The Azusa Code

By Nate Cull

I think we are very much not your everyday standard Pentecostal church by local Pentecostal church standards. We’re not very religious about our religion. We don’t wear formal black suits and we don’t dance or chant our way into hysteria. We laugh and joke even while strange stuff is happening. But last night I spent most of the first hour just quietly weeping at the pain of the world because I couldn’t do anything else. By the end of the night we were staggering around laughing like drunks again. Quite a few people spent time on the floor owing to not being able to stand up straight.

The little church in the slum that my brother pastors is a member of a network called (in English) Partners in Harvest.

This church is linked to one called the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship which in the 1990s was seeing a lot of these kind of spiritual manifestations. The Toronto Airport Vineyard, as it was then known, became for several years a kind of pilgrimage site for Evangelical/Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians from around the globe.

The spiritual experience called ‘The Toronto Blessing‘ became popular and controversial enough that the church was eventually disfellowshipped from its mother denomination, the Vineyard Movement. Ironically, the Vineyard itself was founded on Pentecostal/Charismatic manifestations during the Jesus Movement era of the 1970s, so it seems odd that such an organisation would abandon its roots. But that seems to happen to these kind of movements all the time.

The interesting thing is that although Charismatic and Pentecostal groups are currently associated with these phenomena, when you look at the historical record, this kind of undignified - not emotional but paranormal - weirdness is very much what happened with (at least) the Salvation Army of the 19th century, the Methodists of the 18th, the Quakers of the 17th, and when you read the records of the monastic Christian mystics the roots go back much earlier.

AzusaWhat is today called the Pentecostal movement crystallised in the very early 20th century, and especially in a short period from 1906-1908 in Los Angeles in an inner-city church called the Apostolic Faith Mission of 312 Azusa Street. ‘Azusa Street‘ so impressed the religious world that it spawned a cluster of Christian denominations specifically designed to seek out and reproduce such experiences, who called themselves Pentecostal (Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, Apostolic, and Elim were some of the key early ones, but there were whole set of others; the scene fractured rapidly). The word ‘Pentecostal’ was used because the paranormal experiences seemed similar to those described in the Book of Acts of ‘the Day of Pentecost‘.

From an Azuza Street newspaper written in November, 1906, we read the following description of the phenomena:

Bible Pentecost
Gracious Pentecostal Showers Continue to Fall
The news has spread far and wide that Los Angeles is being visited with a “rushing mighty wind from heaven”. The how and why of it all is to be found in the very opposite of those conditions that are usually thought necessary for a big revival. No instruments of music are heard, none are needed. No choir - but bands of angels have been heard by some in the spirit and there is a heavenly singing that is inspired by the Holy Ghost. No collections are taken. No bills have been posted to advertise the meetings. No church or organization is back of it. All who are in touch with God realise as soon as they enter the meetings that the Holy Ghost is the leader. One brother stated that even before his train entered the city, he felt the power of the revival.
Travellers from afar wend their way to the headquarters at Azuza Street. As they enquire their way to the Apostolic Faith Mission, perhaps they are asked, “O, you mean the Holy Rollers?” or “Is it the Colored Church you mean?” In the vicinity of a tombstone shop, stables and lumber yard (a fortunate vicinity because no one complains of all-night meetings) you find a two-story, white-washed old building. You would hardly expect heavenly visitations there, unless you remember the stable at Bethlehem.
But here you find a mighty pentecostal revival going on from ten o’clock in the morning to about twelve at night. Yes, Pentecost has come to hundreds of hearts and many homes are made into a sweet paradise below.
… A leading Methodist layman of Los Angeles says, “Scenes transpiring here are what Los Angeles churches have been praying for for years. I have been a Methodist for twenty-five years. I was a leader of the praying band of the First Methodist Church. We prayed that the Pentecost might come to the city of Los Angeles. We wanted it to start in the First Methodist Church, but God did not start it there. I bless God that it did not start in any church in this city, but in a barn, so that we might all come and take part in it. If it had started in a fine church, poor colored people and Spanish people would not have got it, but praise God it started here. God Almighty says He will pour out His Spirit on all flesh. This is just what is happening here. I want to warn every Methodist in Los Angeles to keep your hands off this work. Tell the people wherever you go that Pentecost has come to Los Angeles.”
… The demonstrations are not the shouting, clapping or jumping so often seen in camp meetings. There is a shaking such as the early Quakers had and which the old Methodists called the “jerks”. It is while under the power of the Spirit you see the hands raised and hear speaking in tongues. While one sings a song learned from heaven with a shining face, the tears will be trickling down other faces. Many receive the Spirit through the laying on of hands, as they did through Paul at Ephesus.
Little children from eight years to twelve stand up on the altar bench and testify to the baptism with the Holy Ghost and speak in tongues. In the children’s meetings little tots get down and seek the Lord.
It is noticeable how free all nationalities feel. If a Mexican or a German cannot speak English, he gets up and speaks in his own tongue and feels quite at home for the Spirit interprets though the face and people say amen. No instrument that God can use is rejected on account of color or dress or lack of education. This is why God has built up the work.
…Seekers for healing are usually taken upstairs and prayed for in the prayer room and many have been healed there.

This is the genetic code of the movement called Pentecostalism and yet it is conspicuously absent today in many contemporary, rich, powerful, and authoritarian Pentecostal churches in both the global North and South.