Bishop William J. Seymour
Pastor of the Apostolic Faith Mission
312 Azusa Street - Los Angeles, California
William Joseph Seymour was born May 2, 1870 in Centerville, St. Mary's Parish, Louisiana. His parents, Simon Seymour (also known as Simon Simon) and Phillis Salabar were both former slaves. Phillis was born and reared on the Adilard Carlin plantation near Centerville (Please visit the William Seymour's Birth page for additional information and illustrations).
When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in the rebel states, Simon enlisted in the Northern Army and served until the end of the Civil War. While with the United States Colored Troops he marched across the southern gulf states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. During his service, he became ill and was hospitalized in New Orleans. From the descriptions, it seems he may have contracted malaria or another tropical disease in the southern swamps. Simon never fully recovered.
William Seymour, the oldest in a large family, lived his early years in abject poverty. In 1896 the family's possessions were listed as "one old bedstead, one old chair and one old mattress." All of his mother's personal property was valued at fifty-five cents.
Seymour also suffered the injustice and prejudice of the reconstruction south. Violence against freedman was common and groups like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized southern Louisiana.
The young Seymour was exposed to various Christian traditions. His parents were married by a Methodist preacher; the infant William was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church in Franklin, Louisiana; and, Simon and Phillis were buried at a Baptist Church.
Many accounts of Seymour's life say he was illiterate. This is not true. He attended a freedman school in Centerville and learned to read and write. In fact, his signature shows a good penmanship.
Fleeing the poverty and oppression of life in southern Louisiana, Seymour left his home in early adulthood. He traveled and worked in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and other states possibly including Missouri and Tennessee. He often worked as a waiter in big city hotels.
In Indianapolis, Seymour was converted in a Methodist Church. Soon, however, he joined the Church of God Reformation movement in Anderson, Indiana. At the time, the group was called "The Evening Light Saints." While with this conservative Holiness group, Seymour was sanctified and called to preach.
In Cincinnati, Ohio after a near fatal bout with smallpox, Seymour yielded to the call to ministry. The illness left him blind in one eye and scarred his face. For the rest of his life he wore a beard to hide the scars.
In 1905, Seymour was in Houston, Texas where he heard the Pentecostal message for the first time. He attended a Bible school conducted by Charles F. Parham. Parham was the founder of the Apostolic Faith Movement, and is the father of the modern Pentecostal/Charismatic revival. At a Bible school in Topeka, Kansas, his followers had received a baptism in the Holy Spirit with the biblical evidence of speaking in tongues. (To learn more about Parham and the origins of Pentecost, see The Topeka Outpouring of 1901 available from our online bookstore. Click the title for ordering information.)
Because of the strict segregation laws of the times, Seymour was forced to sit outside the class room in the hall way. The humble servant of God bore the injustice with grace. Seymour must have been a man of keen intellect. In just a few weeks, he became familiar enough with Parham's teaching that he could teach it himself. Seymour, however, did not receive the Holy Spirit baptism with the evidence of speaking in tongues.
Parham and Seymour held joint meetings in Houston, with Seymour preaching to black audiences and Parham speaking to the white groups. Parham hoped to use Seymour to spread the Apostolic Faith message to the African-Americans in Texas.
Neely Terry, a guest from Los Angeles met Seymour while he was preaching at a small church regularly pastored by Lucy Farrar (also spelled Farrow). Farrar was also an employee of Parham and was serving his family in Kansas.
When Terry returned to Los Angeles, she persuaded the small Holiness church she attended to call Seymour to Los Angeles for a meeting. Her pastor, Julia Hutchinson, extended the invitation.
Seymour arrived in Los Angeles in February 1906. His early efforts to preach the Pentecostal message were rebuffed and he was locked out of the church. The leadership were suspicious of Seymour's doctrine, but were especially concerned that he was preaching an experience that he had not received.
Moving into the home of Edward Lee, a janitor at a local bank, Bishop Seymour began ministry with a prayer group that had been meeting regularly at the home of Richard and Ruth Asbery, at 214 North Bonnie Brae. Asbery was also employed as a janitor. Most of the worshippers were African-American, with occasional visits from whites. As the group sought God for revival, their hunger intensified.
Finally, on April 9, Lee was baptized in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in other tongues. When the news of his baptism was shared with the true believers at Bonnie Brae, a powerful outpouring followed. Many received the Holy Spirit baptism as Pentecostal revival arrived on the West Coast. That evening would be hard to describe. People fell to the floor as if unconscious, others shouted adn ran through the house. One neighbor, Jennie Evans Moore played the piano, something she did not have the ability to do before.
Over the next few days of continuous outpouring, hundreds gathered. The streets were filled and Seymour preached from the Asbery's porch. On April 12, three days after the initial outpouring, Seymour received his baptism of power.
Quickly outgrowing the Asbery home, the faithful searched for a home for a new church. They found their building at 312 Azusa Street. The mission had been built as an African Methodist Episcopal Church, but when the former tenets vacated, the upstairs sanctuary had been converted into apartments. A fire destroyed the pitched roof and it was replaced with a flat roof giving the 40 X 60 feet building the appearance of a square box. The unfinished downstairs with a low ceiling and dirt floor was used as a storage building and stable. This downstairs became the home of the Apostolic Faith Mission. Mix matched chairs and wooden planks were collected for seats and a prayer altar and two wooden crates covered by a cheap cloth became the pulpit.
From this humble location, the Pentecostal truth was spread around the world. Visitors came from locations both far and near to be part of the great revival at the Apostolic Faith Mission at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles.
On April 17, The Los Angeles Daily Times sent a reporter to the revival. In his article the next day, he baffooned the meeting and the pastor, calling the worshippers "a new sect of fanatics" and Seymour "an old exhorter." He mocked their glossolalia as "weird babel of tongues." More important than the critical opinions expressed by the reporter was the providential timing of his visit. The article was published on the same day as the great earthquake in San Fransciso. Southern Californians, already gripped with fear, learned of a revival where doomsday prophecies were common.
Immediately, Frank Bartleman, an itenerate evangelist and Azusa Street participant published a tract about the earthquake. Thousands of the tracts, filled with end-time prophecies, were distributed. Soon, multitudes gathered at Azusa Street. One attendee said more than a thousand at a time would crowd onto the property. Hundreds would fill the little building; others would watch from the boardwalk; and, more would overflow into the dirt street.
With the help of a stenographer and editor the mission began to publish a newspaper, The Aposotlic Faith. Seymour's sermons were transcribed and printed, along with news of the meetings and the many missionaries that were being sent forth. The papers literally spread the Pentecostal message across the globe. Circulation for the little paper passed 50,000. (Seymour's sermons have been compiled into Azusa Street Sermons, available from our online bookstore. Click the title for ordering information.) Visit the William Seymour's Sermons page on this website to read a sample sermon or learn more about the newspaper on The Apostolic Faith page.
Services at the mission were conducted three times each day at 10 AM, noon and 7 PM. They often ran together until the entire day became one worship service. This schedule was continued seven days a week for more than three years.
It was common for the lost to be saved, sick healed, demonized delivered, and seekers to be baptized in the Spirit in almost every meeting. Many of the early leaders of the Pentecostal movement received their Holy Ghost baptism or worshipped at the Azusa "plank" altar.
In 1906 when there were more lynchings of black men then in any other year of America’s history, Seymour led an interracial worship service. At Azusa Street there were no preferences for age, gender, or race. One worshipper said, "The blood of Jesus washed the color line away."
Despite all of the success, the revival faced opposition from without and within. Charles Parham, insulted by the racial compositon of the meetings and emotionalism brought the first major split. Many others followed. When Seymour married Miss Jeanne Evans Moore on May 13, 1908 another group left the mission. Two ladies in the disscenters took the main mailing lists crippling The Apostolic Faith newspaper.
Denominational churches were vicious in their attacks. (Click here to read about the critics). Not many years after the revival began only a skeleton crew, mostly black and mostly the Bonnie Brae group, kept the fire burning in the old mission.
Bishop Seymour continued to pastor the church until his death. Yet, his work was not limited to Los Angeles. He traveled extensively, establishing churches and preaching the good news. He even wrote and edited a book, The Doctrines and Discipline of the Apostolic Faith Mission to help govern the churches he had helped to birth (This book is also available from our online bookstore. Click the title for ordering information.)
On September 28, 1922, Seymour experienced chest pains and shortness of breath. Although a doctor was called, the pilgrim passed to the Cellestial City.
Some say he died from a "broken heart." Faithful to the end, his last words were "I love my Jesus so." Seymour was laid to rest in Los Angeles' Evergreen Cemetery. His gravestone reads simply, "Our Pastor."
After his passing, his loving wife, Jennie, followed him as minister at the mission. Eventually, the mission was torn down by the city of Los Angeles and the property was lost, but what happened there will never be forgotten.
For many years the pivotal role of Seymour was almost ignored by church historians. Partially, no doubt, because he was an African American. This shameful neglect, however is finally ending as more and more students of Pentecostal history learn of the importance of William J. Seymour’s role in the formation of the Pentecostal movement.
One of the first significant church historians to recognize Seymour's importance was Sidney Ahlstrom, of Yale University. In 1972, he said that Seymour was "the most influential black leader in American religious history." The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary dedicated their new chapel to Seymour's memory in 1998. As the twentieth century closed, the Religion Newswriters Association named the Azusa Street Revival as one of the top ten events of the past millennium; Life Magazine listed Azusa Street as one of the top one hundred events of the millennium; and, Christian History magazine named William J. Seymour one of the top ten Christians of the 20th century.