Home   About Us   Holiness Library   Bible Prophecy   Listen to Sermons  History of the Holiness Movement   Early English Bibles   Bible Studies   Links







Allan Coppedge


Source: Wesleyan Theological Journal

Wesley Center Online



John Peters has provided a valuable introduction to the place of the doctrine of Christian perfection in American Methodism. The evidence he presents makes clear that from its establishment in 1784 to the first decade of the nineteenth century the Methodist Church was firmly committed to the proclamation of full salvation. With Wesley’s strong encouragement the leadership of the newly founded church determined to make entire sanctification an important doctrinal emphasis. Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury joined hands with men like Ezekiel Cooper and Jesse Lee to make sanctification the logical extension and complement of their emphasis upon regeneration and assurance.[1] Apparently the preaching of “holiness of heart” was particularly prominent just after the turn of the century. Coke responded in 1802 from Liverpool with delight at the great revival on the American continent and noted: “I am glad to find by Brother Asbury, that you universally press upon your believing hearers the necessity of Sanctification and entire devotedness to God.”[2]

But did this widespread interest in Christian perfection continue in the second, third, and fourth decades of the nineteenth century. As the frontier preachers were primarily concerned about the conversion of sinners, did they really have time to devote to such doctrinal niceties as Christian perfection? Peters argues that while it officially continued to be a part of the church’s doctrinal standards, in practice it suffered serious neglect. He connects this break in emphasis with the General Conference of 1812, which removed for convenience reasons certain doctrinal tracts from the Discipline. Among these were Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection and his sermon “Of Christian Perfection,” which hitherto had been published full in the Discipline.

Because of growth in the size of the Discipline, The Conference decided to publish the doctrinal tracts in a separate volume. According to Peters, however, these tracts did not appear until 1832, or a full twenty years later, by which time a generation or two of Methodist preachers had rounded out their doctrinal views without the benefit of the Church’s official promotion of Christian perfection. The practical effect of this action, according to Peters, was to remove the doctrine from widespread circulation and to give it a less authoritative status, thus producing a sort of “gap” in Methodism’s historic emphasis on full salvation for two to three decades.[3] It is against this “dark night of the soul” for the doctrine of Christian perfection that Peters paints his picture of the “revival of holiness” in the late 1830’s and 1840’s under the influence of Timothy Merritt’s Guide to Christian Perfection, the Tuesday Meeting of Phoebe Palmer, and the editorial pen of Nathan Bangs.

Following the lead of Peters, American historians have now accepted as almost axiomatic that the doctrine of entire sanctification played little if any part in the development of Methodism during the first third of the nineteenth century. Timothy Smith opens his discussion of Christian Perfection in America with the observation that “considerable evidence suggests that this doctrine did not occupy a chief place in early Methodist preaching in the New World,” and accordingly he begins his survey with Merritt’s Treatise on Christian Perfection published in 1825.[4] Charles Ferguson echoes the thesis that although this Wesleyan doctrine was accepted by the preachers, making it acceptable among restless people in an unsettled land had not been feasible. The result was that “while perfection held on as an avowed ideal, American Methodists had little experience with it.”[5] Others have followed this lead, and it has now received a semi-official status in the standard three volume History of American Methodism, in which the discussion of sanctification ends in the middle of the first decade of the century and does not resume until the 1830’s and 40s.[6]

The significance of this break in continuity within the Church regarding entire Sanctification is twofold. First, it lends credence to the view that this doctrine played no really essential part in Methodism during the first third of the nineteenth century, which in turn raises the larger question of just how much it has ever been an integral part of the American Church ’s theological proclamation.

Second, it makes it possible to view the strong emphasis on Christian perfection during the middle and latter decades of the century as something not quite in accord with Methodism’s historic emphases, a kind of theological stepchild, somehow related but not really a full member of the family. It then becomes easy to see the marked interest in sanctification and the so-called “Holiness Crusade” as something of a theological novelty rather than as an expression of doctrinal continuity. While this approach leaves unsolved the eighteenth century focus on full salvation as a crucial aspect of American Methodist preaching, this “gap” in interest in sanctification clearly makes it easier to relegate this earlier period to the distant and not too relevant past.

It now appears, however, that there is some serious question about the evidence for this supposed “neglect” of entire sanctification. Frank Baker, in his book From Wesley to Asbury, deals at some length with the separation of the doctrinal tracts from the Methodist Discipline by the General Conference of 1812, and in the process touches the foundation of Peters’ thesis. Peters apparently was following a discussion of the doctrinal tracts by Bishop Tigert in his Constitutional History of American Epsicopal Methodism. Tigert had only encountered one copy of the collected tracts, dated 1832, from which he incorrectly deduced that the book agents had waited twenty years before carrying out the directives of the 1812 Conference. Baker demonstrates, however, that the first edition of these “Doctrinal Tracts” was published in 1814 as A Collection of Interesting Tracts, explaining several important points of Scripture Doctrine. Published by order of the General Conference. He surmises that there must have been a reasonably good sale for this volume, which included Wesley’s two works on Christian perfection, because an unaltered second edition appeared in 1817.[7] This was followed by further editions in 1825 and 1831. Altogether at least fifteen editions of this volume appeared throughout the nineteenth century. Further, it is clear that Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection was issued separately, possibly by several publishers. One such example is its appearance as Tract No. XXXVI of the New-York Methodist Tract Society. In addition, the General Conference of 1816 placed the Plain Account on the first official course of study for its preachers, thus ensuring their acquaintance with the standard theological formulation of the doctrine.[8]

Thus, Baker, as Methodism’s master bibliographer, has convincingly demonstrated that it is no longer tenable to hold that two generations of Methodist preachers “rounded out their doctrinal views” without the influence of Wesley’s focus on Christian perfection. He argues that whereas previously both doctrine and discipline had been bound together in one volume, from 1812 there were to be two volumes, Volume 1 dealing primarily with Discipline and Volume 2 with Doctrine.[9] The implication of this is quite clear. The Conference intended to keep before the preachers certain theological emphases, including Christian perfection, and they succeeded in doing just that from the period 1812 to the 1830’s and beyond. The frequency of publication during this period “by the order of the General Conference” makes it very difficult to see how the preachers of the day could have seen them as somehow less authoritative than previously.

This continued official desire to publish abroad Methodism’s traditional focus on entire sanctification during this era is paralleled by the repeated determination of the preachers to proclaim the doctrine. One of the few pieces of evidence that Peters cites to support his contention of a break in the traditional emphasis on Christian perfection comes from the journal of Benjamin Lakin. A lengthy quotation from Lakin gives his evaluation of some decline in religious fervor on his appointment to the Limestone Circuit, Kentucky, in 1814. Lakin attributes this to a deficiency in “enforcing the doctrine of Sanctification” and allowing the people to rest in only a justified state. This Peters interprets as an indication of a decline in interest in the doctrine of holiness.[10] What he fails to tell us, however, is that in the very next sentence Lakin declares what he has determined to do about the problem, viz., to preach the doctrine with renewed vigor. Lakin writes: “Immediately set about a reform in myself and began to preach and enforce the doctrine of holiness by showing the state I found the people to be in and the need of perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”[11] One cannot help but suspect that Peters has not been wholly candid about the evidence he had at hand. This very selective handling of the data raises serious questions about both Peters’ thesis and his judgment in the use of these historical materials.

Other evidence from the journals and biographies of this period strengthen the conviction that holiness was not a neglected theological issue. On September 3, 1819, Herman Bangs preached on Christian perfection from Psalm 37. “The people,” he declared, “were wide awake to the subject and from the information afterward received, they were satisfied it was the truth.” Later that fall he reported a revival of interest in the subject where he served, as the people “groaned for sanctifying love.” He warned: “When believers are in full stretch for holiness, look out for a work of God in all its branches.”[12] For the following two decades he continues to report examples of believers “hungry after holiness,” and many sanctified or filled with perfect love.[13]

While Bangs as a New York pastor represents the east, Michael Ellis may serve as an example of the rougher frontier preachers. He is described in Sketches of Western Methodism: “His heart was deeply imbued with the grace of God; and having attained the fullness of the blessing of the Gospel of Christ, the perfect love that swelled his heart rolled out to bless mankind “His biographer doubted “whether he ever preached a sermon in which he did not introduce the doctrine of Christian perfection as taught in the Bible, and preached by Wesley and Fletcher. It was the plain, old-fashioned, unvarnished doctrine of entire sanctification.”[14]

Although New England has been considered the section of the country least receptive to Methodist theology in general and Christian perfection in particular, the Methodist preachers apparently continued to press their case. The Presiding Elder of the New Haven District, the Rev. Laban Clark, spoke of the gift of the Holy Spirit in “its renewing and sanctifying influence” on “the pardoned believer, to purify him unto God.”[15] In 1826, the New England and Maine Conferences set aside a day of fasting and prayer “for holiness of heart and for more laborers in the holy ministry.”[16] And in the mid-thirties, Rev. John Lindsey preached a sermon on holiness and purity of heart to the New England Annual Conference.[17] When the leadership of the Church speaks forthrightly about the importance of the sanctification of believers, and annual conferences fast and pray over the experience, it is difficult to conclude that the doctrine is suffering from serious neglect.

James Gilruth, a Presiding Elder in Michigan , records in his journal both preaching and professions of sanctification as regular occurrences. One year he closed a camp meeting where forty to fifty were converted, and “some also professed sanctification.” Two weeks later he wrote, “I preached on sanctification from 1 Thessalonians 4:3 with good liberty and the people were all attention and much impressed.” Within another two weeks he had used the same text to preach “in a plain manner on Sanctification.”[18]

While on the positive side it is clear that there were many proclaiming holiness of heart during the second, third, and fourth decades of the century on the negative side some were apparently excluded from the ranks because they could not subscribe to the doctrine. In 1816, a Mr. Judy was under consideration for a license to exhort from his Quarterly meeting. Apparently by mutual consent he separated from the Methodists because, it was reported, “he could not believe in our doctrines of baptism and Christian perfection and as our rules did not admit him to oppose them in public or private, he left us being resolved to oppose them. “Had we licensed him, observed one of the preachers, “we should have had our trouble with him.”[19]

In addition to the biographies and journals the publications produced during this period provide some very helpful insight into the theological interests of the day. When the first volume of the newly reestablished Methodist Magazine appeared in 1818, the publishers J. Soule and T. Mason, described the purpose of the magazine within a well-defined doctrinal framework, and in the process declared that “the grace of God is manifested in the redemption of a fallen and guilty world through Jesus Christ—in the gift of the Holy Spirit—in the establishment and spread of the gospel, and in the conviction, conversion and sanctification of the souls of men.”[20] These concerns are clearly reflected in the contents of the opening volume of the magazine. The Rev S. G. Roszel wrote from Baltimore to describe how the preachers were in the process of promoting a revival in their area and “longing to see greater display of the power of God in the conversion of sinners, and sanctification of believers. The plain truths of the gospel preached in this revival indicate the central doctrinal focus of these preachers. They included corruption of the human nature, the universal offer of salvation, repentance justification by faith, regeneration, as well as “all the branches of experimental and practical godliness, and especially that holiness of heart without which no man can see the Lord.” The effect of this kind of preaching he noted, was that “some who had come to the meeting in distress were crying for mercy; some shouting glory to God for pardoning grace, and others earnestly seeking to be filled with all the fullness of God.” In one of the class meetings, the members remained on their knees from three in the afternoon until ten at night “praying for a present and full salvation from sin.”[21]

The same issue included a report of the Cow-Harbour Camp Meeting on Long Island in which not a few were described as groaning for full redemption “in the blood of the Lamb.”[22] In addition two short memoirs reflected a lively interest in Christian perfection. Mrs. Anna Nickerson’s story included an incident in her life a year after her conversion when “she experienced an uncommon degree of the sanctifying power of divine grace, a sense of which she retained, and of which she gave a uniform testimony.”[23] And a South Carolina preacher, the Rev. James Rogers, who focused his proclamation around the central themes of repentance, faith, and holiness of heart and life, is described as making many “the witness of justifying, comforting and sanctifying grace.”[24]

A review of the articles and sermons in the Methodist Magazine over the next twenty years reveals that while entire sanctification did not occupy as prominent a place as in later years, it certainly does appear often enough to prevent it from being styled a neglected theological concept.[25] Perhaps more significant, however, are the accounts of revivals, camp meetings, letters to the editor, and the Short memoirs, all of which make clear that at the level of the local congregation Methodism was very much alive to the doctrine of Christian perfection These first-hand accounts of the impact of theology on the lives of Methodists show that the principle doctrines preached by the traveling circuit riders were human depravity, general redemption, repentance toward God, faith, and holiness of heart and life.[26]

Nothing suggests that this emphasis was an isolated phenomena limited to only a few scattered locations. The memoir of an American missionary to Nova Scotia, John Man, recorded how the Lord “filled him with the love of God in an extraordinary degree, delivering him from the remains of a carnal mind, and causing him to drink deep into the spirit of holiness.”[27] From Maine the Rev. D. Hutchinson, a Presiding Elder in the Keenebec District, rejoiced that “our gracious God is pouring out his Spirit upon the people more or less in every circuit both in the awakening and conversion of sinners, and in the sanctification of believers.” “The preachers,” he declared, “are all in the spirit of the work”[28] An account of revival close to Oneida, New York, reported that “while some had been seeking for pardon through the blood of Christ, others have been breathing for perfect love.”[29] Further west in Ohio, a remark able moving of God’s Spirit had reached a peak in December 1818 but had continued unabated until February of the following year An eyewitness wrote:


But during the latter part of this time, and since, the deepening and extension of the work of grace in the hearts of the believers was considerably greater than at any former period. A considerable increase in general piety and fervent devotion among these, had been very apparent. Many had been deeply convinced of the necessity of holiness of heart, and are earnestly groaning after it; and a few have lately been able to testify that they have been made partakers of the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit.[30]


As a result of revival in this area a number who Professed to have obtained the gift of sanctification formed themselves into bands[31] reminiscent of Wesley’s select bands of the eighteenth century. From Mississippi , William Williams described a renewed interest in the doctrine of .sanctification in “Wesley’s sense.” Some were professing the experience while others were pressing toward it. “The preachers,” he declared, “generally are becoming more earnest in urging their hearers to ‘go on to perfection’.”[32]

Another preacher began his appointment to Newark New Jersey with the intention of making his chief work in the pulpit and classes that “of explaining and enforcing the doctrine of full sanctification, as a present privilege, . . .; believing with Wesley ‘that where holiness revives in believers, there the work of God spreads in all its But when he began to visit his classes, he discovered to his dismay only one witness to the doctrine. He described their state:


 “The doctrine of Christian perfection they believed, . . . and many of them delighted me with their inquiries into the nature of it, observing that they had often heard it preached but that it was never before so brought home to their hearts.” As he began to preach, however, a general revival broke out among the society and he was soon able to rejoice that “many came forth as witnesses, blessed with perfect love.”[33]


The story of Edward Paine illustrates the experience of many Methodists in this period:


He had long been sensible of the remains of the carnal mind, but he knew not that it was possible to obtain deliverance in this life; but on becoming acquainted with the doctrine of Scriptural holiness, he resolved never to rest until he had found full redemption in the blood of the Lamb.

With this resolution he started in company with his friends for a camp meeting. On the way he heard by chance a Rev. Washburn preaching on Psalm 46:4 and came into an experience of cleansing from all unrighteousness. He testified that God had given him a clean heart, and renewed a right spirit within him.[34]


Many accounts during the twenties and thirties are similar to the description of the revival of religion in Columbia County , New York , in 1824. A correspondent to the Methodist Magazine reported:


Old professors are much quickened, and the necessity of sanctification is pressed on the people by the preachers; and blessed be the Lord, while many are excited to seek after this blessing, others profess an experience of it.[35]


Further evidence of the interest in Christian perfection comes with the publication of the first significant American book on the subject in 1825. In that year Timothy Merritt, a pastor in New York City , issued his Treatise on Christian Perfection, with Directions for Obtaining That State. It was reported of Merritt that “holiness was the great business he lived to promote.”[36] Apparently, he did so quite convincingly, for two years later his work appeared in the fourth edition, and by 1871 it had gone through thirty-three editions.[37] One reviewer called it an original work, “just such a one as the Methodists for years have wanted.” He continued:


“It is pleasing to learn that the inquiry after gospel holiness is on the increase among congregations of the Methodists; and as this doctrine preached and practiced is the most effectual way to promote revivals of religion, so is it the most effectual way to preserve them.”[38]


It was his vital concern for holiness that led Merritt in 1839 to resign his position as assistant editor of the Christian Advocate and Journal to launch a new monthly magazine in Boston entitled The Guide to Christian Perfection. Merritt clearly represents an element of continuity regarding sanctification throughout the twenties and thirties and into mid-century.[39]

Also in 1825 Aaron Lummus published a series of articles in Zion ’s Herald in which he refuted three contemporary errors concerning the doctrine of perfection. Peters dismisses this as evidence that Wesley’s doctrine was under attack.[40] But the significant factor is that the concept of holiness was very much a live issue in the mid-1820’s. The response to Lummus’ articles must have been gratifyingly positive, for he issued them in book form the following year as Essays on Holiness.[41] Shortly thereafter Lummus found himself leading a widespread revival of religion in Manchester, Conn., and plead with other Methodists not to stop praying for this movement of God “until hundreds are converted and scores, at least, sanctified wholly to God.”[42] The interest in Christian holiness was clearly not on the decline.

The year 1826 also saw the Methodist Tract Society publish The Character of a Methodist, one of Wesley’s earliest statements on the doctrine of Christian perfection.[43] In addition, the late twenties saw articles on holiness of heart appearing on occasion in the Christian Advocate,[44] along with testimonies of sanctification and reports of revivals and camp meetings where some were earnestly “struggling after holiness of heart.”[45] One observer noted:


We witnessed more humble inquiring conversation on the subject of sanctification and heard more expressive language used, indicative of an anxious desire to obtain a correct experience of this inestimable blessing, than is usual to be heard, even at Camp Meeting.[46]


B. Sabin of Ithaca , New York , wrote to the Christian Advocate:


The doctrine of sanctification doth greatly revive among our preachers and people. Both here and in the adjoining circuits many appear to be earnestly seeking for ‘all the fullness of God,’ nor do they seek in vain; for several can testify, that ‘the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin;’ and they ‘love the Lord their God with all their hearts.’[47]


Reporting a revival in his church, John Wallace recalled that “we have urged the converts to ‘go on into perfection,’” and “some have found the treasure of holiness and others are pressing after it.” Their enthusiasm was so contagious that members of other denominations in his area were beginning to show interest in the doctrine of perfect love.[48]

In 1822-23 the head of the Methodist Book Concern, Nathan Bangs, wrote a series of articles on a course of study for younger Methodist preachers, under the title “The Importance of Study to a Minister of the Gospel.” Under the category of theology, Bangs proposed:


On the doctrines of Repentance, Justification, and Sanctification, you can find no authors who have illustrated those subjects with greater clearness and accuracy than Wesley and Fletcher.[49]


Bangs was reflecting, of course, the continued American dependence on the English Methodist theologians for their definitive statements on doctrine. The American Church was still very much committed to the historical articulation of these doctrines in the works of Wesley and Fletcher. Fletcher is of particular significance because of his special interest in the doctrine of Christian perfection. Next to Wesley’s Plain Account Fletcher’s Last Check to Antinomianism, basically an essay on Christian perfection, was the most influential theological document on the subject both in England and America . The first edition of Fletcher’s Works, including the “Last Check,” was published in American in 1791, with the second edition in a six volume set following in 1809.[50] Many of his works appeared separately, such as An Address to Imperfect Believers,[51] who cordially embrace the doctrine of gospel sanctification, and the essay Christian Perfection.[52] In the early thirties a new edition of Fletcher’s Works appeared. Methodist Magazine and Quarterly Review first ran a lengthy review of these volumes including the sections on Christian perfection, and then published extensive extracts from them.[53] Another indication of the influence of Fletcher on American theology in general and Christian perfection in particular comes from the accounts rendered by Methodist preachers to the Book Concern for the volumes they had sold. The book accounts of Benjamin Lakin which list the volumes he sold from the years 1812 to 1817 make quite clear that Methodists had continuing interest in both the theological works of Fletcher as well as his Life written by Joseph Benson, both of which reflect Fletcher’s concern for holiness of heart.[54] The Methodists interest in Fletcher during the first four decades of the nineteenth century cannot but reflect their ongoing commitment to the historic Wesleyan position on Christian perfection.[55]

Among others suggested by Nathan Bangs in his recommended reading list for young preachers two have particular significance for the place of Christian holiness during these years. One was Adam Clarke and his monumental Commentary on the Scriptures, completed in 1826. Without question Clarke’s work has been the most influential commentary every published in American Methodism. One tribute to the measure of his influence classified him as “the greatest scholar in Methodism” in the generation which succeeded Wesley.[56] Abel Stevens claimed his work “may be said to have initiated critical biblical studies” among Methodists in America. Certainly for nineteenth century American Methodists Clarke’s was the commentary on the Bible. While Christian perfection was no specialty with Clarke, it clearly pervades his work. As he was vitally interested in other doctrinal matters, sanctification appears as only one of several important and distinct theological concepts. But the fact that it does appear regularly through-out his commentary, guarantees that the subject was consistently before multitudes of Methodists who maintained a serious interest in the study of the Scriptures.

The other author mentioned by Bangs was Richard Watson, who published his Theological Institutes first in serial form beginning in 1825. Watson was called the “first systematizer of the theology of Methodism,” and his Institutes quickly became the standard exposition of Methodist doctrine. Robert Chiles in his Theological Transition in American Methodism: 1790–1935, categorizes Watson as “easily the single most determinative of the early Methodist theologians.”[57] Daniel Curry wrote in 1877:


To no other single agency is the continued doctrinal unity of Methodism so much indebted as to the extensive use of Watson’s Theological Institutes . . . This great work has been the standard of Methodist theology for a full half century.[58]


Watson’s certain commitment to the concept of Christian perfection meant, then, that the doctrine of sanctification was also uniquely before the Methodist preachers during this period beginning with the 1820’s.[59]

The journals, periodicals, and theological works of the period 1812 to 1835 reveal a significant and ongoing interest in the doctrine of sanctification. In the light of the evidence of many coming into an experience of holiness of heart as a crisis experience during these years it will be increasingly difficult to maintain that this was an era of “benign neglect” regarding Christian perfection. Peters has contended that although the doctrine continued to be an official position of the Church, it suffered a practical decline in the everyday life of the community of believers on the frontier because of their preoccupation with the experience of conversion. According to this view Christian perfection as a doctrine and as an experience was simply not a live issue for frontier Methodists. This position is no longer tenable. While it is true that holiness of heart never rivaled initial redemption in the overall scheme of preaching, the data is quite clear that the Church continued to keep sanctification before its people in both periodicals and in theological writings, and the journals of the preachers as well as the reports of revivals and camp meetings give abundant evidence that many Methodists were seeking and finding full salvation. Christian perfection was obviously before the Church in both theory and practice.

In the light of these materials how are we to account for the appearance of this “gap” theory regarding the place of sanctification in the early nineteenth century? What factors may have led Peters and others into holding such a position? The first is a natural tendency to accent the holiness emphasis of mid-century by playing down its place in the life of the Church in the earlier period. The deeper the shadow of the valley, the more brilliant the light on the mountain peak will seem. In this case, the tendency to sharpen the contrast has certainly been over done. It would be even more unfortunate if this handling of historical materials was designed to make the holiness movement of mid and late nineteenth century appear to be in discontinuity with the historic emphases of Methodism. The evidence certainly does not support this interpretation. The rise of emphasis on Christian holiness at mid-century is clearly an increased accent of an already existing theological distinctive, not a shift from central doctrinal concerns to some obscure theological position of minor significance.

A second factor behind the development of Peters’ thesis is a somewhat uncritical acceptance of two major sources for his argument. The first of these is the reliance upon the lamentation of the 1832 General Conference about the lack of witnesses to the doctrine of entire sanctification. Peters believes this represents an evident decline in promotion and acceptance of the doctrine throughout the Church. But surely in the very nature of the case General Conferences are prone to overstate the ups and downs of the pulse of the Church, and at best are a very narrow base upon which to rely when writing theological history. The second area of difficulty lies in Peters’ use of Bishop Tigert’s argument that the doctrinal tracts by which the Church promoted its emphasis on Christian perfection went unpublished for a twenty year period from 1812 to 1832. This is interpreted as official neglect, which gave the impression to upcoming preachers that the Church was not really taking this doctrinal distinctive very seriously. The numerous editions of these tracts throughout this period, as shown by Baker, give ample evidence that on this matter both the bishop and Peters have overlooked some very relevant bibliographical data.

Another factor is that too much weight has been given to the generalization that frontier preachers were so preoccupied with evangelism that they had no time to call men to an experience of entire sanctification. This categorization is far too broad. Clearly there were preachers who had little connection with the doctrine either in theory or in their own experience. Yet it is equally clear that many did know the doctrine experientially and included it in their preaching. Peters himself recognizes this in his documentation of the vital place the doctrine held in the first twenty years of the life of the young Church. In these years, also, the Church was a frontier organization, yet Asbury and others consistently kept Christian perfection before the Methodists “to prevent people from settling on their lees.”[60] If the frontier preachers of the eighteenth century found time to proclaim holiness of heart along with regeneration and justification, there is no intrinsic reason why the men of the nineteenth century could not do likewise.[61]

Finally, a contributory factor is the contrast between the lack of American theological literature on Christian holiness in the early decades of the century and the abundance of works on this subject in the latter years. In this early period theological formulation in almost every area was done for the Americans by British Methodists, such as Wesley, Fletcher, Clark, Benson, and Watson. Very little normative theological work was done on American soil. On the doctrine of Christian perfection the first important work to appear from the hand of an American was Timothy Merritt’s The Christian Manual, which the author himself styled a “compilation.” The lack of native theological statement stands in stark contrast to the flood of holiness literature that appeared later by American writers, and this has led some to assume that because they were not producing treatises on the subject, the leaders of the Church in the early part of the century were not vitally concerned with this aspect of Methodist theology. But this impression cannot be sustained in the light of the fact that very little theological statement of significance on any doctrine was set forth by the American Methodists during this period. For all their normative doctrinal articulation they were still very much dependent on their English brethren.[62]

This British influence is reflected, for example, in the language used by early Methodists to describe their experience of entire sanctification. Following Wesley, the terminology employed is predominantly atonement language and its accompanying connection with the work of Christ, rather than Pentecostal terminology with its relation to the Holy Spirit. Methodists tended to use the concepts and vocabulary of Paul and John more than those of Luke. The role of the Spirit is seen primarily as that of the agent of salvation in general and the experience of perfect love in particular. There are occasions, however, when the move to identify entire sanctification with the examples of baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts is evident. Thomas Webb had apparently done this earlier in America . Henry Moore records that Webb once took a text from one of the epistles about the Holy Ghost and declared:


The words of the text were written by the apostles after the act of justification had passed on them. But you see, my friends, this was not enough for them. You must be sanctified. But you are not. You are only Christians in part. You have not received the Holy Ghost. I know it. I can feel your spirits hanging about me like so much dead flesh.[63]


Clearly for Webb “receiving the Holy Spirit” was identical with entire sanctification.

Gaddis reports that among the Cumberland Presbyterians, whose theological disposition was quite Arminian, there was a tendency to speak about sanctification in terms of the baptism of the Holy Spirit as early as 1814.[64] B. W. McDonald in his History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church is very emphatic about the importance which the early leaders of that denomination attached to the doctrine and experience of Holy Ghost baptism:


. . . our fathers believed in an abiding baptism of the Holy Ghost as a distinctive blessing after conversion . . . Of all the doctrines held . . . the one about this abiding baptism of the Holy Ghost was most esteemed by them.[65]


And from Ithaca , New York , in 1826, Methodist B. Sabin wrote regarding a powerful revival in which the children of God had “labored earnestly for holiness of heart.” One thing that called their attention to the necessity of this important doctrine, he said, was the testimony of one preacher “who arose after there had been a discourse from ‘have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed,’ and said he had traveled upwards of sixteen years, and did fully believe the doctrine of sanctification as held by our church, but he had not experienced it.” He determined to seek the experience of a clean heart, however, and requested prayer.[66] Quite evidently to all who heard the sermon on receiving the Holy Ghost it was an experience identical with entire sanctification.

This should not be surprising in the light of the identification of these concepts by two writers of considerable influence on the American Methodists. The first is John Fletcher, whose impact on the American understanding of the theology of Christian perfection was only slightly behind that for Wesley himself.[67] Fletcher’s contribution during the period under consideration has already been noted, so it only remains to point out that it was Fletcher in his Last Check who first made the correlation between the baptism of the Holy Ghost and Wesley’s concept of Christian perfection.[68] Although the Last Check was not published until 1775, as early as 1771, Fletcher had written to Charles Wesley concerning this identification:


I shall introduce my, why not your doctrine of the Holy Ghost, and make it one with your brother’s perfection. He holds the truth, but this will be an improvement upon it, if I am not mistaken. In some of your Pentecostal hymns you paint my light wonderfully. If you do not recant them we should perfectly agree.[69]


Fletcher’s place as a theological formulator regarding sanctification must certainly be reckoned as a significant factor in the later equation of these two doctrinal concepts during the mid-century holiness emphasis in America .

The second writer is Hester Ann Rogers, whose Memoirs and Letters were among the most widely circulated spiritual autobiographies in Methodist circles. One preacher reported that in 1817 on his circuit alone he had sold fourteen copies of her Life and seven of her Letters. Apparently only the Journal of John Nelson rivaled her works in popular appeal to the Methodist layman in the early nineteenth century.[70] In describing her spiritual pilgrimage, Mrs. Rogers relates in detail her struggle to obtain the blessing of entire sanctification. In the midst of her prayer for sanctification, she recalls:


I thought, Shall I now ask small blessings only of my God: Lord, cried I, make this the moment of my full salvation! Baptize me now with the Holy Ghost and the fire of pure love: Now “make me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.” Now enter they temple, and cast out sin forever. Now cleanse the thoughts, desires and propensities of my heart, and let me perfectly love thee.[71]


Quite clearly in her mind the experience of the baptism of the Spirit was identical with that of full salvation, and the widespread distribution of her story cannot but have made American Methodists more ready to see an intimate connection between these two concepts. Thus the significant sale of the works of Fletcher and Mrs. Rogers must be seen as an important contributory factor in the later identification by holiness advocates in American Methodism of entire sanctification with the baptism of the Holy Ghost. One on the theological level and one on the popular level had the effect over the years by their consistent and wide-ranging influence of predisposing the Americans to equate the biblical data on entire sanctification and Christian perfection with that relating to the baptism of the Holy Ghost and Pentecost.

[1] John Peters, Christian Perfection and American Methodism, p. 80–97. cf. section XXII, “On Perfection, Rules of Methodist Episcopal Church, 1784,” in Nathan Bangs’ A History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, I, p. 197.


[2] MS: Letter to Timothy Merritt, New England Methodist Historical Association Library. Cited in Peters, op. cit., p. 97.


[3] Peters, op. cit., p. 98.


[4] Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform, p. 116. In fairness it must be noted that since the publication of his work, Dr. Smith has revised his original evaluation of the place of the doctrine in the early years of American Methodism. He is now convinced that the doctrine played an important role in the first three decades of the nineteenth century .


[5] Charles W. Ferguson, Organizing to Beat the Devil, p. 267; cf. Donald Dayton, “Christian Perfection to the Baptism of the Holy Ghost,” Aspects of Pentecostal-Charismatic Origins, ed. Vinson Syman, p. 42.


[6] E. S. Burke, ed., History of American Methodism, I, 307; II, 609.


[7] Frank Baker, From Wesley to Asbury, 176–180.


[8] General Conference, Journal, I, 160–161, cited in Merrill E. Gaddis, “Christian Perfection in America , “Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago , 1929.


[9] Baker, op. cit.


[10] Peters, op. cit., 98–99.


[11] “The Journal of Benjamin Lakin,” Religion on the American Frontier, ed. W. W. Sweet, IV, 249.


[12] Herman Bangs, The Autobiography and Journal of Rev. Herman Bangs, 53–54.


[13] Ibid., e.g. July 29, and August 22, 1926, p. 139; August 30, 1832, p. 173; June 11, October 23, and November 15, 1841, pp. 208–212. Peters lists Bangs as an exception to the general practice, op. cit., p. 99.


[14] James B. Finley, Sketches of Western Methodism, p. 98.


[15] The Methodist Preacher, II, pp. 95–96, cited in Peters, op. cit., p. 99. Peters classifies Clark and Herman Bangs as “illustrations of an infrequent usage” of the doctrine.


[16] Christian Advocate, September 9, 1826.


[17] John Lindsey, “Sermon: Gospel Purity,” Methodist Magazine and Quarterly Review, XVII (1835), pp. 33–45.


[18] “Journal of James Gilruth, 1835,” Religion on the American Frontier, ed., W. W. Sweet, IV, pp. 401, 440, 443, 445.


[19] “Journal of Benjamin Lakin,” op. cit., p. 251.


[20] Methodist Magazine. I (1818). 5.


[21] “Extract of a Letter from the Rev. S. G. Roszel. Baltimore , February 16, 1818.” Methodist Magazine, I, pp. 156, 158.


[22] “A Short Account of a Camp Meeting Held at Cow-Harbor, Long Island, Which Commenced August 11, 1818,” Methodist Magazine, I.


[23] “A Short Memoir of Mrs. Anna Nickerson,” Methodist Magazine, I, p. 307.


[24] “A Short Memoir of the Rev. James Rogers,” Methodist Magazine, I, p. 297. For other testimonies from these memoirs see Ibid., VI (1823), pp. 89, 199, 258, 417–418, 439; VII (1825), pp. 86, 378ff, 418ff, 446; XI (1828), pp. 98, 119, 130, 138; and passim.


[25] For example: R. Treffy, “Sermon on Christian Perfection,” Methodist Magazine, V (1822; Wm. P. Burgess, “Sermon: Benefits Resulting from the Sacrificial Death and Glorious Life of Jesus Christ. “Burgess discusses full salvation as one of the benefits of believers. Ibid., IX (1826); Adam Clarke, “Christian Perfection, “ Ibid., XI (1828); Review of section of Fletcher’s Works on Perfection, Ibid., XI ( 1833); Rev. John Lindsey, “Sermon: Gospel Purity,” and B. F. Shepard, “Essay on Christian Perfection,” Ibid., XVII (1835).


[26] “Revivals of Religion in Schenectady,” Methodist Magazine, III (1820), p. 357, and Ibid., I, p. 297.


[27] “Memoir of Mr. John Man, Missionary in Nova Scotia ,” Ibid., II (1819), p. 16.


[28] “Extract from a letter from Rev. D. Hutchinson,” January 25, 1819, Ibid., p. 116.


[29] “Account of the Revival of Religion in the Oneida District in the Genesee Conference,” dated August 2, 1818, from Utica, Ibid., p. 75.


[30] “Letter to Rev. John Collins, March 20, 1819,” Ibid., pp. 237–238.


[31] “Revival of Religion in Scioto District (Ohio):, Chillicothe, April 22, 1819, Ibid., p. 233.


[32] “State of Religion in the Mississippi District,” October 20, 1824, Ibid., VIII (1825), p. 39.


[33] “Revival of Religion in Newark, N.J.,” Ibid., VIII, (1825), p. 240.


[34] “Memoir of the Rev. Edward Paine,” Ibid., III (1820), p. 407.


[35] “Revival of Religion in Columbia County, N. Y.,” Ibid., VIII (1825), p. 111. For other representative examples see Ibid., VI (1823), p. 477; VIII (1825), pp. 283, 441, 484; X (1827), pp. 38, 84, 181–182, 243; XI (1828), p. 35; and passim.


[36] Cited in Peters, op. cit., p. 102.


[37] Christian Advocate, October 12, 1827, II, 22; Smith, Revivalism, p. 116.


[38] Christian Advocate, II, p. 22.


[39] Smith, op cit., p. 116.


[40] Peters, op. cit., p. 102.


[41] Smith, op. cit.


[42] Methodist Magazine, X (1827), p. 182


[43] Christian Advocate, November 25, 1826.


[44] Christian Advocate, January 13, 1827; January 11, 1828.


[45] Christian Advocate, June 29, 1827; other examples include: September 16, 1826; September 23, 1826; October 14, 1826; November 18, 1826; December 8, 1826; January 6, 1827; October 12, 1827.


[46] Christian Advocate, October 12, 1827.


[47] Christian Advocate, October 14, 1826.


[48] Christian Advocate, October 7, 1826.


[49] Methodist Magazine, VI (1823), p. 33; Published in 1826 as Letters to Young Ministers of the Gospel on the Importance and Method of Study. This second edition is also cited in Peters, op. cit., p. 102.


[50] John Fletcher, The Works of the Rev. John Fletcher ( Philadelphia : Printed for Joseph Crukshank, 1791; 1st edition), and The Works of the Rev. John Fletcher ( New York : Published by John Wilson and Daniel Hill, 1809.).


[51] John Fletcher, An Address to Imperfect Believers, who cordially embrace the doctrine of gospel sanctification (Boston: True, 1821).


[52] John Fletcher, Christian Perfection (New York: F. Mason and G. Hare, 1837). Examples of other separate publications include Posthumous Pieces of the late Rev. John William Fletcher (Albany: T. Spencer and A. Ellison, 1794); Race for Eternal Life (Philadelphia: E. Cooper, 1802); An Appeal to Matter of Fact and Common Sense (Philadelphia: E. Cooper, 1802); A Rational Vindieation of the Catholic Faith (Baltimore: Abner Neal, 1818); Portrait of St. Paul (New York: B. Waugh and J. Emory, 1830).


[53] Methodist Magazine and Quarterly Review XV (1833), pp. 406–450; XVI (1834), pp. 131–173.


[54] “Methodist Publishing Activities,” Religion on the American Frontier, IV, pp. 700–706; and Joseph Benson, The Life of the Rev. John W. De La Flechere, (Nashville: Publishing House of M. E. Church, South, 1888), pp. 205, 216, 276–278, passim.


[55] Cf. Fletcher’s influence on Asa Mahan: “The terms by which we designate it were those by which it had been presented since the times of Wesley and Fletcher, namely, Christian Perfection, Entire Sanctification, and Full Salvation, “ Autobiography of Asa Mahan, p. 367, cited in B. B. Warfield, Perfectionism, II, p. 57.


[56] M. L. Edwards, Adam Clarke, p. 32.


[57] Robert Chiles, Theological Transition in American Methodism: 1790–1935, p. 42.


[58] Ibid., p. 47.


[59] Richard Watson, Theological Institutes (London: John Mason, 1829).; 3rd edition), III, pp. 197–205.


[60] The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury, I, p. 66. cf. Peters, op. cit., pp. 85–97.


[61] For additional documentation of the place of Christian perfection in eighteenth century Methodism cf. History of American Methodism, I, pp. 301–307; W. W. Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier, IV, pp. 77, 91, 96, 102, 114, 121, 125–128, 140, 156, 159, 208, 210, 211; Asbury, Journal, I, pp. 66, 127, 299, 351, 406, 420, 556, 696, 716; II, pp. 93, 139, 383.


[62] J. P. Pilkington, The Methodist Publishing House, I, pp. 92, 95, 101-103, 142, 149, 179, 181–182, 280-284, 286. Robert E. Chiles, Theological Transition in American Methodism: 1790–1935, chapter II, “Methodism’s Theological History: From Wesley to Watson, 1790–1840,” pp. 37–45.


[63] J. F. Hurst, The History of Methodism, III, p. 1252, and Frank Baker, op. cit., p. 185. Peters, op. cit., 82.


[64] Merrill E. Gaddis, “Christian Perfectionism in America ,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago , 1929, p. 298–301.


[65] B. W. McDonald, History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, p. 105, cited in Gaddis, op. cit., p. 299.


[66] Christian Advocate, October 14, 1826.


[67] Cf. the use of Fletcher in a response to a Calvinistic rejection of the doctrine in “Christian Perfection,” Christian Advocate, II, p. 73. January 11, 1828.


[68] John Fletcher, The Works of the Rev. John Fletcher(Salem, Ohio: Schmul, 1976), pp. 630–633, 645, 647–648, 656. cf. David Cubie, “Perfection in Wesley and Fletcher: Inaugural or Teleological,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, 11 (Spring, 1976), pp. 25, 29–30; and Herbert McGonigle, “Pneumatological Nomenclature in Early Methodism,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, 8 (Spring, 1973 ), pp. 68–69.


[69] MS: Fletcher to Charles Wesley, November 24, 1771; No. 38, Fletcher Volume, Methodist Archives, London .


[70] “Methodist Publishing Activities,” Religion on the American Frontier, IV, pp. 700–706.


[71] Thomas Coke, The Experience and Spiritual Letters of Mrs. Hester Ann Rogers ( London : Milner and Somerby, n.d.), p. 41.