Skip to Main Content

Denominations - Protestant

Short profiles of selected Christian denominations in the U.S.

Holiness Movement

The Holiness Movement (HM) was the dominant force in 19th century American Protestantism. Although the HM eventually spawned a family of denominations which remain to this day, its influence in the 19th century extended to a much broader swath of American religion, including every major Protestant tradition except for Old School Presbyterians. Varying terminology was used to describe holiness in different segments of the HM, but its central concern was to promote the sanctification of Christian believers through a definite second work of grace subsequent to conversion. The HM also was marked by an emphasis on the active outworking of personal holiness through various social reform efforts. Holiness bodies include the Church of the Nazarene and the various Church of God denominations.

Some congregations of the Holiness tradition are asked to adhere to strict behavioral rules. Scriptural commands are applied to everyday life, such as eschewing inappropriately "worldly" music and other media, clothing styles, makeup, drinking, smoking, dancing, etc. The avoidance of sin is of the utmost importance, and is an ongoing part of Salvation. However, many Holiness groups do allow more for relaxed, contemporary lifestyles (albeit traditional) and leadership roles for women.

History: The Holiness Movement was part of the American revivalist tradition, which had roots in the First Great Awakening in the 18th century and the frontier camp-meeting revivalism that emerged in the early 19th century. Historians usually trace the beginnings of the HM as a distinct movement to the "Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Christian Holiness," an interdenominational parlor-room meeting in New York City led by Phoebe Palmer. Although Palmer was a Methodist with many connections to high-ranking Methodist leaders, her meetings were attended by leaders from other traditions, such as Edgar Levy (Baptist), Thomas Upham (Congregationalist), William Boardman (Presbyterian), Asa Mahan (president of Oberlin College) and Charles Cullis (Episcopal). Through such influential relationships, the HM emphasis on a definite second work of grace was spread through American Protestantism, though several distinct strains of HM teaching emerged (Wesleyan, Keswick, Oberlin). Wesleyan teaching on Christian "perfection" blended with American Revivalism and was supported by general ascendency of Arminian theology, producing a dramatic and expectant atmosphere in the period leading up to the Civil War. This expectancy contributed in part to the association between HM leaders and social activism on such causes as the abolition of slavery, relief for the poor, temperance and women’s rights.

The dramatic central event in the history of the HM was the Layman’s Revival of 1858, which resonated across the United States, as well as in Canada and Britain. This revival began with a series of daily prayer meetings organized by businessmen in New York, which soon spread to other cities. These interdenominational events were supported by a wide spectrum of denominations, and they were supported by mass revival campaigns by itinerant preachers such as Phoebe Palmer and James Caughey.

In the postwar period, the focus of the HM shifted from informal, lay-led initiatives to formal, clergy-led mass revival efforts, organized by the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness (founded 1867) and its Methodist-dominated leadership. The new Association took on a leading role within the movement and continued to hold sway the 1870s. However, from 1875, as the HM continued to solidify its institutional structures, it lost its non-polemical, activist, and interdenominational character and started down the road to eventual schism and denominationalization.

Holiness organizations:

Photo: Grace Wesleyan Methodist Church, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.