Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., Azusa Street Mission & Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement (New York: Nashville: Nelson, 2006). pp.325+photos, index.
Reviewed by Mark Hutchinson
This is a fine book much awaited. Ever since I first met Mel Robeck in early 1990s, I have been following his work, waiting for what many of us have known would be a definitive work on a critical subject. He has not disappointed, with an easy narrative embracing that most difficult of historical subjects – an oral, popular social movement – with insight and verve. Even so, this is just the first instalment – a popular first run to engage with the demand for an account of the revival, in time for the celebration of its centenary. And it is suitable that it be a popular edition first, rather than the usual weighty academic tome - Azusa Street after all was a revival of popular religion among ‘the people’ rather than an elite cultural event. Robeck readily captures the sense of time, place and people essential to understanding such an event, and onlinks it to the global screen, where the Pentecostal movement has been one of the grand narratives of global history of the twentieth century. At the same time, it is a text which has much the quality of a family photo album put together by a loving and favoured nephew. As we, the readers, sit at the table with this nephew, the pages roll over (an effect reinforced by the extensive use of photographs) and we see the family, the cousins, the friends and church and social circles walk through the pages. ‘Who is this fellow, sitting beside uncle Will?’ you might ask, and the answer is always there. To produce such an intimate, yet incisive portrait of the events surrounding the Azusa Street Mission takes staggering scholarship and command of the very scattered sources. (The fact that many of the sources come from Robeck’s personal collection, as well as from his extensive travels to different parts of the United States, is testimony to the commitment and work which has gone into this seemingly breezy popular work) And of course, it is not only the photos of the family which make it in, but also the poison pen letters of the neighbours upset by the party going on down the road. The vitriol of the press at the time give an intense flavour to the account, and remind us of the power of context. It is a reality that the author has lived most of his life, and the book is evidence of this. Like all good family albums, the arrangement of the portraits has an agenda. Robeck is gently reminding many of us who write in the field how little most authors actually have known about this critical event, even as they have written it into larger stories. He therefore sets out to rehabilitate elements of the story which have been misused in the larger literature – emphasizing, for instance, the intentionality of the spiritual leadership style of William Seymour, as a counterweight to the general account of him as an old blind black preacher. Revivals are not accidental events, but the result of commitment, engagement with God, and a confluence of people with often hidden but considerable personal gifts. Seymour was one of those, and his emergence followed guidelines of a pre-established revival-holiness subculture which Robeck explores in detail. In some cases, the focus on the camera is inevitably fuzzy – there are few sources, for instance, in much of Seymour’s early life, and here the narrative is forced to be inventive in order to carry forward. There is no doubt, moreover, that the scope of the book – the range of photos collected for this album - relates to the questions which are in the mind of the author. He is correcting, filling in, dismissing arguments abroad in the literature, and laying a basis for a wider work – a work which no doubt emerge with the academic version of Robeck’s account. Even when he is not doing this (in many parts, like the family album) the account is superbly interesting. The fine detail on particular people (for instance the passing additional detail about the Valdez family and the impact of the revival on Latino peoples) causes the reader to constantly stop and enjoy the life of people otherwise wholly unremarkable, but made remarkable by their involvement in remarkable events. Again, the photographs help enormously here – providing details of expression, dress, posture and grouping which are otherwise not communicable. Like all family albums, however, there are things which are implied which ‘work’ with regard to the story, but which are perhaps not as true when applied in a broader context. The focus on the camera and the eye of the collector/ arranger are everything. Robeck provides four major reasons for studying the revival – its unprecedented speed of growth, its impact on other congregations and movements, its iconic or mythological function among global Pentecostals, and the example it provides for outreach to the marginalised. All of these are true, if necessarily influenced by the orientation of the book to its pastoral, popular function of re-engaging people with the protestant ideal of revival. It is an approach which will warm readers from a Christian background, but may not predispose non-Christians to take its scholarship as seriously as they otherwise might. For that, it might be said, they should wait for the academic version. The book’s address is clearly shaped by Robeck’s writing from within Fuller Theological Seminary, and by the pressure of the great celebration of which burst upon Los Angeles in 2006 with the descent of tens of thousands of people from all over the world to mark the centenary of the revival. It would be a mistake to allow this address to cause readers to miss the central values of the book. The ‘mythological’ function can be overstated, however, and it is here that criticism of the book, if any, will arise. Robeck makes the broad statement that the Pentecostal world is divided into two parts – those who were at Azusa Street, and those who wish they were. Myth, however, is not fact. The close focus of the camera and the album produces a temptation to merge the mythological function of the revival with the actual circumstances for local emergence of Pentecostalism around the world. This is particularly so from an Australian perspective. I for one have never considered myself part of either of Mel’s two categories. For one thing, Azusa St had little direct impact on Australia until the 1920s with the advent of Aimee Semple Macpherson and A C Valdez. The fact that Australia had its own regional revivings among the marginalised – among the disaffected Methodists of Melbourne whose leader (Sarah Jane Lancaster) would die among the Great Depression poor; among the locked out and desperate miners of Cessnock under F B Van Eyk; in a remote Queensland farmhouse which acted as a centre for Islander plantation workers – is in fact far more important than Azusa Street would become, even as myth, until the post-war global economy brought American hegemonic influence to bear upon Australian culture. (Azusa Street is not even mentioned in the Australian Evangel, for example, until 1938, and then by Donald Gee, and only in the Good News in a 1924 William Durham article reprinted from an American journal) This is despite the fact that Australia faces California across the Pacific, and there was considerable trade between the two around this time. What does this tell us? It suggests that the mythological function of Azusa Street perhaps needs to be explored more subtly, with more attention to its emergence and historiographical development, than is possible in this small book. Joe Creech’s treatment of Azusa Street’s place in Pentecostal history certainly suggests as much, as does Robeck’s own assessment that the chief source usually quoted about the revival (Frank Bartleman’s accounts) were redolent with self-promotion and eschatological interpretation.1 It suggests that the international networks established by holiness associations, missions circles and the phenomenon of global revivalist preachers (all of which pre-existed Azusa Street), is a more important contributor than we have yet appreciated. It raises the question about Australian exceptionalism, of course, but also implies that we might well find that once the local literatures begin to emerge that the dominant picture of the birth of Pentecostalism as ‘from one place to everywhere’ will be conditioned to a more nuanced understanding of the order of ‘from many places to everywhere’. Certainly, the subtitle of Mel’s book – ‘The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement’ – is an exaggeration. If this was the birth, then Azusa Street Mission was at best a surrogate mother. In some parts of the world, historians will find the relationship one of later adoption rather than of essential motherhood. This is a signal contribution to the understanding of the impact of Azusa Street. It fills out many of the connections which are missing in broader literature, and corrects misconstructions which have crept into historical discourse in the absence of such a work. It is limited in scope – necessarily so for a work providing a popular history. It does provide us with a fascinating picture of the tension between revival and institutionalisation, the dynamics of ‘melting’ and ‘freezing’ which systems theorists teach us to look for in all human communities. I look forward to the fuller version yet to emerge. Mel Robeck is to be congratulated that a lifetime’s work is coming to fruition in such a delightful way.
Joe Creech, ‘Visions of Glory: The Place of the Azusa Street Revival in Pentecostal History’, Church History, vol. 65, no. 3 (Sep., 1996), pp. 405-424. ↩