A continuing story: 19th-century Methodists, charismatics and me

Tony Payne finds his spiritual ancestors in 19th-century American Methodism, and pinpoints what drove them (and him) to seek the miraculous.

In 2008, during some research for a paper on the history of ‘deliverance ministries’, I found myself ferreting around in 19th-century American Methodism.

Fascinating, I hear you groan.

It was for me, I have to say, because I found myself uncovering aspects of my own history that I hadn’t realized existed. When I think back on my time in the charismatic movement as a young Christian, I sometimes wonder what it was that drove me. Why, for example, was I so keen to see the dramatic and the miraculous invade my daily life? (Nowadays, I’d settle for some peace and quiet.) Why did the charismatic offer of a vital, supernatural Christian life strike such a chord with me, as it has with so many Christians around the globe?

In some ways, the answers are simple: Christianity in the part of the world where I lived at the time was pretty conventional, middle-churchy and dull. There was not much dynamism or excitement, or even a whole lot of gospel, to be honest. For a keen young Christian, the charismatic movement offered dynamism and excitement by the shed-load. I had a powerful intuition that I was part of something
radical and real—a movement that was recovering the power and reality of New Testament Christianity by restoring to it the spiritual gifts, experiential richness and miraculous flavour that had somehow become lost or forgotten.

It was hardly surprising that, like so many others, I found the charismatic movement deeply attractive. But there were other factors in play. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in joining the charismatic movement, I was joining a theological movement with a lengthy history.

In 19th-century American Methodism, I found my forebears.

They, too, had those twin impulses—the sense that something was missing in their experience of Christianity and an intuition that the answer was to be found in recovering a lost New Testament reality. For them, the problem was the continued and depressing presence of sin—not just in their own lives, but in their denomination and in Protestant Christianity more generally. In this, they reflected one of Methodism’s great emphases, going back to John Wesley himself in the mid-18th century.

In the dull, dead orthodoxy of his own time, Wesley saw an unengaged gentlemanly religion, lacking gospel reality, and any power for holiness and godliness. In its place, Wesley promoted an ‘experimental’ religion of the heart—a religion of regeneration and sanctification. He preached the freedom that guilty sinners could have from the devil’s power through justification by faith alone. And he preached the changed life that unholy sinners could experience through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

For Wesley, this changed life was not only a matter of striving for daily holiness with the Spirit’s help, but of claiming a higher level of sanctification through faith. He believed (and taught) that ‘entire sanctification’ was possible as a kind of crisis experience of faith, leading to victory over sin in this life.

Wesley’s teaching on this was subtle, and he never claimed to have reached this higher level of perfection himself. In his followers, the subtleties were lost.

By the mid-1800s in America, holiness teachers like Phoebe Palmer and William Boardman were widely promoting the possibility of ‘Christian perfection’ and entire sanctification, not through lifelong struggle and effort, but through what Palmer called ‘the shorter way’. All Christian believers who were prepared to consecrate themselves unreservedly as living sacrifices upon the altar of Christ would be entirely sanctified and attain victory over all known sin. By the second half of the 19th century, this ‘second blessing’ of entire sanctification in the Christian life was being identified by its devotees with the New Testament ‘baptism in the Spirit’.

During the 19th century, this ‘holiness movement’ spread like wildfire through American Methodism, which was at that time the largest Protestant denomination in the US—nearly twice as large as the Baptists and nearly twice as large as all the other Protestant groups combined. Via William Boardman and Robert Pearsall-Smith, it spread to England as well, with the formation of the Keswick Convention in the 1870s—and to Australia with the formation of similar holiness conventions at Katoomba (1903) and Belgrave Heights (1918).1

It was around this time (the last three decades of the 19th century) that faith healing also became prominent within the holiness movement. The progression was natural enough. Because of the victory of Christ on the cross, we are justified by faith; now we have discovered that we can also be completely sanctified by faith. Why not also be healed of our bodily infirmities by faith?

As with entire sanctification, the new emphasis on healing was seen as a recovery of a lost aspect of the New Testament gospel and a return to the powers of the apostolic age. James 5 was a key passage, but so was Isaiah 53:5—particularly in its quotation by Matthew:

That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases”. (Matt 8:16-17)

At one level, this is uncontroversial. The victory of Christ is indeed the decisive moment of defeat for disease and death—the moment when the renewal of the creation is achieved and assured. But as with entire sanctification, the healing movement was inclined to claim the benefits of the new creation now. They saw no reason why the disease-free world of Revelation 21 could not be enacted within our world today by a return to the pentecostal power of the New Testament age.

By the end of the 19th century, American holiness churches were marked by the following key themes or emphases:

  • the classic evangelical doctrine of free justification by faith alone through the blood of Christ;
  • a second blessing of entire sanctification by faith leading to a life of holiness and victory over sin;
  • the baptism of the Holy Spirit, identified by some with the crisis of entire sanctification and, by others, with a special endowment of power for witness and service;
  • divine faith healing; and
  • an expectation of the imminent return of Christ (often thought of pre-millennially).

As historian Donald Drayton points out, these five themes were like dry kindling that needed only a small spark to ignite what was to become Pentecostalism.2

That spark came in 1903 when a tongues-speaking revival broke out in Azusa St in Los Angeles. This is usually regarded as the birth of modern Pentecostalism, but William Seymour, who led the Azusa St revival, was at pains to emphasize the continuity with what had gone before:

We preach old-time repentance, old-time conversion, old-time sanctification, and old-time baptism with the Holy Ghost, which is the gift of power upon the sanctified life, and God throws in the gift of tongues.3

In this short space, I haven’t time to tell the rest of the story—how Pentecostalism spread and became a sizable but non-mainstream movement on the fringe of evangelical Christianity for much of the 20th century; how it began to enter the mainstream denominations in the 1960s and 70s through what was known as the ‘charismatic movement’; and how it reached an Anglican church in country New South Wales in time to shape the life of a keen young Christian looking for something more.

But as I rummaged about in the history of 19th-century Methodism, I realized that the underlying impulse that drove them was also what had driven me as a young charismatic: it was a basic spiritual impatience.

19th-century American Methodism saw itself caught between two glorious realities. Behind them were the glories of the New Testament, with the power of Christ in his person and work, his miracles of healing, and the tantalizing references to charismata in 1 Corinthians 12-14. In front of them were the glories of the age to come, where there would be no sin, no disease, no death and no decay—a new world where Christians would finally be made perfect like their Lord, and where they would enjoy uninterrupted, face-to-face fellowship with God.

But they saw themselves stuck between these two, like a traveller who has left one brilliant city and is journeying towards an even more dazzling one, but who finds the road between them difficult and tiring, and the scenery unexciting. Their answer was to assert that the journey should not be so difficult—that there should be a shorter way. They wanted to say that miraculous powers of the New Testament age should be fully present in our lives, and that victory over sin and disease would not simply occur in the next age, but should also be our experience now.

This, it seems to me, has been the common feature of pentecostal and charismatic movements ever since—the impulse to collapse the significance of what the New Testament calls ‘the last days’—to squeeze ‘the last days’ so that the gap between the first and second comings of Christ is as small as possible, theologically speaking. It’s as if they want to merge the two cities together so that you hardly notice the journey from one to the other.

In New Testament terms, it’s a failure to see that the walk of the Christian life here and now, in this present evil age, is the way of the cross, not a march of triumphalist glory. We share in Christ’s afflictions that we might also share in his glory. This was a key issue in Paul’s on­going correspondence with the Corinthians. It is also his point in Romans 8. We have a glorious and certain inheritance as coheirs with Christ, but in the meantime, we long and ache for that new creation, for the redemption of our bodies, for the glorious freedom of the sons of God. We want it, we groan for it, and we suffer as we wait for it, but we do not yet possess it. It is our hope, not something that we already see: “For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24b-25).

My problem was that I didn’t want to wait with patience. I wanted the power and the gifts and the glory, and I wanted it now. I wanted to share in the miracles and victory of Christ, not his suffering.

I was a continuationist who had fixed on the wrong point of continuity—because it is not the miraculous powers and wonders of Christ and the apostles that continue in our lives, but the afflictions and sufferings they endured for doing his Father’s will. Our imitation of Christ, Paul and the apostolic churches is in laying down our lives in sacrifice for the sake of others and their salvation (1 Cor 10:33-11:1).

As I should have known, and have now discovered, this is the more excellent way.


1 The goal of Keswick was to pursue “the Scriptural possibilities of faith in the life of the Christian in the daily walk (a) as to maintained communion with God; and (b) as to victory over all known sin”. Keswick addressed those who are restless, cast down, powerless and almost doubting the reality of the faith they possessed. In the words of Charles Harford:

To such the message of the Keswick Convention is addressed: it sets before them a life of faith and victory, of peace and rest as the rightful heritage of the child of God, into which he may step not by laborious ascent … not by long prayers and laborious effort, but by a deliberate and decisive act of faith. (‘Introductory Chapter’, The Keswick Convention: Its message, its method and its men, Marshall Brothers, London, 1907, pp. 4-5)

2 Donald Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism, Scarecrow, Metuchen, 1987, pp. 164f.

3 ‘Pentecost has come’, The Apostolic Faith, Vol I, No. 1, September, 1906, p. 3. http://www.azusabooks.com/af/LA01.shtml.

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