Noised Abroad: Pentecostals Disturb the Peace

Exuberant worship has always been a hallmark of the Pentecostal experience.  On the Day of Pentecost, crowds gathered to observe believers caught up in an ecstasy of worship.  Their behaviour must have seemed rowdy and disruptive, since the outpouring was “noised abroad” and Peter offered the famous qualifier:  “For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day.  But this is that spoken by the Prophet Joel” (Acts 2.15-16).  Today, most of our noisy services are conducted in well-built churches, behind closed doors and windows.  But in the early days of the movement, neighbors and entire neighborhoods were “disturbed” by the goings on at “Holy Roller” meetings characterized by vociferous singing, shouting, fervent preaching, and speaking in tongues.  The cacophony which came from revival tents or open windows in overheated structures often drew potential converts, curious onlookers, and law enforcement.  This article draws on the journalistic record that reveals the persistence of strepitant saints who were often called to account for their marathon meetings.

The earliest descriptions of the Azusa Street meetings appeared in the April 18, 1906 edition of the Los Angeles Time and complained of the noisy services:  “. . . night is made hideous by the howlings of the worshipers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication” (“Weird Babel . . . “).  By summer, police were visiting the mission to control the enthusiasm of Azusa saints:

The ‘holy kickers’ present a problem which the local police department has not as yet been able to solve. Every night worn-out kickers and shouters are seen stretched out on the dirty floor of the meeting room apparently unconscious and the meeting goes on just the same, those who still have breath jumping, kicking and making the night hideous with their yells and squeals. (“‘Holy Kickers’ Baffle Police”)

In August 1906, two evangelists from the Azusa Mission were taken down to Central Station by police for holding street meetings. Mrs. J. Wiley and C. Woodside were conducting curbside evangelism. Apparently, their fervency had “so disturbed the neighborhood that the police were forced to take up the permit allowing them to preach” (“‘Holy Roller’ Has It Bad”). Sis. Wiley, undeterred, continued to preach and sing to the patrolmen on her way to the police station.

As the revival spread beyond the Apostolic Faith Mission at 312 Azusa Street, Pentecostals were consistently plagued by complaints against their boisterous gatherings.  In the summer of 1908, the Apostolic Faith meetings held by Brothers R.A. Garrison, a black preacher, and J.W. Sykes, a white preacher, came under extreme scrutiny for “disturbing the peace.”  Patrolman J.P. Lyons was quoted by the Los Angeles Herald:

“I passed there about 8:30 o’clock, and I saw a woman . . . shouting, screaming, writhing and speaking some sort of doggerel which they call ‘the unknown tongue.’  The woman was in a frenzy and declared that she was moved by the [S]pirit and that the everlasting fires were raging within her . . . She continued these antics until midnight, and then fell exhausted to the floor.  She was picked up by some of the congregation and placed upon chairs until she could be revived.”  (“Holy Rollers Rave . . . “)

Garrison and Sykes eventually faced trial for “disturbing the peace” but avoided prosecution when witnesses failed to materialize at their August court appearance (“Prosecution of ‘Holy Rollers’ . . . ).

In some cases, civic authorities sought to impose a curfew on boisterous worshipers.  In 1918, a Pentecostal Assemblies of the World church was asked to end services by 10 PM when 62 neighbors signed a petition the City of Lodi, California (“Householders . . . “).  As late as the 1920s, a “Holy Roller” church in Waukegan, Illinois was presented with a 9 PM curfew, because their services were deemed disruptive by sleepless neighbors (“Holy Rollers Must . . . “).  The right to peaceful slumber trumped the freedom to worship!

Business owners sometimes complained of Pentecostal neighbors.  In Tacoma, Washington, a sensational headline reads:  “Holy Rollers Disturb Dead.”  According to the article, members of the Apostolic Faith Mission, located on the 2nd floor above a mortuary, were disrupting funeral services with their incessant “ . . . talking in ‘tongues’ shouting and howling” (“Holy Rollers . . . “).  One wonders at the wisdom of both landlord and tenant in such an unlikely arrangement!

Even in the South where emotional Christianity had a long history, Pentecostals were subject to persecution for their raucous revivals.  In East Chattanooga, Tennessee one Henegar Trim was held on $250 bond (nearly $6000 in modern currency) after Justice Parks declared his Apostolic Faith services a nuisance:  “Prominent citizens swore that the services ran late into the night, and hideous shrikes and curses rent the air” (“Tennessee Gets Dose . . . “).  A.J. Tomlinson , who became the first general overseer of the Pentecostal demonization, Church of God was arrested during a revival campaign in Cleveland, Tennessee July 1909.  A “Mr. Beard” registered a complaint against the Pentecostals; and within a week, Tomlinson was arrested.   After Tomlinson and his followers marched in protest of a $5.00 fine, an injunction was issued disallowing Tomlinson from erecting his revival tent within city limits! (Robins 194-196).

Certainly, Pentecostals did not intend to become a public nuisance.  In their evangelistic fervor, they were often unbridled in their worship.   It is easy for our modern generation to look critically upon our unsophisticated antecedents who thought nothing of rolling around in sawdust and straw for hours on end, calling out to God at the top of their lungs and caring little for the comfort of their neighbors. Regardless of their perceived un-neighborliness, their spiritual stamina is admirable, even awesome.  Today, it is difficult to imagine attending high energy, nightly worship services that last until the wee hours of the morning.  Could our flaccid faith even sustain us through such marathon meetings?  Pentecost may have, in fact, lost some of its evangelistic impact by barricading ourselves behind brick and mortar.  The experience of the earliest Pentecostals wasn’t noised abroad through billboards or television slots but through amplified apostolic worship!  While we cannot equate volume with anointing, we can look back to our unabashedly Pentecostal pioneers and marvel at their faithfulness in the face of opposition.

Sources:

“‘Holy Kickers’ Baffle Police: Hold High Carnival in Azusa Street Until Midnight.” Los Angeles Times. 12 July 1906.

“‘Holy Roller’” Has It Bad.” Los Angeles Times. 14 August 1906.
“Holy Rollers Disturb Dead.”  Spokane Press.  23 September 1908.
“Holy Rollers Must Cease Rolling Early.”  Schenectady Gazette.  4 August 1922.

“Householders Kick against Holy Rollers.  Lodi Sentinel.  6 August 1918.

“Tennessee Gets Dose of Holy Rollerism.”  East Oregonian.  25 August 1909.

“Holy Rollers Rave in Orgy: White and Black Women in Delirious Ecstasy.”  Los Angeles Herald.  24 July 1908.

“Prosecution of ‘Holy Rollers’ Falls Through.”  Los Angeles Herald. 4 August 1908.
Robins, R G. A.J. Tomlinson: Plainfolk Modernist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

“Weird Babel of Tongues: New Sect of Fanatics is Breaking Loose.” Los Angeles Times. 18 April 1906.

Matthew C. Shaw, M.L.I.S. University Libraries …

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