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American Holiness Movement

A religious movement dating from the mid-nineteenth century that tried to preserve the original thrust of the Methodist teachings on entire sanctification and Christian perfection as taught by John Wesley in such writings as the Plain Account of Christian Perfection. This teaching expects that entire sanctification normally takes place instantaneously in an emotional experience similar to conversion. At this point one is cleansed from inbred sin and enabled to live without conscious or deliberate sin. In the American revivalistic context and under the influence of the camp meeting* there was a subtle mutation of these concepts in the direction of individualism, emotionalism, and emphasis on the crisis experience.

Early in the nineteenth century, groups began to emerge from Methodism in protest against the decline of discipline. In the 1840s abolitionist Orange Scott led the Wesleyan Methodists out because Methodism had grown comfortable with slavery. In 1860 B.T. Roberts and the Free Methodists were expelled from the Genesee Conference because of controversy over similar issues and the decline of the holiness emphasis. Both groups added statements on Christian perfection to their articles of religion and gradually identified themselves as holiness bodies.

At the same time there was a movement within Methodism to reemphasize holiness. In the 1830s two sisters, Sarah Lankford and Phoebe Palmer, organized a weekly prayer meeting known as the “Tuesday Meeting” which along with similar meetings became a major force in this movement. In the late 1860s was founded a “National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness,” which evolved over the years into the National Holiness Association (NHA), renamed in 1971 the Christian Holiness Association (CHA), the present ecumenical body representing non-Pentecostal holiness bodies. By the end of the century this movement had spawned innumerable holiness camp meetings, periodicals, and state and local holiness associations. Increasing conflict with Methodist leaders and the decline of national holiness leadership resulted in a period of fragmentation into a myriad of small groups. Many of these clustered to form such holiness denominations as the Church of the Nazarene, the largest independent holiness body, and the Pilgrim Holiness Church, which in 1968 merged with the Wesleyan Methodists to form the Wesleyan Church.

Also founded at this time were a number of denominations taking the name “Church of God.”* Many of these moved into Pentecostalism, but the group centered at Anderson, Indiana, remained closely identified with the holiness movement. The impact of the holiness movement extended far beyond the bounds of Methodism. Two Mennonite bodies, the Missionary Church and the Brethren in Christ,* adopted Wesleyan views and identified with the movement. Other denominations such as the Christian and Missionary Alliance,* reveal holiness influence, but have not completely identified with the movement. Salvation Army founder William Booth was converted in England under an American holiness evangelist. When the Army came to the USA in the 1880s it had a strong holiness orientation and later identified with the CHA.

The twentieth century has produced other holiness groups. The Evangelical Methodist Church withdrew from Methodism in the wake of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, and the Evangelical Church of North America was formed after the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. Other related groups include the Holiness Christian Church, the Churches of Christ in Christian Union, the Methodist Protestants, the Primitive Methodist Church, the Congregational Methodist Church.

Many of these denominations developed in the wake of the revival movements associated with C.G. Finney,* with whose Oberlin Theology* holiness theology has many affinities. Another parallel movement in the mid-nineteenth century was the British Keswick* movement, whose teachings on the victorious life are distinguished from holiness thought primarily by their context in Reformed theology.

Many interpreters fail to distinguish between the holiness movement and Pentecostalism. There are many similarities and historical connections. In the late nineteenth century, holiness writers began to speak of entire sanctification as a “baptism of the Holy Spirit” on the model of Pentecost. It was in this milieu and thought pattern that Pentecostalism was born in America. Some holiness bodies, such as the Pentecostal Holiness Church, moved in this direction, but most dropped the term “Pentecostal” and reaffirmed non-Pentecostal Wesleyan doctrine.

In the twentieth century the holiness movement has shed some of the trappings of revivalism* and is better viewed as conservative Methodism. This development has produced a conservative reaction leading to a number of very small groups such as the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection, the Bible Missionary Church (originally Nazarene), the Wesleyan Holiness Association (originally Bible Missionary), the United Holiness Church, and the Evangelical Wesleyan Church (both originally Free Methodist), loosely grouped together in the Inter-Denominational Holiness Convention.

At present the holiness movement would claim a constituency of at least two million, from fifty to a hundred schools (including three theological seminaries), two interdenominational missionary societies (Oriental Missionary Society and World Gospel Mission), innumerable local associations, camp meetings, etc., and denominational agencies.

T. Smith, Called Unto Holiness (1962); D. Rose, A Theology of Christian Experience (1965); K. Geiger, The Word and the Doctrine (1965); D.W. Dayton, The American Holiness Movement: A Bibliographic Introduction (1971); H.V. Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement (1971).