the shape of leadership

Five Leadership Lessons of William J. Seymour

What Christians can learn from the Pentecostal pioneer who came to Los Angeles 115 years ago today

Doug Clay on February 22, 2021

On this date in 1906, William J. Seymour arrived in Los Angeles. He was scheduled to preach at a Holiness mission in the city. After Seymour preached about speaking in tongues, however, the mission literally locked him out.

Undeterred, Seymour joined a prayer meeting in a private home. As its members experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues, the number of participants grew. On Easter Sunday, April 15, the little congregation led by Seymour moved to 312 Azusa Street.

For the next three years, Azusa Street was the epicenter of the Pentecostal revival. From small beginnings, Pentecostalism in various forms has grown to include more than half a billion souls. It is one of history’s most consequential people movements. The Assemblies of God, along with other Pentecostal denominations, traces its history to Azusa Street.

As America celebrates Black History Month, it is fitting that we honor the leadership of Seymour, whose contributions to Pentecostalism at a critical moment in its history were incalculable. As Christians, we can learn five lessons from his leadership.

1. Don’t let your social location defeat your spiritual destiny. The term social location describes factors that indicate a person’s position in society, such as race, class and ability.

Born in 1870 to emancipated slaves, Seymour was Black in a nation that had recently abolished slavery but was beginning to institute Jim Crow segregation. Seymour’s parents owned a small farm, but they were working poor, and Seymour often earned money as a laborer. In the early 1900s, he contracted smallpox and lost his left eye, replacing it with a glass prosthetic eye.

“The Pentecostal power, when you sum it all up, is just more of God’s love. If it does not bring more love, it is simply a counterfeit.”  William J. Seymour

By any human measurement, Seymour lived on the margins of American society: Black, working class, disabled. And yet, when God poured out His Spirit at Azusa Street, He started at those margins, choosing Seymour to lead this consequential revival.

Starting at the margins is not a new thing for God. Indeed, Seymour is proof of Paul’s words: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Seymour’s path to leadership reminds us we must never let our past or present circumstances defeat God’s intended future for us.

2. Don’t let culture define your place in God’s kingdom. Seymour’s ministry took place during the height of legal segregation. He knew the sting of racial prejudice. He experienced the effects of systemic racism. Jim Crow kept Blacks and whites separate and unequal.

Racism and Jim Crow even affected Christian ministries. For example, Seymour attended Charles F. Parham’s Bible school in Houston, Texas, for a time. Parham allowed him to attend lectures, but while white students sat in the classroom, Seymour had to sit in the hallway. Parham invited Seymour to join his evangelism team, but allowed him to preach only to Blacks.

Other ministries practiced integration, however, and Seymour followed their example. His leadership at Azusa Street was so successful in this regard that Frank Bartleman famously observed that “the ‘color line’ was washed away in the Blood” at the mission.

Azusa Street was an egalitarian mission, too. Seymour opened doors of ministry for women as well as men. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, though. After all, didn’t Peter preach that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit would be for “all people” — “sons and daughters,” “both men and women” (Acts 2:17–18)?

Seymour’s revival leadership reminds us that God has a place at His table for all kinds of people. As Galatians 3:28, that great charter of Christian unity puts it, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

As Pentecostals, we must live and lead, reaching across cultural dividing lines to pull people from the margins to the center of Christian fellowship and Kingdom influence.

3. Keep your eyes on Christ, not your critics. Seymour and the Azusa Street mission endured criticism from the early days of the revival.

For example, three days after Seymour’s little congregation started meetings on Azusa Street, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story titled, “Weird Babel of Tongues.” The story’s lede dripped with disdain: “Breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand, the newest religious sect has started in Los Angeles.”

Several months later, the Times hit Azusa Street again, denouncing its “disgraceful intermingling of the races.” The article pointed an accusing finger at members because they “cry and make howling noises all day and into the night.” It ridiculed attendees as “mad, mentally deranged or under a spell.” And it insulted Seymour as “a one eyed, illiterate, Negro … who stays on his knees much of the time with his head hidden between the wooden milk crates.”

In other words, while the press bayed, Seymour prayed. And God answered his prayers. The Apostolic Faith, a newspaper published by the mission, reported the ironic results of the media attacks:

The secular papers have been stirred and published reports against the movement, but it has only resulted in drawing hungry souls who understand that the devil would not fight a thing unless God was in it. So they have come and found it was under the power of God.

The mission’s prayers resembled those of the apostolic church. “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness” (Acts 4:29).

May we too pray such bold prayers as we keep our eyes on Christ!

4. Keep your eyes on the Giver, not the gifts. Speaking in tongues was a distinctive practice of the Azusa Street revival, but it wasn’t the mission’s primary focus. Seymour stated the issue bluntly: “Don’t go out of here talking about tongues; talk about Jesus.”

For Seymour and the early Pentecostals, baptism in the Holy Spirit had a purpose. It wasn’t the same thing as conversion (which Reformed Christians taught). It wasn’t sanctification (which Wesleyan-Holiness believers taught). Instead, it was power for mission.

Here’s the way Seymour put it:

Many people today are sanctified, cleansed from all sin and perfectly consecrated to God, but they have never obeyed the Lord according to Acts 1, 4, 5, 8 and Luke 24:39, for their real personal Pentecost, the enduement of power for service and work and for sealing unto the day of redemption.

Like early Pentecostals, Seymour was missions-minded because he was end-times focused. The Day of the Lord was coming soon, he taught, and Christians needed to do the work of evangelism at home and abroad. People went out from Azusa Street to all corners of the globe. That’s the primary reason why the modern Pentecostal movement has grown so dramatically.

I pray that as Pentecostals we will always focus on the Giver — and use His gifts to turn people’s attention to Him!

5. The real power of Pentecost is love. For three years, God poured out His Spirit on the Azusa Street mission. We continue to experience the effects of this mighty move of God today.

And yet, we should also realize the Azusa Street mission had its share of heartaches. In the latter half of the revival, an early leader took the mailing list of The Apostolic Faith and started a competing ministry in the Pacific Northwest. Unable to regain the mission’s mailing list, Seymour lost the ability to guide the movement through the mission’s newspaper.

After the revival had reached its peak, a number of white male ministers tried to wrest control of the mission from Seymour and use its reputation to advance their own doctrinal and organizational agendas. Seymour and the mission’s leaders resisted these power plays, but the conflicts took a toll.

With these conflicts in mind, consider the importance of what Seymour wrote in 1915: “The Pentecostal power, when you sum it all up, is just more of God’s love. If it does not bring more love, it is simply a counterfeit.”

Or as the apostle Paul put it, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).

Today, 115 years after Seymour came to Los Angeles, I am proud to be associated with the Azusa Street revival! I am grateful for Seymour’s influence in our church (even our seminary chapel is named after him), and I am thankful to God that Seymour taught us the purpose of the Church is greater than any cultural moment.

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