April marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of pentecostalism in a poor black neighborhood in East Los Angeles. Many pentecostals and charismatic Christians trace their spiritual heritage to this Azusa Street revival—when the Holy Spirit was made manifest through ecstatic worship, getting happy, healings, the “suspension in holy silence,” and particularly speaking in tongues. Today, there are more than 600 million pentecostals worldwide. In the United States, pentecostals constitute almost 3 percent of the population, and the numbers are rising.
Historically, Spirit-led religious movements have often sprung up among the marginalized and displaced. For example, a turn-of-the-century Welsh revival flourished in the era following rebellions against British road tolls and enclosure laws. The sanctified tent-meetings in Texas gained force after the awful hurricane that decimated Galveston in 1900. The African-American leadership in the holiness movement was forged in the fire of slavery. Lucy Fallow, a leader of the Texas revivals and later at the Azusa Street Mission, was the niece of Frederick Douglass and one of the first pentecostal missionaries to reach Africa.
The Holy Spirit uprising on Azusa Street was forged in a similar crucible. Chinese workers were rioting over an American trade expansion that weakened the Chinese dynasty and were boycotting American goods in reaction to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Filipino workers in California were siding with their compatriots in the Philippines who were attempting to overthrow American rule. African Americans were filling Los Angeles to escape the lynchings and other violence of the Jim Crow South. And the first major California water war was heating up.
Into all this stepped the Catholic-Baptist-Spirit- sanctified son of slaves William J. Seymour preaching a new religious experience available to the saved—that of speaking in tongues, just like Jesus’ disciples did on Pentecost. On April 9, 1906, in a house church where Seymour was leading Bible study, participant Edward Lee entered an ecstatic trance in which he spoke in “foreign tongues.”
For the next three years, thousands were drawn to the reclaimed livery stable on Azusa Street to receive this new gift of the Spirit. “In its initial charismatic phase,” wrote Daniel Ramirez in his article “A Protest of the Disinherited,” “the [Azusa] movement...flowed freely back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border; mocking Jim Crow and ‘washing away’ the new century’s ‘color line’; eschewing Victorian propriety for the ministry and leadership of women, ecstatic worship, and the scandalous multiracial embrace of bodies.”
THE RISE OF the pentecostal worship returned to American Christianity an affective spirituality—with its focus on personal spiritual renewal, elevation of intuitive experience, and respect for emotional intelligence. It recovered the “heart” of Christian worship, the image of Jesus as “lover of my soul,” and the “holy suspended silence” of the “tarrying room” while one waits on the Spirit. Pentecostal worship prophetically confronts an over-reliance on rationalism, intellectual reasoning, and logic-driven theologies.
Unfortunately, not long after the 1906 outpouring on Azusa Street, the pentecostal movement split along color lines—developing distinct denominational branches largely based on race and class. It wasn’t until the “Memphis Miracle” in 1994 that the two sides officially reunited and publicly repented of the sin of racism. While individual pentecostals and independent churches maintain a strong commitment to direct service—especially in prison ministries, family counseling services, and food pantries—as a whole they have fallen short on a biblical understanding of structural sin. “If [charismata] are intended to witness to the liberating lordship of Christ in this world’s conflicts,” wrote theologian Jürgen Moltmann in The Source of Life, “then the charismatic movement must not become a non-political religion, let alone a de-politicized one.”
The Memphis Miracle reunited black and white pentecostals and challenged them to take their considerable Spirit-power beyond the arena of charity to the field of justice as well. The future challenge will be to “bind together as one” the 28 percent of Latinos in the United States who self-identify as pentecostal or charismatic, whether they are Protestant or Catholic. They too are beginning to move outside the comfort zones of spirited worship to the public square, especially on the issue of immigration. This is, of course, an appropriate movement, very much in accord with the prophet Joel’s vision of liberation, justice, and dignity. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate a 100th anniversary.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.