In 1906, a black preacher named William Seymour was invited to pastor a small black church in Los Angeles. Seymour was soon locked out of the church after he told the astonished congregation that the sure sign of their having received the baptism of the Holy Spirit was that they would begin to speak in tongues.
Some members of the congregation continued to meet and pray with Seymour. One day his host, Edward Lee, asked Seymour to lay hands on him. Lee fell to the floor and began speaking in tongues. Later that day, seven others, including Seymour himself, had the same experience after being prayed over.
More and more people, including some whites, began coming to the house, praying loudly and continuously for days. Within a week, the rapidly expanding group moved into a warehouse on Azusa Street. The prayer meetings lasted all day, everyday, well into the night. Numerous people were "slain in the Spirit" and began speaking in tongues.
The Azusa Street revival was not the first time or only place during that era when such phenomena occurred. But it was unique in its intensity and in its impact on the Christian world.
Much of the modern Pentecostal movement traces its roots to that three-year revival. Before Azusa Street, there was no identifiable Pentecostal movement; after it, the movement spread like wildfire around the world. Today, estimates of the number of Pentecostals in the world, including Catholic charismatics, vary widely. But all estimates are in the hundreds of millions.
Something of unique importance in the history of Christianity began 100 years ago in Los Angeles. Many Christians have viewed it with scorn. But few today would deny that the ground has shifted in Christianity. Mainline Protestant Christianity is in decline while Pentecostalism has surged forward.
One unique characteristic of Azusa Street was that the revival was racially integrated, a phenomenon virtually unheard of in U.S. churches at that time. Perhaps this is the clearest sign that it was a movement of the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit comes to bring unity and reconciliation among all people and all nations. Azusa Street did what no other Church was doing.
CNS PHOTO | DECLAN WALSH
Worshippers pray during a Pentecostal service in Kigali Rwanda.
That revival did not last, however. Racial and other tensions inside the movement, as well as recruitment by white churches, turned the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street into a black church. Eventually, it was closed and the building demolished.
The Pentecostal movement that grew out of that revival has splintered in many directions with a bewildering array of doctrinal beliefs. But Pentecostalism did not begin as an attempt to find common doctrine. Indeed, its roots lay in a reaction against too much emphasis on intellectual approaches to the faith and not enough on personal experience and holiness. Pentecostalism is marked more by a common experience of the outpouring of the Spirit than by common doctrine.
In his book, An Introduction to Pentecostalism, Allan Anderson maintains, "In North America, Pentecostals started as a reaction against dogma and creeds, but were soon engaged in doctrinal haggling" (p. 62). That "haggling" has led to a splintered movement, albeit one with large denominations such as the Assemblies of God. Pentecostals may, at first, have been unconcerned with doctrine, but once they began to form lasting communities, they found that doctrinal unity was also important.
In Latin America, the missionary efforts of Pentecostals have met with strong resistance from Catholic leaders in what was once a Catholic bulwark. Catholic leaders have complained loudly about a well-funded American incursion of "sects" promoting a highly individualized faith.
In the U.S., meanwhile, many Pentecostals are uncomfortable with "faith healers" who are part of the celebrity culture, live in huge mansions, make extravagant claims and whose lives bear little resemblance to the humble path worn by Jesus and his first disciples.
If the culture of Pentecostalism appears to be the polar opposite of the Catholic emphasis on sacraments and a well-defined, firmly-held teaching, we must acknowledge that it is meeting a need not being met elsewhere. In today's world, people feel little compulsion to adhere to the religion of their parents and grandparents. Pentecostalism has offered millions an opportunity for an intimate relationship with the Lord through experience and biblical reflection that they have not found elsewhere.
Pentecostalism is as clear a challenge to the Catholic culture as the Reformation was 500 years ago. But the Catholic Church has plenty of spiritual and internal resources with which to respond. There is no need for it to react defensively when the Holy Spirit has called it and gifted it to respond with the fullness of the faith that Jesus gave to the apostles.