Azusa Street from a Black Perspective

 

kenneth

Kenneth L. Harrell. Jr. Is part of the Oneness Pentecostal Movement.

Early Pentecostal pioneer Frank Bartleman wrote that at the famed Azusa Street Mission that “race was washed away by the blood.” Despite the strong interracial fellowship that characterized the Asuza Street revival, like everything else in American society, once Pentecostalism began to spread, and Pentecostal organizations penetrated more diverse strata of American society, Pentecostalism quickly succumbed to the racial views of that day and became segregated by race. While that was rather unfortunate and needs rectifying today, we need to understand the variables at work within the movement and without that caused Pentecostal revival to eventually succumb to the racist beliefs of that day so we won’t repeat that history. I firmly believe that the body of Christ has been given the message of reconciliation and that just as Jews and Gentiles had to become reconciled in their day, people of different races and ethnicities, especially Blacks and Whites need the middle wall or partition torn down so that we can have permanent fellowship in the body of Christ.

 

It has been said that the reason why interracial fellowship and unity fell apart in the early Pentecostal movement was the result of racism on the part of early White Pentecostal leaders. While I am sure that there was any number of White Pentecostal leaders who were, in fact, racist, I do not think that the motives of racist individuals alone explains the breakdown of interracial cooperation in the movement. Racism like all sins is more complicated than the standard definitions given in dictionaries and even in the social sciences. And people are very complex creatures and just why they do things is often difficult to understand.

That being said I think part of the problem for the downfall of interracial fellowship in early Pentecostalism is theological. While many early Black leaders, of which William J Seymour is  a prime example, saw racial equality as central to the God’s purpose for sending the Pentecostal outpouring, very few White leaders saw it that way. They agreed with Black leaders that the coming of the Lord was imminent and that the Pentecostal outpouring was one of the signs that Jesus was soon to come. But very few of them saw the breakdown of social barriers as an integral part of that outpouring. Whereas Black leaders saw the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the Asuza Street Mission as evidence that God was permanently reorienting society, most White leaders saw this shift as temporary. My point is that Black leaders in the movement and White leaders in the movement were never on the same page, to begin with.

A part of that different social vision was sociological in nature which of course directly affected eschatological expectations. It must be remembered that Black Christianity and its particular spirituality was forged under the crucible of American slavery. As a result, Black Christians read history differently and interpreted contemporary events through a fundamentally different lens. For instance, White Christians often interpreted the Civil War as a theological crisis whereas Black Christians saw the Civil War as part of God’s redemptive plan. Although early Black Pentecostal leaders  believed along with their White contemporaries in the imminent return of Christ, they were less affected by the eschatological pessimism of dispensationalism than White Pentecostals. Whereas White Pentecostals, like their Fundamentalist contemporaries believed that the world as they knew it was falling apart and that that reality was not a good thing. Black Pentecostals with their background in the slavery and oppression looked to the future and the radical reorientation of society as the hand of God. My point here is that Blacks and Whites in the Pentecostal movement brought significantly different interpretive lenses to the events they were witnessing in and participating in.

Because most early White Pentecostals did not share the optimism that most early Black Pentecostal leaders had about change in the church and society, interracial fellowship was never central to their message. As a result, as Pentecostalism began spreading and leaders ran into racially hierarchical structures, rather than challenging them, they just acquiesced to them. I must point out here that they weren’t necessarily consciously racist, at least not in terms of personal animosity towards Black people but because they had more faith in America than Black Pentecostals did they accepted the racist structures of American society as normal and ordained by God. While it is true that there were some leaders who were truly racist in every sense of the word, many leaders simply believed that America was specially ordained by God and that its social structures were also part of God’s plan.

Of course, the early Black Pentecostal leaders didn’t see it that way. Because of their connection to  the experience of  Slavery, the Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, Black leaders had a vested interest in radical changes in American society and saw those changes, for the most part, as the hand of God in human history which was a fundamentally different reading of contemporary events.  It must be admitted here that as Pentecostalism spread within the Black community, there were more and more Black Pentecostal leaders who didn’t share the interracial vision of men like William J Seymour, Charles Harrison Mason, and Garfield Thomas Haywood. And these leaders often resisted the efforts of the earliest Black leaders to cooperate with White Pentecostals. Unfortunately, that is a history that is rarely admitted. My point is that as the Pentecostal movement grew and became more and more organized, there were more and more Blacks who had no desire to have fellowship with White people. Did that make them racist? I doubt it, but it does mean that as Pentecostalism began penetrating deeper into the Black community, there were more and more people drawn into it who did not see interracial fellowship as central to the ethos of the movement.

Anyone who has studied religion in America, or for that matter anywhere actually, will readily admit that religion often follows the values of a particular society and only makes fundamental changes when that society changes. So in terms of interracial fellowship; the attempts to have fellowship soon became a dead issue once Pentecostalism began to penetrate deeper into a segregated society. Only after society began to shift from segregation and discrimination during the 1960’s did White Pentecostals begin to make interracial fellowship a priority again. But there were some problems that made this fellowship very difficult to accomplish. One the one hand Black Pentecostalism had developed and significantly changed from the early movement in relative isolation from the overall movement. As a result, certain features of Black Pentecostalism had more in common with the Black Church in general than with features dominant in White Pentecostalism. Another difficulty was that Black Pentecostalism, for the most part, developed into Episcopal structures whereas White Pentecostalism tended to be Congregational in the polity. And those Black bishops weren’t about to participate in any fellowship that threatened their power. Just as important, or perhaps most important is the fact that White Pentecostals identified with a view of America as special to God that Black Pentecostals didn’t share which included an eschatological vision that was significantly different from that of Black Pentecostals.

So where do we go from here? My contention is that in order for there to be a real interracial fellowship in the American Pentecostal movement everything has to be on the table. Both Black Pentecostals and White Pentecostals have to be candid about their particular aversions to true interracial fellowship, and they have to be honest about why they are more comfortable with things as they are instead of embracing and practicing the spirit of the Asuza revival. Black Pentecostals have to be open about their mistrust of the motives of White Pentecostals who desire fellowship, but they also have to be frank of their fear of losing power in their communities. White Pentecostals, on the other hand, have to admit that their allegiance to America and the particular kinds of social vision that they espouse derives more from sociology than theology and that their brand of patriotism is a rock of offense for Black Pentecostals. I suppose before there can be any real reconciliation there must be truth and confession and then prayer that God will give us the strength and the will to do whatever necessary to embody true reconciliation.

 

 

 

 

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