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Christian History Home > 1998 > Issue 58 > They Had a Dream

They Had a Dream
Racial harmony broke down, but the hope did not.
David D. Daniels | posted 4/01/1998 12:00AM

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The fact that Pentecostalism has two founders—one white (Charles Parham), one black (William Seymour)—did not go unnoticed. It perfectly signified the interracial cooperation of the movement's early days, both at Azusa Street and in the new denominations. Not only did blacks and whites worship together with other races and ethnic groups, but many racists were transformed and prejudices were challenged.

Sadly, Parham's bigoted tendencies were not among these. He caricatured Seymour's "disgusting" Azusa Street revivals as "Southern darkey camp meetings." The short-lived relationship between Seymour and Parham foreshadowed the inability of Pentecostalism to maintain the racial harmony for very long. What emerged from the failed experiment, however, was a distinct movement. Neither that movement, black Pentecostalism, nor the larger movement, Pentecostalism, can be understood without knowing the early relationships between black and white Pentecostals.

Christian History asked David Daniels of McCormick Seminary (Chicago) to help us understand that complex relationship.

Black Pentecostalism emerged out of three nineteenth-century renewal movements within the black church: the black Holiness movement, the black Restorationist movement, and the healing movement—and all three had from the beginning a desire to bring blacks and whites together.

The black Holiness movement arose during the decades before the Civil War but only developed institutions in 1869 when the first black Holiness denomination was formed: the Reformed Zion Union Apostolic Church. The early movement was mainly found among black Methodist congregations from North Carolina to New York, but soon the movement spread, invading black Baptist and independent religious circles across the country. By the late 1800s, many black Holiness leaders were forging cooperation with white leaders throughout the country.

William Christian, who founded the "Church of the Living God, Christian Workers for Fellowship" in 1888 near Wrightsville, Arkansas, led the black Restorationist movement. He sought to popularize the teachings of Alexander Campbell: he rejected denominationalism and aimed to teach only the simple message of Christ; he had no patience with unscriptural titles for churches, specifically the terms Baptist and Methodist. He also advocated the reform of popular conversion practices, such as the mourner's bench: "All the praying to repent and the mourners' bench business [is all] ignorance of the deepest dye. You don't have to have any fits and spasms, but just accept the Word and he will save you."

By 1900 the denomination included nearly 90 congregations in 11 states, and a cardinal principle of Christian's message was the rejection of racial prejudice.

There were two streams in the black healing movement. An older stream offered prayers for healing, teaching that the healing could occur over time or instantaneously. A newer stream was led by Elizabeth Mix, the first African-American female to serve as full-time healing evangelist. Mix emphasized the role of faith in healing:

"'According to your faith' so be it unto you. Lay aside trusting in the 'arm of flesh' and lean wholly upon God and his promises." Unique in Mix's ministry was that she worked with all races.

In the early 1900s, these three movements joined the parallel movements found in white renewal groups to produce the Azusa Street Revival and a strong interracial impulse within Pentecostalism.

The power of Jim Crow

The early years of the Azusa Street Revival were a model of interracial cooperation, partly due to interracial ideals that had been preached in both black and white Holiness churches. Not only the participants, but the leadership at Azusa was a mix of black and white.

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