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