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A History of Spiritual Formation Part 4: The Evangelical and Pentecostal Era

(This week, we finish our series on spiritual formation throughout history. Today, we will take a closer look at how the modern Evangelical and Pentecostal movements were formed and what shaped the spiritual formation of millions of believers over the last 200 years.)


The evangelical movement began in the 1700s and has had a worldwide impact. Gerald Sittser says, “At the heart of evangelical spirituality is the conversion of the whole of one’s life to God.”[1] Peter’s invitation to his Jewish hearers on Pentecost offered immediate conversion, “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38); however, the church soon emphasized conversion as a process that included works, sacraments, intercession from deceased saints, and indulgences. Many would-be believers lived with no assurance of salvation.

The evangelical movement served as a catalyst for a deeply emotional conversion, leading to a regenerated life. The Pietist movement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries underscored the importance of a personal encounter with God. They referred to the “new birth” (John 3:3) through the Holy Spirit, as superior to mere intellectual understanding.[2] Pietism expected that believers would experience God’s transforming grace inwardly, leading to new affections for God in spiritual matters and outward holiness.[3] 

The idea of instantaneous salvation flourished in the evangelical era. The nineteenth-century evangelist Charles Finney utilized an “anxious bench” during his evangelistic meetings, where those under conviction of the Holy Spirit would sit, symbolizing their desire for salvation.[4] Others like D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham perfected the “altar call,”[5] whereby sinners would walk forward to make public professions of faith. It may have been the most significant restoration of New Testament truth, but it was not without its faults. Sittser laments the “many superficial conversions,”[6] where people with little Bible knowledge responded emotionally, often under pressure, and never became disciples because their roots were not deep.

With this reformed concept of the new birth, which engenders spiritual affections, spiritual formation took on new dimensions. Sanctification and Holy Spirit empowerment were topics of great debate. Here, we will look at three theologians from this era and how they taught formation. Each of these built upon the others work, including a female and a one-eyed black man.

John Wesley

Having already worked as a missionary and being raised by profoundly religious parents, John Wesley realized that he lacked certainty regarding his own salvation. It was on his way back from America that his ship entered a storm that threatened to sink it. While panic gripped everyone with fear of impending death, the Moravians (a believing group from Europe) remained composed, engaging in prayer and singing hymns.[7] He recognized that while he was deeply religious outwardly, he did not possess this kind of faith.

This led him on an intense journey to find assurance for his salvation. Not long after, while listening to someone read Martin Luther’s preface to Romans, Wesley was given this assurance. “I felt my heart strangely warmed, I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation.”[8] Wesley would become one of history’s premiere theologians, offering much to the field of spiritual formation.

Wesley organized “small groups of twelve [that] met regularly for confession of sin, Bible study, prayer, mutual accountability and strict discipline.”[9] They would ask each other the “Wesley questions,” a set of twenty-two questions for self-examination, such as, “Can I be trusted?” “Am I proud?” and “Is Christ real to me?”[10] (See all the questions)

Wesley was not only about discipline—he had a robust theology of grace. Wesley believed in cooperative grace and free grace. Kenneth J. Collins presents Wesley as very balanced between our responsibility to God and God’s enabling grace. “If we simply stress holiness apart from grace, we’d probably end up with a very dour, human-made religion… if … we simply stress grace, we would run … the risk … of misunderstanding grace as indulgence.”[11]

Wesley believed in both cooperative grace and free grace. Free grace is what God does without any human involvement, such as creation. In expounding on Philippians 2:12-13, Wesley states that both God and man work. Unless God works inside of us, we cannot “work out our salvation.” But he does, and we do. Wesley states, “First, God works; therefore you can work. Secondly, God works, therefore you must work.”[12] He says that Lazarus couldn’t have come forth but for the Lord. But after resurrection, it reasons he exited the tomb on his own accord.

Wesley’s grace begins with prevenient grace. This is “a grace given to all people that frees us enough from our bondage to sin that we have the ability to choose Christ.”[13] Or, in Wesley’s words, “He who hath all power in heaven and earth calls our dead souls into life.”[14] We can respond to this grace or reject it (which is where it differs from Calvinism). The grace of God begins in our life when we are lost and woos us to Messiah. We feel conviction over sin and have a desire for God. If we respond, it leads to the new birth.

After salvation, the believer’s goal is to reach what Wesley referred to as Christian perfectionism. Ryan Danker argues that a true Wesleyan believed in full sanctification because the Bible promises it.[15] “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus the Messiah” (Titus 5:23). Wesley defined grace as the power of God; Danker defines Wesley’s Christian perfectionism as being “empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to perfectly love God.”[16] Wesley didn’t believe man was capable, but God’s Spirit was able to perfect man. Wesley viewed Christan perfection as both a “crisis event” (turning point) and a process that takes place after conversion.[17] Pentecostal scholar Allan Anderson sees Wesley's ‘second blessing’ (an event after salvation) doctrine as a precursor to the Pentecostal movement that would soon sweep the world in the early 1900s.[18]

Phoebe Palmer

One adherent to Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfectionism or sanctification was Phoebe Palmer. She believed this experience was “an instantaneous experience for every Christian.”[19] Charles White called Palmer “the most influential female theologian the Church has yet produced.”[20] The decisive turning point in the young Methodist’s life was the tragic death of her child, Eliza, in a flash fire.[21] In her grief, she turned to God, committing to him the time she would’ve devoted to her daughter. Palmer gave herself to seeking God for “entire sanctification.”

It was close to one year later, after many days of long hours of prayer and Bible study, that Palmer experienced a life-changing encounter with God where she was able to entirely surrender herself. “My heart was emptied of self, and cleansed of all idols, from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, and I realized that I dwelt in God, and felt that he had become the portion of my soul, my ALL IN ALL.”[22] From this experience, Palmer developed what she coined “altar theology.” Richard Foster explains that altar theology teaches:

That Christ himself is the altar upon which we rest our all in sacrifice, and since everything that touches the altar is holy, we are holy when we place everything we are upon the altar. We, therefore, live in a state of holiness and sanctification as we continually give ourselves as a living sacrifice to Christ, our altar. … Phoebe often quoted these words of Jesus: “The altar sanctifieth the gift” (Matt. 23:19, KJV).[23]

Even if a believer had never heard of altar theology or Palmer, its influence on evangelicalism cannot be underestimated. When Christians are exhorted to “lay it all on the altar,” understand that this goes back to Palmer.[24] “The altar motif became a permanent part of evangelical spirituality,” writes Melvin Dieter, and a lasting contribution to spiritual formation.

Another contribution was Palmer’s teaching that women could testify. Within her altar theology, one would give testimony after having the experience. Foster tells of a woman who came to Palmer with a dilemma. Her denomination refused women the ability to speak in the congregation—how could she testify? Palmer quoted from Acts 2, where the Spirit fell on both genders, and both men and women were empowered to testify of the resurrection. “Hence women were not only allowed to speak but were impelled to do so by the very Spirit of God.”[25] This led to a 400-page tome, The Promise of the Father, which progressive theologian Kenneth Rowe called “A massive defense of women’s right to preach.”[26]

While many have never heard of Palmer, Foster says her contribution to evangelicalism led to the Second Great Awakening in the mid-1800s, which resulted in over one million genuine converts. Her meetings in the British Isles brought more than 17,000 confessions of faith. She was committed to world missions and the poor.[27] Her contribution to spiritual formation was immense and paved the way for the coming Pentecostal movement.

William Seymour

Today, over 600 million people claim to be Pentecostal or charismatic,[28] endorsing a second blessing or “crisis event” of empowerment after salvation. We can trace this tsunami wave to William Seymour in 1906, but the earthquakes beneath the ocean floor, producing the massive waves that reached every nation, began earlier.

Although many Pentecostals feel that their pneumatology arose simply from an unbiased reading of the Bible, others see a more complex combination of causes. Historians of doctrine generally agree that the origin of modern Pentecostal teaching about the Holy Spirit lies in the thinking of John Wesley.[29]

White believes that Palmer’s writing and speaking “played a decisive role.”[30] as well.

William Seymour was a one-eyed son of slaves with a deep hunger for God during Jim Crow-mandated segregation. He was willing to sit outside the whites-only Bible school to learn about the Holy Spirit from the racist Charles Parham.[31] Seymour was soon invited to pastor a small church in Los Angeles; however, he was locked out of the church for his belief in glossolalia (speaking in tongues) as a sign of Spirit baptism. He and others relocated to Edward Lee’s house and continued to meet. And what happened next changed the world!

Lee asked the preacher to lay hands on him, after which he fell to the floor as if unconscious and began speaking in tongues. Later that evening at the meeting, seven others including Seymour and his future wife, Jennie Moore, received the same experience. For three days and nights the house was filled with people praying and rejoicing, continuously and loudly.[32]

This was the beginning of the Pentecostal era.

Anderson sees two historical aspects of Seymour’s ministry. First, “the eschatological message of hope”[33] was preached at Azuza to the poor and disenfranchised.

Oh, I am so thankful that I can work for my Christ and my God. The time is short when our blessed Jesus shall return to this earth, and snatch away His waiting bride. After six thousand years of toil and labor, we are going to have one thousand years of rest with our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Glory to His holy name![34]

They saw this outpouring as a sign of the end times. “All races, nations, and tongues are receiving the baptism with the Holy Ghost and fire, according to the prophecy of Joel.”[35] What began in Acts 2 was being fulfilled at Azuza Street in Los Angeles.

This leads to the second point: Its effect on segregation. George Ladd wrote, “The Gospel must not only offer a personal salvation in the future life … it must also transform all of the relationships of life here and now and thus cause the Kingdom of God to prevail in all the world.”[36] While the gospel can divide a family (Matt 10:34-36), it should bring harmony within the church, despite race, gender, or ethnicity. Seymour was committed to racial harmony in Christ, as their “Azuza Papers” intentionally chronicled testimonies from all races. “The Blood of Jesus Christ is the strongest in the world. It makes all races and nations into one common family in the Lord and makes them all satisfied to be one.”[37] Seymour’s team of fully integrated leaders was a great offense to outsiders. “A local white Baptist pastor said that Azusa Street was a ‘disgusting amalgamation of African voodoo superstition and Caucasian insanity.’”[38] But for those within, it was a sign of God’s blessing. Frank Bartleman famously exclaimed, “The color line was washed away by the blood.”[39]


What would our three unique predecessors say to today’s Western church? They would certainly have a word regarding racism and gender within the church. Sadly, the church is still largely segregated in America. I think they would be shocked at the lack of Bible knowledge. A young Methodist would very quickly learn the doctrines of the faith and be able to articulate them. In fact, most would know these doctrines before experiencing salvation.

But I also think they would challenge us regarding our hunger to be with Jesus and be like Jesus. Inspired by Wesley, this passion drove Phoebe Palmer to seek deeper sanctification or holiness. Not in some dry legalistic way, but a deep obedience that comes from living in the presence of God. And, despite racism, William Seymour pursued Jesus and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, believing it would change the world. The 600 million Charismatics and Pentecostals would agree that it did.


[1] Gerald Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007), 232.

[2] Allan Anderson, An Introduction to Pentecostalism (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 25, Kindle.

[3] Roger Olson and Christian Collins Winn, Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 5-6, Kindle.

[5] Alistair McGrath, Christian History (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 258, Kindle.

[6] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 238.

[7] Ibid., 250.

[8] John Wesley, The Journal of John Wesley: A Selection, ed. Elisabeth Jay (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1987), 34-35.

[9] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 252.

[10] “John Wesley’s 22 questions for self examination,” The United Methodist Church, accessed May 1, 2024,

[11] Kenneth J. Collins, “John Wesley on Holiness and Grace: Seven Minute Seminary,” Seedbed, May 22, 2013, YouTube video, 2:10,

[12] John Wesley, Sermons of John Wesley (n.p.: Cedar Eden Books, 2008), 1130, Kindle.

[13] “Is Grace Cooperative?” Ligonier Ministries, April 27, 2017,

[14] Wesley, Sermons of John Wesley, 1130.

[15] Ryan Danker, “What is Christian Perfection? Ryan Danker,” Seedbed, June 30, 2015, YouTube Video, 0:50,

[16] Ibid., 3:34.

[17] “Wesleyan Holiness Theology,” Asbury University, accessed May 3, 2024,

[18] Allan Anderson, An Introduction to Pentecostalism, 26.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Charles Edward White, “Phoebe Palmer and the Development of Pentecostal Pneumatology,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 23, no. 1-2 (Spring-Fall 1988): 208.

[21] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 62, Kindle.

[22] Phoebe Palmer, Selected Writings, ed. Thomas C. Oden (New York, NY: Paulist, 1988), 115.

[23] Foster, Streams of Living Water, 65.

[24] Melvin Dieter, “The Development of Nineteenth Century Holiness Theology,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 20, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 65.

[25] Foster, Streams of Living Water, 65.

[26] Kenneth Rowe, in cover endorsement, The Promise of the Father, by Phoebe Palmer (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015).

[27] Foster, Streams of Living Water, 66.

[28] Gina A. Zurlo, Todd M. Johnson, and Peter F. Crossing, “World Christianity and Mission 2020: Ongoing Shift to the Global South,” International Bulletin of Mission Research 44, no. 1 (2019), table 3,

[29] White, “Phoebe Palmer in the Development of Pentecostal Pneumatology,” 198.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Allan Anderson, An Introduction to Pentecostalism, 40-41.

[32] Ibid., 41.

[33] Ibid., 60.

[34] William Seymour, The Azusa Papers (n.p.: Jawbone Digital, 2021), 331, Kindle. 

[35] Ibid., 152.

[36] George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 16.

[37] William Seymour, The Azusa Papers, 258.

[38] Allan Anderson, An Introduction to Pentecostalism, 42.

[39] Ibid., 60.

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