Baptists and the Holy Spirit: Chapter 2

Continuing the chapter-by-chapter presentation of C. Douglas Weaver, Baptists and the Holy Spirit with 2: “Holiness, Healing, and A.J. Gordon.”

I was raised to believe in the power of prayer. My devout Southern Baptist parents have always hewn to a straightforward evangelical understanding of the practice. It is, stated simply, a matter of “talking to God.” Just like conversing with a friend or loved one, a person may share doubts and frustrations, express delight, acknowledge mistakes, and, finally, ask for help. Prayer was never interpreted in psychological or anthropocentric terms. Someone is on the other end, listening. That Someone may freely choose to act in answer to requests that have been shared.

Alongside the bulletin, my childhood church printed a long sheet of prayer needs every Sunday. After moving away from home, it was often the case that when I mentioned some matter of concern to my mother, she would ask if she could add it to the prayer list. Sometimes she added an item without asking. Many, if not most, of the needs on the prayer list were unsurprisingly health-related. The uncomplicated belief in prayer instilled during my upbringing was that God will answer some prayers with divine intervention, leaving others untouched. Therefore, we have every right to believe that God can and does heal people of their infirmities. At the same time, we did not possess the sort of expectancy about actually witnessing dramatic healing that one would find at the Pentecostal-charismatic churches around town.

Weaver writes that, because of Baptists’ prevailing cessationism, “accounts of Baptist history and Baptist theology have traditionally not provided any coverage of a belief in physical healing in their pages” (21). But Baptists who identified with the late-nineteenth century Holiness movement became advocates, sometimes prominently so, of divine healing as a contemporary reality. The most influential Baptist proponent of these was Adoniram Judson, or A.J., Gordon (1836-1895). Gordon was a Massachusetts-based pastor who simultaneously defended fundamentalism and supported women in ministry. He founded the Boston Missionary Training Institute, which we know today as Gordon College.

A.J. Gordon

Gordon’s attentiveness to the work of the Holy Spirit was catalyzed in part by helping to host a Boston revival led by evangelist Dwight Moody in 1877. But his turn toward holiness and healing was also precipitated by direct experience; namely, a dream that he would endow with great significance. As Weaver reports:

In his spiritual autobiography, published posthumously, Gordon described a dream he had one Saturday night when he was wearied from sermon preparation, which caused him to be more open to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. In the dream, he was preaching, and a stranger was in the audience. After the service, he was told that the stranger was Jesus. Gordon had the startling realization that Jesus was “really present in the Holy Spirit, his invisible self.” Christ’s “abiding presence in the church in the Holy Spirit,” according to Gordon, led him to focus his ministry on yielding to the Spirit. Gordon did not claim revelatory authority for his dream, but the experience helped energize his openness to movements of the Holy Spirit. (23)

Weaver notes that both the Wesleyan and Keswick strands of the Holiness Movement accepted healing as a logical consequence of their theology, for the purification of the inner self from sin had its corollary in the restoration of the outward form. The same Moody revival that fostered Gordon’s focus on the Holy Spirit also convinced him of the present reality of divine healing.  According to his account, Gordon witnessed the instantaneous cure of opium addiction from one person and cancer of the jaw from another. Four years later, he published his influential book The Ministry of Healing, wherein he argued, in true Baptist fashion, that the universal priesthood empowered all Christians to anoint and pray for the sick. His evidence for the continued validity of healing depended not just on scriptural exegesis but examples from history, including instances among Baptists in the 17th and 18th centuries. His biographer son Ernest would later record experiences from Gordon’s own ministry.

It is of significant import that personal experience was essential both for Gordon’s acceptance of healing as well as his interpretation of scriptural texts. Other fundamentalists of his time and today who inveigh against the “Spirit-filled” churches often do so from a hermeneutic that gives absolute and sole priority to (what they understand to be) the plain, literal meaning of the Bible. If “the Bible teaches” that gifts of healing, etc., were reserved only for the “apostolic age,” then ipso facto it is impossible for contemporary claims to be accurate. Proponents must be either deluded or demonized. For Weaver, Gordon is an example of what he calls the interplay of “Word/Spirit/experience” that recurs throughout Baptist history. More would follow in his footsteps in the coming years.


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