Shaking and “Slain” in the Spirit: Historical Reflections

One might think that the experiences of being slain in the Spirit (or “falling under the power of God”) or trembling in the presence of God have only happened in the last hundred years during the contemporary pentecostal-charismatic movement. However, there is a long history of such experiences and they are no stranger to the evangelical movement at large.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was one of America’s greatest theologians and a key leader in the “Great Awakening” revival (1720s-1770s) at the dawn of what we now know as evangelicalism.

Regarding this time, Edwards writes, “It was a very frequent thing to see a house full of outcries, faintings, convulsions, and such like, both with distress, and also with admiration and joy.”[1] Edwards believed that at least some of these “fainting” experiences and “convulsions” resulted from authentic encounters with God.

John Wesley (1703-1791) hailed from across the Atlantic Ocean in England. Wesley describes people falling as one of the “outward signs that so often accompanied the inward work of God.”

Some critics suggested that people fell on the ground only from “natural effects” in the sense that people may have “fainted away only because of the heat and closeness of the rooms.” Others suggested that when people fell it was fake because the falling only happened in private meetings.

In response to such claims, Wesley wrote in his journal that on May 21, 1739, God “began to make bare his arm, not in a close room, neither in private, but in the open air, and before more than two thousand witnesses. One, and another, and another was struck to the earth; exceedingly treslain womenmbling at the presence of His power.”[2]

The testimonies of Edwards, Wesley, and other early evangelicals make it clear that contemporary experiences of trembling in the presence of God or being “slain” in the Spirit are not new to the evangelical movement.

This does not prove that such experiences are legitimate. Nevertheless, these historical observations have caused me to pause and reassess these experiences in light of Scripture.

This blog post is an excerpt from a (non-academic) book I am writing, tentatively titled Touched by God.

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[1] Jonathan Edwards, “The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God,” Jonathan Edwards on Revival (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1984), 64.

[2] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 210 and 196.

 

9 Comments

  1. Good start to an important and often divisive pentecostal discussion. You stopped at, “Nevertheless, these historical observations have caused me to pause and reassess these experiences in light of Scripture.” What does scripture say? May we anticipate a Part 2 to this post? What about a Part 3 dealing with similar phenomena outside of pentecostal/christian circles? Thanks Andrew.

    1. I suppose you can anticipate “part 2” whenever I finally finish this book :). I’ve finished the first draft of the chapter that this blog post is a part of (and I’m done a couple other chapters), but I still have at least three or four more chapters to write until I’m done the book. Unfortunately, I probably won’t get around to that until the new year because I have other more pressing projects I’m focusing on for now.

  2. Thanks, Andrew, for this good research. It shows a broader base than we thought for this experience.

    Jim

    James G. Richards
    Executive Director
    Pentecostal Financial Services Group Inc.
    2450 Milltower Court
    Mississauga, ON L5N 5Z6
    Cell: 416-500-3616
    jrichards@paoc.org

    1. Hi Jack, If you go to the bottom of the blog entry you will see that I actually did include full citations for each of the quotations in the blog post. The primary sources are indeed there. Thanks for stopping by!
      Andrew

  3. I come from a pentecostal/charismatic/prophetic background and have seen this phenomena both when it was a genuine manifestation of God’s work and when it was humanly induced in a somewhat fraudulent manner. The fraud does not invalidate the genuine, of course, but may makes the curious somewhat skeptical. I would like your thoughts on a comment by a charismatic Anglican friend of mine some years ago: He was at a prayer conference in his denomination at which people regularly ‘went down’. The speaker at that particular meeting made the comment that in scripture when people were slain in the Spirit, it was normally those who were resisting God in some manner and he did so to confront them in their resistance. He said that if this were made clear in the meetings, we would probably find a lot less people being slain in the Spirit. Your thoughts? Interesting footnote: My friend (who was clergy) received prayer later that night and, indeed, went down. Naturally, after that teaching, he found it a tad embarrassing.

    1. My first reaction is that we all “resist God in some manner,” so that doesn’t provide much of a qualification for who might have this experience. I see a few of the “saints” in Scripture who seem to have had this experience, like Paul who “fell into a trance” (Acts 22:17) one day while praying in the temple. Of course, we know these men resisted God at times too.

      Thanks for sharing your story and for stopping by my blog.

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