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What is a Wesleyan?

What do you think about when you hear the word holiness? Perhaps you think about a strict dress code, no jewelry, no dancing and even no television in some cases. All of these things have become negative connotations attached to the word holiness.
As a Wesleyan pastor, I am faced with these negative connotations toward my denomination almost daily. Many times when I invite someone to attend my church, they ask, ‘What is a Wesleyan?’ Then almost immediately they ask, ‘Is your church the place where all the ladies wear long skirts and tie their hair up in a bun?’ Automatically, it seems as though people are afraid to attend our church because of the negative connotations associated with our denomination. I have decided to write this article to help the town of Corydon and Harrison County understand what a true Wesleyan really is. More importantly, when you finish reading this, I hope you will have a better understanding in your mind of what the word holiness really means.
The three main branches of the holiness church are Wesleyan, Pilgrim Holiness and Nazarenes. The Methodists would be our great-grandparents. The Pilgrim Holiness church would be our parent denomination, and Wesleyans and Nazarenes are more like sisters. Things have changed a lot over the past several decades.
John Wesley founded the Methodist church back in the 1700s in Europe. He and some of his college buddies formed a group of believers who called themselves the ‘Holy Club.’ They met for devotions, prayer, Bible study and accountability. They were so methodical in the way they lived their lives that they were nicknamed ‘Methodists.’ Wesley was so methodical and religious that he would not even pay to have his hair cut. Instead, he saved that money he would have used to pay the barber to give to the poor. Wesley also wrote several books and articles and would have been a rich man if he hadn’t given so much to the poor.
Wesley lived his life in search of an idea that a person could be made holy from the inside out. One of his most famous sermons was titled ‘Circumcision of the Heart,’ ( In this sermon, Wesley taught that a person’s heart must be changed on the inside. The Apostle Paul also wrote about the circumcision of the heart. The Jews were teaching that a man needed to be circumcised in order to receive salvation. Paul taught that it didn’t matter what a person looked like or wore as long as the Holy Spirit had surgically altered a person’s heart in a spiritual way. This means that a person’s desires were changed and, that after receiving Christ, a person’s desires become like that of Christ. People who are circumcised of the heart no longer desire the things of this world; rather, they desire the things of Heaven. Paul actually had a church-wide conference in the book of Acts to make clear that circumcision was no longer necessary to receive salvation. This revelation continued to empower the revival of the early church.
Nearly 1,800 years later, Wesley’s ministry was also empowered by the same teaching. Along with other great evangelists of his time, their message sparked a revival known as the European Revival. The Methodist church was born and continued to thrive in Europe. John and his brother, Charles, wrote some of the churches greatest hymns, which are sung by all denominations today. The revival would eventually spread to the American colonies.
The European revival spread rapidly throughout the colonies and would eventually spread across our entire nation. The Wesleyan church split from the Methodists in 1843 over issues of slavery. The first Wesleyans were a group of people called abolitionists who decided it wasn’t right for Christians to own slaves. These people called themselves the Wesleyan Methodist connection. These ‘holiness people’ helped establish the Underground Railroad to help slaves make it to the northern states where they could live as free men and women. I actually served in one of the oldest Wesleyan churches in Indiana called LaOtto Wesleyan Church in LaOtto, near Fort Wayne. The church still has the old church doors on display in the foyer. Slave owners looking for hidden slaves had shot holes in the doors. The bullet holes serve as part of our denomination’s history of proclaiming that holiness was supposed to be on the inside regardless of color or other outward appearance features. The abolitionists believed that Jesus Christ died for all people’s sins and therefore His blood and atonement for our sins is what makes us holy.
If you are from Southern Indiana or Northern Kentucky, then you are probably familiar with the camp meeting revivals of the early 1900s. Back then, there were not a lot of preachers in this area. The preachers, called circuit riders, would travel on horseback. Tired and worn, our preachers would travel from town to town preaching, baptizing, serving communion, performing weddings, etc. Eventually, they came up with the idea to hold a camp meeting. Instead of one man trying to get to everyone and traveling very long distances, the people decided to all meet in the same place with the preacher traveling from camp to camp. These holiness people back then ‘ just called Christians ‘ would meet in outside amphitheaters and tabernacles. Sometimes the preacher would simply preach standing on a stump and the people would sit down in the fields. This was where the altar call was invented. Preachers used to challenge people, give invitations and then tell the people to go out into the woods to be alone with God. Well, this began to create some problems with males and females seeking each other, rather than God, in the woods; after all, camp meeting was the best place to find a suitable mate. (Teenagers still attend camp meeting today to ‘hook up,’ as they say.) The circuit riders, preachers and evangelists came up with the idea of the ‘mourner’s bench’ or the altar. Instead of turning the people lose in the woods and fields, they invited people up front to make their commitments to God.
As you can imagine, these camp meetings were full of energy. Some might even call it Holy Ghost power. People were getting saved and lives were being changed. People would hoop and holler and dance in the aisles; some would even bark like hounds. The ladies would wave their hankies and some would even faint from all the excitement. The scene would have been straight out of the Ray Stevens’ video of the ‘Mississippi Squirrel.’ This era eventually became known as the days of the holiness camp meeting revival and it all happened right here in the Ohio River Valley.
One exciting aspect I love to hear about from this time was the camp meeting coon hunts. I wish I could have been alive during this time. As an avid coon hunter, I often think about how awesome it would have been to be able to witness one of these hunts. The men would all bring their hounds to camp. There wasn’t much to do at night but coon hunt. When evening came around, the men would turn lose the dogs and the women would head to the tabernacle for prayer meeting. They pretended that the coon dogs were running Satan out of the camp. Whenever one of those hounds hit a coon track, the men would hoop and holler and chase the dogs through the woods. At the same time, the women would get blessed, and they too would be overtaken in an emotional frenzy. Many people rejected the over-emotionalism of this camp meeting atmosphere and eventually the worship services of these pioneer Christians became more quiet and reserved.
In the 1950s, the Wesleyan Methodist and Pilgrim Holiness churches merged and become one denomination.
Today, you will still find many people in both Wesleyan and Nazarene churches who are still connected with their pilgrim holiness roots. Keith Drury, a Bible professor at Indiana Wesleyan University and author of the book ‘Holiness for Ordinary People,’ says, ‘I like holiness folk … They remind me of where we came from.’ He compliments them on their passion for scripture and their desire to be separate from the world (
Holiness really is for ordinary people. Heart holiness and purity is available for everyone in Christ. Sometimes we Christians forget that the Bible tells us to be Holy as our father in heaven is holy. Again, the Bible is not talking about our dress code. It is not telling us to put our hair in a bun or wear long sleeves or that women can’t wear pants. All of this teaching came from preachers in the holiness denominations who wanted their congregation members to be separate from the world. These preachers teach that women ought to dress modestly and refrain from flashy jewelry and tight pants that only draw attention in negative ways. If you think about it, it probably wouldn’t hurt for some ladies to dress a little more modestly in our society today. The way women dress can be distracting for men; this is why many holiness denominations have a strict dress code.
Truthfully, all Christians are a part of the holiness denomination. A person is made holy only in Christ. We can only receive holiness from holiness. We are not holy because of what we wear or because of where we attend church. Being holy doesn’t mean you’re perfect. Holiness simply means you are forgiven. Humans have a tendency to worship perfection. If we were perfect, we would worship ourselves. When we stand before God, we will be judged based on whether or not we have received perfection through the blood of Jesus Christ. Like the license plate says, ‘I’m not perfect just forgiven.’ If you know Christ as your personal savior, you belong to the holy club regardless of your denomination.
When you drive by a Wesleyan church don’t be afraid. Don’t automatically think we will make you change your clothes if you happen to attend one of our worship services. I guarantee you will find holiness people really are not that scary. We have realized that holiness is on the inside, not on the outside. We are simply a bunch of sinners who have been forgiven.
The Rev. James E. Moore is the pastor at New Hope Wesleyan Church in Corydon. Originally from Lawrence County, Moore has been the pastor at New Hope since October 2006.