Icon (Close Menu)


Samuel Johnson’s 1755 The Dictionary of the English Language defines “enthusiasm” in this way: “A vain belief of private revelation; a vain confidence of divine favour or communication.”

His definition of “enthusiast” follows: “One who vainly imagines a private revelation; one who has a vain confidence of his intercourse with God.”

I admit that I am an enthusiast. Being called an enthusiast was pejorative in the era of Johnson. It was believed enthusiasm caused the previous century’s religious wars. The writings of John Locke and others placed human reason over and above traditional religious authority. There was a deep distrust, if not loathing, of anyone who spoke with fervor about their religious experience.

As the French say, plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.

In many Christian circles today, to speak of personal religious experience is to risk, if not open ridicule, at least the quiet snickers of those around you. Try saying something like “God led me to…,” or “I experienced God’s love,” or “I have a personal relationship with Jesus.”

In what follows, I don’t want the Christian who has never had a “religious experience” (but would really like to have one) hear me saying they are some kind of second-class Christian. I don’t have an answer to your question of “Why not me?” On the contrary, you might be the superior Christian, given Jesus’ words to Thomas during one of his post-Resurrection appearances. No, I am speaking to others.

I am convinced that, at the root, the problem for many Christians is a malformed or unformed theology of the Holy Spirit. I see at least three different issues.

First are those who habitually leave off the adjective “Holy” and tend to speak of “The Spirit.” One could be forgiven in thinking they are referring to some kind of smell that lingers around certain gatherings. More often it seems that for them, “The Spirit” (God) is an emergent property that arises out of people. This Spirit has no exterior reality.

Second are those for whom the Trinity is “Father, Son, and Holy Scripture.” They are so scared of missing the mark in terms of Scripture that they keep the Holy Spirit at arm’s length. They stress the dangers of individualism (and, to be fair, it’s not like we lack examples of people going over the edge having “heard from God”).

Third are those of us (and I include myself as a “recovering” member of this group) who prize the life of the mind over all things. We never met a discussion of a difficult theological topic we didn’t love. We might take the other side of the argument just to keep the discussion going! And we are deathly scared of emotion. We are comfortable with the Holy Spirit just as long as he stays safely controlled in our theological boxes.

An interesting confluence of #2 and #3 is in a recent criticism of contemporary worship being “pagan.” God help us if we are pagan—with images of moonlit dances around trees (I will leave for another time the issue: “Your worship is too academic”). Pagans are almost the definition of “too enthusiastic.”

What is striking to me, though, is the lack of any mention of the Holy Spirit in the context of worship. Ironically, what taking the Holy Spirit into consideration will do is to point us back to the fact that we are “whole people.” Having the Holy Spirit in theological view will help us avoid the error of limiting us to be creatures with only a brain (“Brains on sticks”). The Holy Spirit reminds us that we are souls with bodies, and bodies enable us to experience reality beyond just “thinking about it.”

A great resource for getting our thinking about the Holy Spirit on track is Gordon Smith’s The Voice of Jesus. It provides a basic theology of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology). He clears up many areas, especially the problem of individualism. A strength of the first group who speak of “The Spirit” is their emphasis on the whole community (a point often echoed in my third group as well). Individual experience can be an invitation to excess, sometime dangerous excess. But for a community to hear the Holy Spirit, it will take individuals in that community going to the community with their impressions, thoughts, pictures, wild ideas, visions, dreams, and the myriad other ways the Holy Spirit speaks and sharing those things as the community together practices the hard work of discernment. I like to think about the picture of radio telescopes where there are many dishes spread out—this is the way to hear God’s Spirit speak!

Smith also tackles the question of Scripture in the process. There is no good discernment of the voice of the Holy Spirit without grounding in Scripture. The story we live in is of the Church through the ages together listening to God through these pages. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come and lead us into all truth, and the obvious starting place is with the Bible.

After laying this groundwork, Smith then goes on to show how the Holy Spirit has four basic ministries.

The first is  that the Holy Spirit ministers God’s love to us. “God proves his love for us, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Don’t rush past this point: God loves you, my friend. No matter who you are, what you have done, where you are—God loves you!

Is it enough to know this is true? Smith says no:

Many believe that God is a God of love who has acted on their behalf. They believe that Christ died for them. Yet how many times have we heard it said (or even said it ourselves), “I know in my head that God loves me, but I do not need to feel it”?

Of course, there are many who do not see this as a problem. They suggest it is not necessary that we feel God’s love; it is sufficient to know it intellectually. Yet imagine how disheartened I would be if I overheard either of my sons tell someone that he knows I love him, but does not feel it. For unless my sons know affectively that they are loved, my love for them has not really made a difference.

If we are going to love others as we have been loved, if we are going to worship with abandon and serve with generosity, then it will be because we feel in the depth of our being that we are loved” (emphasis mine).

Second, the Holy Spirit brings conviction of sin. A “Spirit” that oozes out of the pores of the gathering will not bring conviction of sin—at least not the sin we so carefully hide. This God who loves us knows that our sin will weigh us down. Indeed, that is why he has paid such a price to free us; how much more will he want to cleanse us so that we might walk with him? But note, this conviction always comes on the same wind that brings us the assurance of his love. If you feel the weight of your sin, but don’t also feel the love of God, it is probably not God’s Spirit at work!

And third, as already alluded to, the Holy Spirit brings illumination to our minds. We are commanded to love God “with our whole mind.” The Holy Spirit comes to make that possible. The Holy Spirit is a teacher who desires that her pupils learn wisdom and truth. Those of us in academic settings have not yet made as full use of this as we might, for I believe the Holy Spirit delights not only in our understanding of traditionally “spiritual” things, but takes equal delight when we understand math, physics, history, political science, or any of the tens of thousands of subjects humans study.

Finally, the Holy Spirit guides us. There are no hard and fast rules here. We frequently remain uncertain when faced with important choices. And yet the Holy Spirit does guide us—maybe not often in audible words to us (albeit more often than many are willing to acknowledge), but in the council of friends or wise councilors, in intuition, with a vague sense of direction. Hindsight, as the saying goes, is 20/20; often, we look back and see how we have been guided. We remember those times and press forward to hear “in the now” that guidance.

Thinking and speaking too much about the Holy Spirit as a real, exterior Person who interacts with you will get you labeled (maybe even labeled a pagan!). If you lived in the late 1600s or early 1700s, they would label you an enthusiast. Today they will call you a “religious fanatic,” a “Holy Roller,” or a host of other pejorative labels.

But don’t let modern-day Samuel Johnsons scare you (I must admit, as a man who lives by Mark Twain’s admonition “Never trust a man who can only spell a word one way,” that I really dislike Johnson, as the modern founder of “spelling”). It is possible to have a “personal relationship with Jesus;” we can not only know his love for us, but we can experience it. That is what the Holy Spirit has come to enable in the community of people—the Church—who are together getting to know Jesus better.

 The image above is  “The Very Large Array at Socorro, New Mexico, United States” (2004)  by Wikimedia Commons user Hajor. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 



  1. The 18th c. Church of England was not a bastion of rationalism. Locke had minimal influence if any at all in the century after his death, and Socinianism was a minor concern until the American and then French revolutions. Evangelical historiography (if it can be called thus) claims otherwise, as does Anglo-Catholic historiography (ibid.) – both claim that the 18th c. church was frigid and in need of their respective 19th c. revivals (whether ‘evangelical’ or ‘catholic’). But these are purely self-serving mythologies. No credible historian of the 18th c. church accepts these views.

    Furthermore, the 17th c. debate about ‘enthusiasm’ was not a debate about the Holy Spirit as described above; it was not a debate about personal religious experience. Rather, it was about what we today call fanaticism or religious extremism – or, perhaps better, religious terrorism. When Quaker women walked through the streets naked proclaiming doom and destruction, they claimed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. The same is true of Quakers who believed themselves to be reincarnations of Jesus. Cromwell dissolved Parliament and chose to reign alone, he claimed to do so under the influence of the Holy Spirit; when the Fifth Monarchy Men rose up to overthrow the government i the early 1660s, they believed that they were ushering in the reign of the Messiah – and other revolutionary movements claimed the same. There is no parallel between the insipid evangelical idea of a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ and the enthusiasm/fanaticism of the 17th c. To claim otherwise is, at best, a regrettable misrepresentation of the past.

      • Ok, but Noll is an American historian. You’re talking about British history. This is probably a helpful example of parallel historiographies *not* working together or meeting up. But the point holds; ecclesiastical historians of the 18th c. British church are less than amenable to the above narrative. And regardless, the enthusiasm(s) of the 17th c. were a good bit crazier – not to mention more violent – than the article allows.

        • Noll’s book covers in detail the British context for the rise of evangelicalism.

          I won’t begin to deny that many expressions of “enthusiasm” were bizarre and dangerous (I am, after all, a fellow member of my third category, and of course I am not defending *that* kind of expression).

          So lets use a less “extreme” example – John Wesley. Not exactly violent, but very maligned: Bishop Joseph Butler after meeting Wesley, “the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit is a horrid thing–a very horrid thing.”

          Really, you are helping to make one of my points, that because there are excesses, lets keep the Holy Spirit “under control.” If “hard cases make bad law” then “bad expressions of religious experience make bad theology.”

          I’d be interested in reading British historians with a favorable view of the 18th century English church.

          • I’ll put together a bibliography and send it or post it.

            What I’m trying to say is that the issue of enthusiasm wasn’t about excess – it was about sheer insanity. Admittedly, I don’t know what the standards are that might make “excess” (or its converse) a definable category. It might simply be better to see Johnson as talking about fanaticism or extremism- hence the word “enthusiasm” has actually changed meaning (or at least semantic range) since the mid-18th c. In other words, the definition of enthusiasm given by Johnson is fundamentally different than the definition that you are working with. Johnson’s definition is synonymous with “extremism” and “fanaticism” while yours is not. There is no harm in working with a different definition (if anything it is to be expected given the modern connotations of the word); it would just be helpful to recognize and/or state this explicitly.

            I understand the expression about keeping the Holy Spirit “under control” – I grew up hearing this rhetoric – but it is an expression that presumes some sort of contest between God and structure, such that they different as a matter of kind, not just degree. There is no necessary reason to accept such a view, however. Consequently, the question about “control” appears to me as a category error. But after all: I’m not an evangelical!

    • I think my eyebrows are singed after that response, and I’m all the way across the Atlantic. Some fiery Spirit (spirit?) seems to be at work.

      I think you may be inadvertently overreaching a bit in saying that there was no concern about personal religious experience. People claiming direct revelation? Simply because it expressed itself in “religious terrorism” doesn’t meant that it had no relation to how people would later react to any claim regarding the inward speaking of God.

      And the “insipid” evangelical idea of a personal relationship? Perhaps you could clarify what you’re referring to there. I know how you hate straw men, but it seems to me that you’re simply gesturing at something and hoping for consensual opprobrium, after Charlie has actually written specifically about what he means.

      I also wonder: when you say “[t]o claim otherwise is, at best, a regrettable misinterpretation,” what is it you believe it to be *at worst*?

  2. I’m going to leave others to hash out the details. It is certainly true that many within the Church of England were quite concerned with enthusiasm and its excesses. I think Rowan Williams pointed out in an essay once how Anglicans tended to blame unwed pregnancies on the Methodists and their “enthusiasm.” In a similar vein there used to be a print on the wall at the School of Theology in Sewanee (I pray it’s still there, and if not, that I can find where it is in storage and offer to give it a good home) that depicted a revival meeting in which one of the ladies had fallen out during the preaching, and rabbits were running out from under her skirt (a reference to the sexual–and other forms of uncontrolled behavior–connotations of enthusiasm).

    My mentor told me about seeing a grave marker in England once (I wish I could remember where he said he saw it) where the epitaph read “Churchman. He died without enthusiasm.”

  3. “What is striking to me, though, is the lack of any mention of the Holy Spirit in the context of worship. Ironically, what taking the Holy Spirit into consideration will do is to point us back to the fact that we are “whole people.” Having the Holy Spirit in theological view will help us avoid the error of limiting us to be creatures with only a brain (“Brains on sticks”). The Holy Spirit reminds us that we are souls with bodies, and bodies enable us to experience reality beyond just “thinking about it.”

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. The other problem is that when folks do mention the Holy Spirit, they primarily seem to believe that he interacts with people as individuals and not at the level of community as a whole. Because of that, the Holy Spirit has likely been blamed for more wacky teaching than the other–maybe less ambiguous–persons of the Trinity.

    As someone shared in a sermon that I heard a while back, a quote originating at the service where a charismatic congregation was received into the Episcopal Church, “You have the fire, we in the Episcopal Church have the fireplace.” The challenge for us, I think, is how to fan the embers in our congregations, while also being mindful of the need to offer encouragement, and guidance and reflection to the whole community. We need to figure out how to fan these embers while also keeping check on the “enthusiasm” or other bad decisions any of us are prone to make.

    • Charles Hummel, a legendary InterVarsity figure wrote a book titled _Fire in the Fireplace_ when InterVarsity was seeking to understand charismatic phenomenon.

      Community – individual: this is why I chose the picture I did. Discernment takes each individual doing their part to “receive” and then all the data is combined to create “understanding.”

      The resolving power of large telescope arrays is awesome.

  4. And just to get back to the main point:

    There has always been a certain amount of, at the least, incredulity, around profound religious experience (even of the more Wesley-like refined variety). My theses is that the root cause is ambiguity around the Holy Spirit. Go back to the many posts about worship, and note how much the Holy Spirit’s role in worship is factored in.

    Arguing about the 18th century is a bit of a red herring.

  5. Religious enthusiasm in the 18th century is an even more interesting topic than I thought.

    A friend sent me this link:


    Was Smart’s condition mental illness? ZCould have been. Here is a Johnson quote:

    “My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place.” And: “I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

Two Decades of Daily Devotions, and Still Going

With the launch of TLC's new website, you can now subscribe to Covenant, receiving it every day right in your...

From the Archives: A Blind Man’s Pentecost

As this week after the Pentecost draws to its close, I present a final archival reflection on the...

From the Archives: A Third Article Reflection

In the wake of Holy Spirit's coming at Pentecost, I have turned to our archives to present various...

From the Archives: The Sound and the Spirit

In the wake of Pentecost, I'm dipping into our storied archive, presenting reflections upon the third person of...