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November 14, 2017

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.


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