The Holiness movement originated in the first half of the 19th century in the United States as a renewal movement within American Methodism but soon became trans-denominational, and by the third quarter of the century was also international. It sought to recover the emphasis of John Wesley on the perfection of love in the lives of believers. This perfection was understood as the wholehearted love of God and others, not to be confused with human flawlessness, and as God's will for all believers, not just for a special class. Methodism had thrived on American soil since 1766, but by the early 19th century, some within its ranks were convinced that the original Wesleyan emphasis on the perfection of love had been muted. Setting out to retrieve it, they were influenced by the revival and camp meeting focus on instantaneous conversions. Consequently, as the Holiness leaders called believers to the perfection of love, they, too, stressed the importance of an instantaneous experience of perfect love. As they preached, wrote and taught they used not only the language of perfection (see 1 John 4:17-18) but also the language of entire sanctification (see 1 Thess. 5:23). They understood this experience to occur subsequent to conversion, but not to be confused with the glorification that takes place at the time of the resurrection of the body. Furthermore, in line with the earlier Wesleyan movement, their call was for every believer to enter into a covenant of personal holiness for the glory of God. Instead of only some especially gifted persons in the church entering into a carefully disciplined life of holiness, all believers were to do this; they were to present themselves to God as living sacrifices in the midst of the regular routines of life.
The Holiness emphasis began taking on denominational expression with the founding of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection in 1843 and the Free Methodist Church in 1860, both of which grew out of a social witness to holiness - the abolition of slavery and the cessation of renting pews so as to remove economic barriers to participation in worship. In 1867 the movement became more organizationally cohesive with the convening of the first Holiness camp meeting, with some 10,000 in attendance. An outgrowth of this was the founding of the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness, precursor to the present Christian Holiness Partnership (CHP). In the course of time, many other church bodies emerged including The Salvation Army in England in 1878, the Church of God (Anderson, IN) in 1880, and the Church of the Nazarene in 1908. By 1874-75 the international character of the movement is indicated by the large Holiness gatherings that convened especially in Germany, Switzerland and England.
The Holiness movement has spawned many denominations all around the world, many of which are small, due, in part, to its strong emphasis on the disciplined life. According to the CHP, the movement is now spread in some 160 nations. Some four million adherents are in North America, three million in Africa, and four million in Asia. One of the largest Holiness churches in the world is the Korea Evangelical Holiness Church with a million members. The combined membership of all Holiness denominations in Korea is three million. The Japanese Holiness Church founded in 1917 was a persecuted, confessing church during World War II. Some 130 believers were imprisoned for refusal to submit to the radical nationalism of the period.
Three organizations of great importance to the movement are the above-mentioned Christian Holiness Partnership (CHP), the Wesleyan Theological Society (WTS), and Wesleyan/Holiness Clergy International (WHCI). The CHP facilitates cooperative efforts among denominations, camp meetings, institutions such as colleges, seminaries, missionary agencies and publishing houses, and individuals. The WTS is a scholarly society, with over 600 members, that publishes the Wesleyan Theological Journal. Given the long history of Holiness women in ministry, the WHCI nurtures women clergy and students.
Scholarly works about the movement include Melvin E. Dieter's The Holiness Revival of the Nineteenth Century, 2nd edition (Lanham, MD and London: Scarecrow, 1996), and Historical Dictionary of the Holiness Movement edited by William C. Kostlevy, in the Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series, No. 36 (Scarecrow, 2001).
The total number of adherents to the Holiness movement is about 12 million believers who, for the most part, are committed participants in church life. Twenty-one denominations cooperate in the Christian Holiness Partnership, and hundreds of independent congregations and local churches that belong to denominations which are not officially identified as members. There are no Holiness churches as such in membership with the WCC, but several member churches are traditionally close to the Holiness movement.