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by William Kostlevy

Although not formally organized until 1965, the Wesleyan Theological Society (WTS) is best understood as one of the more significant products of the evangelical "renaissance" of the 1940s and 1950s. Its founders included scholars of notable accomplishment who, in the two decades following World War II, had written a series of groundbreaking doctoral dissertations and founded the first evangelical scholarly journal, the Asbury Seminarian.

Particularly noteworthy in the beginning of the Society were a series of conferences in the early 1960s conducted at Wesleyan/Holiness colleges under the leadership of Kenneth Geiger, president of the National Holiness Association (NHA). Important papers from these conferences were published as Insights into Holiness (1963) and Further Insights into Holiness (1963). [2] These conferences culminated in the Winona Lake Study Conference on the Distinctives of Arminian-Wesleyan Theology, held in November, 1964, and sponsored by the NHA. Papers from this conference were published as The Word and the Doctrine in 1965. [3] Dr. J. C. McPheeters, the respected elder statesperson of the Holiness movement, indicated that the Winona Lake conference "was perhaps the most significant event in our generation for the spread of Scriptural holiness." [4] It was this meeting that set the stage for the organization of the Wesleyan Theological Society at the April, 1965, NHA meeting in Detroit.

The stated purposes of the new organization was to encourage an exchange of ideas among Wesleyan/Holiness theologians, develop a source of papers for NHA seminars, stimulate scholarship among young theologians and pastors, and publish a journal containing significant contributions to Holiness movement scholarship. [5] Leo Cox of Marion College (now Indiana Wesleyan University) was elected president, with Merne Harris of Vennard College, secretary, and W. Ralph Thompson of Spring Arbor College, treasurer. Other early presidents of the WTS were Richard S. Taylor, William Arnett, Lowell Roberts, Merne Harris, Ralph Perry, George Blackstone, Robert Mattke, Delbert Rose, and Mildred Wynkoop.

In November, 1965, the organization’s inaugural meeting at Spring Arbor College drew approximately sixty people. Reflecting the diversity of its parent body, the NHA, papers were presented by members of the Methodist Church, Church of the Nazarene, United Missionary Church, Free Methodist Church, Wesleyan Methodist Church, and the Salvation Army. When the initial membership drive ended in January of 1966, the organization could claim ninety-two charter members. Since its inception, the WTS has experienced steady membership growth with 286 members by 1970. Currently the number of members exceeds 600.

Following the adoption of a constitution in 1969, members expressed an increased desire to establish formal ties to the NHA. At its 1970 annual meeting, the WTS voted to become an official commission of the NHA. The most noteworthy early achievement of the WTS was the establishment in 1966 of a scholarly journal, the Wesleyan Theological Journal. The journal’s first editor, Charles Carter (1965-1972), guided the periodical during its difficult formative years. Initially published annually, the WTS Journal has been published bi-annually since 1979.

One of the society’s most meaningful contributions to the broader Wesleyan/Holiness movement has been the visibility it has afforded the Holiness movement in scholarly and ecumenical circles. Through its members, the WTS has made significant contributions at the Oxford Institute of Methodist Studies and the John Wesley Institute. It also has had a presence at meetings of the American Academy of Religion, including the sponsorship of a reception. Since the early 1980s, the society has been represented in the discussions of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.

Perhaps the most significant WTS ecumenical endeavor has been joint meetings with the Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS). SPS hosted the first joint meeting at the Church of God Theological Seminary in Cleveland, TN, in 1998. Building on the success of the that meeting, a second joint WTS-SPS meeting hosted by the Wesleyan/Holiness Studies Center of Asbury Theological Seminary Meeting occurred in 2003. A third joint meeting is planned for 2008.

Related but independent of the ecumenical work of the WTS was the 2003 international WTS meeting hosted by the Bahamas Wesleyan Fellowship and co-sponsored by the Wesleyan Theological Society. Working sessions were held at the Bahamian owned Nassau Beach Hotel, with worship at several historic churches. Among such churches were Ebenezer Methodist Church, the Bahamas oldest Methodist church. The meeting celebrated the tri-centenary of Wesley’s birth and the history of Methodism in the Bahamas. A second international meeting is scheduled to meet at Seoul Theological University in May of 2005.

In 1975, society president, Eldon Fuhrman, suggested that it might be appropriate to include in WTS discussions individuals representing various theological views and traditions. Outside representatives, including John Howard Yoder, Albert Outler, Mortimer Arias, Dale Brown, Thomas Oden, Craig Blaising, Clark Pinnock, Geoffrey Wainwright, and E. Glenn Hinson have enriched theological discussion at the society’s annual meetings.

In 1980, the noted Methodist scholar Frank Baker expressed the view of many scholars when he noted that the Wesleyan Theological Journal (WTJ) was an important sign of the continued vitality of Wesleyan scholarship. Baker said that its articles for the most part were "well written and carefully documented" and were occasionally of major importance. Especially significant in the life of the society has been the editorship of Barry L. Callen. Since Callen assumed editorship of the WTJ in 1993, the journal has appeared regularly and has published groundbreaking articles on Wesleyan historical, theological, missional and biblical themes. In a fundamental sense the journal is the society.

When the society celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 1994, it could justly claim that its stated goals had been largely realized. It had provided a forum for theological reflection in the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition, published significant scholarship in the tradition, and had encouraged a generation of young scholars. The encouragement and publication of the work of young scholars began at its first meeting with the presentation of papers by Kenneth Kinghorn and was continued a year later with the publication of a paper given by Jerry Mercer. The WTS remains an important forum for young scholars.

As the society matured, thoughts turned to honoring senior Wesleyan scholars. In 1993, WTS president Don Thorsen proposed that each year the society honor a senior scholar with a Life-Time Achievement Award. Robert A. Traina, longtime professor and administrator at Asbury Theological Seminary received the first award in 1994. In the years that followed, significant Wesleyan scholars, including James Earl Massey, Melvin E. Dieter, William Greathouse and Delbert Rose and Susan Schultz Rose have received the award.

WTS initiated in 2000 the Smith Wynkoop Book Award, named for two of the most distinguished early leaders of the society, historian Timothy L. Smith and theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop. Perfectionist Politics: Abolitionists Religious Tensions in American Democracy by Douglas M. Strong was the award’s first recipient.

Perhaps the most important contribution of the Wesleyan Theological Society has been its role of encouraging the growing theological maturity of the Holiness movement. Reflecting the society’s roots in neo-evangelicalism, the scholarly debate in the early years of the WTS was dominated by issues surrounding the biblical basis of Christian perfection and the doctrine of inerrancy. By the mid-1970s the central concern of the Society was the doctrine of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Especially noteworthy was an important dialogue between Donald Dayton and Timothy Smith, which has produced some of the most significant scholarship in the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition and has helped to clarify important issues surrounding the origins and relationship of the Holiness movement to Pentecostalism. As the society celebrates its fortieth anniversary, this debate continues unabated.

Equally important has been an extended discussion, beginning at the society’s second annual conference, concerning personal and social ethics in the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition. The society’s 1987, 1989, and 1991 annual meetings included important papers on social issues. Other conferences have explored theological topics such as worship (1996), the Trinity (2000), and the church (2005).

This, I suspect, is merely the beginning of the story. The recent flowering of theological, philosophical, historical, ethical, and biblical scholarship suggests that the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition, the product of the NHA-sponsored camp meetings of the nineteenth century, has an important role to play in the academy of the twenty-first century.


[1] This essay, originally appearing in the Holiness Digest (Spring 1993), is indebted to an article by John Merritt, "Fellowship in Ferment: A History of the Wesleyan Theological Society, 1965-1984," Wesleyan Theological Journal 21 (Spring-Fall, 1986), 186-204.

[2] Both of these volumes were published by Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City.

[3] Kenneth Geiger, compiler, published by Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, 1965

[4] Geiger, 1965, 5.  

[5] The result, of course, is the present Wesleyan Theological Journal.