The purpose of Israel’s calling as God’s people on earth was to lead others to fear God and give Him glory in preparation for the first coming of Jesus. Yet, throughout their existence the ancient Israelites and their leaders succumbed to the lure of false teachings and false worship. The golden calf at Sinai, the strange fire of Nadab and Abihu, the seduction to idolatry by the Moabites, and the tolerance of Baal worship during the reign of Ahab are all examples of Israel’s surrender to false worship. Amazingly, all of these apostasies came in spite of clear warnings from the Lord such as that of Deuteronomy 12:30, 31 where He explicitly condemns modeling Israelite worship after that practiced by the surrounding nations.
To spur the New Testament church on to greater faithfulness than that of their spiritual forefathers, Paul reviews their spiritual legacy and explains in 1 Corinthians 10:11, “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (NKJV).* Paul understood that learning the lessons of God’s leading in the past is essential for spiritual success in the future.
This biblical principle holds true for God’s end-time remnant people. As Seventh-day Adventists, we have had our share of shortcomings recorded for our admonition. This is the story of one such example—a brief interlude of false worship in our church known as the holy flesh movement.
EXTREME WORSHIP: While there are no extant photos of Donnell and Davis, the demonstrative nature of the religious meetings of the holy flesh movement was similar to that of other nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century camp meetings, which frequently included physical demonstrations and beat-driven music. This lithographic image is attributed to Alexander Rider.
Beginnings of the Holy Flesh Movement
Born to a devout Methodist mother and a Baptist and Civil War veteran father, S. S. Davis was raised in Indiana and accepted the Adventist message in 1886 at the age of 32. For the next several years he worked as a colporteur in western Nebraska while staking claims to some 160 acres of frontier land. He returned to Indiana, however, in 1893 to care for his ailing mother and escape drought conditions on the Western plains. Later that same year, Davis was granted a license to preach by the Indiana Conference, and in 1895 he was ordained to full-time ministry and began operating a community outreach program called the “Helping Hand Mission” in Evansville, Indiana. From this outpost Davis distributed food and clothing, as well as held church services and conducted regular Bible studies.
During this time a prominent Adventist minister, A. F. Ballenger
(pictured on page 14), was touring camp meetings and workers’ meetings in the Midwest proclaiming a very distinct message. He taught that people needed to be entirely sinless, even down to their very nature, in order to receive the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The title of his keynote address was “Receive Ye the Holy Ghost,” a message from which Davis apparently drew inspiration.
In August of 1898 Davis reported in The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald that many baptisms had been requested on the previous two days while the “Spirit was poured out in large measure.” He continued by stating: “It seemed that we were all filled to the utmost of our capacity to receive. We have reached the time of the message, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost’; and we are actually having Pentecostal times and apostolic experiences.”1
Interestingly, Davis had attended one of Ballenger’s meetings sometime between 1897 and 1898, and according to Davis’s daughter, although he had been a licensed preacher since 1893, Davis had never spoken of such demonstrative “power” of the Holy Spirit until 1898—after he attended Ballenger’s meetings.2
Around the same time he was being influenced by Ballenger’s message, Davis came into connection with some Pentecostal Christians. In a conversation with an Adventist administrator during this time, Davis stated, “Brother . . ., they have the ‘spirit’; and we have the truth; and if we had the ‘spirit’ as they have, with the truth we could do things.”3
It was in December of the next year, at the height of his interest in Ballenger’s teaching and the charismatic worship of his Pentecostal friends, that Davis was hired as a revivalist in the Indiana Conference by the newly elected conference president, R. S. Donnell. We will soon see why this is commonly regarded as the official beginning of the holy flesh movement. Taking two other ministers and their wives along with him, Davis began traveling around the Indiana Conference reviving what he deemed the “cold, backslidden” Adventist churches with his powerful message of the Holy Spirit, the results of which saw many churches “ring” with “shouts of victory.”4
Inside the Holy Flesh Movement: Message and Method
At this point you might be asking, So what? A hundred years ago some Adventists in Indiana actually got excited about Jesus and said “Amen” in church? What’s the big deal? In fact, isn’t that a good thing? Don’t we hear people murmur about Adventism’s lack of zeal today and notice that some are looking around at other denominations to find out what’s making them so excited and on fire for Jesus? To further understand what we’re discussing, we need to dissect two key components of the holy flesh movement—its message and its method.
The Holy Flesh Message
Often when we mention the holy flesh movement today, it is in the context of charismatic worship. However, the core issue with the holy flesh movement was not about their charismatic worship experiences, although those were definitely an essential element of the movement. The real uniqueness in the holy flesh movement was not primarily their worship style, but rather their understanding of the nature of man, the nature of Christ, the nature of sin, and the nature of our salvation.
In the holy flesh understanding, people are sinful regardless of whether or not they actually commit sins. They are sinful merely because they possess a sinful human nature. As proponents saw it, having a sinful human nature makes one a sinner: when Christ came to this earth He couldn’t have shared our fallen nature but rather must have been exempt, having the sinless nature of Adam before the Fall. In this opinion this special nature made it possible for Jesus to live in a sinful world while not actually having a hereditary, inward inclination toward sin. R. S. Donnell would eventually explain it this way: “Christ stood where Adam stood, and Adam stood there without a taint of sin. So Christ must have stood where Adam stood before his fall—that is, without a taint of sin.”5
To holy flesh advocates, the only logical solution to the human predicament was a complete replacement of our very nature. The only way to be called sinless (justified) and to remain sinless (sanctified) would be to surrender our fallen nature and accept Christ’s sinless nature that had no inclination to sin, a process of transformation eventually dubbed the “Cleansing” or “Garden experience.”
The holy flesh adherents maintained that from the moment of that experience, they would no longer be inwardly tempted to sin. Thus any thought, feeling, idea, or inclination to any behavior that came from within them was said to be holy and good. It was believed that one would then experience the total freedom of being able to do whatever one felt like doing because the nature was that of Christ’s and He never felt like doing anything wrong!
The Holy Flesh Method
The unique message of the holy flesh movement necessitated a unique method of evangelism. In order to bring about this change of nature a person must surrender their entire being to Christ in a full-bodied worship experience. “Attempting to gain this Garden experience that would give them holy flesh, the people gathered in meetings in which there were long prayers, strange, loud instrumental music, and excited, extended, hysterical preaching. They were led to seek an experience of physical demonstration. Bass drums and the tambourines aided in this.”6
At the time, Adventist worship was characterized by solemn and sober worship services that were not sensational in nature. Emotionally charged preaching and loud, driving music were not typical. During the time of the holy flesh movement, however, all of that changed. Borrowing the Salvation Army Band model that was popular at the time, Davis and his revival team turned the typically cognitive Adventist worship service into a patently Pentecostal worship experience, all in the hopes of bringing people to full-body surrender to Christ that would transform their sinful nature into Christ’s sinless nature.
In Part II we will see the explosive growth of the holy flesh movement, its abrupt end on Wednesday, April 17, 1901, and the lessons we can learn from this fascinating chapter in Adventist history.
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright ” 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Aug. 23, 1898, p. 543.
2 Viola Davis Hopper, as cited by William H. Grotheer, The Holy Flesh Movement, 1899-1901 (Florence, Miss.: Adventist Laymen’s Foundation of Mississippi, 1973), p. 6.
3 Jesse E. Dunn, as cited by Grotheer, p. 7.
4 The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Apr. 10, 1900, p. 237.
5 R. S. Donnell, as cited by Dave Fiedler, Hindsight: Seventh-day Adventist History in Essays and Extracts (Harrah, Okla.: Academy Enterprises, 1996), pp. 135, 136.
6Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Elmshaven Years, 1900-1905 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1981), vol. 5, p. 101.
Kameron DeVasher is an associate pastor of the Avon Park Seventh-day Adventist Church in Florida. He and his wife, Emilie, recently celebrated the arrival of Henry, their first child. This article was published September 9, 2010.