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November 14, 2017

Review in The Arminian 32:2 (Fall 2014), 8-9.

Wallace Thornton. When the Fire Fell: Martin Wells Knapp’s Vision of Pentecost and the Beginnings of God’s Bible School. Wilmore, KY: Emeth Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-60947-069-2. 362 pp.

In commemoration of the centennial of God’s Bible School and College (Cincinnati, OH), Wallace Thornton has captured the vision and energy of Martin Wells Knapp and the Revivalist family. Having immersed himself in the primary source material related to his topic, he has infused his book with the passion and energy that befits a story about a minister who sought to bring “the power they had at Pentecost” back to the Church. Through these early documents, Thornton guides his readers into close proximity to the radical holiness culture that Knapp and his associates fostered. Only then can they realize just how sharply Knapp’s vision of “God Over All” contrasted with the dominant religious culture of the American fin de siècle.

As an insider, Thornton gives a prominent role to the “faith principle” in Knapp’s ministry. Inspired by the self-supporting missions of Bishop William Taylor, Knapp saw this as the corollary of absolute dependence on God. If Christians were fully consecrated to God and relied on God’s provision without doubt or compromise, God would supply the means to carry out the mission of God. Knapp embraced this “faith principle” in every aspect of his life and ministry and imparted it to the Revivalist family as essential for godly living. From the International Holiness Union and Prayer League to the Revivalist Press, from God’s Bible School to domestic and international missions, Knapp gave everything to God—in his mind, literally—and manifested a total dependence on God to supply the means. Once readers grasp just how radically Knapp applied this notion of “God’s proprietorship,” the movement he founded begins to make sense. According to Thornton, this practice of full consecration supplies the key to its astonishing success, its resilience and its enduring influence on the global Church.

Without doubt the ministry of Martin Wells Knapp had its greatest impact on world mission outreach, particularly through missionaries like Charles and Lettie Cowman, Oswald Chambers and Fred T. Fuge. Thornton devotes considerable attention to this central concern. He also connects Knapp’s ministry with William Seymour, the Azusa Street Revival, and the emergence of Pentecostalism (associated with glossolalia). Knapp had already led the way in his “four-fold gospel” (salvation by faith, entire sanctification, divine healing and premillennial eschatology) and in his primitivist concern for restoring the apostolic faith of the New Testament Church—“bringing the Church back to Pentecost.” He and the Revivalist family were convinced that the restoration of apostolic Christianity would lead to the greatest outbreak of revival the world had ever seen, the final harvest before the return of Jesus. As the author states on page 61: “Not only could Pentecost be repeated, it must be—the very spiritual life of the believer and the church depended on it.” Thornton’s attention to primary sources brings this radical holiness mentality of the Revivalist family to light in unparalleled detail, and this is perhaps his greatest contribution in this book.

Other significant aspects of How the Fire Fell include close studies of key people in the history of God’s Bible School, including W. B. Godbey, Charles Cowman and George B. Kulp, Seth C. Rees, M. G. Stanley and Bessie Queen. Even as an insider to the Revivalist family, the author does not overlook the human weakness of these “heroes of the faith.” He recognizes that some characters manifested eccentricity; conflict erupted between leaders; and at times the Revivalist family faced division. Yet Thornton demonstrates how the movement’s leaders persisted and triumphed over these challenges through their unflinching adherence to the faith principle. He uses the primary sources to tell this story rather than allowing his own feelings to defend the movement. This intensive use of the historical documents contributes significantly to the credibility of How the Fire Fell.

Wallace Thornton does not have a doctorate, but perhaps he should be honored with one for writing this book. He has made a substantial contribution to the history of the Holiness movement, and distinguished himself as an alumnus of God’s Bible School and College. Of course he has written How the Fire Fell from a strongly sympathetic perspective, and one could criticize the book as biased. However, the author would probably receive that observation as a compliment and count it a privilege to be numbered among the Revivalist family.

Barry W. Hamilton

Emeritus Professor of Historical and Contemporary Theology, Northeastern Seminary (Rochester, NY).

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