Azusa Reimagined
A Radical Vision of Religious and Democratic Belonging
Keri Day




I AM A CHILD OF PENTECOSTALISM. My spiritual world did not begin with sophisticated theological vocabularies or coherently formulated propositions about God. I was not familiar with refined systems of theological speech that neatly explain elusive spiritual realities. I was not taught to think of faith only as an exercise of the intellect. My childhood Pentecostal community was adamant that spiritual experiences should not be reduced to this kind of rational grammar.

My small childhood church—a tiny gray brick building filled with blue-clothed pews—was wary of words alone being able to capture religious experiences and spiritual truths. We depended on divine encounters that were unpredictable, even unimagined. These divine encounters were gorgeously messy, always involving our bodies, tears, shouts, dances, screams, trembles, and ecstasy. We were children of providential dis-order, disordering all expectations and rules around religious worship and divine encounter. My small Pentecostal community lived inside a liminal space between divine revelation and divine mystery.

There is beauty and ugliness in any community, and my childhood church was no different. We were filled with contradictions. While we imagined ourselves as premillennial adherents, withdrawing from the political order of the world in order to wait on the return of Christ to correct all of the world’s wrongs, we nevertheless used politically informed speech about the world and felt that our speech mattered to ongoing social problems. While we allowed women to teach and preach freely in our worship services, with full recognition that they were essential to the flourishing of the church, my church also kept women off the pulpit and did not support women at top-tier levels of ministry such as ordained ministry. While our forms of worship and ways of experiencing the divine were highly democratic, breaking many rules of liturgical order, our community nevertheless upheld very moralistic positions that ignored and dismissed people’s agency to live authentic and honest lives. Concerns about social transformation tacitly occupied our minds, although we often imagined ourselves embodying the opposite of this-world concerns.

As a teenager, I wanted my church to relate itself publicly to major issues such as racism, poverty, sexual trauma, gender justice, and more. I wondered what my Pentecostal faith had to say about these urgent issues of the day. As I entered graduate school, non-Pentecostal scholars introduced me to essays, books, and articles on how early Pentecostalism engaged its political and economic worlds—an unfamiliar history to me. Learning this history, my history, opened up my religious imagination to possible Pentecostal futures that await articulation. As a scholar with my imagination now opened, it became increasingly important for me to excavate early Pentecostalism’s social and political witness.

This book tells the story of one early Pentecostal church—the Apostolic Faith Mission—and how its religious life promoted economic and democratic transformation. This church’s religious life is important for historical and contemporary reasons. It was the Apostolic Faith Mission that sparked the Azusa Street Revival of 1906, which in turn helped spread Pentecostalism in the United States and around the world. Pentecostalism is now the fastest-growing Christian religious movement worldwide, and in large part it began at Azusa. Apostolic Faith Mission is therefore key to understanding how Pentecostal communities, and religious communities more broadly, might shape and affect the religious and political landscapes of America and the broader world. This church is also important because contemporary Pentecostal scholarship has painted fresh portraits of the Azusa Revival in efforts to reclaim it from scholarly insignificance. In the past, much of religious scholarship treated early Pentecostalism as marginal and not a key shaper of American religious history. While I am not a historian and do not wish to enter those historical debates, what interests me is centering Azusa as a major religious movement in order to uncover the countercultural political practices this community embodied, particularly practices of resisting the white racial-capitalist order of the day. The subversive community this church cultivated compels me. That community defiantly refused the racist and market-driven momentum of early industrial capitalism. In this, Azusa was not just disregarding the racially divisive practices of society but was also a countercultural force and even a threat to how early American capitalism attempted to form American morality.

To claim that Azusa’s religious life fought against bigotry and injustice is not to frame this church as solely combating social injustice—that would be a view of the Azusa community that goes against its own self-understanding. Rather, its religious life promoted and cultivated just and caring relationships, which included yet moved beyond quests for structural justice. This church’s embodiment of intimacy, communion, tenderness, friendship, joy, belonging, and justice in the midst of white racism and a hypercapitalist society exemplifies how black churches contested the racist machinations of white Christianity and of the broader American capitalist project.

This book explores how Azusa’s religious life embodied a critique of America’s racial-capitalist order. Although the political economy in which the Azusa Revival was situated has received scant attention, Azusa was responsive to problems of racial capitalism in the United States. The community rejected the commodifying and exploitative practices of American industrial expansionism through its religious life. By foregrounding American economic expansionism and the racial logics that undergirded such economic practices at the turn of the twentieth century, I illuminate the countercultural forms of political agency that Azusa embodied in response to America’s distorted ways of life. Azusa Reimagined turns to sermons, testimonials of Azusa participants, newspaper articles, historical records on the world fairs and expositions at the turn of the twentieth century, and religious pamphlets in order to reconstruct the American industrial world and its appropriation of religious language such as Pentecost to legitimate colonial worldviews and underwrite capitalist interventionism around the world. Through these diverse sources, one recognizes that the Azusa movement attacked and countered the distorted market and racist values that much of white Protestantism gladly embraced. It was suspicious of the American state and its gospels of segregation and material prosperity. It critiqued racialized conceptions of citizenship that guided American markets. Azusa confronted the erotic life of racial capitalism through its liturgical and sacramental forms of life.

The present book makes this history of racial capitalism more explicit and commends Azusa’s religious life as a form of social and economic critique. Members of Azusa demanded a different vision of justice and belonging than the economic and racial fragmentation they witnessed everywhere around them. Only through uncovering the ecology of racial capitalism can one understand the transgressive agency the Azusa community embodied and why the political agency of religious communities (such as Christian churches) remains essential to imagining more radical democratic futures.

Apostolic Faith Mission

How did such a radically subversive religious community emerge? Apostolic Faith Mission was a church that started as a Bible study group in the home of Ruth and Richard Asberry on Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles. A small group of janitors and washerwomen, along with itinerant evangelist William Seymour, used to gather to pray and study the Bible in the kitchen and parlor of this home. Most spectacularly, they gathered on the porch of this home to sing, shout, and dance, often drawing crowds of people to view what was transpiring. Passersby stopped to catch a glimpse of and talk about this eccentric group of people who claimed to have a message from God.

In the beginning, it was a few black residents who gathered in the home and around the porch to witness the unusual yet intriguing activity transpiring. Eventually, whites and Mexicans began coming too, wanting to witness what was described by the media and onlookers as a curious spiritual movement. The crowds soon became too large for the Asberrys’ home, a reality most acutely experienced when the porch collapsed after an evening of singing and dancing!1 The group of leaders decided to rent a small abandoned stable on nearby Azusa Street. In time, they converted it into a church, and called it the Apostolic Faith Mission, appointing Seymour as the pastor. In a few short years, this church and its message reached thousands of people and birthed a movement known as the Azusa Street Revival.2

Apostolic Faith Mission was a deeply symbolic name. Similar to the ancient church in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, this church community understood itself as reclaiming the acts of the Apostles of Christ that marked the early church. These acts included healing and deliverance from all kinds of illness, the gathering of different peoples and cultures in true peace, and evangelizing the message of Jesus Christ as Savior of all people.3 Of particular interest to Apostolic Faith Mission was the story of Pentecost, which was the foundation of the early church’s work. According to this biblical story in Acts 2, all the disciples of Jesus were gathered in the Upper Room in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He had instructed them to wait there to receive power for the mission that lay ahead of them. Acts 2 describes what happens. The Holy Spirit descended upon all those in the room and they began speaking in tongues so that all those gathered outside the room throughout the streets of Jerusalem could hear the message of salvation and healing in their own language.

This image of tongues being spoken as the evidence of God’s power for Christian mission would be a defining feature for the Azusa community. Moreover, this divine encounter at Pentecost was about the miracle of radical community, groups previously divided now experiencing a desire to be with and for each other.4 This faith community wanted to reclaim this Apostolic mandate for modern times and believed that what was needed in the church and nation more broadly was a contemporary experience of Pentecost. The renewed vision of Pentecost was what animated the Apostolic Faith Mission. It was what they believed would purify the personal and social sins of churches and initiate the end-times revival and the return of Jesus that would culminate history itself.

While Azusa was definitely a church marked by eschatological forms of spirituality, it equally embodied subversive forms of religious and political agency. This community understood Christian faith to be enacted and lived out through transgressing and subverting the racist, sexist, and classist habitus of American culture and economy at the dawn of the twentieth century. A number of religious and theological scholars such as Amos Yong, David Daniels, Cheryl Sanders, Gaston Espinosa, Cecil Robeck, Walter Hollenwager, Iain MacRoberts, Nimi Wariboko, and Estrelda Alexander have already captured how Azusa challenged the racism, sexism, and classism of churches and broader society.5 In terms of Azusa’s interracial vision, it was Seymour who pastored thousands of white Christians in a nationally segregated atmosphere within the first year of this revival. This revival was seen as subversive to the dominant racial reasoning of the day. One white Pentecostal minister, Charles Parham, said that he found white women in the arms of “salivating black men” at the altar when he arrived at Azusa a most disturbing scene for him. Black men could get lynched for even looking at a white woman, but Azusa was a context in which black men laid hands on white women in order to receive the Spirit, scandalous practices for this era.6

In terms of emancipatory gender norms, when the congregation organized itself, the twelve elders comprised five men and seven women.7 The barriers of gender were very briefly overcome at Azusa, which contrasted to much of Baptist and Methodist tradition. Womanist scholar Cheryl Gilkes notes that many Baptist and Methodist women left their denominations and joined holiness and Pentecostal communities that participated or came out of the Azusa movement precisely because of Azusa’s equal treatment of women as legitimate preachers and pastors.8 To be fair in describing the founding of Azusa, I note that black women guided and birthed Seymour’s religious experience of the Spirit, making them equal cofounders of Azusa with him, a womanist–black feminist interpretation I discuss in this text. Although the institutionalization of the Azusa Revival gave way to a number of Pentecostal denominations that over time reinscribed patriarchal logics (such as not ordaining women), the early Azusa congregation was more egalitarian in its approach to leadership, welcoming women to lead in record numbers.

Azusa was also a unique moment in the American religious landscape in terms of class, as most major religious movements (e.g., the Great Awakenings) in America certainly included black people but were not started and led by poor black people, as Azusa was. In its beginning years, this revival’s embodiment of communion, longing, and belonging across racial, gender, and class loyalties can be contrasted to the dominant ecclesial and juridical institutions of the day that strictly upheld racial apartheid and class division.

Various biographers and testimonial narratives speak about Azusa “washing away the color line” in the “blood of Christ” through black, white, Latino/a, Irish, Italian, Armenian, Russian, African, and other people worshiping and living together in radical community.9 For certain, the statement that Azusa washed the color line away in the blood of Christ is highly contested, even among those writing about the meaning(s) of Azusa in 1906. In this book, I do not seek to offer a hagiography of Azusa. Although it was deeply confrontational to American racist and capitalist culture through its religious and communal practices, moments of racial and gender strife nonetheless bubbled up within the life of this movement. Azusa was complex and deeply liberative within ecclesial and social spaces, yet as the revival continued it also unfortunately reinforced oppressive ways of being.10

I interpret this church community as deeply engaged in a form of political agency that is actualized in and through its religious life, which directly challenges modern American political and economic institutions because these institutions failed to provide democracy, equal citizenship, and equity. Although Azusa members did not formally try to overturn racist laws, those associated with the Azusa Revival did embody a religious agency that defied the white social, political, and cultural ethos and order of the era (e.g., through challenging formal and informal segregation laws as well as rejecting a lack of gender parity in church and society). However, some white scholars describe Azusa’s religious life as primarily oriented toward otherworldly dimensions. They focus on its practices of speaking in tongues or healing to the exclusion of its embodiment of a subversive community that stands as an affront to the segregated cultural norms of that era.11

It is also rare for black religious scholars to view early Pentecostalism (as seen during the beginning days of Azusa) as a revolutionary example of black religion. They tend to regard Pentecostalism as a religious mechanism of coping and adaptation, not as a religious and political protest movement. This assumption is not always the case. As I will discuss throughout this book, Azusa’s early religious life is grounded in and fashioned by slave religious practices. These slave religious practices not only provided spiritual transcendence for the enslaved but also protested and talked back to white Christian ideologies and practices that denied blacks their humanity. These practices would be defended and preserved by poor black leaders who founded Azusa, although white communities and educated black communities described these practices as pagan, primitive, and demonic. Through the spiritual practices of the enslaved, Azusa’s religious life brought whites, blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, and other ethnic groups together, demonstrating a radical togetherness often not possible within the broader society. White supremacy and its racial capitalist apparatus no longer set the terms of community for blacks and other racial groups associated with the Apostolic Faith Mission. Instead, Azusa fashioned its own terms, and slave religious practices provided the relational context out of which various groups that were socialized to distrust and hate each other experienced radical communion and belonging. Black Marxist scholar Cedric Robinson is right that “the black radical tradition in its diversity insinuated itself quite unexpectantly” into many cultural, political and religious terrains “such as Pentecostalism in the early 20th century.”12

Reading Azusa as a revolutionary example of black religion expands how we think about black revolutionary religious forms. Descriptions about what constitutes black revolutionary religion often rely too much on binary categories such as prophetic/priestly, radical/accommodationist, protest/adaptation. Such readings treat the Nation of Islam (NOI) under the influence of Malcolm X as exemplary of what black protest religion is and/or should be, for instance. They exalt its attention to the celebration of black power and its stinging indictment of white racist structures as being what black revolution requires. However, any study of NOI reveals it to be a complex and contradictory religion, embodying both radical and conservative elements of religiosity and social agency. The NOI was not exactly egalitarian on questions of gender parity but it attacked American racism without apology. While this religious group directly critiqued American racism, it did not actively address institutional injustices because it did not believe that the American state could ever act justly and remedy them (prior to the leadership of Malcolm X). Hence, the possibility of structural transformation was simply something many NOI leaders did not embrace. Even after Malcolm X left the NOI, he was aware that part of what made black religion revolutionary was a whole range of experiences such as black joy, celebration of black beauty, the possibility of solidarity between blacks and among different ethnic groups, justice, and more.

Black Christian traditions have upheld black liberation theology as the quintessential form of black protest religion. Certainly, liberationist scholars like James Cone were deeply concerned about questions of protest and justice. But Cone was equally concerned with questions of freedom, joy, communion, and transcendence.13 Although black liberation theology has been exemplary in showing that racism is a theological problem that demands attention, it has failed, at particular historical moments, to think radically about questions of gender and sexual justice as well as to offer substantive critiques of American capitalism, which black womanist theology and black queer theology by contrast have made efforts to address.

I want Azusa to be read similarly—as a complex and at times contradictory religious movement that embodied forms of protest yet also remained preoccupied with other experiences of human transcendence. For like all black religions, Azusa’s complex relationship to the black protest tradition invites exploration.

Azusa Reimagined: Why Racial Capitalism Matters

In discussing the Azusa Revival in this text, foregrounding racial capitalism as a primary analytic is central. I take my cue from black Marxist scholar Cedric Robinson and postcolonial scholar Gargi Bhattacharyya in discussing racial capitalism. For Robinson, racial capitalism is an acknowledgment that race has been capitalism’s “epistemology, its ordering principle, its organizing structure, its moral authority, its economy of justice, commerce and power.”14 The development, organization, and eventual expansion of Western capitalism pursued essentially racial directions along with its cultural and social ideology (i.e., racial classifications and categories).15 To this, Bhattacharyya adds that racial capitalism describes a “set of techniques and a formation, and in both registers the disciplining and ordering of bodies through gender and sexuality and dis/ability and age flow through what is happening.”16 When I speak of racial capitalism, I am referring to how modern capitalism bolsters itself through the logics of race, including how these logics are manifested in and through gendered and sexual identities. Racial capitalism, specifically in the United States, is the belief that American capitalist institutions arise from historical and contemporary practices of racialization, racial exclusion, and racist boundary marking in all of its gendered, sexual, and class dimensions.17

Moreover, racial capitalism “operates both through the exercise of coercive power and through the mobilization of desire.”18 As I will discuss, part of the story of racial capitalism in the United States is about the expropriation and exploitation of black labor and lives in the emergence and development of capitalism from slavery through the industrial period. The coercive power of race in the development of slave markets and industrial markets shaped how people of the African diaspora experienced modern capitalism: as a context of domination and oppression.

Yet another part of the story of racial capitalism in the United States is about how it deliberately cultivates “regimes of longing.” These regimes of longing are not only about how people are forced to participate in racialized economic arrangements that place them on the social and economic margins of society; they are also about how people rush to be included in the cultural modes and ways of life (re)produced by racial capitalism.19 In Chapter 4, I substantively describe the erotic life of racial capitalism, which seduced, not only elite and poor whites to participate in practices of whiteness, but also educated blacks to believe that their assimilation and acceptance into the white structures of society depended upon their ability to be productive capitalist subjects. Some black communities truly believed that their human worth could only be attained through their absorption into capitalist development, consumerism, and wealth. Unfortunately, racial capitalism operates both through coercion and desire.

Certainly arguing for the essential racial logic of modern capitalism challenges the common interpretation that the emergence of modern capitalism was a negation of early feudal and racial orders (in particular European mercantilism and American slavery) that depended on class and/or racial logics. Modern capitalism transcends these particular racial or class ideologies and practices in favor of color-blind and classless modes of production and exchange that are oriented toward economic efficiency and profit for all. However, this presumed objective description of modern capitalism ignores how Western capitalism was less a negation (destruction) of feudalist and slave orders than an extension of these social and racial relations into the larger tapestry of the modern world’s political and capitalist contexts.20

Robinson invites us into a more critical and open way of thinking about the emergence of capitalism in Europe and the Americas. As early as the thirteenth century in Europe, he reminds us, there were already burgeoning ethnic divisions of economic activity, ethnic logics that would be used in the formation of modern racial capitalist institutions. Although Robinson acknowledges that race was not understood then in the scientific way it would be understood by the eighteenth century, the role played by imagined ethnic differences in developing economic and market resources would be present nonetheless. For instance, the social basis of European civilization formed between the Romans and what they referred to as barbarians who were beyond the reach of Roman law and morality. The vast majority of these barbarians were North Africans, Italians, and Poles who came to metropolitan France looking for work.21 These people were assimilated into society as slave labor, which was a critical basis for production.22 By the Middle Ages, forms of economic life differentiated and exaggerated these regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into racial ones. The “Slavs” (Slavic-speaking Eastern Europeans) as well as North Africans became the “natural slaves,” the ethnic (racial) inferiors who could be exploited for economic ends.23 Medieval English religious devotees even recorded dreams in which the devil appeared as a “blacked moore,” or an “Ethiope.”24 This was part of the theological vocabulary of the church in Europe during the Middle Ages. These groups were seen as the barbarians and their ethnic differences were later used to form the category of slave within expanding economic production. In short, the racialization (in a loose sense of the term) of migrant labor was already present in Europe, through the ethnic/racial marking of Africans and less desirable European immigrants. With capitalist expansionism by the sixteenth century onward, peoples of the Two-Thirds World began to fill this expanding “slave” category. Within Catholic and Protestant theological discourse, satanic representations of the African gained momentum, representations that portrayed the African as beastly, dumb, and essentially animal labor,25 and it was this trend that eventually legitimated European and American slavery and shaped and cultivated early industrial capitalism. One can see that racial logic was not a modern production that simply emerged in the eighteenth century. Robinson shows how this racial-capitalist logic, whose antecedents go back to the Middle Ages, was appropriated at the dawn of industrialization in Europe and the Americas.

Robinson has a global understanding of racial capitalism and shows why modern capitalism is not a complete break with the racialized logic of slave or feudal orders but a reshaping of this logic for new capitalist ends in the modern era. What he doesn’t do is help us to understand the deep gendering of racial capitalism. I argue that modes of reproductive labor (here reproductive labor refers to everything that is needed to remake human life) are often translated into racialized conceptions of economy.26 For instance, the story of American capitalist development has been one about black women who have washed the dishes, made the beds, cooked the food, and raised their white master’s children (and their own children) from slavery onward. Beginning with slave economies through early industrialization, racial capitalism has depended on the bodies and reproductive labor of black women to serve political and economic ends. As black women’s reproductive labor was expropriated to make plantations increasingly profitable, black women’s bodies were also monetized within the domestic sphere to make possible the reproduction of capital and profit in early industrial America. Black women’s reproductive labor (washing, cleaning, nursing, etc.) was about the business of reproducing everyday life within the circuits of racial capitalism in the United States from slavery through industrialization.

The reality of gendered labor within a racialized economy helps one grasp more deeply capitalism’s shadowy underside with respect to working-class black women. The violent expropriation of black women’s bodies and labor reveals how racial capitalism moves in and through gendered and sexual identities. Most important, the vicious positioning of black women’s reproductive activity within modern capitalism allows us to see how these women resisted capitalism’s objectification and commodification of their very bodies. They were vocal about speaking out against early capitalist structures. As discussed in Chapter 3, I will show how racial capitalism appears in these gendered ways and how black women embodied resistance through their forms of religious agency.

One cannot discern the emancipatory political agency of Azusa without substantively attending to this racialized economic ecology in which this church-turned-movement resided. Most scholarship on this religious revival tends to undertheorize America’s system of racial capitalism. This book intervenes and makes this context explicit, showing the diverse ways in which Azusa’s religious life responded to the evils of racial capitalism. To highlight Azusa’s religious and political agency is to critique what has been at the heart of American capitalist history: the racialization of labor exploitation, the unequal distribution of income and wealth based on racial classifications, the gendering of racial capitalism, and the racist theologies and practices of white Christianity. All of these elements are intertwined and have produced capitalist domination in the U.S. society out of which Azusa responds.

There is another reason why uncovering racial capitalism matters to exploring the religious and political agency of Azusa. Azusa’s religious life can be read as a form of social criticism in relation to American democracy under racial capitalism, which generated states of cruel optimism. Drawing on philosopher Lauren Berlant’s definition, a relation of cruel optimism “exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project.”27 Most important, the object you desire “promises to induce in you an improved way of being.”28

I will demonstrate how the American democratic project shaped by racial capitalism created such relations of cruel optimism. Although the United States promised equality and equity for blacks at the turn of the twentieth century, racial capitalism prevented blacks from democratic access to the good life. To them, American democracy often felt like a fantasy, offering things like upward mobility, job opportunity, and political and economic equality, but not delivering on them. Some black communities’ uncritical embrace of industrial progress and rabid consumerism was actually an impediment to their flourishing because those very same industrial processes depended upon the dehumanization, expropriation, and unequal treatment of black labor and lives. The desire among educated black communities to participate in America’s racial capitalist state reinforced the very conditions of black subjugation. Hence, the American democratic project so profoundly shaped by racial capitalism generated cruel optimism for blacks, demonstrating that their quest for American capitalist success (as savior) was often an impediment to their flourishing.

Azusa’s religious life and political agency can be understood against this backdrop of cruel optimism. The life of the Azusa community gives us a different account of the political, rejecting the American democratic project fashioned by racial capitalism. Within relations of cruel optimism, many precarious communities “invent new rhythms of living, that can congeal into norms, forms, and institutions.”29 They manage, in creative and life-giving ways, the incoherence of their lives against the backdrop of how they imagine their lives might be. Most important, such vulnerable communities attempt to maintain their sense of identity, authenticity, and humanity within the uncertain, contradictory relations of cruel optimism. The community of Azusa fashioned new rhythms and ways of being through its religious life that challenged these relations, which also meant detaching from the capitalist “democratic” state as the optimistic object that so many vulnerable populations (such as black communities) believed would grant them justice and human fulfillment. Instead, Azusa was an intimate public “that organize[d] life without threading through dominant political institutions.”30 This community’s project of democratic world-building was not in service to the political ends of the American state, shaped and funded by racial capitalism. Azusa knew that American democracy presented a cluster of promises that depended on the expropriation of black life, which impeded the flourishing of their communities.

Azusa therefore rejected the idea that the American democratic state could save them. We see this in the materials (sermons, articles in the Apostolic newsletter, etc.) of William Seymour, who was pastor of the Azusa church community, or by reviewing the economic practices of this early church community. Such materials and practices show clearly that this church community critiqued American-style democracy because the latter was deeply wedded to racialized capitalism. The community understood that early American capitalism depended upon racist classifications as a way to exploit labor, and that this impeded democratic flourishing among vulnerable groups like African Americans. Attention to this racialized economic ecology and Azusa’s rejection of cruel optimism invites a transformed vision of democratic politics. Azusa offers a more radical vision of democratic politics, one not trapped in the existence of racial capitalism and its inability to foster communities of human belonging.

The Book’s Flow

My argument—that Azusa’s religious life was a form of critique of America’s system of racial capitalism—unfolds in three parts. First, I investigate how the Azusa Revival of 1906 was not the only community employing the biblical language of Pentecost. There were many similar visions of Pentecost. Chapter 1 explores the American capitalist vision of Pentecost near the turn of the twentieth century. In particular, I retrieve the stories of two world fairs, the Philadelphia World Fair of 1876 and the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, because of the religious vision of Pentecost they explicitly articulated in talking about America as a future cosmopolitan utopia. The American idea of Pentecost was married to a form of white nationalistic industrial capitalism. I therefore interpret the political character of the Azusa Revival within this broader white nationalist discourse on Pentecost that emerged near the turn of the twentieth century. Chapter 2 turns to how Azusa asserted its religio-political agency against this capitalist backdrop, primarily by contesting Evangelical and market orthodoxies. I describe what sits at the center of Azusa’s experience: slave religious practices. Such practices at Azusa challenged white Evangelical orthodoxy, which described this kind of black religiosity as demonic, primitive, and savagely wild. Through slave religious practices, the Azusa community contested how white Evangelical orthodoxy participated in the American capitalist process of treating black bodies as commodified property and human excess. Moreover, Azusa challenged the market orthodoxies of early capitalism through its rejection of a consumeristic “moneyed” eschaton that guided white and educated black churches alike.

In this book’s second part, I will delve deeper into how Azusa’s religious life is a form of racial and economic critique. In Chapter 3, I explore how although black women domestic workers were treated as disposable within the matrices of American political economy, they became the figures that ignited and shaped the Azusa movement. It is important to highlight the religious leadership and cultural practices of black women domestic workers who were central to Azusa yet were treated as insignificant within American capitalist processes. Black women were not mere participants at Azusa; they were central to its founding and shaping, proving that they were subjects and not merely objects of the rich white elite or black patriarchal contexts. Chapter 4 explores how Azusa’s liturgical and sacramental forms of religious life challenge the erotic life of racialized capitalism. Queer theorists have focused on how capitalist processes and practices produce and manufacture erotic desires. Within America’s growing industrial economy, intimate and erotic lives were commodified, assigned value, commercialized, and packaged for consumption. American capitalism thrived (and thrives) off the erotic life of racism, as the nation’s market machinery depended upon particular kinds of white racial bonding and belonging to thrive. However, Azusa’s erotic patterns of intimacy and communion across racial, gender, and class differences—what I refer to as erotic fugitivity—challenged these patterns of white racial bonding and belonging that were in service to the market.

In the final part of this book I rethink Azusa’s politics of hope. Azusa did not place hope in the state. For this community, the state could not save them. Azusa embodied a nonstatist idea of political agency, most notably seen through how these parishioners embodied citizenship as a radical practice of human belonging rather than a practice of racial or capitalist loyalty. Chapter 5 explores how Azusa embodied a sweeping critique of American democracy under racial capitalism, challenging how American political institutions ordered common life. This chapter seeks not only a complex range of ways to understand the relationship between ecclesial and political life that exceeds the horizon of the state and American capitalism; it also shows how Azusa’s apocalyptic sensibilities rethink the political within and beyond the American capitalist state.

The final chapter, Chapter 6, suggests how religious communities might rethink the modes and moods of democratic belonging for today in the wake of Azusa’s legacy. Azusa’s religious life not only offers a radical critique of early modern racial capitalism but also a way for contemporary religious communities to envision democratic practices of belonging against the backdrop of neoliberal capitalism’s deep racial divisions and material inequalities. A large part of cultivating democratic practices of belonging involves embracing a political moodiness about current practices of American democracy. Azusa was moody about democratic life. It held with suspicion America’s cluster of democratic promises. This chapter argues that we must practice “grave attending” (in the words of religious scholar Karen Bray) to those trapped within the demonic circuits of racial capitalism in order to cultivate political moodiness. Part of practicing grave attending is acknowledging the political moodiness of those who continue to suffer under racial capitalism and how such moodiness enables us to envisage new modes of democratic belonging not beholden to racialized structures of capital.

The pages ahead offer a creative interpretation of a church that fostered a radical movement, a movement that continues to shape religious life around the world today. This is a story about a group of people with subversive beginnings, who imagined an otherwise future of care, communion, justice, and belonging within the racist machinations of early American capitalism. It is a story that is long overdue.


1. Vinson Synan, The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal, 1901–2001 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), 42–45.

2. Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1995), 46–47.

3. See N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); Peter Wagner, The Book of Acts: A Commentary (Ada, MI: Chosen Books, 2008); and Douglas Jacobsen, A Reader in Pentecostal Theology: Voices from the First Generation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006). These texts do well in providing good exegetical work on the Acts 2 narrative of Pentecost I briefly talk about.

4. See Willie Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017). Jennings mines the Pentecost narrative in Acts for its socially transformative dimensions. He argues that Pentecost precipitated a “revolution of the intimate” whereby groups torn apart by hatred and fear within empire become communities who overcome these bitter divisions. Another such text is Ben Witherington’s, Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997).

5. Texts that plumb the social character of early Azusa include: Amos Yong, The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology (Ada, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2005); Cheryl Sanders, Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Nimi Wariboko, The Pentecostal Principle: Ethical Methodology in New Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2011), and The Charismatic City and the Public Resurgence of Religion: A Pentecostal Social Ethics of Cosmopolitan Urban Life (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); and Estrelda Alexander, Black Fire: One Hundred Years of African-American Pentecostalism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic Publishing, 2011).

6. For the most extensive accounts of this history of interracial radicalism and inclusion and the poor reception of this interracialism among white ministers and the local press, see Cecil Robeck, The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement (Nashville, TN: Nelson Publishers, 2006).

7. To read more about the egalitarian gender norms of this revival, refer to chapter 5 in Ian Macrobert, The Black Roots and White Racism of Early Pentecostalism in USA, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2003; originally published by St. Martin’s Press, 1988); and Estrelda Alexander, The Women of Azusa Street (Laurel, MD: Seymour Press, 2012).

8. Cheryl Gilkes, If It Wasn’t For the Women: Black Women’s Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000). Explore part 2 of this text, especially chapter 5, to read about the history of Baptist and Methodist women flocking to holiness and Pentecostal churches.

9. Frank Bartleman, Azusa Street: An Eyewitness Account to the Birth of the Pentecostal Revival (New Kinsington, PA: Whitaker House, 2000), 51. Originally published in 1962 by Voice Christian Publications.

10. Seymour eventually preached restrictions on married women’s ministries in order to satisfy the charge that the Azusa Revival was encouraging the breaking apart of nuclear families, which would have supported the confusion of gender roles. Refer to chapters 4 and 5 in Gaston Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

11. Refer to James Goff, Fields White unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988). Goff challenges interpreting Azusa as a transgressive space that expands early Pentecostalism’s social imaginary on questions of racial, gender, and class inclusion.

12. Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), xxxii.

13. See some of Cone’s texts that address themes of freedom, joy, communion, and justice, texts such as The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992). He talks about the diversity of black experiences and desires as blacks attempted to hold themselves together within the context of American racism.

14. Robinson, Black Marxism, xxxi.

15. Ibid.

16. Gargi Bhattacharyya, Rethinking Racial Capitalism: Questions of Reproduction and Survival (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), x.

17. Ibid., 7.

18. Ibid., ix.

19. Ibid.

20. Robinson, Black Marxism, 10.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 11.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., 4.

25. Ibid.

26. Bhattacharyya, Rethinking Racial Capitalism, 52.

27. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 1.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., 9.

30. Ibid., 20.