CYBERJOURNAL FOR PENTECOSTAL-CHARISMATIC RESEARCH #18
When the Holiness Preacher Came to Town: Re-dating W.B. Godbey's Visit to Azusa Street
By Gerald W. King
It has widely been accepted by historians that the famed Holiness preacher and New Testament commentator William B. Godbey first came to Los Angeles to inspect the Pentecostal movement in 1909. Vinson Synan and Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., are two notable scholars who have accepted this date, and in all fairness, there has been little cause to question the original accounts.[i] Problems arise however when reading the body of Godbey’s attacks upon Pentecostalism. This paper attempts to examine the dating of Godbey’s critiques and in light of that offers a revised date for his notorious visit to the birthplace of Pentecostalism.
The confusion begins with the 1936 edition of Alma White’s blistering assault on Pentecostals, Demons and Tongues, which formed the basis of Synan’s date. An editor, possibly White herself, had spliced together the first few pages of Godbey’s tract Tongue Movement, Satanic along with part of another work I have not been able to identify and printed it as an appendix to the work, titled “Tongue Movement – Satanic”. As the account appears here, Godbey writes, “In 1909 while I was preaching in New York City I was invited to visit Los Angeles. The Tongues movement was in full blast there, having been brought thither by a colored man, Seymour.”[ii] Godbey then goes on to describe how he responded to the audience with Latin when asked if he spoke in tongues, “Johannes Baptistes tinxit, Petros tinxit et Christus misit suos Apostolos, ut gentes tingerent.”[iii] Impressed, they offered him the prime position in their fledgling movement. Like Christ refusing the crown of the Galilean mob, Godbey politely declined their invitation and slipped away from their midst.
The problem is that the ‘1909’ date was redacted from the 1918 publication. (Godbey died in 1920.) The original sentence read, “Nine years ago while I was preaching in New York city [sic] and the Tongue movement was in full blast in Los Angeles, having been brought thither by a colored man, Seymour, from Dixie land, God sent His prophet to me, Rev. Gorham Tufts of India, with a message, ordering me to go at once to Los Angeles, that He might use my humble testimony in the interest of His kingdom.”[iv] Much of the last half of this sentence was missing from the 1936 account. Whoever edited this had assumed that 1918 was the date in which the tract was written, but there is ample reason to doubt this.
The first clue might have been the publisher itself. Godbey’s preferred imprint had been either God’s Revivalist, founded by Martin Knapp (d. 1901) in Cincinnati, or Pentecostal Herald, founded by Henry Clay Morrison (d. 1942) in Louisville, with both of whom he had long standing relationship and who served his home territory around Northern Kentucky. No previous work of his had been published by Alma White. It would be odd for a man of Godbey’s years to suddenly switch publishers in his twilight without sufficient cause. However, such is not conclusive. Godbey did appoint White as a bishop in 1918 and may have turned to her for literary support. A new edition of White’s Tongues and Demons was released that year as well, providing a united front against Pentecostalism. A more compelling argument will be to make a comparison with earlier writings in which he took up the anti-Pentecostal theme, to which we now turn.
Godbey penned his first attack in 1908. In Current Heresies, after defining heresy as separatism, he exposed several minor errant doctrines which had infected the Holiness movement, calling them ‘the power heresy’, ‘the fire heresy’, and ‘the water heresy’.[v] ‘Power’ and ‘fire’ were third-blessing aberrations, the first prominent in the east and the north and the second in the west and the south. He saved the bulk of his vexation for Pentecostals, which he labelled ‘the tongue heresy’. According to Godbey, it climaxed “…all the heresies of all ages in the Holiness Movement.”[vi] He did not deny that there was a real gift of tongues reserved for missionaries, which meant for him an accelerated ability to learn languages. Godbey claimed himself to be gifted with Greek and ‘its interpretation’ because it was his special ministry.[vii] In his mind, however, what passed for modern tongues had the unmistakable hallmarks of devil-worship such as had been observed among Hindus in India.
The second of his works was titled Spiritualism, Devil-worship and Tongues, although the date of publication is uncertain.[viii] Here again we find Mr. Tufts factoring into the equation, “When the movement first broke out in Los Angeles and electrified the whole world, Goram Tufts [sic], the first missionary sent from the ‘Mount of Blessings’ to India, about ten years ago, having returned, was journeying in Eastern cities, there he saw the reports of these meetings in the West. In order to investigate the matter, that there might be no misunderstanding, he travelled across the continent to Los Angeles and attended their meetings to his perfect satisfaction.”[ix] Obviously we are dealing with the same incident as in Tongues Movement, Satanic. If ‘ten years ago’ refers to Azusa Street and not when Tufts first went to India, then we could date this pamphlet to 1919 according to a 1909 visit for Godbey to Los Angeles. If however the phrase ‘when the movement first broke out in Los Angeles’ refers to the beginnings of the revival, then we can date this to 1916. Alternatively, ‘ten years ago’ could refer to when Tufts ventured to India, in which case we would need to know the date of Tufts departure. Lacking this information, it then becomes difficult to render an accurate date for this work. Fortunately, we are not dependent upon Spiritualism, Devil-worship and Tongues for the timing of Godbey’s trip and can ignore it for the time being.
The more critical component is his testimony in Current Heresies. Here he records, “In the providence of God, I spent last winter in California preaching in the large cities. Was right in the midst of the Tongue Movement there, and constantly associated with the people who had attended the meetings and did my best to impartially investigate the entire movement.”[x] Later we learn that Godbey had left Los Angeles ‘early in March’ and that he had spent three months ‘among them constantly’ prior to his departure.[xi] He also attested that he had preached in several Holiness congregations where Pentecostalism was rampant “…and constantly associated with the people who had attended the meetings and did my best to impartially investigate the entire phenomena.”[xii] In Oakland, he thought he had stumbled upon a genuine case of xenolalia in the Chinese language but discovered from trusted Holiness believers that the particular incident was spurious.[xiii] The upshot of this trip is that it occurred in the winter of 1907-1908, likely from December to March, contradicting the testimony that he first went to Azusa Street in 1909.
This leaves us with two possibilities. The first is that Godbey had reduced the journey into one event. In other words, Godbey first learned of the movement in 1907 and took a trip to California in December to investigate, concluding in March 1908 in Los Angeles. In Tongue Movement, Satanic, then, he would have omitted this extended trip and only mentioned Azusa Street at the end. This would further mean that Tongue Movement, Satanic was written no later than 1917 if it had taken place ‘nine years ago’. However, the context resists such an interpretation. Tongue Movement, Satanic has an immediacy about it which would preclude any prolonged examination. Tufts implored him to go to Los Angeles ‘at once’, and in the very next sentence we find Godbey arriving in the city which was “…on tip-toe, all electrified with the Tongue movement, the meetings running without intermission day and night.”[xiv] Further, such excitement was indicative of the early accounts of Azusa Street, which enthusiasm had cooled somewhat by 1909.
The second possibility is that Godbey had gone to Azusa Street prior to the California trip mentioned in Current Heresies. This would also place the writing of Tongue Movement, Satanic closer to 1915 or 1916. Having already rejected 1909 as the date for Godbey’s original journey, it seems that a 1906 or 1907 visit pre-dating Current Heresies is likely. Fortunately, there is a more certain way to calculate this. In the second paragraph of Tongue Movement, Satanic we learn that Godbey had his own “…wonderful baptism forty-seven years ago…”, by which he meant his sanctification or second-blessing. This encounter with the Spirit was momentous for Godbey, whereby the Lord “…burnt up the college president, the Southern Methodist preacher, the Free Mason, the Odd Fellow, sectarianism, politics, and everything this world spread out in gorgeous panorama….”[xv] In his autobiography Godbey recalled that significant year as 1868, a date he was unlikely to have confused or forgotten.[xvi] Adding forty-seven years to this experience, we come up with 1915 as the year for which Tongue Movement, Satanic was written and subtracting nine, 1906 as the year Godbey visited Los Angeles.
Assuming that his preaching at Azusa Street would have been mentioned in The Apostolic Faith, then I propose that Godbey had visited there prior to the first run in September 1906. Furthermore, Tufts would have made a journey from New York to Los Angeles and back again to report to Godbey, meeting him at Bethany Gospel Church, where Godbey was holding meetings at the time. If one could find out when these meetings were held, it would be possible to more precisely date Godbey’s arrival. Given a minimum of a week for Tufts to get to Los Angeles and back, plus perhaps a week or more to attend the meetings, it would like have been at least early summer by the time Godbey reached Azusa Street, perhaps as early as June but not later than August. I also suspect that in the annals for The Pentecostal Herald (or other Holiness periodical) for 1915 is a notice somewhere announcing the publication of Tongue Movement, Satanic.
Thus, we have two trips to Los Angeles for Godbey, the first in 1906 and the second in 1908. He did not necessarily attend a second time at Azusa in 1908 as there were several Pentecostal fellowships in Los Angeles by that time. The dating for Spiritualism, Devil-worship and Tongues is still uncertain. If we are to understand ‘ten years ago’ as a reference to Azusa Street, then 1916 would suffice. However, this seems unlikely in that it would come just one year after Tongue Movement, Satanic. More likely, it was written sometime between Current Heresies (1908) and Tongue Movement, Satanic (1915), but even this is by no means certain. The exact date would be dependent then upon when Gorham Tufts departed for India. Further research may reveal these details in the future, but for now it is sufficient to advance Godbey’s journey by three years.
[i] V. Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement in the United States (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971), 143; C. M. Robeck, Jr., The Azusa Street Mission and Revival (Nashville: Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2007), 96.
[ii] W. B. Godbey, “Tongues Movement – Satanic” in Alma White, Demons and Tongues (Zarephath, NJ: Pillar of Fire, 1936), 119.
[iii] Roughly translated as “John the Baptist had baptized, Peter had baptized, and Christ sent his apostles so that they would baptize the nations” (my translation).
[iv] W. B. Godbey, Tongue Movement, Satanic (Zarephath, NJ: Pillar of Fire, 1918) in Donald Dayton, ed., William B. Godbey: Six Tracts, The Higher Christian Life series, vol. 6 (New York and London: Garland, 1985), 3-4.
[v] W. B. Godbey, Current Heresies (Cincinnati: God’s Revivalist Press, 1908), 13-16.
[vi] Godbey, Current Heresies, 20.
[vii] Godbey, Current Heresies, 22-23. Italics in original.
[viii] W. B. Godbey, Spiritualism, Devil-worship and Tongues (n.p., n.d.), curtsey of the archives at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, KY. Referred to as Spiritualism from here on out.
[ix] Godbey, Spiritualism, 23-24. Mount of Blessings refers to God’s Bible School in Cincinnati, founded by Knapp.
[x] Godbey, Current Heresies, 23.
[xi] Godbey, Current Heresies, 26-27.
[xii] Godbey, Current Heresies, 23.
[xiii] Godbey, Current Heresies,23-24.
[xiv] Godbey, Tongue Movement, Satanic, 4.
[xv] Godbey, Tongue Movement, Satanic, 3.
[xvi] Godbey, Autobiography (Cincinnati: God’s Revivalist Office, 1909), 490.