“Trouble Coming for Oswego. The ‘Fire Baptized Holiness association’ has been organized at Oswego.” Thus read the advertisement in the Kansas newspaper, the Baxter Springs News, in 1904. It was not without warrant either. This strange organization was spreading like wildfire in the South and Midwestern states. It was known for one thing: craziness. Five years earlier in 1899, the Alexandrian Gazette reported:
[A farmer named] Musser is so taken with the fire baptized doctrines that he believed he could fly by faith, and in the attempt had a disastrous fall on the barn floor. At one of the meetings Musser asserted that he had buried the devil in a hole, but that the evil one was not yet dead.
Yet out of this organization birthed one of the largest churches of all times, the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, which has shaped much of Christianity today. And the IPHC’s doctrine is rooted in the theology produced by the Fire Baptized Holiness Church (FBHC) over a hundred years ago. It is the purpose of this article to explore the history and theology of the FBHC and contrast it with the IPHC today.
A Brief History of the Fire Baptized Holiness Church
B.H. Irwin: The Man with the Vision
The history of the Fire Baptized Holiness Church begins with B. H. Irwin. In 1854, he was born in Mercer County Missouri and in 1863 moved to Nebraska where eventually he practiced law. He grew up Baptist but was not converted until 1879. Once converted, he pursued the ministry in the Baptist church, but he remained discontented with his spiritual life. Hearing of the doctrine of entire sanctification from members of the Iowa Holiness Association, he decided to pursue it with all his might. He received entire sanctification on May 16, 1891. Soon, he became enamored with the theology of the Methodists and he joined the Wesleyan Methodist Church, studying its doctrine in earnest. Irwin was captivated by John Fletcher’s statement of the sanctification experience:
If we will [desire to] attain the full power of godliness, and be peaceable as the Prince of Peace, and merciful as our heavenly Father, let us go on to the perfection and glory of Christianity; let us enter the full dispensation of the Spirit. Till we live in the Pentecostal glory of the church: till we are baptized with the Holy Ghost: till the Spirit of burning and the fire of Divine love have melted us down, and we have been truly cast into the softest mould [sic] of the Gospel.
From this statement and others, Irwin began to realize that there was a post-entire-sanctification experience when a believer was baptized with the Spirit and with fire. Irwin began seeking it and in 1895 he experienced it:
I saw in the room above me a cross of pure, transparent fire. It was all fire. I have been able to see that cross in the same place above me every moment from that time to this. No fire was ever kindled in earth was half as pure, so beautiful, so divinely transparent as that. In a few moments the whole room where we were lying seemed to be all luminous with seven-fold light, and a little later still the very heavens were all aglow with transparent flame. The very walls of the room seemed to be on fire.
After his experience, he began to preach the fire baptism and travel all over the southeast. Many flocked to hear him speak and they experienced fire baptism for themselves even though he was staunchly resisted by other Methodists. Irwin described the meetings this way:
The congregations were large and the order perfect[.] I have never seen it better[.] We had “music and dancing,” shouts and screams of victory, hot thunderbolts and slant lighting, billows of white fire, and devil shaking dynamite[.]
Irwin’s preaching was severe. He railed against fashionable clothing on men and women, especially against neckties (I tend to agree with him on this point). He condemned the use of alcohol and tobacco and called the people to separate from worldly amusements. The result was fanatical reactions by his followers. For example, after one meeting in Pennsylvania a newspaper reported:
The evangelists are severe on the finery and silk dresses worn by women, and one young woman was so worked up over their statements that she put all of her good dresses in the fire. Believing their assertions that hogs are unclean, Musser [a local farmer] has disposed of his large herd.
To be continued…