azusa Street in this first decade of the twentieth century provided particular opportunities for both social transgressions and religious innovations, the delicate balance that supported this environment, and in particular its interracialism, was liminal. By 1908, city visionaries had begun implementing zoning laws and ordinances regulating the space, noise, and people of Los Angeles, including overtly race-based restrictions on residency, and thus radical social behaviors soon gave way to social conformity on Azusa Street.

Complicating the "Black Root" of Azusa Street

This essay seeks to understand early Pentecostalism, not as a search for the origins or roots within a particular leader or cultural stream as most recent scholars of Pentecostal Studies have attempted, but as an examination of the complex processes of cultural bricolage. Recent scholarship has rightly credited as significant the Black prayer meeting beginning at Bonnie Brae Street led by a Black pastor William Seymour but has not fully explored the complex, multidirectional development of Pentecostalism on Azusa Street (e.g. Hollenweger 1972, Synan 1961, MacRobert 1988, Nelson 1981, Alexander 2011, Robeck 2011). As a number of historians ofBlack culture, including Robin Kelley and Jacob Dorman, have written, new religious communities and cultures do not simply emerge through spontaneous regeneration, or transplantation from a “cultural seed,” but through the complex process of polyculturalism. A search for origins or roots of Pentecostalism implies that cultures are “fixed, discrete entities that exist side by side.” Polyculturalism, on the other hand, sees culture as fluid and hybrid. Pentecostalism would thus not be the result of “syncretism” or the combining of bounded systems of Black and White identity, but the creation of “many individual bricoleurs” who bring together the “old and new, familiar and foreign, in a process that takes advantage of similarities between cultures” (Dorman 2013, 19-20, Kelley 1999, 5-7). Examining early Pentecostalism through the lens of cultural bricolage acknowledges the diverse backgrounds of individuals who worshiped on Azusa Street and their agency in fashioning a religious experience that fit their particular contexts. Individual men and women who identified as Black played particularly prominent roles as bricoleurs of the Azusa Street Revival.

Even narratives about the Azusa Street Revival’s origins seem to suggest an effort of cultural collaboration rather than a direct line to a particular cultural stream or personality. Most recent scholarship points to William Seymour as the founder and originator of the Pentecostal movement. Seymour, a Black man, arrived in Los Angeles from Houston in January 1906 at the invitation of Neely Terry, who sought his services as a pastor for a small Black holiness congregation. Seymour carried stories and memories of observing others speak in tongues from Charles Parham’s ministry, but so did Neely Terry and another Black woman, Lucy Farrow. In fact, Farrow spoke in tongues in Houston, long before Seymour would in Los Angeles. All three had arrived in Los Angeles soon after the turn of the century. While many scholars attempt to suggest that Seymour brought the gift of tongues to Los Angeles, this evidence suggests a more collaborative effort. Furthermore, given the vast circulation of holiness newspapers nationwide during this period, it would be surprising if the Los Angeles sanctified had not already read accounts of tongues-speaking from Charles Parham’s ministry (Nelson 2001)?

While most of the Black sanctified that Seymour led had not experienced the gift of tongues before his arrival, they were already deeply embroiled in a discussion of the Baptism of the Holy Ghost and its accompanying signs including physical healing and ecstatic religious expression. They were already connected to a network of radical holiness folks, dominated by Whites, but including prominent Black evangelists and preachers. When Seymour arrived, his congregation was discussing the Baptism of the Holy Ghost, and his predecessor, a Black woman named Julia Hutchins, was still attending services although she had made plans to travel to Africa as a missionary.3

Seymour’s prayer group held a ten-day season of fasting and praying, beginning April 6, 1906 and culminating on Easter Sunday. It was amidst this season of fasting that most accounts of the revival insist that Edward Lee, a Black sanctified man who worked as a janitor, first received the gift of tongues. This may be the same Edward Lee who was already deeply connected to the radical holiness community of Los Angeles years before Seymour arrived. The Los Angeles Tinies in 1901 had reported that a Black man named Edward Lee, a recent arrival from Fresno, ran a holiness mission on the corner of Seventh and Mateo Streets and was seeking funding from local businessmen. The Times described the meetings at Lee’s mission as nearly half Black, half White — “there is no ‘color line,’ persons of all nationalities, age, and previous condition being welcome.”4 While Lee is often depicted as a simple janitor who sought a deeper religious experience, he may have been an evangelist of the Pentecost message himself, before Seymour even arrived to Los Angeles. Some accounts insist that Lucy Farrow laid hands on Lee and prayed for him before he received the gift of speaking in tongues. Others, including Seymour himself, remember that it was Seymour who laid hands on Lee?

In any case, Lee erupted into tongues again during the prayer meeting, and another Black attendee, Jennie Evans Moore, began to play the piano and sing in French, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Hindustani although she claimed to have no prior knowledge of playing piano or speaking in those languages. Moore then went to a mostly White holiness congregation, the New Testament Church led by former Baptist Joseph Smale, to describe the experience. The fluidity of Los Angeles’ urban environment in the first decade of the twentieth century, and the presence of well-networked Black sanctified men and women, allowed word of this practice of speaking in tongues to spread rapidly. Over the next week, Seymour’s prayer group attracted growing interracial crowds, which triggered the move to the church building on Azusa Street.0

A small group of Black sanctified men and women who were already connected to networks of the radical holiness movement both carried early Pentecostal beliefs and practices to Los Angeles and reimagined them in their new Southern California context. The Azusa Street Revival was a collaborative process of cultural creation, in which Black men and women acted as bricoleurs piecing together a religious experience based on their memories of home and the available spiritual resources in their new environment.

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