By 1900, southern churches were completely separated by race; Christianity had divided along the color line. But in Los Angeles, white bishops and black workers, men and women, Asians and Mexicans, white professors and black laundry women gathered at a former AME church building on Azusa Street in downtown Los Angeles. This interracial congregation worshipped under the leadership of a black pastor, William J. Seymour.
Apart from its interracial congregation, Azusa's most striking characteristic was the practice of speaking in tongues, which was seen as a sign that an individual was baptized by the Holy Spirit. Previously, few Pentecostals had spoken in tongues, and the languages they used were foreign but known. Seymour and his followers spoke in unknown tongues, understood only by God, a practice widely adopted by Christians who believed it was a sign that God was breaking down barriers to spread the Gospel around the world.
When Charles Fox Parham, a white Pentecostal pioneer and teacher of Seymour's (he had allowed Seymour to attend his Bible School on the condition that he sit outside a door left partially ajar), visited Azusa Street in October of 1906, he denounced the Revival as a "darky camp meeting." "What good can come from a self-appointed Negro prophet?" scoffed the mainstream newspapers.
Meanwhile, splits within Azusa Street developed along theological and racial lines. All of the white Pentacostal leaders separated themselves from Seymour and Azusa. Ms. Lum took his newspaper; his former teacher, Charles Parham, discredited his fellowship; and finally William Durham, a white parishoner, led a faction out of the church. That faction eventually became the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world. The remaining black worshippers eventually became the Church of God in Christ, the largest black denomination in America.
Seymour came to believe that blacks and whites worshipping together was a surer sign of God's blessing and the Spirit's healing presence than speaking in tongues. The fact that the church had nationally split along racial lines meant that the charismatic ideal of cooperation with the Spirit had been foiled by the forces of racism.
Once the whites defected, the Azusa Street Mission became almost entirely black. Still, its message echoes through history. It made a distinctive contribution to the historical evolution of religion in America by involving blacks, women, and the poor at all levels of ministry, and it was the birthplace of two major Pentecostal denominations.