William Arthur, the Holy Spirit, and the Maturing Methodist Movement

William Arthur, the Holy Spirit, and the Maturing Methodist Movement

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If we settle for the assumption that God cannot renew the movement of apostolic zeal we see in early Christianity, the church will die and the world is lost! This is the central challenge of the book you now have in your hands. Read it, and be prepared to have your mind purged of disbelief, your heart kindled with a new passion for the glory of God, and your ministry enflamed with a new expectancy of his transforming power.

William Arthur (1819–1901) was a native Irishman. He was born in Glendun, County Antrim, and moved with his parents to Newport, County Mayo, where he worked as a corn merchant in his early teens. Though raised in the Church of Ireland, he was converted at a Methodist meeting in Westport, and started preaching at the age of sixteen. After training for the Wesleyan Methodist ministry, he set out for India in 1839 on missionary service to work as an evangelist. He returned to England in 1841 due to ill health, and served churches in London and France between 1842–50. He was then appointed as general secretary of the Wesleyan Missionary Society from 1851–68, after which he spent three years as principal of Methodist College in Belfast. During this time, he was elected a member of Wesley’s Legal Hundred in 1856 and became president of the Wesleyan Conference in 1866. Having become a well-respected leader of the church, he traveled extensively as a representative and speaker at numerous ecumenical conferences in Italy, France, and America. Following the death of his wife in 1888, he moved to Cannes for the benefit of his health and died there ten years later.

John Wesley claimed to be unafraid that Methodism “should ever cease to exist in either Europe or America.” The movement was too big, too well organized, and too successful to imagine it disappearing easily. What Wesley feared was that they “should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” It was not until 1820 that the Methodist Conference was stirred by the first report of numerical decline, and entered a season of soul-searching about what could be done to increase spiritual religion among the societies and for the advancement of God’s work in the world. Thirty-six years later, what had been a prognosis for Wesley was becoming a diagnosis for William Arthur. The Tongue of Fire was published in 1856 during his leadership of the Missionary Society and clearly reflects the heart of an evangelist, dissatisfied with the languishing spirituality of the church and longing for a renewal of effective ministry and mission. It could also be read against the background of the Second Great Awakening in America (1800–1830s) and the spread of revivalism in Britain and Ireland during the years after its publication.

In his preface to the original edition, Arthur describes his work as “the fruit of meditations entered upon with a desire to lessen the distance painfully felt to exist between my own life and ministry and those of the primitive Christians.” Drawing from the book of Acts, he describes the early church as full of devout and joyful believers, vibrant with spiritual gifts, growing in holiness, and multiplying in numbers. He sets before us the example of apostolic ministry driven by a zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. And he causes us to wrestle with these questions: Why are we not more unsettled by the zombification of the church? Why are we tempted to settle for so little spiritual fruitfulness in our discipleship and mission? Or, to put it another way, Why are we not more hungry for the fullness of spiritual life? And, Why are we not more thirsty for the salvation of others? Arthur’s answer would be: we are suffering from power failure!

In the midst of power failure, the most important need for the church is not more effective churchmanship, but a baptism of fire and the fullness of the Holy Spirit! Arthur vividly narrates the events of that first Pentecost, as the tongues of fire descended on the apostles and enabled them to declare the wonders of God in the languages of other nations. Writing some fifty years before the birth of Pentecostalism, and one hundred years prior to the charismatic movement, his imagination is not held captive to the phenomenon of glossolalia, the allure of extraordinary spiritual gifts, or the performance of miraculous signs. For him, the gift of Pentecost is a supernatural power that takes whatever natural abilities we have and enables us to communicate the truth of the gospel with a power that renews souls, revitalizes the church, and revolutionizes society, from the inside out. Pentecostal Christianity means being filled, transformed, and overflowing with divine fire, for the sake of the church and the salvation of the world.

Being baptized by the tongue of fire is about being used as an instrument through whom God speaks to the world with the power to change lives. Although speaking in tongues may be an extraordinary sign of this gift, the ordinary and abiding reality is a prophetic power of speech that does not come from the art of oratory but the anointing of the Spirit, and it is for everyone! It is a tongue of fire because the same gift of the Spirit also makes us fit for this holy purpose by purifying our hearts and filling us with zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. It is the tongue of fire that calls, gifts, and empowers the most unremarkable people to lay down their lives for the mission of God. It is for those set apart by the Spirit of prophecy to be apostles, preachers, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Moreover, it is the tongue of fire that convinces the world about the reality of God, through the holy lives and everyday conversations of ordinary Christians whose lives, words, and deeds become a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.

It is one thing to experience the baptism of fire, and another thing to keep the fire burning. William Arthur reminds us that when the Pentecostal wind died down, and the visible tongues of fire disappeared, it was the fullness of the Spirit that remained as a permanent gift to the church. But he witnessed the Methodist movement becoming darkened in an Age of Enlightenment; as the spiritual fire of revival, which gave it birth, was being quenched by the anti-supernatural spirit of modernity. Without the tongue of fire, Arthur shows how doctrine gets judged at the bar of human reason, while theology slides into intellectualism; how holiness gets reduced to the respectability of human behavior, while discipline plunges into moralism; and how the church gets organized into the machinery of a human system, while ministry descends into management. Behind all this lay a culture of progress and the technocratic impulse to substitute faith in God for human ingenuity, and radical dependence on the Spirit for the ability to predict and control our own future.

The apologetics of modernity were tinged with cessationism and deism. William Arthur laments those that relegated the miraculous power of the Spirit to the early church, and rejected the particular work of the Spirit in favor of a general divine providence, domesticated to our natural abilities. He sees it in the temptation to settle for an inevitable routinization of inward spiritual power in the outward forms of an institutional church.

Today, the visible legacy of this modernist spirit is evident in lifeless and dying churches, as well as the felt need of entire denominations to deploy institutional programs of revitalization. William Arthur would no doubt caution us that unless these efforts actually emerge from, or lead us toward, a fresh baptism of fire and filling with the Spirit, we are in danger of repeating the same mistakes. The invisible legacy of this modernist spirit is not the rejection of Pentecostal Christianity in principle, but being cessationist or deist in practice. The problem of practical atheism does not require us to deny the reality of God’s life-transforming presence and power. All we have to do is treat it as either irrelevant or unnecessary for our personal discipleship and church leadership. Arthur notes that nowhere is this more evident than in the way we train people for the ministry; insofar as the call, gift, and power of the Spirit is substituted for ecclesiastical office, natural talent, and higher education.

William Arthur was a missionary, and his primary concern was evangelism, at home and overseas. His study of Pentecost also presses us to ask why we have so little confidence that our ministry will actually make disciples of an unbelieving world. The tongue of fire, and the fullness of the Spirit, endued the apostles and the early church with a power for the conversion of multitudes, not just a few here and there. Perhaps there is a cessationism, deism, or plain-old practical atheism lurking behind our inability to do great things with God and to expect great things from him. A missionary spirit cannot be attained by laboring to get our message straight, or revising our methods for getting the message out. Arthur notes that there was nothing outstanding about the character, intellect, or eloquence of the apostle Peter, or the primitive Christians in general. Rather, it was the spiritual zeal from which they spoke and the holy example of their lives that brought others from darkness into light. To receive this gift, they had nothing to do but pray and wait.
The tongue of fire that filled their hearts, transformed their lives, and spilled from their mouths was both attractive and contagious. It first landed on the apostles, who moved through the crowd, speaking in tongues and spreading the fire. It then gathered and baptized the church, as a Spirit-filled community, whose close fellowship and spiritual conversation drew people into the kingdom every day.

William Arthur reminds us that the whole world cannot be brought to Christ by professional evangelists, occasional revivals, or even mass evangelism. Rather, the legacy of Pentecostal Christianity is the spontaneous expansion of the gospel, as the tongue of fire continues to separate and spread, from heart to heart, life to life, town to town, and nation to nation. This is the permanent benefit of Pentecost to the church, and true ministers of the gospel are those who continually fan this fire into flame, seek to be filled with the Spirit’s power, and look for its visible fruit in the lives of ordinary people. This, and only this, is the convincing proof of real Christianity in an unbelieving world. This is the witness of William Arthur.

I pray the same tongue of fire that inspired the writing of this book will inspire in you a holy dissatisfaction with the lukewarm life, and stir up the perennial question: What shall we do? And the response from heaven will be the same as it was in the beginning: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” May The Tongue of Fire bring us to our knees in repentance for our practical atheism, and the temptation to settle for less than life-changing ministry. May it grasp our souls with hungry, thirsty, longing prayer; earnest, persevering, wrestling prayer; for ourselves, the church, and the world. And, as we pray together in one accord, may we lift our eyes heavenward for the gift of Pentecost, and the fulfillment of God’s promise.

This is the introduction written by Phil Meadows for the Seedbed edition of Tongue of Fire by William Arthur. By the time Tongue of Fire was first published in 1856, the once strong Methodist movement in Great Britain was slowly declining into a “form of religion without the power,” as John Wesley feared it would. Now an established denominational body, it bared more resemblance to the tired Church of England than the spirit-fired movement which defined the first Methodists.

Born in 1819, William Arthur was one of a rising generation Wesleyan leaders who saw that the Holy Spirit, who had so mightily breathed life into the movement, was being slowly omitted from Methodist preaching and practice. His Tongue of Fire or the True Power of Christianity is, in essence, a manifesto inviting Methodists to again recover their birthright as an Apostolic movement living in the fullness of the Holy Spirit.