harvey cox,
hollis research professor of divinity,
harvard university
When a travel-weary itinerant Jewish preacher walked into Athens some-
time around 52 ce, no one who spotted him would have guessed that an
epochal spiritual transformation was underway and that he was its harbin-
ger. But what the Apostle Paul said there on Mars Hill marked just such
an upheaval. When a young Augustinian monk from the nether regions of
northern Germany came to Rome in 1510 no one could have known that
he would return home to tack some theses on a church door and launch a
historic reformation. Likewise, anyone waiting to board a train at the Los
Angeles railway station on February 22, 1906, who even noticed a somewhat
disheveled black man climbing out of a train from Houston would probably
not have favored him with a second look. But the appearance in the City of
the Angels of a Holiness preacher named William Joseph Seymour ranks
with these other arrivals as the beginning of an epochal turning point in the
religious history of the world. Before Seymour left Los Angeles, the present
day Pentecostal movement was to be born, a spiritual tsunami that would
eventually engulf the entire globe.
It was not that Los Angeles was in a welcoming mood for this kind of
newcomer. At the very moment Seymour climbed down the ladder to the
platform one Joseph Widney, later to be president of the University of South-
ern California, was writing an opus entitled Race Life of the Aryan People.
Widney predicted that despite the takeover of some eastern cities by immi-
grants, Los Angeles would become a stronghold of Protestant Caucasian
power and influence. But history had other plans for the city. It was already
becoming the destination for a wide variety of people—black, brown, and
yellow—who would hardly count as Aryan. The city would become the cra-
dle and manger of a spiritual New Jerusalem radically at variance from Wid-
ney’s xenophobic vision.
St. Paul, Martin Luther, and William Joseph Seymour all had certain
things in common. St. Paul had utterly no intention of “founding a new
religion.” He crisscrossed the Mediterranean area speaking to both Jews
and Gentiles, trying to convince the former that the Messiah they had been
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