Historicizing the Azusa Mission’s Reversion to a “Small, largely African American congregation with a few Caucasians in attendance” Cecil M. Robeck, Jr.’s, The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement (Nelson, 2006)
My comments today stem from my location as a professor of African American History with a sustained interest in African American religion, particularly African American Pentecostalism in the US Southwest, and most specifically in Houston, Texas, where on 503 Rusk Avenue--approximately six miles from my home institution, Texas Southern University, a historically black institution--”three key progenitors of the modern Pentecostal movement”--Charles Scott Parham, Lucy Farrow, and William J. Seymour--met respectively to discuss, learn about, and experience Pentecost.
Notwithstanding the radical theological possibilities imbedded in the meeting, the triad and others met in accord with the socially conservative mores of the Jim Crow south, where racial segregation and social inequality were mandated. Charles Parham, a white preacher with white supremacist inclinations, taught; Lucy Farrow, a black southern woman, listened as she cooked for other students; and William Seymour, a black southern male, imbibed whatever he could despite the literal wall separating him from his white classmates and teacher. African Americans provided the place at which preliminary Azusa prayer meetings were held, directed prayers, gave testimonies of their individual Pentecostal experiences, and journeyed from afar to experience phenomena described by those participating in the three-year revival. Most importantly, William J. Seymour, an African American southerner, whose religious background included Catholic, Baptist, and Holiness traditions, catalyzed the historic revival, which subsequently gave birth to what is now the fastest growing protestant movement in the world: Pentecostalism.
My comments originate from a passage in the “Afterword,” page 315, where Robeck noted the following: “The Seymour’s found the years following the revival extremely difficult to endure. By 1911 at least eleven Pentecostal congregations operated in Los Angeles, the largest of which was the Upper Room Mission. It was thriving, while the Azusa Street Mission had reverted to a small, largely African American congregation with a few Caucasians in attendance.”
Robeck’s telling reference to the “small but largely African American congregation with a few Caucasians in attendance” opens the door for examining the oxymoronic position that African American Pentecostalism has held within the context of African American Religious Historiography. Despite the magnitude of Seymour’s contribution, he and the movement he initiated remained marginalized within the history of African American Protestant Christianity throughout most of the twentieth century. Robeck’s work implicitly raises the following interrelated questions: How did African Americans in Los Angeles and abroad view the revival? Where were leaders of the African American religious community? Why was the Azusa mission not a mega-mission at the close of the revival, when others ministries energized by the revival thrived on the phenomena experienced at the mission? How to account for the general dearth of African Americans given that so many others “Anglos, Russians, Latinos” came and drank their fill and built churches, denominations, schools, and missions reflecting their various takes on the Azusa experience?
The story of an African American religious community on delayed arrival is best understood with a careful examination of race and its impact on the historical development of Pentecostalism in the United States, particularly within the African American community.
First, the advent of the movement posed a problem of territoriality within the African American religious community, one where social matters were an inextricable part of the spiritual agenda. This socially engaged community, which had already addressed such weighty sociopolitical topics as abolition, emigration to Africa, emancipation, and Reconstruction, was populated with longstanding members of historic black religious polities, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, and National Baptist Convention.
It was also peopled by a small but socially significant number of African Americans who were affiliated with predominantly white Protestant and Catholic religious bodies. Black Pentecostals competed with these pre-established polities and communities for members. The economic impact of such competition cannot be overlooked given that the Black Church bore a direct financial connection to the educational, social, and fraternal organizations, and businesses established in their wake and given that churches often measured their spiritual effectiveness in material terms: whether or not the church was brick, the size of the congregation, the number and sophistication of the social programs and institutions established, etc.
In such a context, particularly one based on white supremacy, black polities that maintained amicable relationships with predominantly white religious orders were at a clear financial and cultural advantage, as they had access to white dollars and institutions, as well as to the social and cultural legitimacy that accompanied such relationships. Early African American Pentecostals had no such luxury. The Azusa Street revival and mission was denied the social blessing of a white patriarch, as Parham distanced himself from the movement upon his arrival to Los Angeles.
The Azusa Street revival and mission emerged at the very moment in African American history when African Americans, particularly post-Reconstruction black southerners, aspired to assimilate into American society, where the white, Anglo-Saxon protestant ethos dominated discourse and required shedding anything residual of Africa. Moreover, at the behest of black intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, they hoped to benefit, especially economically, from the scientific and industrial revolution, which required embracing modernity and its emphasis on the empirical. Pentecostalism, with its valorization of personal religious experience, seemed to fly in the face of the progressive agenda forwarded by black intellectuals, for many of whom Pentecostal expression was a vestige of an enslaved past better forgotten than celebrated. Zora Neale Hurston was one of few African American scholars of the early twentieth century to offer a sympathetic albeit problematic view of the “Sanctified Church,” which she saw as a “protest against the high brow tendencies of Protestant Negro congregations as Negroes gain education and wealth.” Hurston’s description of African American Pentecostals, though more accommodating than most, was nonetheless problematic because it conflated church decorum with the appreciation for upward social mobility. Recent research has shown that African American Pentecostals, particularly members of the Church of God in Christ, were also socially engaged and interested in socio-economic progress.
Race also effectuated a delayed acceptance of Pentecostalism within the established African American religious community in the following manner. While whites were generally taken aback by the degree of literal physical contact that occurred between blacks and whites during the revival, on an ideological level, African Americans observed with caution blacks who appeared to embraced whiteness too quickly, especially given that doing so usually meant conceding to a historical presumption of white supremacy, tokenism, or at worst to stereotypical representations of blackness, the most popular and socially damaging of which was (and perhaps still is) “Uncle Tom.” Here Cecil Robeck provides an important historical corrective.
Robeck depicts William Seymour not as a gullible black southern sidekick, but as man who stood his ground and held true to his convictions. Seymour went to California rather than stay in Texas as Parham and Carrothers had hoped. Moreover, he remained committed to his theological inclinations despite the vehement public rebuke and subsequent rejection meted out by Parham, who distanced himself from the Azusa Mission largely because of the close proximity of black and white bodies in ecstatic Pentecostal worship.
Race matters also impacted the degree to which seminaries legitimized the Pentecostal movement, especially given that African Americans Southerners were at the forefront. As Douglas Jacobsen pointed out in Thinking in the Spirit, “[t]he leaders of the Azusa mission were not, at first, enamored of the idea of producing any kind of theology for the movement. Theology was suspect: It was seen as a potential block to the free flow of the Pentecostal faith (p. 66).”
Black Methodist and Baptist aspirants to ministry, whose denominations had histories that predated the twentieth century and originated from predominantly white congregations, were encouraged to attend seminary, but neither William J. Seymour nor Charles Harrison Mason, who attended the revival and thereafter established the reorganized Church of God in Christ, the first Pentecostal denomination, had extensive seminary training. They were in the middle of an experience that scholars have only recently begun to submit to critical theology.
The mutual suspicion between schools of theology and Pentecostals resulted in a deferred expression and institutionalization of a Black Pentecostal theology or a theology by a black person who espoused Pentecostalism. This ultimately led to an overdue academic appreciation for the movement and the role that blacks played in its shaping. That postponement was doubly reinforced by the economic impact of race on dissemination and institutionalization, from the street corner to the seminary, a complex process that requires financial, educational, material, and human resources. As early Black Pentecostals traveled with testimonies of their experiences, they were constantly reminded of their second-class status throughout the United States. Their appreciation for the themes of unity and equality in Pentecost must be understood within this social context. After all, ideologies of race were so strong that Charles Harrison Mason, founder of the reorganized “Pentecostal” Church of God in Christ, who certainly experienced the power of God transcend racial barriers, nonetheless discouraged William Seymour from marrying Clara Lum, the white woman in charge of the Apostolic Faith, the primary communication tool of the mission and revival. When Seymour married Jennie Evans Moore, a black woman, Lum left not only with the paper, but also with its list of subscribers. The deleterious effect of her actions cannot be denied. Not to tease out the historical and theological ramifications of race on the life of the mission and its participants is to overlook the revolutionary intent inherent in Pentecost, a moment in which unity and difference were simultaneously affirmed: “(1) And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. (2) And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. (3) And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. (4) And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2: 1-4, KJV). Essentially their language was changed.
Language ”communication” is at the very seat of human power and ingenuity, as it is the medium we humans use to organize, build, and even to destroy. How well we use this tool is often an indicator of our social standing, which helps explain why the devout Jews at the biblical Pentecost were amazed that the Galileans present had been transformed into a multilingual mass. Language at Pentecost was no longer a barrier, as depicted in the Old story of the Tower of Babel, but rather a bridge, the primary purpose of which was to lead others to Christ. To speak the languages of others is enter into fellowship with them or at the very least to provide them with messages of hope as the spirit gives utterance. Here presented at the dawn of the twentieth century was a New Testament metaphor ripe and ready to provide a fresh challenge to the ideological foundation race in America. As long as separate but equal was the order of the day in the United States, implicit or explicitly, Black Pentecostals, Baptists, Methodists, and others remained in various degrees of social and political exile.
I close then, with the following question: What if black and white Christians of the early 20th century United States had seized the revolutionary opportunity for social change that Pentecost had afforded them? First and foremost, the Azusa Street mission in the wake of the revival might not have “reverted to a small, largely African American congregation with a few Caucasians in attendance.” Its message of unity and equality might have liberated American Christians from the social constrictions imposed by race, class, and gender inequalities.
Second, Cecil Robeck’s book would have been written one hundred years ago, and African American Religious historiography would then be at least 100 years beyond this belated but nonetheless beloved moment affirming African American contributions to the global Pentecostal movement.
In the spirit of “Better-late-than-never,” scholars can now move beyond the ideological ping-pong battles that confine us to narrow binaries, hold us in a defensive posture, and bare limited meaning outside the historical context of the United States. We can use the work to begin breaking the near hypnotic, even catatonic, effect that such conversations have on our superior abilities to synthesize and create. We can renew the challenge to speak each others languages “as the spirit gives us utterance” not only in this place, but in “the uttermost parts of the world” from Harvard to Havana, from Oberlin to Ontario, Texas Southern to Tergikistan and back again, least we forward a narrative steeped in American imperialism. If we commit ourselves to being led by the spirit, we can be assured that whatever we say will promote peace, love, wisdom, and greater understanding. At the end of our project, we will have created a truly “Pentecostal” communion that welcomes and affirms all people of all persuasions’” a miracle that can occur when and only when “The Lamb” is enthroned and “Humility” reigns supreme.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Remarks at Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion
Copyright @2006 by Karen Kossie-Chernyshev. All Rights Reserved.
Used by permission, BlackandChristian.com.