Seymour, William

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SEYMOUR, WILLIAM . William Joseph Seymour (May 2, 1870September 28, 1922) is regarded as the founder of Pentecostalism, a movement characterized by the experience of what members refer to as "speaking in tongues." This movement has roots in the Holiness and Perfectionist traditions that emerged in Methodism during the mid-nineteenth century.

Seymour was born in Centerville, Louisiana. In 1900 he moved, via Indianapolis, Indiana, to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he came under the influence of the Holiness minister Martin Wells Knapp. Seymour answered the call to ministry after recovering from a bout of smallpox in which he lost vision in his left eye. He was ordained in 1902 and relocated to Houston, Texas, in 1903, where he became the interim pastor of a Holiness church during the absence of the permanent pastor, Lucy Farrow.

In December 1905, Seymour began attending the Bible school Charles F. Parham had opened in Houston, although racial prejudices forced him to audit classes and sit outside the classroom. Parham taught that Christians needed to be baptized not only with water but also with a second baptism of the Holy Spirit that would be accompanied by speaking in unknown tongues.

Seymour absorbed Parham's doctrines. In 1906 he was invited to either pastor or conduct a revival at a Holiness church in Los Angeles that had broken away from its Baptist affiliation. Although Seymour's Holiness preaching was rejected by those in control of the Holiness congregation, who barred him from the church, several key persons were converted to his view and began meeting with him at a home on Brae Street. Under the influence of Seymour's preaching, people began speaking in tongues at an evening meeting on April 9, 1906. The group grew in numbers and moved to an abandoned building on Azusa Street that formerly was the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. News of the movement spread rapidly through Seymour's periodical, the Apostolic Faith, and the street preaching of newly ordained ministers. In 1907 Seymour's ministry was incorporated as the Azusa Street Apostolic Faith Mission of Los Angeles. People from all racial and ethnic affiliations, such as Charles H. Mason, who founded the Church of God in Christ, flocked to Azusa Street from 1907 through 1908.

Three things have been credited with bringing about a decline in Seymour's influence in Pentecostalism after 1908. First, his administrative assistant moved to Portland, Oregon, and joined the ministry of Florence Crawford, who continued publishing the Apostolic Faith. Second, one of Seymour's white ministers, William H. Durham, split the movement along racial lines when he parted company with Seymour to found the Apostolic Faith Mission Church of God. Third, Seymour's wing of the movement lost most of its remaining members in 1913 when the Trinity was rejected at a Pentecostal camp meeting.

Seymour traveled around the country preaching to predominately black audiences during the last years of his life. His wife assumed leadership of his branch of the movementthe Apostolic Faith Mission Church of Godafter his death in Los Angeles from a heart attack in 1922. Every major form of Pentecostalism must acknowledge its indebtedness to Seymour.


Murphy, Larry G., J. Gordon Melton, and Gary L. Ward, eds. Encyclopedia of African American Religions. New York, 1993.

Nelson, Douglass J. For Such a Time as This: The Story of Bishop William J. Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival. Birmingham, U.K., 1981.

Nickel, Thomas R. Azusa Street Outpouring. Hanford, Calif., 1979.

Synan, Vinson. The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1997.

Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, Mass., 2001.

James Anthony Noel (2005)