Wesleyanism in the 1900s

If the second century of mainstream Methodism brought mixed results, we might say the same for the Wesleyan offshoots of the 1900s.  We have been tracing a number of threads starting with Wesley.  One is a focus on the heart and life change even more than on the head and ideology.  A second is an optimism about the extent to which God wants to make us good in this life.  A third was Wesley’s emphasis on changing society for the better, and a fourth was the priority of mission over method.  We mentioned a further characteristic that surfaced in some of the holiness groups of the late 1800s and early 1900s, namely, a kind of individualized, “spiritual” interpretation of the Bible.

Of these, the Wesleyan holiness denominations of the 1900s largely focused only on the second, entire sanctification. But by mid-twentieth century it had deteriorated in many circles into a shallow kind of legalism focusing on what you should not wear, things you should not do, and places you should not go.  In the meantime, the Wesleyan sense of social justice–standing for those who could not stand up for themselves–also deteriorated into the impulse to preach against the kinds of superficial things it associated with entire sanctification.  Preaching for others deterioriated into preaching against things. 

Meanwhile, most Wesleyan holiness denominations stood by idly as some of the greatest social challenges of the twentieth century passed by.  With great irony, churches that had started to advance the abolitionist cause at best ignored the civil rights movement.  At worst, they actually opposed and resented the very kind of civil disobedience that had once characterized them…