Pentecostal evangelist Cenna Osterberg and the Azusa Street Mission
Ties between Swedish-Americans and the burgeoning modern Pentecostal movement are well-documented, including such stories of people like Andrew G. Johnson-Ek who carried the Azusa Street revival from Los Angeles to Skövde, Sweden. However, few people know about Cenna Osterberg (1854-1924), and her husband, Louis, and son, Arthur, who worked with William J. Seymour.
Cenna was born as Cecilia Samuelsdotter on September 12, 1854, at Billinge, Sweden. Although she was raised in the Lutheran faith, her father became a Baptist and subsequently opened his home for prayer meetings. This began a revival as well as caused friction with local officials. In the beginning, the young Cenna resisted her father’s pietistic message—even becoming antagonistic toward it. However, with time she came under a conviction of sin and surrendered her life to the Lord. The test of her newfound faith was her baptism by immersion, which happened during the winter in a river where the ice had been cut out.
Her father, Samuel Svensson, known by his neighbors as “Holy Samuel,” was jailed after preaching without a license. Thus, in 1873, as a widower, he along with his children departed Sweden for America seeking religious freedom. They arrived in Chicago where Cenna worked as a maid until 1884 when she married Louis Osterberg. The couple joined the Swedish Baptist Church with their children Arthur, Terry, and Esther.
When Cenna became deathly ill and lay unconscious for several days, Louis called for Brother Levi, deacon at the Swedish Baptist church, to come and anoint her with oil, and pray for her according to James 5:16. Although Brother Levi had never done this before, the next day Cenna returned to consciousness and said, “Louie, I want you to get my clothes. The Lord has told me to get up. And the Lord has told me, ‘Daughter if you will be my witness I shall raise you up and you shall be a witness to my power.’” When Cenna was dressed, she said, “I want to go out. I’ve got to witness at home before I start abroad—I have to tell the neighbors.” So, she walked next door to the Lindstroms who knew she was deathly ill. When Mrs. Lindstrom opened the door and saw her, she stood speechless. Cenna said to her, “Well, aren’t you going to let me in?” Cenna then testified that the “God who is just the same as when Jesus was on earth” had healed her.
Cenna enjoyed attending religious meetings of various kinds. In 1893, she came in contact with the holiness movement, and her interest in divine healing grew more after Louis, who worked as a carpenter, cut his hand severely with a chisel. Despite the serious injury, he was healed miraculously when Dr. William D. Gentry, a physician-preacher, prayed for him. Following this, Louis and Cenna left the Baptist church and joined Dr. Gentry’s full-gospel chapel in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, where they lived.
When the Osterbergs concluded that the Chicago public schools were “too worldly for their children,” they relocated to Benton Harbor, Michigan. Along with others, they began a full-gospel mission by calling Dr. Gentry to come and hold some revival meetings. In addition, they invited William Durham, a full-gospel preacher from the North Avenue Mission in Chicago, to hold meetings two or three times a year. While Durham had been in Chicago previously, he returned to the Windy City in 1901 from Minnesota where he came under the influence of evangelists with the World’s Faith Missionary Association and the Scandinavian Free Mission.
In 1903, the Osterbergs moved west to Los Angeles. Dr. Gentry suggested that they contact William R. Manley, a full-gospel preacher whom he knew personally. They visited Manley’s church and were impressed by his teachings. Besides promoting family prayer, Manley encouraged every family to begin a weekly cottage prayer meeting and invited their neighbors to attend. Cenna responded to that call, and the next morning met with her neighbors.
After a few months, the Osterberg home was too small for all who came.
This prompted Cenna and Louis to purchase a tent for larger gatherings, and Cenna appointed Arthur to lead their new tent mission. In 1905, the tent mission built a chapel at 68th Street and Denver Avenue in Los Angeles and named it the Full Gospel Tabernacle. Arthur was just nineteen years old. In addition to his preaching duties, he worked at the J.B. McNeil Construction Company.
When Cenna went to the Crocker Street Hospital one day to pray for a young man who had broken his leg, an African-American woman walked down the hallway, heard Cenna praying, knelt down, and joined her in intercession. Afterward, the woman introduced herself, told Cenna about a prayer meeting held on North Bonnie Brae Street, and invited her to come. At dinner that evening, Cenna told the family she would like to go. The meeting that night, March 26, 1906, was led by William Seymour at the home of Ruth and Richard Asberry. Cenna witnessed at the meeting how this group of men and women—mostly African-Americans—prayed, preached, and prophesied about a forthcoming outpouring of God’s Spirit upon Los Angeles. Seymour announced that he and the others would begin a ten-day fast and pray for the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The next day, Cenna testified at the Full Gospel Tabernacle about the meeting and urged others to attend. While several were enthused, Arthur was suspicious, not wanting to promote any meeting before he had the chance to learn about it. Despite his misgivings, the church’s deacons—Brothers Worthington, Dodge, and Weaver—were interested and decided to visit the Asberry home. Arthur reluctantly agreed and attended the next meeting with Cenna and the others, joining an estimated 75 to 100 people in the Asberry home. This was Arthur’s first time attending a meeting of blacks and whites. His earlier concerns disappeared, however, as he witnessed people praying “with such earnestness that tears were running down their faces.”
William Seymour was originally from Louisiana, the son of former slaves. He became a preacher following a severe case of smallpox that left him with sight in one eye and his face disfigured. Although he had not yet received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and spoken “in other tongues,” he was convinced that this teaching was biblical and preached it zealously. He had arrived in Los Angeles on February 22, 1906, and within two days was preaching at a holiness church pastored by Julia Hutchins. Those in the congregation who hungered for the deeper things of God felt compelled to spend more hours in prayer. The Asberrys volunteered their home. Several of the group received visions confirming that God was about to touch the city with an outpouring of his Spirit.
Other people also learned of the meetings and attended. Then, on April 9, after Seymour and Lucy Farrow laid hands on Edward Lee for healing, he was baptized in the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues. Later that evening, Jennie Evans Moore (who became Seymour’s wife) was also baptized in the Spirit. News of this spread. One eye-witness reported that so many people came that it was impossible for all to enter. Sick people were healed and sinners were saved from their sins. Three days later, at about four o’clock in the morning, after having prayed through the early morning hours, Seymour received the Spirit’s baptism.
Due to the crowds, on April 13, the group decided to lease a property at 312 Azusa Street. The building was an old Methodist church, then being used by a contractor as a warehouse. As such it was in desperate need of cleaning. Cenna approached Arthur and asked if he would organize a work crew. He agreed and gathered people from the Bonnie Brae meetings, friends of his family, and a few Mexican laborers employed with him at the McNeil Construction Company.
The building was ready for Easter Sunday and people flocked to attend—women, men, children, poor, rich, educated, and illiterate. Within months the mission—officially named the Apostolic Faith Mission—was the largest congregation in Los Angeles, with as many as 1,500 people attending weekly. The church was packed with an estimated 750 to 800 people, and for several months, the windows were even removed, allowing for 400 to 500 additional people to stand outside and listen. Louis Osterberg served as a trustee.
Cenna’s niece, Clara Samuelson, who married Edward Smith, also became active in the mission. Later, Edward described the mission’s diversity, saying, “Seymour was a black man and there were lots of black people and lots of Germans, Swedes, Italians, Mexicans and well, various races… [The people were] just from everywhere and from every kind of a church.”
One evening, Cenna said to Louis, “I feel led to send for Brother Durham.” Although she had written to Durham earlier about the revival, his letters back simply asked questions. Therefore, the family decided to invite him to come, and offered to pay his train fare. Durham took up the offer and was deeply affected by his visit. On March 2, 1907, he experienced Spirit baptism and remained some days afterward with the Osterbergs. When he returned to Chicago, he turned his
North Avenue Mission into a center for Pentecostalism, published a monthly periodical titled The Pentecostal Testimony, and promoted the movement through people like F.A. Sandgren in the Midwest, and Daniel Berg, a Swedish Pentecostal missionary to Brazil.
Cenna remained active as an evangelist in the following years. As the Azusa Street revival began to fade, in 1911, she began working among Hispanics and Swedish-speaking immigrants. For more than three years, she led a group of Swedes and Finns in home prayer meetings, as well as evangelistic meetings three nights a week in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. This work resulted in the founding of the Swedish Evangelical Free Church of Los Angeles. Even before the church was formally organized, they sent six missionaries to northern China, namely, Gustaf Lundgren, Adolph Johnson, Nannah Holmsten, Ellen Carlson, Mary Bjorkman, and Linda Erickson.
As Cenna worked in other neighborhoods, she handed the leadership over to Gust Osterlund, a Swedish-speaking Finn and owner of a hardwood flooring business. At this time, itinerate Free Church preachers visited on Sundays including
G. A. Young, Edward Thorell, John Herner, A.A. Anderson, Anna Peterson, and Nils Saabye. When the Swedish Evangelical Free Church of Los Angeles formally organized in 1913, Cenna was unable to attend the business meeting due to her other ministry activities in the city.
Cenna co-labored also with Susie Villa-Valdez whose husband was healed at the Azusa Street Mission. The two women teamed up to minister to prostitutes and alcoholics. They traveled to the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino where they held Sunday afternoon meetings among Spanish-speaking and English-speaking workers, particularly those who lived in migrant farm labor camps.
The Azusa Street revival is regarded as the cradle of the modern Pentecostal movement with over half a billion Christians around the world today. Pentecostals are grateful for well- known leaders such as William Seymour and William Durham, but also for the lesser-known people like Cenna Osterberg, a woman who could not refrain from evangelistic work that followed her throughout her life.