Book Review: Frank Bartleman’s Azusa Street

Anyone who has been around Pentecostal academic circles (and yes, they do exist) has heard a great deal about the Azusa Street revival of 1906, an event which marks (but does not solely define) the beginnings of modern Pentecost.  And they’ve heard many things about.  But how do they know these things?  How, for example, do we know that William Seymour, the black man who lead the initial revival, prayed speaking into a shoe box?  Who said that the colour line was washed away in the Blood?  How do we know that they sang “The Comforter Has Come” as sort of an anthem?

While not the only source, a key witness–and participant–to all of this who went on to write his account down was Frank Bartleman.  His Azusa Street: How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles, first published in 1925, is probably the single most important account we have of an event which has, over the past century, swept the world and transformed Christianity as nothing else has since the Reformation.  However, in spite of what has come to be associated with “Pentecostal” and “Charismatic”, Bartleman–at once journalist, tractarian and preacher–was in many ways a far cry of what many associate now with a Pentecostal minister.

Bartleman was born in 1871 in Pennsylvania, and was converted in a Baptist church in Philadelphia.  Like many of his era, he was uneasy with the church choices of his day, and he wandered from one to another, getting married in the meanwhile.  He eventually ended up “cured of ever worshipping a religious zeal or creed” at the Pillar of Fire Church in Denver.  From there he moved to Los Angeles, where he ministered to the downtrodden, preached and wrote and distributed tracts.

There had been signs in Los Angeles that something greater was coming in Methodist and Baptist churches.  There was also the Welsh Revival in progress across the Atlantic, and Bartleman corresponded with Evan Roberts.  When Seymour was locked out of a Nazarene church for preaching the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in other tongues, he began his work at the Azusa Street Mission.  On 19 April 1906–the day after the San Francisco earthquake up the coast–Bartleman first visited the Mission.  The evidence Seymour had preached for had been out in the open for ten days, and the racially mixed services abounded with a new move of the Spirit.

That move did not come without controversy.  As would be the case today, the secular press of the day (especially the Los Angeles Times) trashed the movement.  But there were problems enough “inside the camp”.  Bartleman, for his part, attributes most of these to the ministers, both those who opposed the movement and those who supported and attempted to “lead” the movement.  Bartleman was a tireless advocate of a truly Spirit-led Christianity where the only authority came from God and the only movement came directed by the Holy Spirit, and the machinations of ministers grieved him greatly.  He even decried the “jazzy” music that came into vogue in Pentecostal churches after World War I.  For those of us who were nurtured on folk music during the Charismatic Renewal, then went to Pentecostal and Charismatic churches only to be told that first the “bar room” style, then rock-style praise and worship are the only things that came from the Throne Room, such an assessment is heartening.  (His comments on the deleterious effect of war on Pentecost and revival bear repeating; it wasn’t the first time it happened, and certainly not the last).

His attitude toward ministers–one that has some parallel in Charles Finney, although in many ways Bartleman is more “purely spiritual” than Finney was–is only part of what sets him apart from today’s standard.  He lived his life in poverty, depending upon God for his sustenance and wandering from one rented room (or not much more than that) to another.  His daughter Esther died shortly before the revival began, leading to the most heart-rending part of the book.  But he accepted what came his way as part of the price he paid for doing God’s work and forwarding the revival, one which he was confident would go around the world, as it did.

Bartleman writes in a maudlin style that has gone out of fashion, with many pithy and poignant phrases, but he still writes with more precision and without the positive-confession triumphalism that is common now.  This edition’s introduction by Vinson Synan provides very helpful historical background to Bartleman’s life and writing, although Bartleman’s own book does not need as much commentary as many others.

Bartleman ends his book with a plea for Christian unity.  Division and difficulties were present even at Azusa Street; our track record in that regard is no better, we should take his exhortation to heart.  Azusa Street: How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles is a sincere and documented account about a movement that has shaken the world to the same extent as the earthquake shook San Francisco, one that anyone who considers him or herself an heir to should read–and one that those who don’t should also.

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