The Holiness Churches: A Significant Ethical Tradition

This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 26, 1975 pp. 197-201. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The "Holiness" movement is perhaps best viewed as a synthesis of Methodism with the revivalism of Charles G. Finney, as it found expression in pre-Civil War America in a reaffirmation of the doctrine of "Christian perfection." It differs from fundamentalism and evangelicalism in that it is more oriented to ethics and spiritual life than to a defense of doctrinal orthodoxy.

To many outsiders, the world of "conservative" Christianity no doubt seems an undifferentiated mass. But the uniformity and agreement often claimed by advocates of "evangelicalism" are to great extent a myth. The groups that compose conservative Christendom are marked by distinctive theological stances and sociological dynamics as significant as those that distinguish other church traditions or those that separate evangelical groups from mainline denominations.

For example, the major ecumenical body in conservative circles, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), comprises more than 30 member denominations, which fall into three natural groupings. About one-third are "Pentecostal"; these denominations have become better known since the rise of the "charismatic movement." A second third are the sort of "evangelicals" represented by Christianity Today and the dominant conservative seminaries. The third group, the "Holiness" churches, is the one least noticed or understood by those outside the conservative tradition.


Holiness groups have often been caricatured as "holy rollers," or confused with snake-handling cults. Not only are such images for the most part false, but they hide from view one of the most significant traditions of ethical and social witness in all of Christendom. Indeed, it was not until the 1960s that certain values pioneered by Holiness groups found widespread acceptance in American culture. I myself was drawn back toward the church in which I was reared, in part by the discovery that at least the history (if not always the present reality) of the Holiness churches was a most significant incarnation of values that I had discovered in the student movements of the past decade.

Holiness churches claim to stand in the direct succession of John Wesley and "original" Methodism. But the movement is perhaps best viewed as a synthesis of Methodism with the revivalism of Charles G. Finney, as it found expression in pre- Civil War America in a reaffirmation of the doctrine of "Christian perfection. In this period at least three major strands of the movement developed. Early Oberlin College, with Finney as professor of theology, but especially under the influence of President Asa Mahan, moved toward perfectionism in the 1830s. Two groups -- the abolitionist Wesleyan Methodists (1843) and the ethically "rigorist" Free Methodists (1860) -- split from Methodism and adopted "perfectionist" planks. Finally, and perhaps most important for later developments, there were the circles that clustered around lay evangelist Phoebe Palmer in New York city.

It was the Revival of 1857-58 that in many ways propelled perfectionist ideas into broader acceptance in Baptist, Presbyterian, Quaker and other circles through varieties of "higher Christian life" movements. The extension of these currents into England produced the Salvation Army and the Keswick movement of the 1870s, both of which were brought to America before the turn of the century. In this country the major agency of propagation was the National Campmeeting Association for the Promotion of Christian Holiness, founded in 1867. Out of this movement grew innumerable Holiness papers, local camp meetings and associations, missions and colleges; by the turn of the century these began to coalesce into new denominations -- the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and related groups, the Church of the Nazarene, the Pilgrim Holiness Church, and so forth. In the late 19th century certain Quaker and Mennonite bodies were swept into the movement.

Charles Jones’s Guide to the Study of the Holiness Movement (Scarecrow Press, 1974) identifies some 150 groups produced by the movement. Many of these have been absorbed into various amalgamations, but a large number still maintain separate existence. Perhaps a score of these identify today with the Christian Holiness Association (CHA) -- a Holiness counterpart to the National Association of Evangelicals that has its roots in the National Campmeeting Association. At least as many much smaller bodies work with the Inter-Church Holiness Convention, which comprises groups that have been formed largely in protest against post-World War II socialization of the dominant Holiness churches (this is the so-called "radical" or "conservative" Holiness movement). About a dozen Holiness churches were swept into Pentecostalism to form the "Holiness-Pentecostal" churches. Beyond this are a number of independent, separatist groups extremely difficult to identify.

It is almost impossible to estimate the constituency of these denominations. American membership of CHA affiliates is over a million. "Holiness-Pentecostal" churches comprise another million. One can also identify a few hundred thousand other adherents. But these figures would still be deceptive. While most church membership statistics are inflated, the opposite obtains for Holiness groups. Because of strict membership requirements and vigorous evangelism, attendance is often much higher than membership. It is common for Sunday school attendance, for example, to be double the size of membership. As a result, Holiness churches claim several million adherents -- a sizable sector of American Protestantism.


The major concern of the "mainline" or CHA Holiness churches has been the doctrine of "Christian perfection" or "entire sanctification." This doctrine encourages the seeking of a "higher Christian life" of "victory over" or "cleansing from" intentional or voluntary sin. This is usually achieved in a "second blessing" or a crisis experience subsequent to conversion. In the, more classically Wesleyan expressions of the doctrine, this crisis is embedded in a gradual process of sanctification or growth. In the late 19th century such an experience was called the "baptism of the Holy Ghost," a terminology still preserved in such groups as the Church of the Nazarene. It was this development that eventually led to Pentecostalism, but most Holiness churches have shied away from this "Pentecostal" language for fear of identification with glossolalia movements. (Interestingly, in view of their own history, ethos and theology, the Holiness people are among the strongest critics of classical Pentecostalism.)

The ethos of Holiness churches reflects American revivalism and the spirit of the camp meeting -- though attenuated, of course, over the years. There has been an affinity for the "gospel song," combined with a tradition of classical Wesleyan hymnody and Methodist ritual. The movement has produced some 200 colleges, at least half of which are still in existence. Two small 100,000-member denominations, the Wesleyan Church and the Free Methodist Church, each support half a dozen colleges, including such thriving institutions as Houghton College (New York) and Seattle Pacific College. Four seminaries (Asbury in Kentucky, Anderson School of Theology in Indiana, Nazarene in Kansas City, and Western Evangelical in Portland) serve the movement.

The Holiness movement differs from fundamentalism and evangelicalism in that it is more oriented to ethics and the spiritual life than to a defense of doctrinal orthodoxy. Indeed, one of the distinctive features of the Holiness traditions is that they have tended to raise ethics to the status that fundamentalists have accorded doctrine. This theme was certainly explicit in the early abolitionist controversies and has consistently re-emerged since. The emphasis given the doctrine of sanctification has led naturally in this direction.

The Holiness ethic has been described as the "revivalist" ethic of "no smoking, no drinking, no cardplaying, no theatergoing." Such themes have, of course, characterized the Holiness movement -- as have large doses of anti-Catholicism and anti-Masonry. Some of these concerns are still worth some defense, but the Holiness churches have been slandered by observers who fail to penetrate beneath these themes.


The earliest issue of the Holiness movement was abolitionism. The early editors of the Guide to Holiness were abolitionists. Oberlin College went so far as to advocate "civil disobedience" in the face of the fugitive slave laws (leading to the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Case -- an important event in the history of American civil liberties). The Wesleyan Methodist Church was explicitly abolitionist at its founding, and much early literature of the denomination has recently come back into print for "black studies" programs. One meaning of the "free" in Free Methodist was that church’s abolitionism. Holiness people find some vindication in William Gravely’s recent study Gilbert Haven: Methodist Abolitionist (Abingdon, 1973). Haven, a Methodist bishop claimed as well by the Holiness movement, was an ardent reformer, abolitionist and feminist who went so far as to advocate interracial marriage and who maintained his concerns into the era of Reconstruction when many abolitionists were moving on to other issues. Gravely’s book suggests that Haven’s positions, actually a century ahead of their time, have finally come into their own.

Just as in the 1960s, in Haven’s time agitation on the race issue led to concern for the role of women. In addition to erasing the color line, Oberlin College became the first to attempt coeducation; the school graduated a number of the most vigorous and radical feminists of the era. The first women’s rights convention was held in the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Seneca Falls, New York. Antoinette Brown, the first woman to be ordained in an American church, was a graduate of Oberlin, and at her ordination Wesleyan Methodist minister Luther Lee preached on "Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel" (1853). Wesleyans themselves began to experiment with the ordination of women in the 1860s. Catherine Booth, who with her husband, William, was cofounder of the Salvation Army, was also an ardent feminist; she insisted on radical equality for women in the new organization. In a book published in 1891, B. T. Roberts, founder of the Free Methodists, argued in favor of Ordaining Women, though his denomination did not capitulate until 1974.

Phoebe Palmer defended the right of women to preach in The Promise of the Father (1859). Her book became the fountainhead of innumerable writings that argued that "Pentecost laid the axe at the root of social injustice." Acts 2, relying on a prophecy in the book of Joel, affirms that "in the latter days . . . your sons and your daughters shall prophesy." By the turn of the century this Scripture passage constituted the standard Holiness defense of the practice. An early constitution of the Church of the Nazarene specifically provided for the ministry of women. Seth Cook Rees, a founder of the Pilgrim Holiness Church, insisted that "nothing but jealousy, prejudice, bigotry, and a stingy love for bossing in men have prevented women’s public recognition by the church." Alma White, founder of the Pillar of Fire, claimed to be the first female bishop in the history of Christianity. For years her denomination published a periodical, Women’s Chains, which fought for the right to vote, advocated total participation of women in society (including Congress and the White House), and suggested imprisonment for the inventors of the high-heeled shoe.


Another recurrent theme in Holiness churches has been involvement with and ministry to the poor and oppressed." Early abolitionist literature has striking parallels to today’s "liberation theology." The "free" in Free Methodist also stood for opposition to church pew rentals, which served to exclude the poor. Such concerns were held to be required by a proper reading of the Scriptures. Sociologists have told us that Holiness churches are "churches of the poor"; they are more nearly the product of the turning of certain church people to the poor. Like Wesley, such men as Phineas Bresee, the dominant figure of the Church of the Nazarene, and A. B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, left socially elite churches to minister among the poor of the inner city slums. The Salvation Army was perhaps the profoundest expression of this theme. The "rescue mission" movement and related programs were largely the product of Holiness effort. An early Church of the Nazarene paper, titled Highways and Hedges, protested against "the steeple house church . . . too busy chasing dollars" and expressed a pledge to go "into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor and the maimed and the halt and the blind."

From today’s perspective it is difficult to appreciate the vitality and creativity of these movements. They were much more than just "relief" efforts. Norris Magnuson has shown in a recent dissertation, "Salvation in the Slums" (University of Minnesota, 1968), how close contact with the poor moved the "mission workers" toward new social and political positions that favored the oppressed. Some adopted various forms of social radicalism. W. T. Stead, in his biography of Catherine Booth, described her as a socialist and something more," one who was "in complete revolt against the existing order."

Peace was another common theme. Thomas Upham, one of the more mystically inclined of early Holiness teachers, wrote in 1836 the important Manual of Peace, opposing the military chaplaincy, advocating "tax resistance," and calling for the abolition of capital punishment. Almost totally ignored in the literature of pacifism are the several "peace churches" produced by the movement. Also of significance are the Holiness witness against ostentation in life style, the concern for simplicity, and the affirmation of radical equality expressed in avoiding honorific titles in favor of "Mr." or "Brother."


Somewhat ironic -- in view of this history -- is the fact that the past generation or so has seen great dilution of these values -- and this just at a time when many of these values were receiving wider vindication in the larger cultural and church life! Prevailing social forces, a generation or two of "progressive" leadership, and a desire on the part of many to avoid identification with the caricatures of the movement have effected profound changes. Many contemporary Holiness leaders have come to think of their tradition as a variety of "evangelicalism" with a slightly different belief structure. The result has been the development of patterns of church life much like those against which the founders originally rebelled.

But the earlier ethos remains subliminally present and is breaking out again, especially among the younger generation. Those working with college students report that students from Holiness colleges respond more quickly to "discipleship" demands than some "evangelicals" who are more conditioned to responding with verbalization or doctrinal formulation. As an officer of the NAE Social Action Commission recently put it, "Holiness people still have an ear for ethical issues."

Current stirrings of social concern among conservative Christians have found reception in the CHA constituency. June 1973 saw an ecumenical conference on issues of war and peace under the auspices of the CHA. Though the NAE would not touch it, the 1974 CHA annual convention endorsed the "Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern" without hesitation (though one member of the resolutions committee feared that endorsement would imply that CHA had not held these values all along). Ron Sider, though he has worked primarily among the "evangelicals," is from a CHA church; he was the major force behind the "Chicago Declaration" and the earlier "Evangelicals for McGovern." (Senator McGovern himself was the product of a Wesleyan Methodist parsonage.) And Free Methodist Gilbert James of Asbury Theological Seminary has been one of the strongest voices for social conscience within conservative Christendom. Over a quarter of a century ago he was editing a paper on race relations and social legislation. More recently he has created Chicago’s "Urban Ministries Program for Seminarians," which provides "urban action training" for a coalition of seven midwestern conservative seminaries.

Also worth noting is the Holiness attitude toward ecumenism. This is a curious dialectic of "schismatic" and "unitive" tendencies. Early Holiness leaders delighted in the "nonsectarian" and interdenominational character of their meetings. Some even hoped that the new movement would produce unity in Christendom. Such hopes were, of course, doomed to failure; what resulted was more a redrawing of denominational lines as the Holiness movement spread beyond Methodism. But the separations that did take place were as much the result of being "put out" as "coming out" of the established denominations. The Wesleyan Methodists did not leave Methodism until the bishops began to use their arbitrary power to crush even the discussion of abolitionism. Free Methodists were actually expelled from the Methodist Episcopal Church (though the credentials of B. T. Roberts were later returned to his son with something of an apology). The National Campmeeting Association fought hard for loyalty, but the influx of non-Methodists, an increasing radicalization of Holiness bodies, and an increasing polarization led ultimately to schism.

But the main thrust of the formation of Holiness churches has been "unitive." Turn-of-the-century Holiness churches were formed by the gradual coalescing of missions and local organizations. The Church of the Nazarene and the Pilgrim Holiness Church brought together perhaps 30 antecedent organizations. These forces are still at work. The year 1969 saw the emergence of the Missionary Church in the Mennonite wing of the Holiness movement. In 1966 the Wesleyan Methodists absorbed the Reformed Baptists and two years later merged with the Pilgrim Holiness Church to form the Wesleyan Church. The merging General Conference voted to begin negotiations with the Free Methodists (these are still in progress). The Christian Holiness Association even attempted "confederation" in the mid-1960s but had to settle for a more loosely organized program of "cooperative ministries" in such areas as publishing and evangelism. It is still possible that we will see the merging of these groups into a major denomination.


Reaction to all these currents has left the "mainline" Holiness churches somewhat at sea as they struggle for new ways to express an updated identity. The process has been complicated by a new intellectual and theological maturity. Seminary programs expanded rapidly in the 1960s. The founding about ten years ago of a Wesleyan Theological Society (it now has about 700 members) and an associated academic journal has been another force. During the 1960s a sizable number of Holiness students entered the most prestigious graduate schools in the country. Unlike an earlier generation of students, most of these are retaining identification with the movement.

This new generation of theological teachers is faced with two major theological problems. The first of these is to re-express the distinctive doctrine of the Holiness movement with some fidelity to Scripture and history in a manner that speaks to the modern age. This is no easy task. In some parts of the movement the doctrine has fallen into disuse. Such persons often tend to move toward the style and ethos of the Christianity Today constituency. Others have moved in the direction of the Keswick Movement and a doctrine of a "victorious Christian life." Even those who have remained most faithful to the doctrine have modified some of the cruder forms of the "second blessing" theology by reaffirmation of the more subtle classical Wesleyanism, with its themes of growth and process in sanctification. But new interpretations are beginning to appear. Recent years have seen the emergence of existential, relational, phenomenological, and even process interpretations of Holiness theology! The most recent of these has been Love, the Dynamic of Wesleyanism (Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1972), by Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, immediate past president of the Wesleyan Theological Society.

The other theological problem that leaders and theologians of the Holiness movement face is the sorting out of the relationship between the Holiness movement and modern fundamentalism. Holiness bodies were deeply influenced by fundamentalism during the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. Lacking a developed apologetic and a theologically sophisticated intellectual tradition, many Holiness leaders adopted the fundamentalist apologetic and doctrine of Scripture. The CHA was reorganized and the Wesleyan Theological Society formed in the wake of the emergence of NAE and the Evangelical Theological Society. Early CHA and WTS doctrinal statements were modeled on NAE and ETS counterparts. Such men as Stephen Paine, until recently president of Houghton College, brought NAE motifs into Holiness bodies. Under Paine’s influence, for example, the Wesleyan Methodist Church rewrote its articles of religion in the 1950s to incorporate the fundamentalist doctrine of Scripture.

But the Wesleyans were the only body to go that far. The larger CHA bodies prefer to see themselves as "conservative" rather than "fundamentalist" or "evangelical." Remnants of earlier reformist "postmillenialism" kept many from complete capitulation to fundamentalist chiliasm. Restrained forms of biblical criticism have found acceptance among Holiness scholars -- so much so that many do not find themselves at home in the Evangelical Theological Society. Recent years have seen struggles to move to a more inclusive doctrinal statement. Both the CHA and WTS creeds have recently been reformulated with the express purpose of avoiding the characteristic expressions of the "evangelical" doctrine of Scripture, as well as the endless specification of particular doctrines.

What will finally come out of all these currents remains to be seen. But there is little doubt that we are witnessing the emergence into wider dialogue of what will prove to be an increasingly important theological and ecclesiastical tradition.