The liminality of the revival moment

The delicate balance of ethnic diversity, spiritual fluidity, and uncontrolled urban growth in the first decade of the twentieth century in Los Angeles would be shortlived, and so would the social transgressions of the Azusa Street Revival. Visionaries for the city of Los Angeles began to implement laws and ordinances to fulfill their imagination of a peaceful city of single-family residences as the first decade of the twentieth century came to a close. Advancing racial segregation was a direct result of laws which sought to limit industrial growth to certain districts, most often where people of color resided. As White residents of multiethnic neighborhoods surrounding downtown left for outlying communities, White Pentecostals would begin to leave the mission on Azusa Street for Pentecostal meetings with White leadership.

The social equality espoused by revivalists had its limitations. The involvement of White women and people of color in prominent and vocal positions at the Azusa Street Revival did not mean that social norms had been completely suspended. For example, when White women and people of color were afforded opportunities to lead, it was often in the context of their involvement as “vessels of the Holy Spirit,” a passive role that did not ascribe much agency to the religionist. The language Bartieman used to describe their involvement belied his previous assumptions about the intellectual superiority or rationality of White males. He wrote that Azusa Street “had to start in poor surroundings, to keep out the selfish, human element. All came down in humility together, at His feet .... The fodder was thus placed for the lambs, not for giraffes. All could reach it” (Bartieman 1925, 58-59). He came to believe that White women, people of color, and children needed to surrender less to receive the Holy Spirit than White men, and thus found more successful experiences.

White ministers had been wooing White Pentecostals from Azusa Street from its earliest days. Joseph Smale of First Baptist Church encouraged his followers to seek the gift of tongues at his own meetings in Burbank Hall downtown. Frank Bartieman led a successful alternative meeting on 8th and Maple Streets; William Pendleton who was also White, succeeded him. The Upper Room, led by Elmer Fisher, also became remembered as a primarily White church.38

Oral histories from Azusa Street participants suggest that racial prejudice existed in other forms at the revival. When asked at a meeting for the Society of Pentecostal Studies by an attendee if he was made to feel inferior for being Black at Azusa Street, Lawrence Catley explained, “When you’re used to something when you’re brought up with it, you take it as a matter of fact, and that’s it. See what I mean?” Because of that background he did not expect to see complete social change in Los Angeles: “You didn’t try to break down things.”39 One White worshiper at Azusa Street suggested that Black participants were the ones who had more “extreme” spiritual beliefs or practices: “There were colored people who, I think, were extreme. They had the blessing but they didn’t know how best to express it or something like that.”40 The discomfort of some White revivalists with Black prominence in Pentecostal meetings likely fed the reversion to segregated meetings. The same White Azusa Street participant claimed that Black Pentecostals objected to White men gaining leadership roles. By 1915 all that remained on Azusa Street was a small congregation of Black Pentecostals.

The efforts of White Angelenos to address what they perceived as blight in the multiethnic neighborhoods surrounding Azusa Street likely fed White flight from the Mission itself. The Los Angeles Times called for a “city of homes,” a vision historian Mark Wild interpreted as “beautiful, ethical, prosperous, and by implication, white” (Wild 2005, 42). Decades prior, the city of Los Angeles had established “social nuisance” laws that effectively segregated Chinese-owned hand laundries to certain neighborhoods. Under the influence of reformers like Dana Bartlett and the City Beautiful movement, the city began to enforce housing standards and demolishing poor residents as a way to prevent the blight of urban development: slums, tenements, and cramped quarters (Wild 2005, 44-49, Weiss 2002, 79-85).

In 1908, the city of Los Angeles established zoning legislation which restricted the industrial development of the city to the areas around downtown, an area mostly inhabited by working class residents, immigrants, and African Americans. The city Prosecutor Ray Nimmo, in a 1913 article entitled “Accomplishing the Segregation of Industries,” described the city government’s vision of Los Angeles as the first city “to undertake a plan for the separation of its homes from its works and factories.” He claimed for the city “a deserved reputation for its ideal residence conditions” (Weiss 2002, 82).

These zoning laws had implications for race relations in the city. While homeowners could appeal for exemptions from the ordinances, renters could not. Those Anglo residents who had settled near the downtown district began to move outside of the newly developed industrial zone, taking advantage of an open housing market the city offered to White families. Immigrants and African Americans had fewer opportunities for mobility due to realtors’ developing practices of restricting racial and ethnic integration.

The multiethnic neighborhoods that had spurred the racial integration of the Azusa Street Revival proved fleeting. The cultural exchange between Black and White, immigrant and native-born, working-class and middle-class residents did not continue past the first decade of the twentieth century. As the infrastructure city visionaries proposed caught up with urban growth, social groups were separated, contained, or sanitized. While Pentecostals continued to seek the gifts of the Holy Spirit through the twentieth century, transgressions of social boundaries in favor of interracialism in their churches would not recur until well after the civil rights movement. However, this period of intercultural exchange would prove a solid memory on which later reformers would draw.

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