Saturday, July 25, 2015

More "Holy Jumpers"

Last Saturday I started reviewing a book Keith Drury and I are reading called Holy Jumpers, by Bill Kostlevy. This book is about "evangelicals and radicals in Progressive Era America," around the turn of the century 1900. It is especially interested in a group called the Metropolitan Church Association (MCA), a radical holiness group based in Chicago at that time.

1. This week I managed to read three more chapters. (Keith reads like lightning, so I imagine he's already finished) Chapter 3 covers a major revival in Chicago, chapter 4 another major one in Boston, and chapter 5 gives us the launching of the MCA magazine, The Burning Bush.

There's a turning point in the middle of chapter 4, perhaps a turning point that is one of those moments where history could have gone a quite different direction. Here we're talking about the death of Martin Wells Knapp.

I don't know if Kostlevy is just a good story-teller, but as you read chapter 3, you get the impression that the radical holiness movement is soundly moving in one direction. Then Knapp dies and in an instant it feels like it is heading in a quite different direction. What if he had not died? What would the holiness movement have looked like instead?

2. But let me backtrack a little. I have three major take-aways this week. The first is how significant the death of Knapp seems to have been. And lest any Wesleyans lose perspective, Knapp is one of the putative founders of the Pilgrim church, which would become the Wesleyan Church in 1968.

Another main take-away is how extensively involved business and entrepreneurial type individuals were in these beginnings. These were smart cookies on a practical level but completely uneducated on a theological level. Indeed, they were generally against education of that sort. They saw it as a hindrance to the fire.

"In a mere seventy-five days, an estimated 2,200 seekers sought salvation or sanctification at MCA altars" in Chicago in the revival of 1901 (63). Duke Farson and E. L. Harvey were successful businessmen and the driving forces behind this revival. Early on, one holiness commentator remarked that, "fully consecrated and anointed business men may be the most effectual preachers of the word" (57).

This is a sobering dynamic to those of us who are idealists. Sure, there wouldn't have been these results if these preachers were not facilitating something quite spectacular. They were scratching a itch, including spiritual itches. But it happened with a significant bank roll. Farson's financial resources were apparently unending. And it happened with business savvy. One of the players in chapter 5, Frank Messenger, had basically organized a town for a major textile company.

Yet there's little question that these men were pretty ignorant theologically. Harvey and Farson would get more and more crazy: "Now I tell you brothers that if you don't get this jumping into you, you will not be saved," Harvey said (84). When they took their revival to Boston in the winter of 1901, they became known as "pentecostal jumpers" or just "jumpers." Jumping was peculiarly becoming an evidence of the Holy Spirit, an outward sign of divine favor.

You'll remember also that Seth Rees was another putative founder of the Pilgrim church and that he was more or less an employee of these MCA men at this time. He was one of the preachers in both the Chicago and Boston revivals. Yet apparently even he was beginning to get concerned about a certain rigidity that was developing around extreme behavior.

3. So here's a sobering claim. Religion is usually more "successful" in the hands of the less educated, and depth has a tendency to squelch the popularity of religion. There is also truth in the other way of putting it. Intellectual answers do not tend to meet people at their deepest desires and needs. We are more emotional than intellectual beings.

I've longed to see both combined. That was my hope when we founded Wesley Seminary. We wanted a seminary that focused on the practice of ministry in a way that hit the most pressing needs of real people in the church. But my hope was also for layers of theological insight to be added to the church.

On the one hand, ministry can be extremely successful with the most basic of sound theological principles, even if they are rather simplistic. I believe part of the success of Wesley Seminary thus far intuitively follows some of the same secrets to the success of these early holiness pioneers and the great revivalists of the 1800s. It has focused on the practical skills of ministry and the basic drives to mission. It has tended to stay near the surface theologically, in what I might call a somewhat parable level understanding of God.

Where the rub always seems to come in theological education is in what I am calling "literal depth." There often seems to be a tendency for theological professors to want to squash what I'm calling a more parable-level understanding. Since faith is often attached to these simplistic parables, some seminaries ironically can have the unfortunate effect of diminishing faith and perhaps even reducing what might have been a more impactful ministry.

By the same token, some of the most popular seminaries right now are those that are more or less superficial (I'll resist naming the one that first popped into my head). Indeed, many fundamentalist seminaries generate enthusiasm by attacking theological depth, just like the "jumpers" at the turn of the century. And, like the jumpers, there are plenty of rich business donors around today who are willing to put their money and business sense behind very practical but relatively shallow faith.

History suggests two things--the practical and shallow tends to win out strongly in the short run. But depth tends to prevail over time within any one movement.

4. Again, I was very struck at the apparently immense impact that Knapp's death had on the trajectory of the movement. Also again, perhaps Kostlevy is just a good story teller.

A week before Knapp's death, Harvey was set to come speak at the 1902 camp meeting in Cincinnati at what is now God's Bible School. Harvey had apparently convinced Knapp at the Chicago revival that he needed to come out of the Methodist Episcopal Church (ME from here on), and Knapp had done so. Indeed, Harvey and Farson would soon preach that you could not be a sanctified minister and stay in these established churches.

Then Knapp died and a series of most curious events would unfold. First, he was said to have written down three names on a piece of paper to indicate who would control the school and mission. They were three women--his wife, Mary Storey (a professor who had remained in the ME Church), and his traveling assistant, Bessie Queen.

Although in the broader society at the time, to name three women might have seemed immensely controversial, we have to remember that the holiness movement was feminist in the strongest of terms in its beginnings. I noticed in Wallace Thorton's telling of the story that he feels the need to explain this prominent role of women to the modern day holiness audience. Is this possibly a sign that contemporary holiness churches have strayed from their roots on this issue?

It seems to me that, in the late twentieth century, the contemporary holiness movement swapped out political and fundamentalist conservatism for its earlier social radicalism. A movement that used to consist of the most radical feminists of the day now in many respects might feel closer to an anti-women in ministry place like Bob Jones University than to somewhere like IWU, which is closer to its roots on these sorts of issues.

I have seen a wedding ceremony in the modern holiness movement that put a strong emphasis on the headship of the husband that would never have entered into the mind of its founding mothers and fathers. Both the wives of Martin Wells Knapp and Seth C. Rees were ordained themselves! This is my third take-away from these chapters--the prominent and unashamed role of women in the roots of the holiness movement. (We will see the near communism among many of these radical types as well in the final post next week.)

5. But again, I'm getting ahead of myself. The entire situation around Knapp's death is bizarre. I could write a couple rather salacious novels out of the data, but I'll leave it to your imagination.

His body was cremated, a BIG no, no for this crowd. Rees doesn't return from the Boston revival to do the funeral, a choice that probably ended any real significant role for him in the future of God's Bible School. Harvey's role in the scheduled revival is immediately revoked. GBS immediately reverses its stand on "comeouterism."

The figure of Bessie Queen is the most intriguing of all. A young, pretty assistant now becomes the dominant figure at GBS. She controls The Revivalist, and thus becomes the dominant controller of the voice of the holiness movement for a brief time. She is said to dominate Mrs. Knapp.
Bessie Queen Standley

Soon Harvey indicates that Knapp had confessed to him an inappropriate relationship with Queen, with whom Knapp had sometimes traveled alone. It is confirmed by another secretary who defects from GBS to MCA. In a personal interview, Arthur Bray in my own Wesleyan circles confirmed to Kostlevy that this was genuinely believed by these figures at the MCA.

But Godbey stands up for her, as does Mrs. Knapp. Within a year of his death, Queen--who had written earlier that she would never marry because she was married to The Revivalist--marries Meredith D. Standley, Knapp's replacement as Bible teacher at GBS (and an original graduate).

There is an afterlife to the Bessie Queen story. Knapp's own son, along with other donors, would take the school to court over financial misappropriation. The suit was not fully resolved until the 1980s, perhaps the longest running court case in Ohio, maybe national history. In 1950, the Standleys were removed from their leadership over the school by the State of Ohio. The general target of these accusations was not Meredith but Bessie Standley.

Again, one wonders what great things might have been accomplished without these distractions. Then again, if Knapp had not died, would the school have gone in a different, more radical direction?

Cartoon showing how the
founder of Asbury College
got what he deserved when
 after turning away the
MCA he found himself
 turned away.
6. The MCA soon found itself isolated from the rest of the holiness movement. Rees would leave and work with The Revivalist for a time instead. (He seems to have moved around a lot. Keith wonders if he was hard to work for. Interestingly, both of his sons more or less left the holiness movement and became somewhat mainline in their approach to Christianity.)

It was during this season that the MCA periodical, The Burning Bush, became a powerful tool. Knapp had also used cartoons in The Revivalist, a sign of his entrepreneurial bent. But Harvey and Farson would bring the muckraker skills of modern yellow journalism to lambaste their opponents.

(I can feel it in my veins, that revivalist blood. You can see it from time to time on the blog. This week I thought of several inflammatory cartoons I could post here if I ever had a meltdown. Pray it never happens. :-)

What is funny is that the cartoonist they hired wasn't even part of the movement. As savvy businessmen, there was a good deal of "the end justifies the means" in their method. Their goal was nothing short of changing the world. And they were willing to use the means of the world to do it.

By the way, Kostlevy gives an implicit shot at Mark Noll when he notes how engaged these holiness people were in the tools and methods of the world. "The ease with which the MCA adopted journalistic expose, the chief weapon of Progressive reform, may surprise those who continue to understand evangelicalism and the Holiness Movement primarily as expressions of a cultural retreat from modernity" (94). Basically, Noll and Marsden are all wet.

7. Had enough? More next week.

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