Was the Pentecostal-Charismatic wave that is now sweeping the globe "born" at the Azusa Street revival of 1906, when the Spirit of God is said to have descended on a group of worshippers in Los Angeles, ushering in a "second Pentecost"? Historians of American religion have disputed this question for years and will probably do so for years to come. My own view is that indeed it was born in that swept-out former stable, especially because births don't come out of nowhere. They are the culmination of a complex series of processes—genes, chromosomes, and a nurturing environment that come together to produce a new being.
It is true that nearly all the qualities that now characterize Pentecostalism had appeared before in Christian history. Healings, tongue-speaking, ecstatic praise, visions, the expectation of an imminent return of Christ, and an intense personal encounter with the Spirit had all appeared periodically over the past 2,000 years. But at Azusa Street, under the gentle but inspired guidance of William J. Seymour, all these theological and worship streams rushed together into a kind of spiritual whirlpool, then flowed out to reach every corner of the world, and half a billion people, within the short span of a century.
There was, however, one distinct element at Azusa Street, one which Seymour himself eventually came to believe was the most important sign that a new Pentecost was occurring: black, white, and brown people were praising God together at the absolute nadir of the Jim Crow era. Indeed, in 1906, that simple frame building on Azusa Street may have been the most racially integrated address in America. For Seymour and many of his associates, this gathering was not just a project in interracial cooperation. It was a sign from God that the curse of Babel and the sinful division of the church were both being healed. Seymour believed the Lord was cleansing the bride for the coming of the divine groom at Azusa Street.
In one of the saddest chapters of early Pentecostal history, this racially inclusive fellowship did not last very long. The original sin of America, racism, soon intruded into the growing movement. A fissure appeared between whites and blacks that is only now beginning to be healed in Pentecostal communities. However, Pentecostal congregations remain some of the most integrated in America.
Meanwhile, Pentecostalism is now spreading to places few thought it would ever reach. With no hierarchy, it scatters its spores in all directions. But instead of undermining its growth, division, like the mitosis of a cell, spreads Pentecostalism further. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small Christian groups like the "Jesus Family" are now appearing throughout mainland China. There is an Arab Pentecostal congregation in Casablanca, Morocco. The largest single Christian congregation in the world is the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea. Today, Pentecostals praise and testify in Minsk, Bombay, and Caracas.
But has this spectacular explosion had any real impact on the rest of the Christian world? It has, and that impact will continue. Martin Marty recently commented that the future of Christianity belongs not to the fundamentalists but to the Pentecostals. One reason he is right is that what might be called "Pentecostalism-lite" has erupted within several other denominations. The Catholic "charismatic" movement is well known, and has replaced "base communities" as the heartbeat of Latin American Catholicism. There is already an organization of "Full Gospel Black Baptist" churches. Lutherans, Methodists, and Congregationalists now often pray in Pentecostal style, with their hands raised to heaven, and few mainline churches are without healing prayers and services, something left to Lourdes pilgrims and Christian Scientists (and of course, Pentecostals) until a couple of decades ago.