Christian History Home > Issue 82 > The Cleansing Wave
The Cleansing Wave
The 19th-century holiness revival took many forms as it swept across denominational boundaries.
The cleansing stream I see! I see!
I plunge, and oh, it cleanseth me!
Phoebe Palmer's hymn celebrating the sanctifying power of Christ's blood joined a chorus of American voices seeking to be made clean.
One of the strongest of these voices emerged from a small college in the forests of northern Ohio. Built in a key town on the Underground Railroad, Oberlin College was a novelty in its day, admitting women and integrating black students. Its reforming vision came straight out of another kind of integration: the belief that evangelical piety and social reform must be indivisible.
Oberlin's first president, Asa Mahan, and its first theology professor, the famous evangelist Charles Finney, did not hold the traditional Calvinist view of total depravity and predestination. They taught instead that sinners had the "natural" ability to believe, and that evangelistic methods could overcome their "moral" inability through the persuasive power of the Gospel. They understood saving faith as an act of the will that anyone could be expected to make immediately, without waiting for God to give the necessary grace.
In the early years of their activities at Oberlin, both Finney and Mahan applied this same understanding to the Christian's growth toward spiritual maturity—that is, the classical theological topic of sanctification. To be sanctified, they insisted, required only the same kind of simple, instantaneous faith one exercised to be converted.
In 1836, both Mahan and Finney experienced "second conversions" that they identified as "baptisms with the Holy Ghost." Mahan believed that as a result of this experience, his desires and inclinations had been purified, so that he not only was free from committing sin but no longer had a habitual tendency toward sin. Finney found in Mahan's teaching the solution to a troubling trend in his revivalistic work. Simply put: many of his converts were coming in the front door of revivalistic conversion and promptly "backsliding" out the exit. To the veteran evangelist, a robust doctrine of sanctification offered the assurance that the same grace received through faith that brought forgiveness of sin could bring a stable Christian life free from the habit of sin.
At first, Finney and Mahan were cautious about teaching this doctrine publicly. Anything akin to "perfectionism" risked linking them to the aberrant doctrines of John Humphrey Noyes, a Yale theology student who, in 1834, had claimed to be free from all sin. Noyes later founded a utopian community whose members practiced "group marriage" as a mark of unselfishness and a way of ushering in the Kingdom of God. Perfectionism, to 19th-century Americans, had begun to mean "free love," and a college admitting students of both sexes could not afford the slightest taint of scandal.
Therefore, Mahan was seriously alarmed when, during a "meeting for prayer, praise, and inquiry," a recently graduated theology student put his "beloved instructors" on the spot, asking them publicly, "What degree of sanctification do the Scriptures authorize us to trust Christ for? May we, or may we not, trust Him to save us from all sin, and to sanctify us wholly, and to do it in this present life?" Mahan later recalled thinking in dismay, "They will all rush into perfectionism" (i.e., the teaching of Noyes).
In fact, a more reasonable accusation was that these Presbyterians and Congregationalists were teaching a doctrine barely distinguishable from the Methodist understanding of Christian perfection. Indeed, both Mahan and Finney admired Wesley's writings on the subject, though Mahan was more influenced by Methodism than Finney.
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