Holiness Movement

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HOLINESS MOVEMENT is the term commonly used to identify a perfectionist sector of renewal and reform which sometimes paralleled and sometimes fused with the broader stream of the Protestant revivalism in the United States of the nineteenth century. The focal point of the movement's mission and ethos was the perfectionist call by John Wesley (17031791) to Christian believers, subsequent to their justification, to be entirely sanctified in a second work of grace and by faith alone. Wesleyans believed that this work of the Holy Spirit cleansed the hearts of believers from their bent to sinning and restored in them God's image of love. It established a relationship with God of continuing faith in which it was possible to live without willful rebellion, but never without the possibility of again falling into sin through willful unbelief and disobedience. The movement that gathered around these beliefs left an enduring imprint upon the subsequent theological, cultural, and institutional life of Protestant evangelicalism.

The Formative Years

Pioneer bishop Francis Asbury (17451816) set this call to personal and social holiness as the keystone of American Methodism's religious life and evangelism. However, by the 1830s the church's phenomenal growth fostered concerns that its mission of spreading Wesley's evangelical Arminian message of free grace, free will, and freedom from sin was being compromised. In 1835 weekly class meetings for women, led first by Sarah Lankford (18061896) and then by her sister Phoebe Palmer (18071874), became the seedbed of Holiness promotion and renewal. These "Tuesday Meetings" for conversations and testimonies of spiritual experience held in the New York home shared by the sisters and their spouses became the model for a network of hundreds of similar centers across the nation. Within a short time, the meetings attracted clergy and laity of both sexes and participants from many non-Wesleyan churches. In 1839 friends of Palmer's began publication of the Guide to Holiness, which was dedicated to coordinating the revival's activities and promoting its cause.

Palmer's promotion of Holiness had always met with opposition in Methodism, but continued support by many of the church's most respected leaders of the period made it difficult to criticize her; instead, opponents attacked the movement's understanding of Wesleyan perfectionism as skewed. They challenged the immediacy of the revival's call for simple faith in the naked word of God as the promised path to one's experience of cleansing and holiness of heart. Palmer taught that God said it, faith grasps it, and it is done; this "shorter way," her opponents charged, was "un-Wesleyan." Some contemporary theologians see in Palmer's simple spiritual formula an omen of the "Name it, claim it" theology that rose in late twentieth-century revivalism. Palmer's four years of ministry in Great Britain, largely among the constituencies of the gathering evangelical alliance, strengthened the already existing interrelationships that characterize the history of U.S. and British and European revivalism. Her forty years of Holiness evangelism, her numerous widely read publications, and her public ministry in Methodist and other churches and camp meetings in the United States and Canada made her the spiritual mother of the Holiness movement.

Palmer's ministry became the model for the freedom and authority of women in the movement. She stoutly defended women's participation in the public life of the church. Her book, The Promise of the Father (1866), was the first systematic defense of women's rights to public ministry written by a woman. In it she claimed that Joel's promise that the Spirit of God would fall on "all flesh" made the Pentecostal text the authoritative text for interpreting any other texts, which traditionally had been used to deny women a public ministry. Her example inspired the cofounder of the Salvation Army, Catherine Booth (18291890), to exert her rights to leadership and ministry.

The revival's milieu also gave birth to other radical reform movements. In 1843 thousands of Methodist abolitionists, with Congregationalists and others, left their denominations to form the Wesleyan Methodist Connection of America. Their leader, Orange Scott (18001847), rooted the new church's call for immediate emancipation of slaves in the ethical implications of Wesley's perfectionist theology. In 1860 a second group, the Free Methodists, led by Methodist pastor B. T. Roberts (18231893), became the first to organize a Holiness denomination in response to what they perceived to be Methodism's rejection of Wesleyan perfectionism and its increasing neglect of Wesley's concerns for the poor. The new church also called for the immediate abolition of slavery.

The success of the Wesleyan revivalists became the catalyst for the rise of parallel Holiness movements in New School Calvinism. Wesley's writings contributed directly to the Oberlin perfectionism of Charles Finney (17921875) and Asa Mahan (17991899). Finney sought to keep his Holiness convictions within the confines of his New School theology; Mahan embraced Wesleyanism more openly. Princeton University professor B. B. Warfield (18511921) strongly criticized Finney's and Mahan's forms of "Wesleyanism," but Finney and Mahan are enshrined in Wesleyan/Holiness hagiography along with others in the Reformed tradition.

The Post-Civil War Revival

In the summer of 1867 thousands responded to the call of a committee of Methodist Episcopal pastors to attend a national camp meeting in Vineland, New Jersey, dedicated to the promotion of Christian holiness. The success of the venture prompted the pastors to create the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness. Under the leadership of Methodist pastor John Inskip (18161884), the association's national committee changed the dynamics of Holiness promotion. Hundreds of affiliated local, county, and state interdenominational Holiness evangelistic associations, most with their own annual camp meetings, became the preaching circuit for hundreds of Holiness evangelists. The camp meetings became the primary centers for the movement's nurture and revivalism. The family atmosphere encouraged by living together for an extended period of time, the private and corporate prayer, praise, solemn hymns, and spirited gospel songs created the ambience that prepared the campers for the urgency of the evangelist's call to decisions for salvation and sanctification. The camps became the dominant shapers of the ethos and mores that were common to the hundreds of small associations that formed the heart of the movement. Through them, and the wealth of journals and publications that reinforced their cause, the movement became the major platform for the rising divine healing movement. The mingling of non-Methodist themes with the Holiness message, and the adoption of Plymouth Brethren preacher John Nelson Darby's (18001882) dispensational premillennialism by large sectors of the movement in opposition to Methodism's traditional postmillennialism, began to weaken institutional Methodism's control of the movement.

Many Holiness associations that became Holiness church congregations at the end of the century made salvation, sanctification, healing, the second coming of Christ, and the free worship style of the Holiness camp meeting their church model; they became known as "camp meeting churches." The freedom promised by Holiness teaching and worship style attracted increasing numbers of African Americans to the movement out of the existing African American Methodist and Baptist churches. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the African American woman evangelist Amanda Smith (18371915) became one of the most respected of the Holiness movement's itinerant preachers.

From 1873 to 1875 Hannah Whitall Smith (18321911), author of the best-selling devotional classic The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life (1875) and an ardent Holiness advocate, feminist, and advocate of temperance and women's suffrage, spread the Holiness message with her husband Robert Pearsall Smith (18271898) to both the established and free churches of England and continental Europe. A series of Holiness conferences at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and the annual camp meetings held on the Broadlands estate of Lord and Lady Mount Temple culminated in an 1875 meeting at Brighton, England. Thousands of pastors, theologians, and university students from all across Europe attended. The impact of the Smiths' brief Holiness ministry upon the British and European churches was significant. In Germany it excited the renewal of the pietistic German Fellowship Movement and the Inner-City Movement within the established churches, and the formation of the German Holiness Movement within the free churches. In England the most enduring result was the rise of the Keswick Movement, whose annual meetings for the promotion of scriptural holiness sparked renewal among Reformed evangelicals, both Anglican and free. Keswick gave birth to faith missions movements and student Christian movements around the world.


By the closing decades of the nineteenth century, many Methodists, tired of the decades-long tensions over the "holiness question," turned from Wesley's perfectionist vision to the theologies rooted in the Enlightenment. In addition, the revival's expansion into non-Methodist environments weakened the national committee's control over the movement as Holiness Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Mennonites, and Episcopalian evangelicals sought to assimilate the Holiness message into their own theologies and experiences. Holiness adherents, together with more numerous "populist" association leaders, began to challenge the increasingly strained efforts of the Methodist-controlled National Holiness Association to keep a vibrant and diverse interfaith movement under the aegis of institutional Methodism.

Between 1882 and the century's end disenchanted Holiness Methodists, joined by converts to the independent Holiness associations who had never been Methodists, formed new Holiness denominations and institutions out of the revival's constituency. This period marked the largest creation of new denominations in so short a period in U.S. religious history. Other sectors of the revival, within the ministries of Dwight L. Moody (18371899), A. T. Pierson (18371911), A. J. Gordon (18361895), and A. B. Simpson (18431919), all rooted in the revivalistic Calvinism of the day, became centers for promoting a Higher-Life theology, the name commonly given to the holiness revival in the Calvinist churches. Organizations of new African American Holiness churches also gathered sectors of the movement to themselves in this organizational phase of the movement's life.

As the major segments of the Holiness/Higher-Life revival movement were finding homes in new denominations and agencies, a third movement gathered around the pregnant eschatological expectations born of the revival's steadily increasing emphasis on the significance of the Pentecost event and anticipated new age of the Spirit. The new Pentecostal movement's structure, leadership, and major theological and worship cultures all were born within the diverse milieu of the Holiness revival. With few exceptions, most established Wesleyan/Holiness leaders quickly condemned the new movement's teachings as "heretical," particularly its insistence that "speaking in unknown tongues" was a necessary element of Spirit baptism. Today, although the theological differences between the two movements still exist, their common membership in the National Association of Evangelicals and other interdenominational agencies have lessened the stridency that had often marked the interaction between the two closely related movements.

By the second decade of the twentieth century the movement had largely located within the confines of its new Holiness institutions, with the major exception of the thousands of Holiness adherents who stayed with the older denominations out of hope for renewal from within. Most Wesleyan/Holiness churches and their international affiliates and agencies maintain an informal association with one another and other independent Holiness mission agencies and educational institutions through the Christian Holiness Partnership, the direct descendant of the National Camp Association. A similar association, the Interchurch Holiness Convention, has brought together a group of smaller Holiness adherents who in the postWorld War II period separated from the larger Holiness bodies in protest to what they saw as the established movement's tendencies to modernism. The worldwide constituency of the Wesleyan/Holiness churches numbers 10 to 15 million. The Church of the Nazarene, the Salvation Army, the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), the Wesleyan Church (the result of a 1968 merger of the Wesleyan Methodist and the Pilgrim Holiness Churches), and the Free Methodist Church are the largest Holiness Churches. Several of these are active members of the World Methodist Council.

As a whole, these Wesleyan evangelical churches, which have continuing commitments to the plenary inspiration of the Bible and its final authority for doctrine and life, often find themselves in a mediate position in world Protestantism, between the more socially conservative stances of some fellow evangelicals and the more liberal theologies that pervade the religious culture of much of contemporary Protestantism.

See Also

Evangelical and Fundamental Christianity; Methodist Churches; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Salvation Army; Smith, Hannah Whitall; Wesley Brothers.


Dayton, Donald W. Discovering an Evangelical Heritage. New York, 1976. A concise account of the movement's innovative and sometimes radical stances on historical, ethical, and social issues.

Dieter, Melvin E. The Holiness Revival of the Nineteenth Century, 2d ed. Lanham, Md., and London, 1996. A basic interpretive narrative of the rise, development, and significance of the revival.

Jones, Charles E. Black Holiness: Black Participation in Wesleyan Perfectionist and Glossolalic Pentecostal Movements. Metuchen, N.J. and London, 1987. An encyclopedic introduction to the revival's place and influence within African American Protestantism.

Kostlevy, William. Holiness Manuscripts: A Guide to Documenting the Wesleyan Holiness Movement in the United States and Canada. Metuchen, N.J., and London, 1994. Opens up basic resources, many still untapped, available to the researcher.

Smith, Timothy L. Called Unto Holiness: The Story of the Nazarenes; The Formative Years. Kansas City, Mo., 1962. A history of the largest Holiness church in the United States, a story of revival and church formation which is typical of the histories of most of the denominations and agencies born of the movement.

Melvin E. Dieter (2005)