Slain in the Spirit: Historical Witness

by Jan 12, 2024Church History, Ecclesiology0 comments

Historical Witness

In this little historical overview I try to focus on occurrences of such manifestations in evangelical and holiness movements not commonly noted in the history books. In the second half, I look at the evolution of how the church has understood the experience.  

The idea of being overwhelmed by God’s presence to the point of being incapacitated is not new. Such experiences have been reported throughout church history. Evidence goes as far back as the experience of Perpetua in the second century. Perpetua, in the testimony of her martyrdom, was “roused from what seemed like sleep, so completely had she been in the Spirit and in ecstasy.”[1] Francis MacNutt claims that an experience by of a 14th-century Dominican monk is one example of being slain in the Spirit. [2]  In the high middle ages, it came to be known as ‘ecstasy’, becoming understood within Christian mysticism as one step on the path to spiritual growth. So for centuries it was just a thing that could happen and not much focus was placed on it other than as an under marker of spiritual growth. (Well, I don’t believe it’s a mark of spiritual growth, but I do find it interesting that they had a category for it.

The phenomenon became prominent in the 1700-1800 revivals in America. Edwards, Wesley, and Whitfield all had similar manifestations happen in their meetings. So, after the First Great Awakening in the 1730s, the idea of falling under the power of God was common knowledge in many churches but it dwindled as revival fires died down. 

The manifestation popped back up in the Kentucky revivals of 1800-1801 (also known as the Cane Ridge Revival) involving many groups, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians.[3]  That was back when pentecostals and charismatics were called enthusiastic methodists and baptists. Before that they were just called Monk Maximus or Mystic Mike.  

In the mid 1800s, the Methodist circuit riding preacher Peter Cartwright had this manifestation happen often as he ministered. As Cartwright states in his autobiography, “I have seen more than a hundred sinners fall like dead men.” Another time he was ministering and 30 mins into his sermon, “the power of God fell on the congregation in such a manner as is seldom seen; the people fell in every direction, right and left, front and rear. It was supposed that not less than three hundred fell like dead men in mighty battle; and there was no need of calling mourners, for they were strewed all over the camp-ground.  Cartwright’s idea of a ‘rare’ show of God’s might is when God laid waste to an army of people. (Which makes me realize I do not believe big enough in the Holy Spirit and gospel power!) His ministry was often accompanied by people falling under God’s power, although it was never formalized as a focus of the ministry. [4]

Moving on with more evidence, the Welsh revival of 1859 was accompanied by swooning as “waves of power often overwhelmed” people.[5]  In the 1860s, Andrew Murray almost missed the revival for which He had been praying because of such physical manifestations. He started to speak out against what he saw as disorder until a visitor rebutted him by saying, “You can’t stop what the Lord is doing,” and then explained to him the wisdom of J. Edwards and the testimony of similar manifestations of power and prayer that were happening in England and America. [6] 

Instances of falling under the power of the Spirit also occurred periodically at Christian and Missionary Alliance meetings. A notable example comes from the ministry of A.B. Simpson. In 1885, Simpson, the founder of the C&MA, received what we would call today a “word of knowledge” that someone was resisting the Lord. A woman responded, saying it was her. She came forward, and as Simpson anointed her for healing, she was overcome, falling under the power of the Spirit seemingly unconscious for about half an hour, and she received a healing.[7] In 1897, at a camp meeting in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Christian and Missionary Alliance Minister Dean Peck preached six services in three days and described: “At service after service … I saw people fall as dead under the power of God.” [8] 

Further, manifestations of falling also occurred during the 1907 revival at A. B. Simpson’s Gospel Tabernacle, apparently with Simpson’s pastoral approval. In the editorial of the newsletter, the testimony was found where Simpson gave some scriptural proofs and advice on cultivating the experience.[9]  

I could also mention, R.A. Torrey’s testimony of people falling under the power of God during his ministry.[10]  How about his own testimony of falling under the power of the Spirit when he was first filled with the Spirit.[11] We could go on to tell of the Baptist China Mission revival (we have an episode on that), or later, the Presbyterian missionary Jonathan Goforth. He makes reference in his book ‘By My Spirit’ to the phenomenon occurring in the revivals surrounding his ministry.[12] 

Organization in the 20th Century 

The evolution of how the church has understood the experience really begins at the start of the 20th century with the focus on altar ministry among Protestant revivalist traditions, both holiness and baptistic. Before the 20th century, being slain in the Spirit was described as a spontaneous falling down during revival meetings as opposed to falling down when touched by someone or receiving prayer from someone. The transformation of the phenomenon is simple to see when you look at the historical process involved and the motivation employed. In the middle ages, it happened predominantly during private prayer time, or when receiving the Eucharist, common times when individuals expected to meet with God. During the Awakenings of the 1700 and 1800’s, it commonly happened during the preaching, the time when the people most expected to meet with God. 

In the 20th century, particularly during the healing revivals in the ‘20-50’s, it became connected with healing evangelists praying for people–seen as a time when the people most expected to meet with God. During the charismatic revival, it was seen when someone was receiving prayer from someone else, often the minister or someone trusted to pray for people. This prayer line became a common time when people most expected to meet with God. 

Through the 20th century, the manifestation was connected to the ministry of healing and laying hands and praying for healing; this continued through the 20th century. One of the first written defenses of the manifestation was from a Presbyterian Greek professor T. J. McCrossan. McCrossan is cautious in his writings about accepting all supernatural manifestations, but he defends this one with particular force. In Bodily Healing and the Atonement, he gives an argument for the place of such phenomena but not the necessity of them for healing: 

“Hundreds are healed, who do not fall under this power, because they simply trust God’s promises; and it is the prayer of faith that heals. Going under this power seems, however, to bring an extra spiritual blessing… This power is not hypnotism… This is not devil power.”[13] 

In his work, McCrossan spoke not just from scripture defending the plausibility that God would do such a thing. But also from his own personal and ministry experience, where he saw countless people fall under God’s power. [14]  

No one could know when the power of God would overpower someone yet measures were put in place for the safety of the one receiving prayer. For example, having someone behind them in case they fall, to catch them. One pastor I knew affectionately referred to two “bear-like” deacons in his church, as Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra. 

Due to measures being established, the manifestation became contextualized into the church’s altar ministry. These measures were both practical and orderly, and, over time they added to the protocols for altar ministry that have now become part of the altar liturgy in many Pentecostal churches. Given the phenomenon often happening in connection with the practice of laying on hands and praying for people, it follows that it became an experience associated most closely with altar ministry. 

Despite the phenomena happening in Pentecostal and charismatic churches during altar ministry, public knowledge of the phenomenon was fairly limited. That is, until the height of the charismatic movement in America. In the 1970’s, the phenomenon was associated with the ministries of Kathryn Kuhlman, and Charles and Frances Hunter. Kuhlman is perhaps the one most responsible for the entrance of the practice in public view, principally because her meetings were so characterized by the phenomenon. [15] In the 90’s it was sensationalized in the ministry of Benny Hinn and other para-church healing and evangelistic ministries. Yet, in many ways, the practice remained the same from Kuhlman onward. In sociological terms, the modern understanding of the manifestation was seen as distinct from healing, but was equated with the kind of Holy Ghost power that brought healing. 

The 20th century saw considerable development in how the manifestation was understood. People’s views were influenced by the historical developments in church liturgy during the 20th century and the practices strongly associated with being slain in the Spirit were factors that shape people’s view of the experience. Furthermore, through its long association with prayer and healing ministries, two shifts galvanized the idea of such phenomena becoming formalized. 

  1. Being slain in the spirit was considered a blessing. In modern pentecostalism and charismatic circles, the experience is a spiritual one that should be sought. Almost all see the experience as deeply spiritual in nature, and afterward a general euphoria is present. Characteristics of the “blessing” of being “slain in the Spirit” includes a distinct sense of God’s presence with an accompanying bodily weakness and heightened euphoria. Sometimes those who fall under the power reportedly feel no pain, even if they bump their heads on the way down should “catchers” fail to do their job. On many occasions the experience is accompanied by tongues; at other times laughing, weeping, or praising God are manifest.  
  2. Through the example of Kuhlman and others, the causal connection between being prayed for and people falling under the power was strengthened. It was understood that if the power of God was on someone praying, the one receiving prayer may experience being “slain in the spirit”. 

The historical development in church liturgy and the innovation in practice strongly associated with being slain in the Spirit has led some to view it as a Spirit-initiated sacramental experience. It is this sacramental view we will look at next week.


1.) The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, Trans.  W. H. Shewring, (London, Sheed and Ward, 1931). 40.

2.) Francis MacNutt, The Power to Heal (The Catholic Book Club, 1978) 194–95

3.) Eddie L. Hyatt, 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2002), 114-117.

4.) Peter Cartwright, Autobiography of Peter Cartwright (New York, NY, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1956), quotes are from pg. 43, 72 but also see examples on pg. 68, 88-89, 102-104, 130, 143, 161.

5.) Eifion Evans, Revival Comes to Wales (Bryntirion, Bridgend, Wales: Evangelical Press of Wales, 1959, 1967), 70.

6.) Leona Choy, Andrew and Emma Murray: An Intimate Portrait of Their Marriage and Ministry (Winchester, VA: Golden Morning Publishing, 2000), 85-90.

7.) “Healing of Mrs. Williams,” Christian and Missionary Alliance Weekly, May 9, 1890, 295-296.

8.) “Alliance Notes,” Christian and Missionary Alliance Weekly, Aug. 11, 1897, 137; Dean Peck, “Field Notes,” Christian and Missionary Alliance Weekly, Aug. 11, 1897, 137.

9.) W.A. Cramer, “Pentecost at Cleveland,” Christian and Missionary Alliance Weekly 27 (April 27, 1907), 201; A. B. Simpson, “Editorial,” Christian and Missionary Alliance Weekly 27 (June 8, 1907), 205.

10.) R. A. Torrey, The Power of Prayer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 46-47.

11.) Christian and Missionary Alliance Weekly, Feb. 10, 1906, 84.

12.)  Jonathan Goforth, By My Spirit (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1942, reprint 1964), 9-10.

13.)  J. McCrossan, Bodily Healing and the Atonement (Youngstown, OH: Clement Hubbard, 1930), 109-110.

14.)  Charles S. Price, See God (Pasadena, CA: Charles S. Price Publishing House, 1943), 80; compare T. J. McCrossan, Speaking with Other Tongues: Sign or Gift – Which? (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1927), 34.

15.)  Jamie Buckingham, Daughter of Destiny (1976, Bridge-Logos reprint 1999) 40, 41, 224–29