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November 14, 2017

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.


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