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KELLNER: Century-old ideas of ‘personal holiness’ more vital today

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

He's been dead for 77 years, and Samuel Logan Brengle's influence was chiefly limited in his lifetime to the Salvation Army, a scrappy evangelical church as much as a social services mission, and to the relatively small cluster of evangelical Protestant congregations comprising the "holiness movement."

But it's my belief that Brengle's teaching of the potential for "personal holiness," of being so sold-out to God that one is consumed with love for one's fellow man and care for their spiritual life, is more vital today than perhaps at any other time in recent history. We live in an ever-coarsening age, it seems, and civility appears to have departed much of civil society. A reading — and application — of Brengle's teachings might help balance things out.

Brengle, regarded as something of a prodigy at what is now known as DePauw University in Indiana, studied at what is today Boston University's School of Theology. He had his choice of comfortable pulpits awaiting him, but instead chose to travel to London and link his fortunes to the then-young Salvation Army founded by William Booth.

Booth wasn't as welcoming, viewing Brengle as "dangerous," having both a college education — which Booth lacked — and experience as his own man. In turn, Brengle accepted the lowliest of assignments: polishing the boots of fellow Salvation Army trainees. He eventually won Booth's confidence and went on to decades of service as an exponent of holiness.

Author and editor Bob Hostetler shares my belief about Brengle's relevance today. The former Salvation Army officer, or church pastor, worked with the movement's editorial staffers in Nyack, N.Y., and then with Tyndale House Publishers in Wheaton, Ill., to come up with "Take Time to Be Holy," a small devotional book presenting 365 readings of Brengle's work, taken largely from books and articles Brengle wrote over a 50-year span. A few dozen words daily offer the reader a thought that can form a basis for meditation and prayer.

"I have long mourned the fact that Brengle is little known outside the Salvation Army," Mr. Hostetler said. "Granted, that's an international movement with many, many thousands of members and adherents. But still, other than a few [others], his writings have been an undiscovered treasure outside Salvation Army circles for more than a century."

Taking the writings of someone who worked so long ago and updating them for a contemporary audience — Mr. Hostetler edited the daily entries for today's readers, he said — might be a bit of a challenge. But Brengle proved still "fresh," the editor noted.

"I find it amazing how well his work has aged," Mr. Hostetler said. "His teachings are strikingly current. His example and teachings are as needed — or more so — as they were in his lifetime."

Can Brengle's spiritual experience apply in the 21st century? Mr. Hostetler says yes, although there are challenges: "I think the holiness of life Brengle writes about is a much rarer experience today because so much of our modern lives mitigate against it," he said. "We are slaves to schedules and technology and culture in ways that crowd out 'the things that make for peace' (Luke 19:42 RSV).

"Brengle's writings make it clear that there is no possible way to separate holiness from devotion to prayer and Bible reading; he fairly harps on the necessity — and primacy — of such things if one is to obtain and keep the experience of holiness. But of course that will often mean taking control of the pace and priorities of our lives, controlling technology and media instead of being controlled by them."

If you are looking for a series of daily readings that will challenge your thinking — and what you do after thinking — I can think of few better "teachers" than Samuel Logan Brengle. Mr. Hostetler deserves kudos for compiling this resource, and it's one you might find exceptionally useful.

Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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