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Baptists and spirit-led experience.

Growing up in a Baptist church, it was not Easter unless we sang--including that high G note--"He lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today. He walks with me, and talks with me along life's narrow way. He lives, he lives, salvation to impart. You ask me how I know he lives. He lives within my heart."

And then in college my roommate and friend of twelve years left Baptists for Pentecostalism via the charismatic movement. He told me I needed the Holy Spirit, one night saying the Spirit told him we did not have to study for a test because Jesus was returning soon. He studied, just in case. (1)

Both were defining experiences, but drastically different: heart religion, Spirit-led faith. They seemed so separate. But a study of Baptist history has taught me that Baptist freedom has been a mix--perhaps a "mess"--of personal heartfelt faith and Spirit-led experiences. Bill Leonard's recent book title, A Sense of the Heart, is certainly compatible with the Baptist story. (2)

Baptists have long called themselves "people of the Word." We have also talked a good bit about the heart and experiencing faith. My thesis is simple, but I believe profound: Baptist DNA is not just Word, or even Word and experience. Rather, it is the interplay of Word/Spirit/Experience.

I'll start with John Clarke, pastor of the second Baptist church in America at Newport, Rhode Island, and author of Ill Newes of New England, the book that brought attention to persecution of Baptists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Clarke anchored the experience of authentic faith to freedom of conscience. He spoke of conscience in theocentric terms. According to Clarke, conscience was "a sparkling beam, from the Father of lights," which "cannot be lorded over, commanded or forced, either by men, devils, or angels." The experience of following conscience should never be violated by external compulsion--for example, a church or state authority--because "the voice of each man's conscience is being to him the voice of his God." Conscience should be rightly formed, of course, as it was guided by the Lordship of Christ and the "word of God." (3) Clarke's language could also incorporate the Spirit. He called the church a "household of faith ... a company of faithful ones" who "manifested repentance towards God" ... "knit together in one by his Spirit, founded wholly upon himself." (4)

According to Clarke, the experience of faith was rooted in the apostolic practice of New Testament Christianity. For early Baptists, this restorationist perspective meant a rejection of infant baptism and a focus on Spirit-led personal, "heart," or experimental faith practiced voluntarily. Clarke affirmed that believers "in their hearts call on him that hath bought them, and saying Lord what wilt thou have me to doe?" Authentic worship was spiritual, planted in the heart of each believer by the Spirit of Christ. (5)

The writings of Clarke's colleague at Newport, Obadiah Holmes, who was a persecuted Baptist hero in Clarke's Ill Newes from New England, also revealed a focus on experimental faith. Holmes' writings reflected his common-man emphasis. Edwin Gaustad highlighted how Holmes emphasized the "plainness" of the gospel--a critique of any attempt to suggest that religion was hierarchical and needed select, elitist, clerical interpreters to hand the Word of God down to helpless pew sitters. Instead, Holmes exhorted that each person should examine him or herself and not rely on the judgments of others. He added that those who preached should preach their own experiences rather than rely on other men's works or words. Holmes affirmed that he followed the Scriptures and that the Holy Spirit was the "only revealer of secrets to my soul" and spoke "peace to my conscience." (6)

Historian William McLoughlin of Brown University did extensive work on colonial Baptists in America and reminded us that they were a diverse lot--even in their views on how much they should separate from establishment Puritans. For example, McLoughlin thought that Thomas Goold, founder of the Baptist church in Boston, did not desire to separate hut simply wanted the freedom not to practice infant baptism. On the other hand, William Turner, arrested with Goold in 1666, was more willing to assert the need for separate churches. McLoughlin's views are worth analyzing, (7) but clearly both Goold and Turner insisted on voluntary personal, experimental faith in a public debate with Puritan authorities in what has been called the Boston Debate of 1668.

Despite contending that he did not desire to leave the Puritan established church, Goold nevertheless insisted that he be allowed to practice believer's baptism because the earthly church was not the final authority for faith: "the church may pass sentence and yet not according to the rule of Christ.... If those sins may be committed in a church for which God may cast them off; then a private member may cast them off." (8) Goold's opponents immediately recognized that his comments were a "dangerous inference" to a conformist establishment and called Goold a "fallible judge and running to many errors." Yet, Goold quoted Scripture as the judge of his experience, noting that he could not be unequally yoked to unbelievers and had to withdraw from anything unclean. He concluded with classic experimental piety, expressed in Christocentric terms: "Christ dwelleth in no temple but in the heart of a believer, whose house are ye." (9)

In opposing the Puritan establishment, Goold's colleague, William Turner, argued for separation in order to baptize believers and to be free to practice prophecy--the egalitarian preaching or sharing of opinions about Scripture by various members of a congregation, which was controversial in establishment circles. (10) Turner also opposed religious conformity that resulted in persecution of dissenters--an obvious plea for experimental faith rooted in freedom of conscience. According to Turner, spiritual worship was inextricably connected to personal experimental faith: "If a soul be not first born of God: how can he worship God, in spirit and truth?" (11)

Like Goold, Turner noted in Christocentric terms that Christ was the final authority for faith rather than a hierarchy of Puritan church leaders. He queried, "Where is the rule of Christ that we must follow the churches here farther than they follow Christ?" (12) Also like Goold, Turner was accused of being divisive because of his insistence on following Baptist experience (certainly individual, and communal if we suggest that he and others at the debate drew strength from one another). Turner's answer was a response, heard before and after him in Baptist life, that said faith had to be free for each individual to experience because of what the eschatological future held--a Last Judgment. "Is it not a reasonable thing that every man have his particular judgment in matters of faith," Turner warned, "seeing we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ." (13) Goold and Turner, not surprisingly, were banished for their views.

Baptists of the eighteenth century with their continued focus on freedom of conscience and believer's baptism naturally continued the focus on experimental faith. Religious liberty advocate John Leland, a Jeffersonian, spoke strongly about the inalienable rights of conscience in the face of tyranny, (14) but he also believed hurricanes resulted from God's wrath and he was a typical biblicist of the Baptist variety, focusing his ministry on revivalism and the experience of personal conversion. "If ever I was converted," Leland declared, "I should know it as distinctly as if a surgeon should cut open my breast with his knife." (15) He acknowledged that conscience was imperfect with the defilement of sin, and consequently, a person's inner spiritual court could lead to error. A faithful conscience, then, had to be shaped by the "word of God" and the authority of Christ rather than any fallible human authority. In other words, faith, to be genuine, had to have a conscience that was free to authentically experience and practice faith. (16)

Leland normally expressed his views in Christocentric terms but, like William Turner and others, in eschatological categories as well. Personal, free faith was an eschatological necessity since "every man shall give an account of himself to God." (17) Leland found hypocrisy in the irreconcilable paradox among some who would argue for religious liberty "on the courthouse green" yet "deny his wife, children, and servants the liberty of conscience at home." "If a head of a family could answer for all his house in the day of judgment," Leland suggested, "there would be a degree of justice in his controlling them in the mode of worship ... but answer for them he cannot; each one must give an account of himself to God, and none but cruel tyrants will prevent their wives, children, or servants ... from worshipping God according to the dictates of their consciences." (18) The experimental practice of faith, to be authentic, had to be free with direct access to God.

Isaac Backus is another well-known Baptist figure from the late eighteenth century who insisted upon Scripture and experience. In his attack against the established church in the colony of Massachusetts, Backus said in typical Baptist fashion that the church must be a believer's church, meaning that each member must give evidence of a conversion experience by voluntarily professing faith in a verbal confession. Obviously, infant baptism was not based on the needed personal experience of faith nor was it scriptural. (19)

According to Backus, individual experience was the basis of relationship to God and Christian fellowship: "And all the saints know that when they received Christ they had no creature to see for them, but each soul acted as singly towards God as if there had not been another person in the world." (20) In emphasizing spiritual egalitarianism as the backbone of local church independence, Backus declared that the common people, rather than a group of elitist, compromised state-supported ministers, were the best judges of the daily walk of a minister. (21)

Backus elaborated that the state-supported ministers had modeled their structure after the state rather than Scripture. Rooted in hierarchy, they let one leader speak for the whole. On the other hand, Backus, again arguing in Baptist fashion for a priesthood of believers, said each member of a local church freely professing a conversion experience had the "Spirit-led ability to judge." "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind," (22) Backus concluded. Baptist polity could be messy, and thus democratic-like majority rule was intended to guide deliberations. Nevertheless, in a typical Baptist refrain, Backus insisted that the practice of faith must be free because believers do not stand before the judgment as a group, but individually before God. (23)

As contexts changed and persecution gradually faded or disappeared, the explicit demands for the experience of faith to be rooted in free conscience obviously became less necessary in Baptist life. Socio-cultural contexts changed. Those calls, however, never disappeared. Lists of Baptist distinctives as a genre of apologetic literature began to proliferate in the mid-nineteenth century and still exist today as a method of speaking to freedom, experience, and conscience. We cite E. Y. Mullins' Axioms of Religion and Walter Rauschenbusch's Why I Am a Baptist as popular examples.

Baptist experience in America is naturally associated with revivalism and its focus on "heart religion," or personal experience, often with a good dose of emotion close by. Separate Baptists in the late eighteenth century easily can contend with Charles Finney for the innovation of an invitation to salvation. Conversion was seen as a verification of the Word preached, a "work of regeneration in the heart" effected by the Holy Spirit. (24)

I'll refrain from tracing Baptist revivalism, which obviously has roots back to Puritan experimental piety in England, except to say that, like other traditions, Baptists had conflict over, but accepted the "new measures" of Finney and the Second Great Awakening. These methods helped define how faith was experienced--via an invitation, prayer meetings, calling out sinners by name, maybe a shout or three, and the like. The understudied but fascinating career of nineteenth-century Baptist revivalist Jacob Knapp shows how Finney's methods prevailed as converts had a "come to Jesus" moment and were saved from hell--or at least the Methodists. (25)

The Baptist focus on experience traced so far could be described in Calvinistic or in increasingly Arminian categories or a mixture of both, as John Leland used to describe his revivals. Whatever the theology of the messenger, however, the focus on experience was Baptist DNA--there was an interfacing of Word and experience. The focus on experience could also be, as we have seen, almost interchangeably described as Christocentric or Pneuma-centric. If we were grading, Christocentric would come first, with the Spirit's leading left behind at your own risk.

In the late nineteenth century a shift occurred. A focus on Spirit-led language to describe experience rocketed because of the emergence of the Holiness and Pentecostal movements. Baptists had seen a heavy dose of Spirit-language before, particularly concentrated among the early English Baptists of the seventeenth century when apocalyptic fervor surrounded the uncertainties of the era of Cromwell followed by Charles II.

Let me offer a few qualifiers. First, most Baptist writers did not favor the emerging presence of Holiness and Pentecostal perspectives. They did, however, have to take the new explicit focus on the Spirit into account. Second, the use of Christocentric language to highlight experimental faith no doubt continued among the many people who were not attracted to the Holiness-Pentecostal stories. Among others, E. Y. Mullins was certainly wary of these movements as he emphasized that "Christ acts upon the soul in experience as God." (26) Third, even some writers who were captivated by the heightened calls to holiness continued to use Christocentric language, and much like during the past, that language was often primary, but strongly supplemented by references to the Spirit.

The Holiness movement is most often, and accurately, associated with Methodists, but Baptists, especially in the North, sought the experience of holiness as well. Holiness advocates contended that conversion was a believer's first grace-filled religious experience, but that a separate second blessing brought "full salvation." One holiness Baptist said of his critics: "The Devil said Methodism, the Lord said gospel truth." (27) Scholars have traced how holiness advocates shifted from a Christocentric "have this mind of Christ in you" description of holiness to the use of Pentecostal language to define holiness or sanctification as the baptism of the Holy Spirit of Acts 2. (28)

The event usually seen as a major trigger for the Holiness movement is referred to as the Revival of 1857-1858 and featured the Tuesday meetings for holiness led by Phoebe Palmer. Historian Timothy Smith argued that Henry Fish, a Baptist pastor in New Jersey, was an important precursor to the revival. (29)

If Fish is known to us, it is because of his little 1860 classic on conscience titled The Price of Soul-Liberty and Who Paid It. In the book he was a thoroughgoing Baptist triumphalist, but Fish captured the persistent Baptist sentiment on conscience and the practice of faith. Sounding like E. Y. Mullins before Mullins' time, Fish contended that Baptists had always practiced "... the great truth, that as every man is held directly accountable to GOD for his religious faith and practice, he cannot, of right, be held accountable to any human tribunal; but on the other hand, may claim the heaven-descended and inalienable right to be let free from all arrogance, and every form of compulsion, in the affairs of this soul." (30)

In 1855, four years before writing his soul liberty treatise, Fish wrote Primitive Piety Revived or The Aggressive Power of the Christian Church and argued that Pentecostal piety was the key to restoring the New Testament church. He declared, "Why may Christians not be filled with the Holy Ghost" as they were in primitive times? In holiness terms, Fish said that the experience of the Holy Spirit baptism was sanctification, sanctifying the souls of believers and eradicating sin. Spirit-led experience was not optional, Fish insisted, because preaching power came solely from the Holy Spirit. Neither could Spirit-led experience be taken for granted because "it requires much less vigilance to maintain a sound creed than a sound heart." (31)

Not surprisingly, holiness advocates such as A. B. Earle and John Q. Adams asserted that only the power of the Holy Spirit could unify believers. They testified that creeds and sacraments with their different understandings had failed to do so. Historians William McLoughlin and Timothy Smith both agreed that Earle was one of America's most popular evangelists in the nineteenth century. (32) However, McLoughline did not emphasize that Earle's writings focused on holiness as a common dependence upon the Spirit called the "rest of faith." (33) John Quincy Adams of New York, not the U.S. president but author of a book with the very Baptist title, Baptists, The Only Thorough Religious Reformers, was actually the source of much of Earle's holiness understandings, and he most likely received his experience under the tutelage of holiness pioneer Phoebe Palmer. (34) According to Adams and Earle, the baptism of the Holy Spirit had one primary biblical purpose that was most compatible with Baptist experience. Rooted in the Pentecostal-rich Acts chapter 2, this Spirit baptism gave believers an "enduement of power," meaning, a power to be witnesses, a power for mission. (35)

Not every holiness advocate was like Adams and Earle. Prominent pastor Richard Fuller of Baltimore, Maryland, demonstrates how some Baptists were attracted to the holiness experience in Christocentric and Pneuma-centric terms yet without the use of explicit Pentecostal language such as baptism of the Spirit. In many ways Fuller's focus on experimental faith was thoroughly Baptist. Formalism and ritualism "lull the conscience, regale the taste and fancy, but leave the heart unchanged," according to Fuller. (36) Devotion to a church produced "churchmen" but not Christians. Ordinances and ministries were valuable only as they promoted the biblical call to personal holiness. "Evangelical truth" could be acknowledged even by a non-believer, Fuller cautioned, but saving faith had to be experienced: "a full controlling reception of it [Jesus as the way, truth, and life]--a reception that thrones Jesus personally over the mind, the heart the life." (37)

References to the Spirit or the more Wesleyan focus on purity from sin, however, were not absent in Fuller's perspective. He exhorted that "the conscience must be purified from the stain of sin, and we must live every day in the consciousness of entire consecration to Jesus. 'The Kingdom of God,' the reign of Christ, 'is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.'" (38)

The most famous Baptist advocate of holiness, because of his association with revivalist D. L. Moody, and his work in American Baptist missions, was A. J. Gordon. Until recently Gordon has been neglected or at least partially avoided because of his premillennialism and identification with fundamentalism. Nevertheless, Gordon has been called a precursor of the Pentecostal tradition with his affirmation of healing and other holiness themes. He also represented, along with Moody and many non-Wesleyan holiness advocates, the Keswick wing of the Holiness movement. Named after the influential Keswick holiness conferences in England, Keswick holiness focused on the baptism of the Holy Spirit as an enduement of power for witnessing, but not entire sanctification from sin because sanctification was a gradual process.

Gordon's views on Spirit-led experience were most thoroughly developed in the 1894 publication, The Ministry of the Spirit. (39) According to Gordon, the Holy Spirit was "Christ's other Self," "the invisible image of Christ" who indwelled each believer with an enduement of power for service and witness through the experience known as the baptism of the Spirit. (40) This baptism was an experience subsequent to conversion--"a conscious definite act of appropriating faith"--and made available to all at Pentecost: "For it is as sinners that we accept Christ for our justification, but it is as sons that we accept the Spirit for our sanctification." (41)

To his Baptist colleagues who insisted upon practicing New Testament believer's baptism by immersion, but asserted a cessationism that relegated the experience of Spirit baptism only to the apostolic era, Gordon said that consistent exegesis demanded the practice of both or neither for the contemporary church. (42) At the same time he distanced himself from concepts espoused by Wesleyan holiness advocates. In Keswick terms, Gordon said that sanctification was not the Spirit-baptism, not an instantaneous moment, but a process that was not complete until Christ's second coming. Gordon argued against any experience that claimed an eradication of a believer's sinful nature, though he affirmed that the Spirit-filled believer could experience freedom from the "bondage of sinful appetites" and "constant victory over the self." (43) While Gordon was critical of what he perceived as excesses of holiness doctrine, he was sympathetic toward those who desired the experience:
   If we regard the doctrine of sinless perfection as a heresy, we
   regard contentment with sinful imperfection as a greater heresy.
   And we gravely fear that many Christians make the apostle's
   words, 'If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,' the
   unconscious justification for a low standard of Christian living.
   It were almost better for one to overstate the possibilities for
   sanctification in his eager grasp for holiness, than to understate
   them in his complacent satisfaction with a traditional unholiness.
   Certainly it is not an edifying spectacle to see a Christian
   worldling throwing stones at a Christian perfectionist. (44)

Baptists in the Holiness movement no doubt represented a minority, but they bore witness to a Word-Spirit-experience interplay in their Baptist identity.

While a focus on the Holy Spirit in the late nineteenth century is usually associated with more conservative groups, the evangelical-liberal Walter Rauschenbusch and his colleagues in the "Brotherhood of the Kingdom" fascinatingly highlighted the Holy Spirit as the foundation of an interface of personal holiness and social service. When the Brotherhood was formed in 1892, the preamble asserted, "The Spirit of God is moving men in our generation toward a better understanding of the idea of the kingdom of God on earth." (45) That same year in an article on missions in The Watchman, a Northern Baptist newspaper, Rauschenbusch wrote that "the regeneration of individual souls who shall become dwelling places and instruments of the Holy Spirit" was the "only solid and trustworthy basis" on which to build a society. (46) Rauschenbusch was influenced by some holiness writings and spoke in the affirmative of a "baptism of the Spirit" in his writings and, sounding very Baptist, spoke of the "democracy of the Spirit" inaugurated at Pentecost in Acts 2 that made the Spirit available to all believers' experience. (47)

Like holiness believers, Rauschenbusch said that the power of the Holy Spirit could unite Christians as they developed a new evangelism to bring in the Kingdom of God. At the same time he never identified with the Holiness movement and seemed to increasingly distance himself from holiness emphases about the Spirit. He questioned the obsession with sinless perfectionism and said that experience revealed too much focus on a personal mystical spirituality that isolated believers and made them indifferent to the world, and obviously then, to the social gospel. (48) The social gospel had become his judge of other experience.

The Rauschenbusch writing that most of us call our favorite is his "Why I Am a Baptist," written as a series of articles for the Rochester Baptist Monthly in 1905-1906. Rauschenbusch asserted that experimental religion was at the heart of Baptist life: "The Christian faith, as Baptists hold it, sets spiritual experience boldly to the front as the one great thing in religion." Experimental religion was by definition "voluntary," "spontaneous," and an expression of "original Christianity." The role of the Holy Spirit, while not engaged extensively in the pages of the articles, was not missing. Rauschenbusch affirmed that faith in Christ, according to biblical example, was "a spiritual experience. Those who believed in him felt a new spirit, the Holy Spirit, living in their hearts, inspiring their prayers and testimonies, melting away their selfishness, emboldening them to heroism. Paul called that new life faith." (49)

In his 1912 book, Christianizing the Social Order, Rauschenbusch continued to affirm both personal experience and a more corporate understanding of humanity in the social gospel. He maintained the importance of experimental faith and argued that social Christianity was "not a dilution of personal religion but a new form of experimental Christianity" (50) because too much focus on personal religion was a form of selfishness. Ironically--or intentionally--Rauschenbusch used the favorite term of the Holiness movement, "full salvation," to define his own perspective. Full salvation, Rauschenbusch concluded, was both personal and social, but "demands a Christian social order which will serve as the spiritual environment of the individual." (51)

Historian Winthrop Hudson noted that Rauschenbusch talked less of the power of the Holy Spirit in his last major work on The Theology of the Social Gospel in 1917. No explanation of the shift is without significant speculation, but Rauschenbusch's increasing identification of the social gospel as the new tangible demonstration of spiritual experience--molded out of his own Hell's Kitchen pastorate--is perhaps as good as any. While he had earlier in his career been open to religious emotion, he had finally become wary of any experience that did not produce social justice. (52)

Only brief mention will be made of the evangelical-liberal-based experience of Rauschenbusch's colleagues. For example, Leighton Williams, co-founder of the Brotherhood of the Kingdom, was a conversation partner with Rauschenbusch on issues of experience and the Holy Spirit. Williams' pamphlet, The Baptist Position: Its Experimental Basis, written ten years before Rauschenbusch's articles on Baptist identity, trumpeted the same key themes. Experimental faith was the key DNA of Baptist identity. "A creed maker is necessarily a legalist," Williams lamented. "He uses Scripture as a new law of which Christ is the supreme lawgiver." (53) The ultimate authority for religion was the Spirit, Williams asserted. "The life of Christ revealed to us in Scripture by the Spirit, interpreted by the Spirit, and wrought in us by the same Spirit, is the ultimate standard of faith and practice." "Scripture and Spirit witness together," Williams concluded. (54)

The natural conclusion to a study of Spirit-led experience is undoubtedly an analysis of reactions to Pentecostalism, which was born in 1901, and is now acknowledged as the fastest growing expression of Christianity globally. While Pentecostalism is no longer on the margins of academic study--or is it?--let me still offer a shorthand definition of its key teachings. Pentecostals primarily arose out of the Holiness movement and borrowed four key elements from it: conversion, healing, an imminent second coming of Jesus, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The key difference was that Pentecostals said the proof of the Spirit baptism was the supernatural gift of speaking in tongues--and this addition meant that Pentecostals had restored the full gospel of the New Testament.

As with the Holiness movement, most Baptists opposed Pentecostal explanations of Spirit-led experience. Responses from the early 1900s, published in the Western Recorder of Kentucky, and the Biblical Recorder of North Carolina, are illustrative of the disdain. Baptist opponents declared that speaking in tongues was meaningless gibberish, not authentic Christian experience. The excessive emotion on display in tongues demonstrated that "the heat of the heart burns into fever in the brain." (55)

The main critique against Pentecostal experience, however, was rooted in the Baptist acceptance of cessationism, the idea that the miracles of the New Testament had ushered in the birth of the church, but had ceased to exist in subsequent centuries. (56) If miraculous gifts had ceased, speaking in tongues had to be fanaticism and the gift of healing had to be psychic hypnosis. (57) Sometimes the critiques could turn racist since Pentecostalism's 1906 Azusa Street revival was led by William Seymour, an African American. J. J. Landsell of North Carolina said that when error was unleashed, there was no telling how far it could go. He declared:
   I have heard of some ignorant negroes who claimed to have
   received the baptism of the spirit and professed to speak in
   unknown tongues, and would babble out a string of sounds that
   neither they nor those who heard understood.... And there is
   as much sense in their ejaculations as there is in praying that
   the baby about to be sprinkled with water might also be baptized
   with the Holy Ghost. (58)

Baptists opposed Pentecostal experience for a variety of reasons--the evidence is clear about that--but the fact that Pentecostals claimed to outdo Baptists in restoring the New Testament church was not a digestible diet to those who fashioned themselves as the church that traced its roots to John the Baptist.

Not all Baptists, however, opposed the fledgling Pentecostal movement. Unsurprisingly various Baptists, usually with holiness leanings, were attracted to the intense, explicit focus on the Spirit in Pentecostal experience. Robert Mapes Anderson studied early Pentecostal leadership and found 10 of 45 to be former Baptists. (59) The small group of African-American believers who heard William Seymour's preaching and became the core of the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles, Pentecostalism's home base, had been recently excluded from a Baptist church because of their holiness beliefs. (60) Other Baptists traveled to Azusa and became Pentecostal. C. H. Mason founded the African-American, Church of God in Christ, after splitting from his holiness Baptist colleagues, and the Assemblies of God, which formed in 1914, had key early leaders such as former Southern Baptist, E. N. Bell.

One of the more fascinating stories of Baptists that promoted the experience of the full gospel was a group of churchesin the San Francisco Bay area led by William Keeney Towner, pastor of First Baptist Church, San Jose. Towner testified that he had no prior experience with Pentecostalism until 1921 when he heard about the preaching power of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson. Believing that his own church was spiritually stagnant, Towner asserted that he overcame his "aversion to women preachers" and invited McPherson to hold a series of meetings. McPherson came and held an eight-day campaign, an event that evangelical historian Edith Blumhofer said "stunned San Jose with evangelistic and healing services that defied description." (61) Towner claimed the baptism of the Spirit during the revival services:
   I experienced a vivid, vital, indelible consciousness of the
   presence ... I seemed conscious that I was lying on the floor
   with my arms outstretched and my feet crossed much as I had
   seen Jesus pictured on the Cross, and I cried unto God that I
   might be crucified with Christ and that sin might die out in me
   ... [I was] endued with the spirit of power. (62)

Towner initiated a full gospel Baptist ministry after McPherson's campaign, bringing in guest speakers of the full gospel Baptist or Pentecostal persuasion. A fact unknown to most Baptists, Sister Aimee was ordained to the Baptist ministry at First Baptist Church, San Jose, in 1922. (63)

Towner also influenced a hub of other ministers to adopt the full gospel experience. One convert was J. N. Hoover, a Baptist pastor for twenty-eight years, then serving at Santa Cruz, California. In his testimony, Hoover said that he decided to visit the services at Towner's church. At the end of the service he responded to the invitation. As ministers gathered around him, Hoover testified that "the power of God was upon me and I shook from head to foot like a leaf in the wind. Such an experience I had never known. A light more glorious than the noon-day sun fell upon me, and a power went thru me like a consuming fire while from my lips went forth with the heavenly language as the Spirit gave utterance." God had given him an experience like those who received the Spirit in the upper room at Pentecost, Hoover testified, and the experience was as "glorious as [his] conversion" many years before. (64) The testimonies of Towner and Hoover illustrated the experience of the power of the Holy Spirit that Baptists-turned-Pentecostal desired.

So, how does this survey of Baptists and experience tie together? No doubt it is difficult to speak of John Clarke and William Keeney Towner in the same breath, but that is at least an easy starting point. Tb be expected, any movement that emphasizes experience will find diversity and tons of it. Experience, ideally defined as free response to conscience and the Spirit, does that. Beyond the obvious, Baptist experience has been articulated in various theological categories, but with the focus on conversion and testimony of it, experimental piety that is intensely personal should also be expected. Baptist experience has often found comfort in a context of revival, but more so, in a quest for direct personal encounter with God, so much so that experience must be free because each person is accountable to Christ at the Last Judgment. Personal experience might never be completely free of socio-cultural influences--that point does not-need to be challenged--but that influence is not more important than the individual conscience in Baptist DNA. To say all that another way, Baptist experience has been an interplay of Word and voluntary experience and--let's not forget--Spirit.

Using the Wesleyan quadrilateral to describe Baptist or simply Protestant authority and practices, as some do, has some advantage: We have not all been anti-reason, at least not all of the time, and tradition, while not authoritative in the Baptist heritage, is not ignored. Those qualifiers, however, do not detract from the clear, strong conclusion that Baptist identity has most often been an interface of Spirit-inspired Word and experience. In theory the order has been Spirit-inspired Word, verified by experience. That has been the message behind Scripture as the sole authority for faith and practice. Baptist practice, however, has demonstrated that experience has been a close second, and functionally, sometimes first or equal. That could be the accusation against "Bapti-costals" or against the so-called subjective authority found in some liberal Baptists. However, research demonstrates, I believe, and I expect our own experience anecdotally confirms it--especially if you have had medical scares--that experience often comes first or the Word-experience dialogue is so intertwined one cannot be referred to without the other. Such a Word/Spirit/experience dialogue might be messy.

Pragmatically speaking, Baptist experience has asserted that religious liberty can be messy, but the alternative is worse. Congregational polity can be messy, but the alternative is worse. Diversity of experience can be messy, but the alternative is worse. Freedom can be messy, but that is not the last word because Baptist DNA says it is more than that: freedom can be vibrant and liberating, awaiting new light to burst forth from Word and experience and Spirit.

William Hull, in his 2008 little book on Baptist identity, titled The Meaning of the Baptist Experience, argued that Baptists in the twenty-first century should recapture their focus on experience defining faith. According to Hull, Baptists "view religion primarily as a reality to be experienced rather than a ritual to be enacted, as in Catholicism; a doctrine to be affirmed, as in Protestantism; or an ethic to be observed, as in Judaism." (65) The details of that description can be dissected--I would prefer that Hull had just called Baptists "experimental Protestants"--but his further point is that the diversity of experience does not spell a doom of chaos, but can be positively defining as Baptists have learned that "unrestricted spiritual freedom provides the optimum circumstance in which to experience the Christian faith." Hull's focus on Word and experience included brief mention of the Spirit. He sounded like Rauschenbusch or Mullins when he described the Letter of Ephesians' reference to unity in the Spirit: "the very experience of conversion in which they were filled with the Spirit made them one with other Spirit-filled believers." (66) Identification with the Spirit created a fellowship of diverse believers.

More than a brief mention of the Spirit is merited. Baptists have not only had an interplay of Word and experience. Hopefully this survey has driven home the thesis that Baptist DNA has at its core an interplay of Word, Spirit, and experience, or Spirit-inspired Word and Spirit-led experience. The interplay has always been there. Early Baptists such as John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, and Isaac Backus spoke of the role of the Spirit in conversion and could speak of being Spirit-led. The explicit emphasis on being Spirit-led in the American context, however, became plain--to use Obadiah Holmes' word about the gospel as studied plainness--in the late nineteenth century. Baptists attracted to the Holiness and Pentecostal movements became comfortable with the language of the Spirit. They wanted more intense experience and believed the Spirit could provide it. Even evangelical-liberals such as Walter Rauschenbusch wrote as if they were in the age of the Spirit and never abandoned experimental faith but refocused it as social gospel.

Throughout the Baptist heritage, then, Baptist experience, conversion or post-conversion, has been expressed in the language of the divine and the supernatural, most often in Christocentric terms but supplemented or--better said--undergirded by Pneuma-centric support. It is safe to say that, after a survey of Baptist history, no one should suggest that Baptists have had a shy member of the Trinity.

At the same time the large majority of Baptists had trouble with the explicit intense Spirit-led experience found among their more radical Spirit-baptized colleagues. Critics relied primarily on cessationism to dismiss discomforting experience and probably to assist their upward social mobility and hope for respectability. Reactions indicated that a more emotionally demonstrative full gospel was a negative assessment of their own religious experience. Pragmatically speaking, it was too much of a good thing, was too disorderly, did not match their own experience, and thus was deemed inauthentic experience. Notice, however, that opponents attacked one version of experience even while they affirmed their own understanding of experience. Experience was not the issue, but rather proper authentic experience. A commitment to Word, Spirit, and experience was not always neat, but was integral to the vibrant freedom found in Baptist DNA.

The interplay of Word, Spirit, and experience is a new or at least a renewed way of seeing Baptist DNA. The Word? Of course. But an interplay of Word/Spirit and experience? Of course. Spirit-led experience illuminates our interpretation of the Bible and the world around us, while the Spirit-inspired Word gives us the means by which to interpret our experience. Tb recognize the DNA, Molly Marshall's captivating phrase as she described a theology of the Holy Spirit is apropos: Let's join the Dance. (67)

Freedom, conscience, Spirit, Word, and experience. Reason and tradition have their roles in that list. As Mullins said, the Holy Spirit impels us into community or as A. J. Gordon exhorted, we are "incorporated" into the body of Christ "by the Head through the Holy Ghost." (68) Baptist DNA, however, highlights and emphasizes the interplay of Word and experience, and I am now suggesting, Word, Spirit, and experience, or Spirit-inspired Word and Spirit-led experience. Tb dismiss or ignore the DNA is to distort Baptist heritage, and I expect, the Baptist future. I am not Pentecostal or charismatic--or the son of either--but a one-sentence peek into the future can be suggested. Look around at global Christianity and the journey might be lost without the freedom for Word, Spirit, and experience.


(1) This friend (still a close friend) became a professor at a college affiliated with the Assemblies of God.

(2) Bill J. Leonard, A Sense of the Heart: Christian Religious Experience in the United States (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014).

(3) John Clarke, Ille News from New-England (London, 1652) in Edwin Gaustad, ed., Colonial Baptists: Massachusetts and Rhode Island (New York: Arno Press, 1980), 6.

(4) Ibid., 80, 85.

(5) Ibid., 80, 81.

(6) Edwin Gaustad, ed. Baptist Piety, The Last Will and Testimony of Ohadiah Holmes (TUscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 80, 110, 111.

(7) In Goold's words, "I own no separation." Rather, the church had excluded him. Goold contended, however, that a believer could be justified in separating in order to be faithful to the gospel. William G. McLoughlin and Martha Whiting Davidson, eds., "The Baptist Debate of April 14-15, 1668," in Colonial Baptists: Massachusetts and Rhode Island, ed. William G. McLoughlin and Martha Whiting Davidson (New York: Arno Press, 1980), 98, 113, 119.

(8) Ibid., 112.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid., 100.

(11) Ibid., Ill, 116.

(12) Ibid., 118.

(13) Ibid., 119.

(14) L. F. Greene, The Writings of John Leland (New York; 1845; New York: Arno Press, 1969). See "Rights of Conscience Inalienable," for Jeffersonian-type rhetoric, 179-192. Leland spoke elsewhere about the tyranny of restricting conscience. For example, see "The Elective Judiciary, with Other Things," 294, 295.

(15) John Leland, quoted in C. Douglas Weaver, In Search of the New Testament Church: The Baptist Story (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2008), 63.

(16) Leland, in Greene, ed., "Virginia Chronicle," The Writings of John Leland, 123.

(17) Ibid., "Short Narrative," 369.

(18) Ibid., "Virginia Chronicle," 123. See also Leland, in Green, ed., "Catechism," 45.

(19) Isaac Backus, "A Fish Caught in His Own Net (1768)," in William G. McLoughlin, ed., Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1968), 183, 185, 187, 198, 218, 260.

(20) Ibid., 273.

(21) Ibid., 207, 225, 275.

(22) Ibid., 190, 198, 207, 211, 238, 248.

(23) Ibid., 278, 281.

(24) Janet M. Lindman, Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 60. Lindman said that "evangelical Christianity became known as 'heart religion' in the eighteenth century." Morgan Edwards, key Baptist leader and historian of the late eighteenth century, rarely spoke of the Holy Spirit in his writings. See Thomas R. McKibbens and Kenneth L. Smith, The Life and Work of Morgan Edwards (New York: Arno Press, 1980), 117.

(25) William G. McLoughlin, Jr., Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (New York: Ronald Press Co., 1959), 136.

(26) E. Y. Mullins, "The Tfestimony of Christian Experience," in The Fundamentals, Vol. Ill (Chicago: Tbstimony Publishing Company, n.d.), 82. E. Y. Mullins, "A Study of Revivals," The Baptist Argus (16 March 1905): 1, 13, 16.

(27) "Experience of W. E. Noyes, A Pastor in Maine," in John Adams, ed., Experiences of the Higher Christian Life in the Baptist Denomination (New York: Sheldon and Company, 1870), 227.

(28) Donald Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism (Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1987).

(29) Timothy Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1976), 49.

(30) Henry C. Fish, The Price of Soul-Liberty and Who Paid It (1860; Paris, AR: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., 2008), 92.

(31) Henry C. Fish, Primitive Piety Revived or The Aggressive Power of the Christian Church (1855; Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1987), 59. For a fuller discussion of Baptists in the Holiness movement, see C. Douglas Weaver, "Baptists and Holiness in the Nineteenth Century: A Story Rarely Ibid," Wesleyan Theological Journal 49, 1 (Spring 2014): 156-174.

(32) McLoughlin, Jr., Modern Revivalism, 153-155. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform, 141.

(33) Absalom B. Earle, The Rest of Faith (Boston: James H. Earle, 1873).

(34) John Quincy Adams, Baptists, The Only Thorough Religious Reformers (1876; Paris, AR: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., 2008 reprint).

(35) John Q. Adams, Sanctification: a sermon, preached in the North Baptist Church, New York, June 12, 1859. John Q, Adams, "Experience of John Q, Adams," in John Adams, ed., Experiences of the Higher Christian Life, 130. Absalom Backus Earle, Abiding Peace (Boston: James H. Earle, Publisher, 1881), 20.

(36) Richard Fuller, "Personal Religion, Its Aids and Hinderances," in Philip Schaff and S. Irenaeus Prime, eds., History, Essays, Orations, and Other Documents of the Sixth General Conference of the Evangelical Alliance, Held in New York, October 2-12, 1873 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1874), 334.

(37) Ibid., 333.

(38) Ibid., 337.

(39) A. J. Gordon, The Ministry of the Spirit (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1894).

(40) Ibid., 47, 97.

(41) Ibid., 76-77.

(42) Ibid., 80.

(43) Ibid., 64, 75-77, 82, 117-123. Quotation on p. 121. After contending that an experience of instantaneous sanctification that gave an eradication of the sinful nature to be a "dangerously untrue," Gordon added: "But we do consider it possible that one may experience a great crisis in his spiritual life in which there is such a total self-surrender to God and such an infilling of the Holy Spirit, that he is freed from the bondage of sinful appetites and habits and enabled to have constant victory over self, instead of suffering constant defeat."

(44) Gordon, The Ministry of the Spirit, 121-122.

(45) Winthrop Hudson, ed., Walter Rauschenbusch: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 25.

(46) Walter Rauschenbusch, "Conception of Missions," The Watchman (24 November and 1 December 1892) in Hudson, Walter Rauschenbusch, 68.

(47) Rauschenbusch, "The Workers," 26 February, 5 March, 12 March 1898, The Baptist Union, in Hudson, Walter Rauschenbusch, 101. Rauschenbusch, "The New Evangelism," The Independent LVI (January-June 1904): 1054-1059, in Hudson, 143.

(48) Rauschenbusch, "The New Apostolate," Amity Missionary Conference, Sixth Annual Report, April 6, 7, and 8, 1896 (New York: E. Scott Co., Printers and Publishers, 1896), 30. Rauschenbusch, A Theology of the Social Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997; original 1917), 104.

(49) Rauschenbusch, "Why I Am a Baptist," Rochester Baptist Monthly (1895-1896). = Articles. main & ArtID = 305; = Articles.main&' ArtID = 305. Accessed 21 April 2016.

(50) Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order (New York: MacMillan Co., 1919), 105.

(51) Ibid., 112-116. Quotation on p. 116.

(52) Rauschenbusch, A Theology of the Social Gospel, 96.

(53) Leighton Williams, The Baptist Position: Its Experimental Basis (New York: E. Scott & Co., 1892), 5. The book was originally a series of articles in the Baptist Standard of Chicago.;view=lup;seq=3; https://babel.;view=lup;seq=3. Accessed 12 April 2016.

(54) Williams, The Baptist Position, 8, 15.

(55) Rev. Thomas Parry, "Errors of the Feelings," Western Recorder, 26 March 1908, p. 2.

(56) "Editorial: The So-Called Pentecostal Movement," Western Recorder, 12 September 1907, p. 5. "Questions Answered by Senex," Western Recorder, 24 January 1907, p. 2. C.R.W. Dobbs, "Baptized with the Spirit," Western Recorder, 31 January 1907, p. 3.

(57) Rev. P. H. Fontane, "Can Miracles Be Wrought Today?" Biblical Recorder, 12 May 1909, p. 5.

(58) Elder J. J. Landsell, "The Baptism of the Spirit," Biblical Recorder, 11 March 1908, p. 5.

(59) Robert M. Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 98-103.

(60) Estrelda Alexander, Black Fire: One Hundred Years of African-American Pentecostalism (Downers Grove, IL: 1VP Academic, 2011), 75, 111.

(61) Edith L. Blumhofer, Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 166.

(62) William Keeney Towner, "And After That Experience," Golden Grain (September 1926): 21.

(63) "Baptists Split on Ordination of Faith Curer," San Francisco Chronicle, 2 April 1922, p. Gil.

(64) J. N. Hoover, "The Baptism and Ministry of the Holy Spirit," The Latter Rain Evangel (July 1930): 7, 21. J. N. Hoover, "A Baptist Preacher's Testimony," The Pentecostal Evangel (13 March 1926): 5.

(65) William E. Hull, The Meaning of the Baptist Experience, New Baptist Covenant Edition (Atlanta: Baptist History and Heritage Society, 2008), 7.

(66) Ibid., 18, 20.

(67) Molly T. Marshall, Joining the Dance: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2003).

(68) Gordon, The Ministry of the Spirit, 63.

Doug Weaver is professor of religion and director of undergraduate studies in the department of Religion at Baylor University.
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Date:Jun 22, 2016
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