Paper Pulpits: The Role of Literature in the Holiness Movement

January 17, 2019 // 2018 // Issue 6+Convention Herald

By Wallace Thornton, JR

A love for reading was a prominent feature of the glorious birthright bequeathed to the Holiness Movement by early Methodism. Holiness people took seriously the observation of John Wesley, “It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people.” Of course, he expected such reading to center on the Bible as the ground of all truth, with Wesley himself confessing to be a man of one book—“the Book of God!” However, Wesley urged his followers to read widely, reprimanding those who confined their reading only to the Bible—“If you need no book but the Bible, you are got above St. Paul. He wanted others too.”

To facilitate reading among his followers, Mr. Wesley wrote and edited numerous volumes, dealing with subjects as diverse as grammar, history, and medicine, but primarily treating religious concerns. In fact, Wesley and the early Methodists employed the full range of religious literature including biblical commentary (Joseph Benson, Adam Clark, et.al.) and theological treatises (John Fletcher, Richard Watson, et.al.). Perhaps most popular though were spiritual biographies, with accounts of characters as diverse as Hester Ann Rogers, William Carvosso, and Lorenzo Dow adding their witness to the heart-felt, life-transforming power of Christian holiness attested to by Wesley’s Veterans and in John Wesley’s own Journals, which still holds the record as the longest running daily journal known to historians. Such testimonials sparked similar transformations among readers so that testimony begot testimony, fueling not only the earlier Methodist revival but also the later Holiness Movement, which would keep them in circulation long after the mainline Methodist denominations had largely forgotten them. Indeed, such biographical witnesses would provide a model for the first major holiness periodical, The Guide to Christian Perfection, begun in 1839 by Timothy Merritt.

Merrit’s vision for this magazine sprang from his desire to make more widely accessible testimonies such as those he enjoyed in a Methodist love feast. Among the initial supporters of this endeavor were sisters Sarah Lankford and Phoebe Palmer, both at the forefront of the fledgling Holiness Movement through the influence of their Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness. Their testimonies to entire sanctification were among the hundreds featured in the periodical which was renamed The Guide to Holiness in 1864. During the Civil War, reports by Phoebe and her husband, Dr. Walter Palmer, from their evangelistic tour of Great Britain, became regular items in the Guide, helping to keep circulation strong even during wartime austerities.

The Palmers eventually purchased the Guide, and under Phoebe’s editorship it reached a peak circulation of 37,000 from 1870 to 1873. To put this in context, few secular magazines in America had a higher subscription rate at the time. Furthermore, the Guide was probably in the top ten of about 400 religious periodicals then published in the United States, rivaling the circulation of the leading officially-sanctioned Methodist periodical—The New York Christian Advocate and Journal. 

In addition to American readers, the Guide reached subscribers in Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe. Similar reception welcomed books penned by Phoebe Palmer. For example, in the first six months after her book The Way of Faith was published in French, 1,600 copies were purchased in Paris alone, demonstrating the astounding degree to which the Holiness revival of the nineteenth century was an international phenomenon.

Such popular reception not only bears mute testimony to the vast sweep of the Holiness Movement, but also reflects the integral role of “paper pulpits”—books, periodicals, and pamphlets—in the development and growth of the Holiness Movement well into the twentieth century. By the early 1890s, there were over forty holiness periodicals being produced in the United States, in addition to a vast array of more permanent literature from such publishing houses as Christian Witness, Pentecostal Publishing, and Revivalist Press. 

While these publications were buoyed by the high tide of holiness revivalism, they in turn played a pivotal role in shaping the movement that birthed them. Entire groups of holiness people became identified by their loyalty to some of the leading periodicals that drew them together in seminal fellowships, with the “Gospel Trumpet people,” for instance, developing into the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and “Revivalist people” similarly rallying around God’s Bible School and other initiatives launched by Martin Wells Knapp. Indeed, much like other populist religious movements of the time, it could be said of many holiness people that editors wielded the power usually associated with bishops in mainline Methodism—promoting approved evangelists by publishing slates and revival reports, soliciting for worthwhile missionary work at home and abroad, and connecting likeminded folks at the grassroots level. Likewise, writers were among the most celebrated of holiness advocates during the nineteenth century.

Many holiness evangelists found that the printed page augmented their preaching circuit and gave them a much wider acquaintance among the rank-and-file than otherwise possible. Such luminaries as W. B. Godbey and A. M. Hills credited their books with taking their ministries to a new level and opening up many doors to them and the holiness message. Indeed, some authors found that the holiness book market could at times prove quite lucrative as the masses clamoured for more instruction in the way of holiness.

One of the more spectacular “success stories” among holiness writers was that of J. A. Wood, who went against his parents’ warning that he would never see his money again and spent his life’s savings to publish his first book, Perfect Love. The resulting sales belied their concern—between 50,000 and 60,000 copies in the United States during Wood’s lifetime. In his Autobiography, Wood reported that “every dollar that built and furnished” his “large, beautiful, comfortable and delightful home at Lincoln Park,” California, “came from the sales of ‘Perfect Love’”!

This should not be taken to indicate financial motivations on the part of Wood or other holiness authors. Wood’s response to his parents’ caution regarding the publication of Perfect Love proved typical of the self-sacrificing attitude of many holiness writers: “I shall do it, loss or no loss. God has directed and assisted me to write it, and money is out of the question.” Indeed, many of the classic holiness books were the fruit of sacrifice and suffering. Palmer’s Way of Holiness distills the sorrow that she felt after the deaths of three children. The publication of Knapp’s Christ Crowned Within was financed through the sale of his “household goods,” and his classic Impressions was forged in the furnace of affliction as he grieved the death of his first wife. 

  Samuel Logan Brengle, who by conservative estimate had over a million copies of his eight books circulated, received none of the resulting profits which instead went to the Salvation Army in which he served as an officer. He produced perhaps his most influential book, Helps to Holiness, as a series of articles for that organization’s War Cry magazine while convalescing from a near-fatal injury from a brick thrown by a ruffian. Seeing this as part of a providential plan, Brengle often commented that “if there had been no little brick, there would have been no little book!” With a similar attitude, his wife, Elizabeth, kept the brick and painted on it the text of Genesis 50:20 in which Joseph told his brothers, “ye thought evil against me, but God meant it unto good.”

  Such attitude, and the writing it produced, should not be summarily dismissed as the fruit of human inspiration. Rather, Brengle himself admitted that he would “get into an agony sometimes in trying to write a little bit of an article. I can’t dash things off instantly. I sweat and labor over my subject…” However, he freely credited the Holy Spirit’s work of entire sanctification with any inspiration that his writing bore—“Out of that experience and from that moment has flowed my worldwide ministry, my preachings, testimonies, articles and books.” Likewise, Beverly Carradine’s book Sanctification stemmed from his own experience of entire sanctification, with the author later writing, “I remember until today how my fingers trembled and body shook as I flung on these pages the burning experience of my soul.” W. B. Godbey similarly asserted that “the reason” he had written books—eventually around 200 volumes—was “the simple fact that God gave them to me.” Martin Wells Knapp also testified, “God filled me with messages which, like pent-up fire, must find expression. I wrote because He filled me so full I could not help it.”

  It would be hard to overestimate the influence of the resultant “revival kindlings” on the Holiness Movement, on Christianity at large, and even on the larger culture. For example, readers of holiness devotionals such as Lettie Cowman’s Streams in the Desert and Oswald Chamber’s My Utmost for His Highest have included such diverse leaders as Chiang Kai-shek and President George W. Bush. Far beyond such luminaries, these best-selling devotionals have directly influenced millions of other readers as well as inspiring many preachers, teachers, and other devotional writers, from Henry Blackaby to Joni Eareckson Tada, who have in turn exponentially expanded their impact.

Of particular significance is the role that literature has played in shaping the Holiness Movement as it has faced various challenges throughout its formative century. Unsurprisingly, most early holiness books and periodicals focused on the doctrine of holiness. For the classic holiness writers, all other issues found proper perspective only when viewed in light of this doctrine, aptly termed The Central Idea of Christianity by Bishop Jesse T. Peck. While the primary emphasis was on entire sanctification, strong collateral interests included topics with an obvious bearing on Christian experience and testimony. Accordingly, much holiness ink was devoted to such issues as tongues-speaking, assurance and security, and competing views of sanctification.

  W. B. Godbey, who unsheathed his prolific pen against tongues-speaking (glossolalia), has been credited by Pentecostal scholar Vinson Synan with dissuading numerous holiness folk from joining the ranks of early Pentecostalism. Throughout the twentieth century, a veritable chorus of holiness writers joined Godbey’s warning against identifying tongues-speaking as evidence of Spirit-baptism. This proved a particularly critical issue for Nazarenes, with leaders like general superintendent John A. Knight and Herald of Holiness editor W. T. Purkiser joining scholars like Donald S. Metz and Timothy L. Smith in an attempt to buttress the denomination against the charismatic tide that followed in the wake of earlier Pentecostalism. However, the Nazarenes were not alone in opposing the “tongues” phenomenon, with the Wesleyan general superintendents issuing their own warnings against the “Charismatic Movement” and “speaking in an unknown tongue” in 1975. The significance of the issue of tongues-speaking for the holiness grassroots may be reflected even better in a partial list of other writers addressing it, many of whom were pastors and evangelists: Morris Chalfant, Gary Goodell, J. A. Huffman, B. F. Neeley, C. W. Ruth, George H. Smith, Daniel Stafford, Joshua Stauffer, George I. Straub, H. E. Will, and Dale Yocum. Particularly significant in reflecting the international implications of the issue are works by missionaries such as Wesley Duewel and Brady Duren. The cumulative effect of these writings has helped ensure the preservation among holiness groups of an emphasis on the Giver and the spiritual graces He imparts rather than on the gifts that are exalted among charismatic groups.

Even more holiness ink has been expended in an effort to oppose Calvanistic (or Reformed) theological errors that undermine the Wesleyan optimism of grace and the doctrine and experience of entire sanctification. From Bishop Randolph Foster’s Objections to Calvinism as It Is to Richard S. Taylor’s The Scandal of Pre-Forgiveness, holiness writers have sought to inculcate in their readers A Right Conception of Sin (another title by Taylor) so that they may in turn enjoy Scriptural Freedom from Sin. (The latter title is that of a book by Nazarene Henry E. Brockett in response to the attack on the doctrine of entire sanctification by H. A. Ironside, long-time pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, published as Holiness: The False and the True.) The best known holiness evangelist of his day, Uncle Bud Robinson, summed up the concern colorfully in his My Objections to a Sinning Religion. 

Holiness writers especially turned their polemical guns on two aspects of “sinning religion,” which they portrayed as a theological oxymoron. First, they launched an all-out assault on what was popularly termed once-saved-always-saved teaching in books and booklets like David Anderson’s Conditional Security, D. P. Denton’s Can A Saved Person Ever Be Lost?, Harry E. Jessops’ That Burning Question of Final Perseverance, and Wesley H. Wakefield’s The Bible Basis of Christian Security. Second, holiness writers were quick to point out the inadequacies of attempts to almagamate Reformed theology with the Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification—an effort often associated with the Keswick Convention in England and related Higher Life conferences in the United States. In contrast to the Wesleyan emphasis on the purification or “eradication” of the carnal mind from the Christian in the experience of entire sanctification, the Keswick movement has advocated a counteraction or “suppression” scheme for dealing with the carnal mind. Needless to say, the theological amalgam proves to be ultimately untenable, as demonstrated both in A. M. Hill’s Scriptural Holiness and Keswick Teaching Compared and as argued from the opposite angle by Reformed scholar Andrew David Naselli. However, due to its very nature as an attempt to reconcile two opposing theologies, the rather elusive position of Keswick has proven to be a particularly insidious foe to the historic Wesleyan/Holiness understanding of entire sanctification, even though it has been successfully rebutted by such towering theological giants as Stephen S. White. Indeed, a suppression view of sanctification may remain one of the most significant theological threats to the Holiness Movement today, as many popular authors and radio teachers advocate a management approach to the carnal mind, failing to reckon with the full implications of Romans 8:7.

These issues help to underscore the vital place of literature in both promulgating and preserving the truths of biblical holiness, a role that IHC cofounder H. E. Schmul fully appreciated. As editor of the Convention Herald and founder of Schmul Publishing Company, he endeavored to keep classic holiness literature in circulation while encouraging the creation of new “paper pulpits” to speak timeless truths to contemporary situations. He, like Free Methodist founder B. T. Roberts, understood that “preachers and people may backslide; but the literature remains to remind them of what they once were.” For instance, in light of the perennial conflicts arising from attempts to relegate the experience of holiness to a life-long process of subduing the carnal mind (i.e. progressive sanctification) rather than the Wesleyan commitment to growth in grace following a distinct, complete cleansing from the carnal mind by the work of the Holy Spirit (i.e. entire sanctification), the rebuttals of Daniel Steele against the liberal Methodist scholars of his day remain remarkably relevant.

  Thus, the need for such printed witnesses continues unabated. While the message of the holiness classics will never grow outdated, there remains a pressing urgency for publications addressing current challenges such as moral relativism, postmodernism, and emergent trends. Each new generation needs to have a fresh encounter with the truth so that the experiential nature of holiness is not lost. Thankfully, some recent releases from Schmul Publishing Company signal encouraging developments that hearken back to our earliest literature with its emphasis on entire sanctification as lived experience. These books, Voices from Prison Walls and its sequels, by New Jersey state prison chaplain William Cawman, share numerous testimonials demonstrating not only that entire sanctification is alive and well, but that such experience still resonates with readers today. Indeed, it is to be hoped that such “paper pulpits” may well be at the vanguard of another great revival of holiness! Ⅸ