Apr 19, 2012

Pentecostal beginnings, and the myth of Azusa Street

In classic accounts -- and in popular accounts still -- Pentecostalism has a very distinct, very clear, very American birth place.

It began at 312 Azusa Street, in a $8-per-month shack that had been at different times a warehouse, a tombstone shop, and a stable, in what was then a black ghetto of Los Angeles.

In recent scholarship, this is called the "Azusa myth."

The myth includes a brief account of Charles Fox Parham's Bible school in Topeka, Kansas, and how they began to speak in tongues there on New Years Day, 1901, and then Parham's stint in Houston, where he briefly connected with and taught William J. Seymour, the "one-eyed black pastor from Louisiana, son of a slave," who "journeyed by train from Houston to Los Angeles, only to be locked out of the church that sent for him" and ended up opening the doors of the famed and fabled Azusa Street.

That's where things focus: That specific, strange and humble place. The incongruity of it all.

First hand accounts of the 1906 revival there contribute to the myth a bit by emphasizing and finding reason to mention Azusa Street's peculiarity. It's pretty typical to read about how the building still looked like a stable, still seemed like a stable, not like a church at all, bare and barely functional inside and out.

The story -- and this seems key to the myth, and how it works -- then skips from 1906 to a larger statement, a point about Pentecostalism today. There's Parham, then Syemour, then that building, an unexpected receptacle for the Holy Ghost, then Pentecostals and the supernatural power of God made manifest all over the world.

There are two simple problems with this, which the scholarship on the subject of the start of  Pentecostalism serve to fix.

The first is that this erases the Holiness movement that came before Pentecostalism -- the Holiness movement that prepared most of those first generation Pentecostals for the experiences of the "Gifts of the Spirit" and the "Second Baptism," and in a lot of ways even pre-conceived Pentecostalism. When it appeared, as it did, pouring out of LA, there were whole hosts of people who recognized it, who knew it as what they had been describing and speaking about and seeking after. Except for the Holiness people, there wasn't a real constituency for what Azusa Street begot.

For the Holiness people, though, it was the answer they'd been waiting for.

There's almost never an account of this in the religious literature that Pentecostals themselves put out. Or, if they do mention it, it's pretty vague, pretty cryptic. The Assemblies of God, for example, offers that history thus:
"Throughout the latter half of the 19th century in the United States, Protestants from various backgrounds began to ask themselves why their churches did not seem to exhibit the same vibrant, faith-filled life as those in the New Testament. Many of these believers joined evangelical or Holiness churches, engaged in ardent prayer and personal sacrifice, and earnestly sought God. It was in this context that people began experiencing biblical spiritual gifts."
This is true, as far as it goes. But it gives the whole period a kind of naturalness and ease and ecumenicism that, if you look at what it actually meant to wonder why "churches did not seem to exhibit the same vibrant, faith-filled life as those in the New Testament" in the 1870s, '80s, and '90s, turns out to be a really odd description.

Some of this glossing-over can be found in the first-generation accounts as well. Parham himself makes it sound like he stumbled upon the idea of speaking in tongues just in the natural course of Bible study. That entirely erases the fact he knew of at least one case of ecstatic glossolalia, and had had several years to think on the subject of the experience of tongues and what it might mean, what it might signify, and how it could be understood, before he got the chance to interpret the larger significance of such mysterious prayer.

The fact he'd come across speaking in tongues before the reputed "first time" it happened at his school is left out, probably because the place he'd seen it before was at Shilo, a Holiness, faith-healing commune in Maine, where the leader was busy declaring himself to be Elijah, the prophet of God on earth and the direct mouth-piece of God. Parham had worked with that leader just a few years before, for a bit, and was there, we know, when at least one person prayed in tongues.

He may have also heard of the case in Texas, the tail end of which was still happening when Parham was a boy in Kansas, still controversial in Holiness circles then, where a group started praying in tongues and took it as a sign of their Last Days immortality. The "Corsicana Enthusiasts," as they were called, expected Christ would, any day, return to reign on earth. And they expected to reign with him, the bodies, pure of sin, made incorruptible by the infilling of the Holy Ghost.

This did not end well.

Nor did it make it into the Pentecostal self-accounts, then or now. It's not clear Parham knew of the group, but he could have, and if he did, he left them out. In his account, and in the accounts of several others who were there in 1901, the only acknowledged precedent for what they were doing was the apostolic period of the Church described in Acts 2.

The scholarship on this is extensive, now. A hallmark distinguishing the popular accounts from the scholarly is whether and to what extent the Holiness movement is discussed. Randall J. Stephens' pretty great book, The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South is an example of this, as is R.G. Robbin's Pentecostalism in America and Estrelda Y. Alexander's Black Fire: One Hundred Years of African American Pentecostalism.

The second problem with the Azusa myth, which a good bit of scholarship goes towards correcting, is the Americanness of it. For those who study global Pentecostalism, particularly, there's been an effort made to correct the version which presents "pure" Pentecostalism as something American, which is then exported all over the world.

Allan Anderson, in particular, talks about "centers," plural, of Pentecostalism's origin, and that seems to be the order of the day. India especially stands out as a center that should be considered independently of Azusa Street. Likewise, some of what Pentecostalism is in places like China is so distinct from American varieties, it can't just be taken as a derivation (much less a deviation), but has to be taken as it's own, though related, thing.

I wonder, though, if the ideas of "centers," whether singular or plural, shouldn't be abandoned in favor of talks about networks. It seems to me that, to the extent Azusa Street was significant, it was as a hub of a network, specifically a communications network of tracts, newspapers, magazines and letters. What sets the LA revival apart from other, similar events, was probably it's print culture.

Certainly, when compared with something like Corsicana in the 1870s and 1880s, e.g., the LA people experiencing the "Gifts of the Spirit" had extensive access to means of producing publications. It happend in the one place just like it did in the other, but in the one place, it was printed up, passed out, distributed far and wide, well reported and well advertised. That seems to be an important difference. Compare the publications that came out of LA with those that came, for example, out of Parham's revival in Galena, Kansas, and one sees a pretty stark difference. There was speaking in tongues at both, and those kinds of descriptions of supernatural events are basically the same, but in one case, the news is spread, best I can tell, by sermons, which is a pretty slow distribution method for news, and by skeptical outsiders, printing reports up in newspapers for the general public. At Azusa, by contrast, their was a corps of eager promoters, with lots of access to print.

LA had a different situation from other parts of the country, when it came to Holiness and Pentecostal printing.

There are reports, for example, that tracts appeared only hours after the San Francisco earthquake happening, describing how it was a message from God, a divine warning. Frank Bartleman describes how he wrote and published such materials -- tracts and also magazine articles -- and seems to have been able to get anything he wanted into print pretty much at will, and he had, also, a network of people throughout California and other parts of the country, too, who would distribute what he wrote in the streets and to churches and even door to door.

Looking at The Apostolic Faith, the newspaper put out by the Azusa Street church, it seems there's an easily detectable network of communications, for which the paper, and by extension the church, serves as a hub. The first issue reports: "Pentecost Has Come," and only really has news of happenings at home. In subsequent issues, the paper report sthe response to that news from, first, the U.S. and Canada, then "Both Sides of the Ocean," meaning, actually, both oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, and then "Throughout the World."

These accounts, for the most part, don't picture Azusa Street as the source of the spreading of the Pentecostal experience, though, or even the center of this happening. Some reports even emphasize the disconnectedness, all the better to support the idea this is a divine outpouring, rather than an organized effort.

The very first edition of The Apostolic Faith actually goes to great lengths to make it clear Azusa Street is not the center, but just one little part of a bigger, more important thing. E.g.:
"Now after five years [since people prayed in tongues at Parham's Bible college in Kansas] something like 13,000 people have received this gospel. It is spreading everywhere, until churches who do not believe backslide and lose the experience they have. Those who are old in this movement are stronger, and greater signs and wonders are following them."
The fact there are these reports in The Apostolic Faith, though, from almost the beginning, from abroad from across the country, tells us, I suspect, that the people in LA served as a kind of information hub, connecting all these various far-flung events, interpreting them and publicizing them, and most importantly, connecting them. Reportedly the paper had, at it's height, publication runs of 50,000. In issue five, which came out only five months after the first, the editor notes, "The Lord is enabling us to publish another issue of 30,000 papers for the fifth number of the Apostolic Faith." Which is quite a jump, and suggests, one suspects, there was a pretty good distribution network of denominational magazines and holiness churches and mailing lists and letter exchanges already in place, so that the editors of The Apostolic Faith were able to actually distribute an extra 30,000 copies when they had the funds to print them, and news to make the printing and distribution worth while.

Bartleman testifies to this in passing, too, when he mentions he had received, by his count, at least 500 letters from important people all over the world, responding to his writings about the revivals. He wasn't actually a particularly significant player, in the birthing of Pentecostalism, but he was writing about it, printing up his opinions on its importance and interpretations of events, and distributing them pretty far, pretty wide.

It's a hypothesis for now -- lots of the first-generation newsletters and newspapers and tracts and so forth are out there, which I'm guessing form basically branching sub- and sub-sub-networks that could be mapped to out a whole. But they haven't been too extensively studied, and I'm just drawing connections that seem like they're probably there to be found. My guess is, though, that Azusa was significant but significant specifically because of it's print culture, and it's place as a hub in the greater network of Holiness communications.

If I'm right, that would mean, for one thing, Pentecostalism's spread could be mapped on top of the per-existing communications distribution system. One would be able to say where it was going to go before it went there, at least to a certain extent.

It would show how the very loosely, the very not-organized and not-institutionalized groups of Pentecostals were connected.

It would mean, if the network could be demonstrated, a different way to understand the significance of Azusa Street, moving away from the myth that's been criticized but also recognizing the myth arose among Pentecostals own descriptions of their history for a reason, for the role it played. And it would give, I think, a better reason for why this place was significant in ways that other centers of the revival, such as Galena, and Houston, the commune up in Maine and the many groups in Chicago, and even the Corsicana people, never managed to be, at least in the telling, re-telling and myth-making about that beginning, and why that story, which could have been told a good number of different ways, was told the way it was.