What We All Owe William J. Seymour, by B.B. Robinson, Ph.D.

Throughout black American history, religious leaders have played an influential role.  We are familiar with the names of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth and Hiram Revels, but what about William J. Seymour?

A largely unsung hero, Seymour is a founder of the Pentecostal Movement.  His Azusa Street Revival had long-reaching influences on the black community and religion in general.  His accomplishments deserve recognition both during Black History Month and throughout the year.

They especially deserve notice and praise this year, as the Azusa Street Revival — the pinnacle of Seymour’s achievements — celebrates its centennial.

William J. Seymour was born on May 2, 1870 in Centerville, Louisiana.  He developed a strong religious fervor in his youth that was rooted in his intense Baptist upbringing.

By 1905, Seymour learned of a new, groundbreaking religious theology — Pentecostalism — that was being taught by Charles F. Parham in Houston, Texas.  Parham was an early proponent of the Apostolic/Pentecostal Theology.  Seymour had to listen to Parham from an adjoining room at the time because, as a black American, Seymour could not be physically located with whites in a learning environment.  Despite this disadvantage, Seymour did not allow racial barriers to stop him from learning how to spread the word of God through the Pentecostal Movement.

Seymour moved to Los Angeles, California in 1906 to further pursue this new Pentecostal theology.  In April of that same year, after much controversy over the formation of his own following, he initiated a religious revival on Azusa Street in an old AME church that had recently been used as a livery stable.   

The Azusa Street Revival, as it was called, was sparked by the “outpouring of the Holy Spirit” when several of Seymour’s followers experienced glossolalia.  In layman’s terms, glossolalia is called “speaking in other tongues.”  It described in the Biblical New Testament book of Acts, 2:1-4. 

The Azusa Street Revival lasted three years and consisted of three religious services each day.  The Revival was the takeoff for the Pentecostal Movement that still exists today.  Pentecostals now represent the fastest-growing Christian movement in the United States and the world.  It’s particularly strong in Africa, where 41.1 million people consider themselves devotees of Pentecostalism.

Although there is considerable controversy over whether Seymour or Parham should receive more credit for the actual founding of Pentecostalism in the United States, there is no doubt that Seymour originated the Azusa Street Revival.  The Revival is recognized as being directly responsible for the rise and rapid growth of the Pentecostal Movement.

The story of William J. Seymour’s accomplishments has never ended.  Seymour and Pentecostalism have motivated and nourished many social and cultural changes over the last 100 years.  Some of the most important of those social and cultural developments include:

  • The fight for racial and gender equality.  Seymour was a very strong proponent of integrated worship.  While there was a time where the races were segregated, Seymour was able to temporarily fulfill his vision when black and white Pentecostals worshipped together during the Azusa Street Revival.  Women also played key role in his organization.
  • The proliferation of black religious organizations and their role in the economic development of the black American community.  Seymour and his followers extended and refined the business model for establishing religious organizations. 
  • The increased importance of black artists in American music.  Black Pentecostal churches, with their unique musical liturgies, have served as an incubator for blues, jazz, rhythm and blues and other types of music. 
  • The influence of the church on the state.  It is possible to draw links from the Azusa Street Revival and the Pentecostal Movement of the early 1900s, which falls under the Evangelical umbrella, to the success of conservative politics in the United States over the past quarter-century.   

Given that equal rights, business, culture and politics are at the core of the black American experience in the 20th century, it appears reasonable that we should remember and celebrate one who helped shape outcomes in each of these areas.  That’s why it is surprising that Americans, especially black Americans, know so little about William J. Seymour today.

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B.B. Robinson, Ph.D. is a member of the National Advisory Council of the black leadership network Project 21.  Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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