By David Bundy (2022). Originally appearing in the Journal of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity.


Cecil Polhill: missionary, gentleman and revivalist. Vol. 1, 1860-1914, by John M. Usher, Leiden, Brill, 2020, 297 pages, €59 (paperback), ISBN9789004426818

Cecil Polhill (1860–1938) cast a large shadow over the fledgling Pentecostal Movementin the UK. As one of the few wealthy Europeans to identify with Pentecostalism in its early period, he has, remarkably, been minimally investigated before John Usher’s book. It has been known that Polhill was a participant in the development of British Pentecostalism, an aristocrat, and a patron of the Pentecostal Missionary Union (PMU). That narrative, with mythological accretions, was, as Usher’s book proves, inadequate.

Cecil Polhill first achieved fame as one of the ‘Cambridge Seven’, a group of Cambridge University students who shocked their contemporaries by forsaking lucrative careers for missionary service. Polhill served with the China Inland Mission (CIM), became a confidant of James Hudson Taylor and served on the board of the CIM. Both were well connected in the Radical Holiness networks in the UK. However, like many others who received their spiritual and missional formation in Radical Holiness hotbeds, Polhill, became disillusioned with the adequacy of Radical Holiness spirituality for effective evangelism, and moved toward Pentecostalism.

Polhill is revealed by Usher to have been a person of one overwhelming passion: Tibet. His earliest mission work (1885) was in China. From the first mention of Tibet (1886) and the first mission to Tibetans on the Chinese border (1887), evangelism in Tibet became a long-term quest, hampered by the closure of Tibet to foreigners and lack of enthusiasm for the project among mission executives. After years of frustrating discussions with James Hudson Taylor, founder of the CIM, and the lack of interest by Taylor’s successors in Tibet, Polhill began searching for another agency that could support his passion to evangelize in Tibet.

Polhill’s conversion to Pentecostalism was directly related to his sense of call to Tibet and his frustration with the perceived lack of momentum in the CIM for mission in Tibet. The Pentecostal revival as he encountered it promised, as had the earlier Radical Holiness networks, access to ‘Pentecostal power’ for mission; now more complete with the gift of glossolalia. Initially the PMU was largely focused on Tibet. Eventually the PMU would diversify into other areas of the world.

To develop and analyse the story of Polhill’s life, Usher combed archives and periodical publications in search of data about Polhill. These included the CIM Archives, the Polhill Collection, and periodicals from Eton, Cambridge, as well as Radical Holinessand Pentecostal periodicals from these periods of his life. The resulting vast collectionof data allowed Usher to connect Polhill with great clarity to persons, movements, and events encountered throughout his life. In addition to Tibet, the data, and Usher’s narrative, presents brief but important glimpses to early Pentecostalism in Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, and of course China, India, Hong Kong, and Tibet. While most of the data assembled and interpreted was produced in the UK and USA, the book has important implications for Pentecostal historiography far beyond that.

The importance of Polhill for the development of Pentecostalism in the UK is now far clearer. Usher’s book requires that the early history of Pentecostalism in the UK be rewritten; indeed, this book is an essential step in that process. Polhill can no longer be seen as only the benevolent donor, comforting aristocratic fellow believer, and Pentecostal myth. He must be dealt with as a dominant figure, crucial to the indigenous development of Pentecostalism in the UK, and the central creator of the UK Pentecostal mission, the PMU, that spawned the international networks of UK Pentecostalism.

Usher’s book has left few bibliographic stones unturned. The scope of the research is amazing. It will also be important to reflect on any relevant Chinese and Indian language sources, including government and secular materials, and to join conversations about Christian mission during this period being undertaken in China. The Chinese and Indian sources may not change radically the narrative for Polhill’s involvement in early UK and Chinese Pentecostalism, but might well provide access to alternative understandings and experiences.

In addition, it will be important to examine more carefully how Polhill’s work impacted Pentecostalism in Europe. This analysis indicates that Polhill never intended to help address the missional, economic, and political problems facing early Pentecostalismin Europe. It appears to validate the expressed feeling of European leaders of being excluded from the PMU except as they supported Polhill’s interests in Tibet, and, as a means to that end, missionary work in China and British India. This exclusive focus, limited rather than developed continent-wide cooperative structures for the promotion of the new tradition.

Of course, one awaits eagerly the second volume of this biographical study to better understand the last 24 years of Polhill’s life and the development of UK Pentecostalism during that period. Usher, the editors of Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies,and Brill are to be thanked for producing what will long be a crucial standard work for the study of UK Pentecostalism, Pentecostal mission, and more generally of global Pentecostalism.

David Bundy

Manchester Wesley Research Centre, UK

© 2021 David Bundy