Simeon Stylites, Margery Kempe, and Philip Jacob Spener share little in the way of biographical details. Simeon, a fourth-century hermit, lived atop a pillar for 36 years, eating only one small meal per week. Margery made a deal with her husband around 1413 that if he would grant her wish of celibacy, she would grant his wish that she drink beer with him on Fridays. Spener, a seventeenth-century German divine, so impressed the ruling House of Saxony with his pious writings and pastoral effectiveness that he earned free postal privileges.

These three figures likely would not have approved of each other's methods and might not even have recognized each other as Christians. Yet all achieved fame as paragons of holiness.

Some aspects of the pursuit of holiness have remained constant throughout church history. The Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century apocalyptic book that almost made it into the canon, prescribes this lifestyle:

"Do no evil in your life, and serve the Lord with a pure heart: keep His commandments, walking in His precepts, and let no evil desire arise in your heart; and believe in God. If you do these things, and fear Him, and abstain from every evil thing, you will live unto God; and if you do these things, you will keep a great fast, and one acceptable before God."

Christians in all times and places could affirm this basic plan for drawing near to God. God's character and precepts are always the same. But holiness also entails being "set apart" from the world. As the world has changed, so have ideals of holiness.

Desert superheroes

Simeon was not the only pillar-dwelling hermit of his era. He inspired a small wave of stylites, who took their name from the Greek word for "column," stulos. And this group was just an extreme manifestation of a much larger trend in the early church: asceticism.

Antony of Egypt led the ascetic exodus from imperial cities into the provincial wilderness. Born in 251 into a prosperous family, he lived a conventional Christian life until his late teens, when both of his parents died. Soon after inheriting their estate, Antony happened into a church where he heard Jesus' directive to the rich young man: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor and follow me, and you will have treasure in heaven."

Antony obeyed. His fourth-century biographer, the theologian Athanasius, wrote, "Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers … that they should be no more a clog upon himself and his sister."

After settling his sister in a convent, Antony embarked on a life of discipline. He drastically reduced his bodily comforts, including food, sleep, and bathing. He shut himself up in a tomb for awhile, that he might further mortify his flesh while engaging in spiritual battle with the Devil.

Eventually, he established a monastery about 230 miles southwest of Alexandria that attracted a knot of like-minded men. His fame spread, due largely to Athanasius's biography, and other monasteries sprang up in the Egyptian desert, close enough to water and civilization to facilitate the monks' survival, but far enough away to stand as a rebuke to society.

Though asceticism had its roots in the third century, it emerged as a significant movement after Constantine's conversion to Christianity in 312 put an end to systematic persecution of Christians within the Roman Empire.

Practically overnight, Christians exchanged their identity as a threatened minority for most-favored-religion status. Most Christians celebrated the transformation as the greatest thing to hit the world since Christ himself. But new opportunities for wealth and power necessitated a new emphasis on holiness.

Even Christians who chose not to undertake the rigors of desert monasticism sought to follow Antony's example in small ways. Augustine, who credited Athanasius's Life of Antony as a catalyst for his own conversion, attempted to live as a monk even while serving as bishop of the bustling city of Hippo.

Augustine barred women, including his sister, from his residence. He carved as much time as he could from his busy schedule for reading, writing, and meditation. He also refused gifts from his parishioners unless, as in the famous case of a tunic a woman had made for her deceased brother and wanted her pastor to have, saying no would break someone's heart.

Medieval mystics

The monastic ideal captured the Christian imagination through the Middle Ages. The word "religious" was used not as an adjective to describe any observant Christian, but as a noun to designate the full-time holy living under vows of poverty and chastity.

As life for monks, nuns, and friars became ever more ordered by rules—regarding dress, work, speech, and activities for every waking hour—a new ideal of holiness emerged: mysticism. Women, who generally were not allowed a voice in the affairs of church or state, became especially prominent in the ranks of the mystics.

Medieval women were hardly the first Christians to report otherworldly visions. The apostles Paul and John caught glimpses of heaven, as did Augustine and many other members of the early church. Medieval men, including Joachim of Fiore, Dante, and John of the Cross, had visions, too. But the accounts of women's spiritual experiences from about the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries are among the most famous and fascinating documents from the period.

Margery Kempe was born in England near the end of this era. She was empowered to broker the beer-for-celibacy deal with her husband because Jesus himself appeared to her in prayer and told her it was all right. She also reported direct communication with God the Father, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, Peter, Paul, and other saints.

As she traveled around Europe, Margery's spiritual sensitivities frequently moved her to uncontrollable tears. In her autobiography (which she dictated to one or more unknown writers because she was illiterate), she noted "that when she saw women in Rome carrying children in their arms, if she could discover that any were boys, she would cry, roar and weep as if she had seen Christ in his childhood. And if she could have had her way, she would often have taken the children out of their mothers' arms and kissed them instead of Christ."

Margery's outbursts caused many observers to suspect her of being demon-possessed, but she found some priests who viewed her emotionalism as a sign of acute devotion. Through these supportive clergymen, who probably took responsibility for recording and publicizing her story, she gained access to the writings of mystics who had gone before her.

Perhaps the most notable medieval mystic was Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century German noblewoman who managed both to lead a large convent and to influence European politics. She offered vivid textual descriptions of her visions, including one in which "Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast." She also captured many of her visions in vibrant works of art.

Puritans, Precisians, and Pietists

After the Reformation, Protestant nations established state churches that mixed new theology with old forms. In the minds of some Christians, these churches soon grew cold. To heat things up, radicals re-emphasized holiness—and usually got derided for their efforts.

Within the Anglican Church in the sixteenth century, dissent took the form of Puritanism. Puritans railed against lingering "popish" elements in the established church, including elaborate ceremony, rigid hierarchy, and a calendar full of specious holidays. In opposition, Puritans pressed for more direct preaching, more parish control of church affairs, and a more austere lifestyle.

The Puritan project made some headway in England, though its leaders faced consistent opposition. They got the nickname "Puritans" from critics who mocked their "holier than thou" attitude. Eventually, of course, many Puritans left England to set up their model society in America. They still get mocked here, too.

As Puritan literature circulated in Reformed sectors of Germany and the Netherlands, it spurred some Christians there to start their own reform movement, which was sarcastically dubbed Precisianism owing to its undue preciseness. Precisians combined Puritan concern for rightly ordered family and social life with a spiritualism born of local mystical traditions.

The Lutheran response to these reform impulses became known by another originally pejorative term: Pietism. Pietists spent comparatively less energy on outward forms and comparatively more on the state of the believer's heart. Their emotional hymns and moving devotional works, such as Spener's Pia Desideria (or Heartfelt Desire for God), had broad influence on the Continent, in England, and in America.

Though the holiness movement seemed to burst onto the scene in the 19th century, its emphases were rooted in previous eras of church history. The movement's suspicion of worldly pleasures echoed the cry of desert ascetics and Puritans. Its openness to women's voices and palpable experiences of God's Spirit hearkened back to medieval mysticism and Pietism. And its attention to serving the Lord with a pure heart was as old as Christianity itself.

Elesha Coffman is a freelance writer and senior editor of Christian History & Biography.