Cautionary Remarks From An Azusa Pioneer

In 1925, Frank Bartleman, a journalist and itinerant Holiness evangelist turned Pentecostal wrote How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles, recording his close recollections of the Azusa Street revival, which began in 1906.  Writing fifteen years after the initial outpouring that brought thousands into the fledgling movement, Bartleman offers poignant criticisms of Pentecostals, who by the 1920s, were losing some of their spiritual fervor and spontaneity.  His book, which is the most standard historical primary source, provides modern Pentecostals with cautionary warnings which beckon us back to our Spirit-led roots.

Azusa Street was the product of months of prayer and spiritual anticipation in Los Angeles.  Bartleman was involved with a number of area groups who, influenced by the 1904 Welsh Revival, were meeting for prayer and extended series of meeting in anticipation of a real “Pentecost.”  In the meantime, the Holy Ghost was preparing William Joseph Seymour, an African American preacher, to bring the Pentecostal message to Los Angeles.  Seymour arrived in February 1906 at the invitation of a small Holiness mission.  Though his doctrine was not initially well-received, within weeks he had attracted a small group of interested Christians whose cottage prayer meetings were moved to the ramshackle mission at 312 Azusa Street in April.

Bartleman was an early attendee of the Azusa meetings and was soon involved in earnest with the services, which were unformatted and directed by the spiritual impulses of the believers.  According to Bartleman, “The Lord was liable to burst through anyone.  We prayed for this continually . . . The meetings were controlled by the Spirit, from the throne” (66-67). Though Seymour was the nominal leader at Azusa, he made no significant attempts to direct the earliest services, and the saints were generally afraid to “steady the Ark,” an allusion to Uzzah’s fatal decision to touch the Ark of the Covenant.  For Bartleman, the early liberated spirituality of Azusa was the paradigm for Pentecostal worship and later impositions of order, organization, and hierarchy grieved the pioneer, who had witnessed thousands of conversions under the unfettered conditions at the Los Angeles mission.

By the 1920s, Pentecostalism had endured hard times.  The Oneness controversies of the teens left the movement fragmented; and though Bartleman joined the Oneness camp, he lamented the intrinsic division amongst Pentecostal believers.  Also, the movement had fallen into disrepute in some areas through the work of opportunistic charlatans and religious fanatics mocked a true Pentecost.  Though authentic revival continued alongside contrivances, Bartleman feared for the future of Pentecostalism and eschewed many of the changes which brought formalism and effectively ended the spontaneous spirituality which had characterized early meetings at Azusa.

Bro. Bartleman saw the changes in Pentecostal music and worship as an indicator of the degrading condition of spiritual quality.  At Azusa, no musical instruments were initially used.  Hymns were sung from memory “quickened by the Spirit of God” (Bartleman 64).  Many services included the “heavenly anthem,” an ethereal experience where saints sang together, sometimes in tongues.  Bro. Bartleman criticized the imposition of the “human spirit”, which hindered this special musical manifestation:  “They drove it out by hymnbooks and selected songs by leaders.  It was like murdering the Spirit, and most painful to some of us” (64).  He viewed hymnals as “largely a commercial proposition” and remarked that the songs “violated by change and new styles . . . move the toes, but not the hearts of men” (64).

Bartleman was also deeply concerned about modern methods of helping seekers “pray through” to the baptism of the Holy Ghost with no patience for fanatical antics or wild gesticulation. The upstairs tarrying room at Azusa contained a placard with the words:  “No talking above a whisper” and Bartleman says, “we knew nothing of ‘jazzing’ them through at that time” (62).  This silent seeking may seem strange to modern Pentecostals accustomed to more boisterous altar scenes, but Bartleman is clear that the Upper Room at Azusa “was no ‘lethal chamber,’ nor place to throw fits or blow off steam.  Men did not ‘fly to their lungs’ in those days.  They flew to the mercy seat” (62).  When Bartleman received his own baptism, he says:

There was no shouting crowd around me, to confuse or excite me.  No one was suggesting”tongues” to me at that time, either by argument or imitation . . . I do not believe in dragging the child forth spiritually speaking . . . The child is almost killed at times through their unnatural violence.  A pack of jackals over their prey could hardly act more fiercely than we have witnessed in some cases.  (85)

It is difficult to imagine what Bartleman might make of our current tarrying efforts; but clearly, primitive Pentecostals would likely not recognize some of our modern methods.

Though Bartleman may seem cynical to the contemporary reader, he was an eyewitness of the seminal revival at Azusa, which birthed so many pastors, evangelists, missionaries, and gospel workers who carried the Pentecostal messages throughout the United States and around the world.  Bro. Bartleman could be criticized as rigid and inflexible, but he knew the cost of true spiritual awakening and feared that any cheapening of Pentecost would be her demise.  Today, the Church faces news challenges, and Bartleman’s genuine concerns remind us of our constant need to depend upon the leading of the Holy Ghost to maintain authentic Pentecostalism despite the pervasiveness of compromise and counterfeiting.

Matthew Shaw is a librarian at Ball State University. He lives in Muncie, Indiana with his wife, Brandi, and his four sons. He attends River of Life Church.
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