The conservative holiness movement is a loosely defined group of theologically conservative Christian denominations with the majority being Methodists whose teachings are rooted in the theology of John Wesley, and a minority being Quakers (Friends) that emphasize the doctrine of George Fox, as well as River Brethren who emerged out of the Radical Pietist revival and Holiness Restorationists in the tradition of Daniel Sidney Warner. Schisms began to occur in the 19th century and this movement became distinct from other Holiness bodies in the mid-20th century amid disagreements over modesty in dress, entertainment, and other "old holiness standards" reflective of the related emphases on the Wesleyan-Arminian doctrine of outward holiness or the Quaker teaching on the testimony of simplicity or the River Brethren and Restorationist teachings on nonconformity to the world, depending on the denomination. Many denominations identifying with the conservative holiness movement, though not all, are represented in the Interchurch Holiness Convention; while some denominations have communion with one another, other bodies choose to be isolationist.
Holiness adherents believe in the possibility and necessity of living a life without committing sin. Leading Holiness Scholar Leslie D. Wilcox concluded that "holiness writers, following the Wesleyan theology, define sin as a wilful transgression of a known law of God." The Inter-Church Holiness convention following John Wesley defines sin as "a willful transgression against a known law of God. This means that there must be knowledge of wrongdoing, or of refusing to obey God, before sin is committed. Mistakes are not sin." With this definition in mind, the Conservative Holiness Movement believes that "The lowest type of Christian sinneth not and is not condemned. The minimum of salvation is salvation from sinning." Following the lead of John Wesley the Conservative Holiness Movement holds that "calling every defect a sin, is not well pleasing to God.":448 "Mistakes, and whatever infirmities necessarily flow from the corruptible state of the body, are noway contrary to love; nor therefore, in the Scripture sense, sin.":448 Historian Charles Jones explains that "Believing that sin was conscious disobedience to a known law of God, holiness believers were convinced that the true Christian, having repented of every known act of sin, did not and could not willfully sin again and remain a Christian."
The Conservative Holiness movement is known for their emphasis on the possibility, necessity, and instantaneous nature of Entire Sanctification, also known as 'Christian perfection' in Methodism and 'Perfectionism' in Quakerism, as well as the second work of grace. This doctrine is shown in the founding documents of the Holiness Movement, the 1885 Declaration of Principles which explained:
"Entire Sanctification... is that great work subsequent to regeneration, by the Holy Ghost, upon the sole condition of faith...such faith being preceded by an act of solemn and complete consecration. This work has these distinct elements:
- The entire extinction of the carnal mind, the total eradication of the birth principle of sin;
- the communication of perfect love to the soul...
- the abiding indwelling of the Holy Ghost."
The Manual of God's Missionary Church defines it as:
"Entire sanctification is that second, definite, instantaneous work of grace, subsequent to regeneration, wrought in the heart of the justified person through faith, by the baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire, whereby the heart of the believer is cleansed from the original sin, and purified by the filling of the Holy Ghost."
Members of the Conservative Holiness movement generally hold that the lifestyle restrictions found in the New Testament are still binding today and must be literally followed. This generally shows up in areas of entertainment, keeping the Sunday Sabbath, and modest clothing. Though there is variety in application of these principles, there is general consensus that they must be followed.
The Holiness movement was largely contained within mainline Methodism during the 19th century, with some members of the holiness movement continuing to remain in the mainline Methodist Churches to this day (the "stay-inners"). Wesleyan-Holiness doctrine influenced adherents of other denominations as well. By the 1880s a persistent wave of "come-outism" was beginning to gather steam. The come-outers were concerned that mainline Methodism had begun to water-down Holiness teachings and even shun its more outspoken proponents.
The majority of the denominations which now comprise the Conservative holiness movement were once among a number of Holiness movement groups which had a history of coming out or having left mainline Methodism to teach and practice Holiness doctrine uninhibited. The denominations that left mainline Methodism and the mainstream holiness movement to form the conservative holiness movement did so because they saw a relaxation of the prohibitions on certain behaviours that they considered to be "worldly". The list of prohibitions varies from denomination to denomination, but the prohibitions include the wearing of gold (which includes wedding rings), television in the home (an extension to previous bans on theater patronage), women not cutting their hair (in accordance with historic interpretations of I Corinthians 11), the prohibition of men wearing shorts, the prohibition of women wearing short skirts, and the prohibition of patronizing sporting events on the Sunday Sabbath. Members of denominations in the conservative holiness movement align themselves with the temperance movement and practice teetotalism, thus abstaining from alcohol and other drugs. Each major denomination enforces some of the disciplines listed above, so there is some variation amongst the groups. It is these disciplines that characterize the Churches of the conservative holiness movement.
The Church of God (Holiness) was created as a result of a schism with the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1883 due to differences in interpretation of the Methodist doctrine of Christian perfection, as well as standards of dress. In the Restorationist tradition, the Church of God (Guthrie, Oklahoma) left the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) in the 1910s due to issues concerning "worldly conformity in dress". The body that is now the Bible Holiness Church originated in 1896 as a schism with the Wesleyan Methodist Church and originally had a Holiness Pentecostal orientation; the Bible Holiness Church, however, formally rejected the possibility of a third work of grace in 1948. The Central Yearly Meeting of Friends is a Quaker Yearly Meeting emphasizing George Fox's doctrine of perfectionism and was founded in 1924. The Reformed Free Methodist Church left the Free Methodist Church in 1932; the Immanuel Missionary Church and the Emmanuel Association of Churches left the Pilgrim Holiness Church in 1936 and 1941, respectively--these schisms were due to what the departing bodies perceived as a laxity in traditional doctrine and standards. Samuel West spearheaded the formation of the Reformed Free Methodist Church, which held its annual Flatwoods Camp Meeting in Perryopolis, Pennsylvania; the RFMC emphasized the traditional Methodist doctrine of plain dress. The Emmanuel Association, belonging to the subgroup of "Holiness Pacifists" in the conservative holiness movement, is known for its opposition to warfare and its holiness standards are codified in a manual known as "Principles of Holy Living"; the Immanuel Missionary Church and the Church of God likewise teach nonresistance and are conscientious objectors, thus falling under this category too.
The Holiness movement, for the most part, huddled together tightly from its early history to later when Pentecostalism was competing for the hearts and minds of its adherents. During the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of the 1920s and onward, most Holiness groups found themselves at home in the Fundamentalist camp or allied with them. While many Holiness groups made the jump toward the Evangelical movement in the late 1930s, there were groups that felt their Holiness peers were drifting away from Biblical inerrancy and separation from the world.
By the post-World War II era, a more relaxed societal attitude toward morality and theological differences continued to accompany many mainstream Holiness conferences, districts and local churches reinforcing longstanding prohibitions on behavior in their governing documents. Not at home with other Fundamentalist alliances (which had a more Calvinistic and non-Holiness tone to them), an Interdenominational Holiness Convention (IHC) was called at a Wesleyan Methodist campground in Fairmont, Indiana, in 1951. Entire sanctification (in Methodism) or Perfectionism (in Quakerism), as well as traditional holiness strictures on dress and entertainment, held a prominent place in convention sermons. The swelling divorce rate, the relentless spread of Communism (with its promotion of state atheism), and the effects of television on society were also prominent themes. Participants resisted a call to form a new denomination, but became an ally toward a series of prior and future institutional secessions.
In 1955 the Bible Missionary Church (BMC) was formed in Idaho and soon grew nationwide as local congregations left the Church of the Nazarene over "worldliness" issues.
In 1963, the Pilgrim Holiness Church of New York seceded from the Pilgrim Holiness Church to become an independent organization (in 1966-68, the Wesleyan Methodist Church and the Pilgrim Holiness Church proposed a merger to form the Wesleyan Church, which today has more in common with the Christian Holiness Partnership-affiliated Holiness churches such as the Nazarene Church).
The Brethren in Christ Church, a River Brethren denomination that emerged out of Radical Pietism, entered into a schism in 1963 resulting in the formation of the Calvary Holiness Church, a conservative holiness denomination which continues to emphasize traditional River Brethren beliefs, such as the wearing of a headcovering by women, plain dress, temperance, footwashing, and pacifism.
In 1966, the Church of the Bible Covenant was created as a result of a schism with the Church of the Nazarene under the leadership of Remiss Rehfeldt and Marvin Powers; in August 1988, the Church of the Bible Covenant largely became the International Fellowship of Bible Churches, though at that time, a minority of Covenanters joined the International Conservative Holiness Association.
In the wake of the Wesleyan Church merger, the Bible Methodist Connection of Churches, the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection of Churches, the Bible Methodist Connection of Tennessee (Tennessee Bible Methodists), the Bible Methodist Connection of Alabama (Alabama Bible Methodists), Bible Methodist Connection Mid-America (formed in 2018), and Pilgrim Holiness Church (Midwest Conference), were organized.
God's Missionary Church was formed by individuals affected by local revival services.
Social change constantly confronts Conservative Holiness Christians. The Church of God (Holiness) in 1999 removed a ban on owning televisions, urging charity over "the ownership or use of television, videos, movies, the internet, and such like." Other denominations in the conservative holiness movement, such as the Evangelical Wesleyan Church, continue to forbid the watching of television, which they hold to be an occasion of sin. Issues over doctrine and standards have resulted in schisms in denominations identifying with the conservative holiness movement too; for example, in 1979, a schism in the body now called the Bible Holiness Church resulted in the formation of the Wesleyan Holiness Alliance. Both the Wesleyan Holiness Association of Churches and the Pilgrim Nazarene Church originated as a result of schisms with the Bible Missionary Church, with the former being established under the leadership of Glen Griffith in 1959 to uphold the discipline of prohibiting remarriage after divorce and the latter departing in 2003 "over personal commercial use of the Internet." However, mergers have occurred as well; for example, in August 2019 the Pilgrim Nazarene Church (PNC) voted to join the Bible Methodist Connection. While not all the churches took part in the merger, it is estimated that approximately two-thirds of the PNC churches joined the Bible Methodist Connection.
Denominations and associations of churches aligned with the conservative holiness movement include the following though independent churches aligned with the common themes of the conservative holiness movement exist too:
Colleges and schools affiliated with the conservative holiness movement include:
A number of mission endeavors exist within the conservative holiness movement with active mission fields in the Philippines, South Africa, Ukraine, Haiti, Peru, Mexico, Asia, Eastern Europe, India, Myanmar, and South Korea. Listed below are a few of the mission organizations affiliated with the conservative holiness movement. Most of the denominations listed above also maintain their own missions boards and departments for both Home and Foreign Missions.
Publications, publishing companies, periodicals and holiness discipleship tools affiliated with the conservative holiness movement include:
Formed in 1926, Central Yearly Meeting [of Quakers] is part of the Conservative Holiness Movement and consists of a small number of Monthly Meetings in Arkansas, Indiana, North Carolina, and Ohio.
Naturally, such an attempt at inclusiveness while maintaining conservative distinctives has drawn criticism--some view IHC as too liberal and others see it as too conservative. Thus, while IHC has served as a unifying force for many conservatives, it would be incorrect to assume that IHC represents all CHM adherents.
The CHM thus resulted from the desire of mid-century holiness conservatives to perpetuate the radical cause which dominated the movement at the beginning of the century. ... The first significant conservative "comeouter" group was the Church of God (Guthrie, OK), which pulled radical constituents from the Church of God (Anderson) in the early 1910s.
The doctrine of the Emmanuel Association is similar to that of the Pilgrim Holiness Church, but it has a very rigid behavior code called Principles of Holy Living. Members are conscientious objectors.
On March 18, 1956, the first service of what is now the Wesleyan Holiness Church was held in the Miner's Hall under the leadership of Rev. Alvin Cottle.
We must keep in mind that prudence involves concern for our influence on the college itself, the conservative holiness constituency we serve, the educational community, and the larger society of which we are a part.