Baptists and the Holy Spirit: Chapter 1

Chapter 1: Baptists and the Holiness Movement

This post continues my planned chapter-by-chapter commentary on C. Douglas Weaver, Baptists and the Holy Spirit: The Contested History with Holiness-Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements (Baylor University Press, 2019). My commentary on the Introduction is available here.

The Holiness Movement emerged in America during the early nineteenth-century as an outgrowth of Methodism. John Wesley had taught a “second blessing” experience in which the believer is sanctified into a state of “perfect love.” Wesley did not claim that such a person would sin no more, but that one’s motives would henceforth remain pure. Weaver calls this movement a blend of pietism, revivalism, and Wesleyan teaching regarding the possibility of achieving perfection.

As the Pentecostal church historian Vinson Synan recounts in his survey, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century, the early Methodists exhibited behavior that would later be replicated in charismatic revivals, such as intense expressions of joy or grief, shouting, and immobility akin to being “slain in the Spirit.” The Cane Ridge camp meeting, held 1800-1801 in Kentucky, was organized by Presbyterian ministers but erupted in dramatic manifestations under the influence of the Methodist minister John McGee. Alongside the phenomenon of being slain, revival participants screamed, danced, and engaged in acts that have also stirred controversy over modern-day revivals: jerky motions, barking sounds, and the “holy laugh” (ch. 1; Kindle edition).

Weaver writes that in the postbellum period the concept of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” found in Scripture came to equated with the post-conversion experience of sanctification. Alternatively (or sometimes additionally), some holiness advocates understood the baptism to be a special empowerment of the Holy Spirit for service and evangelism. Such was a prominent interpretation in the Keswick movement, a branch of the larger Holiness movement originating in England in the late nineteenth century.

The bulk of this chapter spotlights three prominent Baptists who became advocates for Holiness spirituality in the latter half of the nineteenth century: Henry Fish (1820-1877), John Quincy Adams (1825-1881; not to be confused with the sixth President of the United States!), and Absalom B. Earle (1812-1897). Weaver traces Baptist involvement in the Holiness Movement to the New York-centered Revival of 1858 and these three figures were all Northern Baptists; Fish and Adams were pastors of churches in New York City and Earle was an itinerant evangelist based out of Boston.

I had a fascinating moment while reading this chapter. Weaver describes how Adams published a periodical in the 1860s entitled The Christian; Devoted to the Advancement of Gospel Holiness. The journal was aimed primarily at a Baptist audience with the intent of increasing support for holiness teachings. Adams later collected testimonies that had been published in the journal and reprinted them in a volume called Experiences of the Higher Christian Life in the Baptist Denomination (1870). Weaver quotes a brief part of one such testimony. I soon found Adams’ book on Internet Archive and clicked on the scroll bar to go to a random page. By coincidence or by providence, I ended up on the very testimony – indeed, the exact paragraph – that Weaver quoted. Here is the climactic moment from that testimony:

On the 8th of January, 1866, while I was conversing with a godly friend on the subject of faith, the Holy Spirit—what shall I say ?—came upon me in mighty power. I could only utter his name by way of adoration for a quarter of an hour, as my friend afterwards told me. I fell upon the floor powerless, though not entirely unconscious. For more than an hour I was so filled with an awful sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit that I had to pray almost constantly that I might not shrink from what God had in store for me. I could hardly bear to hear anything spoken but the name or praises of the Third Person of the adorable Trinity.

Here again is a classic example of the “slain in the Spirit” phenomenon forty years before the Azusa Street Revival marked the “official” beginning of Pentecostalism. Interestingly, it occurs not in the context of a theatrical camp meeting but in the middle of a one-on-one conversation between friends on spiritual matters.

A couple of commonalities characterize these Baptist leaders’ conceptions of the second-blessing experience. First, they tended to locate its origin in a posture of trust and passive receptivity, has had Wesleyan advocates before them. While Fish contended that holiness would not arrive “without exertion on our part,” Adams and Earle found its onset to be rooted in “simple faith.” Second, Adams, and then Earle following him, described the perduring qualities of holiness as the “rest of faith” and a feeling of peace amidst life’s trials.

Weaver briefly notes that accounts of the holy life as one filled with peace and light are reflective of the classical language of mysticism. He does not elaborate on this parallel, but the resonances between holiness-pentecostal-charismatic spirituality and traditional Christian mysticism are an emergent field of study in theological scholarship, as exemplified in Daniel Castelo, Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition.

The Holiness Movement would eventually imagine the Spirit’s sanctifying work to entail the transformation of body alongside soul, resulting in a renewed confidence that God performs physical healings in the present day. Weaver’s next chapter will focus on the advocacy for faith healing by Baptist minister A.J. Gordon.  

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