Selfhood and the Search for an Identity: Explaining the Emergence of the Nineteenth-Century Holiness Movement and Early Church of the Nazarene

Paul R. George Jr., Western Michigan University


This dissertation seeks to explain the emergence of the nineteenth-century Holiness Movement and subsequent organization of a national holiness church as the result of a reconstruction of the cultural-linguistic system of John Wesley. In the process of contact and exchange with American religious pluralism, Wesley's doctrine of Christian perfection and his system of societies were reconstructed by charismatic leaders who selected discursive and nondiscursive elements which they found efficacious. Theological and social changes in the Methodist Episcopal Church compelled holiness advocates to emphasize the instantaneous aspect of Wesley's doctrine of Christian perfection (entire sanctification) and construct a ritual form which had the potential of eliminating the requirement for ritual specialists and institutional structures. The ritual of instantaneous entire sanctification was consistent with the modern turn to an autonomous selfhood and motivated the transmission of a new holiness cultural-linguistic system through the mechanisms of holiness associations, camp meetings, evangelists and periodicals.

The cultural-linguistic system promoted by holiness advocates, the central focus of which was the empowering, liberating ritual of instantaneous entire sanctification, created a holiness selfhood that emphasized an individualistic understanding of the possession of the presence and power of the Spirit of God resulting in a tension between the authority of the individual believer and ecclesiastical leadership. This tension created the sectarianism of the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition which prevented any reintegration with the Methodist-Episcopal Church and delayed the organization of a national holiness denomination. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, charismatic leaders and evangelists of independent holiness churches expressed a desire for organized holiness on a national level and utilized the mechanisms of holiness associations, camp meetings, and periodicals in the promotion of their cause. These individuals constructed an ecclesiastical system that addressed the tension between individual and communal authority. My research suggests that the institutional structure of the early Church of the Nazarene enabled it to maintain a balance between individual and communal religiosity. Paradoxically, its religiosity also possessed the potential of creating an individualistic selfhood that places the autonomy of the individual in tension with the perceived authority of the institution. The continued success of the Church of the Nazarene depends upon its ability to balance this tension in the context of a post-modern world.