[Part 3 in the Revival and Reform series]
What drove evangelicals in the 1800s to be as passionate about bringing change to the their nation as they were about bringing sinners to salvation? What spiritual conviction birthed the formation of societies to address issues from slavery to education to prison reform to the social ills caused by heavy drinking?
In Revivalism and Social Reform, Timothy L. Smith gives two answers: the revivals of the 1800s emphasized perfectionism and hope in Christ’s coming reign on earth, and these gave rise to evangelical social reform. I will dedicate an article to each of these, depending heavily on Smith’s work.
John Wesley, whose Methodist descendants dominated the revivals of the 19th century, developed the teaching of perfectionism or entire sanctification or, as Wesley preferred, “perfect love.” This post-conversion experience, so the teaching goes, addresses the Christian’s continuing bent toward sin. By the Spirit’s work, the love of God instantaneously purifies the struggling Christian’s heart. As Timothy Smith puts it, “Imperfect judgment, the passions and frailties common to men, temptation, and the possibility of falling into sin would remain real. But the bent of the soul would now be toward God’s will, not away from it.”
Stories of believers’ experiences of perfect love flooded the literature during these revival years. Periodicals with titles like The Guide to Holiness and The Beauty of Holiness celebrated testimonies of clergy and laypeople who experienced immediate cleansing from sin, purification by faith, and radical infusions of perfect love. The Christian’s pursuit of this work of the Spirit–often pictured through laying one’s self on the altar, fully dedicated to God–became a prominent feature in revival meetings, much in the way that seeking impartations of charismatic gifts became a feature of 20th century Pentecostalism.
Yet perfect love was expected to manifest through good works, not merely through recounting ecstatic spiritual encounters. The natural through-line of sanctification began with an internal, entire consecration to Christ that renounced wealth and comfort so that perfect love could be expressed to the poor, the enslaved, the oppressed, the abused, and the ill-treated, which often meant confronting the corrupt systems and institutions that perpetuated their harm. The leaders of evangelical social reform organizations were very conscientious that only this decisive work of the Spirit to release believers from selfish passions could empower a movement to address poverty and injustice.
What might this historical dynamic mean for us today? First, let me be up front about my disagreement with Wesley’s theology of perfectionism. I do not see this teaching represented either in the historical or doctrinal writings of the New Testament. Rather, the New Testament writers portray sanctification as a progressive experience–often punctuated with powerful works of the Spirit–as we are being transformed to God’s likeness “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Furthermore, communities where some are considered categorically “sanctified” and others are not inevitably become two-tiered and can suffocate an atmosphere of confessing sin and abuse.
With this caveat in place, there are many questions this history should cause us to ask. Do we crave likeness to Jesus? Do we yearn for a more perfect experience of God’s gospel love for us? Do we yield ourselves entirely to his agenda? Do we cry out for the Spirit to bend our wills to God’s will rather than our own self-centered passions? What are the sinful patterns in our lives that keep us bound from serving others? How might our lives look different if they were entirely dedicated to displaying God’s justice and mercy on earth? Does our taste of God’s sweet, undeserved mercy breed a discontent with the bitter hatred in our world and a resolve to address it with practical engagement and gospel truth?
While I do not agree with the particulars of Wesley’s perfectionism, the unleashing of social concern among 19th century Methodists convicts me that a greater passion for holiness is needed in our day–the type of holiness that does not merely avoid the world but engages the needs of the world sacrificially for Christ’s sake.