Just five years after the American Civil War in the year 1870 two emancipated slaves in Centerville Louisiana named Simon Seymour and Phyllis Salabarr had a son named William. These Catholic African Americans could never have imagined that their son would become the founder of one of the largest Christian movements in the history of the world, affecting every part of the globe and every sphere of society. Simon Seymour served in the Union Army during the civil war and returned afterward to the South where his family experienced poverty and racially volatile circumstances alongside of many other blacks during the reconstruction period. Although the war had ended, and slaves were now emancipated, the Seymour family like many others faced economic conditions that crushed the hopes and dreams of many African Americans in the South. Nevertheless, God had his eyes on Simon Seymour's son William, and the world was never going to be the same.
Not much is known about William Seymour's childhood but it is reported that as a child he experienced dreams and visions from God and was eager to study the scriptures even though he was unable to receive very much formal education. Many people of his time would have looked at William Seymour as nothing more than a poor, uneducated black kid whose father fought for "the enemy, those yankees" during the Civil War. After becoming an adult, William was exposed to Protestant Christianity and became a born-again Christian. He was later ordained and began to travel frequently. He eventually became connected with a minister named Lucy Farrow who introduced him to the man would would become known as the progenitor of modern Pentecostal Theology, Charles Parham.
Charles Parham, a Caucasian minister, founded a Bible school in Houston Texas in 1905 during the period of Jim Crow and segregation in the South. One year later in 1906 at the encouragement of his friend Lucy Farrow, William Seymour joined Charles Parham's Bible College in Houston even though his attendance violated Texas Jim Crow laws. With the pressure of segregation laws Parham would only give Seymour permission to sit just outside the classroom door while he taught his unique Pentecostal doctrine. It's also reported that Parham and Seymour shared pulpits and street corners on several occasions during the early part of 1906, with Parham only permitting Seymour to preach to African-Americans. It was here in Houston under the instruction of Charles Parham that William Seymour received the seeds of Bible teaching that would later sprout revival at Azusa street.
After only a month of learning as one of Parham's students William Seymour was invited to become the Pastor of a holiness mission in Los Angeles California. Seymour began preaching with a strong emphasis on interracial community and the Baptism in the Holy Spirit with the initial sign of speaking in tongues. Being that this Pentecostal distinctive was not yet a major component of the Holiness Movement, Seymour was essentially expelled from the church. What seemed to be a dead end in Los Angeles actually became the beginning of the largest Evangelical Christian movement of modern times.
Seymour was invited by some friends to begin holding meetings in their home. During one of the meetings Seymour was preaching and a group of people in attendance began to speak in tongues. Not many days after Seymour himself began to also speak in tongues. Excitement began to build due to news of the phenomena of tongues spreading throughout the local Wesleyan holiness churches and soon they could no longer fit the large crowd of people into the home where they were meeting. This led to the relocation of the meetings into an old church building on the now famous Azusa street in L.A.
What began as small, prayer focused meeting in a local home had now grown into meetings of 1,500 people packed in a building from morning to night for 7 days a week on Azusa street. The world changing Azusa Street revival had commenced and it would not be long until there was a Pentecostal mission in every single state in America, and from there the revival spread to other countries. The movement was counter cultural in that it emphasized egalitarianism and the unity of races in Christ in the midst of a post Civil War American society that left the Nation racially divided and hostile.
The ideals of the Spirit-filled life, racial diversity, equality of male and female before God, and a commitment to a righteous and holy lifestyle as commanded by the scriptures have been core to the Pentecostal Charismatic movement up until this very day. According to a study from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary the Charismatic movement has approximately 669,177,000 participating members as of mid 2017- which makes it the largest Evangelical Christian movement of our times.
It's mind blowing to consider that nearly 700 million Charismatic Christians can trace it all back to the fervent faith of an uneducated African American who grew up in the Post Civil War South to parents who were former slaves. A man who had to sit outside of a seminary classroom to receive instruction, and who was later criticized by some of his closest friends for being such an ardent proponent of racial diversity in such a volatile social and political climate. William Seymour is comparable to other major figures in Christian History such as Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Finney in that his ministry has influenced hundreds of millions of people worldwide to consider Jesus Christ as Savior. Unfortunately I believe that because Pentecostalism is viewed as "strange" by many due to it's emphasis on speaking in tongues, Seymour rarely receives the credit that he deserves as the founder of a major Christian movement.
William Seymour's life provides a sort of blueprint for the American Church of our times. We find that an emphasis on the personal presence and power of the Holy Spirit is the key ingredient for fostering an environment of genuine racial diversity, radical mission activities, authentic spiritual holiness, and church revitalization. Modern American Churches have by in large adopted an emphasis on programs, processes, and procedures without remembering that the key to the rapid spread of the Gospel is the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. If churches would follow the Biblical and historic model of reliance upon the Holy Spirit for fruitful evangelistic church growth, we would see mighty revival in America once again, a revival that will provide solutions in society originating from the Church House not the White House.
We can't help but notice that a seminary degree was not a major part of God's consideration when He chose to use William Seymour to spark the Azusa street revival. God saw a man with a true desire to be fully immersed in the Spirit's power, and man with a fervency for intimacy with God. It's true that Seymour had some seminary training, and that was a good thing, but what really matters in the heart of those called to preach the Gospel is a passion for intimacy with God the Holy Spirit. Nowadays we have seminaries that fill it's students minds with doctrine and dogma but never teach them to immerse themselves into the power of His Presence! As a former Bible College President I can attest to the fact that formal theological training is crucial for the success of the local church, but we must do so with a plan to teach upcoming ministers to have a vibrant relationship with the Holy Spirit.
If you've ever wondered the answer to the question "can God really use anyone?" Look no further than William Seymour. I often wonder if a man like William Seymour walked into the American Churches of our day would we overlook him because of his color or education level just as they did during his time? How much progress have we made in the area of realizing that God uses people of any background to accomplish His Mighty deeds? Do we look at people according to the outward appearance as the Lord cautioned the prophet Samuel against (1 Samuel 16:7)? The story of William Seymour remind us that we as American Christians must not force people who are from various backgrounds and ethnicities to "sit outside of the classroom." We must become a people who invite every tribe tongue and Nation to become Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus Christ.
For those who feel like they are "sitting outside of the classroom." Williams Seymour reminds us that God hasn't rejected you, even if people have. William Seymour did not allow racial discrimination in churches and societies to keep him from getting as close as he could to God. This heart of gold enabled William to be used in a way that has changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Seymour's willingness to endure hardship and to not allow false labels to deter him from God provided the pathway for him to become the most influential revivalist of our times. God is saying to the William Seymours of our time: "I have a classroom for you, come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men!"
In a world of political volatility, economic uncertainty, racial tension, Christian disunity, and apostasy in the church the story of William Seymour reminds us that God can turn the tide in a single generation with a sweeping Spirit-filled revival! The centrality of God's Presence in the church can bring about the racial reconciliation, righteousness, holiness, societal change, and missional mindset that we all know God desires to see in His people. Will we believe God to do it again in our generation? Will we begin to pursue a vibrant outpouring of His love once again? Will we begin to look to God's power above any other power once again? I am inviting you to join me in asking God to bring sweeping revival to the United States once again in this generation! All He wants is for us to be willing vessels just like Seymour!
Written by: Kyle Bailey, D.Min.
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