An Idealized Portrait of a Brave but Imperfect Reformer: A Review of A.L. Byers’s ‘Birth of a Reformation’

Who’s D.S. Warner Anyway?

As a child of the Church of God Reformation Movement, I strongly believe in striving toward holiness and unity within the Church. I believe that the Holy Spirit transforms us more and more into the image of Christ. I believe in “reaching our hands in fellowship to every blood washed one.” For me, these ideals are at the core of what it means to be a Christian. And though I’ve cherished the fact that our movement holds these two ideas at the center of its mission to the greater body of Christ, I haven’t always agreed with the way ‘Church of God’ people have approached advancing them.

I recently got in a discussion with some fellow Church of God ministers about the importance of unity and how we might achieve it. As we talked, my ignorance of our founder, D.S. Warner’s life became apparent. This isn’t to say that I know nothing about him. I’ve read Merle Strege’s ‘I Saw the Church’ and John W.V. Smith’s ‘The Quest for Holiness and Unity’ (though it has been a number of years ago). And I grew up hearing about Warner’s story in passing. But I’ve never read a straight biography of the man. So, I decided it was time to rectify that oversight by reading ‘Birth of a Reformation: Life and Labors of D.S. Warner’ by A.L. Byers. To put it simply, it disappointed me.

Warner’s Story from Warner’s Perspective

Before I get too far into the content of this book, I want to make a comment about the way it was written. This is not a book that is easy to read. Large portions of it are taken verbatim out of Warner’s diaries. Other chapters are filled with poetry and hymns. And then there are the long sections that recount campmeetings and revivals. The best parts were those places where Byers actually writes about Warner himself. Unfortunately, that’s not the vast majority of the book. Instead, most of the space is taken up with quotes from various sources – almost all favorable to Warner.

Honestly, this is one of the major drawbacks of this book – Byers didn’t have many sources to go off. It sounds like he based almost the entire book on Warner’s diaries (which only covered up until 1880 or so) and interviews with different people who had known him. There’s almost nothing from any of Warner’s opposition, who might give an alternate side to the story (except for some stuff taken out of a Winebrennerian Church of God history book). Now, this doesn’t mean that the book is bad. It just means that it’s definitely biased and not particularly easy or enjoyable to read. But, what about the content? Is the content rich enough to overcome the format’s weaknesses?

That depends. If you want to read the story of D.S. Warner from his perspective and from the perspective of those who adored him, this is a great book. It tells Warner’s story, from childhood to death. And it doesn’t attempt to be objective. In the first chapter, we read, “[Warner] was a Christian then whom perhaps none other ever lived who was more reverent, spiritual, and devoted.” That is high praise indeed. But did he live up to that description?

Noticing Warner’s Flaws

Now, before I say anything else, let me say this: I believe D.S. Warner was genuine in what he believed and did. I believe that he believed in his message and that he believed wholeheartedly in the dangers he preached against. Unfortunately, I also believe he was a human being who made mistakes and who was often unaware of his own faults.

I say this because, throughout his diaries, he rarely recognizes anything wrong in his actions or motives. When problems arose, when disagreements took place, when anything went wrong, he never acknowledges his part in the issue. Instead, it’s always someone else’s fault. In addition, he often speaks as if he is the standard of truth and incapable of being wrong.

Let me give you a couple of examples: he notes a Mr. Mahaffey who was “a smart man, well-informed in the Bible. Agrees with me on doctrine.” Elsewhere, he mentions a Mr. O-, a Campbellite, who he spoke with. He describes their conversation: “Had some talk, but a few Scriptures silenced his doctrine.” In another place, he mentions a man who was convinced to come hear him preach after being hesitant. He writes, “he did so, sat with his head down, doubtless felt the force of truth but was too honest to trifle with it; confess that I had preached nothing but Bible.”

Now, none of this means anything in and of itself. After all, these were in his diary and, I assume, they weren’t necessarily meant to be read by others. But, to be perfectly honest, I kept feeling as though there was a hint of pride in the way that he wrote about his dealings with others.

Leaving the Church of God for the Church of God

This feeling grew as I read about his separation from the Church of God (Winebrennerian). He, along with some other Church of God ministers who were teaching entire sanctification, separated from the larger Winebrennerian body and created the ‘Northern Indiana Eldership.’ This separation took place because the rest of the Church of God (Winebrennerian) would not accept their teaching on holiness. However, only a short time later, Warner separated from the ‘Northern Indiana Eldership.’ Why? He “proposed some measures by which that body might be made to conform more perfectly to the Bible standard with reference to government” and they rejected them.

Byers writes, “he realized, probably for the first time, that the new Eldership, bent on continuing their human organization, was a sect with which he must sever his connection, and he then and there did so.” Now, we might ask, what other differences did Warner have with this group? Surely he must’ve had other issues with them if he was going to separate from them and brand them “a sect.” But from what I can tell, there were no other differences. For someone who so valued unity, it seems awfully strange to divide because the rest of the group didn’t want to do things exactly like you.

A Strained Marriage and Divorce

From this point on, Warner seems to become more and more stringent and uncompromising. If his early diaries come across slightly proud, his latter writings included in this book can seem downright arrogant. For example, his second wife left him (the circumstances of which are too strange and convoluted to recount here). When she died, The Gospel Trumpet, Warner’s paper, printed an editorial that included these words: “Ah, we cannot help the conviction that had the dear woman never been alienated by the adversary to break her solemn vows… She would be alive, well, and happy today. But alas, all is past now.” Wow! That’s some kind of editorial! Now, I’m not defending Warner’s wife. I have no idea what actually took place between them. But this editorial seems wholly inappropriate and unchristlike – essentially claiming that she’d died because she left Warner.

Evangelizing Christians

Towards the end of the book, Byers recounts many of Warner’s evangelistic tours. These stories will remind you again and again of how much Warner endured. And yet, he pressed on. This is why I believe that he had complete confidence in his mission. But, in the back of my mind, I can’t help but think that he brought some of his problems on himself. Rather than truly reaching his hand in fellowship to the ministers and Christians that he found, he focused almost exclusively on the things that divided them. He called other believers names just as they did him. And then, when he preached, he didn’t point them to Christ but to the Church of God. Rather than focusing on the problematic things that different denominations or congregations did, he painted with a broad brush, condemning them all.

As I read about all of the opposition he faced, I couldn’t help but ask myself: How do you expect people to respond when you roll into town from who-knows-where, preach about how all of the local churches are leading everyone to hell, call people to “the church of God” (which everyone took to be another denomination), and then move on to the next town? Of course they were angry! They felt as though Warner and his crew were more focused on stealing sheep than preaching the gospel. And when you don’t understand Warner’s underlying theology, that’s exactly what it looks like.

A Friend’s Opinion

And lest you think this is just my impoverished opinion, C.W. Naylor, a friend and associate of Warner, came to a similar conclusion nearly 100 years ago:

“By classifying all religious movements except his own, including the holiness movements, as ‘Babylon’ and all their adherents as ‘Babylonians,’ he alienated his former associates and finally all denominational adherents. He vigorously condemned and bitterly attacked all those who did not agree with him even in matters of little importance. When aroused, and his emotions stirred, he became aggressive in attack and denunciation almost to abusiveness, and his language was often quite intemperate. By the use of such methods he further alienated his many friends and former associates, even his own wife, and needlessly made many enemies for himself and his cause. The chasm that came to exist between him and the other holiness bodies resulted very largely from his own actions and attitudes. Had his methods been different, his doctrines might have been tolerated if not accepted” (Naylor).

Warner’s Vision, Still Worth Pursuing

With all of that said, I don’t want to sound as though I’m saying that Warner was all bad. I still believe in his message of holiness and unity. I believe that God called Warner to spread that message – and that he used him in some mighty ways. But I also believe that he was human, with all of the flaws and imperfections that accompany our humanity.

Nevertheless, I think his message is a message that we still need to spread. But this biography calls us to reevaluate Warner’s methods. It calls us to reflect on what genuine Christian unity (rather than uniformity) should look like. It should provoke important questions about denominations, the essentials of the faith, church government, evangelism, and the interplay between the whole Church of God and individual congregations.

This is far from a perfect book – or even a perfect biography of D.S. Warner. But it does give us a window into his motivations, his methods, and his vision. And even if his methods were imperfect, his vision still stands as one of the most needed in our world. And so, it’s my hope that we would take up where he left off and carry that vision through the twenty-first century – calling all of God’s people to genuine holiness and unity.

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