In 1904, the Welsh Revival took place, during which approximately 100,000 people in Wales joined the movement. Internationally, Evangelical Christians took this event to be a sign that a fulfillment of the prophecy in the Bible's book of Joel, chapter 2:23–29 was about to take place. Joseph Smale, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Los Angeles, went to Wales personally in order to witness the revival. Upon his return to Los Angeles, he attempted to ignite a similar event in his own congregation. His attempts were short-lived, and he eventually left First Baptist Church to found First New Testament Church, where he continued his efforts. During this time, other small-scale revivals were taking place in Minnesota, North Carolina, and Texas. By 1905, reports of speaking in tongues, supernatural healings, "physical demonstrations of emotion", and significant lifestyle changes accompanied these revivals. As news spread, evangelicals across the United States began to pray for similar revivals in their own congregations.
In 1905 William J. Seymour, a 34 year old son of former slaves, was a student of well-known pentecostal preacher Charles Parham and an interim pastor for a small holiness church in Houston, Texas. Neely Terry, an African American woman who attended a small holiness church pastored by Julia Hutchins in Los Angeles, made a trip to visit family in Houston late in 1905. While in Houston, she visited Seymour's church, where he preached that baptism in the Holy Spirit was accompanied with speaking in tongues, and though he had not experienced this personally, Terry was impressed with his character and message. Once home in California, Terry suggested that Seymour be invited to speak at the local church. Seymour received and accepted the invitation in February of 1906, and received financial help and a blessing from Parham for his planned one-month visit.
Seymour arrived in Los Angeles on February 22, 1906, and within two days was preaching at Julia Hutchins' church at the corner of Ninth Street and Santa Fe. During his first sermon, he preached that speaking in tongues was the first Biblical evidence of the inevitable baptism in the Holy Spirit. On the following Sunday, March 4, he returned to the church and found that Hutchins had padlocked the door. Elders of the church rejected Seymour’s teaching, primarily because he had not yet experienced the blessing about which he was preaching. Condemnation of his message also came from the Holiness Church Association of Southern California with which the church had affiliation. However, not all members of Hutchins' church rejected Seymour's preaching. He was invited to stay in the home of congregation member Edward S. Lee, and he began to hold Bible studies and prayer meetings there.
Seymour and his small group of new followers soon relocated to the home of Richard and Ruth Asberry, at 214 North Bonnie Brae Street. White families from local Holiness Churches began to attend as well. The group would get together regularly and pray for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. On April 9, 1906, after five weeks of Seymour's preaching and prayer, and three days into an intended 10-day fast, Edward S. Lee spoke in tongues for the first time. At the next meeting, Seymour shared Lee's testimony and preached a sermon on Acts 2:4 and soon six others began to speak in tongues as well, including Jennie Moore, who would later become Seymour's wife. A few days later, on April 12, Seymour himself spoke in tongues for the first time, after praying all night long.
News of the events at North Bonnie Brae St. quickly circulated among the African American, Latino and White residents of the city, and for several nights, various speakers would preach to the crowds of curious and interested onlookers from the front porch of the Asberry home. Members of the audience included people from a broad spectrum of income levels and religious backgrounds. Hutchins eventually spoke in tongues herself as her whole congregation began to attend the meetings. Soon the crowds became very large, and were full of people speaking in tongues, shouting, singing and moaning. Finally, the front porch collapsed, forcing the group to begin looking for a new meeting place. A resident of the neighborhood described the happenings at 214 North Bonnie Brae with the following words:
They shouted three days and three nights. It was Easter season. The people came from everywhere. By the next morning there was no way of getting near the house. As people came in they would fall under God's power; and the whole city was stirred. They shouted until the foundation of the house gave way, but no one was hurt.
The group from Bonnie Brae Street eventually discovered an available building at 312 Azusa Street, which had originally been constructed as an African Methodist Episcopal Church in what was then a black ghetto part of town. The rent was only $8.00 a month. A newspaper referred to the downtown Los Angeles building as a “tumble down shack.” Since the church had moved out, the building had served as a wholesale house, a warehouse, a lumberyard, stockyards, a tombstone shop, and had most recently been used as a stable with rooms for rent upstairs. It was a small, rectangular, flat-roofed building, approx. 60 feet (18.28m) long and wide, totaling , sided with weathered whitewashed clapboards. The only sign that it had once been a house of God was a single gothic-style window over the main entrance.
Discarded lumber and plaster littered the large, barn-like room on the ground floor. Nonetheless, it was secured and cleaned in preparation for services. They held their first meeting on April 14, 1906. Church services were held on the first floor where the benches were placed in a rectangular pattern. Some of the benches were simply planks put on top of empty nail kegs. There was no elevated platform, as the ceiling was only eight feet high. Initially there was no pulpit. Frank Bartleman, an early participant in the revival, recalled that “Brother Seymour generally sat behind two empty shoe boxes, one on top of the other. He usually kept his head inside the top one during the meeting, in prayer. There was no pride there.... In that old building, with its low rafters and bare floors..."
The second floor at the now-named Apostolic Faith Mission housed an office and rooms for several residents including Seymour and his new wife, Jennie. It also had a large prayer room to handle the overflow from the altar services below. The prayer room was furnished with chairs and benches made from California Redwood planks, laid end to end on backless chairs.
By mid-May 1906, anywhere from 300 to 1500 people would attempt to fit into the building. Since horses had very recently been the residents of the building, flies constantly bothered the attendees. People from a great diversity of backgrounds came together to worship: men, women, children, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, rich, poor, illiterate, and educated. People of all ages flocked to Los Angeles with both skepticism and a desire to participate. The intermingling of races and the group's encouragement of women in leadership was remarkable, as 1906 was the height of the "Jim Crow" era of racial segregation, and fourteen years prior to women receiving suffrage in the United States.
Worship at 312 Azusa Street was frequent, and spontaneous, with services going almost around the clock. Among those attracted to the revival were not only members of the Holiness Movement, but Baptists, Mennonites, Quakers, and Presbyterians. An observer at one of the services wrote these words:
No instruments of music are used. None are needed. No choir- the angels have been heard by some in the spirit. No collections are taken. No bills have been posted to advertise the meetings. No church organization is back of it. All who are in touch with God realize as soon as they enter the meetings that the Holy Ghost is the leader.
The Los Angeles Times was not so kind in its description:
Meetings are held in a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street, and the devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal. Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers, who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve racking attitude of prayer and supplication. They claim to have the "gift of tongues" and be able to understand the babel.
Charles Parham was also sharp in his criticism:
Men and women, white and blacks, knelt together or fell across one another; a white woman, perhaps of wealth and culture, could be seen thrown back in the arms of a big 'buck nigger,' and held tightly thus as she shivered and shook in freak imitation of Pentecost. Horrible, awful shame!
The first edition of the Apostolic Faith Publication reported a common reaction to the revival from visitors:
Proud, well-dressed preachers came to 'investigate'. Soon their high looks were replaced with wonder, then conviction comes, and very often you will find them in a short time wallowing on the dirty floor, asking God to forgive them and make them as little children.
Among first-hand accounts were reports of the blind having their sight restored, diseases cured instantly, and immigrants speaking in German, Yiddish, and Spanish all being spoken to in their native language by uneducated black members, who translated the languages into English by "supernatural ability"
Singing was sporadic and in a cappella or occasionally in tongues. There were periods of extended silence. Attenders were occasionally slain in the Spirit. Visitors gave their testimony and members read aloud testimonies that were sent to the mission by mail. There was prayer for the gift of tongues. There was prayer in tongues for the sick, for missionaries, and whatever requests were given by attenders or mailed in. There was spontaneous preaching and altar calls for salvation, sanctification and baptism of the Holy Spirit. Many people would continually shout throughout the meetings. The members of the mission never took an offering, but there was a receptacle near the door for anyone that wanted to support the revival. The core membership of the Azusa Street Mission was never much more than 50-60 individuals, with hundreds and thousands of people visiting or staying temporarily over the years.
Seymour and the other revivalists at the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street held to five core beliefs:
...disgraceful intermingling of the races...they cry and make howling noises all day and into the night. They run, jump, shake all over, shout to the top of their voice, spin around in circles, fall out on the sawdust blanketed floor jerking, kicking and rolling all over it. Some of them pass out and do not move for hours as though they were dead. These people appear to be mad, mentally deranged or under a spell. They claim to be filled with the spirit. They have a one eyed, illiterate, Negro as their preacher who stays on his knees much of the time with his head hidden between the wooden milk crates. He doesn't talk very much but at times he can be heard shouting, ‘Repent,’ and he's supposed to be running the thing... They repeatedly sing the same song, ‘The Comforter Has Come.’
The attenders of the meetings were often described as "Holy Rollers," "Holy Jumpers," "Tangled Tonguers" and "Holy Ghosters." Reports were published throughout the US and the world of the strange happenings in Los Angeles.
Christians from many traditions were critical, saying the movement was hyper-emotional, misused Scripture and lost focus on Christ by overemphasizing the Holy Spirit. Within a short time ministers were warning their congregations to stay away from the Azusa Street Mission. Some called the police and tried to get the building shut down. Scholarly preachers spoke harshly of the revival meetings; such as R. A. Torrey who declared that this new Pentecostal movement was "emphatically not of God, and founded by a Sodomite." G. Campbell Morgan called it, "the last vomit of Satan." Harry Ironside said it was "disgusting ... delusions and insanities." Clarence Larkin and many others were also openly critical. By the time the revival ended, it was thought by some that it was the result of Spiritualism. This was thought due to the fact that many occultists and spiritists attended the meetings and were comfortable in their midst.
Also starting in September, 1906, was the publication of the revival's own newsletter, the Apostolic Faith. Issues were published occasionally up until May of 1908, mostly through the work of Seymour and a white woman named Clara Lum, a member of the Apostolic Faith Mission. The Apostolic Faith was distributed without charge and thousands of laypersons and ministers received copies worldwide. 5000 copies of the first edition were printed, and by 1907 the press run reached over 40,000.
The Apostolic Faith publication reported the happenings at the Azusa Street Mission to the world. Its first issue's lead story was titled "Pentecost has Come". It contained a letter from Charles Parham, an article on Pentecost from Acts, and a series of anecdotes of people's experience within the revival. One edition in 1907 wrote, "One token of the Lord’s coming is that He is melting all races and nations together, and they are filled with the power and glory of God. He is baptizing by one spirit into one body and making up a people that will be ready to meet Him when He comes." The Apostolic Faith brought increasing attention to the happenings at Azusa Street and the fledgling movement that was emerging from the revival.
The building was torn down and replaced by what became the Japanese-American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles after it lost its foreclosure in 1938.
Reverend K. E. M. Spooner visited the revival on Azusa Street in 1909 and became one of the Pentecostal Holiness Church’s most effective missionaries in Africa, working among the Tswana people of Botswana. A. G. Garr and his wife were sent from Azusa Street as missionaries to Calcutta, India, where they managed to start a small revival. Speaking in tongues in India did not enable them to speak the native language, Bengali. Garr significantly contributed to early Pentecostalism through his later work in redefining the "biblical evidence" doctrine and changing the doctrine from a belief that speaking in tongues was explicitly for evangelism to a belief that speaking in tongues was a gift for "spiritual empowerment".
Missionary Bernt Bernsten traveled all the way from North China to investigate the happenings after hearing that the Biblical prophecy of Acts 2:4 was being fulfilled. Other visitors left the revival to become missionaries in remote areas all over the world. So many missionaries went out from Azusa (some thirty-eight left in October 1906) that within two years the movement had spread to over fifty nations, including Britain, Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, South Africa, Hong Kong, China, Ceylon and India. Christian leaders visited from all over the world.
By the end of 1906, most leaders from Azusa Street had spun off to form other congregations, such as the 51st Street Apostolic Faith Mission, the Spanish AFM, and the Italian Pentecostal Mission. These missions were largely composed of immigrant or ethnic groups. The Southeast United States was a particularly prolific area of growth for the movement, since Seymour's approach gave a useful explanation for charismatic spiritual climate that had already been taking root in those areas. Other new missions were based on preachers who had charisma and energy. Nearly all of these new churches were founded among immigrants and the poor.
Doctrinal differences abounded, and many separate organizations and denominations sprung from the initial revivals. The Church of God in Christ was formed in 1907, the Assemblies of God and United Pentecostal Church were formed in 1914, the Pentecostal Church of God was formed in 1919 at the Sharon Bible School.
Today there are more than 500 million Pentecostal and Charismatic believers across the globe. The Pentecostal denomination is currently the second in size only to the Roman Catholic Church, and is the fastest-growing form of Christianity today. The Azusa Street Revival is commonly regarded as the beginning of the modern-day Pentecostal Movement.