Social transgressions

Most troubling to observers were the ways that “religious fanaticism” led to transgressive social practices at Azusa Street’s worship services. Revivalists seemed to disregard the social norms of the day that barred interracial mingling and maintained hierarchies of leadership favoring educated Anglo-American males. Pentecostals would not discount the public influence of anyone baptized by the Holy Spirit. Lawrence Catley remarked that “everybody was somebody” through receipt of the Holy Ghost, further insisting there were “No differences at Azusa Street”; the participants were “all one in Christ, every man, woman, girl or boy.”24

Black women frequented the pages of Apostolic Faith as they shared testimonies, spoke in tongues, traveled as missionaries, and exhorted the crowds gathering on Azusa Street.23 In the first issue of the Azusa Street Mission’s newspaper, the author established a narrative centered on the work of Black women: “The work began among the colored people. God baptized several sanctified wash women with the Holy Ghost, who have been much used of Him.”26 Black women historically had a strong influence within the holiness movement and within the Black church; therefore, those Azusa Street participants that came from the holiness movement were already familiar with their strong presence in spiritual leadership.27 Some women who led prayer, spoke in tongues, gave testimonies, and preached, such as Lucy Farrow and Julia Hutchins, had already led their own congregations before Azusa Street.

While Black women found empowerment through the Holy Spirit, White men described a humbling experience. In fact, those considered most respectable, White male Protestant ministers, often described struggling to receive the Holy Spirit because their pride got in the way. Bartieman wrote, “The preachers died the hardest. They had so much to die to. So much reputation and good works.” It was harder for them to receive the Spirit because they had filled themselves with worldly accomplishments and reputations. Bartieman even recounted destroying all evidence he owned of his status and achievement before receiving the Holy Ghost (Bartieman 1925, 60, 62, 64, 77-78).

Outsider accounts of events on Azusa Street further indicated the extent to which revivalists traversed social boundaries of race, class, and gender. Observers in particular found interracial commingling and the public influence of White women and people of color troubling. The Los Angeles Times drew attention to the involvement of women in testifying, preaching, and speaking in tongues, suggesting that such scenes were unseemly and unfeminine. One reporter was aghast at the sight of several “fanatical and almost hysterical” White women lying on the (dirty) floor “each endeavoring to kick her heels higher in the air than the others” “practically standing on their heads in the midst of the large audience” and gaining improper attention from men. Describing the hysterical screams of women when police broke up the meeting at 12:30 a.m., he claimed that one woman ran in to the street and embraced a man. “[TJhrowing her arms around his neck,” she “declared that he was hers, that she loved him, and the he was a sinner and must confess his sins.”28 Fanatical religion seemed to have a troubling effect on these women who preached, testified, worshiped, and evangelized without inhibitions.

Interracial commingling on Azusa Street likewise won detractors. One reporter wrote, “The surprise is that any respectable white person would attend such meetings as are being conducted on Azusa Street.”29 Indeed, the Times often emphasized the Black presence and leadership of these meetings as if race explained the strange proceedings. Cross-class and cross-racial interactions were unnatural and dangerous, the newspaper indicated. One reporter expressed concern for a “dignified mining man, well dressed and well groomed” who gave his testimony before a mixed crowd. His clothing and jewelry “would have attracted attention in the lobby of the swellest hostelry in town,” and made him stand out from the more motley crowd. The reporter worried that he would be vulnerable to a “the colored brethren” who “did not fail to notice the sparklers in this little one-story shack.”30

The perceived defilement of White womanhood had its corollary' in the fear of miscegenation, which also pervaded the Times’ coverage of the revival. One reporter observed with disgust: “men and women embraced each other in an apparent agony of emotion. Whites and negroes clasped hands and sang together. It was no uncommon sight to see a comely young wench throw her arms about the neck of some white man in the audience and beg him to ‘come to the altar’.”31 Such intimate physical contact between Blacks and Whites incited fears that revivalists were doing more than just worshiping with one another.

African American men leading young White women seemed to upset observers even more than “comely young wench[es]” embracing White men. The Times suggested the practice of “laying on of hands” by Black elders to young White women posed an inherent sexual threat.32 One such article described “a rather prepossessing White woman” who testified that she had left her husband and children “in order to follow the negro” after receiving a message from God. “In her frenzy she threw her arms about the greasy-looking leader and shouted his praises.”33 Articulating the direct threat to the patriarchal family, the reporter added: “Another woman, young and well-dressed, testified that she has left her husband and child in order to enjoy ‘more power’.” He claimed additional such testimonies joined the fray. One woman “appeared to press her face against | William Seymour’s] perspiring chops in her eagerness to tell her story.”34 No one, the horrified observer wrote in the Times, offered any rebuke to these displays.

The Times described the influence of Black women at meetings as dangerously sexual or comical. A reporter described the shouts of “an old colored mammy in a frenzy of religious zeal” as if they were a vaudeville performance: “Swinging her arms wildly about her she continues with the strangest harange ever uttered. Few of her words are intelligible and for the most part her testimony contains the most outrageous jumble of syllables, which are listened to with awe by the company.” Other Black women, surrounding her, shouted, spoke in tongues, and then collapsed to the floor.35 Another depiction of a meeting suggests an evening service took a sinister and chaotic turn as African Americans began to dominate: “Pandemonium reigned supreme .... Black wenches threw themselves on the floor and cackled and gabbled.”36

Comparing the coverage of Azusa Street with the Times’ earnest attempt to depict Los Angeles as a quiet, conservative city of Anglo-Midwestemers suggests the reporters felt Azusa Street threatened the city’s image. A reporter bewailed that the noise emanating from meetings of such “religious fanatics” made it impossible to sleep anywhere near the vicinity of Azusa Street. It described neighbors advocating for a police crackdown to the city prosecutor and police about the late-night noise problem after patrolmen did not address the problem of a meeting of “probably 700 people” until 1:30 in the morning. “The noises which emanate from within the meeting sound as though the organization had something to with unions, and every occupant of the place might be a walking delegate from the excellent control of lung power which is exercised at the most surprising and continued intervals,” the newspaper wrote. The paper had cultivated a deep antagonism toward the labor movement, so this comparison was particularly critical. The Times also compared early Pentecostals to characters from working class popular culture: “The fanatics rolled and jumped about, screeching at the top of their voices, and one adventurer dived through an open window as cleverly as though he did the stunt nightly on a vaudeville stage.”37

Observers seemed alternately entertained, confused, and horrified by the scenes on Azusa Street. Their objections indicate the extent to which revivalists’ belief in the primacy of the Holy Spirit as bestower of spiritual authority led them to discard typical social boundaries of the time, and the strength of the threat that posed.

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