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Pentacostalists to mark centennial

- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 1, 2006

This year marks the 100th anniversary of a Los Angeles-based revival that emerged from humble beginnings to become one of the 20th century's most significant religious events.

The Azusa Street Revival, a series of prayer meetings that began in the spring of 1906 in a former stable in downtown Los Angeles, will be commemorated this April at much more glamorous venues: the Faith Dome, the Angelus Temple, the Los Angeles Convention Center and West Angeles Cathedral.

"A handful of people in Los Angeles, led by a one-eyed black man who was the son of former slaves, has turned into a movement of over 600 million people around the world who claimed to be filled with the Holy Spirit," said Billy Wilson, executive officer for the Azusa Street Centennial.

The revival, which lasted three years, was "critical" to Pentecostalism becoming the world's fastest-growing form of Christianity, said Robert Graves, president of the Atlanta-based Foundation for Pentecostal Scholarship.

"Without the 1906 Pentecostal revival in Los Angeles, there would have been no Pentecostal movement," Mr. Graves said.

Pentecostalism is named after experiences Jesus' apostles had on the first day of Pentecost, when His followers experienced supernatural "gifts" of the Holy Spirit, such as prophecy, healing and speaking in tongues.

Termed by some theologians as Christianity's "third force" because of its association with the Holy Spirit, Pentecostalism's U.S. adherents range from actor Denzel Washington to former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Attendees from more than 30 countries have registered for the centennial, and about 60,000 to 100,000 people are expected at the event. The conference Web site, www.azusastreet.net, is in six languages and half of the budget for the April 25-29 centennial has been raised, Mr. Wilson said.

Speakers will include a who's who of Pentecostal leaders. On opening night in four separate venues, the keynote speakers will be Dallas evangelist T.D. Jakes, healing evangelist Benny Hinn, Florida evangelist Paula White and televangelist Kenneth Copeland.

Black preacher William Seymour, the leader of the 1906 revival, was introduced to Pentecostal Christianity in 1903 at a Houston church. Although he was forced to sit outside the segregated sanctuary in a hallway, Seymour became familiar enough with its teachings for the church to send him to Los Angeles, hoping he'd start a new congregation.

Seymour arrived in Los Angeles in February 1906, where he began services in a private home and then a renovated barn. On April 9, 1906, people began experiencing conversions, healings and speaking in tongues.

Although the services were dismissed by the Los Angeles Times in an April 18, 1906, article, "Weird Babble of Tongues," as a bizarre new religious sect, daily attendance boomed to as many as 1,300.

But by 1909, the movement split along racial lines, with its white members leaving to form the Assemblies of God and the remaining blacks forming the Church of God, both of which are now large American Pentecostal denominations. The two groups did not reconcile until October 1994.

The centennial was the brainchild of Robert Fisher, the grandson of one of the few white Pentecostals who worked with Seymour. Although Mr. Fisher died suddenly of leukemia in September, his staff at the Center for Spiritual Renewal in Cleveland, Tenn., is organizing the conference.

"He felt the 100-year celebration of the revival should be significant," Mr. Wilson said. "We hope to use this event to tell more people what Pentecostals are and explain the huge growth in this movement."