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Review in Methodist History 54:3 (April 2016), 221-222.

Wallace Thornton, Jr., When the Fire Fell: Martin Wells Knapp’s Vision of Pentecost and the Beginnings of God’s Bible School.  Cincinnati: Emeth Press, 2014.  341 pp.  $31.25.

Disputes over polity and doctrine repeatedly fractured American Methodism, producing various movements and denominations anchored in particular interpretations of John Wesley’s ideas.  In When the Fire Fell, Wallace Thornton explores the growth of one of these branches, the holiness movement.  He makes the case that Martin Wells Knapp (1853-1901) and the college he founded, God’s Bible School (Cincinnati, Ohio), constituted the center of and driving force behind the renewal of the holiness movement around the turn of the twentieth century.

Chapters one through four analyze the ministry of Martin Wells Knapp, charting his experience of entire sanctification and the beginnings of the Revivalist newspaper and God’s Bible School.  The school motto, “Back to the Bible—Back to Pentecost,” reflected his conviction that entire sanctification constituted a major biblical theme and that Pentecost should be repeated (6).  Chapters five through nine investigate the work of the school following Knapp’s death.  School leaders in the early twentieth century, at times primarily women, continued the work while expanding missions overseas and in cities.  GBS reached the “height of its influence . . . broadening its base to reach a wide spectrum of holiness and fundamentalist evangelicals” (281, 282).  It influenced such holiness denominations as the Church of the Nazarene, the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, and the Church of Christ in Christian Union. There was even a small but important impact on the rise of Pentecostalism, from which GBS, echoing Knapp, would distance itself by rejecting glossolalia.  While Knapp wanted to keep his movement interdenominational, it coalesced into a formal church in the 1910s, adopting the name Pilgrim Holiness Church in 1922.

This is not the first book on Knapp or God’s Bible School.  However, it breaks ground by comprehensively analyzing Knapp’s contributions to the holiness movement within and without Methodism.   It connects him, the son of devout Methodists who served as an MEC minister for more than a decade, to growing denominational battles over perfectionism, embourgeoisment, and gender roles. Thornton succinctly discusses the development of Wesleyan ideas of sanctification in America since Phoebe Palmer.  The major exception to these roots was acceptance of premillennialism, which links Knapp and GBS with both earlier holiness leaders such as Palmer and to the later fundamentalist movement.  Thus, the author also successfully positions his subject within the larger context of American Christianity.

Thornton relies heavily on the Revivalist and contemporary holiness papers, histories of God’s Bible School, and biographies of its leaders to construct this account of Knapp’s ministry.  He also demonstrates outstanding command of the secondary literature on church history and theology.  The treatment is admittedly sympathetic, but the analysis of Knapp’s views is generally rigorous.  The possible exception arises when dealing with beliefs not clearly grounded in a literal interpretation of Scripture, usually central to the GBS hermeneutic. For example, Knapp wished to repeat Pentecost, but he and his associates rejected glossolalia, which Acts plainly portrays.  The author does not explain this position well.

Thornton claims to explore the “developments leading up to and surrounding the beginnings of God’s Bible School,” but he goes well beyond the early years of the institution, which was founded in 1900 (xvii).  The added length does not detract from the main points of the book; rather, it expands upon Knapp’s significance.  By highlighting the ministry and legacy of Martin Wells Knapp, Wallace Thornton makes a notable contribution to holiness studies, especially within the context of American Methodist history.

Joseph Super, Ph.D. West Virginia University Morgantown, West Virginia


Review in World Christianity and the Fourfold Gospel Vol. 1 no. 1, (September 2015), 147-148.

Wallace Thornton. When the Fire Fell: Martin Wells Knapp’s Vision of Pentecost and the Beginnings of God’s Bible School. Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2014.  341 pp.

Wallace Thornton’s When the Fire Fell is perhaps the single most important contribution to the historiography of the twentieth century Holiness Movement to appear, since the publication of Charles E. Jones’s Perfectionist Persuasion in 1974.  Deeply rooted in primary sources such as periodicals, court records and the recollections of early students and faculty, Thornton has told the story of Knapp and the school he found with rare honesty, candor and sympathy.  In a work that took over fourteen years to complete, Thornton has not only mastered primary sources but demonstrates a thorough knowledge of a wide range of secondary literature as well.  Without hiding embarrassing details or all too human failings of radical holiness leaders and rank and file, Thornton allows us rare insight into the lives, thought, and impact of a movement that has shaped Protestant Christianity not only in North America but Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean as well.

As one of the most important leaders of the Holiness revival that swept through America, Europe and then the world in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Knapp and the four-fold gospel he promoted transcends the Holiness Movement itself and rivals that of the great evangelical leaders of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, not excluding Edwards, Wesley and Finney.  While many have reduced the significance of the Holiness Movement to Phoebe Palmer and her circle, Thornton gives us a detailed introduction to a wide circle of Holiness radicals associated with Knapp and God’s Bible School who turned a European and North American movement into an international movement that would not only spread holiness Christianity into Asia, the Caribbean and Africa but would perhaps more significantly shape early Pentecostalism as well.

Thornton demonstrates the case for the centrality of Knapp and God’s Bible School, which rests on four important claims.  First, and this has only become clear since the 1960s, the explosive growth of Holiness and related evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity in the emerging Global South was the result of ministries with direct ties to the Mount of Blessings on the hilltop overlooking Cincinnati.  As scholars have begun to explore the history of Protestantism Christianity outside North America, names long forgotten but often associated with God’s Bible School emerge.  Often as in Japan or Korea the names of Pilgrim Holiness and Oriental Missionary Society such as Cowman, John Thomas, Kilbourne, or E. E. Shelhamer proved crucial in laying the foundation for subsequent evangelization often well beyond the normal Wesleyan boundaries of the traditional Holiness Movement.

Secondly as evangelization spread, often early national leaders such as Juji Nakada in Japan and Myungjik Lee in Korea worked to establish distinctive “oriental” forms of Christianity, frequently not understood or appreciated by Westerners.  If you closely read Thornton’s book, it is amazing how these expressions of Christianity resemblance the emphasized of Knapp and God’s Bible School.  In fact, as radical holiness emphasizes retreated in North America they continue to resonate among the followers of Nakada in Japan.  When Nakada broke with OMS in 1917 one of the central issues was his reading of the Scriptures in the light of the commentaries of Knapp’s friend and mentor W. B. Godbey.  For leaders in both Japan and Korea a deep faith in the literal return of Jesus that resulted in persecution and martyrdom.  In the years after WWII the four-fold gospel of Jesus as Savior, Sanctifier, Healer and Coming King that continue as the common heritage of Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals as well as Wesleyans.  This should not surprise us.  These beliefs in a slightly subdued form were still recognizable as the hall marks of the ministry of Billy Graham who was profoundly influenced by Paul Rees the son of Knapp’s old International Apostolic Holiness partner Seth C. Rees.

Thirdly, if Billy Graham’s ministry has born the stamp of the four-fold gospel, so were the ministries of the two most important evangelical devotional writers of the last century, Oswald Chambers and Lettie Burd Cowman.  It is not inappropriate that it was Nakada who introduced Chambers to God’s Bible School.  For Chambers the Hill Top was a place of renewal where Acts 2 was a living reality.  In a similar way, the words of Lettie Cowman, widowed, alone and struggling for meaning poignantly speak to our own sense of inadequacy.  “We sometimes forget,” Cowman wrote “that the only way to the resurrection and the ascension mount is the way of the garden, cross, and grave.”

Fourthly, Thornton carefully demonstrates how God’s Bible School and Knapp’s legacy were influenced by Fundamentalists currents in the second decade of Meredith Standley’s leadership while maintaining an older evangelical populism.  In particular the continuing role of sanctified eccentrics such as Godbey, the Fleming brothers, and U. E. Harding enrich a narrative, crowded with some of the most colorful figures in church or any other kind of history.

In conclusion, while readers of this journal will play especially close attention to the spread of Knapp’s influence outside North America.  Historians of Christianity in the United States have a feast awaiting them as well.  After reading this book one will never tell the story of Christianity in the last two centuries in the same way.  I cannot recommend this book too highly.

William Kostlevy

Director of Brethren Historical Library and Archives


Review in the Wesleyan Theological Journal 50:2 (Fall 2015), 268-270.

Wallace O. Thornton, Jr. When the Fire Fell: Martin Wells Knapp’s Vision of Pentecost and the Beginnings of God’s Bible School Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2014.

Reviewed by David Bundy, Research Professor of World Christian Studies, New York Theological Seminary, Visiting Professor, Seoul Theological Seminary.

Wallace O. Thornton, Jr. has provided a remarkably important book that examines a key figure in the Radical Holiness Movement, Martin Wells Knapp (1853-1901).  Knapp was the progenitor of many Holiness denominations and Pentecostalism.  The most important early founders of North American Pentecostalism (William Seymour, A. J. Tomlinson, Glenn Cook, Robert McAlister) were students at God’s Bible School and developed the implications of his theology.  Many of his associates were involved in the founding of Holiness denominations including the Pilgrim Holiness Church (Seth Cook Rees) and the Church of the Nazarene (C. W. Ruth and A. M. Hills) as well as the Metropolitan Church Association (A. J. Harvey and others).  He worked closely with publisher/evangelist L. L. Pickett and Henry Clay Morrison, founder of Asbury Theological Seminary, and a host of other Radical Holiness leaders.  As a publisher, he built The Revivalist (later God’s Revivalist) to a circulation of more than 20,000 copies per week.  The Revivalist Press made A. M. Hills (publishing his first book), Seth Cook Rees, Samuel A. Keen, G. D. Watson, Abbie Morrow, and a host of others into household names among the Holiness people.  The songbook edited with L. L. Pickett sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Knapp was a Methodist Episcopal minister until the last year of his life.  His had wanted to join the William Taylor self-supporting missions but was rejected for health reasons.  Maintaining that interest in mission, he created with Juji Nakada (arguably the founder of the Holiness Church in Japan and the progenitor of the Holiness churches in Korea) and the Cowmans what would later become the Oriental Missionary Society.  From the mission work from his ministry come Holiness denominations in India, South Africa, China, Korea, Japan, Mexico and other countries.  Because the institution he founded (God’s Bible School) and God’s Revivalist now seem to many to be on the margin of the Holiness churches and even the Wesleyan Theological Society (perhaps due to the struggles over the meanings of Christian Perfection and glossolalia), Knapp has been ignored by the traditions to which he gave birth through his theological synthesis and organizational prowess.

The theology of Knapp is carefully elucidated, for the first time, in Thornton’s book.  It was a theology that called Christians “back to the Bible” but not in a Fundamentalist way.  He insisted that the paradigm for the church and responsible Christian living must be that of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels and as lived by the early church in the Acts of the Apostles.  This was model for the “Pentecostal Church.”  The “Pentecostal Church” was to minister to the poor, share all things in common, and serve those in need.  It was to be engaged in evangelism and in leading converts into the experience of Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

It was a socially activist holiness theology, not only a holiness theology concerned with the interior spiritual life.  Thornton describes the ministry developed by Knapp to live out this theology.  Knapp was a strong advocate of social, economic and educational justice.  He worked with the poor in Cincinnati and the mountains of Kentucky, and he sought to protect the economically and socially vulnerable.  He promoted vigorously the ministry of women.  So revolutionary was this that it attracted attention beyond the Holiness movement; during the Great Depression, Eleanor Roosevelt attended a Thanksgiving meal served for the poor of Cincinnati on the “Mount of Blessings” at God’s Bible School.

Knapp also accepted the “Four-fold Gospel” evangelistic slogan of A. B. Simpson, which included the recent theological innovations of premillennial eschatology and divine faith-healing.  He was also an organizer of the Chicago Holiness Convention that was organized in response to the exclusion of the Radical Holiness leaders from the Chicago Convention of the National Holiness Association.  The Radical Holiness leaders’ counter-convention drew the crowds and made many converts, forcing the NHA to generally adopt the Radical theological agenda.  Thornton’s analysis needs to be read in conjunction with the analysis of that event by William Kostlevy, Holy Jumpers: Evangelicals and Radicals in Progressive Era America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) who focuses on other actors in that event.

Thornton places Knapp in a careful reading of American religious history.  In addition to interacting with the work of Kostlevy, Thornton uses the popular “primitivism” category of Richard Hughes.  Most helpfully, he accurately describes the various interpretations of data by earlier historians and theologians.  Indeed, the volume could be read as a bibliographical essay on the interpretation of late nineteenth and early twentieth century religion with Knapp as an example!  The volume fills an important gap in the study of the Holiness Movements.  The institutions of the Radical Holiness tradition are devoted to education for practical ministry and for entering the social mainstream.  They have not devoted resources to the study of that branch of the tradition.  To further complicate things, these institutions were also late to recognize their own importance in the American Holiness story and to begin to document that tradition.  As a result, primary sources are hard to find.  Thus, another significant contribution of Thornton is the locating and evaluating of many rare and important sources.

Thornton also deals with the dark side of the Holiness tradition as represented by Knapp.  At times, he was shrill and angry at co-religionists who disappointed him.  At times, his call for social reform and transformation appeared to focus on the symptoms rather than the structural issues.  He encouraged independent activity but clearly dominated his ministry.  The struggles for power and direction of the ministry after his premature death suggest that the structures of ministry were not well grounded in the legal and cultural realities.

When the Fire Fell is well-written and well-researched.  It is an important book.  It will long be both a standard work of the history of the Holiness Movements and a mine for other scholars as they begin to more closely examine this pivotal period in Christian history. Indeed, it can be argued that it provides the proto-history of about twenty-five percent of Christians who now are living out the theological distinctions promoted and adapted by Martin Wells Knapp.


Review in The Arminian 32:2 (Fall 2014), 8-9.

Wallace Thornton. When the Fire Fell: Martin Wells Knapp’s Vision of Pentecost and the Beginnings of God’s Bible School. Wilmore, KY: Emeth Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-60947-069-2. 362 pp.

In commemoration of the centennial of God’s Bible School and College (Cincinnati, OH), Wallace Thornton has captured the vision and energy of Martin Wells Knapp and the Revivalist family. Having immersed himself in the primary source material related to his topic, he has infused his book with the passion and energy that befits a story about a minister who sought to bring “the power they had at Pentecost” back to the Church. Through these early documents, Thornton guides his readers into close proximity to the radical holiness culture that Knapp and his associates fostered. Only then can they realize just how sharply Knapp’s vision of “God Over All” contrasted with the dominant religious culture of the American fin de siècle.

As an insider, Thornton gives a prominent role to the “faith principle” in Knapp’s ministry. Inspired by the self-supporting missions of Bishop William Taylor, Knapp saw this as the corollary of absolute dependence on God. If Christians were fully consecrated to God and relied on God’s provision without doubt or compromise, God would supply the means to carry out the mission of God. Knapp embraced this “faith principle” in every aspect of his life and ministry and imparted it to the Revivalist family as essential for godly living. From the International Holiness Union and Prayer League to the Revivalist Press, from God’s Bible School to domestic and international missions, Knapp gave everything to God—in his mind, literally—and manifested a total dependence on God to supply the means. Once readers grasp just how radically Knapp applied this notion of “God’s proprietorship,” the movement he founded begins to make sense. According to Thornton, this practice of full consecration supplies the key to its astonishing success, its resilience and its enduring influence on the global Church.

Without doubt the ministry of Martin Wells Knapp had its greatest impact on world mission outreach, particularly through missionaries like Charles and Lettie Cowman, Oswald Chambers and Fred T. Fuge. Thornton devotes considerable attention to this central concern. He also connects Knapp’s ministry with William Seymour, the Azusa Street Revival, and the emergence of Pentecostalism (associated with glossolalia). Knapp had already led the way in his “four-fold gospel” (salvation by faith, entire sanctification, divine healing and premillennial eschatology) and in his primitivist concern for restoring the apostolic faith of the New Testament Church—“bringing the Church back to Pentecost.” He and the Revivalist family were convinced that the restoration of apostolic Christianity would lead to the greatest outbreak of revival the world had ever seen, the final harvest before the return of Jesus. As the author states on page 61: “Not only could Pentecost be repeated, it must be—the very spiritual life of the believer and the church depended on it.” Thornton’s attention to primary sources brings this radical holiness mentality of the Revivalist family to light in unparalleled detail, and this is perhaps his greatest contribution in this book.

Other significant aspects of How the Fire Fell include close studies of key people in the history of God’s Bible School, including W. B. Godbey, Charles Cowman and George B. Kulp, Seth C. Rees, M. G. Stanley and Bessie Queen. Even as an insider to the Revivalist family, the author does not overlook the human weakness of these “heroes of the faith.” He recognizes that some characters manifested eccentricity; conflict erupted between leaders; and at times the Revivalist family faced division. Yet Thornton demonstrates how the movement’s leaders persisted and triumphed over these challenges through their unflinching adherence to the faith principle. He uses the primary sources to tell this story rather than allowing his own feelings to defend the movement. This intensive use of the historical documents contributes significantly to the credibility of How the Fire Fell.

Wallace Thornton does not have a doctorate, but perhaps he should be honored with one for writing this book. He has made a substantial contribution to the history of the Holiness movement, and distinguished himself as an alumnus of God’s Bible School and College. Of course he has written How the Fire Fell from a strongly sympathetic perspective, and one could criticize the book as biased. However, the author would probably receive that observation as a compliment and count it a privilege to be numbered among the Revivalist family.

Barry W. Hamilton

Emeritus Professor of Historical and Contemporary Theology, Northeastern Seminary (Rochester, NY).

Review in Biblical Viewpoint 34:1 (April 2000), 127-129.

Radical Righteousness: Personal Ethics and the Development of the Holiness Movement by Wallace Thornton. Salem, Ohio: Schmul Publishing, 1998. 344 pp.

The Holiness movement, like Fundamentalism, is not a monolithic whole with a single unified viewpoint. Rather, it is an alliance of persons and institutions sharing a concern for John Wesley’s views of sanctification and holiness as well as a concern for the ramifications of those views. Apart from these central concerns, the movement displays a diversity of views.  The range of opinions among Holiness Christians is evident in this work.

Radical Righteousness operates on two levels. On one level, the book considers the question of behavioral standards among Christians, particularly matters of dress and entertainment. How appropriate are such standards? How binding should such standards be—simply a matter of the individual Christian’s conscience or the expected standards of the church body? What is the relationship of outward standards to inward sanctification? These questions pertain specifically to the Holiness movement. On another level, the book provides one of the first in-depth studies of the history and development of the Conservative Holiness movement, a segment of the Holiness movement emerging since World War II that has sought to preserve an emphasis on traditional Holiness standards as other Holiness groups have abandoned them.

In tracing these ideas, the author makes much of the concept of embourgeoisement, that is, a striving for middle-class respectability. Thornton argues that this tendency among churches provoked Holiness responses. The American Holiness movement began in the nineteenth century when a number of Methodists viewed their church as abandoning old standards of holy living in favor of social respectability. The Conservative Holiness movement began more recently when groups within the Holiness tradition began to charge that the “mainline” Holiness denominations (e.g., the Church of the Nazarene) had abandoned the cause of their forefathers in a similar striving for respectability. The evidence of that betrayal, said the Conservatives, appeared most prominently in the abandoning of older standards of dress and behavior.

In his discussion of dress and entertainment, the author traces an evolution in the significance of behavioral standards in the Wesleyan tradition. He argues that John Wesley saw such standards as a matter of Christian stewardship. How could the Christian spend money on frivolity (especially in expensive dress) when there were so many greater needs that a Christian’s money could meet? The developing American Holiness movement in the nineteenth century (e.g., Phoebe Palmer) saw such standards as a demonstration of surrender, with humility serving as an evidence of holiness. Beginning in the late nineteenth century—and clearly with the Conservative Holiness movement—these standards became an evidence of separation, “the outward proof of the inward work” (p. 75).  These positions were not mutually exclusive, Thornton notes. Wesley, for instance, also placed a secondary stress on such standards as evidence of humility. Yet Holiness believers in each period placed the greatest emphasis on one aspect.

The author connects orthodoxy (right belief) with orthopraxy (right practice) in analyzing the Holiness approach to behavioral standards. He sees a connection between orthodoxy (in this case, entire sanctification) and orthopraxy (behavioral standards). The two were so connected in the minds of some Holiness advocates that to be wrong in one was a sure sign that one would eventually be wrong in the other. Therefore the fight over the standards became the point of contention between advocates of the Conservative Holiness position and those in the established Holiness groups.

Readers unfamiliar with the Conservative Holiness movement will likely be surprised at its extent. Thornton quotes an estimate of two thousand churches in the Conservative Holiness orbit (p. 164). The most important organization in this movement, he says, is the Inter-Church Holiness Convention (founded 1951), which provides an umbrella for cooperation and fellowship among Conservative Holiness denominations, schools and independent congregations. Among those groups are the churches represented by the Bible Methodist movement.  The author also notes the fragmented nature of the movement.  A classic example is the Church of the Bible Covenant, founded in Cleveland, Indiana, in 1967.  It quickly grew to some ninety churches and two thousand members, but had by the late 1980s shattered into competing factions and virtually ceased to exist.

In his work, Thornton takes on, albeit obliquely, the dominant modern professional historiography of the Holiness movement, represented by writers such as Timothy Smith, Donald Dayton, and Susie Stanley. These historians have stressed the activist social concern of the Holiness movement, which they consider its true genius. Thornton demonstrates how some of these historians, with their own agendas, have downplayed the matter of personal ethics in favor of social ethics. By doing so, these writers marginalize segments of the movement (such as the Conservative Holiness movement) that do not fit their pattern, and thus they skew the history of the movement. This work provides a counterbalance.

Although the Conservative Holienss movement has been a separatist movement, it would be a mistake to try to parallel it too closely to Fundamentalism. The concerns of the Conservative Holiness movement are more on practice than doctrine. Yet the author notes that Holiness Christians read and appreciated the works of Fundamentalist authors, notably John Roach Stratton and John R. Rice, on the topic of behavioral standards. Likewise he remarks on the influence of Chester Tulga on some of the Holiness separatists connected with the Bible Methodist movement (p. 153). Perhaps one can say that Fundamentalism and the Conservative Holiness movement both issued the call of “Come out from among them, and be ye separate” (II Cor. 6:17), but differed in the issues over which they separated.

The author offers many thought-provoking ideas.  He notes Stephen Scott’s observation, for example, that the underlying motivation in discussions of behavioral standards is the desire “to control cultural influences rather than be controlled by them” (p. 21)—surely a worthy principle. It [is] also interesting to note that radical and conservative became synonyms among the adherents of the Conservative Holiness movement, that holding to traditional standards could become almost revolutionary with the passing of time. The author makes a good case for reevaluating the question of behavioral standards and their place in the Christian life.  Yet one must offer a caution that there is still a flavor of works righteousness in the positions of some Holiness advocates whom Thornton cites. To fight over adverence to standards, although sometimes necessary, can lead to a hardening of positions that goes beyond the limits of Scripture.

Radical Righteousness is a commendable study. Well written, the work offers an original contribution and fresh viewpoint to the history of the Holiness movement. In addition to the text of the book, the helpful charts (tracing Holiness denominations and denominational splits), time lines, and original documents in the appendices enlarge the volume’s contribution toward understanding the Conservative Holiness movement. One hopes that it will become a standard resource in the study of the Holiness movement in America.

Mark Sidwell

Review in The Wesleyan/Holiness Studies Center Bulletin 6:2 (Summer 1998), 3.

The Quest for Purity and/or Justice: Reflections on Thornton’s Radical Righteousness

Wallace Thornton, Jr. Radical Righteousness: Personal Ethics and the Development of the Holiness Movement (Salem, OH: Schmul Publishing Co., 1998).

Reviewed by Rodney L. Reed

Wallace Thornton’s lucid and painstakingly documented study of the role of personal ethics in the history of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition makes a valuable contribution to the study of the tradition for at least two reasons. First, it attempts to understand the significance of the behavioral standards set by the Holiness Movement, a subject that has either been ignored or treated with disdain by most historians of the Movement. Thornton provides a corrective to this neglect and this tendency to treat the behavioral standards as merely the source of the legalism that appears so persistent in the Holiness Movement.

Second, Radical Righteousness presents an in-depth exploration of the conservative Holiness Movement and the Inter-Church Holiness Convention which has previously not been adequately or fairly treated by historians. Thornton, who is professor of Church History and Ethics at Union Bible College, writes as one from within the tradition who knows it well, and while he occasionally laps into commentary on the faults of the larger Holiness Movement, his work is generally objective and often critical of his own heritage.

Thornton’s basic argument is that from the time of Wesley to the mid-twentieth century, a shift occurred in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition’s understanding and defense of certain behavioral practices such as opposition to theater attendance, and to the wearing of cosmetics, jewelry, and neckties. Wesley and his immediate successors admonished early Methodists to dress plainly and avoid popular amusements because by doing so they could spend their time and money caring for others, especially the poor. During the nineteenth century, one embraced these behavioral norms more out of submission to the will of God and in contrast to pride which expressed itself in superfluous adornment. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dominant logic justifying these behavioral standards dictated that one adhere to them to maintain an appropriate separation from the world. As the twentieth century progressed, the holiness churches experienced embourgeiosement and became less inclined to maintain a radical separation from society at large. The abandonment of strict adherence to the behavioral standards in the main holiness churches resulted in the formation of numerous radical or conservative holiness churches which were dedicated to the preservation of the standards.

While the evidence to support Thornton’s thesis is often overwhelming, he can be criticized for making historical transitions neat and tidy when it might be more accurate to depict stewardship, submission, and separation as threads that run throughout church history with the emphasis placed on each changing from time to time. As threads in the same tapestry, these three orientations provide balance and mutual correction to one another, preventing any one of them from taking on a disproportionately large role in the life of the believer.

Thornton admits that the rationale behind the maintenance of the behavioral standards over time was not necessarily to the advantage of the Holiness Movement. However, in his defence of the conservative Holiness Movement, he clearly wants the reader to believe that in order to be faithful to the Wesleyan tradition, one must maintain some adherence to these standards, even if it involves a tendency toward legalism. He further admits that “separation from worldliness” may not be as adequate a rationale as stewardship for the preservation of behavioral standards, but he does not seriously question the adequacy of separation alone. Consequently, Thornton sees only mainline holiness acquiescence to culture and fails to see that the conservative Holiness Movement is equally culpable in the abandonment of serious ministry to the marginalized of society. I contend that the holiness tradition will never truly understand or appreciate its own historic commitment to behavioral distinctives until it recovers an understanding of the relation of those distinctives to its concern for economic justice. The issue at hand is not whether the mainline holiness folk will repent and abandon their cosmetics, jewelry and certain forms of entertainment, but rather it is whether both mainline and conservative holiness folk will repent for having lost sight of one of the main reasons for their existence, concern for the poor, which can serve as an effective antidote to the tendency toward legalism engendered by the rationales of submission and separation.

Thornton’s work is an extremely valuable contribution to a greater understanding of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. In addition, with the new emphasis on the value of simplicity in American society and the concern with the effects of television on children, the prophetic challenge of the conservative holiness tradition to Christianity warrants consideration, especially by those within the larger Holiness Movement. In addition, in the current environment of Christian rapproachment, Thornton’s work has potential to serve as a catalyst for greater dialog between the people and institutions of the conservative Holiness Movement and those of the larger Holiness Movement.


Review in the Wesleyan Theological Journal 33:2 (Fall 1998), 257-258.

Wallace THORNTON, Radical Righteousness: Personal Ethics and the Development of the Holiness Movement (Salem, OH: Schmul Publishing Co., 1998), 343 pps.

Reviewed by David Bundy, Librarian and Associate Professor of Church History, Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, IN.

During the last half century, the Holiness Movement has experienced the social shifts associated with most religious movements. The asceticism and the social vision of the founders, which provided the framework of the religious experience of the tradition, have given way to upward social mobility as the members and their children have prospered economically. Thus, many Holiness theologians have sought to articulate their vision and reinterpret their history in light of the Anglican Wesley rather than the revivalist Wesley, and in light of the values of mainstream society rather than in a vision of a life lived over against society. The resultant sanitized version of what was really quite a rambunctious tradition is historically misleading and relatively devoid of the radical religious commitment of the earlier movements.

The Wesleyan heritage of the large Methodist family, including the Holiness and Pentecostal traditions, is quite complex, a fact recognized by Thornton, Professor of Church History and Ethics at Union Bible College, Westfield, Indiana.  This volume is based on an M. A. thesis presented to the faculty at Cincinnati Bible Seminary. It is an analysis of those Holiness people who have continued to hold to the radical social and spiritual values that were central to the Wesleyan revivalist traditions of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. This “Radical Holiness” movement was brought together from the small denominations and independent churches which refused to follow the accomodationist trajectories of the larger and wealthier Holiness bodies. Central to this more radical stream was the publisher and theologian, Harold E. Schmul, primary organizer and leader of the International Holiness Convention (IHC). This tradition has not received the scholarly attention it deserves and generally has been described in terms of what it is not rather than in terms of the internal logic of the movement.

Thornton argues that Wesley linked asceticism with stewardship and understood that package to be reflective of spiritual values. The Holiness movement, he suggests, radicalized that approach by seeing the ascetic life as indicative of the submission of the individual to the will of God. Thus “entire sanctification” and “entire consecration” of lifestyle and goods were linked. This is a powerful argument which makes personal asceticism part of the core of Western spirituality, just as it was at the core of the “Eastern” sources of Wesleyan spirituality such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Pseudo-Macarius, and Pseudo-Dionysius. For the Radical Holiness Movement and for the early Eastern Christian writers, every act and value had an impact on spirituality. Every effort was to be made to strip away the superfluous goods, luxuries and wasted hours in order to both develop spirituality and provide services to the needy.

This is an important suggestion for contemporary discussions of the sources of Wesleyan spirituality and for a re-visioning of the Holiness Movement for the twenty-first century. Another contribution is the narrative of the development of the Radical Holiness Movement during the last half century. This narration and the judgment which may be inferred (but is not implied by the writer) by readers of the older Holiness Churches may well provoke a series of debates or historical and/or theological justifications of the decisions made by the larger groups during this same period.

Thornton presents a generally balanced view of the data and retains the scholarly detachment from the material required of a good historian.  That does not mean that issues are not debatable, but Thornton has gone a long way toward establishing the framework within which the tradition can understand its own heritage, both its strengths and weaknesses, and within which the tradition can be interpreted as part of the large Christian traditions.  This is truly an important book.  It is enhanced by a series of appendixes which provide editions of crucial documents, illustrative materials, and chronological charts and organizational graphs.  The bibliography is extremely important.  An index facilitates access to the material.  The author and publisher are to be congratulated on the achievement of this volume.


Three Reasons for Writing History

Resources — Books and other print materials provide numerous advantages over oral communication for study and preservation.  Church of the Nazarene pioneer Phineas F. Bresee thus encouraged ministers: “Get books; get them at any sacrifice.  Be a student.  Be systematic.  The Holy Ghost will take all this equipment and use it to teach and win souls for the kingdom of God.

Roots — Historical writings connect us with our heritage, as Free Methodist founder B. T. Roberts observed, “[Books preserve] the principles which led to the formation of the church.  Preachers and people may backslide; but the literature remains to remind them of what they once were.

Reach — By their portable, yet durable, nature, books and other publications can connect with readers where their authors may never travel.  Thus, Martin Wells Knapp, founder of God’s Bible School, explained his own publishing ministry: “With the pen and press we can preach to multitudes far beyond the reach of our personal presence and also for centuries after ‘Our poor lisping stammering tongues lie silent in the grave.’

“It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people.” – John Wesley

Copyright © 2017 by Wallace Thornton, Jr.  All Rights Reserved.