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The cleansing stream I see! I see!

I plunge, and oh, it cleanseth me!

Phoebe Palmer's hymn celebrating the sanctifying power of Christ's blood joined a chorus of American voices seeking to be made clean.

One of the strongest of these voices emerged from a small college in the forests of northern Ohio. Built in a key town on the Underground Railroad, Oberlin College was a novelty in its day, admitting women and integrating black students. Its reforming vision came straight out of another kind of integration: the belief that evangelical piety and social reform must be indivisible.

Oberlin's first president, Asa Mahan, and its first theology professor, the famous evangelist Charles Finney, did not hold the traditional Calvinist view of total depravity and predestination. They taught instead that sinners had the "natural" ability to believe, and that evangelistic methods could overcome their "moral" inability through the persuasive power of the Gospel. They understood saving faith as an act of the will that anyone could be expected to make immediately, without waiting for God to give the necessary grace.

In the early years of their activities at Oberlin, both Finney and Mahan applied this same understanding to the Christian's growth toward spiritual maturity—that is, the classical theological topic of sanctification. To be sanctified, they insisted, required only the same kind of simple, instantaneous faith one exercised to be converted.

In 1836, both Mahan and Finney experienced "second conversions" that they identified as "baptisms with the Holy Ghost." Mahan believed that as a result of this experience, his desires and inclinations had been purified, so that he not only was free from committing sin but no longer had a habitual ...

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