WILLIAM BAXTER GODBEY:  APOSTLE OF HOLINESS

Barry W. Hamilton, Ph.D.

Northeastern Seminary (Rochester, New York)

 

 

 


William B. Godbey was one of the most influential evangelists of the Wesleyan-holiness movement in its formative period (1880-1920).  Thousands of people experienced conversion or entire sanctification under his ministry, and Godbey gained a reputation for having revivals everywhere he went.  A prolific author, he dictated over 230 books and pamphlets and wrote numerous articles for holiness periodicals.  He produced a new translation of the New Testament in 1901, and published a seven-volume Commentary on the New Testament (1896-1900).  Godbey’s publications, along with his preaching and “Bible lessons” at camp meetings, earned for the evangelist a widespread reputation among “holiness people” as the “Greek scholar” and “Bible commentator.”  Relentlessly on the move, Godbey traveled extensively across the continental United States and circled the globe five times.  He was widely reputed to be the holiness movement’s expert on “Bible lands” and “Bible manners and customs.”  Through his publications and sermons, Godbey joined a limited number of other ministers who introduced premillennialism into the holiness movement.  Godbey was also one of the principal agents responsible for keeping the “tongues movement” out of the rest of the holiness movement.  Godbey encouraged large numbers of people to join the new holiness denominations, and through his preaching and publications shaped popular opinion on holiness and millenarian doctrines.  However, he never joined any of these new denominations; rather, he chose to remain in “Babylon” as a lifelong member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  Today Godbey has in large measure been forgotten in Methodism as well as among most people in the separatist-holiness denominations.  His most honored remembrance may be found in the ranks of the Conservative holiness denominations.  Unfortunately, Godbey is remembered almost universally as an “eccentric.”  Indeed, many of Godbey’s contemporaries regarded him as an eccentric, and some stated that Godbey’s odd personal habits hindered his capacity for positive influence.  Historical research cannot overturn the judgment that Godbey had several eccentric personal habits; however it could restore Godbey to a balanced remembrance which appreciates the evangelist’s singular achievements in shaping the holiness movement, in publishing a considerable body of holiness literature, and in garnering a large number of converts for the movement.  To dismiss Godbey on account of his “eccentricities” or to present the story of his ministry without mentioning his personal habits would betray a lack of integrity in the research.  While historians of the Wesleyan-holiness movement may be tempted to “clean up” history in the name of respectability, honest scholarship must admit the eccentric elements which shaped the early days of the movement.  William B. Godbey spent more than seven decades in Christian service, and his radical pursuit of holy living–from his perspective–often involved the principled rejection of respectability.

Striplinghood


William Baxter Godbey was born June 3, 1833 in Pulaski County, Kentucky.  Raised on the family farm until age twenty, Godbey grew up in a pious Methodist home in which he had a conversion experience and call to preach at age three.[1]  Two significant characteristics of his mature ministry were rooted in his childhood nurture in Kentucky Methodism.  The first characteristic was the revivalism that permeated rural Kentucky society in the nineteenth century.  Born in a family with deep roots in Methodism, Godbey understood his entire life and ministry within the context of revivalism.  This is the most fundamental characteristic of his ministry–the holding of protracted meetings (often without a predetermined date for ending the services–this depended on the leading of the Spirit) that moved people toward God through contrived means.  The second characteristic was the legacy of the Cane Ridge revival meetings of the first decade of the nineteenth century.  The Cane Ridge meetings of 1800-1801 became models that generated a climate of expectancy for many revivals.[2]  Rural Kentuckians expected revivals to be emotional, transformative events in which people fell down under the power of the Holy Spirit and through physical exercises–weeping, shouting, running and/or jumping–gave public evidence of God’s work in their souls.  These expectations played a key role in shaping Godbey’s own expectations for intended outcomes of revivals.[3]  Godbey may have encouraged the conjunction of the Cane Ridge legacy with Wesleyan-holiness doctrine to form a distinctive culture that prized physical demonstration as evidence of the work of God in the human soul.[4]  In light of the expectations manifested in the culture of Kentucky revivalism, Godbey’s conversion as a three-year-old was undoubtedly bereft of the drama that was normally expected to accompany a ‘sound’ conversion experience.[5]  At age 16 (November 1849) Godbey attended a Baptist revival and engaged in an intense, inward struggle for a “clear” conversion experience.[6]  Godbey’s own account of his conversion experience reveals an intense inward struggle with doubt that reached a point of despair, a divine-human drama resolved through an overwhelming sense of divine power and accompanied by unbounded joy.  The intensity of the drama magnified the behavioral manifestations of the religious experience, which contributed to the public recounting of the event–the personal testimony–as a credible story that convinced others of its veracity and–more importantly–could move people to seek similar experiences.  Furthermore, the movement in Godbey’s experience from doubt to despair to joyful resolution is not only similar to other conversion accounts, but is virtually identical with the description of his experience of entire sanctification.[7]  In fact, when Godbey recounted his experience of December 1868, witnesses at the scene thought he had “completed his conversion,” since they could not distinguish his behavior from the kind typically manifested in those experiences labeled “conversion” in the revivalistic culture of that era.[8]  By his own accounts, Godbey read the “old Methodist books” on sanctification, but had no idea how to obtain such an experience, and lacked a guide who had the experience and could lead him into it.[9]  After Godbey had a profound experience at the altar of the Methodist church where he was pastor, along with fifty other seekers–many of whom shouted with him–his ministry was distinctly changed.  Godbey’s ambitions for the Methodist episcopacy were “burned up,” and he experienced an outpouring of divine power along with significant results in his subsequent revival work.  He credited the Holy Spirit’s work in entire sanctification for making him a “cyclone of fire,” with the result that he had revivals everywhere he went.[10]  For Godbey, his experience of entire sanctification was the most important qualification for his work as a minister.[11]

Cyclone Evangelist

 

Godbey’s ministry began when he was licensed in 1853 as a local preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  During his student days at Georgetown College (KY) he preached to African American slaves in Methodist “colored churches.”[12]  He also spent several years teaching school in order to pay for his college education.  Godbey received a “classical education” from Georgetown College, graduating with a baccalaureate degree on June 30, 1859.  The marks of this “classical education” can be found throughout his books, articles and pamphlets, and undoubtedly influenced his revival sermons.  Stories from the Greek and Roman classics adorned his publications, and word studies in Greek and Latin were liberally sprinkled in his Bible lessons.  As a teenager Godbey participated in rural debating societies, and he credited his debating experience with the acquisition of rigorous study habits which served him throughout his lifetime.  His debating experience may also have been the origin of his speaking style–ornate, after the fashion of the day, yet addressed to common people–a style consistently reflected in each of his publications, and attested in personal reminiscences of those who knew him.[13]  Godbey was admitted on trial to the Methodist ministry in 1866, and into full connection in 1868.[14]  He served as president of Harmonia College in Perryville, Kentucky from 1859 to 1868, and moved the school to Indiana during the Civil War since Godbey was a “Union man.”[15]  In 1860 he married Emma Durham, whose family had been prominent in early Kentucky Methodism; they had eight children, only one of whom survived past early adulthood.[16]  From all appearances, Godbey’s career was typical of Kentucky Methodist ministers in this period–with the exception of his “classical education.”  However, the experience of entire sanctification in 1868 set Godbey on a course that would carry him to the very edges of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and at the center of the holiness movement.  After 1868, Godbey served several Methodist charges as pastor, was appointed twice as a presiding elder on the Kentucky Conference from 1873-1876, and served several smaller pastorates from 1877 to 1884.  Godbey held revival meetings in every place he could, with spectacular results.  Appointed to the Methodist Church in Foster, Kentucky in 1872, he saw more than 500 conversions in one year.[17]  Revival meetings eventually took a toll on Godbey’s career in the Methodist ministry, until in his final charge in 1883-1884, he spent the entire year outside the boundaries of his conference, holding revivals in every place where he had been invited.[18]  In 1884 Godbey found himself at the end of the Annual Conference without an appointment to a Methodist charge.  When he spoke with his bishop, Rev. Holland N. McTyeire, the bishop encouraged Godbey to locate, become an evangelist and travel to Texas, where the Methodist Episcopal Church, South needed rapid statistical growth.  For the rest of his life, Godbey pointed to this event as the time when Bishop McTyeire “turned him loose on the whole connection.”[19]  The bishop may have intended to frustrate the evangelist and eventually drive him out of the Methodist ministry.  McTyeire probably anticipated that Godbey’s talents for revivalism would bring statistical gains for the Methodist churches on the Texas frontier.  In less than ten years most of Godbey’s ministry would be conducted among widely-scattered Methodist churches and camp meetings, until the new holiness denominations were formed after 1895.  However, once driven to the periphery of Methodism, Godbey became one of the most prominent evangelists in the holiness movement, and prepared a foundation for many of the holiness denominations that would soon be started.  His own account reveals an energetic, restless evangelist with a driving passion for his work, who profoundly influenced the men and women who attended his meetings.[20]

Godbey’s success in conducting revival meetings may be attributed in part to the dramatic character of his sermons.  Godbey developed strong proficiency in preaching colorful, emotional sermons that produced visible effects in congregations, and this proficiency enabled him to move people toward a dramatic, ‘crisis’ experience at the mourner’s bench.  He typically surveyed a revival congregation on the first night of a revival meeting, ascertained a large number of people who needed conversion (this knowledge was allegedly a gift of the Holy Spirit), and preached the “Sinai Gospel” to awaken them.  Godbey transliterated the Greek term dunamis into the English word “dynamite,” thus rendering Romans 1:16 as “The gospel is the dynamite of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.”[21]  He equivocated on the meaning of “dynamite,” connecting the connotation of explosive charge to the demonstrative worship style of the frontier revivals and camp meetings.  For Godbey, “dynamite” referred to “hellfire and damnation” preaching, which aimed to kindle conviction of sin in unbelievers.  He called this type of preaching “taking Mount Sinai for our pulpit,” with “thunderbolts, earthquakes and lightning-shafts.”[22]  Godbey credited this type of preaching with producing phenomenal results in his revivals, and he was convinced that entire sanctification was the foundational experience which had equipped him to preach the “Sinai Gospel” with “the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.”  He advocated the “Sinai Gospel” as a means for bringing sinners to a point of ripe conviction, and refused to bring his revival meetings to a point of resolution–through opening the mourner’s bench–until he sensed that the congregation had reached the breaking point.[23]  He would preach in this manner for several nights, allowing the emotions in the congregation to climb until there was a general breakdown in order.  Then Godbey would preach the “Calvary Gospel” and move people from despair to joy, while emphasizing the “dying love of Jesus.”[24]  His emotional style can be gleaned from his description of the preacher standing “on the crimson hill of Golgotha and with solemn wails and breaking heart, preach the dying love of Jesus to the souls crushed by the thunder-bolts of Sinai.”[25]  His revival practices often divided churches, and coupled with his odd mannerisms, brought down on himself the charge of being “crazy.”[26]  Large numbers of people often came to his revival meetings out of curiosity, in order to hear a “crazy” preacher, and one occasion a young cowboy preacher named Bud Robinson drove a wagon twenty miles to hear Godbey preach on entire sanctification.[27]  However, while many people opposed Godbey’s preaching, those who approved of his dramatic manner of presenting conversion and entire sanctification as “epochal” (instantaneous) experiences endorsed him as an “old-style Wesleyan.”[28]  Unfortunately, Godbey met strenuous opposition in several places, especially in his travels across Texas (beginning in 1884), on account of his preaching on the subject of “sanctification.” Even though Hardin Wallace had introduced specialized preaching on entire sanctification in his Calvert, Texas revival meeting in the winter of 1876-1877, and connected the doctrine with John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, sanctification had become associated with fanaticism, especially in Central Texas, where extremists in the two decades before Godbey’s arrival had poisoned the reputation of the subject.[29]  Two groups that had infused the term with extreme teachings were most responsible for the controversy over sanctification.  The “Corsicana Enthusiasts” joined holiness and premillennialism to form a millennial sect which Methodists and other “outsiders” associated with the Millerites.[30]  The group also required husband and wife to separate subsequent to entire sanctification, if the couple disagreed over the experience.[31]  Another group that served to discredit the cause of holiness in Central Texas was a band of women, officially known as the Woman’s Commonwealth, but commonly called the “Sanctified Sisters” or the “Belton Sanctificationists.”  Walter Vernon gives a succinct account of the origins of this sect, which took place in the Central Texas town of Belton: “Mrs. Martha McWhirter had an experience in 1866 in which she believed she heard God speaking to her; she in turn spoke in tongues.  She decided that she was experiencing guidance from God in all aspects of her life, and opposed the move of the Methodist congregation from a union church to their own.  She gathered some other women around her. . . [who] decided that they should not have physical relations with their husbands.”[32]  The Belton Sanctificationists challenged the male-dominated society of nineteenth-century Central Texas, and in turn received opposition and hostility from townsfolk, especially men.[33]  News of these rebellious women may have spread over Central Texas, compounded with the “fanaticisms” of the “Corsicana Enthusiasts,” for according to Godbey, people in this region were strenuously opposed to sanctification.[34]  The term “sanctification” had become associated with domestic rebellion, and represented an experience that empowered women to leave their husbands and lead independent lives.  The holiness movement would thus have appeared divisive, rendering asunder the sacred bonds of matrimony and threatening male dominance.  This association could explain the violent attacks on Godbey during his evangelistic campaigns in Texas, when groups of men pelted him with rocks, dirt and eggs.[35]  While holiness movement tradition has typically viewed these accounts of persecution as ‘martyrdom,’ these attacks were probably reprisals from men whose wives had attended the revival meetings.  Godbey often recalled instances of women who sought sanctification in his revival meetings–he reveled in an account of a presiding elder who censured him for preaching sanctification, while the presiding elder’s wife was at the mourner’s bench seeking the experience.  Godbey never mentioned opposition from women in these campaigns–his opponents were angry men who perceived sanctification as a challenge to their domestic authority.[36]  In spite of the violent opposition, Godbey became one of the most successful evangelists of the holiness movement between 1884 and 1893, and developed an extensive network of ministerial and lay supporters across the South–a network that quickly became national–and international–prior to 1900.

 

Bible Scholar

 

As the ‘holiness people’ became aware of their distinctive status, they sought firmer biblical-exegetical foundations for apologetical purposes, and expressed their concerns for a set of Bible commentaries “from the full salvation standpoint.”  Beverly Carradine rejoiced in the “double pleasure” that a set of holiness commentaries would be written, and that Godbey would be the author: “Dr. Godbey is the man to do the work.  His wide range of reading, his familiarity with the different versions of the Scripture, his knowledge and experience of the blessing itself, all fit him for the task.  There will not be a dissenting voice to this throughout the holiness ranks.”[37] Godbey’s popularity testified to his success as an evangelist, Bible teacher and author prior to the publication of the first volume of his Commentary on the New Testament in 1896.  His earlier publications–Baptism (1884), Sanctification (1884), Christian Perfection (1886), Victory (1888), and Holiness or Hell? (1893)--enjoyed an extensive circulation, with some titles going through several printings.  Godbey credited his friend Martin Wells Knapp with persuading him to write the Commentary on the New Testament.[38]  By the mid-1890s Godbey had become “one of the most prominent evangelists of the last quarter of the [nineteenth] century.”[39]  He states, “The holiness people had been exceedingly clamorous a full dozen years for me to write commentaries expository of the New Testament.  This conception had originated from my constant habit of teaching the Scriptures during my evangelistic meetings, utilizing the day time in the instruction of the Lord’s people and preaching in connection with my evangelistic meetings at night.”[40]  Godbey frequently mentioned his extensive use of the Greek text in his teaching ministry.  Since most people in his congregations were not acquainted with biblical languages, they would have uncritically accepted Godbey’s expertise as a Greek scholar.  Godbey could read Greek, but his scholarship was comparable to other college-educated ministers of his generation.  Knapp persuaded him to write the commentaries; however, Godbey refused to begin this project until he had traveled to Palestine, for he believed the “land and the book” to be inseparable.  Godbey set out on his first trip around the world in 1895 (with subsequent trips in 1899, 1905, 1912 and 1918), after receiving a gift of $500 from J. S. Hunton subsequent to a lecture at the Texas Holiness Association’s campgrounds in Waco, Texas.[41]  Godbey wanted to travel in “Bible lands” and improve his understanding of the geography, manners and customs of the land and the people.  To the precritical mind, these factors were important in developing an accurate interpretation of the biblical text.[42]  Godbey also wanted to make firsthand observations concerning the fulfillment of prophecy–the “signs of the times”–in order to confirm the truthfulness of premillennialism.  He intended to establish premillennialism as the prevailing orthodoxy on eschatology in the holiness movement, and traveled around the world to gather evidence.  He could not have constructed a convincing argument for this controversial eschatology until he had traveled widely and could cite firsthand observation of the “signs.”  His travel accounts would have carried conviction to the minds of his readers; Godbey was a prominent evangelist in the movement, who had traveled where most of them had never been (and would never go), who had observed these “signs” with his own eyes (potent evidence for common-sense realists), and who concluded from his experiences that certain Bible prophecies were thereby fulfilled.  Godbey’s commentaries confirm this purpose when he discusses the fulfillment of prophecy pertaining to the return of Christ, for it is in this context where he recounts his observations in foreign travels.  Godbey’s references to his travels in “Bible lands” figure prominently in Volume One of the Commentary on the New Testament, which deals with the Book of Revelation, a book which in Godbey’s perspective is “all on the Second Coming of Christ.”[43]  Godbey’s extensive travels also garnered a wealth of personal knowledge of the “Bible lands” of his day, as well as a personal acquaintance of holiness missions around the globe–knowledge which would have significantly increased his stature as a teacher in holiness circles.  His travels also provided material for several subsequent publications, of which several can be found in minister’s personal libraries today.  One of Godbey’s most popular accounts of his travels was Footprints of Jesus in the Holy Land.[44]   Primarily an exposition of the Old Testament, Footprints of Jesus could be characterized as a sermonizing travelogue.  Places and events were occasions for digressing on Bible stories, sermon illustrations and personal anecdotes that illustrated such ‘Bible truths’ as entire sanctification.  As in his other travel accounts, Godbey mentioned the “multitudinous perils” which he faced on his journeys, and admitted, “Very few comparatively undertake this voyage, and the number would be much smaller if they knew beforehand the labor and danger involved.”  When one considers that Godbey was past sixty years of age when he began his first tour, it becomes evident that he was a remarkable person of uncommon courage and motivation. 

Besides his Commentary on the New Testament, Godbey’s most remarkable publishing achievement was his Translation of the New Testament (1901).  In the “Apologue” he called it the “hardest work of my life,” the fruit of twenty-five years of using only the Greek New Testament in his preaching, and the result of a dozen years of popular demand from the holiness movement.  Godbey shared with his nineteenth-century Protestant colleagues a historical perspective which exaggerated the “apostasy and barbarism” of the “Dark Ages,” which began shortly after the beginning of the fourth century and ended in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation.  Calling this historical period “Satan’s millennium,” Godbey emphasized the widespread illiteracy of these centuries, as well as the efforts of the “heathen” (Goths, Vandals and Muslims) to destroy all books and learning, “sparing not the Word of God.”  Providentially, God preserved the pristine text of the New Testament of the apostolic age, which was hidden in the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai.  God revealed this text to “His faithful servant, the learned Tischendorf” in 1859, and this text subsequently become known as Codex Sinaiticus.  Shortly after graduation from Georgetown College in the same year, Godbey procured a copy of this Greek text from Germany, and based his Translation of the New Testament on this text.  He was convinced that the resulting translation was “the most literal, lucid, and perspicuous translation now extant in the English tongue.”  Why did the “holiness people” need a new translation of the Bible?  Godbey claimed that the English Version (the “Authorized” or “King James” translation of 1611) had “two thousand mistakes. .  of which nine hundred and four are corrected in the Revised Version.”  The restoration of the New Testament text would augment the restoration of ‘New Testament Christianity,’ and would provide textual support for the doctrine of entire sanctification as a second work of grace distinct from justification and regeneration.  At the turn of the twentieth century, the holiness movement articulated a vision of lay preachers–men and women–who would preach the restored gospel of the apostolic age to the world’s entire population.  Godbey shared this vision, and believed that God would call–not thousands, but “millions”--of laity to this task.  This preaching of the laity would hasten the ‘Return of Jesus’ for His saints.[45]  Godbey supplied the holiness movement with his publications–especially his Commentary on the New Testament and his Translation of the New Testament–to support the movement’s vision of lay preaching.  Indeed, Godbey himself–in his restless “peregrinations” around the world–was the living embodiment of this vision.  He fervently believed that the end of the age was at hand, the Second Coming of Christ would take place no later than 1923, and that the “signs of the times” signaled an extreme urgency for the task of preaching the gospel to every living person on earth.  Godbey’s Commentary on the New Testament and Translation of the New Testament stand today as monuments to the vision of the early holiness movement to “spread scriptural holiness” around the world, concomitant with the restoration of the primitive gospel of the apostolic age and in preparation for the coming millennial restoration of the created order.   


Godbey’s contributions to holiness literature also included numerous small booklets which nourished the holiness people in sound doctrine and inoculated them against the ‘heresies’ which were sweeping across America in the late nineteenth century.  These booklets were printed on cheap (high acid content) paper in order to make them affordable (usually ten cents each), and as a consequence, most of them exist today in a state of marked deterioration.  Topics included expositions of holiness soteriology, critiques of “popular evangelism,” indictments of the “fallen churches” (especially Methodism), warnings against such ‘heresies’ as “Mormonism,” and devotional studies of the geography of “Bible lands.”  However, the most prominent topic was the Second Coming of Christ.  Godbey wrote numerous booklets concerning the “signs of the times,” expositions of dispensationalist chronology (outlining periods of history, the Rapture, the Tribulation Period, the Millennium, and the final judgment), and exhortations to be “robed and ready” with the experience of entire sanctification.  These booklets contain an abundance of Godbey’s sermon illustrations–personal anecdotes, allusions to classical Greek mythology, references to rural life, and stories taken from religious biographies of such notable personalities as George Whitefield, John Wesley, Benjamin Abbott, and Charles G. Finney.  These booklets provide today’s readers with snapshots of Godbey’s preaching style– homespun stories, rhetoric, pointed exhortations, allusions to classical literature–and provide a clear picture of a distinct personality.  Like the rest of his publications, Godbey’s booklets were not polished productions; rather, they were transcriptions of his reminiscences, taken down by “amanuenses”–most of them students of God’s Bible School.  Godbey had serious problems with his eyesight, and his handwriting was very difficult to decipher.  He dictated his books and pamphlets from memory, and these publications represent a raw transcription of his personality and speaking style.

 

Gospel Ranger

 


Godbey was indeed unique–a complex personality with several distinctive aspects which must be held together in order to have an accurate assessment of his ministry.  First of all, he was a well-educated Methodist minister who could communicate most effectively with common people–especially those who had a rural background.  Second, he had a profound religious experience in 1868 that dramatically altered his ministry.  Third, he was effective in communicating this experience to large numbers of people, and persuading them to receive a similar experience.  Fourth, he had a passion for relentless travel–he was constantly on the move, from meeting to meeting, from the time he left the presidency of Harmonia College (1869) to the last four weeks of his life (1920) when he was physically unable to travel.  Fifth, his personal habits included unconventional patterns of behavior, which encouraged people to label him as “eccentric.”  These sides must be held together in tension, or an unbalanced picture of the man emerges.  Godbey’s brilliance and eccentric personal habits often produced a mixed reaction from colleagues, who admired his intense dedication the holiness cause, appreciated his biblical scholarship and his preaching, and at the same time eschewed some of his behavior.  Students at God’s Bible School, where Godbey occasionally taught (when he wasn’t holding revivals or touring “Bible lands”) remembered him with reverence and affection.  They also remembered his “eccentricities,” which included his speculations on “celestial evangelism,” and his personal habits.[46]  Godbey’s eccentric traits included extreme thrift, which he attributed to his desire to send as much money as possible to missionaries.  When he planned his funeral, he requested that no flowers be purchased, and that his former students (alumni of Harmonia College) dig the grave free of charge.  He desired his possessions to be sold for missions support–“about ten or twenty thousand dollars worth” of unsold publications.[47]  When Godbey passed away on September 12, 1920, those who knew him best responded with unmitigated admiration and respect.  The most detailed description of Godbey’s final illness and funeral was an article written by Mrs. Martin Wells Knapp, editor of God’s Revivalist and Bible Advocate.  The article, “Into the Beautiful Beyond,” thoroughly described and eulogized Godbey from the perspective of those who were steeped in personal reminiscences of one who lived and taught among them as a Bible teacher and saint–a living embodiment of the ideals of the holiness movement.  Godbey was remembered for his innumerable publications, for his extreme thrift (according to the article, a form of self-denial), and for his godliness.[48]  H. C. Morrison expressed similar sentiments in the Pentecostal Herald, and emphasized Godbey’s accomplishments and Christian spirit: “Dr. Godbey had many eccentricities, but the innocent and beautiful spirit [which] characterized him, made his eccentricities attractive and amusing rather than offensive.”[49]  Other remembrances of Godbey were more subdued when measuring his ministry by denominational expectations, but still expressed appreciation for the effectiveness of his revival preaching.  Mallalieu Wilson, writing the biography of his father, Rev. W. C. Wilson, a general superintendent in the early years of the Church of the Nazarene, characterized Godbey as “one of the most colorful, eccentric preachers and writers of his day.  Probably more people were influenced to seek entire sanctification as a direct result of his preaching and writing than any other one man, more than any other two men combined except for Beverly Carradine, H. C. Morrison, and ‘Bud’ Robinson.”  Wilson stated that Godbey was “small in size” and in his “early ministerial career. .  carried a gold-headed cane, and dressed in the most foppish style.”  However, “after he was sanctified, he went to the opposite extreme.. and cared absolutely nothing about his personal appearance, or about the ordinary observances and courtesies of society.”[50]  Wilson presented a balanced appraisal of the evangelist, expressing appreciation for his education and censure for some of his extreme teachings: “Godbey was intelligent, highly educated for his day, and on many points extremely sensible.  On many points he was really fanatical, and undoubtedly encouraged the holiness people in some of their fanatical ideas.”[51]  Wilson also placed responsibility on Godbey for “the popularizing among the holiness people” of the “misleading expression, ‘Holiness or Hell.’” Wilson stated, “whatever the expression may have meant to him, it has usually been preached as if it meant, ‘Unless you have the experience of second-blessing holiness as I teach it, you will go to hell for sure.’”[52] Godbey probably intended to emphasize the teaching, based on an interpretation of Hebrews 12:14, common in the holiness movement, that all believers were required to be seeking after holiness until they received the experience of entire sanctification.  Unfortunately, this teaching apparently came to be understood by many holiness people as requiring entire sanctification for entrance into heaven.[53] 

The obituary published by the Kentucky Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, also struck a balance between appreciation for his revival work and recognition of his limitations.  “He was neither a pastor nor a presiding elder.  He knew nothing of organization and conservation, and gave himself little concern about the management of the affairs of charge or district.  He was an evangelist, and this alone occupied his mind and engaged his effort.”  The writer then epitomized Godbey’s style of ministry: “Temperamentally and by choice he was a gospel ranger.”  But the author of the obituary still had a measure of respect for Godbey’s contributions to Methodism: “Out of his abundant labors sprang one of the greatest revivals of modern times; and when the history of the Church is written, the name of W. B. Godbey will loom large in that part of its dealing with the revival which came to Methodism during the latter part of the last century.”  Even though Godbey had, in the opinion of his colleagues, “made the serious mistake of drifting away from his Church,” he was readmitted to the Conference in 1918 “and died as a member of our body, September 12, 1920.”[54] 

Godbey was indeed a remarkable man in an era of unprecedented social and religious upheaval–a fiery, “cyclone” evangelist of unrelenting energy; a “gospel ranger” who traveled the world; a man of exceptional courage who faced numerous dangers on his global tours; a revivalist whose share of the harvest included thousands who professed conversion and entire sanctification under his ministry; and an apologist and Bible teacher who profoundly shaped the holiness movement’s theology in its early days.   And undoubtedly, Godbey’s personality and radical convictions created the impression that he was eccentric—or mistakenly, “crazy.”  Today the holiness movement should balance its remembrance of Godbey’s eccentricities with appreciation and respect for his positive contributions.  Wesleyan scholars should recognize his “eccentricities” as part of the movement’s history and culture, since the charge of “eccentric” could just as readily be applied to several other prominent figures in the nineteenth-century holiness movement.  While Wesleyan scholars cannot accept Godbey’s teachings without qualification, they should give serious consideration to his publications as resources for insight into the history and culture of the movement’s early years.

 

Northeastern Seminary Home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 



[1]William B. Godbey, Autobiography of W. B. Godbey (Cincinnati, OH: God’s Revivalist Office, 1909), 26-29.  See also William B. Godbey, Infantile Christianity (Cincinnati, OH: God’s Revivalist Office, 1911), 13-14; J. Lawrence Brasher, The Sanctified South: John Lakin Brasher and the Holiness Movement (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 19; and Barry W. Hamilton, William Baxter Godbey: Itinerant Apostle of the Holiness Movement (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000), 23.

[2]The best interpretation of the Cane Ridge events can be found in Paul K. Conkin, Cane Ridge:  America’s Pentecost (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).

[3]A good example of how these expectations shaped revival outcomes can be found in William B. Godbey, Cherubim and Flaming Sword (Nashville, TN: Pentecostal Mission Publishing Company, 1917), 94-95.

[4]However, this valuation of physical demonstration was never officially sanctioned in the holiness movement.  Godbey hewed closely to Phoebe Palmer’s “altar theology” which never required physical demonstration as an accompaniment to the inward witness of the Holy Spirit.

[5]Godbey provided an example of the expectations which shaped public testimony to religious experience within the revival culture, stating that when the Methodist churches were “orthodox” they would keep seekers at the mourner’s bench for “not only days and weeks, but months and years” until they had experiences which satisfied observers.  See William B. Godbey, My Better Half (Cincinnati, OH: God’s Revivalist Press, n.d.), 5-6.

[6]The theological and philosophical foundations of revivalism required the elimination of every vestige of doubt from the mind.  This may have been the outcome of revivalism’s partnership with Scottish common-sense realism in the battle against skepticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  For an example of Godbey’s rhetoric against doubt in the life of a Christian, see William B. Godbey, The Abundant Entrance: 2 Peter 1:12 (Greensboro, NC: The Apostolic Messenger Office, n.d.), 17. 

[7]For a similar account of entire sanctification, see “Experience of Seth C. Rees,” God’s Revivalist and Bible Advocate (February 21, 1901), 4.  

[8]See William B. Godbey, Mundane Restitution (Nashville, TN: Pentecostal Mission Publishing Company, 1917), 15-16. 

[9]Godbey, Autobiography, 64.  This was the principal reason why he later published numerous guides to entire sanctification–to eliminate the aimless wandering and help Christians find the experience as quickly as possible after conversion.

[10]Godbey, My Better Half, 10.  See also James McGraw’s evaluation of Godbey’s post-1868 ministry in James P. McGraw, “The Preaching of William B. Godbey,” The Preacher’s Magazine (March 1956), 7-8.

[11]William B. Godbey, Popular Evangelism (n.p., n.d.), 3.

[12]Godbey, Autobiography, 83-84.

[13]See Brasher, The Sanctified South, 68-74.

[14]Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South for the Year 1866 (Nashville, TN: Southern Methodist Publishing House, 1870), 66; Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South for the Year 1868 (Nashville, TN: Southern Methodist Publishing House, 1870), 258.

[15]Minutes of the Annual Conferences (1868), 260.  Godbey’s status as a minister was his reason for non-involvement in the conflict.  See William B. Godbey, Apostasy (Cincinnati, OH: God’s Revivalist Office, n.d.), 33.

[16]For a short biography of Emma Durham Godbey see My Better Half, cited above.  For more information on the children see William B. Godbey, Our Glorified Children! (n.p., n.d.).  Emma eventually inherited her family’s ancestral property two miles east of Perryville, Kentucky, (bounded on the north by present-day U.S. 150 and on the east by “Godbey Lane”) and this is where Godbey settled his wife shortly before his Texas campaign of 1884.  When Emma’s father died in 1889, she inherited the property and remained there until her death in 1915.  The property had been the location of the first Methodist class meeting west of the Allegheny Mountains, according to a marker on the property.  See Hamilton, William Baxter Godbey (2000), 32-33. 

[17]Godbey, Autobiography, 270.

[18]Godbey, Autobiography, 103.  Godbey pointed out that the Kentucky Conference, aware of his talents for revivalism, “drifted into the habit” of appointing a helper for Godbey’s charge–often two helpers–to free the evangelist for his travels.

[19]Godbey, Autobiography, 103-104, 280-281.  W. C. Wilson, a general superintendent in the early years of the Church of the Nazarene, recalled the prevailing attitude of Methodist bishops toward specialized evangelists: “The anti-perfectionist bishops were glad to encourage holiness preachers to enter the field of evangelism, as it spared them the embarrassment of having to send them to pastor churches that were trying to avoid having such pastors.  Evangelists expected no guarantee that they would be kept busy or that their remuneration would be sufficient to cover traveling expenses for the long distances between meetings.”  Mallalieu Archie Wilson, Well Glory!  The Life of William Columbus Wilson, 1866-1915.  Early edited manuscript, Nazarene Archives (Kansas City, MO), 37.  This manuscript was brought to the author’s attention by Dr. Stan Ingersol, Nazarene Archivist. 

[20]Hamilton, William Baxter Godbey (2000), 56.

[21]Godbey, Autobiography, 127-129; Commentary on the New Testament, 7 vols. (Cincinnati, OH:  God’s Revivalist Office, 1896-1900), vol. 5, Romans 14-18.  Notice that the pagination in this volume starts over with the Book of Romans.

[22]William B. Godbey, God’s Gospel Preacher: When, Where, How (Cincinnati, OH: God’s Revivalist Office, 1911), 11.

[23]See Godbey, Autobiography, 344-345.

[24]Godbey, Autobiography, 288-289; Hamilton, William Baxter Godbey (2000), 56-57; see also Barry W. Hamilton, “Preaching the ‘Narrow’ Way: William B. Godbey and the Homiletical Agenda of the Early Holiness Movement,” Methodist History XXXVIII, no. 1 (October 1999), 40-52.  When Alma White was converted in a Kentucky schoolhouse revival in 1878 under Godbey’s preaching, she recounted that “some were so convicted that they left the room and threw up their suppers, and staggered back into the house as pale as death.”  Alma White, The Story of My Life, 5 vols. (Zarephath, NJ: Pillar of Fire, 1919-1943), 1:217f.

[25]Godbey, God’s Gospel Preacher, 13.  Godbey’s homiletical style was not original–his graphic descriptions of Scriptural ‘scenes’ such as the torments of Hell and the sufferings of the crucified Jesus were deeply rooted in Methodist revival preaching.  Godbey may have inherited this style from his family’s rich Methodist heritage and from other revival preachers in rural Kentucky.  Godbey mastered the techniques of this style of preaching–a style that flourished in rural Kentucky–and carried this emotional style into modern contexts, such as urban Southern Methodist churches, where he was regarded as “crazy.”  For further discussion of Methodist religious language, see Steven D. Cooley, “Applying the Vagueness of Language: Poetic Strategies and Campmeeting Piety in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” Church History 63:4 (December 1994), 570-586.

[26]For example, see Godbey, Autobiography, 100-101, 277-278.

[27]Godbey, Autobiography, 341.  See also Bud Robinson, “God Ran a River Through My Heart,” sermon preached in 1941 at Asbury College (Wilmore, KY).  Recorded on an audiocassette obtained by the author in 1979 from the Minister’s Tape Club (Kansas City, MO: Nazarene Publishing House, 1979).  The audiocassette copy of the sermon was produced from a wire recording in the archives of Trevecca Nazarene University (Nashville, TN).  Robinson recollected that people in the region of Alvarado (TX) at that time were saying (in reference to Godbey)–“there’s a crazy man going around preaching holiness.”

[28]For example, see George McCullough, History of the Holiness Movement in Texas, and the Fanaticism Which Followed (Aquilla, TX: J. H. Padgett, 1886), 71-72.

[29]For more information on Hardin Wallace see Macum Phelan, A History of the Expansion of Methodism in Texas, 1867-1902 (Dallas, TX: Mathis, Van Nort and Company, 1937), 118.

[30]Texas Christian Advocate (22 November 1879).

[31]For a detailed account of the “fanaticisms” of the “Corsicana Enthusiasts” see McCullough, History of the Holiness Movement in Texas.  On page 35 McCullough mentions the teaching of this sect that if husband and wife should disagree over sanctification, they should separate.  Apparently this teaching was aimed at circumstances where one spouse (usually the woman) had experienced entire sanctification, and the other spouse (usually the husband) would not permit the profession (required for retention) of the experience.  The Corsicana Enthusiasts reasoned that the experience of entire sanctification took precedence over matrimony, to the extent that if husband and wife could not live in harmony over its profession in the household, they should separate.  This teaching challenged male dominance in domestic relations, brought down the indignation of nearby communities on the Corsicana Enthusiasts, and infused the term “sanctification” with overtones of religious fanaticism and domestic rebellion. 

[32]Walter N. Vernon, Robert W. Sledge, Robert C. Monk, and Norman W. Spellman, The Methodist Excitement in Texas: A History (Dallas, TX: Texas United Methodist Society, 1984), 144.  See also George W. Tyler, The History of Bell County (Waco, TX: Texian Press, 1966 reprint of 1936 edition), 392.

[33]For more information on the Belton Sanctificationists see Sally L. Kitch, Chaste Liberation: Celibacy and Female Cultural Status. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989; This Strange Society of Women: Reading the Letters and Lives of the Woman’s Commonwealth.  Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1992; and Patricia Anne Florence, “In God We Trust: The Woman’s Commonwealth of Belton, Texas,” M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Dallas, 1998. 

[34]“We found in that country deep and inveterate hostility to sanctification, resulting mainly from a fatal fanaticism which had visited the land in preceding years, preaching a counterfeit sanctification, which required husband and wife to separate.”  Godbey, Autobiography, 328. 

[35]Godbey, Autobiography, 353-354.

[36]The author speculates that innumerable women in revival meetings sought religious experiences as a means for dealing with domestic oppression.  Women in Godbey’s meetings may have viewed sanctification as a means of inwardly dealing with abusive or alcoholic husbands.  Sanctification may have promised spiritual transcendence over the hardships of an intolerable household.

[37]Godbey, Commentary on the New Testament, 1:4.

[38]For a biography of Knapp see A. M. Hills, A Hero of Faith and Prayer; Or, Life of Rev. Martin Wells Knapp.  Cincinnati, OH: Mrs. M. W. Knapp, Mount of Blessings, 1902.  See the prayer and sermon given by Rev. Godbey at Knapp’s funeral on pages 300-310, and the “Tribute of the Bible Commentator, W. B. Godbey,” on pages 403-404.  See also William Kostlevy, “Nor Silver, Nor Gold: The Burning Bush Movement and the Communitarian Holiness Vision.”  Ph.D. diss., University of Notre Dame, 1996.  Prior to 1896, Godbey also published Woman Preacher (Louisville, KY: Pentecostal Publishing Company, 1891), which urged women to preach and testify–but did not deal with the issue of the ordination of women.

[39]Melvin Easterday Dieter, The Holiness Revival of the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed., Studies in Evangelicalism no. 1 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1996), 98.

[40]Godbey, Autobiography, 366-367. 

[41]See William B. Godbey, Holy Land (Cincinnati, OH: God’s Revivalist Office, 1895), 5.

[42]For a discussion of the “populist hermeneutic” which figured prominently in Godbey’s publications, see Stephen John Lennox, “Biblical Interpretation in the American Holiness Movement,” (Ph.D. diss., Drew University, 1992), 26-79.

[43]Godbey, Commentary on the New Testament, 1:9.  Godbey’s commentaries began with the Book of Revelation and moved backwards to the Gospel accounts.  This highlights the prominence which he gave to premillennialism in his teaching.  Godbey chose not to make his commentaries “critical” but wrote them in the language of the “holiness people.”  He intended the commentaries as a means for preparing laity to preach the Gospel to the whole world and thus hasten the Second Coming of Christ.  See Godbey, Autobiography, 372.

[44]Godbey stated in this book that “the Commentaries were the real incentive” for his international travels.  William B. Godbey, Footprints of Jesus in the Holy Land (Cincinnati, OH: God’s Revivalist Office, Mount of Blessings, 1900), 170-171.  One of the best accounts of Godbey’s global tours is Around the World, Garden of Eden, Latter Day Prophecies and Missions.  Mount of Blessings, Cincinnati, OH: God’s Revivalist Office, 1907.  See also William B. Godbey, The Apocalyptic Angel.  Cincinnati, OH: God’s Revivalist Press, 1914.

[45]See William B. Godbey, Translation of the New Testament from the Original Greek.  “A KPOF Christian Classic Reprint.”  (Westminster, CO: Belleview College, 1991 [1901] ), 5-7, 372-373.  M. W. Knapp published the first edition (1901) in Cincinnati, Ohio.

[46]Reacting to speculations in nineteenth-century “scientific” publications (especially those of Thomas Dick) that life might exist on distant planets, Godbey himself speculated that if these distant inhabitants were under “probation,” transfigured saints might be dispatched from heaven to preach the gospel to them.  See William B. Godbey, Mundane Restitution, 50.  Some of his odd personal habits were recounted in an interview with one of his former students, which included a preoccupation with thrift, as well as his views on “celestial evangelism.”  Mrs. Francis R. Guy, interview with the author, June 1978.

[47]William B. Godbey, My Funeral (Greensboro, NC: Apostolic Messenger Office, n.d.), 32.  For further discussion of Godbey’s eccentric personal habits, see Hamilton, William Baxter Godbey: Itinerant Apostle of the Holiness Movement, 110-115.

[48]Mrs. Martin Wells Knapp, “Into the Beautiful Beyond,” God’s Revivalist and Bible Advocate, vol. XXXII, no. 40 (October 7, 1920), 2.

[49]H. C. Morrison, “The Ascension of Dr. W. B. Godbey,” Pentecostal Herald (September 29, 1920), 2-3.

[50]See Mallalieu Archie Wilson, Well Glory! The Life of William Columbus Wilson, 1866-1915 (Early edited manuscript in Nazarene Archives, Kansas City, MO), 57-59.  All cited portions belong to the edited manuscript, and do not appear in the published work. 

[51]“He [Godbey] boasted that he had never tasted coffee, tea, chocolate, or Nervine.  He boasted also that he had never attended a barbecue, dance frolic, theatrical, or circus.  When he received the ‘completion of his conversion,’ which he later identified as ‘entire sanctification,’ he not only quit the Masonic Lodge, but dropped all life insurance.  He preached a thoroughly un-Wesleyan doctrine of Pre-millenialism [sic] which was widely accepted by holiness people in the South and by most fundamentalists everywhere.  Again and again in his books he predicted that the Second Coming. . would occur in 1923 at the very latest.”  Wilson, Well Glory!, 58-59.

[52]Wilson, Well Glory!, 60. 

[53]This misunderstanding may have resulted from Godbey’s intention to provide revival crowds, as well as his readers, with as much incentive as possible to seek the experience of entire sanctification.  Pressing the importance of the experience to his audiences, Godbey may have misled people into thinking that God required entire sanctification for entrance into heaven.

Furthermore, there is no evidence in his publications that he ever tried to clear up this impression.  For Godbey, heaven could admit only those who had the experience of entire sanctification.  See Godbey, Cherubim and Flaming Sword, 97-99.  Godbey would not deny admission into heaven for Catholics, Mormons or adherents of other religions–however, everyone was required to have a “clean heart.”  In his exposition of premillennial eschatology, Godbey also taught that only those who had experienced entire sanctification would participate in the ‘Rapture,’ as the result of his ‘holiness hermeneutic’ that saw ‘doubleness’ as a biblical theme.  “In regeneration, Christ comes into the heart the first time homogeneously with his first advent into the world.  In sanctification, He comes into the heart the second time to sit on the throne of His glory and reign forever. . .  Nothing but entire sanctification, which is wrought by the spiritual Christ in His second coming into the heart, can prepare us to meet our glorious coming King.”  Godbey, Commentary on the New Testament 2:122-123.

[54]Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (Nashville, TN: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1921), 56-57.