by Jack Levison
On Jan. 24, 1885, the front page of The New York Times carried an unlikely story about a little-known evangelist with Wesleyan roots who held sway in red-barn farmland, roughly midway between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Ind.
What drew crowds — and reporters — to Hartford City were the mystery and magic of Maria Woodworth-Etter, the “trance evangelist.” Her evangelistic meetings outgrew her grand tent, which accommodated 8,000 people.
Woodworth-Etter refused to prepare her sermons in advance and once preached without notes for 75 minutes. She determined rather to “take a text and trust God to lead me in his own way.” Sometimes, relying on Scripture, “I opened the meeting and repeated the text. As I did so the power came, and it seemed that all I had to do was to open my mouth,” according to her autobiography, “The Life and Experience of Maria B. Woodworth.” (For more on this fascinating woman, read Priscilla Pope-Levison’s “Turn the Pulpit Loose: Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists.”)
Which Is It?
No doubt many Free Methodists have wished for a similar experience of the Spirit — to be taken in a trance or to open our mouths and have the words flow. This is for some the pinnacle of spiritual vitality.
And no doubt many Free Methodists have repudiated such an experience of the Spirit. To be taken in a trance or to expect spontaneous inspiration is for some a caricature of the Spirit, who first and foremost inspires spiritual virtues such as love, joy and peace.
So which is it? Does the Holy Spirit inspire the spectacular, the spontaneous, the scintillating? Pentecostalism is projected to grow to 1 billion worldwide by 2025. This meteoric growth suggests that the Holy Spirit inspires the extraordinary.
Or does the Holy Spirit inspire the mundane, the commonplace, the routine? The steady contribution of Methodism to the abolition of slavery — and now to the dalits of India, the minjung of Korea and the barrio dwellers of Latin America — suggests that the Holy Spirit inspires the ordinary.
Open your Bible to the story of the church’s birth. The earliest Christians didn’t squash the spectacular, but they rooted their experience in the rich soil of daily discipline. There, in the chemistry of dogged discipline and spellbinding spontaneity, lies the genius of the early church.
The story of Pentecost (Acts 2) is nothing if not spectacular. There’s a violent wind, fiery tongues, filling with the Holy Spirit, miraculous foreign languages, the spectacle of apparent drunkenness and Peter’s successful debut (3,000 converts in a pop). This is not a typical Free Methodist worship service. This is the spectacular on steroids.
Yet that’s only a thin slice of the story. Notice what led up to Pentecost.
Jesus gave clear instructions: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about” (Acts 1:4). Then away He went.
So Jesus’ closest followers and family settled down and waited for God’s promise — the gift of the Holy Spirit.
“Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying” (Acts 1:12–13).
They were so serious about taking Jesus at His word that they didn’t even stay at the Mount of Olives, but walked the mile and a half or so to the old city of Jerusalem. It would have been easier — and seemingly more spiritual — to bend the rules and sleep in the shadow of Jesus’ Ascension. They didn’t. They went back to Jerusalem and waited, away from the fray of a miracle-fed faith.
They waited, but not passively. Jesus’ disciples “all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14).
Jesus’ earliest followers prayed. They prayed a lot. They didn’t fill Jerusalem with frenetic activities, even charitable ones. If they’d been out and about, they wouldn’t have prayed in so sustained a way. Life would have been too busy, too frenzied and too productive.
After Jesus’ followers had waited and prayed, Pentecost broke loose.
“Amazed and astonished,” spectators asked, “How is it that … in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s praiseworthy acts” (Acts 2:8-11; this is my translation of the text). The words, “God’s praiseworthy acts,” are shorthand for God’s activity in Israel’s history.
Moses encouraged the Israelites to “acknowledge God’s praiseworthy acts, God’s mighty hand and God’s outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 11:2). One of Israel’s poets urges: “Sing to God, sing praises to God; tell of all God’s praiseworthy acts” (Psalm 105:1-2).
Strip off the spectacular, and you’ll see something going on in that Upper Room ahead of Pentecost. With all the talk of tongues and fire and drunks at 9 a.m., we tend to miss this part. What led up to a spectacular experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was the practice of ordinary disciplines: waiting, prayer and study. Without these, the wind wouldn’t have blown, the fiery tongues wouldn’t have descended and the Holy Spirit wouldn’t have filled an ordinary band of believers.
Still, how heady the spectacular events of Pentecost must have been. How giddy Jesus’ followers must have become when millions of goose bumps erupted as 3,000 bodies were baptized on the spot. How did they respond to this spectacular outbreak of the Holy Spirit? They returned to where they began and immediately put in place safeguards, disciplines, which whisked attention away from the fervor and fever of those exhilarating first days.
“They devoted themselves,” Luke tells us, “to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).
They studied some more. They prayed still harder. They ate together, too, in uncommon unity.
Life in the Spirit
Over the past two years, I’ve hung out with a terrific group of students who discussed my latest book, “Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life,” even before it had a title. Early on, all of them confessed that they associated the Holy Spirit with mountaintop experiences — campfires, retreats — but not the grit of everyday life.
Pentecost offers a vibrant model of life in the Spirit. Those earliest events emerged from a unique combination of ecstasy and restraint, spontaneity and sanity, utter abandon and absolute clarity — being drunk with the Spirit and able, simultaneously, to recite God’s praiseworthy acts with pinpoint accuracy. What a thrill, to practice determination and discipline — waiting, praying, studying together — and, in the middle of all this hard work, to experience God so deeply, to receive the Spirit so lavishly and to communicate the truth so cogently.