Why We Can't Forget the Women Leaders of Azusa Street

by Michelle D. Williams | February 10, 2021

Editor’s note: This article is the second in our 2021 Black History Month and Women’s History Month series. During February and March, the Mutuality Blog will publish articles about Black women and women of color throughout Christian history, to tell and retell the stories of our foremothers of the faith who are often overlooked or misrepresented by history books. We hope this series will inspire you to continue learning more about the egalitarian women who fought for their God-ordained equality and the ways we can continue the work they began.

I grew up revering the events which took place on Azusa Street in the early 1900s, which, according to oral tradition, were the springboard for the Pentecostal movement. My family lineage proudly boasts of four generations of Church of God in Christ (COGIC) members.  Members of my maternal and paternal sides of the family have gladly served the Lord through the COGIC church, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States.  

While this predominantly African American organization has a rich history and has instilled within me a deep love of God and God's word, I believe it has struggled to continue the legacy of the Revival from which it was so heavily influenced, particularly when it comes to women’s leadership. To be fair, the COGIC is not the only Christian denomination that has failed to hold onto the Azusa Street Revival's original vision. The church as a whole has failed to realize true koinonia

Azusa is widely believed to be the birthplace of Pentecostalism. According to Dale T. Irvin, "Under the leadership of William J. Seymour, the Azusa Street Revival set in motion a global Pentecostal movement which has arguably become the dominant missionary form of Christianity in this century."1 Over 600 million worldwide adherents in 236 nations claim to be Pentecostal.  This is the second-largest distinct grouping of Christians in the world (the Roman Catholic Church being the first).2 

African American Women Leaders and the Inclusive Vision of Azusa Street 

So, what was the original vision of the founder of the Azusa Street Revival? I believe it was rooted in the Greek word koinonia, true Christian fellowship across societal boundaries of race, gender, class, and doctrinal beliefs. For Azusa Street leader William Seymour, this vision of genuine Christian fellowship clearly extended to women.   

In fact, the women at Azusa Street were actively engaged in the leadership of the Revival. According to Estrelda Alexander, "Initially, six of the twelve elders at the Azusa Street Mission charged with examining potential missionaries and evangelists for ordination and other spiritual and administrative oversight were women."3 Imagine that! Half of the elders were women! In my 2021 church context, I do not know of many (if any) major denominations that can make this claim. However, in 1906, this was the case. 

In the paragraphs that follow, I will highlight two women who were partners in the work of the Revival. Theologian Cheryl Sanders expounds on the role of women in shaping Seymour's life, "Seymour was largely mentored, guided, and offered a context for ministry by women. Women were involved in every aspect of his spiritual development; moreover, women were willing to follow his tongues doctrine and experience its full effects as a public witness."4 As we will see, Seymour called upon a woman (Lucy Farrow) who he had known prior to the Revival to help and he placed a woman in charge to carry out the ministry legacy when he passed (Jennie Evans Seymour). 

Lucy Farrow 

William Seymour met Lucy Farrow in Houston, Texas. Lucy was an African American female pastor and worked as a governess for Charles Fox Parham. Lucy was born as a slave and was the niece of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. By 1890 she was living in Houston, was a widow, and had borne seven children, only two of whom were still alive.  

Lucy pastored a small mission church in Houston. She was the first to introduce Seymour to the practice of speaking in tongues (glossolalia). It is believed that Lucy was the first known African American to have spoken in tongues. She also introduced Seymour to Charles Parham.  

When the Azusa Street Revival began in LA, Seymour called on his friend Lucy to come and assist. She would be known as the "anointed handmaiden" who laid her hands on many who received the Holy Spirit and the gift of glossolalia.5 Lucy is often referred to as the "Mother of Pentecostalism."  

However, Lucy was not confined to Azusa Street. She traveled extensively conducting revivals and spreading the gospel. In 1906, she would travel to Johnsonville, Liberia, and it was reported that she was supernaturally enabled to speak to the Kru people in their own language (called the gift of xenolalia). Lucy was in Africa on the invitation from another notable female preacher, Julia Hutchins. I encourage you to dig a bit into the life and ministry of Julia Hutchins as well.   

Jennie Evans Seymour  

Perhaps the most influential woman in William Seymour's life was his wife, Jennie Evans Seymour. They married about two years after the Revival began, in 1908. Their marriage itself was controversial. Some of Seymour's close friends and colleagues believed that celibacy was best and marriage distracted one from the work of the Lord.   

Jennie played a crucial role in the leadership of the mission. She preached regularly in the worship services and filled in for Seymour when he was away. She also traveled on his behalf on occasion. In 1922, before Seymour died, he gave the leadership of the mission over to his wife.  Jennie assumed the pastorate and served for fourteen years. She died at the age of sixty-two, three years after she relinquished leadership of the church due to financial pressures.6 

William Seymour's vision for an egalitarian ministry was powerful and noticeable. The poor black washerwoman would be working right beside an educated white woman. Seymour's understanding of women in ministry can be found in the September 1907 edition of The Apostolic Faith: 

Before Jesus ascended to heaven, holy anointing oil had never been poured on a woman's head; but before He organized His Church. He called them all into the upper room, both men and women, and anointed them with the oil of the Holy Ghost, thus qualifying them all to minister in this Gospel. On the day of Pentecost, they all preached through the power of the Holy Ghost. In Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female; all are one.7 

Sanders summarizes this as "a charismatic model of cooperative ministry and empowerment among the sexes, where authority and recognition are granted to either sex based upon the exercise of spiritual gifts."8 

Seymour believed that the baptism of the Holy Spirit could overcome boundaries. "Spirit baptism was, for Seymour, more than a glossolalic episode. It was the power to draw all peoples into one church, without racial distinctions or barriers."9 As demonstrated in Acts, the Holy Spirit is the preeminent agent of unity.   

Reclaiming the Vision of Azusa Street 

Unfortunately, the cultural pressure to discontinue affirming women in ministry increased as the Revival continued. Reportedly disenchanted by some whites' racial attitudes, in 1915, Seymour himself instituted a provision in his doctrinal statement that limited women's functionality. It stated, "All ordination must be done by men, not women. Women may be ministers, but not to baptize and ordain in this work."10 What began as a beautiful multiracial, egalitarian movement that crossed class barriers and was birthed out of a multi-denominational worldview of unity was "marred by racism and exclusion."11 This was indeed a departure from the original vision.  

So, what can we glean from this in our present context? There is an African proverb that states, “If you want to know how it will end look at the beginning.” If the beginnings of the Pentecostal movement in America can embody a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-denominational, women-empowered church leadership, there is no reason we cannot do the same. The template has been laid. The foundation has been set. Let us look to the past to inform our future.  

If the church wants to achieve racial, gender, class, and ecclesiastical koinonia, we must learn from our mistakes. We must practice gifts-based leadership. Our practice of gifts-based leadership should be done within contexts of mutuality and reciprocity. In other words, there must be a "journeying with" and "appreciation of" the others’ gifting. We must also restore human dignity to all persons by not silencing their voices. There are still many untold stories of people on the social margins who have added to the rich history that is the church. Lucy Farrow and Jennie Evans Seymour are just the beginning.

Notes 

1. Dale T. Irvin, "Drawing all Together in One Bond of Love: The Ecumenical Vision of William J. Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival," in Journal Of Pentecostal Theology, no. 6 (1995), 26.  
2. Jack W. Hayford and S. David Moore, The Charismatic Century: The Enduring Impact of the Azusa Street Revival (New York: Warner Faith, 2006), 4.
3. Estrelda Alexander, The Women of Azusa Street, (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005), 12.
4. Cheryl J Sanders, Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People: A Path to African-American Social Transformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 71.
5. Cecil Robeck, "Lucy F. Farrow," in The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements , ed. SM Burgess and EM Van der Maas, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 632–633.
6. Alexander, 160.
7. Irvin, 47.
8. Sanders, 70.
9. Iain MacRobert, “The Black Roots of Pentecostalism,” in African-American Religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture, ed. Timothy E. Fulop and Albert J. Raboteau, eds, (New York: Routledge, 1997), 304.
10. Irvin, 47.
11. MacRoberts, 295.
 

Image used with permission from the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center (iFPHC.org).


 

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