In February 1906, William J. Seymour, a 24-year-old, one-eyed son of former slaves, began what had been planned as a one-month visit to Los Angeles. Seymour was a preacher based in Houston who had become convinced that speaking in tongues was the first evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit. Barred from many churches in Los Angeles, he and a group of followers began a series of meetings in the home of Richard and Ruth Asberry at 214 North Bonnie Brae Street. They prayed, they pleaded with God, they fasted, and finally, after five weeks, a man named Edward S. Lee spoke in tongues for the first time. Others soon followed, and Bonnie Brae House soon became known as the spot where the modern Pentecostal movement began. For that reason, it is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we are telling the history of Christianity.
The Pentecostal movement is such a significant force within Christianity today that it can be difficult to believe that it, in the sweep of Christian history, it is still in its infancy. The history of the Reformation, the history of the Great Awakening, the history of the early missionary movement—these were times where God was powerful present and powerfully accomplishing his purposes and plans. Yet the signs and wonders that marked the early church—the prophecies and miracles and speaking in tongues—were neither sought nor seen.
And then, rather suddenly, there were Pentecostals, those who longed for and believed in the restoration of the apostolic power of the early church. Most historians believe that Pentecostalism emerged from the American and British revival movements of the late nineteenth century. One of the significant themes during these times was holiness and a higher life. Many taught that the end times were near and that during this time the church should expect a great outpouring of God’s power through signs and wonders.
Charles Parham, a holiness pastor and evangelist, was an early leader in this movement. In 1900 he founded a school near Topeka, Kansas, where he taught that speaking in tongues was the first and necessary evidence of baptism with the Holy Spirit. On January 1, 1901, many of his students prayed for and experienced tongues, believing that God had given them miraculous knowledge of foreign languages. Parham soon closed his school and began a four-year tour through Kansas and Missouri, propagating his teaching. In 1905, he settled in Houston, Texas, where he founded a second school and among his most devoted students was William J. Seymour.
On April 9, 1906, under Seymour’s influence, Edward Lee spoke in tongues for the first time. Almost immediately several others began doing the same, and the small congregation believed they were experiencing a modern-day Pentecost. Just a few days later Seymour himself would have his first experience of tongues-speaking.
The news of this event spread rapidly and soon people of all religious, ethnic, and financial stripes began to migrate to Bonnie Brae Street, eager to see what was happening and to experience it themselves. The crowds quickly grew so large that it became difficult to even come near the house. The sheer number of people pressing up against the house undermined the foundation and caused the front porch to collapse, though amazingly, no one was hurt. Within a week of the outbreak of revival the church had to look for a larger facility and they soon settled in a former African Methodist Episcopal Church at 312 Azusa Street. Having begun on April 9, the Azusa Street Revival would carry on for 9 years.
The services there were enthusiastic and chaotic:
Worship at 312 Azusa Street was frequent and spontaneous with services going almost around the clock. Among those attracted to the revival were not only members of the Holiness Movement, but also Baptists, Mennonites, Quakers, and Presbyterians. … Among first-hand accounts were reports of the blind having their sight restored, diseases cured instantly, and immigrants speaking in German, Yiddish, and Spanish all being spoken to in their native language by uneducated black members, who translated the languages into English by “supernatural ability”. … Singing was sporadic and in a cappella or occasionally in tongues. There were periods of extended silence. Attenders were occasionally slain in the Spirit. Visitors gave their testimony, and members read aloud testimonies that were sent to the mission by mail. There was prayer for the gift of tongues. There was prayer in tongues for the sick, for missionaries, and whatever requests were given by attenders or mailed in. There was spontaneous preaching and altar calls for salvation, sanctification and baptism of the Holy Spirit.
From that inauspicious beginning, Pentecostalism experienced a meteoric rise. Though estimates vary, we do know that today there are some 600 million Pentecostals around the world, and they trail only Roman Catholics as the largest force within Christendom. Bonnie Brae House sparked a religious fervor that shows no signs of decline.