My Grandpa and Grandma Thrush were part of the first revivals held at Roxbury Holiness Camp, a Brethren in Christ camp in Orrstown, Pa. My dad told me the story of one camp meeting, when Grandpa, sensing a barrier in his relationship with the Lord, went to the front of the tabernacle to “pray through” it. He’d been at the altar for a while, when the Spirit came upon him. Suddenly, Grandpa lifted his clasped hands above his head. Then, he brought them down in a mighty karate chop and broke the bench! Later that day, my dad saw my grandfather embracing my grandmother on the porch of their home—my dad had never seen them show affection in that way before.
In many ways, both the split bench and my grandparents’ embrace were evidence of the Holy Spirit’s purifying work in my grandfather’s heart.
As Brethren in Christ, we acknowledge that the power of God’s Spirit is offered to all those who follow Christ. Shaped by the theological stream of Wesleyanism, the Brethren in Christ call believers to holiness, to a life in the Spirit that enables us to love God supremely and live out that love in the world.
A heart strangely warmed
The witness of John Wesley, an Anglican priest from England, has profoundly shaped the Brethren in Christ understanding of what it means to be holy. Three centuries ago, Wesley encountered the Holy Spirit in his own life and set off what would become a worldwide holiness movement.
While studying at Oxford University, Wesley and a few of his classmates sought the holy life by forming the Holy Club. Though mocked by other students for their extremely methodical efforts, members of the club divided their day into segments for prayer, self-examination, Bible study, fellowship, and service. Yet Wesley sensed that these practices were somehow empty.
Years later, at the age of 32, Wesley took a ship bound for the American colonies, with the vision of being a missionary. During the journey across the Atlantic, he was astounded by the Moravian believers he met on board. The vitality of their faith was demonstrated as they humbled themselves to serve other passengers. At one point, a huge storm broke upon the ship during their worship service, yet the Moravians calmly sang on. When Wesley asked one of them later if he was afraid, he responded, “I thank God, no.” Wesley believed he was seeing holy living in action.
After two years, Wesley returned to England, still sensing an emptiness in his efforts. Then one evening, at a Moravian gathering, he experienced a dramatic awakening. In his journal, Wesley famously described the moment like this: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Suddenly, Wesley realized that all his pious efforts were hollow if they weren’t empowered by the Holy Spirit.
This revelation enabled Wesley to recognize the Holy Spirit as the source of a holy life. Rather than a rigid set of rules to avoid sin, holiness invites believers to life in the Spirit. Within that life, sin becomes not a ball and chain dragging a Christian to discouragement and defeat, but an opportunity to experience freedom. In fact, Wesley taught that the Holy Spirit can work to remove the propensity to sin entirely. As Wesley’s brother Charles wrote in one of his hymns, “My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”
These ideas swept across England, initiating a new denomination, the Methodist Church. As the Spirit worked in believers, they felt inspired to play active roles in social justice issues, such as advocating for prison reform and the abolition of slavery.
By the early 1800s, the teachings had made their way to America and contributed to the Second and Third Great Awakenings. At revival meetings, believers were challenged to encounter God, experience freedom from sin, and receive the power to live holy lives.
Wanting “something more”
Beginning in the mid-19th century, this fervor began to work in the minds and hearts of Brethren in Christ believers. I’m old enough to remember the perspective on holiness espoused by Owen Alderfer, a Brethren in Christ professor at Ashland (Ohio) Theological Seminary and a bishop in the Church. I heard him say once, when describing the Brethren in Christ receptivity to the message of holiness, “The Brethren in Christ always wanted something more.”
Influenced by Pietist revival movements in Germany, the Brethren in Christ emphasized warm, spiritual conversions. This was faith taken seriously. They were also attracted to the serious discipleship, the radical Christianity of the Anabaptists. Non-conformity to the world and pursuing peace were costly decisions. So, when the Brethren in Christ encountered the holiness movement, with its serious message for believers to be continually renewed by the Holy Spirit, it resonated deeply with them; they were hungry for a deeper, fuller faith—in Dr. Alderfer’s words, “something more.”
The first Brethren in Christ to embrace the message of Wesleyan holiness were those in Kansas, who came into contact with the American Holiness Movement in Iowa in the 1870s and ’80s. They later introduced its vision to Brethren in Christ living in the eastern United States.
Yet some aspects of the American Holiness Movement challenged the picture of holy living that Brethren in Christ had known for the last century. For example, the doctrine’s emphasis on freedom led some to stop wearing the plain clothes that were the norm in the community at the time. It inspired others toward more spontaneous expressions in corporate worship that disrupted the traditional orderly services.
Perhaps the most significant area of distress across the Church was felt as people grappled with a form of sanctification promoted by the American Holiness Movement. Prior to this, Brethren in Christ would have characterized sanctification as a process that began at conversion. However, the American Holiness Movement defined sanctification as a “second definite work of grace” occurring at a specific moment after conversion and leading one to attain perfection, or complete freedom from the sin nature.
Church historian and theologian Luke Keefer, Jr., has noted, “It is a credit to the Brethren in Christ Church that the Wesleyan doctrine [. . .] did not result in a church split, even though the tension was strong at points. Our Anabaptist sense of group held us together.”1 Instead of allowing Wesleyan themes to dominate their theology and identity, these brothers and sisters worked together to create a Wesleyan perspective that was “domesticated to the Brethren in Christ mind.” They left room for a range of perspectives, while remaining “unified on essentials.” By the 1950s, Wesleyan teachings on life in the Spirit had become a foundational part of the Brethren in Christ Church.
Today, powerful currents continue to draw Brethren in Christ believers to the substance and beauty of holiness. This is revealed in the optimistic way we describe the Holy Spirit’s presence as we witness to the world and worship God with the conviction of the following beliefs.
The Holy Spirit is offered to all who follow Christ. Acts 2 describes how, beginning on the day of Pentecost, this ancient prophecy would be fulfilled: “In the last days, God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.’” Drawing upon this promise, Wesleyan holiness teaches that the Spirit and its gifts are offered to believers of all ages, genders, ethnicities, cultures, and generations. This is also the basis for why Brethren in Christ ordain both men and women to all levels of Church ministry.
The Holy Spirit brings a future of hope and redemption. The message of holiness insists that the Spirit brings what is dead to life. Rather than visions of a world descending into greater chaos and sin, Wesleyan holiness opens our eyes to a world being continually renewed and redeemed. This is experienced on both personal and communal levels. As the deepening river of Ezekiel 47 makes even the Dead Sea live, so the river of the Spirit brings life to all things: to hurting sinners, to broken marriages, to faltering businesses, to corrupt governments, to a threatened creation.
The Holy Spirit enables us to love God and others more fully. Sometimes, when people think about holiness, they imagine the Holy Club that John Wesley began in college. Yet, at its core, “holiness is both gift and a response.”2 It is not something we can create or achieve, but something we receive from God. It’s not a self-serving pursuit but a humble posture that helps us connect more closely with God and reach out to others with love. As articulated in The Holiness Manifesto, “We are made holy to effectively be co-workers in the reign of God. We are holy in order to be Jesus Christ’s agents of transformation in the world. We are holy so as to practice compassionate ministries and advocate for justice and peace.”3
When we truly encounter the source of holiness, God’s love and glory, we will be transformed more into the likeness of Christ. While the manifestations may vary—a willingness to serve humbly, a heart “strangely warmed,” an impetus to split a bench in two or tenderly embrace a spouse—the movement to change is rooted in our grateful response to God’s love without limit. This power and love can inspire spiritual awakening in a single believer or an entire denomination; indeed, such hope-filled holiness can bring renewal to a whole creation.
1 “Three Streams of Our Heritage: Separate or Part of a Whole?” by Luke Keefer, Jr., reprinted in the August 2012 issue of Brethren in Christ History and Life.
2, 3 The Holiness Manifesto, ed. Kevin W. Mannoia and Don Thorsen, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008, page 20.