- There has always been an optimistic viewpoint within the Christian community that believers have the power to respond to the highest ideals of the faith. Various movements have taught that Christians could approach or attain at least some degree of perfection in this life. Those searching for completeness and wholeness in their response to God, beyond mere observance of a moral code of conduct, have generally drawn inspiration from a few biblical passages, especially the words attributed to Jesus, "Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).Some Christian theologians, such as Augustine (354-430), have denied the possibility of human perfection in this life, due to the continuing influence of the Fall. others, such as Pelagius, disagreed; they charged that the church had become morally corrupt after it abandoned the biblical ideal of perfection.The first reformers tended to agree with Augustine. To Martin Luther and John Calvin, sin always remained a reality for believers. However, as Protestantism blossomed, with its emphasis on the Bible and its teachings, leaders arose who again explored the possibilities of perfection. in the 17th century, Pietism advocated a search for holiness through a life built around prayer and devotion. John Wesley in the 18th century was the first to articulate a full-blown doctrine of Christian perfection.Wesley believed that Christians, after experiencing a justifying encounter with God in Christ, would begin to grow in grace and love. Eventually, they would reach a second critical moment when by the work of the Holy Spirit they became perfect in love. This was a lifelong process, and only a few reached perfection in this life. Wesley himself never professed to have done so, though a few other Methodists did. in the face of some who claimed perfection, Wesley issued a revised edition of his classic statement, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. He explained that Christian perfection was not absolute, did not imply sin-lessness, was capable of being lost, was not to be equated with the perfection of angels, and did not preclude further growth in grace.Methodism became for a period the largest religious group in the United States, but perfectionism was not at first its main appeal. Then, in 1839, Timothy Merrett (1775-1845) launched the periodical Guide to Christian Perfection. At first a lone voice in the Methodist Episcopal Church, Merrett gradually gained a following, which took on the attributes of a movement following the conversion of Phoebe Palmer, a lay leader in Manhattan. Palmer's parlor became the center of a revival that swept through the Methodists of New York just prior to the Civil War. Phoebe and her husband, Walter C. Palmer (1804-83), purchased Merritt's periodical; as the Guide to Holiness it became the focus of the movement, which expanded rapidly throughout the Methodist community.In 1839, after reading Wesley's Plain Account, Congregationalist minister Charles G. Finney experienced sanctification. Already a prominent evangelist, Finney integrated Wesley's teaching into his own life's work, which included a search for social holiness. From his chair of theology at Oberlin College, Finney was a champion of the antislavery cause and a pacifist during the Mexican war (1846-48). His Oberlin associate Asa Mahan (1799-1889) wrote the Scriptural Doctrine of Christian Perfection (1844), which influenced many non-Methodists to adopt perfectionist ideals.Wesley had emphasized a life of gradual improvement. Palmer and her associates, who created the Holiness movement, believed that the Holy Spirit could operate on the believer immediately to bring sanctification. Holiness leaders counseled believers to make the search for perfection their top priority, and to expect the Holy Spirit to honor their search. The sanctified life became the norm, not the goal.One fascinating outgrowth was the perfectionist colony of Oneida, New York, established by John Humphrey Noyes (1811-86). Following his conversion in 1831, Noyes came to believe that Jesus had completed his salvific work; after conversion, the believer was free from sin and could live the perfect life. To that end, he created a communal society in which each member renounced personal property and any binding personal relationships. Each male was married to each female and vice versa. Sexual contact was regulated to prevent couples from developing relationships that might detract from communal life. The Oneida colony worked for a generation, but finally gave way to social pressures.By the 1880s, the Holiness movement was a national phenomenon. it was strongest within Methodism, where several of its advocates were elected bishops. One notable adherent was Frances Willard, president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the largest women's rights group of its time. Numerous camp meetings strengthened the followers' identification with the movement.As the movement peaked in the 1880s, criticism mounted. Church leaders often had trouble controlling the autonomous camp meetings. Some Methodists challenged Holiness from a theological perspective as well. They said it created two classes of church members; furthermore, some "sanctified" members were obsessed with rote observance of strict moral codes, or did not even lead the exemplary life they professed. Meanwhile, many Holiness people began to leave the Methodist Church to form Holiness churches, some of which grew into global denominations, including the Church of the Nazarene,the Wes-leyan Church, the Salvation Army, and the Church of God (Anderson,Indiana).At the beginning of the 20th century, the Holiness movement provided the foundation for Pentecostalism. Pentecostal churches that have integrated sanctification and holiness into their theology are the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), the Church of God of Prophecy, the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, and the Church of God in Christ. These churches have joined those of the Holiness movement in teaching perfectionism around the world.some psychologists and social critics claim that 19th-century perfectionist religious ideals have been translated into secular terms, finding expression in the American emphasis on material success. They consider perfectionism to be a pathological state in which the individual tries to attain excessively high and unrealistic goals. others have argued for a more balanced response, noting that the ideal of perfection can motivate people to great achievement. Some Holiness spokespersons have drawn sharp distinctions between their perfectionism and the behaviors cited by critics.Further reading:■ Miriam Adderholdt-Elliott, Perfectionism: What's Bad about Being Too Good (rev. ed., Minneapolis, Minn.: Free Spirit, 1999)■ Samuel Chadwick, The Call to Christian Perfection (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press, 1943)■ Robert Newton Flew, The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology: An Historical Study of the Christian Ideal for the Present Life (London: Oxford University Press, 1934)■ William Edwin Sangster, The Path to Perfection: An Examination... of John Wesley's Doctrine of Christian Perfection (London: Epworth Press, 1984)■ Charles Edward White, The Beauty of Holiness: Phoebe Palmer as Theologian, Revivalist, Feminist, and Humanitarian (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1986).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.