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Afro-PentecostalismBlack Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in History and Culture$

Amos Yong and Estrelda Y. Alexander

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780814797303

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814797303.001.0001

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Laying the Foundations for Azusa

Laying the Foundations for Azusa

Black Women and Public Ministry in the Nineteenth Century

(p.65) 4 Laying the Foundations for Azusa

Valerie C. Cooper

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on two movements that unfolded, American Evangelicalism and Wesleyan Holiness, and how changing understandings of women's appropriate place in public life laid the foundations for the Azusa Street Mission. It considers how nineteenth-century, black Evangelical women contributed to the establishment of the largely egalitarian ethos of early Afro-Pentecostalism by bringing to their involvement in Azusa changing expectations about their roles in public ministry and public life, biblically based arguments for women's religious leadership, a developing pneumatology, and eschatological expectancy. It also considers how black women's views about public activism and theology influenced the dynamic sociological and historical factors that produced Azusa Street.

Keywords:   black Evangelical women, Azusa Street Mission, American Evangelicalism, Wesleyan Holiness, public life, Afro-Pentecostalism, public ministry, religious leadership, pneumatology, public activism

Once, while lecturing in a course on Pentecostalism, I was struck by a student’s question.1 The student asked simply, “Why Azusa?” In a sense, this young person was asking if phenomena like glossolalia had reoccurred at various times during history, why did these experiences come together so powerfully in the Pentecostal Revival at Azusa Street that began in 1906?2 What particular circumstances—social, theological, political, or other—coalesced at Azusa to produce the wide-ranging, rapidly expanding movement we call Pentecostalism, the fastest growing Christian movement on earth, “accounting for one in every four Christians”?3

Azusa Street was unique in many ways. Media sources noted, often disdainfully, the leadership roles that blacks held in the movement.4 William J. Seymour, the African American who headed the Azusa Street Mission during its most influential early years, was surrounded by women—both black and white—who preached, operated in multiple gifts of the Spirit, and enthusiastically carried the message of Azusa and Pentecostalism around the globe. According to the Pentecostal scholar Cecil M. Robeck Jr., “From the outset, the leadership that surrounded Seymour was racially mixed and included both women and men.”5 Coming as it did during a period in the United States marked by the expansion of de jure Jim Crow segregation, Azusa Street represented a remarkable—even miraculous—period of religious racial integration that is quite unique in American history, even into the present. Although, as scholars like Iain MacRobert have documented, this period of integration was under constant assault and ultimately gave way to the formation of racially separated but nearly theologically identical Pentecostal confederations and denominations very early on, the Azusa Street Mission was nonetheless an amazing moment in American religious history.6

(p.66) In addressing the question, why Azusa? we must not only examine the complexity that attended the emergence of Pentecostalism but also consider various influences, including the effect that women’s increasingly public ministries had on the precursor Evangelical and Wesleyan Holiness movements.7 One of the circumstances producing the critical mass that contributed to Azusa as a phenomenon was the changing role of women in Evangelicalism and in the African American community in the years just prior to the 1906 origins of the Revival. In addition to the dynamic leadership of men like Seymour, black women brought to their involvement in Azusa changing expectations about their roles in ministry and public life, biblically based arguments for women’s religious leadership, a developing pneumatology, and eschatological expectancy. These women’s views about public activism and theology had been shaped by debates over slavery, the Civil War, and the subsequent collapse of Reconstruction, and contributed to the dynamic sociological and historical factors that produced Azusa Street.

The Pentecostal scholar, Joe Creech, has argued that the Azusa Street Revival of 1906 to 1909 has been mythologized as the “central point from which the worldwide Pentecostal movement emerged” and that such understanding presents a distorted picture of early Pentecostalism as having universally shared Azusa’s “unique social and religious dynamics—spontaneity, charismatic leadership, ecstasy, and the subversion of race, class, and gender categories.”8 Far from having shared such a “common sectarian, egalitarian ethos,” Creech argues that “Pentecostalism arose from multiple pockets of revival that retained their preexisting institutional structures, theological tendencies, and social dynamics,”9 Azusa came to represent a myth of origin for Pentecostalism, despite the fact that the movement’s origins were not that precise historically or geographically.

Creech’s analysis helps to explain the existence and significance of competing movements before, during, and after Azusa. It also argues for an understanding of Pentecostalism as a movement that evolved gradually from Holiness and other religious and social movements rather than abruptly at a single point in 1906. Pentecostalism’s Holiness precursors thus take on added significance as legitimate contributors to the theology and practice of what would later be labeled as Pentecostal. Indeed, even the use of the term “Pentecostal” predates Azusa in Holiness circles.10

Even if the characteristics that distinguished Azusa were not universally experienced throughout early Pentecostalism, they have nonetheless fascinated historians and theologians. How did Azusa come to be defined by Creech’s description as “unique social and religious dynamics—spontaneity, (p.67) charismatic leadership, ecstasy, and the subversion of race, class, and gender categories”?11 Again, why Azusa—why was Azusa so uniquely egalitarian? Azusa’s characteristic subversion of race, class, and gender categories resulted, in part, from the participation of black Holiness women whose theological imaginations had been shaped by similar experiences from the battle against slavery through the collapse of Reconstruction.

During the nineteenth century, several African American women emerged into the public sphere in association with their work for the abolition of slavery, or in Holiness churches. These pioneering public ministries laid the groundwork for later Pentecostal understandings of charismatic ministry, particularly among women. Their apocalyptic pronouncements about slavery and its swiftly approaching judgment set the stage for Pentecostalism’s eschatological expectancy. In the midst of both pro-and antislavery camps that used scripture to shape their arguments, these women also used the Bible and fashioned a biblical aesthetic centered on issues of justice and equality. At least one woman, Jarena Lee, was constructing a kind of theology of experience that would closely resemble later Pentecostal theology.

Iain MacRobert suggests that racism is directly to blame for the underreporting by some whites within the movement of black involvement and leadership in the early days of Pentecostalism.12 Fortunately, recent scholarship has sought to rediscover the significance of African Americans like the Azusa Street revivalist William J. Seymour and the Church of God in Christ founder C. H. Mason. However, while scholars have recovered the names and roles of several of the black men who shaped Pentecostalism, they have to date been less successful in recalling the names of black women who also contributed to the theology and practice of the nascent movement. Happily, recent publications like Anthea D. Butler’s Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World, Estrelda Alexander’s The Women of Azusa Street, and Cheryl Townsend Gilkes’s If It Wasn’t For the Women, are reversing this trend by focusing upon the role of black women in shaping early Pentecostalism.13 We further these investigations here by highlighting the significant contributions of several nineteenth-century African American women who, although not Pentecostals themselves, nonetheless laid a foundation for the later Pentecostal movement in their preaching, teaching, and public activism.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Evangelical Christianity began to provide American women with theologically legitimated, but limited, access to the public sphere. The historian Christine Heyrman argues that Evangelicalism both undermined white male privilege and empowered (p.68) disenfranchised blacks, women, and others because it challenged the social status quo in the antebellum South.14

In her study of New England Baptists from the colonial period, Susan Juster suggests that Evangelicalism’s emphasis upon a personal experience of salvation provided points of liminality, which she defines as those experiences that pull people out of their own time and space, and create new social orders and relationships.15 The African American literary scholar Nellie Y. McKay would agree, pointing out the effect that the conversion experience had on black women, and how nineteenth-century black women understood Evangelical conversion to bestow a kind of “democracy of saved souls” where all “were on an equal spiritual standing with them before the Lord.”16 In her study of Holiness women, Nancy Hardesty extends this democratizing tendency beyond salvation to include sanctification as well: “Revivalism stressed experience and encouraged activity. All are sinners in need of salvation and sanctification. All are welcome and able to repent and believe, to consecrate themselves to lives of holiness.”17 Further, notes Hardesty, sanctification was understood as “a gift of power” to speak and act on God’s behalf, and even to overcome prejudice.18

Chronicling the emergence of black and white women preachers and exhorters, the church historian Catherine A. Brekus notes that “between 1740, when the revivals of the First Great Awakening began in New England, and 1845, when a second wave of revivals ended with the collapse of the Millerite movement, several generations of women struggled to invent an enduring tradition of female religious leadership.”19 Although these women were often attacked or belittled, they nonetheless insisted that they had been sent by God. Brekus documents the itinerant ministries of nineteenth-century white women like Harriet Livermore and Nancy Towle, and nineteenth-century black women like Jarena Lee, Sojourner Truth, Zilpha Elaw, Rebecca Jackson, and Julia Foote, who were “part of a larger evangelical culture—both black and white—that sanctioned women’s religious leadership” (5). Brekus argues that such women were “‘biblical’ rather than secular feminists, and they based their claims to female equality on the grounds of scriptural revelation, not natural rights” (6–7).

Brekus states that “in many ways, the presence of large numbers of white and black women in the pulpit [between 1740 and 1845] seems to offer evidence of the democratization of American Christianity … [and] that the distinctions of race, class, and sex were less important than whether or not one had been ‘saved’” (11). However, Brekus observes that this “evangelical democratization” which seemed to permit women to preach was most (p.69) visible among northern Evangelicals, and least visible among those in the south (16). She indicates that central to the “more than twenty female evangelists’ … stories … told in print during the first decades of the nineteenth century” (167) was a description of the woman’s salvation experience or calling to ministry as a sovereign and irresistible act of God to which the only appropriate and proper response was obedience. Nancy Hardesty notes that when their calling to preach (often received as a dream or vision) conflicted against religious authorities’ admonitions, Holiness women like Jarena Lee and Amanda Berry Smith felt compelled to obey God’s call rather than humans’ restrictions.20

So by the nineteenth century, Evangelical women had made significant forays into the public sphere. Women like Phoebe Palmer propagated Holiness theology and significantly expanded frontier Methodism with their small prayer groups and “Holy Clubs,” which resembled the home churches and Bible studies by which Pentecostalism grows today, in that they were home based and frequently female led. By the middle and end of the nineteenth century, several Holiness women had expanded these modest, home-based beginnings into Holiness camp meetings, or multistate, itinerant, healing, and proto-Pentecostal ministries. For example, Maria Woodworth-Etter records her barnstorming healing crusades across the Midwest in her journal, Signs and Wonders.21

Evangelical women also made significant inroads into popular culture during the nineteenth century, as when Harriet Beecher Stowe penned the influential antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or when Julia Ward Howe put lyrics to the popular folk melody “John Brown’s Body” to create “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The abolitionist movement provided many women with powerful theological motivations for their social action and public engagement. Energized by the fight against slavery, African American women, in particular, pioneered social engagement, which would anticipate later Pentecostal women’s preaching and teaching ministries. Black women wrestled with the nebulous place that society accorded them and, in battling race oppression and slavery, also tended to battle the gender oppression that sought to lock them out of public discourse.

One woman who pioneered a leadership role was black Holiness preacher Jarena Lee. Lee received what she believed was a divine call to ministry in 1807, when she heard a voice telling her to “Go preach the Gospel.”22 However, as a member of the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the first independent African American denomination, she was unable to convince its first bishop, Richard Allen, to confirm her calling by (p.70) granting her permission to be ordained. Allen, who left the predominantly white Methodist Episcopal Church because of its racism, would not agree to Lee’s protest against the sexism that Lee had identified in the new AME denomination. Instead, Allen noted that the Methodist Episcopal Church’s Book of Discipline “did not call for women preachers” (36).

Lee was not slowed by Allen’s rebuff, reasoning instead, “And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper, for a woman to preach? [S]eeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as the man” (ibid.). However, Lee reported that Allen’s opposition did have an immediate dampening effect upon her ardor for the work of the gospel. She notes, “that holy energy which burned within me, as a fire, began to be smothered” (ibid.). Lee concluded that anything that threatened to put out the fire of God within her had to be opposed. Interestingly, by describing this “holy energy” as a fire, she appropriates language that would have been familiar to nineteenth century readers as biblical images of the Word of God and the Spirit of God.23

Nevertheless, Jarena Lee conducted a wide ranging and very dangerous ministry, traveling back and forth across the Mason-Dixon line and subjecting herself to the possibility that although she was a free woman, she could be captured and enslaved. Her audiences were frequently integrated. According to the historian William Andrews, who included Lee’s autobiography in his edited anthology, Sisters of the Spirit, “in 1827 … at the age of forty-four, [Lee] traveled 2,325 miles and delivered 178 sermons. Much of the distance she covered by foot, the rest by wagon, ferryboat, and carriage.”24 At one point, Lee was so consumed with the desire to preach that she dreamed that she “took a [scripture] text and preached it in [her] sleep,” ultimately becoming so animated and so loud that she woke herself up and also woke up the rest of the household (35).

Lee faced the agonizing double jeopardy that confounds the lives of African American women: she was inconveniently black and female in a social order that valued neither very highly, and more frequently undermined and underestimated both. The success of her ministry, despite the obstacles of patriarchy and racism, demonstrates both the abundance of her charismatic gifts and the force of her personality. Nevertheless, Lee was constantly required by doubters to give an account of her calling. In her 1836 apologia, Lee explains her right to preach as a consequence of her personal experiences of God.

When Lee wrote that “I have never found [the Spirit of God] to lead me contrary to the Scriptures of truth, as I understand them” (48), she was in fact laying the groundwork for an appeal to life experience as the interpretive (p.71) key to scripture.25 Lee’s life became, in effect, the second prism through which she could filter the biblical witness, and effectively disregard those materials that would seem to call into question her desire to be a preacher. She stated, in effect, that she knew better, because she knew God so well. This explains her repetition throughout the narrative of the efficacy of her ministry—her frequent references to effects such as salvations, or emotive responses from her ad hoc congregants. Having stated that it was her experience of God that gave her higher understanding, Lee was compelled to prove by the effects of her experiences that it was indeed God, and not “Satan … [having] transform[ed] himself into an angel of light, for the purpose of deception,” on whose behalf she worked.26 As evidence of the divine origins of her power, she repeatedly stated her positive results. In Lee’s theology, her experiences of ministry function pneumatologically—they are the proof of the Holy Spirit working in and through her. Like many Pentecostals after her, Lee used experience as a means of encountering and interpreting the Holy Spirit.27

Lee developed a theologically complex argument for women’s ordination based upon a close reading of scripture. She saw no reason why women could not preach the gospel since the first person to have proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection was a woman, Mary Magdalene. At one point, perhaps frustrated by the limitations placed upon her preaching ministry by men (but certainly, as she tells it, inspired by the Holy Spirit), Lee stood up when a man who was preaching during a Sunday service faltered. She took up his text from where she was standing in the congregation and proceeded to outpreach the man, finishing his sermon for him. Bishop Richard Allen, who was present at the time, was impressed with Lee’s preaching ability and sanctioned her for a limited itinerant preaching ministry, but he never allowed her to be ordained.28

Jarena Lee was not the only African American woman making a sophisticated, audacious, personal, and ultimately biblically based argument in favor of women’s public ministries. In her autobiography, A Brand Plucked from the Fire, Julia Foote details the process by which she herself converted to the view that women had as much right to preach as men did. From the New Testament, she notes that the same Greek word is rendered in English translations as “servant of the church” when referring to a woman, but “minister” when referring to a man (Rom. 16:1 and Eph. 6:21).29 Convinced that the New Testament modeled women’s active participation in ministry, she wrote, “When Paul said, ‘Help those women who labor with me in the Gospel,’ he certainly meant that they did more than to pour out tea.”30 When no pastor in her denomination, the AMEZ Church, would open his pulpit to her, Foote held meetings in her home. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, she (p.72) enjoyed a second career in the burgeoning Holiness movement. Unlike Jarena Lee, Julia Foote did achieve her goal: eventually, the AMEZ Church did ordain her, first as a deacon, and finally, shortly before her death, as an elder.

Another black Evangelical woman who had a well-known public ministry in the nineteenth century was Sojourner Truth. Truth was a nineteenth-century African American woman whose public activism and itinerant preaching very closely resembles that of Pentecostal women in the twentieth century. In her biography of Truth, Nell Painter argues that Truth was a Pentecostal.31 While I suspect that she is probably better described as Holiness, I do agree with Painter that Sojourner Truth represents a category of black women who pioneered what would later come to characterize Pentecostalism in their commitment to a kind of Evangelical Christianity and publicly engaged ministry.

According to the racial and social hierarchies of the nineteenth century, black women were barely considered to be human, certainly never to be treated as ladies. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham demonstrates that during the antebellum period, black women were held to be so far below white women that even rape laws were not regarded as applying to them or providing them legal protection from sexual assault. So the logic went, since black women were incapable of the moral reasoning necessary to refuse sex, and since they were in fact property, it was not possible to rape one.32 Rather than accept this nebulous social space, black women of the nineteenth century went on to create an alternative social identity, emerging more audaciously than contemporaneous white women, into the public sphere. After all, what did they have to lose?

Marilyn Richardson, a scholar of African American intellectual history, stated that in “September 1832, in Boston, Massachusetts, Maria W. Stewart, a black woman, did what no American-born woman, black or white” is recorded to have done before: “She mounted a lecture platform and raised a political argument before a ‘promiscuous’ audience, that is, [an audience] composed of both men and women.”33 A student of the radical black abolitionist David Walker, Stewart’s public speaking career began in the same year that Walker died mysteriously after publishing a revolutionary, apocalyptic but also deeply biblical tract on the sinfulness of slavery. Her public speaking ended three years later, perhaps as a consequence of the sometimes violent opposition she faced. In her speeches, Stewart laced heavy doses of Scripture with abolitionist rhetoric, predicting a coming apocalypse for America if it did not quickly repent of the evil of slavery.

Stewart’s speeches point to divine approbation toward blacks as evidence of the coming judgment of whites. If America denies blacks the very “liberty and independence” it demanded from the British, how can it be a free (p.73) nation? If God gives black people the gift of the Holy Spirit,34 “the greatest of all blessings,” how can whites who do not even give blacks the fair wages of their labors avoid judgment? Stewart declared judgment to be only fitting for the oppressors her words and world-view prophesied against. Moreover, she invokes American republican rhetoric, contrasting the promised, “liberty and independence” against the lowest biblical image of sin and judgment, Babylon, to make her case for a reconstructed social order where “many of the sable-skinned Africans … now despise[d], will shine in the kingdom of heaven as the stars forever and ever.”35

The elegance of Stewart’s rhetoric is clear in five little words with which she powerfully framed a new exegetical paradigm. She states simply, “you … fare sumptuously every day.”36 The biblical allusion is apparent: Stewart is quoting Luke 16:19–31, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The text itself is subversive, and Stewart’s use of it doubly subversive. In a reversal of the usual way of things, the parable discards the rich man’s name and records only the name of the poor man. In a further reversal of the men’s stations in life, the poor man is comforted in heaven after a miserable life on earth, and the rich man is tormented in hell after a comfortable life on earth. Moreover, the rich man believes, even in hell, that Lazarus will still fetch and carry for him as poor men did while he was on earth. Even in hell, he doesn’t fully comprehend that his and Lazarus’s circumstances have radically changed. The rich man doesn’t comprehend that in this new world order, Lazarus is no longer his servant, Lazarus is no longer available to fetch him a drink. But Stewart’s adaptation of the parable, in context, does not merely describe a rich man punished and a poor man rewarded, but rather blacks in heaven and whites in hell. Indeed, it declares the coming apocalypse of judgment that Stewart and Walker before her had often prophesied. This interpretation is both revolutionary and deeply subversive: it is, in essence, classic counter-hegemonic discourse. The experience of black people is the key to interpreting the parable, and the point of the story. All it took was five little words: “you … fare sumptuously every day.”

Stewart’s use of Luke 16 was also apocalyptic, suggesting that judgment was coming to the United States for its sin of slavery. In this line of reasoning, she was contributing to eschatological expectations around Emancipation. Such eschatological expectations intensified for many African Americans when Reconstruction collapsed, and later fed into Azusa Street.

By the Civil War, the apocalypticism of abolitionists like Maria Stewart had soaked into popular culture. That many Americans had come to understand the war as judgment for the sin of slavery is attested to by the fact that even (p.74) President Lincoln proclaimed this in his second inaugural address. Lincoln, who was not a particularly avid churchman, seems to have begun a quiet but intense study of the Bible, perhaps as a response to the mounting pressures the Civil War placed upon his shoulders. At least one scholar has suggested that the “Four score and seven years ago” that begins the Gettysburg Address represents Lincoln’s invocation of biblical-sounding terminology. Certainly, by his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln is overtly biblical and theological as he considers the cost the war has wrought in blood and treasure. Although he notes that both North and South were persuaded of their righteousness in the conflict, both have suffered as a result of it. Lincoln declared:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. … Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”37

Lincoln framed the Civil War as a sovereign act of God’s judgment in which the “unrequited toil” of slavery has been recompensed by “every drop of blood … drawn with the sword” of war. Indeed, according to this interpretation of events, the war has dragged on precisely because God intended it to repay slavery’s every slight. African Americans’ high hopes for full inclusion in American democracy were soon dashed, however, by the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877, just twelve years after the end of the war. The period between 1877 and 1920 is sometimes called “the Nadir” for blacks because it was attended by marked increases in lynchings and other forms of terrorism and violence, nearly universal economic disenfranchisement, and the establishment of Jim Crow codes across the South.38 The African American religion scholar Timothy Fulop describes it this way:

The last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century have appropriately gone down in African-American history as “the Nadir.” Disenfranchisement (p.75) and Jim Crow laws clouded out any rays of hope that Reconstruction had bestowed in the American South. Darwinism and phrenology passed on new “scientific” theories of black inferiority, and the old racial stereotypes of blacks as beasts abounded in American society. The civil, political, and educational rights of black Americans were greatly curtailed, and lynching reached all-time highs in the 1890s. … The Nadir was accompanied by a cacophony of black voices seeking to make sense of the history and destiny of African Americans. One strand of these voices proclaimed in song, sermon, and theological treatise that the millennial reign of God was coming to earth.39

Given the volatile mix of apocalyptic expectations and cruelly thwarted hopes in the period leading up to Reconstruction and its abrupt end, it is not surprising that many blacks lapsed into escapist, otherworldly musings and the despair of dark and millennial broodings about a soon-coming warrior Jesus bringing judgment in his wake. This sense, that America had been chastened by war and had nevertheless refused to repent, filled many, especially those in the Holiness camp, with a near-certainty that the end was coming soon. This eschatological expectancy was particularly poignant among African Americans; given their frustrations with the federal government’s failed promises of justice and protection, they longed for the justice that King Jesus would bring on his return.

Fulop concludes that three types of millennialism characterized African American millennial eschatology during the Nadir: cultural millennialism, millennial Ethiopianism, and progressive millennialism. While proponents of cultural millennialism saw the United States as a “redeemer nation of the world,” millennial Ethiopianism “posits a Pan-African millennium, a future golden age continuous with a glorious African past accompanied by God’s judgment of white society and Western civilization.”40 Progressive millennialism, while a more traditional type of millennialism “is not without notes of Pan-Africanism and strong social criticism concerning race relations” although it also “reveals an optimism that the millennium will be marked by racial equality and harmony.”41 All three types of African American millennialism of the Nadir were also characterized by a belief in a kind of “black exceptionalism,” which argued that people of African descent were particularly spiritual people and of particular concern to God.42

William J. Seymour was heavily influenced by one such eschatologically focused Holiness group that called itself the “Evening Light Saints,” because its members believed that a literal, spiritual night was soon about to fall on (p.76) humanity, during which the church would provide the only light. The Evening Light Saints, a Holiness group founded in 1880 by Daniel S. Warner, subsequently developed into the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). Contemporaneous reports link William J. Seymour with the group while he lived in Indianapolis, prior to taking up the leadership of the Azusa Street Revival. Premilliennialist in their eschatology, the Evening Light Saints taught that a “new age of the Christian church, the Evening Light (named for Zech. 14:7 ‘at evening time it shall be light’), was restoring the church of the apostles.”43 The group stressed racial and gender inclusiveness: all members were addressed simply as “Saints.” According to Robeck, “In the 1890s the Evening Light Saints was one of the few groups in which blacks and whites were treated equally and gifted women were encouraged to preach. … When William J. Seymour ultimately arrived in Los Angeles [Azusa], he was as committed to a policy of non-sectarianism, the equality of the races, and the equality of women and men as Warner was.”44

Although the period immediately preceding the emergence of Pentecostalism was indeed a nadir for blacks, the period between 1880 and 1920 was in some ways a boom time for women; some historians even refer to it as the Women’s Era. With the end of the Civil War, Evangelical, Holiness, and other women turned their attention to other social projects, such as fighting for woman’s suffrage and Prohibition, and caring for the waves of European immigrants flooding onto North American shores. In some ways, though, African American women’s dual concerns of race and gender sometimes produced a more socially transgressive radicalism; at the same time, white women, particularly white Evangelical women, were also active on the growing edge of ministry in the public arena.

Higginbotham describes the activism of black Baptist women at the turn of the century. She argues that although the women were denied ordination in the largest black Baptist denomination, the National Baptist Convention (a privilege that they are still, in the main, denied), they nevertheless exercised a proto-feminist consciousness regarding their importance both to the Convention and the wider black community. Paradoxically, by organizing a separate Women’s Convention, the women were able to counter the power of the ordained male hierarchy of the general convention, and to exercise less restrained policy-making power in their own right. Higginbotham documents how the women organized Bible Bands, which taught a kind of feminist Bible interpretation (although the women certainly would never have called it that). Moreover, their fund-raising became essential to the financial health of the whole denomination and several black colleges and schools, (p.77) their evangelistic efforts built the congregations of many a local church, and their social activism enabled many blacks to make a smoother transition from slave to paid worker.

When the Pentecostal movement finally dawned, women (particularly black women) regarded the urgency of the hour as all the justification they needed to engage in very public preaching, teaching, evangelistic, and healing ministries. After all, they reasoned, Jesus was coming soon. Within the new movement, the apocalypticism born of the nadir of black hopes combined with black and Evangelical women’s strong, biblically informed, proto-feminist social activism to fuel a radical women’s engagement. As they had done with regard to the abolition of slavery, women spoke out—they preached and prophesied. When their right to ordination was questioned, they formed separate, often home-based Bible studies or missions and grew them into churches where their authority as leaders was less likely to be questioned. When the religious hierarchy in one region hardened against them, they moved out in missions, or established separate Women’s conventions to consolidate their own political power within their own churches. Or, they simply married a pastor and assumed active leadership as the first lady of the congregation in question.

In this context, then, we return to our initial question: Why Azusa Street? What happened at the Azusa Street Mission was the consequence of many factors, which converged “in the fullness of time.”45 Among those factors that came to shape that amazing revival, we have highlighted the role of African American Evangelical women. Black women brought changing expectations about their roles in ministry and public life, a developing pneumatology based upon experience, and eschatological expectancy to their involvement in Azusa. In the century preceding Azusa Street, women like Sojourner Truth had been itinerant preachers, while women like Jarena Lee and Julia Foote had constructed biblical arguments for women’s religious leadership. The apocalyptic predictions of women like Maria Stewart stoked eschatological expectations, which were later evident in Pentecostalism’s millennialism, and Jarena Lee had pioneered a pneumatology, which emphasized experience as a means of interpreting the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

The ministries of women like Jarena Lee, Julia Foote, Sojourner Truth, and Maria Stewart were the beginning trickle that, by Azusa Street, had became a flood. Fortunately, neither their stories, nor their contributions to the century preceding Azusa Street, are lost to us. Hopefully, future scholarship will understand their ministries as part of the many streams that flowed to produce the Azusa Street Revival.


(1.) I use the term “Pentecostal” to encompass those churches and groups in this country and abroad that call themselves “Pentecostal,” “Charismatic,” “Neo-Pentecostal” and/or “Third-Wave,” as well as those churches and parachurch organizations that share a similar emphasis upon the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, healing, and prophecy.

(2.) For a discussion of the history of the phenomenon of speaking in tongues throughout Christian history, see, for example, “the Charismatic Tradition,” in Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1992), 10–27. Anderson notes, “[T]he Pentecostals have maintained that speaking in tongues has had a continuous history from the Apostolic Age to the present” (25).

(3.) Harvey Gallagher Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995), 15.

(4.) See, for example, Larry E. Martin, Skeptics and Scoffers: The Religious World Looks as Azusa Street: 1906–1907, The Complete Azusa Street Library (Pensacola, Fla.: Christian Life Books, 2004), 116, 38. Here racist cartoons demean the black revivalist William J. Seymour and contrast him, disparagingly, against Charles Fox Parham, who was white.

(5.) Cecil M. Robeck Jr., The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement (Nashville: Nelson Reference and Electronic, 2006), 14.

(6.) Iain MacRobert, The Black Roots and White Racism of Early Pentecostalism in the USA (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988). MacRobert argues quite persuasively that the chief reason motivating many whites in nascent Pentecostalism was the perceived need to eliminate black leaders and, occasionally, black congregants as well from their churches. Thus theological excuses were given to explain what were probably, primarily segregationist motivations.

(7.) Hereafter simply “Holiness.”

(8.) Joe Creech, “Visions of Glory: The Place of the Azusa Street Revival in Pentecostal History,” Church History 65.3 (1996): 406.

(9.) Ibid.

(13.) Anthea D. Butler, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Estrelda Alexander, The Women of Azusa Street (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 2005); Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, If It Wasn’t for the Women: Black Women’s Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001).

(14.) Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York: Knopf/Random House, 1997), 26: “Taken together, what they tell is why southern whites of all classes so long kept their distance from evangelicals. Present, although not predominant, in those pages are disgruntled laymen and -women who complain of Baptist preachers insulting local grandees or Methodist ministers condemning slavery. But far more common are middle-aged farmers who storm that young Methodist preachers (p.79) have disputed their authority over the household or turned the heads of their wives, and distraught matrons who fret that their newly pious daughters now shun unconverted kin, or that their once boisterous, swaggering sons have sunk into seeming madness from fear of hellfire and the devil. In sum, what held the center of lay concern, what aroused their sharpest fears, were the ways in which Baptists and Methodists struck at those hierarchies that lent stability to their daily lives: the deference of youth to age; the submission of children to parents and women to men; the loyalties of individuals to family and kin above any other group; and the rule of reserve over emotion within each person.”

(15.) Susan Juster, Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994).

(16.) Nellie Y. McKay, “Nineteenth-Century Black Women’s Spiritual Autobiographies: Religious Faith and Self-Empowerment,” in Joy Webster Barbre and Personal Narratives Group, eds., Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 152.

(17.) Nancy Hardesty, Women Called to Witness: Evangelical Feminism in the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 48.

(18.) Ibid., 49–52.

(19.) Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 3. Hereafter cited in text.

(21.) Maria Beulah Woodworth-Etter, Signs and Wonders (1916; repr., New Kensington, Penn.: Whitaker House, 1997).

(22.) William L. Andrews, ed., Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 35, 38. Hereafter cited in text.

(23.) This image of holy fire is quite common in the Bible. One text that might best exemplify such imagery is Jer. 20:9, “Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay” (King James Version, emphasis mine). However, while Jeremiah’s fire was kindled when he attempted to stop preaching, Lee’s is quenched when Richard Allen attempts to stop her from preaching. Nevertheless, Lee uses this sensation of fire and its consequences as proof to her own vocation as preacher. Elsewhere, in Acts 2:3–4, a text of particular importance to Pentecostals, fire is symbolic of the Holy Spirit: “And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

(25.) Lee’s description of the “holy energy” which diminished when Richard Allen refused her request for ordination, is an excellent example of Lee’s appeal to her own life experiences for guidance and direction. She seems to have interpreted this diminution as a sign from God. She also builds an argument from scripture for women preachers, but in her narrative, this pneumatological evidence precedes her scriptural justification for her ministry.

(27.) Donald W. Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism, Studies in Evangelicalism 5 (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1987), 24, argues that Pentecostalism’s focus upon experience is, in part, a consequence of its Lukan emphasis, rather than the centrality of (p.80) Pauline theology as is predominant elsewhere in Protestant churches. Pentecostals read their faith through Luke/Acts and the central experience of Pentecost, in Acts 2: “This captures the key claim of Pentecostalism and indicates why it carries the name that it does. The movement’s distinctive way of reading the New Testament leads it to the conclusion that, as in the early church, the modern believer becomes a disciple of Jesus Christ and receives the fullness of the Spirit’s baptism in separate events or ‘experiences.’” Here, the two democratizing experiences of the Holiness movement, salvation and sanctification, are replaced by the two democratizing experiences of Pentecostalism, salvation, and baptism in the Holy Spirit.

(29.) According to Hardesty, Holiness women often made such arguments in favor of their right to religious leadership—noting the leadership roles held by biblical women like Deborah or Phoebe. Further, she notes the use by Phoebe Palmer of “the Pentecostal argument” as spoken by Peter in Acts 2:17–18, while directly quoting Joel 2:28. Both texts note that “your daughters shall prophesy.” Although Palmer began developing this theology as early as 1856—long before Azusa in 1906—it points to the belief that Pentecost was distinguished by radical gender equality. See Hardesty, Women Called to Witness, 63–65, and 143–45; cf. “Defenses of Woman’s Ministry,” in Nancy Hardesty, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: Revivalism and Feminism in the Age of Finney, Chicago Studies in the History of American Religion 5 (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Publishing, 1991), 167–69.

(30.) Julia A. J. Foote, A Brand Plucked from the Fire, in Sue E. Houchins, ed., Spiritual Narratives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 79.

(31.) Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).

(32.) In State of Missouri v. Celia, a slave woman was convicted in 1855 of murdering her master, who had regularly forced her to have sex with him and had even impregnated her. The prosecution’s presentation turned on whether Celia, a black woman and a slave, was covered under Missouri law that prohibited rape against “any woman.” The defense tried to prove that Celia had killed her owner in self-defense, since his property rights could not have extended to include rape. In convicting and ultimately executing Celia, the court upheld the owner’s right to unimpeded sexual access to his slave property. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” in Darlene Clark Hine, Wilma King, and Linda Reed, eds., “We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible”: A Reader in Black Women’s History (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Publishing, 1995), 7.

(33.) Marilyn Richardson, ed., Maria W. Stewart, America’s First Black Woman Political Writer—Essays and Speeches (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), xii.

(34.) Stewart does not identify the criteria by which she has judged that black people have received the Holy Spirit, but only states that they have indeed received it. Her religious formation appears to have been eclectic, in that she affiliated herself with “Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopal congregations” (see Richardson, Maria W. Stewart, 9). However, since she makes no references to Pentecostal phenomenology like speaking in tongues or even miracles, it can be surmised that she is referring to the work of the Holy Spirit in saving sinners and motivating them to confess Christ—both activities which she describes frequently.

(35.) Maria Stewart, “Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart, Presented to the First African Baptist Church and Society in the City of Boston” in Sue E. Houchins, ed., Spiritual Narratives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 19.

(p.81) (36.) Ibid., 20.

(37.) Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address” (March 4, 1865); available at http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres32.html (last accessed October 12, 2008). The biblical reference at the end of the quotation is from Ps. 19:9 (KJV).

(38.) The use of this term, the Nadir, to describe the period following the collapse of Reconstruction for African Americans was popularized by Rayford Whittingham Logan, The Betrayal of the Negro, from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson, new enl. ed. (New York: Collier Books, 1965).

(39.) Timothy E. Fulop, “‘The Future Golden Day of the Race’: Millennialism and Black Americans in the Nadir, 1877–1901,” in Timothy Earl Fulop and Albert J. Raboteau, eds., African-American Religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture (New York: Routledge, 1997), 230.

(40.) Ibid., 231.

(41.) Ibid.

(42.) Although she predates “the Nadir” in her public ministry from 1831 to 1833, I would characterize Maria Stewart’s millennialism as millennial Ethiopianism.

(44.) Ibid., 30. Undoubtedly, Seymour’s ability to resist Charles Fox Parham’s “Anglo-Israelite” theology and racial segregation is rooted in his earlier acceptance of the Evening Light Saints’ racial and gender egalitarianism (Robeck, Azusa Street Mission and Revival, 39–50). It is likely that the racial equality stressed by the Evening Light Saints shaped the early theology of the Church of God, into which it developed. Massey concludes that the high percentage of African American members in the Church of God is due to the church’s strong commitment to racial unity. “The reasons for this significant percentage are historical, theological, and social. It is due, in no small measure, to the appealing and promising unity ideal that is at the heart of the Church of God message, an ideal forever allied to the church’s message with the call to scriptural holiness”; see James Earl Massey, African Americans and the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana: Aspects of a Social History (Anderson, Ind.: Anderson University Press, 2005), 20.

(45.) In the King James Version (also the New Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible, and indeed in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer), this phrase, “fullness of time” denotes that an event has occurred at a time of God’s ordaining (see Gal. 4:4; Eph. 1:10). (p.82)