The remarkable Maria Woodworth Etter (1844-1924) was a true pioneer in the history of “signs and wonders” in the church. A diminutive, uneducated woman from the backwoods of Ohio, she was rough-speaking and marked by suffering (five of her six children died).
Even so, she felt a call from God at age 35 to proclaim the gospel. It was a day where women could not vote, let alone preach. So she asked God to qualify her. She records: The power of the Holy Ghost came down like a cloud. I was covered and wrapped in it. I was baptised with the Holy Ghost and fire, with power which has never left me. [‘A Diary of Signs and Wonders’]
She began touring with a gospel tent. This was well known in America, but Maria’s meetings were different. People fell to the ground and lay there for hours. Some saw visions of heaven, which they reported to the audience. Others spoke in tongues. Angelic singing was heard, even by journalists.
God used her most strikingly, though, in healing. People travelled hundreds of miles to be prayed for by her. She believed and taught that every need was already supplied in Christ’s atonement. She got people to lift their hands and praise God from the heart; then she would command the sickness to go. In her various books and in press reports of the day, there are ample testimonies of the crippled running, cancers disappearing, decayed organs restored, the deaf hearing, and the mentally ill recovering.
What makes Maria Woodworth Etter stand out is the magnitude of the healings that took place in her campaigns. Many of these read like the Book of Acts. For this alone she has been called “perhaps the greatest woman evangelist in the history of the Church”. Here are a few examples, taken from her book A Diary of Signs and Wonders (1916, reissued by Harrison House).
‘A sister had met with an accident five years before. Her hip [muscles] had wasted away and for three years she had not left her bed. I saw she was in a terrible condition, but I knew there is nothing too hard for the Lord. I told her to put her trust in Him, then I prayed and she arose, perfectly healed of all her diseases, and went shouting around the house.’
Some sickness linked to demonic oppression
‘A little girl was carried into the meeting [at Springfield, Illinois, c.1884], as helpless as a baby. She had spinal meningitis, was paralysed all over, her brain was impaired, her head dropped on to her chest, and she had no use of her back and limbs. She had been so for six months, and for four months had only eaten nothing but drunk a little milk.
‘I laid hands on her and commanded the unclean spirits to come out of her. In five minutes she could sit up straight and lift her hands above her head. Five minutes more and she could talk and stand up… The next morning she was the first one up, running from house to house telling what God had done for her.’
Miraculous healing of multiple diseases
‘[A man of 64 in Indianapolis] had had piles for 30 years. He had had them cut and burned off four times; then cancer commenced. He got so bad that he had to sit on an inflated ring, and his wife had to flush his bowels twice a day, using a long syringe and tube and 2 quarts of water. Then he would bleed and it was so offensive that she could hardly do it.
‘The bowel was all gone on the left side for ten inches up; the backbone was exposed, having no flesh on it. He also had rheumatism… God converted and healed him all at once, in less than 15 minutes. He was baptised with the Holy Ghost and is now one of God’s little ones. There is nothing too hard for our God!‘
Healing as a pointer to God’s heart
‘[In Muscatine, Iowa], a lady came to the meeting suffering greatly. Eight months before, she had fallen down a flight of steps; her arm and wrist had been broken and her fingers crushed. The arm and hand were very swollen and inflamed. Doctors gave her no hope of ever being able to use the arm or hand.
‘When we prayed for her, the people crowded around to see what would happen. When they saw her begin to move her fingers and hand, and saw the swelling going down, and saw her stretch out her arm, then clap her hands shouting “I am healed!”, they could scarcely believe their eyes. Strong men, who were not believers, wept and said “Surely God is here!”
On account of the many unusual things she had experienced, and the evident Holy Spirit power in her gatherings, Maria was welcomed by early Pentecostals as a forerunner of their own movement. She worked alongside several pioneers like F F Boswell and John G Lake, who called her “Mother Etter”.
I devoted my last post to Johnn Christoph Blumhardt. Part of his legacy is his unshakable conviction of ‘realised eschatology’: the glorious belief that the promises of scripture for the end times are meant for the Church now.
From Bible College onwards, he had had dealings with missionaries, doctors and exorcists, who had first hand experience of the power of the risen Christ to free those enslaved by evil. So when the young woman in Möttlingen was delivered from evil after eighteen months of prayer and spiritual warfare, Blumhardt was convinced of two things: Jesus is victor and His kingdom has come on earth. His experiences of healings at the sanatorium of Bad Boll caused him to interpret this in-breaking of God’s kingdom in an individual way. Jesus was doing for precious people what He did as He walked the earth: making the blind see, opening the prison door and releasing the bound (see Luke 4:16-21).
As Johann Blumhardt lay dying in 1880, he spoke a blessing over his son Christoph (1842-1919): that he might conquer in the strength of Jesus, the victorious Christ.
Christoph, like his father, had trained as a pastor. He was, by all accounts, controversial. The novelist Hermann Hesse recalls him saying that “a Mohammedan with a real and honest heart is closer to God than many Christians.”
Blumhardt grew increasingly disillusioned with the established church, so he returned to Bad Boll and assisted his father with the work there, until Johann’s death passed the mantle to him. He held healing crusades, which carried the same power his father had known.
But Christoph was on a different, more radical road. “A Christian must be born twice“, he wrote: “once from the human to the spiritual, and once from the spiritual to the human“. In other words, a spirituality or church commitment which had no interest in addressing the sufferings of people and the ills of society was a comfortable lie.
Christoph had a more developed notion of God’s kingdom. In later years he claimed that his father’s compassionate heart had swayed him in favour of the individual, whereas Christ the King has His kingdom rule – a rulership that includes all things, the universe, the earth, nations and structures. This kingdom was wider than the Church and not best expressed in a religious system which was a preserve of the middle-class, concerned only with power and influence.
Johann had begun with the ‘cosmic’ through the exorcism at Möttlingen (see previous post). His son saw the ‘cosmic’ aspect of the kingdom of God – that it was a Body hastening the return of Jesus Christ by shining as a light in darkness, a ‘city on a hill’ (Matthew 5:14). Johann had acted as if the Kingdom was part of the Church; for the son, the Church is part of the Kingdom.
“We Christians think of a heavenly kingdom; I came to see that God intended an earthly kingdom, or rather, a heavenly kingdom on earth. God’s name was to be hallowed on earth, His kingship seen on earth, His will done on earth. The earth should announce eternity: God on earth.”
In a number of writings, Christoph Blumhardt presented his understanding of the kingdom of God and how it is forever breaking in to life on earth – for that was always God’s intention.
“The angels have God in heaven, I have not – I want to pray down here. I must have God here. The earth is the stage set for the kingdom of God, because the kingship of God is in direct relationship with this earth: the Saviour, down here. God’s intention is the here and now: Jesus challenging poverty, sin and misery on earth.”
A post on the John Mark Ministries blog considers the significance of Blumhardt’s writings on the kingdom of God. ‘His ideas had seminal influence on Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently on Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann – theological giants among whom he would most certainly feel a stranger. Despite this legacy, Blumhardt is relatively unknown. To begin with, Blumhardt’s life was a provocation. He also expressed his ideas in impressive and unconventional phrases. His message excited both shock and indignation, for it went against the currents of both the church and the world. He represented something quite different from what we generally understand by Christianity.
‘Blumhardt did not care about matters of religion and church, of worship services and dogma, not even of inner peace and personal redemption. For him, faith was a matter of the coming of God’s kingdom, of God’s victory over darkness and death here and now. The kingdom of God was the creative reign of Christ’s peace and justice on earth. His vision of God’s righteousness on earth was an unconditional and all-embracing one: God’s love reconciles the world, liberates suffering, heals economic and social need – in short, it renews the earth.’
Blumhardt believed that the prophets and Jesus wanted a new world: the rulership of God over all reality. He could not identify with most Christians’ longing for heaven and enduring this earthly life as a necessary precursor. In his view, heaven must come down to earth.
“Many people long and yearn for heaven; they stretch out toward heaven. I would like to tell them: Let your minds reach to the heights that we can already perceive on earth. Down here is where Jesus appeared, not above in the invisible world. Here on earth he wants to appear again and again. Here on earth we may find him.”
Plough Publishing House has embarked on a bold and very welcome move – to publish, for the first time in English, the works of two remarkable men: Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805-1880) and his son, Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (1842-1919).
“What do such wildly diverse movements as religious socialism, neo-orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, and such Christian thinkers like Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann, have in common?”, writes one of the series’ editors. [Mention could also be made of revivalist South African preacher, Andrew Murray, who was profoundly moved on a visit to Möttlingen.] “They all trace their Christian understanding of the world and God’s kingdom to Johann Christoph Blumhardt, a humble pastor in Germany who lived in the 19th century.”
Johann Christoph was pastor in Möttlingen, a village in South-West Germany as unremarkable as Blumhardt himself. Until 1842, that is, when circumstances plunged him into the realm of ‘deliverance ministry’, exorcism and healing prayer. A young woman exhibiting the classic symptoms of demonisation, as shown in the Gospels, was released after an intensive season of prayer, spiritual battle and exorcism.
“Möttlingen was swept up in an unprecedented movement of repentance and renewal. Stolen property was returned, broken marriages restored, enemies reconciled, alcoholics freed, and more amazingly still, an entire village experienced what life could be like when God ruled.” People started arriving from miles around, drawn by the manifest power of God and the possible hope of freedom in their own lives. Such ‘success’ was, in fact, embarrassing for Blumhardt, who was a solid and unflamboyant character and freely admitted that he was no expert in these matters.
Even so, “Blumhardt’s parsonage eventually could not accommodate the numbers of people streaming to it. He thus began to look for a place with more room and greater freedom. He moved his family to Bad Boll, a complex of large buildings which had been developed as a spa around a sulfur water spring. His biographer [in German] recounts in vivid detail one story after another of how through the small circle at Bad Boll, desperate individuals of all stripes— burdened with mental, emotional, physical and spiritual maladies—found healing and renewed faith.”
Blumhardt had the courage to work through the ideological issues (and plenty of opposition) and to conclude emphatically that the Kingdom of God was perennially able to break into everyday life, with whatever manifestation of the divine or miraculous that the Holy Spirit might choose.
Blumhardt was not a theologian and did not attempt a reasoned theology of his stance. He was a practical man, full of compassion, who was wise enough to realise that the damaged, the sick and the demonised need compassion and hope in their damaged souls every bit as much as healing or exorcism. His sermons pleaded, cared, pointed to a God who is love and who wants us to know it.
But Blumhardt also offers hope to Christians who long for the transcendental, for God’s power to be seen in today’s world. He was convinced that the Old Testament prophecy of Joel, quoted by Peter when the Holy Spirit was first outpoured (Acts 2:17) had only been partly fulfilled; that the generous and saving God in whom he believed had so much more for the Church to discover and to use for God’s glory and the blessing of multitudes.
Following a much-publicised exorcism, the whole neighbourhood paying attention, he took deliberate steps to dampen any thrill-seeking tendencies. He refused anything that smacked of sensationalism or a personality cult.
Blumhardt was also conservative in his ecclesiology: he firmly believed in the established church. He was familiar with developments across the Channel in England, which by this time had seen the Quakers, then the Great Awakening, the powerful movings of God associated with the Wesleys and George Whitefield (an overview of which is given here). These times of the in-breaking of God’s power had led to large numbers leaving the Anglican communion to found new groups and movements.
By contrast, Germany had always been resistant to sectarianism – look how it treated the Anabaptists. But in Blumhardt, the message of renewal and the manifest power of God with signs and wonders came from a solid son of the church who had no intention of seceding from it. This resonated far and wide, and Blumhardt’s parsonage welcomed thousands of visitors, including author/parson Eduard Mörike and novelist Hermann Hesse.
A number recorded their reactions.
1. FAITH. “He really does believe! It isn’t magic!”, wrote Blumhardt’s bishop. Real faith, “the faith that pulls the fire from heaven” (Salvation Army hymn) has always fascinated and attracted. People want to believe in the miraculous. Blumhardt made it seem quite ordinary.
2. HOPE. Blumhardt’s heightened understanding of light and darkness (through the exorcism of 1842) made him see that God was ready at any moment to invade the darkness of human life with the light that is the real Jesus – not of “religion” but of life . Darkness, he wrote, is contrary to our nature if we are of God, so there will always be a way to escape from it if we put our trust in Him.
3. LOVE. “Love is his religion”, wrote a noted painter. Blumhardt’s God was compassionate, offered hope, gave repentance and a new start even to the most damaged and dirty, and any manifestation of healing or the miraculous was a signpost to that nature in Him. This too is timelessly attractive, especially to Christians stultified by habit – what Blumhardt called “religion”.
All of these, Blumhardt believed, were available within the orbit of the church. But because of much encrusting of habitual “church-ianity”, God’s lavish heart in these areas had to be actively preached, which is what Blumhardt gave himself to doing – while resisting any temptation to cast the church aside in favour of ‘freer’, individual spirituality.