A Few Words about “Slain in the Spirit” as a Spiritual Experience
For those of you readers who don’t know the meaning of this phrase—“slain in the Spirit”—I will briefly define or explain it. (I’m not sure it can be “defined,” as such, but I can explain what happens during it but not necessarily why.)
Especially during the 20th century (but continuing to today), throughout the world, many evangelical and especially Pentecostal-charismatic evangelists have claimed the ability to cause people they pray for to fall down without willing it to happen. This experience has become a hallmark of the Pentecostal-charismatic renewal movements even though it has older roots in the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries. (I am not aware, however, of any evangelists before the 20th century who made it a practice; before the 20th century accounts of it happening describe spontaneous falling down during revival meetings as opposed to falling down when touched by an evangelist.)
Here is my rough description of the experience which I have witnessed “close up” numerous times and experienced myself on a few occasions (long ago): An evangelist, usually Pentecostal or charismatic, invites people in his or her audience, during a revival or healing meeting, to come forward for prayer for some kind of healing or “blessing.” People wanting to be prayed for form a line, walk across the stage or platform toward the evangelist, and the evangelist “lays hands on them” while praying for them. Sometimes the laying on of the evangelist’s hands is a mere touch and sometimes (as I have observed) it is something more. However, in all the times I have seen it, the various evangelists did not, as often claimed by critics, “push the person down.” I have never seen that. Perhaps it happens, but when/if that happens most Pentecostal-charismatic Christians would immediately turn away from that evangelist as “a fake.” (I speak here only from my own personal observations and experiences growing up in the Pentecostal and charismatic movements and attending numerous revival and healing meetings and knowing what Pentecostal and charismatic leaders would say.)
If there is any “normal” experience of being “slain in the Spirit” it is that the person being prayed for, touched by the evangelist (usually on the forehead), falls straight backwards; usually the person does not kneel or crumple to the floor. Although I have seen the “crumpling to the floor” phenomenon as well. If there is any “mark” of authenticity for this experience it is that the person being “slain in the Spirit” falls straight backwards without bending his or her knees. Because this can hurt (of course), most evangelists who expect this to happen when they pray for people have someone “on hand” to catch the person and lay them gently down. Some of these people have on hand pieces of cloth to cover the “slain” person’s legs—especially for women.
I have personally observed this phenomenon in many varieties. Sometimes it happens only to one person or a few during a “prayer service” in which a pastor or evangelist prays for people. Other times I have seen masses of people—literally scores—fall down. (One variation on the norm that I have not personally observed “up close” but have seen on television is an evangelist “throwing” the Holy Spirit at people in which case some of them fall down. This was harshly criticized by Pentecostal-charismatic leaders for its sensationalism and apparent manipulation.)
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Now, to those of you who are reading this and thinking very negative thoughts about it, I will quote biographer Daniel Epstein who said in his biography of Aimee Semple McPherson—one of the most celebrated and controversial of all 20th century evangelists—“Don’t blaspheme the sacrament you don’t understand.” Almost every religious tradition has some “sacrament” (by which Epstein meant religious experience) that outsiders to that tradition consider weird. I well remember, for example, my wife’s Lutheran grandmother, at a lakeside picnic in Minnesota, being shocked and upset by the sight of a group of evangelical Christians baptizing adult converts in the lake. On the same hand, my first experiences and observations of infant baptism—together with the claims being made about what happens during it—seemed very weird to me. This was especially true when I visited Orthodox churches and observed infants being immersed in water and then immediately given the Eucharist!
So, now, back to my description of the phenomenon of being “slain in the Spirit.” I grew up with it, so it never seemed weird to me although I admit that I was always fascinated by it and never really understood it. Eventually, however, I began to make a distinction in my own mind between instances of it that appeared to me to be manipulated and probably products of some kind of mass hypnosis if not mass hysteria and instances that I could not explain that way—especially one time it happened to me when I was 19 years old. I know with absolute certainty that, in that instance, it was not any kind of hypnosis or manipulation or hysteria. To be very brief: I was in a Pentecostal prayer meeting after an evening church service. Many of us were standing in the choir loft which was on the church’s platform and was composed of hard wooden pews without cushions of any kind. I was praying with my eyes closed and my hands lifted—as were others (I observed before I closed my eyes). The pastor, a very well-known Assemblies of God leader (later, after he left that church and became an executive of the AG), was praying for many of us with laying his hands on shoulders only—facing the people as he prayed for them. I did not see or hear him coming toward me. Nobody else was falling down. I was standing a few feet in front of a front pew in the choir loft area facing toward the pulpit and sanctuary beyond the pulpit. The pastor touched me on the forehead and I fell straight back without bending my knees and my head hit the wooden pew behind me and made a loud noise—as anyone would expect. I felt nothing. Nor was there any lump or bump or pain or blood afterwards. People who saw it happen to me asked me if I wanted some kind of treatment for my head injury and I was happy to tell them there was none.
Now, don’t ask me how to explain what happened; I can’t. Nor can anyone else—however they may try (e.g., “mind over matter”). I know what happened to me and I know it was a miracle—whatever “miracle” means exactly.
I once attended a famous evangelist’s “healing crusade” (meeting) attended by thousands of people in a major city arena. I sat near the platform; I could see everything that happened very clearly. My pastor told me in advance of the meeting that if the evangelist, who was known for praying for people with the result that they fell down, called pastors in the audience to come up to the platform for prayer (something she was known to do) he would go forward but he would not fall down. He was a dignified man who was, in my opinion, not very Pentecostal although he pastored a Pentecostal church. Sure enough, the female evangelist (Kathryn Kuhlman) asked the pastors and ministers in the audience to come up to the platform for special prayer for God to bless their ministries. My wife and I watched our pastor very closely to see what would happen. As he approached the evangelist I could see him stiffen slightly and a look of resistance came over his face. Then, much to our surprise, when she touched him lightly on the forehead he fell straight backwards and although one of the evangelist’s assistants attempted to “catch” him it didn’t work. He fell straight backwards onto the floor with a loud thump. He didn’t crumple or catch himself with his hands or anything—a classical case of being “slain in the Spirit.” As we watched our pastor struggle to his feet the evangelist reached down to take his hand to help him up. (Our pastor was a very stocky man.) The moment her hand touched his he fell down again. He laid there for several minutes, eventually getting up as the evangelist prayed for others, and walked off the platform with a very dazed look. Immediately after the meeting I sought him out and asked “What happened?” His response was “I don’t know.” And that’s all he would ever say about it.
So what to make of this phenomenon—which happens all around the world especially in Pentecostal-charismatic and other “renewalist” churches and revival-healing meetings? I don’t know. I have no explanation that would satisfy anyone but a true believer in the power of the Holy Spirit.
So what benefit comes from this experience? Again, I can’t really say. Perhaps something different for each person? All I can say for myself is that ever since I was slain in the Spirit at 19 I have remembered the experience of it which was not only miraculous but ecstatic. As I laid there on my back two things were going through my mind—the thought that I should be feeling extreme pain and didn’t and thinking about the ecstatic sensation I was feeling that can only be described as a feeling of a supernatural presence in and around me.
In my pastor’s case, I have to think that perhaps his experience was a humbling one, reminding him that dignity is not everything and that sometimes, occasionally, perhaps God wants us to be humbled and falling down in front of a few thousand people—when you are determined not to—can be very humbling.
Once I left the Pentecostal-charismatic Christian “form of life” I avoided these phenomena and became somewhat skeptical of most examples of them. When I was on the faculty of a major Pentecostal-charismatic university for two years (1980s) I saw many, many examples of people being being “slain in the Spirit” but doubted most of them. They seemed manipulated, programmed, to me. Of course I can’t say that with any certainty.
I keep trying to remind myself not to blaspheme the sacrament I don’t understand and that is my final word to you. Don’t blaspheme the sacrament you don’t understand. That doesn’t mean criticism is always inappropriate. But remind yourself that whatever form of life you live in—secular or religious or whatever—probably has some practices and experiences that outsiders would consider very abnormal and even extremely weird. I personally feel that way today when I attend a football game. I won’t blaspheme it, but it is a “sacrament” I don’t understand. I don’t understand the extreme displays of emotion on the parts of many of the spectators. I have never felt anything but a kind of boredom and confusion at a football game. But I will refrain from “blaspheming the sacrament I don’t understand.” (And if you think football isn’t a “sacrament”—at least to some people–you don’t live in Texas!)
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