ON APRIL 9, 1906, at a prayer meeting in a modest home on Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles, a few men and women spoke in tongues. They had been meeting to pray for "an outpouring" of the Holy Spirit. The tongues speech convinced them that they had "broken through."
News of the event spread rapidly among blacks, Latinos and whites, the prosperous and the poor, immigrants and natives. Those who yearned for revival, as well as the curious, thronged the house. The need for space prompted a move to an abandoned Methodist church on Azusa Street.
For the next two years, waves of religious enthusiasm waxed and waned at Azusa Street, attracting visitors from across the nation and missionaries from around the globe. The faithful announced that this was a reenactment of the New Testament Day of Pentecost: "All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability" (Acts 2:4). God was restoring New Testament experiences of the Holy Spirit--or, as devotees of the movement put it, restoring the apostolic faith.
At Azusa Street, one could see and hear the "utterance gifts" listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. Seekers spent hours praying to be baptized with the Holy Spirit, an experience they expected would be attested by speaking in tongues. People interpreted tongues and prophesied--phenomena with which few Christians had any direct experience. The sick came for healing.
Why were such things happening on an out-of-the-way city street? The faithful had a simple answer: the end of the world loomed, and God was sending the Holy Spirit to equip his chosen people for one last burst of evangelism before it was too late. The baptism with the Holy Spirit was an end-times "enduement with power for service" that went hand in hand with personal holiness. The visible gifts of the Holy Spirit testified to the Spirit's immediate presence in and among believers.
A century later, Pentecostal denominations boast over 10 million members in the U.S. If one adds those in other churches who embrace Pentecostal-like beliefs and practices, the number more than doubles. Estimates in 2005 of the worldwide number of Pentecostals suggest that there are over 580 million adherents, making Pentecostals the second largest group of Christians in the world, trailing only Roman Catholics. Even those who challenge these numbers agree that by any measure Pentecostal Christianity has experienced dramatic growth. Directly and indirectly, the Azusa Street revival influenced this expansion.
Azusa Street stands at the core of the Pentecostal myth of origins. In recent years scholars have stressed that global Pentecostalism has multiple origins, and that the Azusa Street revival was one of several impulses that birthed a distinctly Pentecostal form of Christianity. In some places the Welsh Revival of 1904-1905 played the role that Azusa Street filled in North America. The Korean revival of 1907, the Indian revivals reaching back into the 19th century, and some indigenous African movements are watersheds in non-Western Pentecostal narratives. Yet, for a variety of reasons, Azusa Street has gained the most visibility, especially in Western renderings of Pentecostal history. And perhaps justifiably so: its immediate global impact, its widely circulated publications, and its networking role kept people aware of its message. Even if Azusa Street was not the only source of the global Pentecostal impulse, it had a vital role in shaping the contours of worldwide Pentecostalism.
What happened at Azusa Street? At the center of this "new thing" stood an African-American preacher named William Seymour. The son of slaves, Seymour had traveled to Los Angeles from Texas to share what he had learned from a self-made preacher named Charles Fox Parham.
During the 1890s, Parham had heard much talk about the baptism with the Holy Spirit, but he observed a lack of consensus on the evidence for this baptism. …