Growing up Holiness

And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. – Isaiah 35:8 (NIV)

The small Holiness church I grew up in had cement block walls lined with single-pane windows along each side, two plain wooden doors at the front, and a modest parsonage at the rear. Inside, bare bulbs dangled over harsh wooden pews and a cement floor that was often moist with condensation. A sturdy lectern stood in the middle of a small stage at the front of the sanctuary, and a long altar for kneeling and praying stretched across the space between the stage and the pews. I’m not sure which was more plain – the building or the people it inhabited.

Our church was founded when some members left a local Pentecostal Holiness church to begin their own. Our new church would be known as Free Holiness Church, although the word Free was later removed because the pastor didn’t want our church associated with hippies and their Free Love movement.

As a child, I wasn’t allowed to wear short sleeves, short pants, or any form of jewelry. Men weren’t allowed to grow beards; women weren’t allowed to cut their hair. Some ladies took the admonishment about cutting hair to the extreme, even refusing to shave their legs and underarms. Some took the disapproval of male beards to the extreme, even removing the large painting of Christ that hung at the front of our church because he was depicted with facial hair.

We weren’t supposed to have a television, although there were a couple of times my father kept one in a bedroom when he wasn’t attending church regularly. Radios were okay, but only Christian music was allowed. Drinking and tobacco were strictly off-limits – even during communion when grape juice was substituted for wine. Cursing of any kind, including using crude words to describe bodily functions, wasn’t allowed. Sex before marriage was a huge no-no. Dancing, sports, and board games were discouraged. Some of the most faithful even avoided doctors, relying on God for healing of any infirmities.

Although most of these beliefs might seem extreme to even the most devout Christian, there were Bible verses to back up all of them. Verses about idle words, not setting anything evil before your eyes, long hair being a woman’s glory, etc. Nothing seemed far-fetched when it could be backed up with the Good Book.

Having been out of that particular faith and church for many years, I have had some recent interest in reading about the roots of the denomination. Although we were raised under the assumption that our particular way of faith was the Only Way, the Straight and Narrow Way, a quick search of Wikipedia shows that the early Holiness movement actually started around the middle of the 19th century by way of the Methodists and Evangelicals. Pentecostals (those who believe in speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, etc.) emerged around the beginning of the 20th century during a multi-year revival in Los Angeles.

What is really interesting to me is that although our church identified as Holiness, many who called themselves Holiness in the early 1900’s strongly objected to the growing movement of Pentecostalism because of speaking in tongues. Seeing how our church believed in baptism of the Holy Ghost, our church would have clearly been categorized as Pentecostal Holiness.

Because church history was never taught and rarely discussed, I grew up believing Pentecostalism was the predecessor to the Holiness movement. It seems the opposite is true.

I drove by my old church this afternoon. The building hasn’t changed much since the days when I stood and played my tambourine as music and praise roared around me. I hear the congregation is much smaller now, with only a handful attending on a regular basis.

It has been almost two years since I wrote that I will always be a Pentecostal in my heart. I’m sure my mother would be delighted to know I said that, even though I no longer attend services or live the lifestyle I knew as a child. I may no longer hold some of the beliefs I grew up with, but I do hold a special place in my heart for the people and their way of life.