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November 14, 2017

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

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