Recently we've heard a lot about the rapid worldwide growth of Pentecostal and charismatic groups. Researcher David Barrett and his team have been reminding us for years that these groups have passed all others in their global spread. Polls here at home have showed similarly high domestic growth rates in such groups.
Some secular commentators have found this growth menacing—the burgeoning of yet another potentially violent, reactionary religious group. Some evangelicals, too, are discomfited, finding the charismatics' emphasis on Spirit-bestowed gifts such as tongues and prophecy exotic, if not downright alien.
Yet one needn't search far in the history of evangelicalism to discover a close affinity between charismatic and non-charismatic evangelicals. And evangelicals who envy the charismatics' global growth may even find in this affinity a source of inspiration.
The truth is, some of the most prominent, influential leaders and groups in the evangelical lineage have yearned for, attained, and taught a transformative, post-conversion experience identified with the Holy Spirit.
Sure, these experiences have not usually come attached to the gift of tongues. But in other ways they have resembled closely the modern charismatic experience dubbed "baptism in (or with, or of) the Holy Spirit."
Take, for instance, the prayers of the early American Puritan Cotton Mather (1663-1728), recorded in his diary. Mather asked God to "fulfill the ancient Prophecy, of pouring out the Spirit on all Flesh," and in so doing "revive the extraordinary and supernatural Operations with which He planted His Religion in the primitive Times of Christianity, and order a Descent of His holy Angels to enter and possess His Ministers, and cause them to … fly thro' the World with the everlasting Gospel to preach unto the Nations."
Transported by the power of this vision, Mather concluded after this prayer that the Holy Spirit was already preparing to so empower his ministers, and that as a result "The World shall be shaken wonderfully!"
In 1734, the great theologian and preacher of awakening Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) carried the same torch as he prayed the words of Ephesians 1:17-19 over his congregation in Northampton, "That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know … what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe."
Soon after, the people of Northampton experienced a spiritual awakening that "greatly enlivened" their public worship and spurred them to seek out and pray for the lost.
About a century later, a young lawyer named Charles Finney (1792-1875) also discovered the energizing power of the Holy Spirit. He gave his experience the name used in his day by some Methodists: "As I turned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost. Without any expectation of it … the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. I wept aloud with joy … "
Finney joined the young Methodist "holiness movement" in recommending the experience to all Christians—and especially all Christian workers.
A few decades later, Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) stood in this same tradition when, at the prayerful instigation of two elderly Free Methodist women, "Auntie Cook" and "Mrs. Snow," he travailed in prayer that he might "get the power." As R. A. Torrey (1856-1928; founder of Biola University in California) later told it, Moody received his answer without warning in the midst of the bustle and hurry of New York's Wall Street:
"The power of God fell upon him as he walked up the street and he had to hurry off to the house of a friend and ask that he might have a room by himself, and in that room he stayed alone for hours; and the Holy Ghost came upon him, filling his soul with such joy that at last he had to ask God to withhold His hand, lest he die on the spot from very joy."
Embarking on an evangelistic tour of England, Moody now found that "the power of God wrought through him mightily in North London, and hundreds were added to the churches." Always after that, Moody urged his friend, "Torrey, I want you to preach on the baptism with the Holy Ghost."
None of these evangelical forefathers stressed the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in 2 Corinthians 12 and taught in the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. None even dwelled on the Spirit's work of sanctification (Christian holiness or "fruit of the Spirit")—long the theme of the Wesleyans and arguably the primary focus of scriptural and traditional teaching on the Spirit.
But each of them sought an experience of "Holy Spirit baptism" subsequent to conversion that would provide boldness and power in ministry—reflecting the Spirit-led boldness of the apostles (Acts 4:8, 13, 29, 31).
Those who wonder at the rapid global spread of Christian "Spirit movements" should not overlook this spiritual explanation. And those who are deeply committed to the worldwide preaching of the gospel, yet feel little affinity with charismatic Christianity, might wish to recall this deeper, shared meaning of the Holy Spirit's baptism: Though Scripture and tradition join in insisting that the Holy Spirit does far more in the lives of ordinary Christians than equip them "to boldly go" and spread the gospel, it appears that He does do at least this—and does it surpassing well.
The basic idea of this article and several of the examples come from an essay by Richard Lovelace, emeritus professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary: "Baptism in the Holy Spirit and the Evangelical Tradition," Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 7:2 (Fall, 1985), 101-123.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Standing Alone for Unity | The attempt to bring European Christians together forced one reformer, Caspar Schwenckfeld, straight to the fringe. (Sept. 20, 2002)
9/11, History, and the True Story | Wartime authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis help put 9/11 in perspective. (Sept. 13, 2002)
Evangelicalism's Decades of Fire | New historical survey highlights twentieth-century evangelicalism's impassioned middle decades. (Sept. 6, 2002)
A Protestant Bishop Speaks Out on the Stakes of Public Education | Why concerned parents should read the 17th-century Moravian educational reformer Jan Amos Comenius. (Aug. 30, 2002)
Spurgeon on Jabez | What history's most prolific preacher said, in 1871, about the Prayer of Jabez (Aug. 23, 2002)
History in a Flash | A new CD-ROM offers quick access to the facts of church history, plus interactive quizzes. (Aug. 16, 2002)
How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife (Aug. 9, 2002)
Divvying up the Most Sacred Place | Emotions have historically run high as Christians have staked their claims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Aug. 2, 2002)
Legacy of an Ancient Pact | Why do Christians still chafe under restrictions in some Muslim nations? It all started with Umar (July 26, 2002)
Big Church Revival | Christian gyms and shopping malls may be new, but full-service megachurches are positively medieval. (July 19, 2002)
Phantom Saints | Juan Diego could soon join a long line of pious, exemplary, and quite possibly imaginary Catholic heroes. (July 12, 2002)
2002 Is Not 1789 | Before trying to figure out what the framers of the Constitution really thought, remember that they were from a wildly different country—the past (July 5, 2002)
Between Extremes | Church leaders didn't like Pelagius's ideas about free will, but they've never been able to avoid them completely (June 28, 2002)
Severe Success | Bernard of Clairvaux was a tough act to follow—yet thousands of Christians walked his path. (June 21, 2002)
Coming to America | Commentators who call proposed INS policies an unprecedented invasion of privacy forget what foreign visitors were asked 80 years ago, and why. (June 14, 2002)