Books about general knowledge, and encyclopedias of one type and another, all have graphic accounts of the devastating Richter 8.25 earthquake that almost completely destroyed the city of San Francisco on April 18th 1906. But something else was transpiring way down the California coast at Los Angeles at the same time, which is very difficult to find recorded in any books. And yet to the one who has an active faith in Jesus Christ, this other event cannot be dissociated from the earthquake, and indeed helps to explain it, rather than “explain it away,” as is the common habit. The following historical information has been extracted from “Prophecy Today”, Volumes 7 & 8.
William Joseph Seymour, a black holiness preacher, and his friend Edward ‘Irish’ Lee were instructed by the Lord to fast for ten days, beginning on April 6th 1906. They were just three days into their fast when Lee asked Seymour to pray for him, so that he might receive holy spiritual power with the gift of tongues, as at Pentecost. Seymour laid his hands on his friend and brother in Christ, and prayed for him. Immediately Lee burst forth in an unknown tongue, and exclaimed, “At last! This is that!”, referring to Peter’s words on the Day of Pentecost.
Later that evening they were at the home of Richard and Ruth Asbury at 214 North Bonnie Brae Street, Los Angeles, where a group of black people had gathered for worship. Seymourrose to preach, and recounted the experience of earlier that day. Shortly afterwards Leelifted his hands and spoke in tongues, and Douglas Nelson described what happened. “The entire company was immediately swept to its knees as by some tremendous power. At least seven, and perhaps more, lifted their voices in an awesome harmony of strange new tongues. Jennie Evans Moore, falling to her knees from the piano seat, became the first woman thus to speak. Some rushed out to the front porch, yard, and street, shouting and speaking in tongues for all the neighbourhood to hear – – – Teenager Bud Traynor stood on the front porch prophesying and preaching. Jenny Evans Moore returned to the piano and began singing in her beautiful voice what was thought to be a series of six languages with interpretations.”
Thus, on the evening of April 9th 1906, the 20th century Pentecostal movement was born in a black ‘ghetto’ of Los Angeles among the poor and dispossessed, the despised and rejected black members of a white dominated and fundamentally racist society.
Resulting from this initial experience, numbers increased very rapidly to include whites as well as blacks, and it became necessary to rent an old African Methodist Episcopal chapel at312 Azusa Street, where the seating consisted of wooden planks laid across boxes. But Godwas working in a new way. Within a month attendance had risen to over 1000. Two years later the Pentecostal movement had spread to over 50 nations.
One of the white leaders of the church at that time was Frank Bartleman, who kept a diary, which is now available for reading through Voice Christian Publications. Extracts from that diary will provide the link between the return of Holy Spirit gifts and the San Francisco earthquake.
SUNDAY 15th APRIL. The Lord called me to ten days of special prayer. I felt greatly burdened but had no idea of what He had particularly in mind. But He had a work for me, and wanted to prepare me for it.
WEDNESDAY 18th APRIL. The terrible San Francisco earthquake came, which also devastated the surrounding cities and country. No less than 500 lost their lives in S.F. alone. I felt a deep conviction that the Lord was answering our prayers for a revival in His own way. “When Thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.” A tremendous burden of prayer came upon me that the people might not be indifferent to His voice.
SUNDAY 22nd APRIL. I found the earthquake had opened many hearts – – – But nearly every pulpit in the land was working overtime to prove that God had nothing to do with earthquakes and thus allay the fears of the people. The Spirit was striving to knock at hearts with conviction through this judgment. I felt indignation that the preachers should be used of Satan to drown out His voice. I seemed to feel the wrath of God against the people and to withstand it in prayer. He showed me He was terribly grieved at their obstinacy in the face of His judgment on sin. San Francisco was a terribly wicked city. He showed me that all hell was being moved to drown out His voice in the earthquake, if possible.
Bartleman went on to show how the Lord gave him a message to write down and have printed as a tract for circulation. 75,000 were printed and distributed in Los Angeles andSouthern California in less than three weeks. Another brother had taken the burden upon himself and printed and distributed another 50,000 of these tracts. The result was electrifying. “Heaven and hell seemed to come upon the town,” records Bartleman. A line seemed to be drawn round the “Azusa Mission” by the Holy Spirit. Those who passed across that line were convicted by the Holy Spirit. But the great revival that broke out attracted persecution from the press, who wrote about it in a shameful fashion. However, this only drew the crowds. Soon the meetings were running day and night, and the place was packed out. “The “colour line” was washed away in the blood”, stated Bartleman, as he watched black and white integrating freely as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Historians of the church like to point to other isolated incidents where the gift of tongues was given and experienced around this time. And although this is true, they do remain as isolated incidents, rather than the beginning of a major work that had the same impetus and effect as on the Day of Pentecost. In summing up, do we not see a major new work of God starting at this time, a work that revived the thrust of Pentecost? And was not the earthquake a sign from God of His purpose in this new movement? A purpose related to His coming in judgment? Many other cities in the world then and now are just as evil as S.F., and they haven’t been leveled by quakes. But in the ancient world there were other places as evil asSodom and the cities of the plain, but they didn’t suffer the fate God had in store for them. Why? Because, as Jude points out in his brief letter, they became “examples of age-lasting fire.” So we believe that the S.F. earthquake was a sign from God with a similar message.
God’s judgment scene is a two-edged sword. One edge is for the world, and the other edge is for believers, whose lives become cleansed and holy by the operation of that same Spirit Who judges the wickedness of men. This is why these two events seem to be bound up together in the happenings of April 1906.
What are God’s purposes in outpourings of divine power? Far be it from us to categorise and make boundaries to God’s workings, but there are certain factors which seem to appear again and again, and these are important. They may best be summarised by example.
First of, at Pentecost itself. When the “tongues of fire” came to the 120 in the upper room, it produced a sense of power. They had been in hiding, and were afraid of the authority of the Sanhedrin following the crucifixion. This was easy to understand. But suddenly they lost that fear, and went out into the public places to speak boldly, regardless of the consequences. Throughout the record in Acts this point is most noticeable.
If this was the effect it had on the disciples, we now turn to the effect it had on those who listened to their word. We are told that there was mass repentance, and a crying out for forgiveness, cleansing, and new life in Christ. This is also very apparent in the early church records, and in fact appears again and again throughout the centuries of church history. We should like to quote from John Wesley’s Journal of early 1739. Volume 1, page 303.
“Immediately the power of God fell upon us; one and another, and another sunk to the ground; you might see them dropping on all sides as thunder-struck. One cried out aloud. I went and prayed over her, and she received joy in the Holy Ghost. A second falling into the same agony, we turned to her, and received also for her the promise of the Father. In the evening I made the same appeal to God, and almost before we called He answered. A young woman was seized with such pangs as I never saw before; and in a quarter of an hour she had a new song in her mouth, a thanksgiving unto our God.”
Wesley’s Journal for 1st January 1739 provides us with yet another result of God’s outpouring, namely exceeding joy. “About three in the morning as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came so mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of His Majesty, we broke out with one voice, ‘We praise Thee O God, we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.’”
Supernatural gifts, divine authority, lack of fear, exceeding joy, and deep conviction of sin, leading to repentance. These seem to be some of the major expressions of divine outpourings of holy spiritual power. No doubt there are others. In all the records of “revivals” we find evidence of these characteristics.
What do we find today, now that Pentecostal and Charismatic assemblies are the fastest growing groups in the world? There is an abundance of supernatural gifts, and much joy, but often it is not a very “holy” joy, and unlike Wesley’s experience, does not stem from deep heart searching and repentance. But when it comes to the other manifestations, they are sadly lacking. Where is there to be seen the type of repentance experienced at Pentecost, and for example in the Welsh revival of 1905? What did the Lord say about His own miracles? “If the mighty works (performed in Capernaum) had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (Matthew 11:20-24) This was our Lord’s judgement on Capernaum, and charismatic churches today might very well take heed of this passage, and change their focus.
We are reminded of a prophetic word received by a brother back in May 1980, in which the following words were addressed to charismatic assemblies. “Why when I called for a Jonah to call for repentance, have you led my people into a merry time of dancing and singing, calling this “rejoicing”? Those who can rejoice when my heart is sorely grieved can neither have my mind nor my heart. . . . My word is against the leaders of popularistic charismatic activity, who have turned the operations of my Spirit into a popular cult, who have restrained the sackcloth and ashes from my people, and have called for a surfeit of feasting where fasting is needed.”
1981 was the 75th anniversary of the Azusa Street outpouring. In that year Ross Peart made this statement from the perspective of the Methodist Churches of today. “If one were to study carefully the current Charismatic phenomena, stress would be found most likely on “tongues”, “singing in the Spirit”, or “healings” as the most usual elements in the coming in power of the Spirit. Now all of these are valid, but from a study of Methodist history, it seems that one vital element, that of the conviction of sinners under the power of the Spirit, is missing in today’s renewal. This element must be vital to all Christian experience which has at the heart of it the message of Repentance.”