Saturday, March 14, 2015

270 Million People and the History of Religion in Los Angeles

[Apparently there may be 80 million Methodists worldwide, but about 10 million in the USA.  See other thoughts at the end of the post].

The point of this essay is not to run down Los Angeles, or call Los Angeles or the people who live here bad people.  But it is to support the thesis that Los Angeles is a different place, different from what people who have not lived here think it is.  And also that LA may very well be different from what the people who do live here think it is because they just do not notice.

Now, it is true that this particular issue, indifference to history, annoys me a lot.  But that is just me and if I dont like it I should not live here.  Which is correct, I should not live here.

There is also a potential perceptual error in this post.  I assume that because I did not know something, that no one did, and in fact I have asked around, and no one I have talked to seems to have known this story.  But maybe everyone else does, and I am just wrong.   Lets see what you think when I finally get around to telling the story at the end.

But before we begin, why should we care about history?

History is how we know what happened in the past, good things, bad things, great things and small things. It allows us to memorialize places and events in a way that can be inspirational to all our people.  But LA is not at all interested or sentimental about its history.  You can live here all your life and not realize how much of the history of aerospace, or the history of contemporary architecture, or the history of broadcasting,  to name just three fields, happened in this town.

I, on the other hand, am very sentimental. I think that there should be signs around the city to indicate points of interest.   For example, I think there should be signs where James Dean crashed his Porsche, where Jim Morrison lived when attending UCLA Film School, where Tom Mix had his log cabin, where Harry Houdini had his mansion and where Howard Hughes crashed his jet. If it were up to me, that is what I would do.

But LA would have none of that. Their eyes are always on the horizon, looking to the future, not the past. They care about what is happening now. What important landmark can they destroy now to build a new mini-mall? What innocent can they exploit today? Who can they steal from now, not who did they steal from back thenThe citizens of our fair city of the angels have priorities and keep their eyes firmly on their goals.

This particular story is about the history of religion in Los Angeles, and no, I am not talking about hippies or the love generation or Transcendental Meditation.  This is about the creation of a new denomination of Christianity that has done very well for itself over the last century.

Most people believe that religion is something that was started long ago, and that is of course somewhat true. This country is primarily a Christian country of one type or another and obviously Christianity started roughly 2,000 years ago. Most of the notable religions around the world started over 1,000 years ago, but there are some exceptions. There are some aspects of modern Hinduism that are more recent, also the same with certain sects of Buddhism. Marxism is certainly a religion and that is much more recent. Shinto is very ancient in certain ways, but it has also been reinvented and reinterpreted much more recently as well.

And of course, the history of this nation and its religion is very much tied into the history of Great Britain from 400 years ago, in particular, the history of the Protestant Reformation. New England was founded by people who were radical Calvinists, Virginia by the children of the Anglican gentry. The descendants of the Virginians' became what we call Episcopalians when the American Revolution happened. And of course there are various other denominations, Presbyterians, (ana) Baptists and so forth. The Methodists came into existence before and during the American Revolution, and John Wesley came to America to speak about his ideas at the invitation of the people of Savannah, Georgia. You can not be in Savannah for longer than about fifteen minutes before they proudly tell you about this.

Some of the history of religion in this country is not so pretty. Most people know of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (e.g. the Mormons) and know that it was founded by Joseph Smith. What most Americans do not seem to know is that Mr. Smith was murdered in Illinois while in jail on a trumped up charge and his murder was sanctioned by the government. No due process of course. No one was punished for his murder although they knew who did it. Another proud moment in American history swept under the rug.

So now, I am going to propose a metric to indicate whether a religion, or denomination, is important. There are about 15 million members of the Church of LDS and about 10 million Methodists in this country (said to be 80 million worldwide) as counted by the churches themselves (and thus are taken to be approximate).

So I hope you will agree with me that a denomination of Christianity that has about 270 million members and which is arguably the fastest growing denomination of Christianity is worthy of notice. And perhaps you would be as surprised as I was to learn that this denomination(s) was founded here, in downtown LA, a little over a century ago in 1906.

The story, somewhat simplified, goes like this.

In the year of 1906 a preacher from Texas was invited to come to Los Angeles and preach to a congregation in downtown LA for a month. He was a poor man, and lived at the home of a member of this congregation as a guest while he did so. The congregation decided that they did not like what he had to say for various reasons so they asked him to stop coming around, so he did. But he continued to live as a guest at that address on N. Bonnie Brae Street and somewhere around April 9, 1906, he started preaching out of the house to the people of the neighborhood and the people who came around to listen. The word got around and more and more people dropped by to hear what he had to say. After a while, they rented a space upstairs nearby on Azuza Street and he continued preaching from there.

The house on N. Bonnie Brae Street

The prayer meetings were exciting and eventful, supposedly.  The true religion was in the air for those people and the word spread.   People of all races and from all over the country came to hear William Seymore and his associates speak.  It became a phenomenon which lasted about four years and is now called the Azuza Street Revival.

The space on Azuza Street

I have of course oversimplified this story. There is more back story and many more people involved as the movement grew and evolved, as you would expect from a movement that in a century has hundreds of millions of members all around the world. But it is the case that the Pentecostal movement is really that large today and is the fastest growing Christian denomination in the world. And it started here, in that poor neighborhood of Los Angeles, that day in 1906 when William Seymore started preaching out of that house on N. Bonnie Brae Street.

Wm Seymore and his wife, Jennie

Now, I will be first to admit that I do not understand the Pentecostal movement. Speaking in Tongues seems off the wall to me, but that is fine.  There are lots of strange things in religion, and also strange things in our society, and I am not going to make judgments.

How is it possible that a major religious movement could start in the city of Los Angeles and yet no one here seems to know about it?   Is it because this movement was started by a poor black man and had beliefs outside that of the religious orthodoxy?  Is it because there is no particular way to cash in on the story and make money?  Perhaps.  I really don't know. I do know that the LA Times wrote nasty articles about the movement back in the day and the LA Times has always been the voice of the people who run Los Angeles.

But I also know that a denomination of 270 million people is worthy of notice and if it started in my city I would want to know about it.

So again, remember, I am not saying LA is bad.  Just that LA really is indifferent to history of any type, and certainly does not care about its own history.   Seriously, does not care.

I think its a little weird, ok?

[Further reading has suggested other explanations for the apparent neglect.   Although all the Pentecostal organizations and independent churches do, apparently, trace their origins to the Azuza Street Revival and William Seymore, these organizations and churches are not at all united and have various differences between them.  Of course that is true in many different denominations in Christianity and all other religions I am aware of.  But it would help to explain why there is not one important voice calling for recognition and acknowledgement in Los Angeles.  Furthermore, I was not aware of the extent of the hostility between the more established Christian churches and Pentecostalism.   Only recently has Pentecostalism been acknowledged or partially acknowledged as a legitimate part of Christianity.  Whether I have that right or not, the extent of the outsider status of these Church(es) could also help to explain the anonymity in this, its home city.]


Mormon Statistics

Methodist Statistics

The Churches of Richmond Virginia


Azuza Street Revival

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