The Holiness Movement’s Heritage of Social Action


As the social action tsunami sweeps across the evangelical church it is popular in my denomination (Wesleyan) to cite John Wesley’s social action to argue that our current shift to social action is really part of our heritage. It is true that Wesley focused on both personal and social holiness.  But it is also true that John Wesley was the grandfather of our movement, not our father. Indeed the father of the American holiness movement was a mother who came along a hundred years after Wesley.  Today’s Wesleyans have more in common with our mother than our grandfather. Wesley fits in our minds with his long-haired contemporaries—Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Young holiness Wesleyans need not to go back all the way to England’s 1700’s to find examples of social action in our family tree. Social action was a central focus of the American holiness movement just a hundred years ago. The American holiness movement who virtually inverted urban missions. They took the sanctification of the person and society as their mission believing that neither individuals nor society have to wait until heaven to be perfected.  The stories of the founders of the American holiness movement are inspiring to today’s young people especially since they understood so keenly modern urban problems and they set out to address them.


Phoebe Palmer & the American holiness movement

The American holiness movement’s mother is Phoebe Palmer. Palmer merged the personal piety of a second work of grace which she promoted in her “Tuesday Meetings” with an active approach to social action. She led distribution of clothing, food and medical supplies to the poor in New York. Her husband, a medical doctor, provided free medical care to the poor. She frequently visited prisons and when the courts refused to release one Jewish young boy whose family had rejected him simply adopted him to get custody of the boy and give him a home.  She was the central figure in the 1850 establishment a “Settlement house in New York city’s worst slums—the Five Points. This was in an area where gangs ruled and brutality reigned. Even Charles Dickens refused to visit the area without two burly policemen as guards. Phoebe Palmer went alone.  The workers at the Five Points house did not commute into the poor section of town from their comfortable cottages at the edge of town but chose to live among the poor, opening their own homes as Christian half-way houses for the poor trying to escape poverty. By 1900 there were hundreds of holiness missions in almost every urban center of America providing food, housing, clothing medical care and job training. Social action was as much a part of the American holiness movement as was personal holiness.


William Booth & the Salvation Army

Most Wesleyans forget the Salvation Army was born of the holiness movement. (Many Salvationists have forgotten too.) Almost a century after John Wesley, William and Catherine Booth founded the Salvation Army in England about the same time of the American holiness movement was blossoming. Like the Methodist movement, The Salvation Army spilled over into America. In 1886 the first Salvationist home for “fallen women” was started and social action became the central action for this holiness denomination and “church for the poor.”  The Salvation Army is the one holiness denomination that has continually and faithfully stuck with a mission of social action while other holiness churches scrambled up the ladder of success abandoning the poor and needy.


B. T. Roberts & the Free Methodists

Image:Btroberts2.jpg Free Methodism’s founder, B. T. Roberts considered a mission to the poor a biblical mandate. Roberts was especially perturbed with the Methodist practice of auctioning off pews in its churches to the highest bidder, essentially announcing their church was for the rich and upper classes. His agitation got him expelled from the Methodist church and, with others he formed the Free Methodist Church, with a central mission to the poor. Roberts actively opposed slavery and was called for a “100% death tax” so that the wealthy could not pass on wealth keeping it in the family—he thought it should be spread around. But the holiness movement of the 1800s was carried on by (mostly middle-class) women, not men, (see separate article on the women of the holiness movement).  For instance, June Dunning, a Free Methodist woman founded the Providence Mission squarely in New York’s African-American ghetto in the 1860’s. Free Methodists, largely a rural denomination, still made it their business to reach the poor in the sprawling crime-infested urban centers of America. Why? Because the Bible called them to do it, and Jesus gave the example of proclaiming the gospel to the poor.


Charles G. Finney & Oberlin College

Finney, Charles G. The founder of Oberlin College in Ohio, holiness evangelist Charles Finney preached personal holiness but was in the forefront of the anti-slavery movement. In 1850, congress passed the compromise "fugitive slave law” which required the return of any southern slave which had escaped to a free state.  Federal marshals were required to arrest and return any escaped slave and were fined $1000 if they ignored an escaped slave. When a federal marshal arrested a slave in Oberlin a mob (including Oberlin students) was organized to storm the hotel where the slave had been imprisoned in the attic. They rescued the slave and took him back for hiding in the home of Oberlin college’s President’s then spirited him off to Canada. Thirty-seven people were indicted by a federal grand jury for this act of holiness social action.


Orange Scott, Luther Lee & the Wesleyan Methodists

Angry at Methodist appeasement of southern slave-holders, Orange Scott and Luther Lee organized the Wesleyan Methodist Church to oppose the social sin of slavery. Lee said of the Fugitive Slave act “I never would obey it. I had assisted thirty slaves to escape to Canada during the last month. If the authorities wanted anything of me, my residence was at 39 Onondaga Street. I would admit that and they could take me and lock me up in the Penitentiary on the hill; but if they did such a foolish thing as that, I had friends enough on Onondaga County to level it to the ground before the next morning.” These Wesleyan holiness preachers were interested in personal holiness but they also cared enough about the poor and powerless to risk their lives to save even one escaped slave. Wesleyan Methodists wanted a fair and just society for all, especially the poor, disenfranchised and powerless.


Phineas Bresee  & the Nazarenes

 Methodist Bresee founded the Nazarene church in 1895 at Los Angeles in his plain “Glory Barn” which he defended with the statement, “we want places so plain that every board will say welcome to the poorest.”  For a while he affiliated with the “Peniel Mission” though he was convinced that a “church for the poor” was the ultimate answer. He saw the Church of the Nazarene as being a church for “the lowly, toiling masses.” This first Nazarene General Superintendent said: “let the Church of the Nazarene be true to its commission; not great and elegant buildings. But to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and wipe away the tears of sorrowing, and gather jewels for His diadem.”



Alma White & the Pillar of Fire

 When the anti-female faction of the Colorado Holiness Association refused to let Alma White speak at its convention because she was a woman she founded the Pillar of Fire denomination and was ordained as the first woman bishop of an American denomination. She founded hundreds of churches along with several colleges and radio stations and was a national leader in the women’s rights movement, pushing for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment which was first introduced in 1923. She was a vegetarian and argued against eating meat and was a constantly agitation against business and government for “making women slaves” and constantly agitated for full equal rights for women.




Seth Rees & the Pilgrims

 Late in the 19th century (1897), Quaker Seth Cook Rees and Methodist Martin Wells Knapp founded what would become the Pilgrim Holiness Church at God’s Bible School in Cincinnati. The resulting movement (later a denomination) was committed from the beginning to both personal and social holiness.  Students at God’s Bible school “worked the streets” of downtown Cincinnati, feeding the poor and caring for the homeless in mission venues as they prepared to travel to the “impoverished nations of the world” in missionary work or stay at home and plant “storefront churches” accessible to the poor. Pilgrim churches were commonly planted “across the railroad tracks” in the poorest sections of town or in storefront missions which could cater to the poor. It was here as a student at God’s Bible school that the most recent General Superintendent of The Wesleyan church, Joanne Lyon first caught the vision for holiness social action.




When young folk in today’s holiness movement make the argument for both personal and social holiness they cite John Wesley from 250 years ago as their “heritage trump card.”  But they do not have to go that far back to find a sturdy holiness social conscience—it is really less than a hundred years ago in America that holiness people considered ministry to the poor, the prisoners, the lowly and disenfranchised, dropouts and life’s victims central to holiness living. 


May God bless you young folk as you lead a revival and rediscovery our own full holiness heritage—both personal and social holiness.


-    -    -    -    -    -    -    -    -    -    -    -   

Further Reading

1. Christian History And Biography—Issue #82. If you only buy one thing buy this. If you’re in the holiness movement and have not read Issue #82 of Christian History get one today. It only costs five bucks, and you will be inspired by the social action history of the American Holiness Movement. I am so convinced you will agree that this issue is worth the money that I guarantee it—if you are disappointed, just send your copy to me and I will refund your money.


2. Discovering an Evangelical Heritage. Donald W. Dayton’s book outlining the holiness heritage of social action. In a way Dayton’s book was a tome out of time. When he made these points the holiness movement was in the midst of “upward drift” moving out of town and into multi-million dollar modern buildings designed for racquetball suburbanites. Now it is rapidly becoming a “classic” to younger holiness generations who are themselves discovering their ideas of social action are actually more in the mainstream of their great grandparents than their parents.


3. Everything Must Change. For a more recent take on the social action movement read this book by Brian McLaren.  McClaren has deep roots in the Wesleyan movement even though today’s Wesleyans see him sometimes as “far out.” You can read online Michel Cline’s interview with Brian McClaren on his Wesleyan roots and social action.



So what do you think?

During the first few weeks click here to comment or read comments


Keith Drury   August, 2008