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Fall 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 2 · pp. 135–42 

The Holy Spirit and Church Renewal: Coimbatore, India, 1906

Peter Penner

Out of my research on the Mennonite Brethren (MB) Mission to India comes this little-known story of how the great awakening of 1904-1906, beginning in Wales, and spreading to all parts of India, 1 broke over three Russian MB missionaries, giving them a new sense of holiness. The awakening, which did not bypass the Telegu Christians, resulted in significant church growth.

The Holy Spirit, in complete charge, brought believers under deep conviction of sin.

In his last book, G. W. Peters summed up a longstanding Mennonite Brethren view of the Spirit: “The Holy Spirit as a conscious presence in experience was little known and emphasized. However this does not mean that [MBs] did not have a deep and sound, even dogmatic, conviction concerning his presence. The conviction was more a biblical assumption than experiential consciousness. . . .” 2

In the light of this and other similar affirmations of the way the Holy Spirit was expected to work in Christians, 3 it was astonishing to discover that Russian Mennonite Brethren, only one generation removed from the extreme manifestations attending the revival among the “Brethren” in 1860, 4 experienced at Coimbatore, India, what for them personally was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel as presented in the Acts of the {136} Apostles. Such a claim was not made by any succeeding Mennonite Brethren missionaries to India, whether from Russia or North America. Equally impressive claims have not been made, it seems, until the similar-sounding experiences with John Wimber’s “Vineyard,” whose theology, however, is not escaping sharp criticism. 5


The three Russian missionaries affected by the “awakening” were: Abram J. Friesen, the first Mennonite Brethren to go to the Telegu-speaking peoples of the State of Hyderabad, India, in 1889; A. J. Huebert, the second such missionary; and Johann G. Wiens, who was in India from 1904 to 1910. Wiens later came to Canada to found (along with A. H. Unruh and G. Reimer) an institution, Winkler Bible School, which is not known for having sought awakening-type experiences. 6

When the hot season came in 1906, these families left the “plains of the Deccan” for the hill station of Ootacumund in southern India. They knew of a conference planned for nearby Coimbatore on the weekend of June 21-23. Its purpose was to foster holy living among Christians. The three men left their wives and children at Ootacumund and went to Coimbatore.

The conference was arranged by Christian (Plymouth) Brethren, whose customary downplaying of designated leadership apparently gave the Holy Spirit free rein. What immediately amazed and then began to irritate Wiens, the first to write about the experiences, was that each successive session featured no preaching, only em reger Gebetsgeist [an unending spirit of prayer]. It all seemed too unorthodox: hymns, prayers, open confessions, yes, but no programmed addresses, only Scripture readings and extempore commentaries by various persons in the pews. Wiens wanted to hear some theological justification for what was going on. 7

When early on he voiced his reservations about the direction of these meetings, Friesen responded, “Why don’t you express your dissatisfaction about the conduct of these services?” Wiens replied that he was too proud to do so publicly in his very broken English! His distress worsened when he heard various speakers use Scriptures such as Exodus 20:19 and Deuteronomy 5:23-30 to argue that they should not fear to seek God face to face. Christians did not need a Moses to relay {137} to them what God had to say! Wiens thought these “holiness-seekers” were carrying this business too far by bringing themselves face to face with God. He found it disconcerting that here at Coimbatore people were expecting to receive the baptism of the Spirit according to the promise of Acts (chaps. 1-2). He then articulated what surely must have been an early Mennonite Brethren view of seeking the blessings of the Holy Spirit: The baptism with the Holy Spirit (without any special manifestations) comes at the time of conversion, and not in subsequent experiences. 8

The conference occasioned a tremendous struggle in Wiens’ soul. He came to the conviction that either he fully confess all his sins and shortcomings in his broken English, thus subordinating himself to the Spirit’s direction as well as humiliating himself before his fellow worshippers, or close his heart completely and leave Coimbatore a lukewarm Christian unable to communicate with his risen Lord. 9

He became convinced that his hardness of heart was blocking the Spirit’s full manifestation in that hill station. When his heart became fully broken, he wrote, he wept as he had never wept before, promising his Lord full obedience even to the extent of baring his soul before that crowd.

No sooner had he made this promise when a woman worshipper thanked God for giving her the fullness of His blessing. Thereupon Wiens, believing that she had experienced very nearly “the ultimate blessing of God’s outpouring,” gave his testimony and experienced, as he stated, “an inexpressibly joyous feeling.” He now knew that he had a greater measure of the Spirit. 10

Following that, Wiens was no longer irritated by the constant wrestling in prayer, not even when the Spirit seemed to keep a brother from conducting the Lord’s Supper prematurely. All resistance to the Spirit’s work had to be overcome in every heart present before changes from the prayer format could be introduced.

In summary, Wiens and his fellow missionaries experienced the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel-the outpouring of the Holy Spirit-to such a measure that all those assembled felt cleansed of all sin and knew themselves united in the Lord. Only then were they ready to be led to the Lord’s Table. 11

At first, A. J. Huebert too had found the whole atmosphere and method strange. He had come as a skeptic and left a {138} changed person, having been overwhelmed during the reading of Isaiah 53. 12 Fortunately, he sent his wife Katharina at Ootacumund a card every day. She and Maria Friesen as well as Helene Wiens became quite agitated when they realized what was going on at Coimbatore. They cried out for cleansing. Katharina wrote that she experienced the blessing a few days after the men returned to Ootacumund. 13

Though Abram Friesen took pains to gain some perspective on what had happened at Coimbatore, by September he asserted that God had fulfilled the promise of Joel the prophet buchstaeblich (word for word) for him personally. “God has given me a Pentecost such as I had not expected on earth.” 14 Because of this he thought it necessary to explain that he had received the Holy Spirit in 1882-83 at the time of his conversion. Since that time he had known Christ resident in his heart, but not always president! While on furlough and with friends in St. Petersburg, Russia (March 1905), he found a new impulse toward the search for a life of fullness with God. Hence he was prepared for the experience, back in India, at Coimbatore.

Friesen helpfully summarized the kinds of sins that were confessed in that holiness convention and throughout the awakening of 1904-1906; judgmental and unforgiving attitudes, carelessness in word and deed, lack of family and personal worship, unedifying reading, avarice and failure to tithe, lukewarmness toward God’s cause and people, conceit and spiritual pride, and resistance to complete submission to God. “These and many more that we would ordinarily not think worth mentioning, brought us into the dust before God.” He mentioned another of which he was repeatedly somewhat guilty, as my research indicates: “being too sharp with correspondents” over awkward issues. 15


One month later Abram Friesen reported that God had brought the revival to his church in Nalgonda. It was not something he had tried artificially to work up. God met the needs of the Nalgonda church when spontaneous simultaneous prayer broke out in an evening service. There was a storming of the throne of grace with confessions. For a whole week all else was neglected in favor of getting the congregation {139} right with God. On Thursday a person considered to be demon-possessed was released from captivity. 16

Johann and Helene Wiens returned to their station at Hanamakonda only to find the Holy Spirit already at work. For a period of eight weeks there followed nightly services, when prayer frequently lasted long after midnight. 17 For part of that time, in September, the Friesens, Hueberts, and J. H. and Maria Pankratz from Malkapet (Hyderabad) were present. The last-mentioned had come from America as recently as 1902. John Pankratz wrote that two couples (H. Unruhs, C. Unruhs) had visited them on September 30, 1906. When he and Maria heard about the revival at Coimbatore and on the stations served by his Russian Mennonite Brethren colleagues, they wanted the blessing in Hyderabad also. 18

No one on the field at that time wanted to be left out of the blessing. Heinrich Unruh at Jangaon wrote to say he had been busy with a heavy building program, but his readers should not think that his station had been overlooked. In fact, God had used a Telegu preacher, K. Moses, to bring the revival to them. His brother Cornelius Unruh with wife Martha, new on the field, reported that at a Telegu Convention about 100 preachers had come together, only to experience an awakening comparable to Coimbatore. 19

In India since 1904, the Daniel F. Bergthold family from America had settled at Nagarkurnool, some distance away. When they heard of the blessings received at Coimbatore and at Hanamakonda they also prayed that all hindrances (the last one being unbelief) would be removed. Once removed, they too received a fresh infilling of the Spirit for witnessing. 20

From Huebert’s annual reports at Suriapet one can gain some measure of the total impact in terms of church growth. There were 23 baptisms in 1905, 122 in 1906, and 387 in 1907. 21


In succeeding months Wiens could hardly help comparing their increased zeal under the hot Indian sun with the apparent indifference in the prosperous pre-war Russian colonies. 22 Heinrich Unruh on his deathbed in 1912 deplored the endless theological debates that kept his supporting constituency from uniting in the cause of mission. 23 Such a state of {140} affairs corresponds to what today has been called the “sanctification gap.” 24

In spite of the attempt to hold fast to the traditional view of the baptism and filling of the Holy Spirit, there are those increasingly who assert that it is possible and most desirable to seek a “second blessing.” In fact, a “special encounter with Christ through the Holy Spirit” is essential “for leaders in church renewal.” 25

Those interested in pursuing the renewal of spiritual power for church growth should consider the antecedents, preconditions, and chief characteristics of the awakening of 1904-1906. First, without prayer, prolonged prayer, nothing much can be expected. G. W. Peters was challenged on this point in 1976. In California, after one week of meetings about “mission,” a godly woman asked him why in all this time not one day had been set aside for prayer! 26 By comparison, the 5,000 supporters of the Keswick Convention of 1902 resolved to form home prayer circles in England and beyond, reaching to all parts of India. Another antecedent was the revival of Bible study on many mission stations in India. A third was a renewal of faith and obedience among Indian Christians. 27

Among the preconditions for the 1904 Wales revival were: confessing hidden sin, leaving all “doubtful habits,” obeying the Spirit promptly, and confessing Christ publicly. 28 Though this awakening had its critics, these prerequisites were met in the 1905-1906 awakening in India. The Holy Spirit, in complete charge, brought believers under deep conviction of sin. Missionaries everywhere were convinced this was of God when they noticed how Indian Christians, who had the reputation for not weeping over sins, did so during this period. All meetings were characterized by simultaneous audible prayers, as well as by great rejoicing and much singing following the realization of forgiveness. If there were visions (as in Acts 2) and trances (Acts 10), these tended to clarify the sufferings of Christ. Most importantly, the awakening brought a new conception of holiness and a reaching out for converts. 29

As Johann Wiens discovered in June 1906, when the Holy Spirit chooses to come in power, nothing less than the sweeping away of all inconsistencies between faith and life (Lehre und Leben) is tolerated. 30 {141}


  1. J. Edwin Orr, Evangelical Awakenings in Asia in the Early Twentieth Century (New Delhi, 1970).
  2. G. W. Peters, Foundations of Mennonite Brethren Missions (Hillsboro, 1984), 53.
  3. Peter Penner, “The Current Tongues Movement [Dennis Bennett],” Mennonite Brethren Herald (MBH) (15 May 1964) 4-5; J. B. Toews, “The Theology of Missions in Acts,” The Church in Mission, edited by A. J. Klassen (Hillsboro, 1967), 5-11; David Ewert, “Baptism with the Spirit” and “Filled with the Spirit,” MBH (2 February and 25 May 1979), 2-4.
  4. J. A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church (Fresno, 1975), 56-65.
  5. See Abe Friesen, “Wimber, Word, and Spirit,” MBH (14 November 1986), 26.27; cf. Al Stewart, “Tasting the Wine: Assessing the Vineyard Movement,” Atlantic Baptist (January 1991), 18-20. Stewart states that Wimber’s theology “is not based on Jesus and Scripture but on power and force.”
  6. Perhaps one can assume a significant search for the face of God in Winkler Bible School’s founding. It was named Pniel, which means “the face of God”; see George David Pries, A Place Called Pniel: Winkler Bible Institute, 1925-1975 (Altona, 1975), 3.
  7. Johann G. Wiens, “Eine Erfuellung von Joel 3, 1 in Coimbatore, Indien” [the fulfillment of Joel 3:1. . . .], Das Erntefeld (DE) [The Harvest Field] (Nalgonda, August 1906): 101-111; Orr, 88-90. The awakening involving the Mennonite Brethren in June 1906 is one of the many revivals not chronicled except in this almost completely unknown periodical of small circulation. The periodical was founded and edited by A.J. Friesen between 1900 and 1914. The story is confirmed in contemporary issues of Baptist Missionary Review.
  8. Ibid, 103-4.
  9. Ibid, 104.
  10. Ibid, 105.
  11. Ibid, 106-11.
  12. A. J. Huebert, “Erfahrungen aus letzter Zeit.” DE (August 1906): 111-116; Friesen “Pfirgstsegen in Indien,” DR (September 1906): 128.
  13. Katharina Huebert, “Etwas aus meiner juengsten Erfahrung,” DE (November 1906), 154-55. Today one might ask why the Mennonite Brethren women were not at Coimbatore when Huebert particularly took note that women participated equally in the blessings.
  14. A. J. Friesen, “Pfingstsegen in Indien,” 121-28.
  15. Ibid, 126-27; see Peter Penner, “Baptist in All But Name: Molotschna Mennonite Brethren in India,” Mennonite Life (March 1991), 20; Orr, “Confession in Revival,” 138-44.
  16. A. J. Friesen, “Erweckung in Nalgonda,” DE (October 1906), 137-41; cf. his Annual Report for 1906, in the Friesen Collection, American Baptist Archives Center (ABAC), Valley Forge, PA.
  17. J. G. Wiens, “Gotteswunderwerke in Hanamakonda,” DE (February 1907): 26-28; (April): 54-57.
  18. J. H. Pankratz, DE (January 1907): 6-11.
  19. H. Unruh, DE (December 1906) 181-82; C. Unruh (November 1906): 161-64.
  20. D. F. Bergthold, “Zum neuen Jahr,” DE (January 1907): 1-5 (emphasis mine).
  21. Reports in the Huebert Collection, ABAC. {142}
  22. J. G. Wiens, DE 10/6 (1909): 3-8; DE 11,4 (1910): 51-54.
  23. H. Unruh, as reported by Franz Wiens, DE 13/23 (1912): 300.
  24. Walter Unger, MBH (4 August 1989): 23.
  25. Cf. David Ewert, MBH (2 February and 25 May 1979), and Waldo Hiebert, “Renewing the Vision of Leaders,” MBH (1 February 1980): 9; see the Wilf Penner letter to the MBH. (2 March 1979): 8, in which he takes Ewert to task for his seemingly inflexible view.
  26. G. W. Peters, “Reaching the Unreached,” MBH (1 April 1977): 30.
  27. Orr, Awakenings; cf. Peter Williams, The Ideal of the Self-Governing Church: A Study in Victorian Missionary Strategy (Leiden, 1990), 140-41, 149, etc. “Keswick” (pronounced “Kesick”) was an inter-denominational holiness convention started in England in 1875. One of the chief influences came from J. Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission, organized a decade earlier. Keswick was most influential among Anglicans but also, as at Coimbatore, among the Brethren.
  28. Orr, 53.
  29. Ibid, 153.
  30. J. G. Wiens, “Eine Erfuellung von Joel 3,1,” 109; A. J. Friesen “Pfingstsegen in Indien,” 126; Unger, MBH; J. A. Toews, “The Company of the Committed,” People of the Way (Winnipeg, 1981), 91ff.
Dr. Peter Penner is Professor of History at Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick.

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