Archive for May, 2009

Extra! Extra! Editorial Portrayals of the Early Oneness Movement

20 May, 2009

May 11, 1915, the Executive Presbytery of the Assemblies of God convened for a semi-annual meeting in St. Louis, Missouri. The announcement in the Weekly Evangel urged all presbyters to attend “as a number of important matters will be presented for deliberation and discussion.” Undoubtedly, the emerging “New Issue”, an early euphemism for the Oneness movement, was amongst the most important topics of the meeting. The Oneness doctrine, which spread quickly throughout the ranks of the Assemblies of God, represented a serious crisis for the fledgling organization as whole churches accepted the message of the Mighty God in Christ and submitted to rebaptism in the Name of Jesus. The printed call to the St. Louis meeting proved to be the commencement of the press war against Oneness, largely waged by Eudorus N. Bell, General Chairman of the Assemblies of God, and his powerful secretary, J. Roswell Flower. These men used the Weekly Evangel (later the Pentecostal Evangel), the official organ of the Assemblies of God, and other widely-read circulars to provide Trinitarian apologetics, discredit Oneness proponents, and to forge a semblance of unity that later led to the defection of the Oneness faction.

The germination of the Oneness movement actually predates the formation of the Assemblies of God, which organized in April 1914. Following the World Wide Apostolic Faith Camp Meeting held in April 1913 in Arroyo Seco, California, several attendees began a careful study of the Scriptures and became convinced that Jesus Christ was indeed God Himself rather than God the Son. April 15, 1914, Bro. Frank Ewart, who was solidly persuaded of the scriptural teaching, erected a tent in Belvedere, California and began preaching the Oneness message and the corollary doctrine of baptism in the Name of Jesus Christ. The moment was pivotal for the Pentecostal movement, and Bro. Ewart said: “The shot had been fired, and its sound was destined to be heard around the world.” Like the allusive shot that began the American Revolutionary War, the rediscovery of New Testament truth revolutionized the Pentecostal movement, with soldiers on both sides volleying for their respective positions.

The first mention of some doctrinal disruption is made in the August 1914 Word and Witness. J. Roswell Flower published a short editorial admonishment entitled “In Doctrines”:

In doctrinal teaching we shall stand for the certain truths as ever and against the doubtful and uncertain. We do not believe in keeping the saints confused and divided over men’s new theories [illegible] in wild fanatical tendencies which tear up more than they build up. Yet, we must keep our sky-lights open so as not to reject any new light God may throw upon the old Word. We must not fail to keep pace in life or teaching with light from heaven. To this end we earnestly ask the prayers and cooperation of every child of God.

While there is no specific mention of the “New Issue” doctrine, it is clear that Flower is attempting to steady the ship. However, we should recognize that his language is tolerant, if not expectant. Flower is clearly concerned about the unity of Pentecostals on issues of doctrine but is also careful about encouraging openness toward spiritual revelation that is consistent with the Scriptures.

Following the meeting of the Executive Presbytery in St. Louis, Flower printed a front-page piece, “Preliminary Statement. Concerning the Principles Involved in the New Issue by the Presbytery”, in the Weekly Evangel. While the statement was ratified by the presbyters, it bears a marked resemblance to the August 1914 comments by Flower: “We stand for everything clearly revealed and set forth in the written Word of God . . . In so far as there is anything in the Scriptures which we have not seen as yet, or have neglected, we stand ready to accept and teach this whenever the same is shown to be the teaching and practice of the Lord and His apostles.” Interestingly, the dictum seems much less focused on modes of baptism than another controversy equating the Holy Ghost with the blood. Evidently, some were teaching that the resurrected Christ had “spiritual blood” which was the same as the “new wine.” As such, proponents were teaching that the Lord’s Supper commemorated the resurrection rather than his death. All said, the statement does evidence growing doctrinal diversity amongst Pentecostals. However, the fact that the statement is merely “preliminary” indicates that the presbyters believed that further study was necessary before making a solid pronouncement of any kind.

In May 1915, E.N. Bell authored a four-part series for the Weekly Evangel on the baptismal debate. This study clearly elevated the visibility of the Oneness controversy, and Bell painstakingly attempts to nullify “in the Name of Jesus Christ” as a “fixed formula”, arguing that baptismal references in the New Testament indicate only that the rite was performed “under the power of Christ and the anointing of the Holy Ghost” but that “the mere phrase is not the essential thing.” In June, Bell published the final article in the series devoted to examining the Book of Acts. Surveying the controversial history of Christian baptism amongst the early post-apostolic believers, Bell admits that history supports the use of both singular and trine invocation, but he clearly believes Trinitarian baptism to be the default form. He explicitly rails against the “modern Los Angeles explanation” (a reference to the work of Frank Ewart and Glenn Cook): “But these new revelators have turned the table. They have reversed all history. They have done the new and unheard of thing.” Bell is clearly attempting to expose Ewart, Cook and company as mere innovators, manufacturers of an extra-biblical doctrine.

In an apparent reversal of his early opinions, Eudorus Bell caused a great stir in the summer of 1915 when, after so vehemently opposing the “New Issue”, he was reimmersed in the Name of Jesus Christ at the Third Interstate Encampment of the Assemblies of God in Jackson, Tennessee. The act made front page news in the August 1915 Word and Witness. In September 1915, Bro. Bell published a statement in the Weekly Evangel tellingly entitled: “Who is Jesus Christ? Being Exalted as the Jehovah of the Old Testament and the True God of the New. A New Realization of Christ as the Mighty God.” Though he claimed to retain his Trinitarian view, which he admits he does not and cannot comprehend, the article is essentially an Oneness exposition of the doctrine of Jesus Christ as God Himself:

I can say to-day [sic], before God and all men, that His joy is rolling in my soul now as never before. As I write His glory convulses my whole physical frame, and I have to stop now and then and say ‘Glory’ or ‘Oh Glory’ to let some of it escape. Night before last, as I lay on my bed, I heard in the Spirit the sweetest, most soul-thrilling song of the wonderful name of Jesus I ever heard since I was born. If people knew what God is putting in my soul by a brand new vision of Jesus and the wonders hid in His mighty and glorious name, they would begin to shout and help me praise the Lamb that was slain who is now beginning to receive some honor and praise, but who will eventually make the whole universe-sea, earth, and sky, reverberate with the universal praise and honor to His great name. Hallelujah to His Name forever and ever.

He continues throughout the piece to expound on Christ as Jehovah, Father and Creator, revealed and uses a collection of traditionally Oneness reference to buttress his arguments (Is. 9.6, Jn. 10.30, Col. 2.9, and Rev. 1.17). Bell ultimately never disconnected himself from the Trinitarian Assemblies of God, but this interesting episode clearly wrecks his nascent, stalwart stand against the Jesus’-Name formula.

Another function of the Pentecostal circulars was to keep a clear roster of who was aligned with whom. Bro. Ewart, who viewed Bell’s rebaptism as a victory for the Oneness camp, printed an expanded version of Bell’s Weekly Evangel article in his own Oneness publication, Meat in Due Season. In fact, Bro. Ewart proposed in his history, Phenomenon of Pentecost, that the Word and Witness version was edited to the point of mutilation, omitting some of the stronger Oneness statements made by Bell (Ewart 103).

When Andrew Urshan cast his lot with the Oneness pariahs after his return from foreign missions work in 1919, the subject re-erupted in the Trinitarian Pentecostal press. Bell made the announcement of Urshan’s defection in the Christian Evangel in an article entitled, “Andrew Urshan’s New Stand. A Bit of Sad News.” Citing Bro. Urshan’s strong confession of faith in the Mighty God in Christ as published in his own periodical, Witness of God, Bell indicates that Bro. Urshan was willing to forfeit credentials with the Assemblies of God. He concludes the article with heartfelt concern for Bro. Urshan: “The above is given with deep, loving concern for Bro. Urshan and with no prejudice or illwill [sic] against him, only as new to the saints. Pray for God to guide Bro. Urshan.”

After the clear division of the Oneness and Trinitarian camps with the withdraw of Oneness ministers in 1916, the heated controversies subsided. Today, however, we recognize the role of these periodicals in making up the ranks. The attacks on “New Issue” doctrine and believers played a significant role in controlling the impact of the Oneness movement on the Assemblies of God but surely stoked the fires of Oneness zeal and indignation as well. Undoubtedly, Flower and Bell believed that they were defending orthodoxy and protecting their fellowship from grievous wolves. The articles do evidence the sharp division ultimately caused by the propagation of the truth. In the days before email announcements and online discussion forums, even before widespread interstate telephone networks or broadcast stations, Pentecostal circulars were the neural system of the movement. Despite efforts to disinherit and discredit the Oneness movement, the power of the pen could not thwart the sovereign move of the Spirit as many leaders and congregations within the Assemblies of God accepted the Bible message of salvation and the apostolic teaching of the mighty God in Christ.

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Cotton Mather: an Early American’s Call to Holiness

7 May, 2009

Cotton Mather (1663-1728) is probably best remembered for his publications of The Wonders of the Invisible World (1692), published as a defense of the Salem witch trials, which led to the execution of nineteen men and women accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. But, this important Boston minister, from a renowned Puritan family, was a prolific opponent of all worldliness and carnality and a proponent of deep spiritual living and Godliness. Cotton Mather used both his pulpit and pen to admonish New England Christians to embrace a life of obedience and sacrifice and viewed the Scriptures as the ultimate authority for civil and ecclesiastical law. His published sermons, tracts, and books evidence Reverend Mather’s strong sense of personal piety and his fervent desire for the institutional Church to inform and regulate the lives of early Americans.

In 1692, Mather published “Ornaments for the daughters of Zion. Or The character and happiness of a vertuous woman: in a discourse which directs the female-sex how to express, the fear of God in every age and state of their life; and obtain both temporal and eternal blessedness.” In the work, Mather makes plain his strong stand against lewdness, wantonness and vanity. Citing the apostolic precepts of I Tm. 2.9 and I Pt. 3.2-4, Cotton Mather begins his discussion of dress and adornment with the basic holiness principle that “where the fear of God sanctifies the heart, it will doubtless regulate the habit.” The minister enumerates guidelines for Godly dress, beginning with the forbiddance of immodest exposure of the body. He allows only for the display of just the hands and face because “The face is to be naked because of what is known by it; the Hands are to be naked because of what is done by them.” He further disallows the practice of patching, or painting black or blue spots on the face to cover scars and blemishes, calling the marks “tokens of the Plague of the Soul.” He criticizes the dishonesty of women who use “artificiall painting” to produce a superficial “beauty which they are not really the owners of.” According to Mather, cosmetic alteration is the “guise of an Harlot,” and he argues that “a painted face is but a painted sign hung out for Strangers that they shall find entertainment there.” He admonishes Godly women to observe modest dress and to never spend more on “ornamental superfluities” than they are spending on “clothing and feeding the Distressed members of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Mather believes that any woman whose “rayment is too costly to leave her capable of attending the duties of Justice and Mercy commits but a piece of shining Theevery, in that cheating and cruel Finery.” He advises elderly women to dress with even greater gravity, not mimicking the fashion of the young: “For an old woman to flant [flaunt] it in a youthful dress, is altogether as prodigious a Disorder as for the Flowers of May to appear among the Snows of December.”. Mather warns against any obsession in fashionable dress as “contrary to Christian moderation” and says that “If a Woman spend more Time in Dressing than she does in Praying, or in working out her own Salvation, her Dress is but the Snare of her Soul.” Cotton Mather begs all women to avoid “garish, pompous, flaming modes” of dress and presents these regulations as “Lessons, by the Remembrance and Observance of which, you may be kept from such Transgression in your Apparel as may say, There is no Fear of God before Your eyes.”

In addition to his appeal to New England’s women to avoid immodesty and excess in dress and ornamentation, Cotton Mather delivered a great deal of advice to Christian families on early religious training and additional guidance to young people on the value of personal consecration and morality. The lengthy titles of early American publications serve as a general abstract of the works. In 1694, he published “Early religion. Urged in a sermon. the duties, wherein, and the reasons wherefore, young people should become religious. Whereto are added, the extracts of several papers, written by several persons, who are dying in their youth, left behind them those admonitions for the young survivers; with brief memoirs relating to the exemplary lives of some such, that have gone from hence to their everlasting rest.“ Early mortality served as a powerful and ever-present reminder to young Puritans of the brevity of life. In 1699, Mather wrote “A family well-ordered. Or An essay to render parents and children happy in one another. Handling two very important cases. I. What are the duties to be done by pious parents, for the promoting of piety in their children. II. What are the duties that must be paid by children to their parents, that they may obtain the blessings of the dutiful.” In 1703, he preached a sermon entitled “The Duty of Children, Whose Parents have Pray’d for them. Or, Early and Real Godliness Urged, Especially upon Such as are Descended from Godly Ancestors.” Clearly, he viewed the home as a sacred space for Biblical instruction and exemplified Christianity.

Cotton Mather also greatly admonished Christians to maintain a life filled with spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, and introspection. In 1703, he preached “The Retired Christian. Or, The Duty of Secret Prayer;” and in 1705, he ordered the printing of “The Religion of the Closet, An Essay on the Holy Employments which are proper for a Christian in his Daily Retirements Or, A Christian Furnished with a Companion for Solitude.”

Though Cotton Mather and his Puritan contemporaries never realized many of the rich truths of the Scriptures, their homiletic contributions evidence the history of holiness and dedication to God that served as a solid foundation for Colonial America. Governors, magistrates, jurists, and clergy looked to the Bible as the full embodiment of ideals for the construction of a Godly social order. Sadly, our hallowed national origins have been reinterpreted as an era of ignorance, bigotry, and even theocratic tyranny. Cotton Mather’s sermons, however, are in indelible record of the passionate piety of our American ancestors. In these degenerate times of immorality, profanation, and widespread wickedness, Cotton Mather’s messages, now long-forgotten by most, call us to return to the daily observance of heartfelt holiness and a renewed recognition of the pre-eminent Christ as the true center of our personal, familial, and communal lives.