Washing Away the “Color Line” in the Blood

Washing Away the “Color Line” in the Blood
By Robin Johnston

Contrary t social expectations, tie Azusa Street mission was open to all people, regardless of race or ethnicity. The Los Angeles newspapers were filled with vitriolic attacks on what we now call Pentecostal worship. They were aqua critical of the mixing of races during worship.

The modern Pentecostal movement has given almost a biblical status to the Azusa Street revival. When we tell “our” story we move almost seamlessly from the Book of Acts to Los Angeles, California. The lore of the humble mission located at 312 Azusa Street has spread around the world. And for good reason. In many important ways it helped redefine the shape of the Christian faith.

Pentecostal scholars Walter Hollenweger and Steven Land have suggested the decade that followed the Azusa Street revival revealed the heart of the Pentecostal movement. Hollenweger and Land insist that this decade was not the infancy of the movement, rather it demonstrated “adult” reflections on the nature of the church. Although the movement has “matured” and has recently celebrated its centennial anniversary, the fact remains that the cardinal doctrinal developments of the movement occurred in that first decade after Azusa. It was during that first decade that William Durham proclaimed the “finished work of Calvary” and most Pentecostals rejected the idea that sanctification was a second distinct work of grace. And it was in that first decade that R. E. McAlister, while preaching a baptismal sermon at the Arroyo Seco camp meeting, mentioned that in the Book of Acts new converts were baptized in the name of Jesus. That message helped spark the Oneness movement. It was in that first decade that G. T Haywood began to articulate the importance of water and Spirit baptism to the new birth.

The Azusa Street Mission was groundbreaking on one more important front. It was decades ahead of American culture on the issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. Frank Bartleman, the often-opinionated eyewitness of the Azusa Street revival famously wrote, “The ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.” William J. Seymour, the founder of the mission, was an African American. His parents had been emancipated by President Lincoln for only a little more than four decades before the outbreak of the Azusa revival. Seymour had been raised in Louisiana during the Reconstruction, which in a number of ways was as difficult as life during the long nightmare of slavery. But somehow Seymour received God’s vision of an inclusive church.

While Los Angeles was relatively free from the “Jim Crow” segregation of other parts of the United States, it was far from utopia. As the twentieth century dawned, Los Angeles was as immigrant boomtown. Not only were tens of thousands of Americans arriving from other parts of the United States, immigrants from around the world, especially from the Pacific basin, were making Los Angeles their new home. In addition to this, Los Angeles was home to a Mexican American population that predated California’s admission into the United States. It is fair to suggest that racial and ethnic tensions were never far below the surface.

But contrary to social expectations, the Azusa Street mission was open to all people, regardless of race or ethnicity. The Los Angeles newspapers were filled with vitriolic attacks on what we now call Pentecostal worship. They were equally critical of the mixing of races during worship. Yet Seymour pushed on. For a number of years the mission was home to African Americans, European Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. The leadership team included African American and European American as well as men and women. It was a mosaic designed to show off God’s handiwork. Sin divides but His love overcomes that division. Cecil Robeck, perhaps the leading Azusa scholar suggests, “The Azusa Street Mission provides a glimpse of what is possible if we allow space for the Holy Spirit to change hearts and minds.”

I wish the story stopped here. I wish the Pentecostal movement had fully embraced Seymour’s vision. What began with such promise, quickly faded away? In fact, Seymour himself was unable to sustain it for his entire ministry. After the waning of the Azusa revival and in response to a number of setbacks that Seymour concluded were at least partially motivated by racism, he restricted leadership in the Pacific Apostolic Faith Mission to African Americans. Seymour’s backtracking only illuminated the condition of the wider movement. A number of Pentecostal organizations became racially segregated. The Oneness movement as a whole, perhaps in living out its Oneness theology, did better than most. It remained purposefully racially mixed until 1924. And in the succeeding years it made numerous attempts to resurrect the original vision. But culture overwhelmed its desire and it lacked the will to fight back.

However the last quarter of a century has brought significant progress in this area. We are beginning to enthusiastically embrace the idea that we are all God’s people. Each year the complexion of the general conference of the United Pentecostal Church International looks a little more like the people of the United States. Urshan Graduate School of Theology has begun the difficult but necessary work of bringing Oneness organizations often separated by race and ethnicity back into conversation. The Home Missions Division is spotlighting All Nations Sunday. And hundreds of local churches are leading the way by looking past racial and ethnic barriers and once again living out the idea that the “color line” was washed away in the blood.

From, “Pentecostal Herald”/July 2008/Page 18-19, by Robin Johnston

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