Founding of the Pilgrim Holiness Church

The Pilgrim Holiness Church contributed roughly half of the people to what we now call The Wesleyan Church in 1968 when Pilgrims merged with the
Wesleyan Methodist Church. When it comes to our history however, we now often forget the Pilgrim half like families forget to tell about their nutty aunt or weird great-grandfather. I was born in the Pilgrim Church so I understand this. It is far cooler today to tell how “our denomination” was founded by anti-slavery preachers in 1843 than to tell about a group of evangelists who started a revivalist movement in the front room of what is now a building at God’s Bible school in Cincinnati. In this series I intend to come clean and reflect on “the other half” of our church heritage—the Pilgrim half.[1]


The Pilgrim Church wasn’t really a denomination at all when it began; it was a movement more like a para-church organization.  Like John Wesley, the original Pilgrims were members of other churches and stayed members for quite a while even after joining The International Holiness Union and Prayer League.  The original constitution and by-laws consisted of the grand total of four small pages in a pamphlet, the first one being a title page. This would be the approach of Pilgrims for decades—minimum structure with most of the focus on direct evangelism and missionary work instead of denominational structure. But I’m getting ahead of the story. Two evangelists were the founders of what became The Pilgrim Church, though they may have not fully realized it before they died.


Seth Cook Rees

Seth Rees was a Quaker raised in Westfield, Indiana who eventually entered evangelism. Nobody seems to be able to find evidence of his ordination.[2]  Saved at nineteen he became a missionary among the Modoc, Cherokee and Peoria Indians in Kansas and was closely connected with A. B. Simpson the founder of the Christian & Missionary Alliance. He (and the resulting PHC) was heavily influenced by Simpson’s “fourfold gospel” which emphasized primarily: Salvation, Sanctification, Healing and the Second Coming. By age 40 Rees was pastoring the independent Emmanuel Church in Providence, Rhode Island.  During his two years as pastor more than a thousand people were saved. He organized his people in a Salvation-Army-like system of six “corps”: the Slum Corps, the Sailor Corps, the Prison Corps, The City Mission Corps, the Hospital Corps, and the Open Air Corps. The six Corps shows what the church was doing. This church was not a lighthouse on the shore but on a life-saving mission to those in the water. Right in the middle of this incredible revival in Providence, Rees sensed the call to evangelism and took his fervent preaching style on the road. His thunderous style of preaching got him the moniker, “Earth Quaker.”  At age 42 he went to Cincinnati to hold evangelistic meetings where he met the other founder in this story.


Martin Wells Knapp

Knapp was a Napoleonic sized (5’4”) Methodist pastor in Albion, Michigan when Methodist Bishop William Taylor (“Taylor University”) led him into the experience of Entire Sanctification, and infected him with a life-long passion for world missions. Like Rees, Knapp left his pastorate and entered evangelism. No “earth Quaker” in preaching style, Knapp was more low key but had similar success. He was a great writer and possessed a burden for publishing.  At age 44 Knapp auctioned off some of his household good to finance the publishing of his first book, Christ Crowned Within.  It turned out to be a good investment, 21,000 copies were sold in a short time. Knapp continued preaching with surprising success but especially focused on writing and publishing. He made his base in Cincinnati by age 39 because it was an ideal place to publish and the city was full of sin and thus an ideal place for evangelism. He founded a monthly magazine, The Revivalist which soared to a circulation of 25,000. 


The International Holiness Union and Prayer League.

Seth Cook Rees and Martin Wells Knapp met in September, 1897 in Knapp’s front room[3] in Cincinnati and put together the simple pamphlet organizing a new union or “prayer league.” Rees himself summarized the meeting later by calling it, “a small affair with a big name.” At the founding of the Pilgrim Holiness Church even the founder dismissed the four-page pamphlet of structure, a tendency that would last for several decades. It is not clear how many members the new organization had at first, but some thought not more than a dozen, but soon the ranks swelled through Rees’ preaching and Knapp’s writing and publishing.  Rees was the first President, with Knapp serving as Vice President. There were other holiness “unions” at the time, including some that would later merge with this one. The union founded by Rees and Knapp was a nonsectarian interdenominational fellowship, “a fraternal union…designed to promote deep spirituality among all believers.” The only membership requirement was to have a pure heart or “an ardent desire for the experience.” The motto on the title page of the bylaws was “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty, in all things, charity.”  In this era it was common to think that the time had arrived to melt away denominational distinctions and emphasize the unity of Christians.[4] 


Related movements

As Rees and Knapp organized their union all kinds of other unions and leagues were being organized[5], many of which later became a part of The Pilgrim Holiness Church so that we could honestly select any one of them as the origin, though Pilgrims have preferred the story of Rees and Knapp. By the end of the 1800’s the “Holiness movement” was congealing into organizations and leagues in America and Canada. Methodists had a corner on holiness for most of 1800’s but increasingly “holiness people” faced restraints and even opposition from “anti-holiness” pastors and bishops. They began to organize themselves in unions and leagues beyond their local membership. When they did so, their pastor or Bishop often considered this a sign that the holiness folk were disloyal divisive troublemakers.


The holiness people who were organizing the unions paid no attention.  They were not interesting in preserving the past so much as saving the future. They wanted to get drunkards and wife-beaters saved. They wanted to lead prostitutes and sailors to Christ and then on to “full salvation” of holy living. Banned from holding “holiness meetings” in their own churches they rented public halls, refurbished barns and put up tents to spread their message and rescue sinners.  They contrasted themselves from the “formal churches” who seemed more interested in their church disciplines denominational committees and church manuals than lost people.  They gathered at independent camp meetings and attended holiness conventions even when their Methodist pastors frowned scornfully when they admitted it. These are the kind of laity who joined The International Holiness Union and Prayer League founded by Seth Cook Rees and Martin Wells Knapp in 1897. The organization would later become The Pilgrim Holiness Church.  They were an unruly mob if you were a Methodist Bishop trying to regulate or were concerned with structure, denominational loyalty or the church’s Discipline or Manual. But if you were concerned with fiery preaching, the conversion of the lost, the sanctification of marginal believers and the rescuing of drunkards, prostitutes, prisoners and sailors these were exactly the kind of people you wanted to join with. Thousands did.


I think….

I think that the Pilgrims were deeply influenced by their heritage and founders. For a long time Pilgrims didn’t give a hoot for structure or any kind of denominationalism. They were a para-church organization at first and when someone tried to herd them they got loose and did their own thing. They were more of a rag-tag mob than an orderly denomination. They were passionate about powerful preaching, winning the lost, leading people into holiness, rescuing the perishing, offering healing to the poor and they wanted to get it all done soon because they believed the pre-millennial return of Christ was at hand. The Pilgrims had problems and I’ll mention those in later, but I kind of admire their passion at their founding.  That’s what I think.


So what do you think?

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


Keith Drury   September 8, 2009




To think about….

  1. What was going on in the church world near the turn of the century that relates to this story?
  2. What specialties of these founders still exist in the church they founded? What have been lost?
  3. What similarities are there between the holiness folk of 1897 and the charismatic folk of the 1960’s?








[1] I am indebted for this series to several writers who have gone before. The first is the work of father and son Thomas’—Paul William Thomas and son Paul Westphal Thomas.  Few Pilgrims cared much about history—they were more interested in making history than preserving it.  The Thomas team did work hard at preserving Pilgrim written and oral history. I knew the father as a youngster but I got the opportunity to work closely with the son for more than a dozen years and my writing above reflects many conversations  with the son along with the written record. Since I was in high school I also knew Melvin Dieter who edited their work and who is a supreme historian among Wesleyans, Lee Haines also edited the Thomas and Thomas work as an “outsider” to the Pilgrim history and I worked with Lee for many years and had many conversations comparing the Wesleyan Methodist History with that of the Pilgrims. I am indebted to those many relationships for my views in the history of the PHC. However some of my views are my own and these excellent historians should not be blamed for them. It is my opinion that history is not merely the collection of facts telling what happened back then like a video of the events. Historians choose certain stories and marginalize others. All history-telling involves this selection and de-selection process thus it tells us more about ourselves then the events of the past. So, I admit that my re-telling of the Pilgrim story might tell you more about me and my views than it does about the events of the past. I will be faithful to the facts, but in selecting the facts and applying them I suspect I will reveal more about today than the past.

[2] Though Nazarenes sometimes  enjoy pointing out there is no evidence of Rees’ ordination (the reason for this will be apparent with a later story) but  we probably ought to remember that technically Quakers didn’t “ordain” ministers, believing that “only God Ordains—we just record His ordination.”  Rees preached his first time by climbing up on a dirt pile near a newly dug well at the Westfield “Quarterly Meeting”  More than 8000 attended, but probably only a fe hundred who were lined up to get a drink heard his first sermon. (Rees himself didn’t remember what he said, and though he had no text).  However after preaching his “Meeting” (capitalized—meaning the group who “recorded” ministers) did record him as a minister. Here is how he tells it in the biography published by his son: “Finally I felt clear and, pressing my way past people, I climbed on the pile of dirt, and began. I can't tell what I said. I do not recall that I had a text. It was my first attempt to preach. When I was through and got down off the dirt-pile, another preacher climbed into a spring wagon and continued the service. Almost before I had considered what my calling was, the Meeting of which I was a member had acknowledged my gift and 'recorded' me a minister of the Gospel of Christ.


[3] I toured the room in the early 1970’s and it can be seen today on the campus of God’s Bible College in Cincinnati.

[4] In this era of non-denominationalism Daniel Warner founded another holiness church, the Church of God (Anderson) 1880’s which even went so far as to have no church membership at all, believing such a thing was divisive and exclusive.  The COGA continues today to have no formal membership and emphasizes Christian unity as a pillar of their non-denomination.

[5] We have already cited A. B. Simpson and the C&MA along with Warner and the Church of God(Anderson). Other Unions include “The Heavenly Recruits, later the “Holiness Christian Church” (1882); the “Holiness Bands” in California(1880) the Arizona Holiness Association (1897; The People’s Mission in Colorado Springs (1898) and the Pentecostal Rescue Mission in Binghamton, NY (1897).  Each of the founding groups, though less documented, could be considered the founding of The Pilgrim Holiness Church.