Were Pryguny the first to "Speak in Tongues" in Los Angeles?

Updated 17 January 2012 by Andrei Conovaloff

1998 September 22 — South Gate, California — Letters from Readers, by George J. Samarin, in Christian History (Summer 1998, Vol.XVII, No. 3, Page 9):

"I am a ... [Dukh-i-zhinik presviter] Molokan.... The first settlers arrived in Los Angeles, from Ellis Island, in 1904. ... We have experienced the visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit for centuries, and also have been known to speak in tongues and experience healings. Therefore, how was it possible for others to be 'the first' to speak in tongues in Los Angeles in 1906?"


Short Answer by Conovaloff: Some believe "speaking in tongues" and "holy jumping" have occurred for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Founded in 1747 in England the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing practiced “singing and dancing, shaking and shouting, speaking with new tongues and prophesying" — some migrated to the United States in 1774 where they met similar faiths. Charismatic religions existed in Europe nearly a century before Pryguny reported their outpouring of the Holy Spirit in 1833 in Novorossiya (South Ukraine). Holiness jumping was reported in Los Angeles in April 1904, months before the Pryguny began to arrive in numbers in January 1905. How and whether these diverse faiths around the world are connected is continually researched and discussed by scholars.


George Samarin is a great-grandson of I.G. Samarin, and brother of Dr. William Samarin who extensively research and published about glossolalia:
  • Samarin, William (1972a). Tongues of Men and Angels. The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. The Macmillan Company.
  • Samarin, William (1972b). Variation and Variables in Religious Glossolalia. Language in Society 1:121-130.
  • Samarin, William (1973). Glossolalia as Regressive Speech. Language and Speech 16:77-89.
  • Samarin, William (1974). Review of Goodman (1972). Language 5:207-213.
George Samarin questions an article in a previous issue about a holiness church founded in 1906 at 312 Azusa Street (off San Pedro, between 1st and 3rd) in downtown Los Angeles.
The following issue of Christian History (Issue 58, October 1998) was full testimony about who was first to speak in tongues in Los Angeles:  

From 1906 to 1909, the Apostolic Faith Mission conducted three services a day, seven days a week, for over 3 years — 1000+ services! Thousands of seekers received the "tongues" baptism, including many Pryguny. Also many public Pentecostal revivals were conducted in tent meetings on Oake's lot and other locations around the Flats area slums were Russian sectarians settled. English speaking Pryguny and other Russians immigrants often translated at the services. Oake's lot became Pecan Playground, at First and Pecan Streets.

Click to ENLARGE
Minister William J. Seymour in front of The Apostolic Faith Mission,
312 Azusa Street, Los Angeles, California, about 1920.


The article Samarin challenges was updated in a history of the church's founder: (Christian History. Winter 2000, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Page 17) Pentecostalism: William Seymour. The author places Seymour’s impact on American religion ahead of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

I first learned of this Apostolic Faith Mission in 1995 from a former President of the LA-UMCA, Paul Kosareff, who left the Dukh-i-zhiznik faith to join another Pentecostal denomination. Paul and I met by chance in Phoenix, Arizona on the 4th of July 1995 while he and his wife were on a bus tour through Arizona. We chatted and exchanged addresses. Paul was excited about some history he wanted to send to me. Soon I got a large envelope with copies of old news clippings about the Azusa Street Revival. I didn't understand the significance of these articles because I thought the church was in Azusa, California, not in downtown Los Angeles. I could not figure out why Paul was so excited. When I saw George Samarin's letter 13 years latter, I connected the two stories, and began to search further. Fortunately, a lot of history was published for the 100th anniversary of the Azusa Street Revival in 2006, and much is easy to find on the Internet now.

In [Pryguny] Molokans in America (pages 101-102, end of chapter 5), John K. Berokoff reports about the Prygun leader Philip Mikhailovich Shubin and the Pentecosts:

"During his 27 years in America he was the outstanding speaker and orator of the brotherhood with a wide acquaintance among non-Molokans [Pryguny], not infrequently taking a choir of singers to Pentecostal church meetings where he preached and explained the [Pryguny] Molokan reasons for their migration. It was his wisdom, his profound knowledge of the scriptures plus his wide knowledge of Russian literature that enabled him to repel the periodic attempts by leaders of neighboring denominations—Baptists, Pentecostals, etc.—to proselytize the [Pryguny] Molokan people ..." 

More evidence of connections between the Azusa Street Revival and the Pryguny is reported  in the newspaper The Apostolic Faith, which was distribute free to 50,000 subscribers, when the population of Los Angeles was 250,000. Many Russian sectarians in Flats knew about this church and saw this free paper, especially since it reported about them in the first issue, the church was within walking distance, and elders exchanged visits.

1906 September — The Apostolic Faith (Volume 1 Number 1) — The first edition of the newspaper reports that Apostolic Faith Mission members spoke at a Prygun prayer meeting. In 1906, Pryguny held Sunday services at the Bethlehem Institutional Church and the Stimson-Lafayette Industrial School, and welcomed guests at both locations which were 1/2 block from each other and about 1/4 mile east of the Apostolic Faith Mission. The Pentecosts invited the Pryguny to attend their meetings, which many did with a translator: 

"[Pryguny] RUSSIANS HEAR IN THEIR OWN TONGUE".
"Different nationalities are now hearing the Gospel in their own "tongue wherein they were born." Sister Anna Hall spoke to the Russians in their church in Los Angeles, in their own language as the Spirit gave utterance. They were so glad to hear the truth that they wept and even kissed her hands [showing respect]. They are a very simple, pure, and hungry people for the full Gospel. The other night, as a company of [Pryguny] Russians were present in the meeting, Bro. Lee, a converted Catholic, was permitted to speak [translate] their [Russian] language. As he spoke and sang, one of the [Pryguny] Russians came up and embraced him. It was a holy sight, and the Spirit fell upon the Russians, as well as on others, and they glorified God."

1907 April  — The Apostolic Faith (Volume 1 Number 7) — The 7th edition reports about the Russian and Armenian Pryguny in the Flats:

"[Pryguny] Russians and Armenians in Los Angeles are seeking the baptism. The Armenians have a Pentecostal cottage meeting on Victor street, between 4th and 5th. [Now under the I-5 Freeway.] Some have been baptized with the Holy Ghost."

In his 2006 book, The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement, Cecil Robeck reports that in 1906 Los Angeles had a population of 238,000 (doubled since 1900) and was growing at the rate of 3,000 (1.3%) per month, as ~ 4,000 Russian sectarians migrated to the U.S. He mentions the Russian and Armenian Pryguny at least 5 times in his book:

[Page 57] Finally, between 1903 and 1912 several thousand Russians and Armenians arrived in the city, refugees from Russia's increasingly repressive government. Unlike most Russians, they did not belong to the Orthodox church. They were [Spiritual Christian ethnic] Molokans, literally "milk drinkers," a name they received because they refused to fast from dairy products during traditional fast days. More importantly, they could be described as a "proto-Protestant'" group, since they had been influenced by some of the sixteenth-century Reformers. They also had a special appreciation for the Holy Spirit. Many of them claimed that they had been directed to leave southern Russia through the gift of prophecy. They engaged in what was often described as ecstatic behavior, jumping and dancing; falling on the floor when they believed that they were possessed of the Holy Spirit to do so; and singing chant-like songs that strongly paralleled the "singing in the Spirit" (a multi-layered, harmony-rich singing in tongues that are unknown to the singers and are believed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit) at the Azusa Street Mission.

[Page 94] As the revival grew ... Seymour celebrated the spread of the revival to other congregations ... the Russian Molikan [sic] community, ... He viewed them as fellow-workers.

[Page 138] While the mission was led by an African American pastor, dominated by and African American membership, and heavily influenced by African American worship patterns, it quickly developed into a multi-ethnic and multiracial congregation. ... non-African-Americans did bring their own gifts and experiences. ... Recent Russian and Armenian Molokan [Spiritual Christian] immigrants already practiced the unusual jumping and chanting also found at the mission. ... This was a revival unlike any other the city of Los Angeles had ever seen ... African Americans, Latinos, Armenians, Russians, Swedes, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups ... bountiful expressions of ecstatic manifestation such as speaking in tongues, prophesying, claims of dreams and visions, trances, healings, exorcism, and falling "in the Spirit."

[Page 153] "Singing in the Spirit" accomplished more than an expression of worship, however. It also provided a bridge that brought Russian and Armenian Molokans [Spiritual Christian Jumpers] into the mission — among them the Shakarian and Mushegian families. These families arrived in Los Angeles in the 1905 emigration. The Molokans commonly practiced a king of "sing-song" prayer, a form of vocal prayer and praise that resembled singing in Spirit." Walking down San Pedro Street in 1905, Demos Shakarian, grandfather of the Demos Shakarian who would later found the Full Gospel Businessmaen's Association, and his brother-in-law, Magardich Muchegian, passed the Azusa Street Mission. As they drew near, they heard sounds of praying, singing, and speaking in tongues coming from the mission — expressions that they identified as similar to their own. The single phenomenon of "singing in tongues" convinced Demos to embrace the mission as a place his family could worship. From the moment he heard it, he concluded that God was also beginning to move to America just as He had in their homeland of America and in Russia."(27)

[Pages 189-190] At the same time a group of Armenians and Russians [Spiritual Christian Pryguny], who had come to Los Angeles in the Molokans immigration, opened cottage prayer meetings on Victoria Street between West Fourth and Fifth Streets that would quickly develop into an Armenians-language Pentecostal church.

Lean more about the Azusa Street revival 1906-1909 in Los Angeles. In the following 100 years, about 29% of all Christians, 670 million people, identify with Pentecostalism.


Comments by American-born Armenian-Prygun historian Joyce Bivin:

We have a similar story in our community about the Azusa Street Revival. The story goes like this — quoted from a letter by M. Mushagian:

"Our people came to Los Angeles right after the Azusa Street Revival. They used to attend the meetings even though they didn't understand the American language. They saw that the Holy Spirit was moving there like it did in the Old Country. So they accepted Pentecostal because they believed in Acts 2:4."

There's really no reason to discuss who started speaking in tongues first. This manifestation of the Holy Spirit has been going on throughout the centuries since it was promised by Jesus and began (in Jerusalem, by the way!) with the Apostles 50 days after the Resurrection/Passover. It wasn't a movement as such until the Azusa Street Revival.

The Armenians [Spiritual Christian Pryguny] apparently were worshiping in this manner, including dancing in the Spirit, (jumping, which my grandmother did at one of the Paskha meetings and the next day mother told me she was healed of whatever affliction she had at the time), prophesying, speaking in tongues, etc. before they came to America. I wasn't aware the [other] [Prygun] Molokans responded to the Azusa Street meetings [like the Armenian Pryguny]. After the Armenians visited the Azusa Street meetings, they eventually changed their identity from Armenian [Prygun] Molokans to Armenian Pentecostals. Though they kept the [Prygun] Molokan traditions in their worship, their theology shifted from focusing on Jesus and M.G. Rudometkin (whose book was next to the Bible on the table) to Jesus's teachings as defined by Pentecostal/Protestant doctrine.

The first place our people gathered to worship was on Boston Street. The next place was on 431 S. Pecan Terrace, in a large room where my great grandfather eventually turned into a bath house. Then they moved to Gless Street [all in the Flats] and next to Goodrich Blvd [in East LA near Atlantic] before moving to Hacienda Heights. The [Armenian-Prygun] church today is located in Hacienda Heights, off Hacienda Blvd. on West. It's the first entrance on the right after you turn on West.

They've removed "Armenian" from the name of the church to make it more neighborhood — friendly. They sing a couple of the old songs [Psalms, verses] right in the beginning of the service before continuing with the American choruses and hymns. They still observe all the Feasts [of the Dukh-i-zhizniki]. Mrgditch Perumean's grandson, Stanley is the leader [who died about 2005].


We learn that Pryguny often attended the nearby Mission, and that Mission members often visited and documented the nearby Pryguny. With 3 services a day everyday, it was convenient for anyone working or shopping downtown to drop in, or walk a fourth mile from their first residences. The irony of these reports is that the Apostolic Faith Mission is credited by Pentecostals and some religious historians with introducing the Holy Spirit to Russia:

The Origins of the Pentecostal Movement, by Vinson Synan, Ph.D. — Holy Spirit Research Center, Oral Robert University — "Soon ... the movement reached the Slavic world through the ministry of a Russian-born Baptist pastor, Ivan Voronaev who received the pentecostal experience in New York City in 1919. Through prophecies, he was led to take his family with him to Odessa in the Ukraine in 1922 where he established the first Pentecostal church in the Soviet Union. Although he was arrested, imprisoned and martyred in a communist prison in 1943, Voronaev's churches survived incredible persecution to become a major religious force in Russia and the former Soviet Union by 1993."

American Dukh-i-zhinik oral history (documented in the Book of the Sun: Spirit and Life, Dukh i zhizn') reports that Pryguny received the "outpouring of the Holy Spirit" in the Milky Waters region (now in Ukraine) in 1833. The diary of Vassili V. Verestchagin documents that Pryguny in the Caucasus in the early 1860s spoke in tongues, jumped to exhaustion, and held hands up in the air for more than an hour. These charismatic practices continue among Dukh-i-zhiniki in the U.S. and Australia.


Quiz 

  1. Who spoke in tongues first in LA, Pryguny or Pentecosts?
  2. Did the Pryguny teach speaking in tongues to the Pentecostals?
  3. Did the Azusa Street Mission teach the Pryguny?
  4. Did the Pryguny meet people in America like themselves with whom they shared in the glory of the Lord and exchanged common beliefs, like raising hands, jumping, tongue speaking, millennium, etc.?
  5. What percentage of Pryguny joined the Pentecostal and holiness faiths due to these close encounters in the new country?
  6. People of all races attended the Apostolic Faith Mission whose preacher was Negro. Did the Pryguny shun him?

Don't everybody jump into this discussion at once.  :-)

Answers
  1. Pentecosts.
  2. No.
  3. Yes. They shared cultures and showed the Pryguny they were not unusual.
  4. Yes.
  5. Perhaps up to 90% of Pryguny descendants abandoned their Russian heritage faith to  join a similar American faith. How many or what percentage are now Pentecosts is not reported. Maybe someone has a good estimate.
  6. No. Several Prygun oral history anecdotes report Pryguny hugging and jumping with Negroes in Los Angeles.

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