D.S. Warner and the Dilemma of Sectarian Soil

My class for Church of God History frequently requires assignments similar to those you may have seen me post for Old Testament class. While I will not be posting every one of these assignments, I will select those that I regard as interesting, worthwhile or enjoyable for posting on the blog. In particular, the prompt for this assignment included an evaluation of D.S. Warner‘s claim, as made in 1878, that the holiness doctrine could not prosper on sectarian soil. Read on and learn!

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Rather famously, Daniel S. Warner wrote in a March 1878 diary entry essentially that holiness was not possible in a denominationally rich environment. But as our duty is to understand history in its proper context, it is foolish to simply repeat this groundbreaking thought without applying the historical perspective. After being strongly influenced by his second wife, Sarah, and her father, Warner came to appreciate entire sanctification as the second work of grace to the extent that he sought the experience himself, ultimately declaring in July 1877 that the process had been completed.[1] Naturally, Warner then began to teach entire sanctification and the doctrine of holiness to his audiences, much to the chagrin of boards of elders. While initially Warner was only reprimanded for his tendencies, he eventually overstepped boundaries by bringing in holiness “bands” and had his license to preach revoked on January 30, 1878. As Warner later would recall, the day after being excused from preaching was one of divine revelation. He wrote,

“On the 31st of last January the Lord showed me that holiness could never prosper on sectarian soil encumbered by human creeds and party names, and gave me a new commission to join holiness and all truth together and build up the apostolic church of the living God. Praise his name! I will obey him.”[2]

D.S. Warner
D.S. Warner

In examining the declarative statement comprising first half of this quote, we realize that two main issues are brought to the forefront. It becomes possible, then, to evaluate the issues on the basis of their inherent limitations and strengths. First, Warner’s devotion to the advancement of holiness is observed. Though he has only grasped or accepted the doctrine for a short period of time, holiness and sanctification are of the utmost concern to him, which is further supported by the way in which he jeopardized his previous position as preacher. Second, it is hard to avoid Warner’s opposition to sectarianism. Throughout the decade of the 1870s, numerous quotes suggest that he was fed up with denominational thinking, which is crystallized in an April 1876 diary entry saying, “O Sectarianism! thou abomination of the earth, thou bane of the cause of God, when will thy corrupt and wicked walls fall to earth and cease to curse men to hell?”[3]

Consideration of these aforementioned two issues and their limitations must address the timeline of Warner’s thought development and the proximity of the ultimate revelation in regard to his dismissal from preaching. In doing so, it is unavoidable that Warner realized the “abomination” of denominational chest-thumping much earlier than he latched onto holiness doctrine. Therefore, was Warner’s January 31, 1878-dated claim a true revelation from the Lord, as he professed, or simply the adaptation of long-held feelings on sectarianism to a newly revealed problem, that is, the revocation of his license to preach freely? Furthermore, it needs to be admitted that bitterness may have played a role in making the claim; as he wrote on January 31, his dismissal was a “dreadful calamity and intolerable to bear.”[4] Another significant limitation of Warner’s claim is evident through the application of the measuring stick of history. As it stands today, the modern Christian climate remains heavily denominationally divided. So as a capital-c Church, are we not holy?

Approaching Warner’s claim critically tends to disregard or dismiss it, when historically the revelation, whether from the Lord or crafted out of Warner’s perception of the situation, undoubtedly served grander purposes. To be sure, the claim had (and still has) its strengths. It enabled Warner to forge relationships with some denominations and organizations—including Mennonites and Holiness groups—while at the same time arguing for the abolishment of thinking along sectarian lines. As an example, Warner’s desire to remain true to the January 1878 revelation eventually resulted in a Gospel Trumpet declaration that “now we wish to announce to all that we wish to co-operate with all Christians, as such, in saving souls—but forever withdraw from the organisms that uphold and endorse sects and denominations in the body of Christ.”[5] This June 1881 proclamation was a watershed moment for the early Church of God movement, and it would not have been possible if Warner and others did not actively seek to fulfill the January 1878 revelation, which served to project the movement’s grand vision. Even today, when paraphrased, we might say that, “We cannot be the church that God intended when we elect to segregate ourselves ideologically and prioritize our differences among the most important foci of our ministry.” In that sense, Warner revealed (or had revealed to him) a timeless truth.

Ultimately, the historical interpretation of Warner’s January 1878 revelation lies in its ability to produce positive effects for the Church. In that light, Warner’s mission was a revolutionary success. This doesn’t rubber stamp his tactics or excuse his overly dismissive, damnation-centered attitude toward honest followers of Christ who happened to claim denominational faiths. However, we have to conclude that God used the faulty comprehension of his fallible followers to address the burgeoning problems of each period of history and produce ultimate good for his Church body.


[1] John W. V. Smith and Merle D. Strege, The Quest for Holiness & Unity, 2nd ed. (Anderson, IN: Warner Press, 2009), 46.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Ibid., 45.

[4] Ibid., 47.

[5] Ibid., 51.

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