Holiness Movement

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1956 Article

The logical tension between recognizing the Christian believer as a regenerated and cleansed child of God, and at the same time as sinful and unworthy of God and His grace, has driven some Christian teachers to one or other of two extremes: (1) to hold strongly to justification through the imputed righteousness of Christ, with an inadequate emphasis on becoming a new creature in Christ, sometimes even to the radical extreme of a form of antinomianism which does not regard as sin those wrong acts committed "in the flesh"; and (2) to teach that it is possible by the grace of God and the renewal of the Holy Spirit to attain such a degree of holiness as to no longer have any struggle with the flesh or the carnal nature. This state is often thought of as being attained instantaneously by an act of faith, subsequent to conversion and receiving the gift of salvation. This second definite experience is called the "second work of grace" or "holiness" or "Christian perfection" by its adherents. This theory of holiness is really Wesleyan, but it gained acceptance in some groups of Mennonites after the mid-19th century. This was best illustrated in the United Missionary Church, formerly known as the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (which name was still retained in the Pennsylvania Conference of the group), and in the Brethren in Christ, commonly called "River Brethren." It is the teaching of these bodies that salvation is received in two steps—first, the new birth and the gift of salvation through repentance and faith, but which ordinarily leaves the new convert less than a fully victorious child of God; and second, the second work of grace, or holiness, in which the Holy Spirit miraculously gives full deliverance from the power of sin. The believer is then regarded as "relatively perfect" in life. He is still tempted by Satan, and by the evil forces of the world, but he no longer has to suffer from the sharp inner struggles with his own carnal nature which formerly plagued him.

There have been a few ministers in other Mennonite bodies such as the Mennonite Church (MC) who more or less adopted the Wesleyan doctrine of holiness, and in some cases minor secessions have resulted; as in Harvey County, Kansas, in the early 20th century, when J. M. R. Weaver and others withdrew from the Mennonite Church (Weaver returned).

One of the results of the Holiness movement in Kansas, which affected various Mennonite leaders (MC), was the teaching that nonconformed Christian men ought not to wear neckties. Prior to this time, black bow ties (earlier, the old neckcloth or Halstuch) had been universally worn in the Mennonite Church, ministry and laity alike. In spite of the opposition of such leaders as John F. Funk, editor of the Herald of Truth, who openly and in print opposed the anti-necktie sentiment, this view gained ground until many ministers and some lay members (MC) ceased to wear ties. By the 1950s, however, this attitude had faded.

By the mid-20th century there appeared to be a moderating of the more extreme views of holiness in the United Missionary Church and in the Brethren in Christ. Although some ministers taught the old-fashioned doctrine of a "second work of grace" in just the same fashion as did the leaders of a generation or two ago, other ministers were becoming less vocal on the point, and in many cases began to stress "Christian growth" rather than the more distinctive doctrine of "holiness."

Among European Mennonites Perfectionism, or the doctrine of "total eradication" has had little influence, although the Anabaptists were often accused of holding this position because of their staunch insistence on holy living. -- JCW

1989 Article

The holiness movement comprises those groups which have perpetuated and popularized the Wesleyan message of sanctification in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is significant that both the Evangelical Missionary Church (formerly Mennonite Brethren in Christ) and the Brethren in Christ were influenced by the holiness movement in the latter half of the 19th century, for that was when the movement reached its greatest strength in North America and Europe. The Missionary Church was born at this time, and the Brethren in Christ endorsed the Wesleyan view of sanctification as they entered the second century of their existence. Holiness theology has also had a slight impact on the Evangelical Mennonite Church and other Mennonite groups.

The emergence of a holiness theology in the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (Missionary Church) was a rather uneventful development, growing out of the religious experience of their early ministerial leadership and through their almost immediate use of the camp meeting (holiness camps), popularized by the holiness movement. For the Brethren in Christ, the transition to a Wesleyan theology of holiness was a slow development, critiqued, modified, and at times resisted, by the "growth view" of sanctification entrenched by a century of denominational heritage. From 1887 to 1910 there was a trend toward a cautious Wesleyan view of sanctification. The holiness message spread, mainly through annual evangelistic meetings and later the camp meetings, until it climaxed in the 1940s with an unqualified stance on Christian perfection in the mold of the American holiness tradition.

Since the 1950s, both denominations have modified their Wesleyan stance somewhat, though with different dynamics in each case. Both denominations have entered into the larger Evangelical movement and have been affected by its non-Wesleyan atmosphere. This has been particularly noticeable in some areas of the Evangelical Missionary Church which have shifted to a Calvinistic understanding on sanctification. For the Brethren in Christ, historical studies, both in Brethren in Christ roots and in the theology of John Wesley (1703-1791), which is more complex and less radical than the American camp meeting theology, have modified Brethren in Christ doctrinal expression regarding "entire sanctification." In general, more attention has been given since the 1950s to the process of sanctification as the necessary complement to the crisis aspect of the holiness message. Near the end of the 20th century, the Brethren in Christ more fully integrated their Wesleyan and Anabaptist traditions and thus were more comfortable with Anabaptist thought and activities than was the Evangelical Missionary Church.

Since the holiness tradition gave both churches a strong teaching emphasis upon the Holy Spirit's work in the life of the believer and in the congregation's worship and ministry, the charismatic movement has not had the impact upon them that it has had upon other segments of the Mennonite community. The traditional teaching has tended to insulate them from the charismatic emphasis. While not as hostile to charismatics as they were a generation ago, the emotional need for the charismatic experience is not widespread in the groups touched by Wesleyan theology. -- LLK


Alderfer, Owen H. "The Mind of the Brethren in Christ." Ph.D. diss. Claremont Graduate School, 1963.

Articles in Brethren in Christ History and Life (December, 1983).

Dieter, Melvin. "The Holiness Movement." Beacon Dictionary Of theology, ed. Richard Taylor, J. Kenneth Grider, and Willard Taylor. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1983: 260-61.

Keefer, Luke L., Jr. Everything Necessary. Nappanee, IN, 1984.

Nussbaum, Stan. You Must Be Born Again: a History of the Evangelical Mennonite Church. Fort Wayne, IN: Evangelical Mennonite Church, 1980: 40-41.

Smith, Timothy. "A Historical and Contemporary Appraisal of Wesleyan Theology," in A Contemporary Wesleyan theology, ed. Carter, R. Thompson, and Wilson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan [Francis Asbury Press], 1983: 77-101.

Storms, Everek R. History of the United Missionary Church. Elkhart: Bethel Publishing Company, 1958: 30-59, 171-180, 220-26.

Wittlinger, Carlton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience: the Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee: Evangel Press, 1978: 227-57, 321-41.

Author(s) John C. Wenger
Luke L. Keefer, Jr
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Wenger, John C. and Luke L. Keefer, Jr. "Holiness Movement." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 28 May 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Holiness_Movement&oldid=88082.

APA style

Wenger, John C. and Luke L. Keefer, Jr. (1990). Holiness Movement. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 28 May 2022, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Holiness_Movement&oldid=88082.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 790-791; vol. 5, pp. 387-388.. All rights reserved.

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