By Frank Bartleman
It was a spontaneous manifestation and rapture no earthly tongue can describe. In the beginning this manifestation was wonderfully pure and powerful. We feared to try to reproduce it, as with the "tongues" also. Now many seemingly have no hesitation in imitating all the "gifts." No one could understand this "gift of song" but those who had it. It was indeed a "new song" in the Spirit. When I first heard it in the meeting a great hunger entered my soul to receive it. I felt it would exactly express my pent up feelings. I had not yet spoken in "tongues." But the "new song" captured me. It was a gift from God of high order, and appeared among us soon after the "Azusa" work began.
No one had preached it. The Lord had sovereignly bestowed it, with the outpouring of the "residue of oil," the "Latter Rain" baptism of the Spirit. It was exercised, as the Spirit moved the possessors, either in solo fashion, or by the company. It was sometimes without words, other times in "tongues." The effect was wonderful on the people. It brought a heavenly atmosphere, as though the angels themselves were present and joining with us. And possibly they were. It seemed to still criticism and opposition, and was hard for even wicked men to gainsay or ridicule.
Some have condemned this "new song," without words. But was not sound given before language? And is there not intelligence without language also? Who composed the first song? Must we necessarily follow some man's composition, before us, always? We are too much worshippers of tradition. The speaking in "tongues" is not according to man's wisdom or understanding. Then why not a "gift of song?" It is certainly a rebuke to the "jazzy" religious songs of our day. And possibly it was given for that purpose. Yet some of the old hymns are very good to sing, also. We need not desire or treat lightly of them. Some one has said that every fresh revival brings in its own hymnology. And this one surely did.
In the beginning in "312 Azusa Street" we had no musical instruments. In fact we felt no need of them. There was no place for them in our worship. All was spontaneous. We did not even sing from hymnbooks. All the old well-known hymns were sung from memory, quickened by the Spirit of God. "The Comforter Has Come," was possibly the one most sung. We sang it from fresh, powerful heart experience. Oh, how the power of God filled and thrilled us. Then the "blood" songs were very popular. "The life is in the blood." Sinai, Calvary, and Pentecost all had their rightful place in the "312 Azusa Street" work. But the "new song" was altogether different, not of human composition. It cannot be successfully counterfeited. The crow cannot imitate the dove. But they finally began to despise this "gift," when the human spirit asserted itself again.
They drove it out by hymn books, and selected songs by leaders. It was like murdering the Spirit, and most painful to some of us, but the tide was too strong against us. Hymn books today are largely a commercial proposition, and we would not lose much without most of them. The old tunes, even, are violated by change, and new styles must be gotten out of every season, for added profit. There is very little real spirit of worship in them. They move the toes, but not the hearts of men. The spirit of song given from God in the beginning was like the Aeolian harp, in its spontaneity and sweetness.
In fact it was the very breath of God, playing on human heartstrings, or human vocal cords. The notes were wonderful in sweetness, volume and duration. In fact, they were of times humanly impossible. It was "singing in the Spirit."
Brother William Joseph Seymour was recognized as the nominal leader in charge. But we had no pope or hierarchy. We were "brethren." We had no human program. The Lord Himself was leading. We had no priest class, nor priest craft. These things have come in later, with the apostatizing of the movement. We did not even have a platform or pulpit in the beginning. All were on a level. The ministers were servants, according to the true meaning of the word. We did not honor men for their advantage, in means or education, but rather for their God-given "gifts." He set the members in the "Body." Now "a wonderful and horrible thing is come to pass in the land. The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and My people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof" (Jeremiah 5:30-31). Also "As for my people, children are their oppressors (sometimes grown up ones) and women rule over them" (Isaiah 3:12).
Brother Joseph Seymour generally sat behind two empty shoeboxes, one on top of the other. He usually kept his head inside the top one during the meeting, in prayer. There was no pride there. The services ran almost continuously. Seeking souls could be found under the power almost any hour, night and day. The place was never closed nor empty. The people came to meet God. He was always there. Hence a continuous meeting. The meeting did not depend on the human leader. God's presence became more and more wonderful. In that old building, with its low rafters and bare floors, God took strong men and women to pieces, and put them together again, for His glory. It was a tremendous overhauling process. Pride and self-assertion, self-importance and self-esteem, could not survive there. The religious ego preaches its own funeral sermon quickly.
No subjects or sermons were announced ahead of time, and no special speakers for such an hour. No one knew what might be coming, what God would do. All was spontaneous, ordered of the Spirit. We wanted to hear from God, through whoever He might speak. We had no "respect of persons." The rich and educated were the same as the poor and ignorant, and found a much harder death to die. We only recognized God. All were equal. No flesh might glory in His presence. He could not use the self-only recognized and opinionated. Those were Holy Ghost meetings, led of the Lord. It had to start in the poor surroundings, God. All were equal. No flesh might glory in His presence. He could not use the self-only to keep out the selfish, human element. All came down in humility together, at His feet. They all looked alike, and had all things in common in that sense at least. The rafters were low, the tall must come down. By the time they got to 312 Azusa Street they were humbled, ready for the blessing. The food was thus placed for the lambs, not for giraffes. All could reach it.
We were delivered right there from ecclesiastical hierarchism and abuse. We wanted God. When we first reached the meeting we avoided as much as possible human contact and greeting. We wanted to meet God first. We got our head under some bench in the corner in prayer, and met men only in the Spirit, knowing them "after the flesh" no more. The meetings started themselves, spontaneously, in testimony, praise and worship. The testimonies were never hurried by a call for "popcorn." We had no prearranged programmed to be jammed through the time. Our time was the Lord's. We had real testimonies from fresh heart-experience. Otherwise, the shorter the testimonies, the better.
A dozen might be on their feet at one time, trembling under the mighty power of God. We did not have to get our cure from some leader. And we were free from lawlessness. We were shut up to God in prayer in the meetings, our minds on Him. All obeyed God, in meekness and humility. In honor we "preferred one another." The Lord was liable to burst through any one. We prayed for this continually. Someone would finally get up anointed for the message. All seemed to recognize this and gave way. It might be a child, a woman, or a man. It might be from the back seat, or from the front. It made no difference. We rejoiced that God was working. No one wished to show himself. We thought only of obeying God.
In fact, there was an atmosphere of God there that forbade any one but a fool attempting to put himself forward without the real anointing. And such did not last long. The Spirit, from the throne, controlled the meetings. Those were truly wonderful days. I often said that I would rather live six months at that time than 50 years of ordinary life. But God is just the same today. Only we have changed.
Some one might be speaking. Suddenly the Spirit would fall upon the congregation. God Himself would give the altar call. Men would fall all over the house, like the slain in battle, or rush for the altar en masse, to seek God. The scene often resembled a forest of fallen trees. Such a scene cannot be imitated. I never saw an altar call given in those early days. God Himself would call them. And the preacher knew when to quit. When He spoke we all obeyed. It seemed a fearful thing to hinder or grieve the Spirit. The whole place was steeped in prayer, God was in His holy temple. It was for man to keep silent. The shekinah glory rested there. In fact, some claim to have seen the glory by night over the building. I do not doubt it. I have stopped more than once within two blocks of the place and prayed for strength before I dared to go on. The presence of the Lord was so real.
Presumptuous men would sometimes come among us. Especially preachers who would try to spread themselves, in self-opinionating. But their effort was short-lived. The breath would be taken from them. Their minds would wander, their brains reel. Things would turn black before their eyes. They could not go on. I never saw one get by with it in those days. They were up against God. No one cut them off. We simply prayed. The Holy Spirit did the rest. We wanted the Spirit to control. He wound them up in short order. They were carried out dead, spiritually speaking. They generally bit the dust in humility, going through the process we had all gone through. In other words they died out, came to see themselves in all their weakness, then in childlike humility and confession were taken up of God, transformed through the mighty "baptism" in the Spirit. The "old man" died with all his pride, arrogance and good works.
In my own case I came to abhor myself. I begged the Lord to drop a curtain so close behind me on my past that it would hit my heels. He told me to forget every good deed as though it had never occurred, as soon as it was accomplished anything for Him, lest my good works become a snare to me. We saw some wonderful things in those days. Even very good men came to abhor themselves in the clearer light of God. The preachers died the hardest. But when God got through with them they gladly turned a new page and chapter. That was one reason they fought so hard. Death is not at all a pleasant experience. And strong men die hard.
Frank Bartleman's personal and eye-witness accounts of the events at the Azusa Revival is excerpted from his book How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles.