Social Holiness in New York City: Wesleyan/Holiness Women Share God’s love

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When historians of American religion turn their attention to Christian outreach in our cities at the turn of the century, they generally mention social gospelers such as Walter Rauschenbusch or Washington Gladden, who emerged from mainline Protestantism. Often overlooked are the efforts of women in the Wesleyan/Holiness Movement who also ministered among the millions of people packed into our cities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Motivated by Christian love, they visited the prisoner, clothed the naked, fed the hungry and provided shelter for the homeless. By so doing, they were fulfilling Jesus’ injunction to minister unto “one of the least of these” (Matt. 25:31–46).


Love was the central motif fueling holiness outreach to others while social gospelers, particularly Rauschenbusch, understood the realization of the kingdom of God as the primary theme undergirding their movement. Wesleyan/Holiness women ministered solely because they understood holiness as love for God and love for neighbor as well. John Wesley repeatedly stressed his conviction that Christian perfection is love for God and our neighbor. References to Luke 10:27 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself”) are sprinkled throughout his writings on holiness. Phoebe Palmer preached that holiness insures usefulness. These nineteenth-century followers of Wesley believed it was their duty as Christians to be useful. Holiness doctrine, with its emphasis on love, provided the basis for social holiness which is the Wesleyan/Holiness equivalent of the social gospel. The phrase “social holiness” is borrowed from Wesley who wrote: “The Gospel of Christ knows . . . of no holiness but social holiness.”


While men in the Holiness Movement also engaged in social holiness, this article focuses on women. Because of space restraints, we’ll restrict the geographical boundaries as well and examine briefly several ministries in New York City.


Five Points Mission

Methodist women passed out religious tracts in the slums of New York as early as the 1840s. Soon food and clothing accompanied the tracts as these women observed the needs around them. Women serving on the board of the New York Ladies Home Missionary Society visited nearly every house in the Five Points district of New York. Appalled by the living conditions they encountered, the group established the Five Points Mission in 1853. Phoebe Palmer played an active role in founding this mission which included, along with the chapel, living space for twenty families, and a school. Over the teacher’s platform in the school room, a banner proclaimed, “I was naked and ye clothed me, hungry, and ye fed me.” One of the women workers at the Five Points Mission identified this passage as “the authority and encouragement of our labor of love.” Love motivated the many hours of volunteer labor women donated to the Mission.


Salvation Army Slum Sisters

Slum sisters, affiliated with the Salvation Army, also visited door to door in the poverty stricken areas of New York. Beginning in 1889 under the guidance of Captain Emma J. Bown who headed the Army’s ministries in America’s slums, the women worked in pairs. They visited an average of almost thirty homes daily. Living in the worst neighborhoods of the city, slum sisters dressed in old clothes rather than wearing the traditional Army uniform. Their task was simply to be useful in any way possible. They carried cleaning utensils and mopped floors, bathed babies and cooked meals. They cared for the sick and even prepared the dead for burial. Captain Bown wrote of the wretched conditions the slum sisters encountered and asked: “Is there any woman’s heart that can remain untouched?” It was obvious to her that the answer must be “no.” The slum sisters authored a song listing tasks that they performed “gladly” because of “Jesus’ love.”


Emma Whittemore

Emma Whittemore distributed tracts with another woman in the dance halls, gambling dens and dives of New York. Whittemore dressed like the women she was seeking to help and carried a pail filled with gruel, soup or tea and a package of clothing. More important than these items, was “His [God’s] love in our hearts.”


Converted at Jerry McAuley’s Water Street Mission, this wealthy woman and her husband later worked at this and other missions, serving either as trustees, supervisors or staff recruiters. She served as president of the International Union of Gospel Missions from 1914 to 1918.


Whittemore founded the first Door of Hope home in New York on October 25, 1890 to house fallen and unfortunate women, “society’s most pitiable outcasts.” By her death in 1931, there were 96 homes modeled after the original Door of Hope. Whittemore was a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance whose founder, A. B. Simpson, provided the location for the first Door of Hope. Whittemore understood the economic reality that could lead a poor young woman to sell her body in order to provide for parents or children who were dependent on her. She urged American women to demand higher wages for working women so they would not turn to prostitution in order to earn enough money to provide for themselves and their dependents.


Initially, Whittemore experienced repugnance towards women on the street and shrank from working with them. She testified: “[I] felt such a loathing for anything bordering upon impurity that I never could tolerate a wicked woman.” God convicted her of her lack of love and “finally all opposition became dissolved in that great Love.” God’s love enabled her to fulfill her calling and minister to the very women who earlier had filled her with repugnance. Love enabled Whittemore to conquer her negative feelings. Her homes welcomed women who had been rejected by all other institutions and readmitted them no matter how often they stumbled. She believed that love was the only means to draw these women into the kingdom of heaven.


Jennie Fowler Willing

Jennie Fowler Willing opened the New York Evangelistic Training School and Settlement House in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York in 1895. Walter Rauschenbusch, who was later to formulate the theology of the social gospel, pastored in this neighborhood at the same time. One wonders if their paths ever crossed. Willings’ facility was initially sponsored by the World Women’s Christian Temperance Union, many of whose members were believers in holiness. Willing, a Methodist laywoman, required students at the Training School who were preparing for mission careers to spend one hour a day working among the poor and to assist in the evangelistic services conducted nightly.



Phoebe Palmer , Emma Whittemore and Jennie Fowler Willing plus the anonymous members of the New York Ladies Missionary Society and the Salvation Army’s slum sisters practiced social holiness as they performed urban ministries in New York City. Many other Wesleyan/Holiness women, whose names are unknown or forgotten, shared the love of God with people living in abject poverty in the slums of New York and other cities in the United States. Initially, they sought to meet the spiritual needs of the slums’ inhabitants. Once they witnessed the conditions under which these people lived, their ministries quickly expanded to include the physical needs as well. The love they personally experienced as believers in the doctrine of holiness motivated them to minister “to the least of these.”


Stanley, S. (Fall, 1989). Social holiness in New York City: Wesleyan/Holiness women share god’s love. Holiness Digest


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