Evangelicals have long wrestled with the problem of having the doctrine of the Trinity functioning in their lives as an intellectual problem rather than as the confession of an experienced reality (see previous posts on Bunyan and Watts). This tension has come to expression repeatedly in the devotional life of evangelicals. As I have scanned our history in search of a trinitarian spirituality, one of my favorite discoveries is the experience of American Holiness evangelist Amanda Smith (1837-1915), recorded in her autobiography The Story of the Lord’s Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith, the Colored Evangelist.
The full text is online, and is well worth reading for a number of reasons. Smith was redeemed out of slavery as a child by her father, a freed man who spent the rest of his life earning money to buy his own family. Amanda Smith had a powerful ministry in the Holiness tradition, and her spiritual emphasis will be familiar to anyone who has read Phoebe Palmer. Smith’s tone of voice is singular and striking. She had several intriguing visionary experiences, rebuked the devil, and preached salvation and sanctification all over.
Without explaining what provoked her, Smith records that she “became greatly exercised about the Trinity.” “I could not seem to understand just how there could exist three distinct persons, and yet one. I thought every day and prayed for light, but didn’t seem to get help. I read the Bible, but no help came.” Smith records the two weeks during which her anxiety mounted and she felt guided toward a definite experience of personal revelation, a kind of intellectual counterpart to the experience of entire sanctification expected by Holiness people in America. Encouraged that “every blessing you get from God is by faith,” Smith asked herself, “if by faith, why not now?”
I turned around and knelt down by an old trunk that stood in the corner of the room, and I told the Lord that I wanted to understand the Trinity, and that I was afraid of fanaticism, and I wanted Him to make it clear to me for His own sake. I don’t know how long I prayed, but O, how my soul was filled with light under the great baptism that came upon me. I came near falling prostrate, but bore up when God revealed Himself so clearly to me, and I have understood it ever since. I can’t just explain it to others, but God made me understand it so I have had no question since. Praise the Lord! Then He showed me three other things…
Smith undeniably had a powerful spiritual experience centered on the doctrine of the Trinity, but it is equally clear that the problem her experience solved for her is the problem of how the doctrine itself can make sense. In a single ineffable moment, a “great baptism,” she leapt the divide between doctrine and life. Perhaps if she had been able to “explain it to others,” her explanation would have laid bare the evangelical sub-structure of trinitarian commitment; perhaps this is what God made her understand to her own intellectual satisfaction. As it stands, however, the implicit advice from Smith’s experience seems to be that troubled believers should likewise “pray through” to clarity and peace over this teaching. That is what you could expect a Holiness preacher to advocate, since that tradition empahsizes acts of total consecration, praying through to a definite experience, instantaneous gifts given by God which take you to another level of spiritual experience. In this case, the experience is comprehension of a hard doctrine.