Our Watchword & Song: The Centennial History of the Church of the Nazarene is “must-reading” for everyone who wants to understand more clearly the place of the Church of the Nazarene within the vast, everflowing, ever-changing river of Christianity. The Church of the Nazarene was not dropped fully-formed and pre-packaged on the doorstep by the “stork of history.” The Nazarenes had a history before they were ever called “Nazarenes,” and this book tells that story.
The writers are uniquely qualified to write about such Nazarene antecedents as the English Reformation, pietism, Arminian theology, the Evangelical Awakening, the Wesley brothers, the religious pluralism of colonial America, Francis Asbury’s aggressive evangelism, the camp meeting revival tradition, the western frontier, the organized Holiness Movement, the optimistic social reforms that preceded the Great War, and much more.
The story is told with precision and clarity. The church’s problems are not sugar-coated or glossed over. For example, the conflict, pain, and strained relationships that surrounded such situations as Seth Rees and the Southern California District are not minimized but are told with honesty and historical perspective. The sordid tale of a financial crisis precipitated by speculative investments made by the church’s financial leader, who operated without appropriate checks and balances, is told not just to recount a past mistake but also (one hopes) to inform the present. The way the Church of the Nazarene resisted “surrendering to fundamentalism” in the 1920s and ‘30s is also a compelling story with implications for the church today.
I have known three of the four scholars who wrote and edited Our Watchword & Song. I am grateful for this gift that they give to us whose lives are wrapped up in the Church of the Nazarene. Our Watchword & Song serves as another perspective on the pre-union history and the first 25 years of Nazarene life that was so carefully documented in Timothy Smith’s Called Unto Holiness: Volume 1. The photographs that illustrate this book help to tell the story in ways in which Smith could only dream. The story of the church’s life in the 75 years that followed Smith’s terminal point is unmatched in depth, accuracy, precision, and perspective.
With little to criticize, I would simply say that footnotes would have been far superior to the endnotes that appear in this book, and the lack of an index makes researching specific people or threads difficult. In the end, Our Watchword & Song is an important work that needs to be read by Nazarene clergy and lay people, not just to understand where we’ve been, but to help us navigate our way through the present and the future.
BRAD ESTEP serves as senior pastor of Kansas City First Church of the Nazarene