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November 14, 2017

Review in Methodist History 54:3 (April 2016), 221-222.

Wallace Thornton, Jr., When the Fire Fell: Martin Wells Knapp’s Vision of Pentecost and the Beginnings of God’s Bible School.  Cincinnati: Emeth Press, 2014.  341 pp.  $31.25.

Disputes over polity and doctrine repeatedly fractured American Methodism, producing various movements and denominations anchored in particular interpretations of John Wesley’s ideas.  In When the Fire Fell, Wallace Thornton explores the growth of one of these branches, the holiness movement.  He makes the case that Martin Wells Knapp (1853-1901) and the college he founded, God’s Bible School (Cincinnati, Ohio), constituted the center of and driving force behind the renewal of the holiness movement around the turn of the twentieth century.

Chapters one through four analyze the ministry of Martin Wells Knapp, charting his experience of entire sanctification and the beginnings of the Revivalist newspaper and God’s Bible School.  The school motto, “Back to the Bible—Back to Pentecost,” reflected his conviction that entire sanctification constituted a major biblical theme and that Pentecost should be repeated (6).  Chapters five through nine investigate the work of the school following Knapp’s death.  School leaders in the early twentieth century, at times primarily women, continued the work while expanding missions overseas and in cities.  GBS reached the “height of its influence . . . broadening its base to reach a wide spectrum of holiness and fundamentalist evangelicals” (281, 282).  It influenced such holiness denominations as the Church of the Nazarene, the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, and the Church of Christ in Christian Union. There was even a small but important impact on the rise of Pentecostalism, from which GBS, echoing Knapp, would distance itself by rejecting glossolalia.  While Knapp wanted to keep his movement interdenominational, it coalesced into a formal church in the 1910s, adopting the name Pilgrim Holiness Church in 1922.

This is not the first book on Knapp or God’s Bible School.  However, it breaks ground by comprehensively analyzing Knapp’s contributions to the holiness movement within and without Methodism.   It connects him, the son of devout Methodists who served as an MEC minister for more than a decade, to growing denominational battles over perfectionism, embourgeoisment, and gender roles. Thornton succinctly discusses the development of Wesleyan ideas of sanctification in America since Phoebe Palmer.  The major exception to these roots was acceptance of premillennialism, which links Knapp and GBS with both earlier holiness leaders such as Palmer and to the later fundamentalist movement.  Thus, the author also successfully positions his subject within the larger context of American Christianity.

Thornton relies heavily on the Revivalist and contemporary holiness papers, histories of God’s Bible School, and biographies of its leaders to construct this account of Knapp’s ministry.  He also demonstrates outstanding command of the secondary literature on church history and theology.  The treatment is admittedly sympathetic, but the analysis of Knapp’s views is generally rigorous.  The possible exception arises when dealing with beliefs not clearly grounded in a literal interpretation of Scripture, usually central to the GBS hermeneutic. For example, Knapp wished to repeat Pentecost, but he and his associates rejected glossolalia, which Acts plainly portrays.  The author does not explain this position well.

Thornton claims to explore the “developments leading up to and surrounding the beginnings of God’s Bible School,” but he goes well beyond the early years of the institution, which was founded in 1900 (xvii).  The added length does not detract from the main points of the book; rather, it expands upon Knapp’s significance.  By highlighting the ministry and legacy of Martin Wells Knapp, Wallace Thornton makes a notable contribution to holiness studies, especially within the context of American Methodist history.

Joseph Super, Ph.D. West Virginia University Morgantown, West Virginia


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