Guest post by Khed (@khedhorse).
In April 1906, at a home at 214 North Bonnie Brae Street, Los Angeles, fire fell from heaven.
This was no fiery column defending fleeing Hebrew slaves nor cause for a modern-day Elijah to slaughter idolatrous priests. To those at the Bonnie Brae home, these were the “cloven tongues of fire” that had visited Christ’s apostles at Pentecost. They were a sure sign of Jesus’s saving power, in latter days come again into the world.
And they were literal tongues, too. Late one night, a black pastor and a white friend were kneeling in prayer when the latter let loose a flow of ecstatic syllables. The next day, the pastor, William Seymour, did the same. And when Seymour acquired a church-turned-warehouse-turned-stable as his new mission center—the famous Azusa Street Mission in downtown LA—hundreds more, of all races, experienced the outpouring of divine power. Those on the margins of society, generally poor, found in this power meaning for their lives, healing from their ills, and salvation for their souls and communities. Missionaries, believing themselves endowed with the power to speak foreign languages spontaneously, set out penniless but joyful to spread the Good Word.
And there was neither black nor white in Christ Jesus to these revivalists. To onlookers in an America in which racial barriers were being erected and fortified, the expressions these early so-called “Pentecostals” took for signs of divine favor were horrific breaches in social protocol. Seymour’s erstwhile mentor, from whom he had learned of the gift of tongues, denounced the “Negroisms” on display under Seymour’s ministry: seemingly nonsensical ululations, jerky dancing motions, raucous exclamations, weeping faces and bodies collapsing, beatifically smiling all the while. Black men were embracing white women, a clear racial transgression for those of the time that was all but overtly sexual: everyone knew black men couldn’t be trusted around virtuous white women. While the Azusa Street Revival under Seymour’s leadership was revolutionary in its deconstruction of strict racial boundaries, it suffered the fate of all revolutions: the disapprobation of those who defined “decorum” as “like us.” Even today, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t scoff at the so-called Pentecostal gifts of the Spirit, from healings to tongues to handling snakes.
14 January 2014 at 12:03:49 MST