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November 14, 2017

Review in World Christianity and the Fourfold Gospel Vol. 1 no. 1, (September 2015), 147-148.

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

Wallace Thornton’s When the Fire Fell is perhaps the single most important contribution to the historiography of the twentieth century Holiness Movement to appear, since the publication of Charles E. Jones’s Perfectionist Persuasion in 1974.  Deeply rooted in primary sources such as periodicals, court records and the recollections of early students and faculty, Thornton has told the story of Knapp and the school he found with rare honesty, candor and sympathy.  In a work that took over fourteen years to complete, Thornton has not only mastered primary sources but demonstrates a thorough knowledge of a wide range of secondary literature as well.  Without hiding embarrassing details or all too human failings of radical holiness leaders and rank and file, Thornton allows us rare insight into the lives, thought, and impact of a movement that has shaped Protestant Christianity not only in North America but Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean as well.

As one of the most important leaders of the Holiness revival that swept through America, Europe and then the world in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Knapp and the four-fold gospel he promoted transcends the Holiness Movement itself and rivals that of the great evangelical leaders of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, not excluding Edwards, Wesley and Finney.  While many have reduced the significance of the Holiness Movement to Phoebe Palmer and her circle, Thornton gives us a detailed introduction to a wide circle of Holiness radicals associated with Knapp and God’s Bible School who turned a European and North American movement into an international movement that would not only spread holiness Christianity into Asia, the Caribbean and Africa but would perhaps more significantly shape early Pentecostalism as well.

Thornton demonstrates the case for the centrality of Knapp and God’s Bible School, which rests on four important claims.  First, and this has only become clear since the 1960s, the explosive growth of Holiness and related evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity in the emerging Global South was the result of ministries with direct ties to the Mount of Blessings on the hilltop overlooking Cincinnati.  As scholars have begun to explore the history of Protestantism Christianity outside North America, names long forgotten but often associated with God’s Bible School emerge.  Often as in Japan or Korea the names of Pilgrim Holiness and Oriental Missionary Society such as Cowman, John Thomas, Kilbourne, or E. E. Shelhamer proved crucial in laying the foundation for subsequent evangelization often well beyond the normal Wesleyan boundaries of the traditional Holiness Movement.

Secondly as evangelization spread, often early national leaders such as Juji Nakada in Japan and Myungjik Lee in Korea worked to establish distinctive “oriental” forms of Christianity, frequently not understood or appreciated by Westerners.  If you closely read Thornton’s book, it is amazing how these expressions of Christianity resemblance the emphasized of Knapp and God’s Bible School.  In fact, as radical holiness emphasizes retreated in North America they continue to resonate among the followers of Nakada in Japan.  When Nakada broke with OMS in 1917 one of the central issues was his reading of the Scriptures in the light of the commentaries of Knapp’s friend and mentor W. B. Godbey.  For leaders in both Japan and Korea a deep faith in the literal return of Jesus that resulted in persecution and martyrdom.  In the years after WWII the four-fold gospel of Jesus as Savior, Sanctifier, Healer and Coming King that continue as the common heritage of Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals as well as Wesleyans.  This should not surprise us.  These beliefs in a slightly subdued form were still recognizable as the hall marks of the ministry of Billy Graham who was profoundly influenced by Paul Rees the son of Knapp’s old International Apostolic Holiness partner Seth C. Rees.

Thirdly, if Billy Graham’s ministry has born the stamp of the four-fold gospel, so were the ministries of the two most important evangelical devotional writers of the last century, Oswald Chambers and Lettie Burd Cowman.  It is not inappropriate that it was Nakada who introduced Chambers to God’s Bible School.  For Chambers the Hill Top was a place of renewal where Acts 2 was a living reality.  In a similar way, the words of Lettie Cowman, widowed, alone and struggling for meaning poignantly speak to our own sense of inadequacy.  “We sometimes forget,” Cowman wrote “that the only way to the resurrection and the ascension mount is the way of the garden, cross, and grave.”

Fourthly, Thornton carefully demonstrates how God’s Bible School and Knapp’s legacy were influenced by Fundamentalists currents in the second decade of Meredith Standley’s leadership while maintaining an older evangelical populism.  In particular the continuing role of sanctified eccentrics such as Godbey, the Fleming brothers, and U. E. Harding enrich a narrative, crowded with some of the most colorful figures in church or any other kind of history.

In conclusion, while readers of this journal will play especially close attention to the spread of Knapp’s influence outside North America.  Historians of Christianity in the United States have a feast awaiting them as well.  After reading this book one will never tell the story of Christianity in the last two centuries in the same way.  I cannot recommend this book too highly.

William Kostlevy

Director of Brethren Historical Library and Archives


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