British Holiness: Keswick and the “Higher Life”

In the early fall of 1874, over 1,000 attendees gathered in Oxford, England for the ten-day Union Meeting for the Promotion of Scriptural Holiness. The convention was the result of the evangelistic influence of American holiness preachers such as W.E. Boardman, Robert Pearsall Smith and his wife, Hannah Whitall Smith, who came to England in 1873 preaching the power of sanctification. The American holiness movement was the product of radical Wesleyan spirituality and spread to England through the pollinative preaching of American adherents. The Oxford meeting was seminal in the development of an indigenous British holiness movement with its own theological uniqueness and prefigured (and predicted) “a new era of blessing . . . about to dawn upon the Church of God, in which the power of God would afresh be manifested in an extraordinary degree, for the comfort of His people and the confusion of His adversaries.”

The Oxford meeting featured the preaching of several American holiness advocates, including the Smiths, Boardman, Asa Mahan, and the former slave Amanda Smith. The convention expanded the success of holiness revivals, which had been conducted in London, Dublin, Manchester, Nottingham, Leicester, and Paris. Believers attended with a Pentecostal expectancy: “ . . . the call to Oxford seemed to many like the Master’s voice to weary and often-failing labourers, ‘Come ye aside and rest awhile;’—‘Wait for the promise of the Father, which ye have heard of Me.’” The goal of the “Union Meeting” was “to lead Christians to acts of more complete consecration to the Lord, and of unlimited trust in His promises, thus preparing the way to ‘be filled with the Spirit,’—‘baptised with the Holy Ghost.’” This anticipation reveals the preparative work of the holiness movement in readying hearts for the true Pentecost which was to come at the turn of the century.

Thomas Dundas Harford Battersby

One of the attendees at the Union Meeting for the Promotion of Scriptural Holiness was Canon T.D. Harford-Battersby, who initially rejected the idea of an “abiding holiness.” However, during the convention, Canon Battersby underwent a transformation following a vision of the Lord’s glory. The morning after the mystical encounter, Battersby recognized “ . . . the sweet sense of His blessed presence and indwelling . . . “ He later testified at the convention: “I feel most thankful to have shared in this Pentecostal season” and became an apologist for the holiness experience.

Upon his return to his parish church in Keswick, Canon Battersby authored a paper titled “Higher Attainments in Christian Holiness and How to Promote Them,” and carefully articulated the need for the “higher life” and “full surrender” amongst professing Christians. In 1875, Battersby joined with Robert Wilson, a Quaker minister at Broughton Grange to host a holiness convention at St. John’s Church in Keswick, which was attended by “hundreds.” The convention grew annually and is still held annually at Keswick.

Theologically, the Keswick holiness movement differed from its Wesleyan parent. Where American Wesleyanism stressed sanctification as a definite, post-conversion work of grace, which purportedly eradicated the sinful nature, Battersby and his associates defined the “perfect” Christian as “one who is governed by the Spirit habitually, in his conduct, actions and words: he enjoys constant communion with God, and continual victory over sin through abiding in Christ.”

The promotion of holiness in England and the formation of the influential Keswick convention became an important preface to the Pentecostal movement that reached England in 1907. Alexander Alfred Boddy who delivered the Pentecostal message to Britain was heavily influenced by Keswick through his theological studies at Durham. For this reason, the indigenous British Pentecostal movement did not undergo the divisive debates about sanctification that fragmented the American Church. The Pentecost anticipated by the holiness advocates in the nineteenth century was realized in the twentieth century as believers began to receive the baptism of the Holy Ghost speaking in other tongues.

Matthew Shaw is a librarian at Ball State University. He lives in Muncie, Indiana with his wife, Brandi, and his four sons. He attends River of Life Church.

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