Baptism of the Spirit Subsequent to Salvation – Fact or Fallacy?

What does Scripture teach on the subject of “second blessing” theology?  Is there biblical support for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit subsequent to salvation?  Most Charismatics and Pentecostals would say yes.  After all, that is what their pastors and leaders preach and teach.  But is it biblical?  Can it stand up under the scrutiny of examination in light of Scripture alone?  Second Blessing Theology is not new.  It has been around for hundreds of years, even prior to Pentecostalism.  There have always been groups throughout Church history that have gone beyond what is written in scripture and have placed undue burdens on the backs of God’s people.

Why is this issue important?  Does it really matter what one believes about the Baptism of the Spirit?  I have seen first hand the condemnation and grief that this false teaching has on many faithful Christians who have been told by pastors that Jesus is not enough.  You need more than Calvary and the Cross.  You need more than justification, redemption and salvation.  You need more than the new birth brought about by the indwelling Holy Spirit.  These are important but they are not enough.  What you need is a second work of grace known as the Baptism of the Spirit.  But you have to receive it by faith.  It is available to all who desire it, but it must be attained by faith alone.  But for many, this second blessing is never achieved.  They pray, fast, tarry, cry, hold on, let go, push through, but never seem to receive this second blessing.  They are told that God wants to give it to them, but there is something in their heart that they are holding on to that is hindering God from giving to them.  It might be a secret sin, a lack of faith, or pride.  This doctrine has done more to discourage Christians and divide God’s people into to the “haves” and the “have nots”.  The reason why so many do not obtain this second blessing is due to the simple fact that it is not biblical.  The bible simply does not teach this doctrine.  The bible is completely silent on the issue of “second blessing” theology or Baptism of the Spirit subsequent to salvation.

Gordon Fee, the prominent Assembly of God Theologian agrees that there is no room in Scripture for a subsequent to salvation baptism of the Spirit. Fee believes that Pentecostals simply have it wrong, and they do.  In his book “Gospel and Spirit” Gordon Fee explains the weakness of Pentecostal hermeneutics and their misunderstanding of interpreting biblical genres:

Two observations should be made about hermeneutics within the traditional Pentecostal movement. First, their attitude toward Scripture regularly has included a general disregard for scientific exegesis and carefully thought-out hermeneutics. In fact, hermeneutics has simply not been a Pentecostal thing. Scripture is the word of God and is to be obeyed. In place of scientific hermeneutics there developed a kind of pragmatic hermeneutics— obey what should be taken literally; spiritualize, allegorize, or devotionalize the rest.

Fee, Gordon D. (1991-10-01). Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics (pp. 85-86). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Fee also acknowledges that historical Pentecostalism did not base their experience on sound biblical exegesis, but interpreted scripture in light of their experience.  The driving force behind their interpretation was experience:

Secondly, it is probably fair— and important— to note that in general the Pentecostals’ experience has preceded their hermeneutics. In a sense, the Pentecostal tends to exegete his or her experience. For example, the doctrine of Spirit-baptism as distinct from and subsequent to conversion did not flow naturally out of the Pentecostal’s reading of Scripture.

Fee, Gordon D. (1991-10-01). Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics (p. 86). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Fee rejects the Pentecostal position of Baptism subsequent to salvation due to the lack of biblical support.  This is troubling for many Assembly of God members since Fee is their champion theologian.  Yet if we are to step back and take an honest assessment of this doctrine we too will find ourselves agreeing with Fee on this issue.

To better understand the modern day teaching of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit Subsequent to Salvation a brief historical overview would be helpful. If you are not interested in the history of the “second blessing” then you can cut right to the chase and listen to the below sermon by Pastor Brett Hicks of Bay Ridge Christian Church in Annapolis Maryland.  Brett is a Reformed Pastor who believes in the gifts of the Spirit and speaks in tongues.  He is not a Cessationist  and therefore I believe his assessment is not biased.   Although I disagree with him on the issues of tongues, I do believe that he is correct in regards to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.  He address the texts that Fee deals with in his book and shows how these passages, when read objectively and honestly do not support the Pentecostal position of Baptism in the Holy Spirit subsequent to salvation.

Brett Hicks
Is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit a Second Blessing?


A Brief History of Second Blessing Theology  

The following is not all inclusive, but just a few of the groups that have helped pave the way to the modern day unbiblical teaching of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit Subsequent to Salvation.  This excerpt is taken from “Let God and Let God?  A Survey and Analysis of Keswick Theology by Andy Naselli.1

What Wesley’s Christian Perfection Is: Perfect Love toward God and Man

Wesley declares, “A Christian is so far perfect, as not to commit sin.… Christians are saved in this world from all sin, from all unrighteousness; that they are now in such a sense perfect, as not to commit sin, and to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers.”23 Referring to fellow believers who disagreed with his teaching, Wesley explains that this is “the point where we divide,” but he is convinced that this teaching is scriptural.24 He uses various terms to describe this second work of grace: Christian perfection, salvation from all [willful] sin, entire sanctification, perfect love (1 John 4:18), holiness, purity of intention, full salvation, second blessing,25 second rest, and dedicating all the life to God. Its essence is unreserved love for God with one’s whole being and, consequently, love for fellow humans. Edward M. Panosian summarizes this in six words: “perfect love toward God and man.”26 J. I. Packer summarizes it in two: “total love.”27 This complete sanctification occurs instantaneously at a point in time subsequent to one’s justification, but God’s gradual working both precedes and follows it.28 The point in time “ordinarily” comes “a little before death,” but those who expect it sooner may experience it sooner.29 Only those who seek it receive it. Sometimes it is difficult for a Christian to pinpoint the time of his entire sanctification, and Wesley compares this difficulty to pinpointing the exact time of a human’s death.30

The Consequences of Wesley’s Christian Perfection

Wesley left an outstanding legacy as a preacher of the gospel, and to his credit he never claimed to have attained Christian perfection, although he did claim to know many people who had. He also realized how readily people could abuse the doctrine. Nevertheless, Wesley’s primary contribution to the doctrine of sanctification is that he is the father of widespread evangelical views that separate justification and sanctification in a way that the Reformed view does not. Wesley taught that a crisis of sanctification typically occurs after justification, and he is the “father of all modern ‘holiness movements.’ ”31 B. B. Warfield pointedly remarks, “It was John Wesley who infected the modern Protestant world with this notion of ‘entire instantaneous sanctification.’ ”32 This chronological disjunction between justification and sanctification is the common element of all the leaders and movements this chapter discusses.33 Wesley’s followers further developed his doctrine of Christian perfection, and several key leaders such as Palmer and Mahan emphasized the crisis of sanctification as opposed to Wesley’s emphasis on the subsequent process (process-crisis-process).3

After Wesley came the Holiness Movement.  This group was influenced by the Wesleyan theology took it a step further and taught a form of “total sanctification” that came at a crisis in the life of a believer.  This theology, unlike the Wesleyan theology which believed that Christian Perfection happened near the end of someone’s life, was known as the “Altar Theology”.  It was basically a short-cut to total sanctification.  For nearly 2000 years the Christian Church has always held to the biblical teaching that sanctification was a progressive and life long process whereby the Holy Spirit continually conforms us to the image of Jesus and that total sanctification happens when we see Jesus face to face and receive our glorified bodies.  But Wesleyan and the Holiness theology taught that this could happen on this side of glory.  The “Altar Theology” was a short-cut to total sanctification.  Why wait till you see Jesus, get it all now was pretty much the mindset.  This theology is what gave birth to our modern-day altar calls.  Do you have a problem?  Are you struggling with sin?  Then come down to the altar and get zapped by God and you will achieve total sanctification.  This is contrary to Scripture that teaches us to put to death the deeds of the flesh daily.  The bible does not give us a quick fix remedy for instant sanctification.  It is hard work that takes a lifetime.

The Holiness Movement: Modified Wesleyan Perfectionism

The blending of Wesleyan perfectionism and American revivalism produced the holiness movement,45 which Dieter defines as

a revival movement rising mainly within American Methodism in the late 1830s. It was dedicated to the promotion of the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection understood as a call to Christian believers to experience entire sanctification as a second instantaneous work of grace subsequent to that of justification and regeneration. This crisis of purification and spiritual empowerment was perceived to be the beginning rather than the end of true progress toward Christian maturity.46

“The holiness movement claims to be nothing more than primitive Wesleyanism and the true American successors of Wesley.”47 Three Methodists founded it: Timothy Merritt and two sisters, Sarah Worrall Lankford (Palmer) and Phoebe Worrall Palmer.48 They promoted Methodist perfectionism, and Palmer’s participation in the Tuesday meetings in 1835 marks the official beginning of the holiness movement.49 As successors to Wesley, these and other leaders of the holiness movement continued to propagate Christian perfection, but they emphasized the crisis of sanctification rather than its subsequent process. This survey examines the three most significant movements within the holiness movement: Methodist perfectionism, Oberlin perfectionism, and the higher life movement.

Methodist Perfectionism: Emphasis on the Crisis of Christian Perfection

Though it claimed to follow Wesley’s perfectionism, Methodist perfectionism placed a nearly exclusive emphasis on the crisis of Christian perfection rather than the subsequent process. This shift in emphasis, primarily due to Phoebe Palmer, had the greatest influence within Wesleyanism during this period.50 Consequently, this section focuses on Palmer rather than other leaders who shared her views.

Phoebe Worrall Palmer (1807–74): “Altar Theology”—A Shorter Way to Holiness

Palmer experienced entire sanctification at 9:00 PM on 26 July 183751 and became an ardent revivalist for the type of Methodist perfectionism that she had experienced.52 She authored eighteen books and numerous articles in the influential periodical Guide to Holiness, which her husband owned and she edited.53 She is well known for authoring The Way of Holiness (1843) and for leading from 1840 until her death the popular meetings called the “Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness.”54 She was not a theologian, but “she was none the less [sic] a creative religious thinker.”55 She disliked theology because she considered it to be “a complex, man-made substitute for God’s simple truth” that “kept people from understanding God’s Word.”56 Wesley, Fletcher, and Clarke most strongly influenced her doctrine of sanctification.57 She popularized Wesley’s Christian perfectionism and regularly cited his works to support her teaching. Despite her claim to propagate Wesley’s teaching, however, she modified it considerably by following the innovations of Fletcher and Clarke.58 She, like Fletcher, used Spirit-baptism language for Christian perfection, identifying it with the Pentecost experience, and she “further developed the implications of this identification.”59 Clarke influenced her in at least five significant ways: (1) she followed Clarke’s interpretations in his commentary as a basis for her three-step “altar theology” (see table 2.1);60 (2) she emphasized the instantaneous crisis of Christian perfection to the exclusion of the gradual process; (3) she implied that “entire sanctification is not the culmination and goal of Christian growth but rather its precondition and proper beginning”; (4) she emphasized “the methodology of achieving Christian perfection”; and (5) she linked Christian perfection with power for service.61

Section one of Palmer’s The Way of Holiness is titled “Is There Not a Shorter Way?” Her emphatic answer is Yes. Her teaching emphasized this,62 and her most famous hymn, “The Cleansing Wave,” illustrates how she emphasized sanctification’s immediacy. She compares the crisis of Christian perfection to a baptism or internal cleansing that results in a pure life.

The cleansing stream I see, I see!

I plunge, and O it cleanseth me;

O praise the Lord, it cleanseth me,

It cleanseth me, yes, cleanseth me.63

Palmer held the Wesleyan-Arminian assumption that people have the inherent ability to obey God’s commands, and her own experience of entire sanctification as well as the experiences of others “convinced her that people could be sanctified not only if they willed but when they willed.”64 Though contemporaries of Palmer such as Nathan Bangs65 and Hiram Mattison66 challenged her teaching, her views prevailed within the holiness movement.67 Besides her written works, the most significant vehicle through which her views spread rapidly was the camp meeting movement.68


Holiness Camp Meetings: Propagation of Phoebe Palmer’s “Altar Theology”

The holiness camp meeting was “an institution for nurture and renewal in the holiness tradition,” and “the first camp meeting ever held for the specific purpose of promoting the doctrine of Christian holiness convened at Vineland, New Jersey, in 1867.”70 The meetings were such a success that the founders formed the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness (1867–93), which later changed its name to the National Holiness Association (1893–1971), Christian Holiness Association (1971–97), and Christian Holiness Partnership (1997– ). These camp meetings propagated Phoebe Palmer’s theology of sanctification: revivalists pressed assemblies for immediate decisions for entire sanctification, and songwriters disseminated the holiness message through hymnody such as Edgar Page Stites’s “Beulah Land,” written in 1875.71 Phoebe Palmer and her husband, Walter, regularly worked in these camp meetings and promoted them in The Guide to Holiness.72 Scholars of the holiness movement note that the camp meetings “institutionalized” Phoebe Palmer’s doctrine of sanctification.73 The camp meetings are also significant for their relation to the three primary leaders of the higher life movement: William E. Boardman and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Pearsall Smith.74 Consequently, the early Keswick Convention became, according to Timothy L. Smith, “in some ways a British equivalent of the camp meeting movement.”75

Wesleyan Theology and the Holiness Movement had a great influence on Charles Finney and the Oberlin Perfectionism.  Charles Finney held to some heretical views that denied original sin and believed that human beings had an autonomous free will and after conversion had the ability to live a sinless life.

Oberlin Perfectionism: The Perfection of Human’s Autonomous Free Will

Oberlin perfectionism is “the teaching that holiness consists primarily of the perfection of the will and is available to every Christian after conversion.”76 Its primary propagators were Asa Mahan, Oberlin College’s first president (1835–50), and Charles Finney, Oberlin’s first theology professor (1835–66) and second president (1851–66). It is not a direct descendent of Wesleyan Arminianism, but the latter highly influenced it. Oberlin theology ended up being remarkably similar to Wesleyan perfectionism.77 Both Finney and Mahan were personal friends of the prominent Methodists Walter and Phoebe Palmer, who published Mahan’s The Baptism of the Holy Ghost (1870). Oberlin theology is largely a result of the theological battle that took place between New England Calvinism’s Old and New Schools from about 1730 to 1830. Oberlin theology is a direct descendent of Nathaniel William Taylor’s (1786–1858) Pelagian New Haven theology.78 Its teaching on entire sanctification “attempted to synthesize New School Calvinism with Methodism,” and “what resulted was the view that ES [entire sanctification] is attained by a personal baptism with the Holy Spirit similar to what happened on Pentecost.”79

Finney and Mahan first studied perfectionism in 1836, and Finney found the works of John Wesley especially enlightening.80 In 1836, both “professed to experience a second spiritual crisis as radical as [Finney’s] dramatic initial conversion experience.”81 Finney published his initial explanation as Lectures to Professing Christians (1837) and developed it in his two-volume Lectures in Systematic Theology (1846–7); Mahan published his initial explanation in his first book, Scripture Doctrine of Christian Perfection (1839), and developed it in The Baptism of the Holy Ghost (1870). It is debatable whether Finney or Mahan had a greater influence in their propagation of perfectionism,82 but it is undeniable that their Oberlin perfectionism significantly affected the spectrum of nineteenth-century evangelicalism. Both Finney and Mahan limit Christian perfection to a believer’s intention to obey the moral law, and both view Spirit-baptism as the crisis subsequent to justification that begins Christian perfection. As a former lawyer, Finney’s strongpoint was his relentless logic; Mahan’s was philosophy.

Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875): Sanctification as the Entire Consecration of Human’s Autonomous Free Will to Obey the Moral Law

Finney, born eighteen months after Wesley’s death, is prominently known as the father of modern urban revivalism, and many evangelicals esteem him as a hero. But his departures from orthodoxy to Pelagianism are so severe that it is not an overstatement to assert that he preached a different gospel.83 Finney and the Methodists mutually influenced one another: Finney was influenced by the Methodist view of Christian perfection, modified it, and then stimulated American and British Methodist perfectionism.84 Finney’s revivalism created a culture that produced evangelists such as D. L. Moody, and Finney’s theology led to Pentecostalism.85 At issue here, however, is Finney’s unorthodox view of sanctification, which—though not adopted wholesale—strongly influenced the early Keswick movement.86

Foundational to understanding Finney’s perfectionism is understanding his philosophical moralism, namely, what he terms moral government, moral obligation, moral action, moral law, moral depravity, and human natural ability (especially with respect to regeneration and repentance).87 According to Finney, “physical law” is what inevitably happens in the universe (descriptive), and “moral law” is what should happen, that is, what moral agents should obey (prescriptive).88 Physical law controls “physical government,” and moral law guides “moral government,” which presides over human free will.89 “Moral obligation,” which Finney says is impossible to define, is basically human’s universal concept of obligation.90 God, a moral agent, is the universe’s “moral governor” not because of his eternal, self-existent nature, but because his physical and moral attributes, perfectly related to the moral law, “best qualify him to secure the end of government,” making it “both his right and duty to govern.”91 “Moral action” is a unity consisting of either complete obedience or disobedience.92 Sin is essentially a willful, selfish act based on the ultimate choice of selfishness.93 Humans are not totally depraved; depravity affects only their autonomous free will, which is able to obey the moral law.94 The preacher’s task is to persuade their will to obey.

Building on that philosophical foundation, Finney defines sanctification as “nothing more nor less than entire obedience … to the moral law” in two senses: “present, full obedience, or entire consecration to God” and “continued, abiding consecration or obedience to God.” The first condition refers to a regenerate person who is not entirely sanctified and may fall away and need to be regenerated again; the second refers to permanent or entire sanctification, which essentially is sinless perfection. “Entire sanctification” refers to “being established, confirmed, preserved, continued in a state of sanctification or of entire consecration to God.” Finney qualifies the implications of this for an entirely sanctified person: It does not mean that he “cannot sin” but that “he does not, and will not sin”; nor does it mean that “no further progress in holiness is possible.”

Entire sanctification “is identical with entire and continued obedience to the law of God.” For Finney, “the real question now at issue” is “not whether a state of present full obedience to the divine law is attainable in this life” or “whether a state of permanent, full obedience has been attained by” any believer, but whether “permanent sanctification” is “attainable in this life.” Finney answers affirmatively: “It is self-evident, that entire obedience to God’s law is possible on the ground of natural ability.” For Finney, Christian perfection is the perfection of the will, that is, the pure intention or entire consecration of a human’s autonomous free will to obey the moral law. Most believers have not attained permanent sanctification because they consider it impossible.95

Spirit-baptism, for Finney, “is an enduement with power for Christian ministry” and holiness, a view with which D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, and John R. Rice essentially agree.96 Spirit-baptism is a post-regeneration crisis-experience that gives permanence to the experience of sanctification.97 It is here that Finney’s influence on the early Keswick movement is strongest.98 F. B. Meyer, Keswick’s international ambassador, spoke highly of Finney’s “indescribable power.”99 Bruner correctly describes Finney as “the major historical bridge between primitive Wesleyanism and modern Pentecostalism.”100

Asa Mahan (1799–1889): Emphasis on Spirit-Baptism as the Crisis of Christian Perfection

Mahan stresses Spirit-baptism as the post-regeneration crisis even more than Finney. Mahan approaches sanctification philosophically. Like Finney, he builds his view on the foundation that humans have an autonomous free will. “For Mahan any creature can be perfect at any given moment.… Man is morally perfect when his moral activities satisfy the moral law to his maximum capabilities.”101 Unlike Finney, Mahan held that “Christian perfection described right willing, not perfect living.”102 Mahan’s writings on sanctification explicitly separate justification and sanctification as distinct: unbelievers benefit from justification at conversion, and believers benefit from sanctification sometime after conversion when they are Spirit-baptized or Spirit-indwelt.103 Only after “the crisis” of entire sanctification do believers grow in grace.104 Mahan lists two doctrines that were the theme of his life: Christian perfection and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.105 Although Mahan differs from Wesley by distinguishing the Holy Spirit being “with” believers at regeneration but not “in” them until Spirit-baptism, his writings evidence the heavy influence of Wesleyanism.106

Mahan is especially significant in this discussion for his connections with Methodist perfectionism (notably Phoebe Palmer) and the higher life movement (notably Boardman and R. P. & H. W. Smith), the immediate forerunner to the Keswick movement. As previously noted, Mahan enthusiastically endorsed Palmer’s The Way of Holiness in the preface to her second edition, and the Palmers published Mahan’s The Baptism of the Holy Ghost in 1870. Late in Mahan’s life he became a British citizen. In 1872, he moved to England and directly influenced the Keswick movement by his leadership in the Oxford and Brighton Conferences that immediately preceded the first Keswick Convention.107 Mahan aided the transition from Methodist and Oberlin perfectionism to the ecumenical higher life movement and prepared the way for the Keswick movement.108


Robert Pearsall Smith (1827–98) and Hannah Whitall Smith (1832–1911): “Jesus Saves Me Now!”

Robert and Hannah, who married each other in 1851, were children of Quaker parents and grew up in Philadelphia in the Society of Friends. Hannah’s parents, John Mickle Whitall and Mary Tatum Whitall,128 were heirs of the prosperous Whitall-Tatum glass manufacturing company, which allowed Robert and Hannah to maintain relatively comfortable lifestyles.129 Robert and Hannah made professions of faith in the 1857–8 revival and then resigned their Quaker memberships in 1859 because of the influence of Methodists. Also through the influence of Methodist Wesleyan-holiness advocates, both later experienced the “second blessing” on the basis of Romans 6:6 and testified to it at the first National Camp Meeting Association gathering in 1867.130 Neither received any theological training, and both became active lay evangelists in the National Camp Meeting Association and were “exponents of Wesleyan perfectionism.”131 They zealously spread their crisis-experiences with others through personal conversations, public speaking, and most enduringly through writing.

The Smiths’ view of sanctification. Robert and Hannah shared the same basic view of sanctification,132 but Hannah has been much more influential than her husband because she reached a much larger audience through her writings. Her most influential book was The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, which has become an evangelical devotional “classic” that has undergone over thirty editions and sold over two million copies. Like Boardman’s The Higher Christian Life, Hannah’s book is simple and filled with stories, but it contains little exegesis of Scripture. It reflects her Wesleyan-holiness influences and quietistic Quaker background, “combining the idea of a dramatic crisis with the ‘rest of faith’ (‘Let go and let God’).”133 Other influences reflected in her writings include Madame Guyon, Francois Fénelon, John Wesley, William Romaine, Phoebe Palmer, Charles Finney, and Asa Mahan.134 Her most influential work focuses on how individual Christians feel about their lives,135 namely, “the Christian’s secret” to living “a happy life.” Interestingly, Hannah’s life was anything but happy while writing the work, which she begrudgingly prepared as a series of monthly articles for her husband’s journal, The Christian’s Pathway to Power, from February 1874 to January 1875.136

Her message is essentially twofold: “entire surrender” or “entire abandonment” (i.e., “let go”) and “absolute faith” (i.e., “let God”).137 These “two steps” are necessary “in order to enter this blessed interior life of rest and triumph.”138 “Man’s part is to trust, and God’s part is to work.… The believer can do nothing but trust; while the Lord, in whom he trusts, actually does the work intrusted [sic] to Him.”139 “Sanctification is both a sudden step of faith, and also a gradual process of works. It is a step as far as we are concerned; it is a process as to God’s part.”140 Hannah illustrates this “sudden step” and “gradual process” with clay, apples, and machinery, as follows. First, the believer is like a lump of clay in the hand of the potter, God: “In order for a lump of clay to be made into a beautiful vessel, it must be entirely abandoned to the potter, and must lie passive in his hands.”141 Second, “God’s works are perfect in every stage of their [i.e., believers’] growth” just like an “apple in June is a perfect apple for June” but “very different from the apple in October, which is a perfected apple.”142 “Growth,” for Hannah, refers to increasing maturity, not a progressively more righteous and less sinful life.143 Third, the result of the “sudden step” of surrender and faith “is like making the junction between the machinery and the steam engine. The machinery is yielded up to the power of the engine, and the engine works it, and it goes easily and without effort because of the mighty power that is behind it.”144

Foundational to Hannah’s message is a disjunction between justification and sanctification.145 Understanding this foundation to her theology explains the nature of her appeals to believers to surrender to the Lord, who “is able to save you fully, now, in this life, from the power and dominion of sin.”146 Only some believers experience this special deliverance. Believers who do experience it enjoy “a life of abiding rest and of continual victory, which is very far beyond the ordinary line of christian [sic] experience.”147 Once Christians discover “this secret” of surrender and faith, they have “found the key that will unlock the whole treasure-house of God.”148 Just as a “helpless baby” receives “the largest share” of care in a household, the believer experiencing “this life of faith” experiences the largest share of God’s care by “being a child in the Father’s house.”149 This higher life, which the believer must “experimentally and practically” appropriate or claim by faith, is not “an attainment” but “an obtainment” bestowed “only upon the fully consecrated soul” and “received by faith.”150 Alluding to Matthew 9:29, she asserts, “ ‘According to our faith,’ is always the limit and the rule.”151 Like Phoebe Palmer, Hannah argues that once Christians have entirely consecrated themselves, they must believe that they are sanctified regardless of how they feel because “the altar sanctifies the gift.”152 Like Palmer, she offers a three-step “simple transaction”: Christians must (1) believe that Scripture teaches that the altar sanctifies the gift; (2) entirely surrender to God; and (3) believe that God has taken possession of them.153 Like Charles Finney and Asa Mahan, Hannah argues that “the will is king” though “the emotions rebel as they may.”154

Chapter 13, entitled “Failures,” addresses an issue that all perfectionism inevitably must: how believers who have experienced this special sanctification still sin. Hannah defends her teaching on sanctification by adjusting her definition of sin to “conscious known sin” and qualifying her teaching by saying that failure is not only possible but likely.155 She identifies the experience of the higher life with the baptism of the Holy Spirit, “the crowning and vital point in all christian [sic] experience”156 and argues that believers must seek and appropriate this Spirit-baptism.157 She describes the experience as being “immersed into the Spirit of God, as to character or nature” and equates it with Spirit-filling: “To be filled with the Holy Ghost, therefore, means simply to be filled with God.”158 Spirit-baptism “is only one way of describing the fact of our abiding in Christ and His abiding in us.”159

Six major events leading to the Keswick movement. In July 1872, the Smith’s son Frank died, leaving Robert on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Following his doctor’s recommendation, Robert intended to travel abroad for eighteen months. The original itinerary included a soothing sail up the Nile River, but he never even made it to Egypt.160 He sailed first for London, where a series of six previously unplanned events began—all led by the charming, persuasive Robert himself—in which the higher life movement reached its climax and the Keswick movement was born. Warfield remarks, “There are few more dramatic pages in the history of modern Christianity than those which record the story of the prodigious agitation in the interest of ‘the Higher Life’ conducted by Pearsall Smith in 1874–1875.”161

1. In the winter and spring of 1873, Robert Pearsall Smith and W. E. Boardman held a series of breakfasts and other meetings for over 2,400 pastors and Christian workers in YMCAs, public halls, hotels, private homes, and church buildings.162 After Hannah delivered a stillborn child in 1873, Robert requested that she and the children join him in England. Once there, Hannah became a prominent speaker in the higher life gatherings.

2. Robert served as the chairman of the Broadlands Conference (17–23 July 1874),163 a private affair hosted by Lord and Lady Mount Temple at their Broadlands estate and attended by over one hundred guests. Hannah was perhaps the most popular speaker at this and two subsequent major conferences; Evan Hopkins spoke as well. Robert modeled these three conferences after the American camp meetings in which he had participated.164

3. Less than one month later, Robert served as the chairman at the Oxford Convention (29 Aug.–7 Sept. 1874),165 which about fifteen hundred people attended. In addition to Robert, other speakers included Hannah, Boardman, Evan Hopkins, and Asa Mahan. Mahan contributed substantially to the Oxford Convention’s success.166 Robert’s stated intent was to bring those gathered “to a crisis of faith.” W. H. Griffith Thomas commented that this convention was “practically the parent of the Keswick Movement”167 because Canon Harford-Battersby attended it as a skeptic, “was converted by Robert’s eloquence, and went on to start the Keswick Evangelical Movement.”168

4. After Robert and Hannah returned to Philadelphia for the winter, Robert wrote the Oxford Convention’s report, and Hannah compiled her articles into the highly influential The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.169

5. In early 1875, Robert successfully spread the higher life teachings in an itinerant ministry throughout Europe170 including France, Switzerland, and Germany,171 where he repeated as his “battle cry” the only German sentence he knew: “Jesus rettet uns jetzt!” (“Jesus saves us now!”).172 He returned to England “in early May in a somewhat intoxicated state, crying out, according to Logan [his son], ‘All Europe is at my feet!’ ”173

6. Robert served as the chairman at the climactic Brighton Convention (29 May–7 June 1875),174 which about eight thousand people attended. In addition to Robert, speakers included Hannah (the most popular one), Asa Mahan,175 Evan Hopkins, and H. W. Webb-Peploe. During these meetings D. L. Moody, who was holding his own meetings in London, telegrammed the people attending at Brighton to let them know that his gathering had prayed for the Brighton Convention, which he believed was “perhaps the most important meeting ever gathered.”176 These six events set the stage for the Keswick Convention, which was scheduled to take place just three weeks after the Brighton Convention and over which Robert was again to serve as the chairman.

A sad ending for the Smith family. A series of four sad events humiliated the Smith family.

1. At the height of his success as a higher life revivalist, Robert fell doctrinally and morally, nearly destroying the entire Keswick movement.177 Accounts of this event in various histories of the Keswick movement are disappointingly soft on Robert and guardedly vague on the details of the incident, which were not widely known until published in works by John Pollock, Marie Henry, Barbara Strachey, and others.178

Robert had been counseling a young lady named Miss Hattie Hamilton, who after one of Robert’s meetings at the Brighton Convention as “an adoring fan,” “rushed up to him, threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him.” She did this in front of Robert’s wife, who was disturbed by the incident, but Robert “shrugged it off” by saying that he was “like a father to her.”179 After the convention, Hannah traveled to Switzerland to rest for two weeks, and Robert remained in England to prepare for the Keswick Convention just three weeks away. During this interval, Miss Hamilton sought private counseling from Robert and, according to Henry, invited him late one evening to her hotel suite where she was weeping inconsolably in her bedroom on the bed.180 Robert, the only other person in the hotel suite, allegedly sat with her on the bed, put his arm around her to console her, and whispered to her a heretical doctrine that he had learned from Dr. Henry Foster in America in 1872, namely, “the fulfillment of the Union between Christ and his people as the Bridegroom and the Bride, as typified in the Song of Solomon.”181 Foster claimed that believers can have such intimate relations with Christ that they experience sexual “physical thrills.”182 There is no proof that Robert engaged in sexual relations that evening, and Robert insists that his intentions toward Miss Hamilton were as honorable as they would have been if she were his own daughter.183 The next day, however, Miss Hamilton, who later wrote How to Enter into Rest, reported to Stevenson A. Blackwood, a member of the Brighton committee, what Robert claims he did not say.184 Blackwood convened a meeting with the Brighton committee called the “counsel of eight,” which included Evan Hopkins, and without contacting Robert the ministers swiftly cancelled all of his future higher life meetings.185 Blackwood informed Robert of their decision the following day and asked him to cease all preaching immediately. Robert was crushed and seemed on the verge of another nervous breakdown. The Brighton Weekly reported the incident with the headline, “Famous Evangelist Found in Bedroom of Adoring Female Follower.”186 The counsel of eight publicly reported “a somewhat disingenuous statement saying that he had had a fall from a horse some years previously ‘followed by congestion of the brain and long-continued distressing nervous symptoms.’ ”187 In order to quiet “rumors of an exceedingly painful character” concerning Robert, later in 1875 the counsel of eight released the following public statement:

Some weeks after the Brighton Convention, it came to our knowledge that the individual referred to had, on some occasions in personal conversation, inculcated doctrines which were most unscriptural and dangerous. We also found there had been conduct which, although we were convinced that it was free from evil intention, was yet such as to render action necessary on our part. We therefore requested him to abstain at once from all public work, and when the circumstances were represented to him in their true light, he entirely acquiesced in the propriety of this course, and recognized with deep sorrow the unscriptural and dangerous character of the teaching and conduct in question. In addition to the above, a return of the distressing attacks of the brain, from which he had previously suffered, rendered the immediate cessation from work an absolute necessity.188

Robert and Hannah immediately returned to America, where some friends insisted that they still lead higher life conferences. In the summer of 1876, they led their final conference. The results were outstanding by revivalist measures, but the meetings were a drudgery for Robert and Hannah.189

2. Robert and Hannah’s deteriorating marriage declined even further. Hannah’s intense feminism and independence, Robert’s manic-depressive nature, and their lack of physical relations all contributed to a very unhappy marriage. Robert persisted for years in unrepentant adultery with another “polished female friend,” and Hannah never forgave him, “had long lost all respect for him,” and habitually complained to her children about his unfaithfulness.190

3. Robert apostatized and became an agnostic. Pollock devotes only one sentence to this: “For some years he kept his personal faith but it withered.”191 Dieter explains,

Robert never recovered from the events of 1875. He gradually gave up all his Christian commitments and died alienated, but not separated, from his family. Plagued by a manic depressive nature for most of his life, he was now happiest when engaged in his Buddhist meditations in his spacious tree house at the family’s home at Friday’s Hill, south of London.192

4. Hannah apostatized. She lost interest in the higher life,193 avidly supported the temperance movement and women’s suffrage, and in 1886 rejoined the Quakers.194 In a letter to Anna Shipley on 8 August 1876 (just over one year after the Brighton Convention), Hannah declared, “My orthodoxy has fled to the winds. I am Broad, Broader, Broadest! So broad that I believe everything is good, or has a germ of good in it.” She professed to hold “all sorts of heresies” and reduced her theology to the single belief in “an omnipotent and just Creator.”195 Throughout her “Christian” life she had held to restitutionism, a form of universalism that denied hell and upheld the ultimate salvation of all people,196 and she gloried in what she called “the Motherliness of God.”197 Near the end of her life she embraced religious pluralism.198

Robert and Hannah Smith did not have “happy” lives, but Hannah’s The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life sadly endures as a devotional “classic.” In spite of its brevity, their ministry had broad and lasting effects. “It is fair to say that the theology of the early conventioneers is essentially Pearsall Smith’s theology.”199 The Keswick Convention was the result of their English and other European evangelism,200 and it “institutionalized the message of the Smiths.”201 Keswick historians likewise note this connection and revere the Smiths and their teaching.202




Taken from Naselli, A. D. (2010). Let Go and Let God? A Survey and Analysis of Keswick Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.


  1. In this article I don’t see you deal with any of the scriptures that are used to substantiate the Baptism of Holy Spirt. I would also be curious of how you would deal with Martyn Lloyd-Jones treatment of the subject in chapter one of the book “Joy Unspeakable”.



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