The History of Holiness

Entire Sanctification: the Doctrine the Holiness Movement Discarded


The Pentecostal Holiness Movement prides itself on its firm maintenance of tradition. Despite the constant admonition to keep to the “old paths,” the Holiness Movement has almost completely abandoned its core, foundational doctrine. This doctrine was once a fairly clear teaching, but has since become so vague that few, if any can explain what it means at all, much less justify their explanation with any biblical evidence. 

This doctrine, originally called the “Holiness Blessing,” is where the Holiness movement derived its name and identity. Today, it is better recognized as the doctrine of Entire Sanctification. “Entire” or “Perfect” Sanctification teaches that at some point in your life, whether after a single experience or after a process of time, you will be sanctified completely. It’s unclear how easy it is to lose your sanctification (is it after one error or only after some pattern of sin?), but one assumes you can.

This doctrine has been generally rejected by the broader church, in favor of “Progressive Sanctification.” This is the understanding that sanctification is not something that finishes at any point on earth but is ongoing until death.  


What is Entire Sanctification?

When Holiness people say, “I’ve been saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Ghost,” what do they mean? Let’s look at the proposed evidence and definitions the Holiness movement uses for all three conditions (setting aside the biblical justification for the moment).

Status Definition Evidence
Saved Your sins are forgiven A specific experience of sincere repentance
Filled with the Holy Ghost You have the power of the Spirit An experience of speaking in unknown tongues
Sanctified You never sin again?

You are no longer tempted?

You have the capacity to never sin again, but do anyways?

You sin 37% less than you would have otherwise?

You are tempted 82% less than normal?

You feel like you are sanctified?

You had an altar experience where you felt like you were sanctified? 

You observe that you sin less than normal? 

You observe that you have stopped sinning?


These conditions are quite different in their clarity. It is easy to know whether you are saved and filled with the Holy Ghost in Holiness doctrine, and it is relatively easy to understand the definition (although I point out elsewhere that the implications of post-salvation receiving of the Holy Ghost are actually not that clear). However, with sanctification, there is no clear evidence of its completion and no verbalized, much less agreed upon, definition of what it means.  

Sanctification can get confusing fast. So, allow me to try to define some camps with this series of questions.

1) Is sanctification a state that we can attain (perfect/ entire) or a process that ends when we die (progressive)?

2) If it is a state, is it attained through an single experience or a process?

3) If it is a state, what are the implications of existing in that state (what does it mean in regular life)?

This doctrine has also evolved and softened over time. Let’s trace the modern origin of this doctrine and see how it has become a less tightly held and less meaningfully defined belief over time. 


The Evolution of the “Holiness Blessing”

Like all doctrines, believers in Entire Sanctification attempt to justify their belief biblically and assume that church has always held it. However, the fact is that there is no unbroken linage of this doctrine prior to the 1700’s when the doctrine was either revived or originated in the teachings of John Wesley. In Wesley’s mind, entire sanctification was primarily about the fruits of the Spirit, particularly love, becoming completely prevalent in a person’s life. In Wesley’s view, this was a state that could be achieved through a process, but one also had to actively maintain it. Many misunderstandings surround Wesley’s views, so here’s his own explanation in a question and answer format:

 “Q. When does inward sanctification begin? A. In the moment a man is justified. (Yet sin remains in him, yea, the seed of all sin, till he is sanctified throughout.) From that time a believer gradually dies to sin, and grows in grace.

Q. Is this ordinarily given till a little before death? A. It is not, to those who expect it no sooner.

Q. But may we expect it sooner? A. Why not? For, although we grant, (1.) That the generality of believers, whom we have hitherto known, were not so sanctified till near death; (2.) That few of those to Whom St. Paul wrote his Epistles were so at that time; (3.) nor, he himself at the time of writing his former Epistles; yet all this does not prove, that we may not be so to-day…

Q. What is Christian perfection? A. The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love.

Q. Do you affirm, that this perfection excludes all infirmities, ignorance, and mistake? A. I continually affirm quite the contrary, and always have done so…we cannot avoid sometimes thinking wrong, till this corruptible shall have put on incorruption.”  – John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection [1]

John Wesley’s teachings were foundational for Methodists, and it was out of Methodism that the Holiness Movement was born. 

In 1843, a woman named Phoebe Palmer, later known as the “Mother of the Holiness Movement,” wrote a book called The Way of Holiness. This book riffed on Wesley’s teachings and created the basis of the Holiness movement. Wesley thought that entire sanctification could be attained and maintained only through constant spiritual striving. Palmer countered that there is “a shorter way.” Essentially, she understood sanctification or “the blessing” to be achieved by an experience similar to conversion. By seeking an singular experience of sanctification, you could attain righteousness on earth through what she called “the shorter, the one and the only way.”

Palmer knew this was a new doctrine. She claims to have discovered it herself and says that God told her “if you would retain the blessing… you will be called to profess this blessing before thousands. Can you do it?” This sanctification experience led to “the Way of Holiness,” whereby the Holiness movement received its name. According to Palmer, the attribute of holiness was a result of a specific and dramatic experience of sanctification – not a result of “growing in grace,” salvation, or of any Pentecostal experience. It was this special, one-time experience that enabled them to “live above sin,” when others could not.

Here’s how Palmer explained her holiness-blessing/sanctification experience, which she believes was a supernatural encounter – complete with full conversations with both the Holy Spirit and the Devil (written in third person):

Phoebe Worrall Palmer

Phoebe Palmer (also pictured in header)

“Immediately the Spirit suggested, ‘If God has enabled you to bring it [your surrendered life], will he not, now that you bring it and lay it on His altar, accept it at your hands?’ She now, indeed, began to feel that all things were ready and, in thrilling anticipation, began to say, ‘Thou wilt receive me! Yes, Thou wilt receive me!” And still she felt that something was wanting. ‘But when and how shall I know that Thou dost receive me?’ said the importunate language of her heart. The Spirit presented the declaration of the written word in reply, “Now is the accepted time.” Still her insatiable desires were unsatisfied; and she continued to wait with unutterable desire and long expectation looking upward for the coming of the Lord; while the Spirit continued to urge the scriptural declaration, ‘Now is the accepted time, I will receive you. only believe!’… She saw that she must relinquish the expression before indulged in, as promising something in the future, ‘Thou wilt receive me,’ for the yet more confident expression, implying present assurance ‘Thou dost receive!” It is, perhaps, almost needless to say that the enemy who had hitherto endeavored to withstand her at every step of the Spirit’s leadings, now confronted her with much greater energy. The suggestion that it was strangely presumptuous to believe in such a way, was presented to her mind with a plausibility which only Satanic subtly could invent. But the resolution to believe was fixed; and then the Spirit most inspiringly said to her heart, ‘The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent take it by force.’ (Matt. 11:12) And now, realizing she was engaged in a transaction eternal it its consequences, she here, in the strength and as in the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and those spirits that minister to the heirs of salvation, said, “O Lord, I call heaven and earth to witness that I now lay body, soul, and spirit, with all these redeemed powers, upon Thine altar, to be forever THINE! TIS DONE! Thou hast promised to receive me! Thou canst not be unfaithful! Thou doest receive me now! From this time henceforth I am Thine, wholly Thine!” The enemy suggested, “Tis but a work of your own understanding, the effort of your own will.” But the Spirit of the Lord raised up on a standard which Satan, with his combined forces, could not overthrow…” – Pheobe Palmer, The Way of Holiness [2]

In the minds of the early Holiness teachers, the sanctification that Palmer described became the critical doctrine which separated them from other church movements. After having their experiences, they saw themselves as separate, special, and holy, because they had received the Spirit which enabled them to live in perfection, whereas other Christians had not. “In 1896, Crumpler [Holiness authority in N.C.] boasted that he had not sinned since his 1890, ‘second blessing,’ giving him six years of sinless perfection. The Quaker Evangelist Amos Kenworthy had even Crumpler bested. By 1891 he counted twenty-one years without sin.” [5]

Entire Sanctification and the Conservative Holiness Movement

People still hold to this teaching in the way that Palmer originated it. The best explanation I could find of this view in modern times was from the Conservative Holiness Movement. This movement traces its roots back to these early days and rejected the Pentecostal Holiness Movement which broke off from their ranks in the early 1900’s.

Here are some relevant statements from their flagship website (emphasis added).

“The two works of grace [the first being Salvation] are clearly distinguished in James 4:8 – 1st work: “Cleanse your hands, ye sinners;” 2nd work: “and purify your hearts, ye double minded.” This remedy for the double-minded condition enables the believer to live out the injunction, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). This cleansing from inherited sin is known as entire sanctification

To be entirely sanctified, one must first know that they are saved … Second, one must confess their need … Third, the believer must surrender the carnal self to be crucified, … This involves one abandoning themself in full consecration to God as a life which from now forward is at God’s disposal …Finally, one must exercise faith in God to sanctify the consecrated life, for, as with the first work of grace, entire sanctification is a work of God’s grace: “Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it” (I Thessalonians 5:24). Indeed, sanctification is effected by the Holy Spirit, who as the promise of the Father empowers the Christian for victorious life and effective service (see Acts 1:4, 8).”

In general, while this site offers much scriptural support for their position about the life God calls us to, I would counter that all their scripture is in reference to salvation and the ongoing process of surrendering to God (i.e. progressive sanctification) that it opens. I do not see how James 4:8 “clearly distinguishes” two works of grace any more than James 4:9 clearly distinguishes two separate judgements for sin. “Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to heaviness.” The Bible uses repetition as a common way to emphasize a single point. 

However, the purpose of my piece isn’t to rebut this view thoroughly, merely to show how it has evolved and largely been abandoned by the Pentecostal brand of Holiness. It’s worth noting that the Conservative Holiness Movement, in keeping with the teachings of Palmer and others, associated this sanctification blessing with the filling of the Holy Spirit/Ghost.


Entire Sanctification and Receiving the Holy Ghost

Prior to the Azusa Street revival, the Holiness movement dubbed the entire sanctification Palmer taught as receiving “the baptism of the Holy Ghost.” [3]  Meaning, sanctification and receiving the Spirit were one in the same, a single, second work that occurred after salvation. This new wave of thinking was possibly the first time that receiving the Spirit was separated from receiving salvation in church history. At the turn of the 20th century, Charles Parham began teaching that the Holy Ghost (which was still thought of as synonymous with sanctification) was received with the evidence of tongues at the Topeka, Kansas Bible School. The students became confused. Many were from the Holiness movement and believed they’d already received the Spirit when they had experienced what Palmer described – yet Palmer’s experience didn’t include speaking in tongues. Parham came up with a solution and here’s how it is summed up in the Apostolic Faith, a newspaper published by William Seymour, 

Pentecostal tongues newpaper 1901

St. Louis Post, Jan 27,1901, Page 32

“Most of the students had been religious workers and said they had received the baptism with the Holy Ghost a number of years ago. Bro. Parham became convinced that there was no religious school that tallied up with the second chapter of Acts… On New Year’s night, Miss Agnes N. Ozman, one who had had for years “the anointing that abideth,” which she mistook for the baptism, was convinced of the need of a personal Pentecost. A few minutes before midnight, she desired hands laid on her that she might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. During prayer and invocation of hands, she was filled with the Holy Ghost and spoke with other tongues as the Spirit gave utterance.” [3]

In other words, in order to convince his students that, yes, receiving the Spirit was separate from salvation, but no, their baptism wasn’t legitimate, Parham had to create yet another label for the experience Palmer taught. He called it, “the anointing that abideth.” (What exactly that means and entails we’re not sure; this label was quickly dropped.) No one at that time denied that Parham’s doctrines were new, even the Apostolic Faith article above which opened like this, “All along the ages men have been preaching a partial Gospel. A part of the Gospel remained when the world went into the dark ages… Now He is bringing back the Pentecostal Baptism to the church. ” [3]

It’s worth noting that Agnes Ozman later recanted Parham’s doctrine of evidence, writing, 

“Some time ago I tried but failed to have an article printed which I wrote calling attention to what am sure God showed me was error. The article [I intended to publish] maintained that tongues was not the only evidence of the Spirit’s Baptism. When that article was refused I was much tempted by Satan, but God again graciously showed me He had revealed it to me, and satisfied my heart in praying that He might reveal this truth to others who would spread it abroad. For awhile after the baptism I got into spiritual darkness, because I did as I see so many others are doing in these days, rested and reveled in tongues and other demonstrations instead of resting aIone in God.” [4]

Despite testimonies like these, Charles Parham’s doctrine quickly spread. He had successfully added a third work of grace to Holiness doctrine, “Baptism of the Holy Ghost (with tongues).”  Around this time, Benjamin Irwin claimed his own incredible experience and added a fourth work “Baptism with Fire,” and then came baptisms of “dynamite,” “selenite,” and “oxynite.” [5]  Various permutations of two, three, four, and even more works of grace split the Holiness movement into subcamps that gave us the modern movements, (along with many denominations which disbanded). But it all started with the original “additional work of grace” – entire sanctification.


The Abandonment of the Experience of Sanctification

In the Pentecostal Holiness Movement, sanctification as it is understood now is a mere shell of its former self. As I pointed out in the beginning, it’s not clear what people mean when they refer to sanctification. I’ve even heard some Holiness people say that they felt like sanctification was an ongoing, life-long process. That is a biblically defensible position, but that is not the doctrine of entire sanctification. This is no different than when a Catholic classmate of mine once said “I believe in transubstantiation, but I understand it figuratively.”

A Holiness scholar (original Holiness, not the Pentecostal subcamp) from 20 years ago proclaimed that Holiness Movement was on a sure path to ruin because, “Many—perhaps most—in holiness churches no longer really believe that there is an instantaneous, supernatural, second work of divine grace.” 

I couldn’t find any articles on Pentecostal Holiness sites addressing sanctification in depth, but I did manage to find a defense of the doctrine published a decade ago in the Holiness Messenger. Here are some highlights from a gentleman named W.H. Wyatt who recollected the older version of this belief and realized it was on the verge of being entirely forgotten (emphasis added).

“SANTIFICATION This is a word not heard often in today’s church. I came into this world in 1925 so I date from an early day in the last day Pentecostal outpouring. In the 1930’s when a saint stood to testify they almost always said, I’m saved and Sanctified and baptized with the Holy Ghost. This would be repeated by a host of other testimonies. Sanctification was firmly preached, sought for and experienced

You will soon find after that wonderful experience at the altar [salvation], that some things don’t give up so easy and the main culprit is the Adamic Nature you were born with. Ephesians 4:22 speaks of this old man (Adam’s nature). I hear some say, wait Brother Wyatt, I done that when I got saved. Did you? I remind you that Ephesians was talking to Christians. Eph. 1:1 says to saints which are in Ephesus. Paul addressed this book to Christians and in 1:3 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.” So then why this charge to the Ephesians in 4:22, to put off the old man… What must we do with the Old Man, the Adamic Nature? We must put it to death.

I know in my case that I was saved in May of 1946, and then sought diligently for sanctification. I would fast sometimes from Sunday night to Wednesday prayer meeting without food or water in my desire from sanctification. Finally after about six months in November of 1946 I reached my goal and was ready to seek for the Holy Ghost which came in the following May…

In conclusion may I say, I fear we have a vast number of unsanctified souls in our Holiness Churches today and they may even be Sunday School teachers or even in higher offices. Our churches need a revival of Sanctification before we become as unsanctified as our neighboring Charismatic churches.”

Clearly, Wyatt views sanctification as an experience of putting off the adamic nature, which he believes that many people have yet to receive. In his world, there are some Christians who have a sin nature and some who don’t (those who were sanctified). But most in the Pentecostal Holiness movement disagree with him – the experiential second work of grace upon which the old-time Holiness movement built its power to live a holy life has been scrubbed out of Pentecostal Holiness doctrine.


Does Entire Sanctification Mean Anything?

Let’s put aside the issue of how entire sanctification comes about (at an altar or over a course of time). Many Holiness people have some sense that one can end up entirely sanctified – even if it takes a process to get there. People say they have been “saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Ghost.” People joke that a misbehaving child almost made them “lose their sanctification.”

So, when someone is sanctified, what does it mean? Especially now that experiential sanctification has been abandoned it is very tricky to tell who is sanctified. If a church had to make a roster of all the saved people in the church, it could do that fairly accurately. If a Holiness church had to make a roster of all the Holy Ghost filled people in the church, it could do that fairly accurately. If a Holiness church had to make a list of all of the sanctified people in the church … where would they even start?

Usually, we just tack it on as a bonus with Holy Ghost filling – that’s the only way we “know” you’re sanctified. Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m saved and sanctified but not filled with the Holy Ghost?” It may happen, but it’s rare. Of course, there is no biblical explanation I have ever heard as to why sanctification would have to precede the filling of the Spirit.  The Bible makes it clear that we have no power to overcome sin without “living in the Spirit” (Galatians 5). So how is it that we are supposed to attain complete righteousness (i.e. entire sanctification) without the indwelling of the Spirit? 

But let’s not worry about this little theological soft spot. Let’s roll with the theory that everyone who speaks in tongues is sanctified and they attained that sanctification at some point prior to their Pentecostal experience. This leads us to the gooiest part of this doctrine. You’re sanctified entirely. What does that mean?


Does it mean you are empowered to sin less?

It cannot mean that you are merely empowered through vigilance and the power of God to sin less. Well – it could mean that, but this would essentially be the doctrine of progressive sanctification with a delayed starting point – not entire sanctification. Or if it meant that you achieve perfect righteousness, but then you occasionally sin and mess it up. Then you would be in a perpetual process of re-sanctification. This would also be indistinct from the idea of progressive but not perfect sanctification – only the terms would be changed. If entire sanctification means you only sin less, it is only semantically different from the orthodox view and would hardly be worth forming a splinter group over.


Does is mean you lose your inclination to sin?

It could mean, as Brother Wyatt understood it, that when you are sanctified you lose your “adamic” or sin nature. This would be very convenient; it would stand to reason that if you had no sin nature, you would have no more temptation, except perhaps from demonic forces. 

Don’t get me wrong, the Bible does talk about dying to yourself and your “flesh” or sin nature. However, Jesus says that this is a daily thing “take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Paul agrees when he says, “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31) and “Always [constantly] bearing about in the body the dying [ongoing] of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us, but life in you…For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:10-16). 

Wyatt’s own citation emphasizes this when he points out that Paul tells Christians in Ephesus to “put off concerning the former conversation the old man [put off your old self], which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Why would Paul tell Christians this if it wasn’t something he expected them to have to do on an ongoing basis? If he was only speaking to the “unsanctified” Christians in Ephesus, why didn’t he give the slightest implication that his message wasn’t addressed to everyone there?

But let’s say Brother Wyatt is right. He lost his fleshly desires in 1946. Does that mean he had a half-century of essentially no temptation to ever do the wrong thing? He always felt like prayer and scripture reading? He never had an inclination to say an unkind word to his wife or withhold a kind word? This seems unlikely to me. If you’re “sanctified,” is this your experience? No temptation? Because if you simply shift the source of the temptation from your flesh to the devil, the doctrine is once again meaningless in practice and is mere semantics. From my experience with allegedly entirely sanctified people versus Christians in other movements, I have not detected any difference in the level of temptation they experience or succumb to.


Does it mean you stop sinning altogether?

What’s the other option? If sanctification doesn’t mean we’re not tempted significantly anymore, it could mean that we cease to sin altogether. We know Paul didn’t when he says in Romans 7:19 “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do,” but maybe Paul wasn’t sanctified at the point he wrote this (which is what John Wesley assumed). It seems that Paul still wasn’t perfect when he wrote in in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” Perhaps Paul is being humble here, but he definitely refers to himself as a someone who sins in the present tense.

Paul notwithstanding, who will raise their hand and say the following? “I don’t sin anymore. I committed my last sin on January 3rd, 14 years ago and it is not likely that I will sin again until the day I die. I never omit to do that which I should do, and I never do that which I should not. Every thought I entertain is pure and kind. Every word that I exchange is thoughtful and true.” 

Clearly, if these non-sinners are walking among us, they must be in every way superior to those in other churches and in their own congregations who do not claim this blessing. Their love and kindness must be without bounds, their hospitality above reproach, their witness without hesitation. Their financial generosity and hospitality must be jaw-dropping. Their work ethic must be superb. Since they are without sins of omission, and they always pray, study, and meditate when they should, they must be far closer to God than any of the rest of us. Given the pipeline that sinless perfection and perfect prioritization would naturally open with God, their Facebook postings must be veritable fountains of divine wisdom.

I actually did find at least one fellow who was willing to make this claim “I don’t sin anymore because [Jesus] forgave me of all my sins and now he lives in me to keep me from ever sinning again.” The gent went on to claim that he now regularly heals and performs miracles, has written over 150 divinely inspired works and recommend that “The best thing for a sinner is to throw their Bibles away so they can follow God instead of listening to their own interpretations of the scriptures that deceive them.”

Most of us are suspicious of such claims of sinless perfection. It speaks more to a disconnect with reality than a connection to the Godhead. There is more of denial than of divinity about it. Of course, the apostle John would dismiss it along with us. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7-9). It seems to me that the author is saying our righteousness comes from Christ rather than works.

When Jesus said “you who are without sin, throw the first stone” – that’s actually not an invitation to throw a stone. Even the Pharisees understood this.

If we can’t defend the idea that entire sanctification means a life without temptation and we’re unwilling to say that entire sanctification means a life in which no sins are ever committed, then what does it mean?

As it is commonly understood in the Holiness movement I grew up in, entire sanctification means nothing. It is no longer an experience, we cannot tell who has achieved it, and it does not result in either a life free from temptation or sin. In all but semantics, it has become completely indistinguishable from the doctrine of progressive sanctification, or the biblical idea that we ought to “grow in grace.”


Were we right to abandon this doctrine?

Were we right to shift away from a second experiential work of grace, which was “discovered” by divine revelation to an isolated lady preacher in the 1840’s?  

Not to oversimplify the issue – but yes. We were right to abandon this. The biblical concept of maturity constantly uses progressive language. We speak of the “path of righteousness” not the “place of righteousness.” We speak of spiritual “infants” and adults (aging is not an instantaneous process, and even adulthood does not signify no additional changes). We speak of “walking with the Spirit,” not “arriving with the Spirit.”

Paul is constantly exhorting the righteous to abound more in righteousness. “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater; (2 Thessalonians 1:3).” Paul also exhorts Christians to continually root out and kill sin in their lives. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry (Colossians 3:5).” James insists believers ought to “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another (5:16).” 

None of these passages divide between the “sanctified and unsanctified” in the churches. They expect all believers to continually fight sin and pursue God.


Why talk about a forgotten doctrine?

More than 90% of the Pentecostal Holiness church has adopted the orthodox Christian view of progressive sanctification – in practice if not in name. However, because they have never officially rejected the old view, its effects linger. Unfortunately, this out-of-focus belief in perfection leads its holders directly into clear sin in two ways.

First, the fuzzy belief that we are somehow holier than any other Christians who do not routinely refer to themselves as “sanctified” results in a significant amount of pride and disunity. This is ironic, of course, because pride and disunity are both sins. However, they prevail in any environment where we unilaterally declare ourselves more righteous than others. This pride prevents working with other Christians to further God’s kingdom, and results in an abandonment of our commission to preach the gospel to all nations – yet another sin driven by a doctrine of perfection.

Second, this ambiguous belief that we are somehow beyond sinning leads to a distinct reduction in transparency and accountability. We feel no need to have accountability groups or partners, because we shouldn’t be sinning, and therefore have nothing about which to hold each other accountable. We defy God’s command to confess our faults to one another, because we assume that we will be judged as inferior Christians for obeying God in this matter. When someone does come forward to confess sin voluntarily, they are often judged as immature and made to regret their honesty. We don’t ask God to “see if there is any wicked way in me,” because we assume that since we’re sanctified, there shouldn’t be. We pray instead, “nothing to see here, God. Move along.” 

The doctrine of entire sanctification is unclear, unbiblical, and largely rejected by the Pentecostal Holiness movement. We would do well to purge our churches of the unorthodox approach to Christian maturity left behind by this modern gospel of self-righteousness. And given that we have already seen fit to abandon the foundational doctrine of the Holiness Movement, maybe we can find a way to reconnect with the branches of the church that never fell into that trap.

Nathan Mayo



  1. A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, John Wesley, London, England; 1767.
  2. The Way of Holiness, Phoebe Palmer, pages 17-18, 21-22.
  3. Apostolic Faith, Vol. 1, Number 2, October 1902, p. 1. 
  4. The First One to Speak in Tongues,” by Agnes Ozman, 1909, published in The Latter Rain Evangel, page 2.
  5.   A. J. Tomlinson: Plain Folk Modernist, by R.G. Robins, Oxford University Press, 2004, 42-44.


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Which Old-Time Holiness Should We Go Back To?


“I believe in true, old-time holiness” and “We need to get back to old-time holiness!” are just a few of the sayings I’ve heard all of my life (especially recently). They raise an obvious question: what is old-time holiness? The Holiness Movement was originally/historically known for teaching “the experience of holiness,” but most members today have not even heard of this teaching – thus, that’s not what we’re being called back to. Instead, “old-time holiness” hearkens back to the historic outward holiness or early dress code. But of which era? The standards of the 1760’s, 1840’s, 1880’s, 1910’s, 1940’s, 1960’s…? This article will begin with John Wesley’s teachings of outward holiness, then work through the beginnings of the Holiness Movement, the beginnings of Pentecostalism, and into the mid-1900’s. We will examine how the standards of the Holiness Movement have continued to evolve, as we evaluate which era we might return to.

Reverend John Wesley MA Fellow of Lincoln Colleges Oxford London

John Wesley’s Teachings on Outward Holiness (Mid-1700’s)

John Wesley lived from 1703-1791, and he is known as the founder of Methodist Christianity.  Along with many teachings on Christian love, unity of the brethren, moral perfection, and inward holiness, Wesley also taught on outward holiness and holiness of dress. Wesley was greatly impacted by the Moravians and the Quakers, both of which practiced the plain-dress of the Anabaptists.  The Anabaptists applied principles of simplicity and separation to many areas of their lives, resulting in very plain homes and churches, as well as plain-dress. This was a far-right pendulum swing of the Protestant reformation, which came in response to the Catholic Church’s extravagance in that era.

Wesley was an adherent to and teacher of the plain-dress doctrine. In his sermon, “On Dress” Wesley stated, “Let me see, before I die, a Methodist congregation, full as plain dressed as a Quaker congregation.” Very few groups still hold to the original standards, with the closest example left being the Amish. Plain-dress would traditionally include the following:

  • Women’s Head Coverings (Stricter groups only would wear opaque coverings, no lace)
  • Neutral Colors: Black, Grey, Brown, White, and Sometimes Dark Blue
  • Limited Buttons (Stricter groups would only use hook-and-eye closures)
  • No Prints: Solid Color Only
  • A Second Layer on Ladies to “Cover the Bosom”
  • Loose Cut Garments to Hide Curves and Figure
  • No Ornamentation: No Artificial Flowers, Trims, Embroidery, Beads, Decorative Belts, Decorative Scarfs etc.
  • No Lace and No Ruffles
  • Plain Fabric (Jean was rejected upon invention)
  • Clothing Covering the Body from Neck, to Feet, to Wrists

The scriptures and reasoning behind these standards were the same as the plain-dressing Amish use today. According to Cindy Woodsmall, “The Amish believe that God has called them to be separate from the world and its negative consequences…They believe this type of modesty in dress is necessary to keeping their hearts and bodies pure.”

To be fair, not every early Methodist followed all of the above regulations, but plain-dress was still considered to be the most holy standard. There are even accounts of Methodists being confused with Quakers, as it says in the 1859 novel Adam Bede, “I saw she was a Methodist, or Quaker, or something of that sort, by her dress.”


Methodist Women Pitts Theology Seminary

Early Methodist Women

Wesley specifically pushed for women to wear head-coverings. He writes, “But the woman is a matter of glory to the man, who has a becoming dominion over her. Therefore she ought not to appear except with her head veiled as a tacit acknowledgement of it” [1]. This view was shared by several other conservative leaders of that era such John Knox, John Calvin, Martin Luther and Matthew Henry, to name a few.  Very plain hairstyles were also advocated. Even today in the Evangelical Wesleyan Church (a more direct descendant of Wesley than Holiness Pentecostals) it is written in their by-laws that women are not allowed to curl their hair. [2]

Wesley also made a case against expensive clothing, in accordance with 1 Peter 3:3-4.

“Let your dress be cheap as well as plain.”

“The wearing costly array is directly opposite to the being adorned with good works. Nothing can be more evident than this; for the more you lay out on your own apparel, the less you have left to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to lodge the strangers, to relieve those that are sick and in prison, and to lessen the numberless afflictions to which we are exposed in this vale of tears.” [3]

Methodists took the teachings against expensive clothing so seriously that they would turn people away at the door who came to their services in “fine apparel.” [4]

John Wesley’s argument against costly clothing was the same argument he used against jewelry. In short, it “engendered pride” and the excess money should instead be saved and given to the poor. Furthermore, even if a person didn’t actually spend the money on the nice clothing or even if they could easily afford it, Wesley taught that they should still abstain due to the possibility of falling into of pride. If a person could live without a thing, or if they could have a simpler, plainer version of the same thing, then this is what they ought to do.  This line of reasoning would condemn many more items in modern times such as Coach purses, sports cars, stylish homes, Dainty Jewels dresses, Nike tennis shoes, iPhones, Apple watches, unnecessary guns, and much more.


The Holiness Movement’s First Teachings on Outward Holiness (Mid-1800’s)

As time went on, many of the “plain dressed” Methodists began to relax their standards to the great chagrin of their stricter brethren. Although I have not found a document specifically naming the outward compromises, photographs from the 1800’s reveal Methodists wearing prints, women without head-coverings, and an increasing amount of non-essential decoration, from ties to ruffles to trim. Concerned, revival preachers began to call for reform and a return to the teachings of John Wesley, not just of dress but also of sinless perfection.

Methodists 1800s

“Compromised” Methodists of the 1800’s

One of the most famous ministers to lament the compromise of Methodist dress was Peter Cartwright. In his journal he writes:

“When I joined the Church, her ministers and members were a plain people; plain in dress and address. You could know a Methodist preacher by his plain dress as far as you could see him…if the Methodists had dressed in the same “superfluity of naughtiness” then as they do now, there were very few that even out of the Church would have any confidence in their religion. But O, how have things changed for the worse in this educational age of the world! I do declare there was little or no necessity for preachers to say anythings against fashionable and superfluous dressing in those primitive times of early Methodism; the very wicked themselves knew it was wrong and spoke out against members of the Church. The moment we saw members begin to trim their dress after the fashionable world, we all knew they would not hold out. Permit me here to give a few cases…”[5]

Cartwright goes on to give examples of how the Methodists had declined from their earlier standards of holiness by telling stories of how it used to be. Speaking of a lady who had just received Christ, he continues:

“Not a word was said about dress. She went home, intending to come to the love-feast next morning, but it occurred to her that all her superfluities ought to be laid aside now, and that she, as a Christian, for examples sake, ought to go in plain attire; but alas! For her, she had not a plain dress in the world. She said to herself, What shall I do? She immediately hunted up the plainest and most easily altered dress she could find. To work it as she went; trimmed it and fixed it tolerably plain.” [5]

“In 1810, when I was traveling in West Tennessee, at a camp-meeting I was holding there was a great revival in progress. At that time, it was customary for gentlemen of fashion to wear ruffled shirts. There was a wealthy gentlemen thus attired at our meeting…it seemed there was something he would not give up. I was praying by his side, and talking to him, when all of a sudden he stood erect on his knees, and with his hand he deliberately opened his shirt bosom, took hold of his ruffles, tore them off, and threw them down in the straw; and in less than two minutes God blessed his soul, and he sprang to his feet, loudly praising God.” [5]

The ideal place for calling for reform was the camp-meetings and brush arbor revivals, which Methodists were known for. They were a time fiery preaching, shouting, and, surprisingly enough, interdenominational fellowship. According to Old Settlers Gazette (2006), “Presbyterians, Methodists, and sometimes Baptists worked the crowds together.” This fact plays a significant role in explaining how the Holiness Movement quickly spread beyond denominational barriers.

Arguably the most influential of all these camp-meeting preachers was Pheobe Palmer, who earned the title “Mother of the Holiness Movement.” She was also the general editor of a magazine entitled, “Guide to Holiness” which reached 40,000 subscribers at its peak.

Palmer did not ignore the goal of bringing sinners to Christ through sermons, which was historically the focus of revivals, but her emphasis was on holiness. By 1853 her schedule included Canada. Her labors there in 1857 resulted in more than 2,000 conversions and hundreds of Christians who claimed the baptism of the Holy Ghost or holiness (Palmer 1859:259). Her ministry there contributed to the general Prayer Revival of 1857–1858, which resulted in more than 2,000,000 converts in the United States and the British Isles. Between 1859 and 1863, Palmer preached at fifty-nine locations throughout the British Isles (White 1986:241–42). At one meeting in Sunderland, 3,000 attended her services held over a period of twenty-nine days, with some people turned away. She reported 2,000 seekers there, including approximately 200 who experienced holiness under her preaching (Wheatley 1881:355, 356). Between 1866 and 1870 she held services throughout the United States and eastern Canada (Raser 1987:69–70). At a camp meeting in Goderich, Canada in 1868, about 6,000 gathered to hear her preach (Wheatley 1881:445, 415). Palmer continued to accept preaching engagements until shortly before her death. Overall, she preached before hundreds of thousands of people at more than 300 camp meetings and revivals. Palmer’s husband was supportive of Phoebe Palmer’s ministry from the outset and he was not troubled by her greater reputation. Walter Palmer gave up his medical practice in 1859 to travel with her full-time. He often assisted in services by reading Scripture and commenting on the text. [7]

As part of the outward appearance she emphasized, Phoebe Palmer would wear an opaque head-covering and a dark, plain dress. It was written this way by one of her admirers:

She [Phoebe’s sister, Sarah] believed that simplicity of dress was the right thing for a Christian, and she never swerved. I remember when she and her sister Phoebe were called the “drab sisters.” With them, it was a conviction that an exceedingly plain dress was the way for them, and they urged it upon others. [8]

Not all Methodists were eager to return to the strict standards of plain dress, many refused. Thankfully for Holiness preachers, their teachings were able to reach a variety of church groups through the unified camp-meetings, and as a result, Holiness became an interdenominational movement. It’s important to note that “holiness” did not mean to the early Holiness movement what it means to us today. It was a common label for what we now call instantaneous sanctification or immediate perfection; this doctrine was extremely significant to the early movement. Testimonies of experiencing this second work began coming from all different denominations–Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist, Quakers, and more. Unfortunately, the “inward and outward holiness” didn’t unite multiple denominations for the long term. Instead, it triggered a plethora of splits, as churches scrambled to hammer out what their teachings on sanctification would be, what their outward standards would be, and then continually divided themselves from any churches which taught differently. [8]


Azusa Street Saints and Outward Holiness (Early 1900’s)

The Holiness Movement intersected with the Pentecostal Movement in the early 1900’s. The Pentecostal Movement has it’s origins at Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas. The school was founded in 1900 by Charles Fox Parham, and its only textbook was the Bible. Parham is an extremely important leader in Pentecostal history, because it was he who first articulated and publicized the doctrine of speaking in tongues as required evidence of receiving the Spirit. From all historical accounts, there is good reason to believe Parham was also the first to teach this doctrine, considering that it is not found recorded in the 1,800 years of Church history prior to him. The first document containing tongues as initial sign evidence in written form was Parham’s book “A Voice Crying in the Wilderness”, published in 1902. [9]

Parham try 4

Parham left the Methodist Church in 1895 and married Sarah Thistlewaite, the daughter of a Quaker. Parham is said to have preached the ideas of the Holiness Movement in his evangelism, but outward holiness was one of his differing factors.

Innovative as usual, Parham often sat on the platform dressed in Palestinian costume. Unlike many preachers with a similar holiness oriented message, he encouraged his workers to dress stylishly and thereby to demonstrate the attractiveness of the Christian life. [10]

Ironically then, it was the founder of modern Pentecostalism who pushed the compromise of “old-time” outward holiness, and refused to preach or live the plain-dress standards of the early Methodists.

Of all the people Charles Parham taught and influenced, William Seymour would be the most significant in Holiness history.  Seymour adopted Parham’s doctrine of tongues as initial sign evidence and took it with him to California. The mid-1800’s to the mid-1900’s was chock full of revivals, but the revival Seymour led stands head and shoulders above the rest, the Azusa Street Revival.

Many of the Azusa Street Saints were from a Holiness background and still catered to the old style of dressing, with a few compromises. One of the most significant differences from the early Holiness standards was a lack of women’s head-coverings. The holier women still did not dare to wear their hair down, and curling it was unthinkable. According to Tommy Welchel, a historian specializing in Azusa Street, women wore their hair in “glory buns, the higher they were the more glorious.” They also were careful to only wear neutral colors, just like their predecessors. [11]


Holiness Pentecostals and Outward Holiness (Mid-1900’s)

As Pentecostal revivals spread, more and more emphasis was put on outreach, hundreds and thousands of new converts joined the church, and codes of outward holiness began to their lose influence. Here is an excerpt from “Oral Roberts: An American Life:”

“In addition to these theological distinctives, Pentecostal Holiness people were constantly and facticiously attentive to questions of personal morality. In its earliest days the church forbade “outward adorning, such as jewelry, gold, feathers, flowers, costly apparel, or ornamentation of any kind,” though in later years members were simply “forbidden to follow immodest and extravagant styles in dressing, or to wear needless ornamentation.” Still, as late as 1939, a preacher just returned home from the East Oklahoma camp meeting observed that “the quartet that sang last night was not made up of Pentecostal Holiness singers, I am sure; for the ladies wore short sleeves and finger rings; and Pentecostal Holiness ladies do not wear short sleeves in East Oklahoma … and as for rings—well, they just aren’t worn by out women out here.”[12]

It seems that the author finds it an oddity that “as late as 1939” women in one part of the Pentecostal Holiness movement were still forbidden from short sleeves and rings. The book goes on to explain how Pentecostal Holiness people of the 1930’s were also forbidden from several kinds of “worldly amusements” which included picnics. Furthermore, “Whether divorced persons could under any circumstance be church members was the cause of an early division in the group and long continued to be a source of debate and contention.”[12]

There were a few Pentecostal preachers who were concerned about this trend and continued to harp on a need for outward standards. Two of these men were Frank Bartleman and William Branham. Frank Bartleman began as Seymour’s right-hand man and went on to become the primary recorder/journalist of the Azusa Street Revival. After the revival, Bartleman became a founding father of the Oneness Apostolic Movement and played an important role in establishing the Oneness dress-code.

William Branham is a slightly lesser known name today, but was very well known and respected in his time. Tommy Welchel, the expert on Azusa Street history, reminiscences about William Branham in a highly honoring way. In his book “True Stories of the Miracles of Azusa Street” Welchel tells of a prophecy Branham made over him personally in 1960, he then goes on to tell how it came to pass. [13]

Thankfully for us, Branham’s Holiness standards, along with his reasoning behind them, were recorded in document form.

“I was talking the other night to some friends of mine where we was way back up in the mountains, and a young woman…And we noticed standing there, a couple of brothers and I, the lady nursing her baby. She just removed her breast from her dress and begin to nurse the baby; and it was kind of amazing for a minute; that’s the way my mother nursed me. It’s exactly right. I have more honor for a woman like that than I do some of these women that put a little old strap under them to throw theirself out: don’t even look like a human being. They got a purpose in doing that; that’s sexy, ungodly….But when you come to go on the outside and maybe wear ever so much of a blouse or so forth, and then boost yourself out there with straps and things, that looks ungodly and cause men… Do you realize that’s a spirit of the Devil on you? Oh, yeah. So you don’t want to do that, sister. Don’t you do that; that’s Hollywood’s makeup and a trap of the Devil. When you do that, you make men think the wrong thing about you; and when you do that, then you’re guilty of committing adultery with that man, because you presented yourself that way to him.” [14]

Branham is speaking against the modern-day bra here, which only became mainstream in the 1930’s. It’s interesting to note, that he had no issue with full-exposure for the purpose of nursing. But wearing a bra? “Spirit of the devil.” Here’s another excerpt (it seems to be the written version of a taped sermon):

You say, “Where are you getting scriptures for high heels now preacher?‟ Everything that we need to know is in this Bible. Listen to what the prophet of God said. Alright, see if this sounds to you like highheeled shoes. Isaiah 3:16-22…

“Thunders” people today want to show us that they could preach “thunders” and wear high-heeled shoes. They are going to fall into a dark chasm. False thunders brought out all those heresies. That narrow road is the road to life. “Straight is the gate, narrow is the way that leadeth to life.” And she fell over into that smoke and flames and was lost. You cannot get to heaven in a high-heeled shoe. And I say that the people in the message [his church] need to stamp out all of this nonsense. That shoes could be an inch, it could be a half-inch, and if it is narrowing down and tapering down, it is going to cause you to twist. Is that right? [Congregation says, “Amen!”] And the women ought to know better than that. And if a woman is honest in her conscience, even though she wears a horseshoe and it is causing her to walk in a certain way, she will try to change it. She wouldn‟t wait for the minister to say, “Take off the high-heeled shoe.” It could be half inch, it could be one inch, and that thing is tapered down and built in a certain way, it is going to cause you to walk in a wrong way. It is going to cause you to walk in a funny way. Yes. I say away with all the high-heeled shoes. Quit the thing. You cannot get to heaven in those high-heeled shoes.

Branham was not alone in preaching his “holiness standards,” as he himself called them.  I’ve heard many personal stories from older saints about open-toed shoes, the color red, and even the radio being preached against in that same era. It is very good to realize that these clothing standards were not created by ‘extreme’ preachers of the 1900’s, they were actually bits and pieces of the original holiness standards dating back to the 1700-1800’s.

As the book on Oral Roberts stated, the general trend of the 1900’s still seemed to be a lessening of holiness standards. I have not been able to find a written description of which standards were dropped when, but photos speak 1,000 words.

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Although they are not clear enough to reveal jewelry, makeup, and hair length, many of these photos do exhibit sleeve and skirt length which would be entirely unacceptable in Pentecostal Holiness churches today. Why the change? When did the pendulum swing back? Although there could be a vast amount of speculation, the most reasonable explanation I have heard is that the roaring 60’s and the 1967 Summer of Love caused a huge stir among the religious community.  A call for “old-time holiness” came in response.

“Old-time holiness” never did make her return. Instead, her principles were cherry-picked and only particular rules came back, while their sister-rules never did. For example, several outward principles were originally based in 1 Timothy 2:9, “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;” The early Methodists and Holiness Movement hammered this verse across the board, calling for neutral colors only, extremely simple and cheap clothing, preaching against all forms of decoration (from lace to flowers to printed cloth), and strongly urging for head-coverings. These teachings continued to be watered down throughout the centuries until the bulk of them were lost. Take hair, for example; head-coverings turned into only wearing simple up-do’s, and simple up-do’s were replaced with “you can wear your hair down, but just don’t curl it.” Today, Pentecostal women have a reputation for some of the most beautiful and elaborate hairstyles in American culture. As for plain-dressing, the rule commanding completely barren/untrimmed clothing was done away with in the 1800’s, neutral colors went out the window a century ago, and in modern-times it would be hard to imagine a Friday night service without a selection of the newest Dainty Jewel’s styles. As for ornamentation, almost every type is accepted now: flowers, feathers, lace, trim, beads, embroidery, print, decorative scarfs, decorative ties, and decorative belts.  The only rules which remain from the 1700’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9 are those against jewelry and make-up.

Another reason for the plainness-principles of the early Holiness movement was so that everyone would be at the same level.  In other words, there would be no room for social class, “haves” and “have-nots.” This was cited again and again as the reason early Holiness people would give up their jewelry and nice clothing, or even build plain homes. Today, this principle of denying oneself unnecessary possessions-in order to be plain and uniform, would apply to many more of our 21st century luxuries.  It would apply to collections of historical artifacts and guns, to dresses, to purses, to cars, to shoes, to phones, to computers, to watches, to the places we eat, the vacations we take, the houses we build and the cars we own. How many of us today deny ourselves the nicer brands, makes and models in order to avoid “engendering pride” as John Wesley put it? We don’t.  Instead, we cherry-pick the original standards and over-simplify things into “no jewelry” and “no make-up,” creating significant inconsistencies. For example, I can walk into a Holiness Pentecostal church with my hair done to the nine’s and receive a plethora of compliments, but if I walk in with light make-up I’ll be thought of as vain. I can walk in wearing a $120 Dainty Jewel’s dress and fit in perfectly, but if I walk in wearing my $3 necklace, then somehow I’m seen as proud and showy.



Standards of outward holiness have gone through tremendous phases of change ever since Wesley’s adoption of “plain-dress” in the 1700’s. The Amish, who do not have holiness roots, are one of the few religious groups who have actually kept the original standards. It’s no wonder that we continuously hear a call for a return to “old-time holiness.” But which phase of old-time holiness should we return to? The original one? It’s hard to imagine walking into a Holiness church today and looking over a sea of utterly plain, brown and black, cotton-clothed congregants, complete with opaque head-coverings.  Is that the old-time holiness we should return to?

The original Methodist and Holiness people should always be respected and commended for their emphasis on striving for perfection, their eager study of scripture, and their incredible desire to live a holy, God-honoring life. They had admirable devotion and dedication; it would do us all a great good to study their example. The key is that we must to learn from them not return to them. We should never idolize any era of our history, and we should never find our identity or worth in our ability to keep past traditions.

One of the most valuable Holiness history lessons is the fact that creating a set of extra-biblical rules has never succeeded. The heart behind the extra rules was noble.  The motivation was to help congregants apply biblical principles in modern time, but regulations never work for the long-haul. Instead, they have caused much confusion as the culture has evolved. Historically, Holiness people have rarely been able to all agree on which old rules to keep, what new rules to make, and how strictly to enforce all rules. This has caused a huge amount of division and contention resulting in church groups splitting and splitting and splitting again. [8]

Rules are much easier to list than principles are to teach, but they do far less good. For example, I can understand the rule against not wearing decorative flowers all day long; but, if I don’t understand the underlying concepts of humility, then I will remain in the sin of pride and mess it all up in other areas of life. In contrast, if I understand the concept, I may decide that wearing decorative flowers would attract unhealthy attention and cause my sisters to envy; and even better, I’ll also be able to apply loving humility across the board.  If I happen to live in an era or location where the wearing of flowers is not proud or unloving, then I’ll be able to understand that too (Replacing Rules with Discipleship.)

Returning to biblical discipleship may not be as romantic sounding as a call to “old-time holiness,” but in reality, isn’t that exactly what will lead to biblical holiness? Holiness will never be found in an ability to follow a leader’s rules. But, when that leader is willing to open the scriptures, expound their timeless truths, and teach the Word as accurately as possible, he will point his congregants to the ultimate source of holiness, Jesus Christ. As each Christian grows deeper in authentic relationship with Jesus we will become more and more like Him. We will be led and guided by the Spirit in how we ought to live. Hebrews 12:10 teaches that, even though our holiness is filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) we have been made “partakers of his holiness” and according to Phillippians 3:9 each of us must be “found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:” Holiness, by faith in Christ alone, is the only holiness with which we will ever receive eternal life.

-Natalie Mayo


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  2. The Discipline of the Evangelical Wesleyan Church, Evangelical Wesleyan Church, 2015, p. 41, 57–58.
  3. John Wesley, “On Dress.”
  4. Rupert Davies, A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, 1965, p.197.
  5. Peter Cartwright, The Autobiography of Peter Cartwright: The Backwoods Preacher, 1857, p. 75-78, 515.
  7. John Alexander Rache, The Life of Sarah A. Lankford Palmer, 1898, 261.
  9. Charles Fox Parham, A Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness, 1902.
  10. Edith Blumhofer, Restoring the Faith: the Assemblies of God, Pentecostalism, and American Culture, p. 54.
  11. Tommy Welchel, Podcast Interview with Good News Church-Yukon, OK, September 5, 2017.
  12. David Edwin Harrel, Jr., Oral Roberts: An American Life, 1985, p. 19.
  13. Tommy Welchel, True Stories of the Miracles of Azusa Street, p. 30.
  14. “Exposition of Damnable Heresies, Holiness Message Standards/False Thunders Failed,” p. 53, 57, 59.

The Holiness Standard in Church History: The Early Church


All of us girls who have grown up in Holiness know the in’s, out’s, do’s and don’t’s of the Holiness standard like the back of our hands.  However, one thing that most of us don’t know is where this standard came from in the first place.  Have you ever wondered about the origin of the Holiness style?  What did it look like in the Early Church, the Medieval Church, the Reformation, or in Early America?  Let’s dive into history and see for ourselves, starting with the Early Church in this article.

First things first, what are we looking for in church history?   To make it simple, let’s look primarily for 2 tell-tale characteristics of the holiness standard; no makeup, and no jewelry.

After reading through a good deal of Holiness and Oneness sources on the historicity of their standards, I have found 2 primary sources quoted again and again from the Early Church: Tertullian (c. 160-c. 240) and Clement of Alexandria (c. 155-c. 220) (these are the only historic sources used in the Holiness-Handbook).  I was able to find and read the original texts that quotations are taken from, and was impressed by the scope of their teachings on outward appearance, as well as their reasoning for them.  I will begin with the excerpted quotes that you will often see in Holiness literature, and then, provide a portion of the context for better understanding.  Let us start with Tertullian.

Examining Tertullian

The Holiness Standard in Church History: The Early Church

For they who rub their skin with medicaments, stain their cheeks with rouge, make their eyes prominent with antimony, sin against Him . To them, I suppose, the plastic skill of God is displeasing!..But, in the next place, what am I to interpret those jewels to be which vie with gold in haughtiness, except little pebbles and stones and paltry particles of the self-same earth; but yet not necessary either for laying down foundations, or rearing party-walls, or supporting pediments, or giving density to roofs? The only edifice which they know how to rear is this silly pride of women:

-Tertullian [1]

Now let us read more of the context in order to grasp the big-picture of what Tertullian is teaching. It will soon be apparent that even though he does have some overlap with Holiness Standards, the bulk of his teachings are very different, even contradictory.  Take special care to notice the amount of scripture he is using to ground his teachings and at the way in which he uses it.

Female habit carries with it a twofold idea — dress and ornament. By dress we mean what they call womanly gracing; by ornament, what it is suitable should be called womanly disgracing. The former is accounted (to consist) in gold, and silver, and gems, and garments; the latter in care of the hair, and of the skin, and of those parts of the body which attract the eye. Against the one we lay the charge of ambition, against the other of prostitution; 

Note the things which Tertullian puts in the category of prostitution, not clothing or jewelry, but “care of the hair, and of the skin”.  Hmm… Okay, moving on.

What service, again, does all the labour spent in arranging the hair render to salvation? Why is no rest allowed to your hair, which must now be bound, now loosed, now cultivated, now thinned out? Some are anxious to force their hair into curls, some to let it hang loose and flying;…God bids you be veiled. I believe (He does so) for fear the heads of some should be seen! And oh that in that day of Christian exultation, I, most miserable (as I am), may elevate my head, even though below (the level of) your heels! I shall (then) see whether you will rise…

Purple with them is more paltry than red ochre; (and justly,) for what legitimate honour can garments derive from adulteration with illegitimate colors? That which He Himself has not produced is not pleasing to God, unless He was unable to order sheep to be born with purple and sky-blue fleeces! If He was able, then plainly He was unwilling: what God willed not, of course ought not to be fashioned. Those things, then, are not the best by nature which are not from God, the Author of nature. Thus they are understood to be from the devil, from the corrupter of nature: for there is no other whose they can be, if they are not God’s; because what are not God’s must necessarily be His rival’s. But, beside the devil and his angels, other rival of God there is none.

Now, let’s look at some of Tertullian’s reasoning behind his teaching;

Are there not some who prohibit to themselves (the use of) the very creature of God, abstaining from wine and animal food, the enjoyments of which border upon no peril or solicitude; but they sacrifice to God the humility of their soul even in the chastened use of food? Sufficiently, therefore, have you, too, used your riches and your delicacies; sufficiently have you cut down the fruits of your dowries, before (receiving) the knowledge of saving disciplines.

“Saving disciplines”…is this what it sounds like?  From the context, it seems that Tertullian has the idea that the more self-denial, the more holy the person, even if the thing he denies himself (like the example of meat) is not actually wrong at all.

Let a holy woman, if naturally beautiful, give none so great occasion (for carnal appetite). Certainly, if even she be so, she ought not to set off (her beauty), but even to obscure it.

It was God who chose to create women as the crowning beauty of His creation; is it truly biblical then, for Tertullian to teach that women ought to obscure their natural beauty?  Taking his whole writing in to consideration, he seems to be referring to beauty of the hair, skin, and face of a women,  more than her body figure.  What is Tertullian’s biblical grounds for this idea?  It is his view of the woman; his following description is the most revealing content of all.  Read carefully;

If there dwelt upon earth a faith as great as is the reward of faith which is expected in the heavens, no one of you at all, best beloved sisters, from the time that she had first known the Lord, and learned (the truth) concerning her own (that is, woman’s) condition, would have desired too gladsome (not to say too ostentatious) a style of dress; so as not rather to go about in humble garb, and rather to affect meanness of appearance, walking about as Eve mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve, — the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin, and the odium (attaching to her as the cause) of human perdition. In pains and in anxieties do you bear (children), woman; and toward your husband (is) your inclination, and he lords it over you. And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins? Come, now; if from the beginning of the world the Milesians sheared sheep, and the Serians spun trees, and the Tyrians dyed, and the Phrygians embroidered with the needle, and the Babylonians with the loom, and pearls gleamed, and onyx-stones flashed; if gold itself also had already issued, with the cupidity (which accompanies it), from the ground; if the mirror, too, already had licence to lie so largely, Eve, expelled from paradise, (Eve) already dead, would also have coveted these things, I imagine! No more, then, ought she now to crave, or be acquainted with (if she desires to live again), what, when she was living, she had neither had nor known. Accordingly these things are all the baggage of woman in her condemned and dead state, instituted as if to swell the pomp of her funeral.

Wow, think about those statements.  The reason that Tertullian taught women should dress without color in their garments, the reason women should abstain from makeup and jewelry, the reason women should not fix their hair or even reveal it, the reason women should obscure their natural beauty, is because Tertullian sees women as unworthy of beauty.  In his own words, “The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway…And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins? Come, now.”  Instead, he teaches that Christian women ought to walk about “mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve.”  Is this the biblical message?  Are women really supposed dress and look as blandly as possible in order to live in a constant state of shame and guilt over our sex?  Is this the gospel message?  Thanks be to Christ, it is not!  Whether or not his teachings are true, Tertullian’s justifications for them are not grounded in scripture.

Tertullian is correct in assuming that there can be too much emphasis on beauty, and that spending an excessive amount of money on appearances is wasteful, drawing an unhealthy amount of attention to ourselves and distracting from Christ.  It is also possible to dress too scantily or flamboyantly in a provocative way and draw an unhealthy attention from men.  However, with all things there are more than two sides of the spectrum, there is also a solid, middle ground, a healthy balance.  A balance which both affirms the beauty and value God created women to have, while simultaneously avoiding an impression of arrogance, self-glorification, or seduction.

What came of Tertullian’s teachings that women should abstain from appearing beautiful?  Did this reflect or become the Early Church’s mainstream teaching?  Or at the least, can links between Tertullian’s teaching and the Holiness lineage be traced?   To answer these questions, we’ll need to do a bit of background research.

Tertullian was known to be, “An extremist by nature, he had gone through a period of licentiousness during his early years, but later advocated a severe asceticism and discipline that his followers found hard to emulate.” [2].  “Asceticism” is defined in the Oxford dictionaries is “severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.”   Tertullian’s extreme lifestyle and teachings of self-denial (which would include the ones on women’s appearance) caused tension between himself and the rest of Christianity, and he actually broke with the Church in 207 (and, no, this was not the Roman Catholic Church-this is still back in the 200’s).  He then joined himself to the very strict, ascetic sect of Montanism, which was later to be declared heretical for several reasons.  Interestingly enough, Montanists “believed that they were the only true Christians” [3].   Tertullian later broke from this sect to form his own sect, the “Tertullianists”.   However, the lineage of Tertullian’s followers cannot be traced in history any farther than the early 400’s when Augustine writes that the last of them converted to the Catholic Church [4].

The above facts seem to point to the conclusion that Tertullian’s writings cannot be used as evidence of the Early Church teaching a “Holiness Standard.”  In contrast, his writings show evidence of one man who had an extreme view on self-denial, and who ended up excommunicated from mainstream Christianity and mixed up with a heretical sect.  He certainly should not be claimed as a predecessor to the Holiness Movement, because not only did Christendom never accept his ideas on women’s appearance, but furthermore, his followers went extinct 1600 years ago. Why, then, would the Holiness-Handbook or the Apostolic site on Holiness history, Old Land Mark [10], cite Tertullian as proof that their Holiness Standard was practiced in the Early Church?  You tell me.

Examining Clement of Alexandria

The Holiness Standard in Church History: The Early Church

Clement of Alexandria was born in around 150 AD and lived until around 215 AD.  His greatest achievements were in his effective response to Gnosticism and his direct impact on the life of Origin.  A lesser known impact Clement had, but very significant in this context, was that of his impact on John Wesley when he was developing his doctrine on Christian perfection [5, 6].  Like Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria also had a strained relationship with the rest of Christendom and was similarly viewed teaching heresy in his time. His most serious offenses were, “That he posited the existence of many worlds before the creation of the present one (3) That he did not believe the incarnate Word to be the true Word of the Father (4) That he made the Son of God a creature [7].”  So, how does Clement of Alexandria show up in the Holiness Handbook?  Below is the exact quote that appears in the publication;

Those women who wear gold imitate the Egyptians. They occupy themselves with curling their locks. They are busy anointing their
cheeks, painting their eyes, dyeing their hair, and practicing the other pernicious arts of luxury. The truth is that they deck the covering
of their flesh in order to attract their infatuated lovers

-Clement of Alexandria (circa 195 AD), 2.272

An interesting excerpt for sure, and it can certainly be agreed that any type of self-preparation for promiscuous reasons is wrong due to its motivation.  To more fully understand Clement’s perspective, as well as to understand whether or not he was a predecessor to the modern, holiness movement, let’s take a deeper look into his writings.

Like the Old Testament authors, Clement seems to be taking his hardest blow against extravagance and self-absorption.  For, in the same context that he makes fun of makeup he also picks at many other things which are very hard to consider wrong, but could become part of a self-consumed mentality.  For example, here is his description of women cleaning themselves which is also included in the passage mentioning makeup, “She has come, she is here, she washes herself, she advances, She is soaped, she is combed, she goes out, is rubbed, She washes herself, looks in the glass, robes herself [8].”

What other standards of holiness did Clement teach? Here are a few more, all taken from the same writing as the excerpts against makeup and jewelry.

Bathing for pleasure is to be omitted. For unblushing pleasure must be cut out by the roots; and the bath is to be taken by women for cleanliness and health, by men for health alone. To bathe for the sake of heat is a superfluity, since one may restore what is frozen by the cold in other ways. Constant use of the bath, too, impairs strength and relaxes the physical energies, and often induces debility and fainting… Nor must we bathe always; but if one is a little exhausted, or, on the other hand, filled to repletion, the bath is to be forbidden, regard being had to the age of the body and the season of the year. For the bath is not beneficial to all, or always, as those who are skilled in these things own. But due proportion, which on all occasions we call as our helper in life, suffices for us. For we must not so use the bath as to require an assistant, nor are we to bathe constantly….

It seems that Clement followed the same thought-process as Tertullian did, as far as putting a hefty emphasis on self-denial.  Moving right along, let’s look at how Clement practically applied scripture on personal Holiness; it’s hard to follow his train of logic here:

But in the spirit of your mind; and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.”  But for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, to arrange his hair at the looking-glass, to shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them, how womanly! 

Pay close attention to the way in which Clement of Alexandria attempts to use scripture to validate his ideas…is he reading meaning out of the text or is he reading his own meaning into it?

But the embellishment of smoothing (for I am warned by the Word), if it is to attract men, is the act of an effeminate person,–if to attract women, is the act of an adulterer; and both must be driven as far as possible from our society. “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered,” says the Lord; those on the chin, too, are numbered, and those on the whole body. There must be therefore no plucking out, contrary to God’s appointment, which has counted them in according to His will. “Know ye not yourselves,” says the apostle, “that Christ Jesus is in you?” Whom, had we known as dwelling in us, I know not how we could have dared to dishonour. But the using of pitch to pluck out hair (I shrink from even mentioning the shamelessness connected with this process), and in the act of bending back and bending down, the violence done to nature’s modesty by stepping out and bending backwards in shameful postures…For he who in the light of day denies his manhood, will prove himself manifestly a woman by night…

For it is not lawful to pluck out the beard, man’s natural and noble ornament. “A youth with his first beard: for with this, youth is most graceful.”

By and by he is anointed, delighting in the beard “on which descended” the prophetic, “ointment” with which Aaron was honoured. And it becomes him who is rightly trained, on whom peace has pitched its tent, to preserve peace also with his hair.

In the psalmist’s comparison of unity being like ointment in a beard, or in Christ’s teachings on how God pays so much attention to us that even knows the number of our hairs, is the scripture teaching that it is sinful and shameful for a man to shave?  Absolutely not.  Despite any good intentions, Clement is by no means teaching the scriptures; he is manipulating them to validate his own ideas.

Wherefore the wearing of gold and the use of softer clothing is not to be entirely prohibited. But irrational impulses must be curbed, lest, carrying us away through excessive relaxation, they impel us to voluptuousness…use simple clothing, and of a white colour, as we said before. So that, accommodating ourselves not to variegated art, but to nature as it is produced, and pushing away whatever is deceptive and belies the truth, we may embrace the uniformity and simplicity of the truth.

…Whence also in the law, the law enacted by Moses about leprousy rejects what has many colours and spots, like the various scales of the snake. He therefore wishes man, no longer decking himself gaudily in a variety of colours, but white all over from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, to be clean; so that, by a transition from the body, we may lay aside the varied and versatile passions of the man, land love the unvaried, and unambiguous, and simple colour of truth. And he who also in this emulates Moses–Plato best of all–approves of that texture on which not more than a chaste woman’s work has been employed. And white colours well become gravity. And elsewhere he says, “Nor apply dyes or weaving, except for warlike decorations.”

Hold up. Is this forbidding of colored clothes actually taught in the Old Testament?  No way!  Just because Moses rejected leprous dark-spots growing in the skin does not mean he was commanding that we all wear white colors.  Did it not cross Clement’s thoughts that perhaps Moses rejected the dark-spots because they were literally growths of an infectious disease?  There are over 600 laws in the Old Testament, if Moses meant to teach us to wear white, why didn’t he just say so?  But even if one of those laws did command the Israelites to wear white, that wouldn’t apply to us any more than the command for Israelites to wear clothes made from only one type of fiber.  Let’s move on to another example of how Clement interprets scripture.

With whom, then, are we to associate? With the righteous, He says again, speaking figuratively; for everything “which parts the hoof and chews the cud is clean.” For the parting of the hoof indicates the equilibrium of righteousness, and ruminating points to the proper food of righteousness, the word, which enters from without, like food, by instruction, but is recalled from the mind, as from the stomach, to rational recollection. And the spiritual man, having the word in his mouth, ruminates the spiritual food; and righteousness parts the hoof rightly, because it sanctifies us in this life, and sends us on our way to the world to come.

Wait, Moses said what?  Parting the hoof represents what…?  No, no, no.  Dear Clement, please stop, this is not teaching the scriptures, this is cherry-picking the Old Testament and creating your own meaning for whatever verse you’d like.  Please stop.  Realize, dear reader, that this does not mean that Clement’s ideas were wrong per say, this only goes to show that the way he was defending them was not actually using scripture at all, but rather misusing it and reading in to it.

I’m afraid to say that Clement of Alexandria defends his views against makeup and jewelry (although, he did not forbid all jewelry) with as bad a method of scriptural interpretation as the above passages.  Most of the sections against such are merely him stating his opinion, for example the original excerpt in the Holiness-Handbook where he assumes that women who curl their hair and put on mascara do so only to be promiscuous or arrogant; he allows them no middle ground between flamboyance and bareness.  Here’s another example of his argument against jewelry, “For, in a word, if one thinks himself made beautiful by gold, he is inferior to gold; and he that is inferior to gold is not lord of it.”  Following this logic, if I think a particular dress will make me appear more beautiful, does that mean I am inferior to that dress and ought not wear it?  His logic is hard to follow.  Other passages include Clement making assertions that scripture says this or that without any evidence or reference.  For example, “The Word prohibits us from doing violence to nature by boring the lobes of the ears.” This makes little sense in light of Exodus 21:6, where this very act is part of the Old Testament law;  where in all of scripture does it teach that this is doing violence to nature?

The most interesting quote I noticed while reading Clement, was his interpretation of, “Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel.”  I had always heard that plaiting the hair referred to putting jewelry in the hair and not to fixing it, but when Clement teaches on hair (this verse being referenced) he says, “It is enough for women to protect their locks, and bind up their hair simply along the neck with a plain hair-pin, nourishing chaste locks with simple care to true beauty. For meretricious plaiting of the hair, and putting it up in tresses, contribute to make them look ugly…”  It seems that Clement, who lived far closer to the time of scripture, understood the plaiting of hair to be referring to elaborate hairstyles (and not jewelry), the opposite of which is a simple bun.


Whether or not the Early Church taught the “Holiness Standard” doesn’t actually affect it’s truth (one way or the other), but the above research is not in vain; several points have been established.  First, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria do not prove that the Early Church taught a Holiness Standard.  In contrast, when it comes to their strict asceticism, and heavy-emphasis on self-denial, both men were oddities to the rest of the Church, to the degree that they were both charged with heresy (granted, these charges did not directly relate to their teaching on outward appearance, but to their skewed views on the Deity of Christ).  Second, the Holiness Church of today would have great disagreements even with the teachings these men gave on outward appearance: from beards, to baths, to veils, to colorless garments.  Third, even if these men taught the modern Holiness standard to a T, if they could not back it up with sound scriptural arguments, what use are they to us?  The above examples of how Tertullian and Clement read their own meanings into scripture should cause red-flags to raise on their trustworthiness in interpretation.  Fourth, not only were the ideas of these men not reflections of the Early Church, but the Early Church actually threw out their ideas.  There is no lineage of Christians which followed their teachings on abstinence from shaving, jewelry, makeup and colored clothing and passed them down to us.  Clement never began his own sect, and Tertullian’s died out over a millennium and a half ago.  Were there Christian groups which emphasized simple, modest living after that time?  Absolutely!  But Tertullian and Clement’s type of appearance regulations seem to have fallen off the bandwagon of Christianity for a good 1300 years, until John Wesley, influenced by Clement, revived their ideas.

-Natalie Mayo


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