William J. Seymour And Global Pentecostalism

William J. Seymour And Global Pentecostalism

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book reviews

Gastón Espinosa

William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and

Documentary History. Duke University Press, 2014. Paperback $28.95.isbn


Gastón Espinosa provides a fresh telling of Pentecostal origins, envisioning anew the role of the Azusa Mission in Los Angeles to cultural and theological origins of Pentecostalism. Particularly significant in this analysis is the socially transformative nature of Pentecostalism.

The late Swiss historian Walter J. Hollenweger identified slave religion as one of the major contributors to Azusa and to early Pentecostalism.1This argu- ment gave room for Cecil M. Robeck’s analysis in which Azusa, as an African American church, advocated for and incorporated a multicultural community.2 Espinosa furthers this story by identifying the theology of William Seymour, expressed through the Azusa revival, as providing a transgressive social space “whereby racial-ethnic minorities, women, the working class, and others could cross some of the deeply inscribed unbiblical racial-ethnic, class, gender and national borders and boundaries of the day” (p. 101). While later Pentecostals as a whole would not sustain these ideals, moreover even the Azusa Mission could not sustain these ideals, a framework for social and ecclesial challenge and change was provided at Azusa.

A second and corresponding argument made by Espinosa relates to global expressions of Pentecostalism. Most historians prior to the twenty-first century tended to see Azusa either as the fountainhead of global Pentecostalism or the primary player in the origins of global Pentecostalism. Correspondingly, a default Americentricism developed regarding Pentecostal origins. Such a perspective, however, has not been without challenges. Allan Anderson in particular views Azusa, not as the fountainhead of Pentecostal origins, but as one of several global centers of early Pentecostalism.3 Anderson’s and others’ argument for multi-community, global origins has gained significant traction

1 Walter J. Hollenweger identified Pentecostalism as having five roots: catholic, evangelical,

critical, ecumenical, and black oral. “The Black Roots of Pentecostalism,” inPentecostals after

a Century: Global Perspectives on a Movement inTransition, eds. Allan H. Anderson and Walter

J. Hollenweger (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 36.

2 Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal

Movement (Nashville,tn: Nelson Reference and Electronic, 2006).

3 Allan Anderson, An Introduction to Pentecostalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,


© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2016 | doi: 10.1163/15700747-03804016


book reviews


during the past decade or so, perhaps now having become the dominant theory of Pentecostal origins.

Gastón Espinosa attempts to re-center origins theory to Azusa. “Contrary to recent claims,” he states, “Seymour played a critical role in global Pentecostal origins” (p. 7). Here Espinosa’s critique needs to be considered. Theories that have emphasized multi-community, global origins have tended to correct an Americentric bias inherent with many earlier histories. Further, such multi- community theories have emphasized the cultural and global distinctions that emerged from early Pentecostalism.Yet, at the same time, a multi-centered the- ory tends to underemphasize the significant impact of African American spiri- tuality and underemphasize the social critique provided by Azusa. While Pen- tecostalism may have multi-centered expressions that contribute to a global dynamic, Espinosa contends that the role of Azusa with its emphasis upon global commitments and its emphasis upon social transformation, uplifting the marginalized, is foundational to understanding the whole of Pentecostal origins.

“Racial-ethnic minorities, men, and women often intermingled, prayed for each other, lay prostrate on the floor, or knelt in an attitude of prayer and sup- plication” (p. 61). Such an engagement provided space for early Pentecostalism to serve as a critique to the whole of cultural expectations regarding ethnicity and gender. The revival grew, states Espinosa, precisely because the theology and praxis provided transgressive social space that challenged social norms, enabling underprivileged peoples to have space and to express their voice. “Sey- mour used the Bible and the language and logic of the outpouring and baptism of the Holy Spirit to express both his grievances and desire to promote racial equality, reconciliation, integration and unity in the church” (p. 133).

Yet, these transgressive and transformative social spaces in the end could not give enough room to sustain the significance of the revival. Over the life of the revival, challenges to Seymour from within and from without divided the constituents of Azusa. The vision of a transformative society that would transgress race could not be sustained. Further, Pentecostal denominations that emerged from Azusa would divide along racial lines. Yet, Azusa provided a glimpse of socially transgressive spaces. Espinosa concludes by noting that Sey- mour would be happy to hear that the Spirit that called for Azusa Street to serve as a transformative space continues to be expressed globally, transforming the lives of ordinary people.

Valuable to Espinosa’s volume is his publishing of primary sources. Approx- imately fifty percent of the book is dedicated to republishing primary sources. This includes such items as letters from participants and leaders at Azusa, readings from the Apostolic Faith newspaper, the Doctrines and Disciplines

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book reviews

of the Azusa Mission, early Pentecostal writers who either engaged issues at Azusa or were influenced by Azusa, critics of Azusa, and writings of Charles Parham.

Espinosa provides an engaging text that highlights the value of William Sey- mour and the Azusa revival to the development of early Pentecostalism. He makes a case for the influence of Azusa upon global Pentecostalism. Whether his case with regard to global origins is sufficient to counter the multi-commu- nity, global origins theory of Allan Anderson and others remains to be seen. Most significantly, however, Espinosa provides an appropriate challenge to evaluate the radical countercultural, socially transgressive nature of Azusa and the opportunity that such transgressive space gave to an emerging Pentecostal- ism. While most American Pentecostals failed in their praxis to realize the sig- nificance of such space, glimpses of this community continue to emerge from Pentecostal transgressive spaces.

Zachary Michael Tackett Southeastern University, Lakeland, Florida


PNEUMA 38 (2016) 503–531


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