Holiness movement

Holiness spread to South Carolina’s second largest Protestant denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS), in the 1870s and 1880s, although denominational leaders opposed the teaching.

Denominations such as the Wesleyan Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Salvation Army, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance, all of which have congregations in South Carolina, owe their genesis to a movement in the nineteenth century that emphasized sanctification or the experience of personal holiness as a “second work of grace” in addition to salvation.

The theological roots of sanctification or holiness in these denominations lie in the eighteenth-century teachings of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley taught that attaining “perfect love” or holiness, while generally a lifelong process, should be a common spiritual goal. This teaching was modified and popularized by Phoebe Palmer, who believed one could experience sanctification as a distinct experience by committing one’s life wholly to Christ. Palmer was a widely read author and celebrated speaker at camp meetings and similar gatherings across the Northeast and overseas in the years right after the Civil War.

Some of those drawn to holiness teaching believed that existing denominations, especially those identified with Methodism, had abandoned this emphasis on holiness. They therefore began to form new denominations that not only promoted holiness theology but also strict codes of personal conduct thought appropriate to those who had experienced holiness.

Holiness spread to South Carolina’s second largest Protestant denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS), in the 1870s and 1880s, although denominational leaders opposed the teaching. In 1894 at the denomination’s General Conference in Atlanta, the bishops of the MECS denounced preachers who promoted holiness theology; two years later the South Carolina Annual Conference followed their lead, barring evangelists who taught Holiness from preaching in Methodist churches in the state.

Although some Holiness preachers in South Carolina resigned from the Methodist ministry, most remained in the denomination. Outspoken advocates of Holiness with Methodist ties of some sort included Robert C. Oliver, founder of the Oliver Gospel Mission in Columbia; Obadiah Dugan, founder of the Star Gospel Mission in Charleston; and W. P. B. Kinard, founder of the Epworth Camp Meeting in Greenwood. Some South Carolinians severed ties with the parent Methodist denomination for one of the newer Holiness bodies. S. J. Cowan, for example, became a founding elder in the South Carolina Conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1893.

In the 1890s some Holiness proponents moved in more radical theological directions, advocating divine healing and premillennial dispensationalism, the idea that history was in the final dispensation before the physical second coming of Christ. Others fused Holiness teaching with Pentecostal notions. Benjamin Hardin Irwin, a Methodist from Iowa who preached throughout the upstate in 1896, promoted a third blessing, baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire, in addition to salvation (the first blessing) and sanctification or holiness (the second blessing).

William E. Fuller, based in Anderson, originally identified with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but moved first toward Holiness and then more toward Pentecostalism as a founder with Irwin of the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church and later as a leader of the (Colored) Fire-Baptized Holiness Church. The Columbia Methodist John M. Pike, longtime editor of The Way of Faith, also moved from a Holiness to a Pentecostal focus after learning of the Pentecostal revivals that broke out in Los Angeles in 1906.

Many South Carolina Holiness churches followed suit, gradually embracing Pentecostal teaching and coalescing into denominations such as the Pentecostal Holiness Church, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), the Church of God in Christ, and the Assemblies of God.

Yet another strain of Holiness teaching has had a lasting influence on South Carolina’s religious culture. Rooted more in the Calvinist Reformed heritage and initially centered in Keswick, England, this expression of Holiness emphasized entire consecration as a way gradually to conquer sin in this life and thus become holy. Wesleyan Holiness tended to see sanctification as more of an instantaneous experience of the eradication of sin from one’s life. Nickels John Holmes, founder of the Holmes College of the Bible, blended a Keswick understanding of Holiness with Pentecostal ideas in his own teaching and approach.

Dieter, Melvin E. The Holiness Revival of the Nineteenth Century. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1980.

Hardesty, Nancy A. “The Holiness and Pentecostal Movements.” In Religion in South Carolina, edited by Charles H. Lippy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Synan, Vinson. The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997.

Turley, Briane K. A Wheel within a Wheel: Southern Methodism and the Georgia Holiness Association. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1999.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Holiness movement
  • Author
  • Keywords Wesleyan Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, John Wesley, Oliver Gospel Mission, William E. Fuller
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date December 5, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 8, 2022
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