On January 24, 1885, the front page of The New York Times carried an unlikely story about a little-known evangelist who held sway in a relatively unknown town situated in the red-barn farmland, roughly midway between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Born in 1844 as the fourth daughter in a family of eight children in rural Ohio, Maria Woodworth-Etter entered the fray of evangelism at the age of thirty-five. What drew crowds–and reporters–to Hartford City, Indiana, was the mystery and magic of trances. Over the years, the number of people at her evangelistic meetings swelled, and she even outgrew her grand tent, which accommodated a stunning crowd of eight thousand people.
Woodworth-Etter refused to prepare her sermons in advance. She determined rather to “take a text and trust God to lead me in his own way.” Sometimes she stood to preach without even having a biblical text in mind, but just in time, she recalled, God revealed a text to her, as well as the place to find it. “I opened the meeting and repeated the text. As I did so the power came, and it seemed that all I had to do was to open my mouth.” On one occasion, she preached in this way for seventy-five minutes.
No doubt many a preacher over the years would join Maria Woodworth-Etter in her desire to have the spirit speak through him or her for a week of inspired preaching. An inspired sermon without the drudgery of exegesis crammed into the fray of pastoral responsibilities, even for a week, or a week of Sundays, would be welcome, I imagine, to the men and women who occupy the pulpit week after week.
Underneath the natural desire to be free of the hard work of Bible study and sermon preparation lies a dichotomy that, at least in part, characterizes vast tracts of Christianity, including segments of American Christianity. The dichotomy takes various guises: education versus faith, letter versus spirit, liturgy versus spontaneity. I was warned not to learn too much in college and graduate school so as to preserve my faith. I was told not to study too hard so as to live in the spirit. I was cautioned not to succumb to rote prayers so as to maintain the vitality of worship. Whatever one calls this dichotomy, however one labels it, it consists of this: the polarization between preparation and inspiration. Maria Woodworth-Etter, the trance evangelist, as she was known, opted for inspiration without any preparation whatsoever. This sort of speaking, utterly spontaneous preaching, was, she came to believe, as much a sign of the holy spirit as her trances, her healing, and her ability to perform miracles.
[From my book Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith] you know that I am intent upon breaking down dichotomies . . . . My primary reason for breaking down the dividing-wall inherent in these dichotomies is that they are not biblical. I do not think that Jewish and Christian scripture support these dichotomies, and I believe that we carry them into our lives to our detriment . . . . Few of us want a nurse who can insert a needle but not be compassionate; few of us want a nurse who can be kind but careless with a needle. Why, then, should we want to distinguish knowledge from piety, study from the holy spirit? Yet we do–some of us all the time or all of us some of the time . . . . Those who cautioned me not to build up a cache of knowledge, for fear I would lose my faith, had no need to worry. A life of study and life in the spirit, in my view, go hand in hand, at least from a biblical perspective. While I do not want to denigrate preachers like Maria Woodworth-Etter, I want to point out that hers was not a biblical experience.
[Throughout my book Inspired]. . . we noted that . . .
- virtue emerges from a lifetime in which people cultivate the spirit-breath [of God] within them.
- preparation is required to put ecstasy in its place and that the work of inspiration becomes even more arduous after the spirit speaks a word of revelation.
- assiduous preparation sets the stage for inspiration.
There is no shortcut to effective preaching and teaching. Inspired speakers, at least from a biblical perspective, do not offer compelling speeches and gripping sermons because the holy spirit inspires them on the spot, in utter spontaneity, void of preparation, unmoored from a community . . . . The holy spirit fills them because they are already prepared, well-studied, alert. With this insight . . . we return to the worlds of Joseph, Bezalel, Daniel, Simeon, and Anna–whose ardor and arduous labor led to sparkling inspired moments in the history of an ancient faith tradition.
Jack Levison, Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith, 125-28; 183-84.
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