Around the year 1900 a revival took place in the state of Indiana that many contemporaries considered as a special outpouring of the Pentecostal power of the Holy Spirit. However, quite a number of Adventists, including Ellen White, were disturbed and shocked from what the saw or heard. In emotionally charged, out of control worship services people were yelling prayers and praises accompanied by erratic playing of musical instruments. She viewed it as a counterfeit revival and throughout the years many Adventists were afraid of new worship and music choices since she had predicted a resurgence of these elements in the Seventh-day Adventist Church near the close of probation.
Ellen White nicknamed the movement “Holy Flesh movement” whereas its advocates called it “the cleansing message.” She warned not to pick up any points of that doctrine and call it truth. The presenter, Katrina Blue, pointed out that while White’s response to the movement is well documented, the arguments and views of its proponents, especially of its main leaders (S. S. Davis and R. S. Donnell), have been shrouded due to a lack of primary source material. It was not until 2010, when the estate of the deceased William Grotheer (who had owned such primary sources for many decades but consistently refused to allow anyone access to these documents) forwarded these materials to the Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University, that primiary sources became available. Blue stated that it was the purpose of her presentation to provide an overview and to analyze these newly-found primary sources.
Development of the Holy Flesh Movement under S. S. Davis
S. S. Davis was the principal instigator of the movement. As a worker in Indiana he participated in social and welfare ministries, conducting Bible studies and holding regular worship services. He laid much stress on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and his outpouring in large measures. Davis considered the results of his meetings as a revival of Pentecostal times and apostolic experiences. Blue suggested that the expectation of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring was nothing unusual during the 1890s; it may also be found in Ellen White’s writings of that time. However, as the presenter pointed out, Davis had reportedly come into contact with Pentecostal Christians and was convinced that while “we have the truth,” “they have the Spirit.” He attempted to combine Pentecostal worship practices with his knowledge of “truth” which provided, in Blue’s words, the platform for his syncretistic approach to revival.
In 1899, Davis was appointed the conference revivalist of the Indiana Conference. In his meetings he expressed the need of a cleansing work as a prerequisite for the receiving of the Holy Spirit; he called it the “Laodicean message.” He had taken this emphasis from Albion Fox Ballenger who had spoken at a conference workers meeting in 1897/1898. While the new conference president, R. S. Donnell, initially opposed Davis’s message due to its results (causing division and confusion), he was eventually convinced by him and some other ministers (Joseph Crary and John Hickey) becoming the instant leader of the movement. Together they laid plans for the spreading of this message during the camp meetings in the summer of 1900. After these meetings had taken place Donnell claimed that the Holy Spirit had been clearly manifested at them.
The Holy Flesh Movement: Eyewitness Accounts
However, eyewitnesses described divisions in the church, a widespread confusion, false teachings, and people being carried off to an insane asylum. Through the use of musical instruments they worked up a high pitch of excitement. They shouted, prayed, and sang until someone in the congregation prostrated from his/her seat. That person was then dragged to the rostrum and there a group of people gathering around the individual started to sing, shout, and prayed, all at the same time. When the individual regained consciousness, he/she was reckoned among those who had experienced Gethsemane, received holy flesh and translation faith. It was claimed that they could not sin and would never die.
The most extensive accounts stem from the Muncie camp meeting, which Donnell did not even consider as powerful as the other meetings. Hetty and S. N. Haskell had written to Ellen White who was in Australia at the time. They had witnessed a divisive impact of the movement although they admitted that the conference had grown through the influence of this movement. And while the Haskell’s admitted that the movement was accompanied by a “great power,” they attributed it to the devil. They had witnessed how people had become insane during those meetings and had to be carried off to the insane asylum. G. A. Roberts, another eyewitness, had seen how Donnell’s arms became fixed and rigid when holding them out over the congregation. Roberts recollected Donnell’s own report of feeling great power run through his arms and pass through his fingers to the congregation. Blue concluded that these meetings were clearly accompanied by a spiritual power and that Donnell was a channel for this power.
New Material: S. S. Davis’ “The Two Adams and the Two Covenants”
In this publication Davis laid down his main thesis about the two covenants. The old covenant began before the fall, was broken by Adam, and renewed at Mt. Sinai, representing all unsuccessful attempts to keep the law in the sinful flesh. The new covenant began with Adam after his fall and centered on the indwelling of Christ’s life in the human heart by faith, resulting in the ability to sin no more and thereby achieving the state necessary for translation at Christ’s Second Coming. Davis believed that at the end of time everyone who wants to be saved must achieve this state of sinless perfection. Thus since the beginning there were two classes of people—those that were controlled by the flesh and Satan, and those that had control of the flesh and were under the control of Christ. Here the pre-fall and post-fall nature of humans came into play, as Blue pointed out. Initially humans were clothed with a halo of glory, their inward goodness. Yet when they fell, they lost this goodness and their outward glory. In the new covenant Christ comes to each person individually at his/her conversion (ref. to 2 Tim 1:10); even those in OT times received Christ in that way. Because of his presence in the heart humans can no longer sin, except by choice. His light expels the darkness, empowers to do good works, and restores the original cover of glory. This glory is only obtained by faith in Jesus and through the perfection of character in the life of the believer.
Blue mentioned Davis’ belief that every believer may have direct and unmediated access to and dialogue with God as Moses in his time. Like Moses we may receive the same external brightness now. The presenter then turned to another aspect. Davis suggested that Adam’s mind was simply an extension for God’s mind. Thus Adam was the instrument through which God carried out his will and purposes on earth. The Spirit would, by the electric current, control man’s thoughts and speak to him and through him. He eventually concluded that in the Garden of Eden the animals came to worship humans. Similarly, after Christ’s Second Coming, God will rule and control the universe once again by indwelling humanity.
New Material: R. S. Donnell’s “The Nature of Christ and Man”
Blue suggested that Donnell took this co-joint rulership of humanity a step further. His document was a letter that he sent to Davis some years after the events. Donnell stated that when Adam sinned, he lost the nature that God had given him and received the nature and mind of Satan. Sanctification was God’s work of restoring the spiritual nature in humans and cleansing them from all sin. He also suggested that Christ lived his earthly life in order to demonstrate what humans could become when they receive the divine mind. Donnell made the striking statement that God wants to make Gods out of us so that we cannot be even tempted to sin. In fact, the 144,000 must attain this high state of perfection in character in this life. Blue emphasized that Donnell went even further by claiming that humans through Christ’s indwelling in them would become members of the Godhead.
Evaluation of “Holy Flesh” Theology
Blue precluded her evaluation of Davis’ and Donnell’s views by suggesting that Grotheer had misrepresented their views for his own personal reasons when he primarily focused on the human nature of Christ. In her study of these documents she discovered a much broader spectrum of erroneous beliefs.
(a) Doctrine of God
Davis’ view was based on the idea that God was a controlling force who wants to dwell in other beings in order to control them or extend his personal presence and influence through their minds. Further, God wants to extend worship of himself throughout creation, a view that rests, as Blue suggested, on a pantheistic concept of God. She emphasized that Scripture states nowhere that humans were to be worshipped by the animals or that God was literally inside of them extending worship of himself all over creation through humanity. Donnell’s view is equally problematic since the Bible does not support the assumption that God wants humans to become members of the Godhead.
Davis had argued that Christ indwelt Adam and other people after the fall until Mt. Sinai causing them to be sinless while there was another group of sinful people. Yet Blue asked why, then, was there a need for the Decalogue, Christ’s first coming, or even his Second Coming if he had already come individually by faith? She stated that the Bible does not say present a sinless group and a sinful group during the OT times. Rather the Bible claims that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Further, there is no record in Scripture of the pre-incarnate Christ living in his people and causing them to be sinless.
While Davis argued that the Holy Spirit is actually Jesus himself, Blue suggested that the Bible clearly shows a distinction between the two persons of the Godhead (f.e. Matt 12:32) which is why she considered Davis’ argument as a denial of the personhood of the Holy Spirit.
Blue suggested that Davis’ treatise presents a weak concept of the free will of humans, both before and after the fall, when compared with the traditional and modern Adventist advocacy of a free will. Davis presented humans either as conduits for God prior to the fall or as conduits for Satan after the fall. Yet the presenter pointed out that the Bible presents God as someone who extends freely the gift of eternal life to all who come to him in faith and accept his salvation rather than as a Greek deity that manipulates humans into carrying out his purposes.
Both Davis and Donnell held the belief in an instantaneous, lifelong sanctification without any struggles in the Christian life, without any temptations or sinning. The great controversy has obviously ended for those who have experienced conversion. Davis did and said many things that did not have any basis in the Bible for he believed that he could not sin because Christ literally dwelled in him.
Blue admitted that her study presents only preliminary results but that it does nevertheless provide a framework for a better understanding of the dangerous beliefs that informed the practices of the people involved in the Holy Flesh movement. Although these two writers did not specify how their beliefs impacted their practices, the presenter suggested that it may be deduced from their writings. She proposed that the real purpose of the noise, shouting, etc. may have been to cast out the devil in some kind of crude exorcist rite.
Ellen White’s Response
In conclusion, Blue turned to Ellen White’s evaluation of the movement. She stated that, in 1901, Ellen White sent rebukes and stern warnings to those that were involved in that movement. White described it as a strange work and a dangerous delusion. Yet she did not condemn the participating ministers or declare rejected by God. Rather she stated that they were not working under the power of the Holy Spirit in their teachings and practices. She opposed the idea that humans can ever have holy flesh in this life. Instead there was a need to contemplate Christ and open our hearts to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to keep us from being entangled in Satan’s delusive snares.
Blue emphasized that the problem with this movement was not simply the loud music or the use of certain instruments but the manner in which they were used and the underlying incorrect theology. They used a non-Adventist hymnbook, which was not a problem in itself, for singing hymns according to the style of the Salvation Army band. And the musical instruments were played in an erratic manner in order to make noise without harmony or order over prostrate bodies. Ellen White was clear that the creation of a “din of noise” was not in harmony with the Holy Spirit’s working. Therefore the Holy Flesh movement was, as Blue pointed out, a combination of false doctrine, unorthodox practices, and the presence of a delusive satanic, spiritual power to create a counterfeit revival.
*Katrina Blue, BA Hons, MAICS, MAT, is currently a Ph.D. student in Theology with a cognate in Church History at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the campus of Andrews University. Previously she was a hospital chaplain and associate pastor in southern California. She is currently a contract teacher in the Department of Religion & Biblical Languages. Her dissertation title is "The Concept of Union with Christ in the Writings of Teresa of Avila and Ellen G. White".