Saving the birthplace of a religious revival


Shrine: A group of Pentecostals is preserving the inconspicuous house in Los Angeles where the movement got its start.

August 15, 1999|By JOHN RIVERA

LOS ANGELES -- In the middle of a block on Bonnie Brae Street, a relatively quiet residential lane on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles, sits a small wood-frame house that was once the epicenter of the spiritual earthquake that became the Pentecostal movement.

It was here that the Azusa Street Revival of 1906 to 1909, the event to which today's Pentecostals and Charismatics trace their roots, got its start.

A group of Pentecostals, seeking to preserve their spiritual heritage, has purchased the house on Bonnie Brae Street and is renovating it to turn it into what is likely to be the first shrine to the Pentecostal movement.

"I would see it as the place where the Pentecostal movement got its start," said Margaret Poloma, a sociologist who studies Charismatic movements. "It's not that the Pentecostal experience had never occurred anywhere else in the world before, but the fact that this was the place where people would flock to receive this experience and then carry it back to other parts of this country and indeed the world."

Speaking in tongues

It was from the porch of the house on Bonnie Brae Street that an African-American Holiness minister, William J. Seymour, began preaching about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit he had experienced that was accompanied by the spiritual manifestation of speaking in tongues -- a kind of prayer in unintelligible language.

Seymour had come to Los Angeles from Houston, where he was attracted by the teachings of a white Holiness preacher, Charles Fox Parham. Parham believed that the world was in the last days and the second coming of Christ was imminent, and therefore that religious conversion was necessary through the "baptism of the Holy Sprit," which was accompanied by speaking in tongues. Seymour believed in Parham's teaching, but he had never experienced the manifestation of tongue speaking.

Seymour was invited to come to Los Angeles to preach at a Holiness mission on Santa Fe Street. The pastor did not approve of Seymour's message on the necessity of speaking in tongues, and padlocked the door to the church after one sermon.

Now without a church, Seymour was invited to study and pray by a couple who owned the Bonnie Brae house. There, on April 9, 1906, while studying and praying over a scripture passage from the Acts of the Apostles, Seymour was finally granted the gift of tongue speaking.

After that night, the crowds he attracted to the Bonnie Brae house -- both black and white, an unusual occurrence in that day when churches were still segregated -- were so great that he was forced to find larger accommodations for his prayer meetings. They found a building that had housed an AME church, then a warehouse and most recently a stable, at 312 Azusa St. in downtown.

From that building, nightly prayer meetings first drew people from across the city, then from across the country and finally from the world.

In an article headlined "Weird Babel of Tongues," a Los Angeles Times reporter reacted to the revival with skepticism and suspicion.

"Breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand, the newest sect has started in Los Angeles," the reporter wrote. "Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and the night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshipers, who spend hours swaying back and forth in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication."

The Azusa Street Revival lasted only three years, but its influence led to the formation of Pentecostal churches and denominations. Pentecostalism is considered the largest and fastest growing movement in Christianity. In fact, one-fourth of Christians worldwide consider themselves Pentecostal.

Revival is still a phenomenon in the Pentacostal world. Such "outpourings of the Holy Spirit" have been continuing for several years in churches in Toronto, Pensacola, Fla., and at Baltimore's own Rock City Church.

The Azusa Street Mission is lost to history, having been razed in 1929. All that remains on the site, which is in the middle of downtown's Little Tokyo, is a lone street sign and a recently laid plaque. There are plans afoot to dedicate a memorial wall there depicting the history of the revival.

Divine message

Art E. Glass, a Pentecostal layman, believes God moved him nearly 20 years ago to act to prevent the same fate from befalling the Bonnie Brae house.

"I was directed by God to locate the house that I'd heard so much about," Glass said. He found the house and bought it. Then he got a group of people together who were interested in preserving it. Pentecostal Heritage Inc. was born.

"It was not in good condition. It was in terrible disrepair," Glass recalled. "It had holes in the roof. The roof was completely decayed. Termites had infested the whole structure. The electrical wiring was so bad, wiring was touching other wiring. The plumbing was in disrepair. There were weeds growing up all over the place. It was a fire hazard."

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