Roots Covenant Church is a church that celebrates the vision of the Kingdom of God John saw in Revelation 7, of every tribe, every tongue, all peoples worshiping Jesus the Lamb together. To commemorate Black History Month this year, each week of February we are setting aside a portion of our gathering to reflect on how members of the African diaspora have impacted Christ’s church and the world.
This week, we’re celebrating the life of William J. Seymour, a man whose catalytic ministry has literally changed the world.
William J. Seymour was born in 1870 in rural Louisiana. His parents Simon and Phyllis were recently freed slaves. He was raised in the church, but in several different Christian traditions. His parents were married in a Methodist church, but he was raised a Baptist and Catholic. So, it might come as a surprise to some, but Seymour was baptized as an infant and we have no record of him being rebaptized as an adult.
His early life in SE Louisiana was marked by extreme poverty and terrorism from White Supremacist groups like the KKK, which were very powerful during the period called “Reconstruction.” So, it’s no surprise Seymour fled the Deep South in early adulthood and lived in parts of the Midwest like Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. And it was in Cincinnati that Seymour nearly died of Small Pox. He miraculously survived and surrendered to the call to be an Evangelist. But the near-fatal illness left him blind in one eye and with scars on his face. He later used a glass eye.
This call to the ministry led him to travel and preach in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. In 1905, he settled in Houston, Texas where became the preacher of a Holiness church, which is a tradition that comes from the Wesleyan and Methodist traditions. It emphasizes a “Second Work of Grace,” to sanctify and perfect Christians in holiness. And it was in Houston that Seymour met Charles Fox Parham, who had started a Bible school based on his message about the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, a second work of grace that was accompanied by the gift of speaking in tongues. Seymour attended Parham’s school, but Parham was a segregationist and required Seymour to remain separated from the white students. So he could only listen in on the classes from the hallway. However, Seymour learned from Parham the Pentecostal teaching about the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. And he took that message to a Holiness church in Los Angeles. When he preached a sermon there about the baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, they literally locked him out of the church the following Sunday.
But that eventually led Seymour to 312 Asuza Street, a former church building turned into a warehouse and horse stable. This became the epicenter for a global revival. William J. Seymour preached a radical message of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. But what’s not often highlighted was that Seymour’s message was one of inclusion and equality for all people. Parham visited Azusa and was appalled by the racial integration. But Seymour’s Pentecostal message was about how God’s Spirit was poured out on all people, regardless of race or gender or class. The Pentecostal movement that flowed out of Azusa was also radically nonviolent. Many Pentecostals were conscientious objectors during WWI.
The ministry of William J. Seymour from that small little building in Los Angeles, with wooden plank pews and a milk crate pulpit, produced thousands of missionaries obeying God’s call to go to all the ethnic groups of the world and make disciples of Jesus. So that now, just over 100 years later, Pentecostalism has literally changed the world.
There are now over 580 Million Pentecostals and Charismatics worldwide, centered in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Pentecostalism has contributed to the rise of the Global South Church. Pentecostals now make up over a Quarter of all Christians in the world, and over 8% of the global population. William J. Seymour was the catalytic leader who propelled a global move of the Holy Spirit that is still growing today.
God of all nations,
We give you thanks for the saints who have gone before us, who have courageously pursued you at great personal cost.
We give you thanks for leaders like William Seymour, who boldly proclaimed your Gospel of inclusion, equality, and nonviolence.
We also give you thanks for the move of the Holy Spirit that continues to grow around the world today, testifying to your power, your love, and your presence with us.
May Roots be a part of your Spirit’s work in the world.
May we be a people who demonstrate the radical love that tears down dividing walls.
May we be a people who relentlessly pursue you and the power of your Holy Spirit.
In the name of the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,