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American Holiness Movement

 R. V. Pierard


Originating in the United States in the 1840s and 50s, this was an endeavor to preserve and propagate John Wesley’s teaching on entire sanctification and Christian perfection. Wesley held that the road from sin to salvation is one from willful rebellion against divine and human law to perfect love for God and man. Following Wesley, Holiness preachers emphasized that the process of salvation involves two crises.

In the first, conversion or justification, one is freed from the sins he has committed. In the second, entire sanctification or full salvation, one is liberated from the flaw in his moral nature that causes him to sin. Man is capable of this perfection even though he dwells in a corruptible body marked by a thousand defects arising from ignorance, infirmities, and other creaturely limitations. It is a process of loving the Lord God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, and it results in the ability to live without conscious or deliberate sin. However, to achieve and then remain in this blessed state requires intense, sustained effort, and one’s life must be marked by constant self renunciation, careful observance of the divine ordinances, a humble, steadfast reliance on God’s forgiving grace in the atonement, the intention to look for God’s glory in all things, and an increasing exercise of the love which itself fulfills the whole law and is the end of the commandments.

In the mid-nineteenth century several factors converged that contributed to the renewal of the Holiness emphasis, among them the camp meeting revivals that were a common feature in rural America, the Christian perfectionism of Charles Finney and Asa Mahan (the Oberlin theology), the “Tuesday Meeting” of Phoebe Palmer in New York, the urban revival of 1857–58, and protests within the Methodist churches about the decline of discipline which resulted in the Wesleyan Methodist secession in 1843 and Free Methodist withdrawal in 1860. These two became the first denominations formally committed to Holiness. After the Civil War a full fledged Holiness revival broke out within the ranks of Methodism, and in 1867 the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness was formed. From 1893 it was known as the National Holiness Association (NHA) and in 1971 was renamed the Christian Holiness Association. Until the 1890s Methodists dominated the movement and channeled its enthusiasm into their churches.

The increasing number of Holiness evangelists, many of whom were unsanctioned by their superiors, a flourishing independent press, and the growth of nondenominational associations gradually weakened the position of mainline Methodism in the movement. By the 1880s the first independent Holiness denominations had begun to appear, and tensions between Methodism and the Holiness associations escalated. The gap between the two widened as Methodist practice drifted steadily toward a sedate, middleclass American Protestantism, while the Holiness groups insisted they were practicing primitive Wesleyanism and were the true successors of Wesley in America . The small schismatic bodies gradually coalesced into formal denominations, the largest of which were the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana (1880), Church of the Nazarene (1908), and Pilgrim Holiness Church (1897, merged with the Wesleyan Methodists in 1968 to form the Wesleyan Church).

The polity of these bodies was a modified Methodism in that there was generally somewhat more congregational autonomy, and the “second blessing” of entire sanctification was an integral part of their theology. Most operated with a strict perfectionist code of personal morality and demanded from their adherents plain dress and abstinence from “worldly” pleasures and amusements. Also, nearly all of them allowed women to be ordained to the ministry and occupy leadership positions.

The Holiness movement quickly spread beyond the bounds of Methodism. A Mennonite group, the United Missionary Church (formerly Mennonite Brethren in Christ and since a merger in 1969 called the Missionary Church ), adopted the doctrine of entire sanctification and Holiness standards of personal conduct. The Brethren in Christ (founded 1863) was of mixed Pennsylvania German pietist and Mennonite origins, but it also took on Wesleyan perfectionism. Four Quaker yearly meetings that had been influenced by Holiness doctrines came together in 1947 to form the Evangelical Friends Alliance. The Salvation Army also has had a firm commitment to Holiness. The Christian and Missionary Alliance with its emphasis on Christ as Savior, sanctifier, healer, and coming King has an affinity with the Wesleyan movement, and its two most prominent thinkers, A. B. Simpson and A. W. Tozer, are widely read in Holiness circles, but it never accepted the doctrine of the eradication of sin.

The growth of the independent churches was related to the decline of the Holiness emphasis within Methodism, and after World War II denominationalism turned the originally evangelistic NHA into a council of Holiness churches. But numerical growth and material prosperity led inexorably to compromise with contemporary culture, and the relaxation of personal discipline was reflected in the wearing of fashionable dress and jewelry and secular entertainments such as participation in athletics and television viewing. As a result, several conservative splinter groups seceded from the Holiness denominations and joined together in an interchurch organization in 1947 known as the Interdenominational Holiness Convention. This now sees itself as the defender of pristine Wesleyanism.

Pentecostalism is an offshoot of the Holiness movement. It teaches that speaking in tongues is the evidence one has received the second blessing. At a Bible school in Topeka, Kansas, founded by a Holiness evangelist the “gift of the Spirit” came to a student in 1901, and the practice of glossolalia quickly spread. The Pentecostal revival made its greatest inroads in areas where Holiness movements were already prospering, and it attracted far more non-Methodists than had the earlier forms of perfectionism. Besides the emphasis on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, Pentecostalism recognized divine healing and demanded highly puritanical standards of personal conduct. Like the Holiness groups the Pentecostals were theological conservatives, and they comprised an important addition to the Arminian wing of Protestant conservatism in the period when the fundamentalist movement was gathering steam.

Some Holiness denominations, most notably the Church of the Nazarene, flatly reject the use of tongues, while others, the largest being the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee , and the Pentecostal Holiness Church , teach both glossolalia and entire sanctification. Denominationalism soon took hold in Pentecostalism, and before long it had more adherents than its parent in such bodies as the Assemblies of God, the black Church of God in Christ, and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

More difficult to characterize is the Keswick movement which originated in Britain in 1875 at a “Convention for the Promotion of Practical Holiness” in the Lake District town of that name. Speakers at the annual Keswick conferences emphasized the “deeper life” instead of holiness, believing that the tendency to sin is not extinguished but is counteracted by victorious living through the Holy Spirit. The predominance of Reformed Anglicans along with like minded Free Church evangelicals in the movement prevented the Wesleyan-Arminian view of sanctification from establishing a foothold.

In Germany the Holiness concept was institutionalized in the Gemeinschaftsbewegung (Fellowship Movement) which came into existence under the influence of Keswick and Methodist evangelists from Britain and the United States . Several societies were founded, the most important being the German Evangelization Association (1884), Gnadau Association (1888), and Blankenburg Alliance Conference (1905), which cultivated a deeper holiness among members of the territorial churches.

The Holiness movement contributed to a deepening of the spiritual life in a materialistic age, and it was a welcome contrast to the sterile intellectualism and dead orthodoxy that characterized so many churches at the time. However, it has been criticized for suggesting that a “second blessing” can provide some Christians with a higher kind of sanctification than that which flows from one’s justifying faith. P. T. Forsyth said it is “a fatal mistake to think of holiness as a possession which we have distinct from our faith and conferred upon it. That is a Catholic idea, still saturating Protestant pietism.” Other objections include the tendency to identify holiness with quietistic self abasement and even loss of personality, an otherwordly asceticism that calls for the rejection of all secular culture as sinful, confining the grace of God to stereotyped forms of religious experience, an overemphasis on feeling, and claiming with overweening confidence the special action of the Holy Spirit in one’s life and direct inspiration in the details of thought and action.