Bishop King: The Early Years*
Joseph Hillery King was born August 11, 1869 in Rockmill Township, Anderson County, South Carolina. His father, a sharecropper, kept the family in hovels, with every member working hard from an early age. Due in part to the heavy workload on the farm, and also to the scarcity of pastors in this rural area, the King family did not attend church regularly.
They did, however, occasionally attend Baptist meetings, and later King would report that his family once attended a Holiness Convention, owing largely to its proximity to the King home.
Toward the beginning of 1883, when Joseph was thirteen, the King family moved to Franklin County, Georgia. There he came under the influence of a Rev. W.O. Butler, a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church (South). Butler was sanctified and he preached the doctrine over the Carnesville Circuit.
On August 11, 1885, Rev. William Asbury Dodge conducted a campmeeting near King's home. Dodge was the Vice-President of the Holiness Association of the North Georgia Conference. The sermon was a powerful call to salvation, and King was among those seeking at the altar. King referred to this salvation experience as his double birthday since it was his sixteenth. He joined the Methodist Episcopal Church (South) on August 17, 1885.
A Holiness convention was conducted in this area from October 20-25, 1885 by Rev. A.J. Jarrell who was President of the Holiness Association of the North Georgia Conference. William Dodge was also present at the convention. On Ffriday, October 23 a consecration service was held at 8:00 a.m. for those who were seeking sanctification. Speaking at this service was B. Weed Gorham, of Iowa.
King dealt with something of a tortuous spiritual journey which would take him to "fire-baptism" and then to "Spirit baptism." Though King was prone to doubt the finality of the sanctification experience, he later came to interpret these bouts of doubt and depression as a natural desire for Spirit baptism.
He also believed that he was finally sanctified, once and for all, in the experience which he then called fire-baptism. It was this desire for a spiritually fulfilling experience that eventually led him to the experience of Spirit baptism. It was his interpretation of this experience that led him to accept and articulate the theology known as "pentecostal holiness."
In November of 1885, Rev. A.J. Hughes was appointed to serve as the pastor of the Carnesville Circuit. He was not a holiness preacher, nor did he believe in the "second blessing or sanctification as an experience received subsequent to regeneration." Rev. J.H. Baxter was appointed Presiding Elder of the district. He, too, opposed the doctrine of holiness. These men taught that there was only one experience of grace. Baxter had even written a pamphlet denouncing scriptural sanctification. The holiness ranks thinned out as King watched in silent pain.
At the Quarterly Conference of the district in May of 1887, King applied for an Exhorter's License. He was turned down.
Because he was otherwise qualified to receive this license, King always felt that his rejection was based on his strong commitment to holiness theology. King continued to preach in spite of this setback, and was eventually licensed by the Methodist Episcopal Church (South) in Augusta, Georgia during the Fall of 1890. This accounts for the dissolution of the King marriage because Willie Irene King refused to follow him into the ministry. King fulfilled his vow to remain celibate as long as his fist wife lived.
In February 1891, King traveled to Atlanta, Georgia. There he had an encouraging encounter with the Marietta Street Methodist Episcopal Church (North) and united with them. With their encouragement and help, the scope of King's ministry increased dramatically. In March 1891 he was licensed to preach and in May he became a junior pastor. King began immediately to prepare for the courses of study which would enable him to advance to full connection. By January 1894 King had passed the second year examinations, and he was admitted to full connection with the Annual Conference. Later that year King became familiar with U.S. Grant University in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which was operated by the Freedman's Aid Society. King enrolled in the School of Theology in January, 1895.
The Annual Conference was held in Atlanta, Georgia in January 1896. King finished the courses of study prescribed by the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) and received his Elder's orders. He was ordained by Bishops R.S. Foster and W.F. Mallelieu and was appointed to the Lookout Mountain Circuit so that he could continue his education at Chattanooga.
In January, 1897, King was elected Assistant Secretary of the Conference, and he was again appointed to the Lookout Mountain Circuit. On May 11 of that same year, he graduated from the University, completing the entire three year course of study.
When King left the Annual Conference in December, 1897 to take charge of the Simpson Circuit in Northeastern Georgia, he was twenty-eight years old. He was a graduate of the School of Theology and a fully ordained minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was Assistant Secretary of his Conference and a member of the Examining Committee.
Prior to King's arrival at his new charge in December, 1897, meetings had been conducted by holiness preachers and almost all of the membership professed to be in the experience of sanctification. In addition to the doctrine of sanctification, here King found the doctrinal reflection of Benjamin Hardwin Irwin, of Lincoln, Nebraska. King's initial reaction was to label the teaching as new and strange. He denounced the doctrine as unsound and one of religious extravagance.
In January, 1898, King attended a meeting held at Pennington's Chapel outside of Royston, Georgia. This meeting was conducted by men of the Wesleyan Methodist Church who espoused the doctrine of fire-baptism. J.H. King was deeply moved by what he encountered at these meeting. Afterwards he professed to have received the experience of fire-baptism.
At this time, Irwin decided to consolidate his various state associations into a single enterprise. His first national convention was held in Anderson, South Carolina, from July 28 to August 8, 1898. King attended this meeting with many others, and there he united with the newly formed Fire-Baptized Holiness Church. King came to interpret his fire-baptism as the experience of sanctification. From that time on, King did not doubt that he was entirely sanctified, once and for all, at Pennington Chapel. He held to this conviction to the end of his life.
King attended the General Convention of the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church in March, 1899 at Royston. He had spent most of the last year preaching fire-baptism in various meetings. After leaving Royston, he traveled to his new pastorate in Toronto, Canada. One year later in March, 1900, King received a letter from Benjamin Harden Irwin himself asking King to come to Lincoln, Nebraska to be the Assistant Editor of the Church's paper, Live Coals of Fire.
In June, 1900, word was flashed throughout the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church that Irwin had defected. A General Convention was called by King, at Olmitz, Iowa, for July 1, 1900, in order to elect a new General Overseer. On July 2, 1900, J.H. King was unanimously elected to this point. King worked tirelessly for the next few years, traveling and preaching throughout the United States and Canada. His purpose was to heal the wounds of Irwin's fall and consolidate the Church's functions. He became the editor of the Church's paper, and he used this medium also to spread the doctrine of Spirit baptism as the understood it at that time. During his tenure, King persuaded the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church to denounce fire-baptism as an experience subsequent to sanctification.
In September 1906, King conducted special services in Ontario, Canada, for Rev. Goff. King pronounced Goff's doctrine as being "in perfect harmony with that of the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church." On the trip home, King traveled with a friend, Rev. A.H. Argue. Argue told King about the new revival which was in progress in California, of which King had no prior knowledge. Argue referred to the group as "Apostolic Faith" people. Argue left behind the paper produced by the Azusa Street revival which King read diligently. Though King had renounced the doctrine of a subsequent fire-baptism, he was still open to the idea of Spirit baptism subsequent to sanctification.
The person responsible for the promulgation of this new doctrine in the Southwestern region was a minister of the Holiness Church of North Carolina, Rev. Gaston Barnabas Cashwell. Cashwell had departed from Dunn, North Carolina in November, 1906, traveling by rail enroute to Los Angeles, California. At the Azusa Street Mission Cashwell received this new experience of a Spirit baptism at which he spoke on tongues.
Cashwell returned to North Carolina immediately, and began a meeting in Dunn, December 31, 1906. This revival continued through January, 1907 and heavily influenced the member of the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church and the Holiness Church of North Carolina. Among those present at the Dunn meeting were members of the congregation in Toccoa, Georgia where King was technically serving as interim pastor. It was upon his return from Canada that these folks encountered King with this message.
Cashwell arrived in Toccoa in mid-February of 1907 which prompted King to oppose the new teaching both publicaly and privately. As editor of Live Coals, King published a lengthy article by J. Hudson Ballard which used scripture to refute this doctrinal innovation. The point that pained King was the insistence of the necessity of speaking in tongues as the exclusive evidence of Spirit baptism. King felt that he bested the new doctrine at each confrontation.
Despite these doctrinal reservations, King was open to an experience of Spirit baptism but hardly as a shallow follower.
On February 14, 1907 King secluded himself in order to study the controversy. King started with Dean Alford's commentary based on the New Testament Greek text. King was stunned. Alford indicated that tongues were not expressly mentioned in all of the Acts account of Spirit baptism, but tongues were definitely implied according to the Greek text. Further study and prayer on this point from other commentaries led King to doubt and then reject all of his own previous arguments.
King began to pray and seek in earnest this new experience. He slept little that night, and the next day continued to fast and to pray. At an afternoon service on February 15, 1907 King received his Spirit baptism and spoke in tongues.
Rushing to Royston, King informed other leaders of the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church of the change in his doctrinal position and of his own experience. This explanation took the entire night of February 15, 1907. On the following morning, these men accepted King's explanation and went to Toccoa themselves in order to seek this experience. Cashwell was then invited to conduct further services in Royston which was accomplished in March.
The following year in Anderson, South Carolina, at the General Convention of the Fire-Baptized Church, the Articles of Faith were officially changed to reflect the new doctrine and experience. King would preach and teach this understanding of Spirit baptism until his death in 1946.
*A fuller treatment of Bishop King by Dr. David Alexander was published in Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies (Fall 1986) under the title "Bishop J.H. King and the Emergence of Holiness Pentecostalism."