October 2002
Holiness Churches - remembering who we are by Barry W. Hamilton

Wesleyan scholars can spend hours dickering over what a “holiness church” is. Most would trace its roots to John Wesley and the Evangelical Revival in 18th century England. Some would include George Whitefield and the Calvinistic Methodists, while others would trace the roots farther back in church history. But all would agree that the Holiness Movement was born in revival, and that for most of its history, revival stood at the center of the movement for the special promotion of holiness. Anyone who reads historical Wesleyan materials—Wesley’s “Works,” the biographies of Methodist saints like John Fletcher, the works of holiness evangelists from Phoebe Palmer to Martin Wells Knapp, from William Carvosso to Bud Robinson—would agree that the Holiness Movement was in essence a revival of New Testament Christianity.

Even thirty years ago, if someone walked into a holiness church, in most cases revival would define the essence of the religion found therein. Altar services were common, and Sunday morning worship often ended with “seekers” down front, praying for conversion or for entire sanctification. And if the church were located in a small town, the holiness church was often widely recognized for its distinctiveness. If it were true to its heritage, the holiness church did not preach a private mysticism, but a “practical holiness” with a public witness.

However, during the past three decades holiness churches have experienced steady transition away from their heritage. Some holiness denominations have encouraged a type of “historical amnesia” in which selected “respectable” figures like the brothers Wesley, Adam Clarke, or Phoebe Palmer are held in esteem. Those who founded and led denominations are given the highest honors, and one denomination even sent sketches of its highest-ranking denominational leaders—from the earliest to the most recent—to each and every minister in that denomination. While few would question the propriety of these honors, it does raise questions of how holiness churches approach their heritage. What does the Holiness Movement choose to remember about its past? And just as important—what does the Holiness Movement choose to forget?

Holiness periodicals often respond to historical interests by publishing articles on Wesley, Fletcher, or Palmer. Some of the best articles have celebrated the labors of women evangelists such as Elliot J. Sheeks and MaryLee Cagle. But practically all of them reflect the rising status of the holiness denominations by selectively “forgetting” some of the cultural aspects of the early holiness movement. Of course, some of these aspects should be left in the past and not celebrated by today’s churches. Those who grew up in holiness churches can remember well-meaning saints who were more interested in “cleaning fish” than catching them. Some still experience the pain of embarrassment when remembering services in which a burst of enthusiasm stepped over the line into rank fanaticism. And what self-respecting publication would revive the abusive articles from the early 1900’s that heaped scorn on the ‘icebergy churches’ and “Romish” practices”? And how many church members today would understand why holiness preachers condemned “ice cream suppers” and “strawberry festivals”?

And yet the holiness movement has forgotten altogether too much of its heritage. “Revival” in many cases is simply a week of “special emphasis” services. And some churches do not want to use the term “revival” in today’s “seeker-sensitive” climate. Tragically, some holiness churches never see revival. Many of these are located on obscure streets in major cities, and can be found only by sheer determination and mapquest.com. If someone calls to inquire about the “selling points” of their ministries, the response usually outlines the blessings of a new roof or bewails the loss of yet another family. One phone inquiry revealed that the youngest member of the congregation had just celebrated a sixtieth birthday. Other holiness churches have been torn apart by conflict, and their reputation has been tarnished. In a small Ohio town, one holiness church is known locally as “The Fighting Church.”

Too many pastors of holiness churches know the agony of trying to get their churches to reach out with Christ’s love to the community, only to have their members refuse to welcome “outsiders” to their fellowship. One pastor suggested to the board that the church target several large trailer parks in the community. The board responded, “Well, pastor, the Great Commission does tell us to reach out to others, but these people can’t help us pay our mortgage.” When a pastoral candidate interviewed with a holiness church in Mississippi and suggested strategies for evangelizing the neighborhood, the church board told him they did not want African Americans coming to their church!

Yet another holiness church in a small Midwestern city asked three questions of newcomers: “What do you do? Where do you live? What do you drive?” Not far away from that church is another holiness church in the middle of a cornfield. Less than ten miles away is one of the fastest growing churches in North America. Yet folks from the holiness church refuse to pick up prospective people in their own cars, and have never had a church bus. Outreach is restricted to relatives and friends of the members. It seems to be part of the “natural man” to want to associate with people like ourselves, and as a consequence we throw up barriers to those who need to hear the Gospel. And when holiness churches refuse to broadcast the Gospel to “whosoever will,” they should consider purchasing a new church sign for the front of their property—a long slab of granite from the funeral home.

Recovering our heritage means far more than putting the word “holiness” back in today’s generic church names. It means recovering the legacy of revival that stretches all the way back to Acts 2—a legacy that includes evangelism at the heart of every local church. Early 1900’s evangelist Seth C. Rees said that holiness without evangelism is “a slander on the upper skies.” It means recovering that heritage by using the mourner’s bench for what William B. Godbey called the “epochal” (instantaneous) experiences of conversion and entire sanctification, not merely for the all-purpose prayer times that holiness churches emphasize in their worship services today. The holiness movement has a rich heritage that stretches back to the apostles, and when we shed our past so that we can more effectively “reach” people who know nothing of those treasures, we rob ourselves of our inheritance. Our history is priceless, and our forbears would scold us for trading our gold for brass. We must recover holiness revivalism as a viable strategy for 21st century evangelism.

Dr. Barry W. Hamilton, well-known holiness scholar and teacher, is currently theological librarian and assistant professor of historical and contemporary theology, Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, New York. In conjunction with Dr. William Kostlevy and the Rev. Wallace Thornton, he taught a class, “History and Literature of the Holiness Movement” at GBS in the spring of 2002.

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Keeping Our Holiness Heritage Alive
interview of Tim Dotson by Larry Smith

What's In It For Me?
Michael R. Avery

Behold The Lamb
Larry D. Smith

Holiness Churches—Remembering Who We Are
Barry W. Hamilton

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