Dangerous fanaticisms

To outsiders, such polyculturalism was not evidence of the fluid and uncontrollable movements of the Holy Spirit, but of dangerous religious fanaticism. While most observers considered religion, and in particular traditional Anglo-Protestant Christianity, an important force for social good and civilization, they believed that religion could have perilous effects on the vulnerable and ignorant without the intercession of mediating institutions, educated ministers, and codified doctrine. Observers representing both religious and secular institutions found much of what they encountered on Azusa Street to be dangerous subversions of “Christian civilization.”

Some believers feared that tongues-speakers had crossed into a realm of dark spirituality; it was Satan, not the Holy Ghost, who had inhabited Azusa Street members. These critics told of Sister Bobbins who, after enjoying some pleasant feelings while speaking in tongues, later felt “awful darkness and agony of soul from which it seemed almost impossible for her to be delivered” (Washburn n.d., 378). The less-controlled practices of glossolalia could lead believers, particularly vulnerable, unknowing women, down a dark path. Sister Bobbins was delivered from this unnamed, evil force while reading her Bible; non-tongues-speaking believers interpreted this as connecting her back to a more orthodox truth (Washburn n.d., 378-379). Willis Kelly, the former superintendent of another downtown mission, became a vocal critic. He claimed to have visited a meeting led by tongues-speakers intending to be open to the Holy Spirit. While the believers crowded around him, Kelly remembered hearing the voice of a spirit suggesting he say a few words in Spanish (he “knew a little of the language” or that he say a few words in gibberish). Kelly was convinced that this was a “lying spirit” attempting to lead him into deceiving the hearers and did not obey.18

The Times also seemed particularly concerned with “religious fanaticism” during this period. Between 1906 and 1909, the paper mentioned “fanaticism”

258 times, most often referring to communities perceived as dangerous cults in the United States, but also abroad. One such article described a young man, Roy Hess, who was, according to the Times, declared “violently insane” after claiming the gift of tongues in Chinese. The Times attributed his insanity to the “religious emotionalism” of the Holy Rollers on Azusa Street. The same article described a Pentecostal man who shot his wife, and another Pentecostal who man killed his son and daughter with an ax. According to the Times, both killers had become dangerous and unbalanced from “the same religious mania.”19

The Times also attributed the addition of supposedly respectable members of society to the early Pentecostals to foul play on the revivalists’ part. These members included noted physician Dr. Henry S. Keyes and his daughter, who joined the early Pentecostals, and two leading Baptist pastors who left their congregations in order to start churches that embraced the gifts of the Holy Ghost. The paper mused that revival leaders must have used hypnotism or manipulation to lure these people.20 In 1907 it attributed another addition to the Azusa Street Mission to a “nervous strain” brought on by the death of his child some years before; the Times said Will Trotter, an evangelist with the Union Rescue Mission, had “put himself into a condition where the hysterical teachings of the Apostolics appealed to him.”21

Discourse on religious fanaticism sometimes used racialized language to describe the religionists and their practices. Washburn described these early Pentecostal meetings as if they were an exotic ritual: “strange phenomena and wild, hysterical demonstrations followed” including falling on the floor “with strange noises, as in deep agony” and “strange manipulations” on those seeking tongues such as “laying on of hands, patting their jaws, and speaking over them in their eagerness to help” (Washburn n.d., 388-391). Even some African American churchgoers found the worship practices at Azusa Street Revival dangerously close to Black folk religion. One Black participant, Lawrence Catley, remembered that Black Baptist and Methodist churches would admonish practitioners for attending the revival. More staid parishioners warned that revivalists might “put something on you,” or “hoodoo you.” They were concerned that Pentecostalism was connected to a “pagan” Black folk spirituality of conjure.22

The Times also similarly used racialized language to describe meetings on Azusa Street. Adjectives such as “queer,” “peculiar,” and “hideous” indicated that what they witnessed on Azusa Street was foreign and unfamiliar. The prominence of “colored men and women, with a sprinkling of white people” indicated the “otherness” of these meetings even more strongly.23 While the happenings on Azusa Street might have been a cultural bricolage or combining of familiar and foreign practices, outsiders at the time found the attendant innovation and reimaginings threatening.

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