The Secret History of the Salvation Army (part three)
It is well known that John Wesley and George Whitefield attended an all-night prayer meeting during which the Holy Spirit was poured out in such power that several men fell to the ground. They were overwhelmed by the power of God. They were filled with the Spirit. And then 1739 happened.
It’s not as well known that the early Salvation Army experienced very similar outpourings of the Spirit.
The Salvationists were taken with the theology of the Wesleyans, that a ‘baptism’ of the Holy Spirit after conversion imparts a degree of spiritual holiness. Different views exist on that point. Nevertheless, what is undeniable is that they were indeed receiving power to witness, and that their witness for Christ spread rapidly throughout Great Britain, and before long, the world.
One all-night prayer meeting is described in The Happy Warrior, Humphrey Wallis’s biography of Elijah Cadman:
At one o’clock in the morning the Holy Sprit came upon us, and suddenly thirty fell down and cried out to God for the Blessing of a Clean Heart. Some lay as though they were dead for a time. Oh, may God give us more and more of His Sanctifying Power, the complete armour for the people of The Salvation Army.’[i]
Obviously during the Victorian period, as in all others, people had distressing seizures which were popularly referred to as ‘fits’. Medical professionals were called upon to diagnose and treat the patients. These were, of course, distressing. When the primarily working class Salvationists began to be overwhelmed by the power of the Holy Spirit in their meetings, they, rather endearingly and humorously, referred to these spiritual experiences as ‘glory fits’.
A gathering characterised by such experiences was also sometimes referred to as a ‘Hallelujah Wind-up’ because the atmosphere became so intense until release came through shouting, loud praying, singing, or by people running or jumping up and down (If you’re not sure about the phrase ‘wind-up’, which is still in use today, it refers to the tension created by winding up a watch or clock until almost at breaking point. Nowadays, it tends to refer to something that is increasingly irritating).
This was the hour when the phenomena characterizing the…first years of The Salvation Army – phenomena that has never wholly vanished – reappeared in a more extensive manner.
The course of the regular Meetings bean to be interrupted by Salvationists falling into ‘Glory Fits.’ In one of Elijah’s Meetings at Bradford ‘about a hundred persons were in ‘Glory Fits.’ Soldiers came up to Officers to say, “I don’t believe in this,” and while speaking fell under the strange manifestation of the Divine Presence.’
The ‘Glory Fits’ were ecstasies during which the individuals affected were insensible, usually silent, and remained thus for one, or many hours. All ages and both sexes were included in the cases. The prostrations were commoner in Holiness services and nights of prayer. Medical and other means devised to control or restrict the symptoms were useless. The condition was not contagious or always recurrent. Those beside or near a Salvationist experiencing the ecstasy were not similarly moved or sympathetic, and those who had been once in the state were often immune from a repetition.
People fell suddenly where they stood or sat, many crying out, as with a last breath, ‘Glory to God!’ On returning to consciousness, no coherent account was given of what had taken place. A few described their withdrawal from material sense as ‘bliss’, ‘great happiness’, ‘like Paradise’, ‘walking into Heaven in a rainbow’, ‘joy the body was unable to bear’, and a ‘sense of the love and glory of Christ’.
Said Elijah: ‘I have seen them lying about all over the platform and Hall, but never once in an unseemly posture. Their bodies were, as a rule, quite stiff. We had our own people carry them out of the Meeting – that was the strict regulation – and take every precaution for them. Men carried men and women carried women. They were placed in different ante-rooms adjoining the Halls, and several elderly, trusted Soldiers of the same sex left in charge till they recovered. Frequently doctors attended them. None ever became indisposed, ill, or died. It was often the most peaceful and composed of our people who were affected. There were never, in my experience of the “Glory Fits” any warning signs. A Meeting might be ‘hard’, that is, very difficult to pray in and to get others to pray; a lot of sinners making trouble, perhaps, and then, in an instant, the Power of God would descend on us, sinners be hushed into awe, and be overcome by the sense of His Majesty and His Love, through His Son, to us all, and all the world.
Sometimes we leaders would beseech Him to withhold His gift, that the people might not be alarmed, and that those in ignorance of Him might be prevented from sinning by spreading false reports.
I have led Meetings where the Holy Spirit was manifest in such power that half the soldiers present were in “Glory Fits” and I had to cling, nearly helpless, to the platform rail, lifting my heart and crying inwardly all the time to God to shepherd my people. Conversions always took place in such Meetings.’[ii]
Knowing history can help us evaluate contemporary experience
I recently heard a pastor ridiculing similar experiences of the Holy Spirit because he observed it merely left believers feeling loved and not empowered for fruitful mission. Love is important, of course, but let’s not rubbish outpourings of the Spirit because some (and even some leaders) fail to emphasise the missional purpose of such outpourings. The evidence of the early Methodists and the early Salvationists suggests such outpourings were the dynamic cause of their missional work.
More next time…
©2017 Lex Loizides / Church History Review
[i] Humphrey Wallis, The Happy Warrior (London: Salvationist Publishing, 1928), p.83
[ii] ibid p.108-109