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Peter Althouse: Wesleyan and Reformed Impulses in the Keswick and Pentecostal Movements

Sometimes described as ‘the decline of Calvinism’ or ‘the rise of romantic evangelicalism,’ [the second great awakening] would better be called the transformation of Evangelical Calvinism into Evangelical Arminianism or perhaps, the interaction between the Age of Reason and the Age of Romanticism. At the heart of the transformation lay the question of free will.31

Nathan W. Taylor, for example, maintained that human consent was fundamental in the relationship between God and humanity and that free agency was evident in human understanding, conscience and will. He contended, however, that the ability to sin remained outside of the grace of God. This was in direct opposition to the Calvinist thinking of an earlier generation, particularly that of Edwards’ student Samuel Hopkins, who maintained that damnation itself came under absolute divine sovereignty and therefore both election and damnation were for the glory of God. For Taylor, “Redemption [was] found as the sinful will, by the gracious permission of God and aided by the Holy Spirit, chose to accept the redeeming work of Christ. On this basis, one may experience not just the hope of salvation, but personal certainty of it.”32 It was this kind of argument that would influence Finney and the New School theology.

New School proponents adopted two practices which created controversy in Reformed circles. One was the “new measures,” which were rational principles for creating a human response to the offer of salvation. The other was the possibility of living a holy life.

The new measures were principles for leading people to salvation based in the belief that showing the sinner a rational, systematic approach to appropriate salvation, peppered with a touch of the experiential, would allow the sinner to accept God’s offer. However, even the capacity to accept salvation was only possible through God’s (prevenient) grace. The new measures involved all-night prayer meetings, prayer for sinners by name, the involvement of women in prayer and exhortation even when men were present, a denunciation of “old school” ministers as “dead” and “cold,” and an emphasis upon the anxious seat as a place where awakening sinners would come for special prayer.33 These practices were possible because for Finney, conversion was not an unexplainable miracle but “a philosophical result of the right use of constituted means.”34

The controversy focused, of course, in the proposition the a sinner could be brought to salvation through rational principles. This made Old School Calvinists nervous because it seemed to diminish divine sovereignty in predetermining the elect of God. New School Calvinists would argue, however, that predestination did not negate the need for preaching the Gospel to all people and that a human response to God’s call was necessary. Furthermore, Old School Calvinists believed that salvation would take time and discipleship with a long period of regeneration. New School Calvinists believed that conversion culminated in the experiential response to God’s call.

The possibility of holiness was an issue which Finney took up in 1836, when he read Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection. While Wesley’s understanding of perfection certainly influenced Finney’s thinking, Smith asserted that “the Oberlin doctrine did not look back to an eighteenth-century prophet, but rather grew out of the religious climate of the age….”35 While the Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification, particularly in the holiness movement, culminated in the “second blessing” of perfection as an impartation of the grace of God through the activity of the Spirit, New School advocates argued that holiness was a consecration of the experience of the fullness of the love of Christ and not freedom from the appetites of the flesh or from error and prejudice. Furthermore, they did not speak of the possibility of “sinlessness,”36 but to be fair, sinless perfection was something Wesley was also unwilling to assert.

The Old School advocates, particularly James H. Fairchild, then president of Oberlin College, opposed the “second blessing” heresy because he believed it not only violated the Calvinist doctrine of depravity, but that it adopted the modernist reliance of human ability.37 The concern of Old School advocates was that New School proponents were being unduly influenced by German liberal theology, particularly in the elevation of humanist philosophy.38 It was ironic, therefore, that what was to become the mainstay of Evangelicalism in the late nineteenth and twentieth century—that is revivalism which fractured into political fundamentalism and experiential pentecostalism—was birthed in the ideas of modernity.

Finney’s understanding of sanctification was actively linked to his understanding of the baptism of the Holy Ghost. This baptism involved two elements. One was that the baptism of the Holy Ghost was “the secret of the stability of Christian character.” The emphasis here was on moral perfection and was similar to the Wesleyan idea of “second blessing.” The second was that the baptism of the Holy Ghost was a means of empowerment for Christian service.39 In Finney’s mature thought, however, the emphasis upon Christian service dominated, while references to sanctification or cleansing disappeared.40

Asa Mahan, a colleague of Finney’s and a one time president of Oberlin, articulated the doctrine of sanctification somewhat differently. Unlike Finney who moved away from Methodist formulations, Mahan tended to use Methodist distinctions41 of Christian perfection.42 Yet even Mahan was Reformed in his articulations, for he preferred to believe that the “higher experience subjugated rather than destroyed the propensity for sin; but these were in his eyes emotional and physical rather than a root principle of depravity, as with Wesley.”43 This was an articulation which would come to dominate the theology of Keswick.

Mahan would also toy with the idea of three distinct acts of grace—conversion, entire sanctification and the baptism of the Holy Spirit—a formulation that would re-emerge in early Pentecostalism. Mahan not only started to speak of the “second blessing” as a baptism of the Holy Spirit as well as a cleansing from sin, but in Divine Life he suggested that “purity [was] one thing, power [was] quite another.”44 The consequence of this baptism included a quickening of our “natural powers,” an “accumulation of moral and spiritual power,” “soul transforming apprehensions of Truth,” “absolute assurance of hope,” intimate “fellowship with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ,” “a deep and permanent spiritual blessedness,” and a “unity of the Spirit” among believers.45 Though Mahan did not follow through with his thoughts about three acts of grace as distinct experiential moments, this belief would take root in Pentecostal articulations.

William Edwin Boardman, a Presbyterian grocer from Illinois, began to seek the experience of sanctification, but was resistant to Methodist instruction. However in 1842, after reading the testimonies of Finney and Mahan, Boardman and his wife attained “the blessing.” Boardman published his experience in a book he called The Higher Christian Life, a title intended to distinguish itself from Wesleyan and Oberlin perfectionism.46 The popularity of Boardman’s book was likely due to its non-scholarly approach, setting a tone which was resonant with the revival of 1858.47 Boardman was to later link up with Mahan to conduct revivals in both America and Britain, and both were to have a direct influence on the spiritual and theological direction of the Keswick Conferences.

IV. Sanctification in the Theology of the Keswick Conferences

The Oxford and Brighton conferences, two small but significant meetings, forged a link between New School revivalism and the Keswick conferences. Oxford and Brighton, for the most part, harmonized with the Keswick conferences to form the general tenor of Keswick spirituality. In fact, both Keswick leaders and contemporary Keswick scholars included Oxford and Brighton in the Keswick movement.48

T.D. Harford-Battersby, an adherent of Oxford and Brighton and the presider of the first Keswick Conference, indicated that the purpose of Keswick was “the promotion of Scriptural holiness.” Harford-Battersby believed that through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Christian could overcome temptation. This involved a deliberate act of surrender, so that holiness was the result of an experiential crisis leading to a process.49 The emphasis upon a crisis was, admittedly, borrowed from Holiness theology, but Keswick’s understanding of this crisis followed the theology of American revivalism, though with unique Keswick articulations.

The links between Keswick and New School revivalism were many. Both Mahan and Boardman’s involvement in the Oxford and Brighton conferences “helped unify the higher life aspirations arising from the ‘Oberlizing of England’.”50 Furthermore, the Reverend John Moore was close friends with Charles Finney, a relationship which no doubt had influence on his son, C.G. Moore, one of the early Keswick speakers.51 However, “Keswick was American Wesleyan/Holiness spirituality shorn of the troublesome feature of perfectionism,” an interpretation accepted by most critics.52

The watchword of Keswick holiness was, in the words of Evan Hopkins, “the Blessing is not an attainment but an attitude.”53 “Attitude” was a distinctive Keswick notion linked to the crisis of sanctification. On the opening day of the Brighton Conference, held May 29 to June 7, 1875, R.P. Smith preached:

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Category: Church History

About the Author: Peter F. Althouse, PhD (University of Toronto), is Assistant Professor of Religion at Southeastern University. He is the author of Spirit of the Last Days: Pentecostal Eschatology in Conversation with Jürgen Moltmann (T & T Clark, 2003), and has written many articles on eschatology, pneumatology and Pentecostal studies. Faculty page. Facebook.

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