Christian history is marked by humble men and women whom God raised up and used for a special work. William J. Seymour was such a man. He was born in 1870 in Centerville, Louisiana, to parents who had only a few years earlier been freed from slavery. The social climate of America at that time was highly prejudiced and black people were largely segregated from much of mainstream American society. His parents continued working on a plantation, even after being freed, and Seymour spent much time while growing up doing the same. Lacking formal education, Seymour taught himself, mainly through reading the Bible.
Even from his early years, Seymour had a hunger and a drawing to spiritual things. He experienced visions and he began looking for the return of Jesus. His life was on a spiritual search and that search would take him to places, and lead him to make decisions, that many around him would not expect. At age twenty-five he did something few black men dared to do. He moved from the South to the predominately white, Indianapolis, Indiana, where he worked as a hotel waiter.
In Indianapolis Seymour had his own conversion experience with God. He joined a Methodist church and Methodism would have a large influence on the theology of the young Seymour. Seymour moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he continued attending a Methodist church. For many spiritual seekers, Methodism had opened up a world of Holiness churches and Holiness movements to them. Not all of these churches or movements were officially affiliated with Methodism, but very many of them had Methodism and the teachings of John Wesley as a theological base. Seymour soon found himself involved in Holiness churches and Holiness movements, one being the Evening Light Saints.
While with them, Seymour accepted his own call to ministry after a time of wrestling with his calling. He was ordained with the Evening Light Saints after experiencing a painful life trial. Seymour contracted smallpox and, although the disease did not kill him, it did take his sight in one eye. This did not stop Seymour. He launched out in itinerant evangelistic ministry.
After a period of itinerant ministry, Seymour settled in Houston, Texas. Here he was later offered the leadership of a small Holiness church. The church had been pastored by a Mrs. Lucy Farrow. She left the church to work in the Kansas Bible school of the controversial Pentecostal pioneer, Charles Fox Parham. Parham taught that the evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit was speaking in other tongues. While serving at the school, Farrow had a personal experience of this baptism in the Holy Spirit and she spoke with tongues. She later came back to Texas and told Seymour and others about her experience. Parham soon decided to open a Bible school in Houston. Through Farrow, Seymour was introduced to Parham.
Seymour chose to attend Parham’s new school. Here he heard much teaching on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Seymour came to accept the theology of tongues being the evidence of this baptism. However, at this early stage he had not experienced this personally. Seymour made his plans to start a church but these plans were interrupted when a Miss Neely Terry asked Seymour if he would come to Los Angeles and pastor a small mission/church there. The mission/church was led by a Mrs. Julia Hutchins, who wanted to go to Africa to do missions work.
Seymour came to Los Angeles and spoke at Hutchins’ church. When he preached on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, there was a mixed reaction to what he had to say. Some people liked Seymour’s teaching and wanted to hear more. Others disagreed with him. One person who disagreed with him was pastor Hutchins herself. She later would come to accept this teaching on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, have her own experience with this baptism, and become a great proponent of Pentecostalism. At this stage of the story, she opposed Seymour’s teaching and even locked him out of the church.
Although Seymour was rejected by Hutchins, he was received by others. A couple, the Lees, from Hutchins church, let him live in their home. Here Seymour spent many hours in prayer. He invited the Lees to pray with him. Others were joining with them and a prayer meeting developed. Soon, Seymour was invited to move into the home of a Mr. and Mrs. Asberry, who lived on Bonnie Brae Street. The prayer meeting was now located at the Bonnie Brae Street address and the meetings would run for hours as people sought God. Farrow was brought up and became involved. There was something very special about these prayer meetings. People were profoundly touched by God and many of them had this experience of being baptized in the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues. Although he was not the first one to experience this, Seymour also was baptized in the Spirit and spoke with tongues.
A revival had broken out and the meetings were packed. The meetings were filled with prayer, testimonies, worship and supernatural phenomena. The crowds could not be accommodated in the small house so, in April, 1906, the group moved to an old building on 312 Azusa Street. This facility was also soon maxed out, with many waiting outside for lack of space. A tremendous revival had broken out and there was seemingly no end to the testimonies, healings and supernatural phenomena. Meetings were sustained by God and the revival ran for years.
Seymour was described as “humble,” “quiet” and “soft spoken.” William Durham said of him: He walks and talks with God. His power is in his weakness. He seems to maintain a helpless dependence on God and is as simple-hearted as a child, and at the same time is so filled with God that you feel the love and power every time you get near him.1
Seymour loved the Scriptures and spoke especially from the Gospels, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Hebrews and the book of Revelation.
Seymour gave leadership to the Azusa Mission for many years, up until the time of his death. At times, he would accept invitations to speak in other locations. He saw Azusa at its highest peak times and he persevered through some lean years as well. Seymour died on September 28, 1922, from a heart attack. The leadership of Azusa was then given to his wife.
William Seymour will always be someone who stands out in church history for his victorious faith. Seymour stepped out to search for God and his experience of God was real and life-changing. God used this humble life in revival and Seymour’s life remains an example to all of us of what God can do through the surrendered lives of His servants.
Liardon, Roberts. God’s Generals. New Kensington: Whitaker House, 1996.
1 William Durham, “A Chicago Evangelist’s Pentecost” The Apostolic Faith Vol. 1, No. 6, February-March 1907 (Los Angeles: The Apostolic Faith Mission), 4.
RIVER OF LIVING WATER – AZUSA STREET SERMON BY W. J. SEYMOUR
In the 4th chapter of John, the words come, “Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.” Praise God for the living waters today that flow freely, for it comes from God to every hungry and thirsty heart. Jesus said, “He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his inmost being shall flow rivers of living waters.” Then we are able to go in the mighty name of Jesus to the ends of the earth and water dry places, deserts and solitary places, until these parched, sad, lonely hearts are made to rejoice in the God of their salvation. We want the rivers today. Hallelujah! Glory to God in the highest!
In Jesus Christ we get forgiveness of sin, and we get sanctification of our spirit, soul, and body, and upon that we get the gift of the Holy Ghost, that Jesus promised to His disciples, the promise of the Father. All this we get through the atonement. Hallelujah!
The prophet said that he had bourne our griefs and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him and with His stripes we are healed. So we get healing, health, salvation, joy, life – everything in Jesus. Glory to God!
There are many wells today, but they are dry. There are many hungry souls today that are empty. But let us come to Jesus and take Him at His word and we will find wells of salvation, and be able to draw waters out of the well of salvation, for Jesus is that well.
At this time Jesus was weary from a long journey, and He sat on the well in Samaria, and a woman came to draw water. He asked her for a drink. She answered, “How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.” Jesus said, “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, give me to drink; thou wouldst have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.”
O, how sweet it was to see Jesus, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, that great sacrifice that God had given to a lost, dying, and benighted world, sitting on the well and talking with the woman; so gentle, so meek, and so kind that it gave her an appetite to talk further with Him, until He got into her secret and uncovered her life. Then she was pricked in heart, confessed her sins and received pardon, cleansing from fornication and adultery, was washed from stain and guilt of sin and was made a child of God, and above all, received the well of salvation in her heart. It was so sweet and joyful and good. Her heart was so filled with love that she felt she could take in a whole lost world. So she ran away with a well of salvation and left the old water pot on the well. How true it is in this day, when we get the baptism with the Holy Spirit, we have something to tell, and it is that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin. The baptism with the Holy Ghost gives us power to testify to a risen, resurrected Saviour. Our affections are in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. How I worship Him today! How I praise Him for the all-cleansing blood!
Jesus’ promises are true and sure. The woman said to Him, after He had uncovered her secret, “Sir, I perceive that Thou art a prophet.” Yes, He was a prophet. He was that great prophet that Moses said the Lord would raise up. He is here today. Will we be taught of that prophet? Will we hear Him? Let us accept Him in all His fullness.
He said, “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.” These disciples to whom He was speaking, had been saved, sanctified, anointed with the Holy Spirit, their hearts had been opened to understand the Scriptures, and yet Jesus said, “tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.” “John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.” So the same commission comes to us. We find that they obeyed His commission and were all filled with the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost, and Peter standing up, said, “this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.” Dear loved ones, we preach the same sermon. “this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit; upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy: …the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” That means until now and to last until Jesus comes.
There are so many people today like the woman. They are controlled by the fathers. Our salvation is not in some father or human instrument. It is sad to see people so blinded, worshiping the creature more than the Creator. Listen to what the woman said, “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain; and ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” So many people today are worshiping in the mountains, big churches, stone and frame buildings. But Jesus teaches that salvation is not in these stone structures – not in the mountains – not in the hills, but in God. For God is a Spirit. Jesus said unto her, “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.” So many people today are controlled by men. Their salvation reaches out no further than the boundary line of human creeds, but praise God for freedom in the Spirit. There are depths and heights and breadths that we can reach through the power of the blessed Spirit. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.[”]
The Jews were the religious leaders at this time, and people had no more light upon salvation than the Jews gave them. The Jews were God’s chosen people to evangelize the world. He had entrusted them to give all nations the true knowledge of God, but they went into traditions and doctrines of men, and were blinded and in the dark. Jesus came as the light of the world, and He is that light. “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” Let us honor the Spirit, for Jesus has sent Him to teach and lead us into all truth.
Above all, let us honor the blood of Jesus Christ every moment of our lives, and we will be sweet in our souls. We will be able to talk of this common salvation to everyone that we meet. God will let His anointing rest upon us in telling them of this precious truth. This truth belongs to God. We have no right to tax anyone for the truth, because God has entrusted us with it to tell it. Freely we receive, freely we give. So the Gospel is to be preached freely, and God will bless it and spread it Himself, and we have experienced that He does, We have found Him true to His promise all the way. We have tried Him and proved Him. His promises are sure.
William Seymour, “River of Living Water” The Apostolic Faith Vol. 1, No. 3, November 1906 (Los Angeles: The Pacific Apostolic Faith Movement), 2.
I have corrected Seymour’s misquotations of scripture in this piece quoted here
FROM THE AZUSA REVIVAL
“As she looked at me through her gold-handled lorgnette, she said, ‘Reverend, I believe in the baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire … but I don’t appreciate the noise, the shouting.’
‘Sister, you are just like I am, I responded. There are many manifestations that I see among God’s people that I don’t appreciate myself, but, do you know, when the Spirit of the Lord comes upon me, I enjoy it.’
Her small mouth pursed in mild disagreement, but I continued:
‘ … Now, my little sister, if you want to go into the prayer room and pray to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, please go ahead. And when it happens, don’t shout unless you feel like it. Just be yourself.
She nodded vigorously, ‘Oh, indeed I will.’
… I was busy in an office about seventy-five feet away and soon forgot that she was there. Suddenly, … I heard a penetrating outcry.
Quickly I jerked open the door to look through the church and there came the little lady out of the prayer room as if she had been shot from a cannon. She began jumping, dancing, and shouting in the Lord. It was something to see this reserved, refined lady with the gold-handled lorgnette, dancing and swaying … crying out and singing intermittently in tongues and in English.
I went out to meet her and smiling on the inside, commented, ‘Sister, What you are doing doesn’t appeal to me.’
She made an undignified jump into the air and shouted, ‘Maybe not, but it sure appeals to me!’”
Believed to be an account by William Seymour, quoted in Roberts Liardon, God’s Generals (New Kensington: Whitaker House, 1996), 139.
COUNTERFEITS – AN ACCOUNT BY WILLIAM SEYMOUR
God has told us in His precious word that we should know a tree by its fruit.
Wherever we find the real, we find the counterfeit also. But praise God for the real.
We find in the time of Peter, when men and women were receiving the power of the Holy Ghost, the counterfeit appeared in Annanias and Saphira. But God’s power was mightier than all the forces of hell, so their sin found them out. Be careful, dear loved ones, for your sin will surely find you out. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
In our meetings, we have had people to come and claim that they had received the baptism with the Holy Spirit, but when they were put to the test by the Holy Spirit, they were found wanting. So they got down and got saved and sanctified and baptized with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues by the Holy Spirit. And again people have imitated the gift of tongues, but how quickly the Holy Spirit would reveal to every one of the true children that had the Pentecostal baptism, and put a heavy rebuke upon the counterfeit, in tongues, til the counterfeits were silenced and condemned. God’s promises are true and sure.
People are trying to imitate the work of the Holy Ghost these days, just as they did when the Lord sent Moses to Pharaoh in Ex. 7,8 and gave him a miracle or sign to show before Pharaoh, that when Aaron should cast his rod before Pharaoh, it should become a serpent. So when Pharaoh saw that Aaron’s rod had become a serpent, he called for his wise men and the counterfeit sorcerers and magicians of Egypt. They also did in like manner with their enchantment, for they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents, but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. So the power of the Holy Ghost in God’s people today condemns and swallows up the counterfeit. It digs up and exposes all the power of Satan – Christian Science, Theosophy, and Spiritualism – all are uncovered before the Son of God. Glory to God.
Spiritualists have come to our meetings and had the demons cast out of them and have been saved and sanctified. Christian Scientists have come to the meetings and had the Christian Science demons cast out of them and have accepted the blood. Every plant that my heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up. People have come to this place full of demons and God has cast them out, and they have gone out crying with loud voices. Then when all the demons were cast out, they got saved, sanctified, and baptized with the Holy Ghost, clothed in their right minds and filled with glory and power. Dear loved ones, it is not by might nor by power but by my Spirit, saith the Lord. “tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.” ” John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.” These were Jesus’ departing words. May you tarry until you receive your personal Pentecost. Amen.
The Apostolic Faith Vol. 1, No. 4, December 1906 (Los Angeles: The Pacific Apostolic Faith Movement), 2
I have corrected Seymour’s misquotations of scripture in this piece quoted here.