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Asa Mahan and the Development of
American Holiness Theology
Donald W. Dayton
Source: Wesleyan Theological Journal
recent Christianity Today editorial devoted to Asa Mahan was entitled “A Man
One cannot but concur in this judgment. Mahan was successively president of
Mahan was a major figure in the “academic orthodoxy” that vied with
transcendentalism for dominance in pre-Civil War
wish to argue that Mahan can also be used to illustrate major shifts that took
place during the nineteenth century in the thinking of perfectionist and
holiness groups and to make clearer the interrelationships of Oberlin
perfectionism, Methodistic holiness groups, and the Keswick movement, as well as
shed a great deal of light on the origins of Pentecostalism.
within the Methodistic holiness movement have tended to emphasize the
distinctions between the Wesleyan and Oberlin doctrines of Christian perfection.
Though at one point I took this position myself,
I am now convinced that these distinctions have been overdrawn. This becomes
clearer when one concentrates on Mahan rather than Finney as the determinative
force behind Oberlin perfectionism. The Oberlin teaching was developed in part
under the influence of Wesley, and its earlier period was designated by B. B.
Warfield as its “Wesleyan period.”
Christian Perfection was the major expression of this period, and upon
its publication George Peck, then editor of the Methodist Quarterly Review,
was “satisfied that the thing which we mean by Christian Perfection is
truly set forth in that work.”
It was primarily with the introduction of the doctrine of the “simplicity of
moral action” that major cleavages began to appear in the Oberlin teaching.
Finney and his colleagues began to move more in a Pelagian direction while
“Mahan moved closer to Wesleyan theology as he grew older.”
theological movement was reflected as well in Mahan’s institutional
alignments. He spent most of the 1860s as president of
significance of Mahan for the development of holiness thought in the nineteenth
century is best seen in a close comparison of his two most popular books: The
Scripture Doctrine of Christian Perfection (1839)
and The Baptism of the Holy Ghost (1870).
Both of these books were originally published under Methodistic holiness
auspices. The first was published by D. S. King, who shortly thereafter became
publisher and then editor of the Guide to Christian Perfection, while the
second was published by the Palmers after Phoebe Palmer had become editor of the
same journal, now renamed the Guide to Holiness.
first of Mahan’s books is fairly typical of the development given to holiness
theology until about the time of the Civil War, while the second book indicates
a new theological development of the doctrine that gained acceptance in the
years after the Civil War and by the turn of the century had become widely
accepted not only in holiness circles but to a certain extent beyond them. The
new element is the use of the term “baptism of the Holy Ghost” and the model
of Pentecost in
interpreters have assumed that this language can be traced back to Wesley,
but a recent study by Herbert McGonigle
strongly calls this assumption into question. McGonigle argues that Wesley
rarely uses the expression “baptism of the Holy Ghost” and that his major
statements of Christian perfection are developed in a Christological vein that
relies little on the development of a doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit in
the life of the believer. By and large the same is true of other early British
Methodists, though the language does begin to appear in Joseph Benson and John
one turns to the renewed emphasis on Christian perfection in
have made a great deal of Finney’s use of the term in his memoirs,
but there the reference is to his conversion, and the volume was not published
until 1876, when this language was relatively common. The “baptism of the Holy
Ghost” plays little role in his Views of Sanctification (1840) and no part in
his systematic theology (the relevant section was published in 1847). A similar
situation seems to obtain with Mahan. The “baptism of the Holy Ghost”
dominates the Autobiography (1882) and the more strictly “spiritual” account
Out of Darkness into Light (1877). Mahan refers to those “two great doctrines
which have been the theme of my life during the past forty-six years,”
but the early literature does not bear him out. The new language does not appear
in Christian Perfection or his other early writings.
first real development of this new language appears to have taken place among
the two minor figures of Oberlin perfectionism. In his Holiness of Christians
in the Present Life (1840), Henry Cowles gives greater attention to the Holy
Spirit as the Agent of sanctification, but he does not refer to a “baptism of
the Holy Ghost.” Shortly thereafter, however, in two sermons on the “Baptism
of the Holy Ghost,” Cowles concludes that “the plan of salvation
contemplates as its prime object, the sanctification of the Church; and relies
on the baptism of the Holy Spirit as the great efficient power for accomplishing
it was John Morgan who first gave this teaching extended development in an essay
entitled “The Gift of the Holy Spirit,” where he argues that “the baptism
of the Holy Ghost, then, in its Pentecostal fullness, was not to be confined to
is difficult to determine exactly when Mahan turned to this doctrine. He left
Oberlin in 1850, and a lecture published in 1851 argues in line with his Christian
Perfection that “the mission of the Spirit is wholly subsidiary to that of
Christ, and is coextensive with it in design and actual influence.”
On the other hand, we know from his correspondence with Phoebe Palmer about the
publication of Baptism of the Holy Ghost,
that the book consists of lectures developed at
currents converge on this same period. One may trace a rising interest in this
doctrine in the Guide to Holiness during the 1850s.
William Arthur’s book The Tongue of Fire, from
was in 1859 that Phoebe Palmer published The Promise of the Father that
argued from the quotation of Joel in
Phoebe Palmer was using Pentecost now as the model of this experience and that
it was to be explicitly identified with “holiness” is made clear in another
report from Newcastle: “At our afternoon meetings, ‘Holiness unto the
Lord,’ or, in other words, the full baptism of the Holy Spirit, as received by
the one hundred and twenty disciples on the day of Pentecost, is set forth as
the absolute necessity of all believers of every name.”
spite of these developments Phoebe Palmer was still reluctant to publish
Mahan’s book in 1870, arguing that it was too controversial. But Mahan replied
that widespread discussion of the doctrine indicated that the churches were
ready for his book in which “the doctrine of entire sanctification is
presented in a form old and yet new.”
Palmer finally capitulated and the book immediately had major impact through
several editions. Less than a dozen years later Mahan could report that “it
has been very extensively circulated in
1870 one can trace an increasing crescendo of “Pentecostal” and “baptism
of the Holy Ghost” language. In 1871, Oberlin was finally reconciled with
orthodox Congregationalism, and Finney addressed the Oberlin Council of
Congregationalism on the “baptism of the Holy Ghost.” It was the same year
that two Free Methodist ladies told D. L. Moody that his preaching lacked power
and launched his spiritual quest for the experience. The teaching became a major
theme of Moody and his successors.
the early 1870s, Mahan retired to
Mahan’s book and its new terminology also had major impact within Methodism,
especially within the growing holiness movement. The Buffalo Christian
Advocate observed that “the author has hit upon just the right time for
his work. The church is awakening to the importance of the baptism of
powerhungering for a dainty meal, abundantly provided, but which few enjoy.” The
Methodist Recorder found the theme “central in the current of all New
And in 1874, Daniel Steele, then of Syracuse but later of Boston University,
described his own experience in terms of a “baptism of the Spirit” and
advised his brethren “to cease to discuss the subtleties and endless questions
arising from entire sanctification or Christian Perfection, and all cry mightily
to God for the baptism of the Holy Spirit.”
can note in the Guide to Holiness an increasing tendency to use
“Pentecostal” language. This climaxed in 1897 when the latter part of the
title was changed from “and Revival Miscellany” (dating from Phoebe
Palmer’s days) to “and Pentecostal Life” in response to the “signs of
the times, which indicate inquiry, research and ardent pursuit of the gifts,
graces, and power of the Holy Spirit. ‘The Pentecostal idea’ is pervading
Christian thought and aspiration more than ever before.”
same issue announced inside the front cover a new edition of that “Great
Pentecostal Gift” the Baptism of the Holy Ghost, “this truly
magnificent work of Dr. Mahan on the Great Theme of the Period.”
the turn of the century everything had become “Pentecostal.” Sermons are
published in the column “Pentecostal Pulpit”; women’s reports are entitled
“Pentecostal Womanhood”; testimonies are “Pentecostal Testimonies”; and
devotions are held in the “Pentecostal closet.” This is but an extreme
illustration of what had become generally true in most strands of the holiness
movement by 1900.
adoption of “Pentecostal” and “baptism of the Holy Ghost” language by
holiness and related traditions involved much more than a mere shift in
terminology. When “Christian perfection” becomes “baptism of the Holy
Ghost,” there is a major theological transformation. The significance of this
shift can best be seen in a close comparison of the two books by Mahan. By this
procedure we can focus the study and, by examining the development in a single
mind, see in greater relief what is taking place.
There is, first of all, a shift from Christocentrism to an emphasis on the Holy
Spirit that is really quite radical in character. Christian Perfection, like
Wesley’s Plain Account, is basically oriented to Christ for the work of
sanctification. Where Mahan does speak of the Holy Spirit, it is as the
“Divine Teacher” who “sustains to Christ the same relation that a teacher
does to the particular science which he teaches. His object is not to present
himself to the pupil, but the science. So the Spirit shows not himself, but
Christ to our minds.”
In this book Mahan will give no autonomy to the Spirit in guidance and suggests
that a man should resist any undefined impressions to speak or undertake any
particular course of action unless he can advance clear, rational reasons for
the Baptism of the Holy Ghost the fundamental question has now become
“Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?” Instead of anchoring
the work of the Spirit in Christ, Mahan now argues that Christ himself was
“dependent upon the indwelling, and influence, and baptism of the Holy Spirit,
the same in all essential particulars as in us.”
And though Mahan is cautious, this shift involves a movement toward giving the
Spirit autonomy in guidance and the enabling to “prophesy.”
This shift in emphasis is underlined by another shift in terminology. In Christian
Perfection, salvation history is divided into “covenants,” the old
covenant of the moral law and the new covenant of grace, of which Christ is the
Mediator. The pivotal point between the two is Christ, especially His atoning
death. In Baptism of the Holy Ghost salvation history is divided into
dispensations. It is the Spirit who is “the crowning glory and promise of the
and it is Pentecost that is the pivotal point between the dispensations. This
shift adds a third division to salvation history and pre pares the way for
easier coalescence with dispensational theology.
This shift in terminology involves as well a radical shift in exegetical
foundations on which the doctrine of sanctification is built. In Christian
Perfection, Mahan relies on a selection of texts that is similar, but not
identical, to the set of texts used by Wesley. Both Mahan and Wesley hardly ever
refer to the Book of Acts, and then not to texts that become important in
Mahan’s later book.
the Baptism of the Holy Ghost, however, almost all the key texts are
taken from the Book of Acts. Basic, of course, is the account of Pentecost, but
other accounts of the receiving of the Spirit come into focus. Other passages
from the New Testament that speak of the Holy Spirit play a role, as well as
such prophetic passages as
fact points to an ambiguity that plagued efforts to synthesize these two
doctrines from the days of John Morgan and Henry Cowles. A study of the biblical
doctrine of “perfection” does not naturally lead to the account of
Pentecost, and vice versa. This constitutional instability of the synthesis may
help to explain why the concern for sanctification tended to drop out of the
This shift in exegetical foundations tends to bring into view a new set of
contexts and related biblical ideas. Among these are (a) a new emphasis on power
There is also an intensification of the use of prophecy in the predictive sense.
This is manifested in several ways.
A development of the Christian life in terms of living in the Pentecostal
reality makes more difficult the direct appropriation of Old Testament models.
The Old Testament is read more in terms of its looking forward to the
Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit in a promise fulfillment pattern. One of
the most determinative of the new expressions is the phrase “the promise of
There is also an intensification of the expectation of the ushering in of the
millennium. Mahan felt that the contemporary interest in the Holy Spirit was a
sign that the millennium was dawning and assigned to Methodism a special place
in the last days:
central article of her creed is the great central Truth of the Gospel. If she
will be true to her calling, she will not only enable “the fountain to be
opened” in her own midst, but also in other communions. When this takes place,
“then is the millennium near, even at the door.”
New emphasis falls on problems of the interpretation of prophecy. In the later
book Mahan devoted several pages
to determining the meaning of the phrases “in that day” or “in those
days” that occur in the prophecies that he is now utilizing. He concluded that
these expressions referred not primarily to Pentecost but to those final days of
spiritual blessing just before the advent of the millennium. In this discussion
one may see the beginning of the distinction between the “earlier” and
“latter” rains of spiritual blessing that became so prominent in later
holiness and Pentecostal thought.
of these developments take place, of course, within Mahan’s postmillennial
framework. But the lectures behind the Baptism of the Holy Ghost were
first given in the 1860s. The prophecy conferences that signaled the rise of
premillennialism did not take place until the late 1870s. And it was not until
1882, for example, that A. T. Pierson, prominent in the Keswick movement,
capitulated to premillennialism.
But we can see that once attention is shifted to the “baptism of the Holy
Ghost,” as Mahan developed it, the ground is already well prepared for the
growth of premillennialism.
In the shift from “Christian perfection” to “baptism of the Holy Ghost”
there is also a shift from emphasis on the goal and nature of the “holy”
life to an event in which this change takes place. In the earlier book this goal
is expressed in highly ethical and moral terms. For Mahan “perfection in
holiness implies a full and perfect discharge of our entire duty, of all
existing obligations in respect to God and all other beings. It is perfect
obedience to the moral law.”
It is clear how such a position easily correlates with the mood of social reform
that dominated pre-Civil War America. The later book has a greater emphasis on personal “cleansing” and
“purity” and concentrates on God’s method for achieving this.
Explicating this in terms of the baptism of the Holy Ghost cannot but emphasize
the “eventness” of the experience of holiness, perhaps to the ultimate
detriment of ethical concerns, especially those of social ethics.
There is finally in the later book a much stronger emphasis on the assurance
that the Pentecostal baptism brings.
“Where the Holy Ghost is received, such a change is wrought in the subject
that he himself will become distinctly conscious of the change . . . a change
observable also to others around.”
One can trace after 1870
a concern for a “conscious” baptism of the Spirit. It is easy to see how
these sorts of concern could raise the question of a “physical evidence” of
this baptism and how the experience of “speaking in tongues” could provide
an answer to this concern. Indeed, there seem to be several instances of this
experience in holiness circles between 1870 and the outbreak of Pentecostalism
comparisons between these two books by Mahan delineate a major theological
reorientation that took place in Nineteenth Century American holiness circles.
Two basic patterns for the development of holiness theology have been explored.
By concentrating on Asa Mahan, who embodies within himself so much of this
theological transition, we have also seen more clearly the close
interrelationships between the major holiness currents in the nineteenth
century: Oberlin perfectionism, the Methodistic holiness movement, and the
Keswick movement. Many details of the story need filling out, but the main
outline is clear.
this study also illuminates the backgrounds of Pentecostalism. It is possible to
trace the rise of “Pentecostal” language through the whole last half of the
nineteenth century. It is not surprising that modern Pentecostalism should
sprout in this well prepared ground. It was therefore a holiness
evangelist who founded
June 22, 1973, p 23.
Early in this century
Mahan was studied by Paul Fleisch in his uncompleted Zur Geschichte der
Heiligungsbewegung. Erstes Heft: Die Heiligungsbewegung uon Wesley
bis Boardman (Leipzig: Wallmann, 1910); and by Benjamin B. Warfield in
articles in the Princeton Theological Review (1921), later gathered
into Vol. 2 of Perfectionism (New York: Oxford U.P., 1931) and
reprinted in an abridged edition by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing
Company, 1958. The period of Mahan’s presidency of
Cf. Donald W. Dayton,
The American Holiness Movement: a Bibliographic Introduction
(Wilmore, Ky.: B. L. Fisher Library, Asbury Theological Seminary, 1971), pp.
19–20. This essay is also available in the 1971 Proceedings of the
American Theological Library Association.
Perfectionism (1958 abridgment), p. 66.
 Methodist Quarterly Review 23 (April, 1841): 307–8
James H. Fairchild, “The Doctrine of Sanctification at Oberlin,” Congregational
Quarterly 18 (April,1876), though Warfield is a better guide to the
development than Fairchild for our purposes.
Barbara Zikmund, “Asa Mahan and Oberlin Perfectionism,” p. 241.
Ibid., p. 221, but based on a notice in the Hamilton Literary Monthly
In a review of Phoebe Palmer’s Present to My Christian Friend,
Mahan found her writings “among the most profitable that can be placed in
the hands of enquirers after holiness,” Oberlin Evangelist 7
(1845):86. Phoebe Palmer, in turn, put Mahan’s testimony first in her
anthology Pioneer Experiences (New York: W. C. Palmer, Jr., 1872),
and the second edition of her Way of Holiness (New York: Lane &
Scott, 1851) contains a commendatory preface by Mahan. Mahan was quoted and
published in the Guide, often in the midst of lists of Methodist
writers. Cf. Guide to Holiness 10 (1850):4. Other evidence could be
I am using the second edition published by D. S. King of Boston, 1839.
There were 10 editions within the first 10 years, as well as a number of
later reprints, including a Twentieth Century edition by the Free Methodist
I am using primarily the first edition (New York: W. C. Palmer, Jr., 1870).
More common is a British edition (
W. J. Hollenweger comments, for example, that “John Wesley . . . had
already made a distinction between the sanctified, or those who had been
baptized in the Spirit, and ordinary Christians,” The Pentecostals
(Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972), p. 21.
“Pneumatological Nomenclature in Early Methodism,” Wesleyan
Cf., for example, Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 4042, 33235, etc.
Autobiography, Intellectual, Moral and Spiritual (London: T. Woolmer 1882),
Oberlin Evangelist 2 (1840):93.
Oberlin Quarterly Review
Lectures on the Ninth of Romans; Election, and the Influence of the Holy
Spirit (Boston: Charles Pierce, 1851), p. 173.
 These letters are among the Phoebe Palmer papers in the Drew University Library.
Cf. J. D., “Entire Sanctification and the Fullness of the Spirit”
(arguing they are not the same), Guide to Holiness 29
(April,1856):97–98, and A. A. Phelps, “An Important Distinction Between
the ‘Witness’ and the ‘Baptism’ of the Spirit; Saving Faith,” Guide
to Holiness 33 (May, 1858):129–31.
(New York: Harper, 1856), still in print with Light and Life Press.
Cf. reports in Warren Chandler, Great Revivals and the Great Republic
(Nashville: Publishing House of the M. E. Church, 1924) and such reports as Pentecost,
or the Work of God in
(Boston: Henry V. Degen, 1859).
These letters were later collected into Four Years in the Old World
(New York: W. C. Palmer, Jr., 1870) This reference is from a letter dated
September 16, 1859, p. 96.
Ibid., p. 107 (letter dated October 12, 1859).
Letter of Asa Mahan to Phoebe Palmer, dated May
 Autobiography, p. 414.
Account of the Union Meeting for the Promotion of Scriptural Holiness Held
at Oxford, Aug. 29 to Sept. 7, 1874 (various publishers, n.d.), p. 141.
Record of the Convention for the Promotion of Scriptural Holiness Held at
Brighton, May 29 to June 7, 1875 (
 Press reports, Guide to Holiness, Vol. 14 (June, 1871), inside front cover.
“Baptism of the Spirit,” Guide to Holiness 20 (February, 1874):1.
“PentecostWhat Is It?” Guide to Holiness 66 (January, 1897):37.
Christian Perfection, p. 166. Cf. Baptism of the Holy Ghost, p. 113.
Baptism of the Holy Ghost, p. 47.
 Ibid., p. 150.
 Ibid., pp. 138–43.
 L. Moody at Home (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell, 1886), p. 168.
 Christian Perfection, p. 7, apparently Mahan’s basic definition.
 Cf., for example, Baptism of the Holy Ghost, p. 199.
Ibid., p. 39.
Cf. the papers of Hannah Whitall Smith in Ray Strachey, Religious
Fanaticism (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928), passim.
Cf. the summary of evidence collected by Stanley Frodsham in With Signs
Following in William Menzies, Anointed to Serve: The Story of
the Assemblies of God (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing Company,
1971), pp. 2933. An additional report may be found in A. M. Kiergan, Historical
Sketches of the Revival of True Holiness and Local Church Polity from
1865–1916 (Fort Scott, Kans.: Board of Publication of the Church Advocate
and Good Way, 1971), p. 31.
For further development of this thesis cf. H. Vinson Synan, The
PentecostalHoliness Movement in the United States (Grand Rapids, Mich.:
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971) and Donald W. Dayton, “From ‘Christian
Perfection’ to the ‘Baptism of the Holy Ghost’: A Study in the
Origins of Pentecostalism,” in H. Vinson Synan, Aspects of Pentecostal
Origins (Plainfield, N.J.: Logos, 1974). In progress is a further major
statement of this thesis by the present writer.