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November 14, 2017

Review in the Wesleyan Theological Journal 50:2 (Fall 2015), 268-270.

Wallace O. Thornton, Jr. When the Fire Fell: Martin Wells Knapp’s Vision of Pentecost and the Beginnings of God’s Bible School Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2014.

Reviewed by David Bundy, Research Professor of World Christian Studies, New York Theological Seminary, Visiting Professor, Seoul Theological Seminary.

Wallace O. Thornton, Jr. has provided a remarkably important book that examines a key figure in the Radical Holiness Movement, Martin Wells Knapp (1853-1901).  Knapp was the progenitor of many Holiness denominations and Pentecostalism.  The most important early founders of North American Pentecostalism (William Seymour, A. J. Tomlinson, Glenn Cook, Robert McAlister) were students at God’s Bible School and developed the implications of his theology.  Many of his associates were involved in the founding of Holiness denominations including the Pilgrim Holiness Church (Seth Cook Rees) and the Church of the Nazarene (C. W. Ruth and A. M. Hills) as well as the Metropolitan Church Association (A. J. Harvey and others).  He worked closely with publisher/evangelist L. L. Pickett and Henry Clay Morrison, founder of Asbury Theological Seminary, and a host of other Radical Holiness leaders.  As a publisher, he built The Revivalist (later God’s Revivalist) to a circulation of more than 20,000 copies per week.  The Revivalist Press made A. M. Hills (publishing his first book), Seth Cook Rees, Samuel A. Keen, G. D. Watson, Abbie Morrow, and a host of others into household names among the Holiness people.  The songbook edited with L. L. Pickett sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Knapp was a Methodist Episcopal minister until the last year of his life.  His had wanted to join the William Taylor self-supporting missions but was rejected for health reasons.  Maintaining that interest in mission, he created with Juji Nakada (arguably the founder of the Holiness Church in Japan and the progenitor of the Holiness churches in Korea) and the Cowmans what would later become the Oriental Missionary Society.  From the mission work from his ministry come Holiness denominations in India, South Africa, China, Korea, Japan, Mexico and other countries.  Because the institution he founded (God’s Bible School) and God’s Revivalist now seem to many to be on the margin of the Holiness churches and even the Wesleyan Theological Society (perhaps due to the struggles over the meanings of Christian Perfection and glossolalia), Knapp has been ignored by the traditions to which he gave birth through his theological synthesis and organizational prowess.

The theology of Knapp is carefully elucidated, for the first time, in Thornton’s book.  It was a theology that called Christians “back to the Bible” but not in a Fundamentalist way.  He insisted that the paradigm for the church and responsible Christian living must be that of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels and as lived by the early church in the Acts of the Apostles.  This was model for the “Pentecostal Church.”  The “Pentecostal Church” was to minister to the poor, share all things in common, and serve those in need.  It was to be engaged in evangelism and in leading converts into the experience of Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

It was a socially activist holiness theology, not only a holiness theology concerned with the interior spiritual life.  Thornton describes the ministry developed by Knapp to live out this theology.  Knapp was a strong advocate of social, economic and educational justice.  He worked with the poor in Cincinnati and the mountains of Kentucky, and he sought to protect the economically and socially vulnerable.  He promoted vigorously the ministry of women.  So revolutionary was this that it attracted attention beyond the Holiness movement; during the Great Depression, Eleanor Roosevelt attended a Thanksgiving meal served for the poor of Cincinnati on the “Mount of Blessings” at God’s Bible School.

Knapp also accepted the “Four-fold Gospel” evangelistic slogan of A. B. Simpson, which included the recent theological innovations of premillennial eschatology and divine faith-healing.  He was also an organizer of the Chicago Holiness Convention that was organized in response to the exclusion of the Radical Holiness leaders from the Chicago Convention of the National Holiness Association.  The Radical Holiness leaders’ counter-convention drew the crowds and made many converts, forcing the NHA to generally adopt the Radical theological agenda.  Thornton’s analysis needs to be read in conjunction with the analysis of that event by William Kostlevy, Holy Jumpers: Evangelicals and Radicals in Progressive Era America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) who focuses on other actors in that event.

Thornton places Knapp in a careful reading of American religious history.  In addition to interacting with the work of Kostlevy, Thornton uses the popular “primitivism” category of Richard Hughes.  Most helpfully, he accurately describes the various interpretations of data by earlier historians and theologians.  Indeed, the volume could be read as a bibliographical essay on the interpretation of late nineteenth and early twentieth century religion with Knapp as an example!  The volume fills an important gap in the study of the Holiness Movements.  The institutions of the Radical Holiness tradition are devoted to education for practical ministry and for entering the social mainstream.  They have not devoted resources to the study of that branch of the tradition.  To further complicate things, these institutions were also late to recognize their own importance in the American Holiness story and to begin to document that tradition.  As a result, primary sources are hard to find.  Thus, another significant contribution of Thornton is the locating and evaluating of many rare and important sources.

Thornton also deals with the dark side of the Holiness tradition as represented by Knapp.  At times, he was shrill and angry at co-religionists who disappointed him.  At times, his call for social reform and transformation appeared to focus on the symptoms rather than the structural issues.  He encouraged independent activity but clearly dominated his ministry.  The struggles for power and direction of the ministry after his premature death suggest that the structures of ministry were not well grounded in the legal and cultural realities.

When the Fire Fell is well-written and well-researched.  It is an important book.  It will long be both a standard work of the history of the Holiness Movements and a mine for other scholars as they begin to more closely examine this pivotal period in Christian history. Indeed, it can be argued that it provides the proto-history of about twenty-five percent of Christians who now are living out the theological distinctions promoted and adapted by Martin Wells Knapp.


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