This is a time in our denomination’s history to reflect upon what could be argued was Bresee’s “first calling”: from his early days as a Methodist Episcopal pastor in Iowa to his last years as general superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene, Bresee passionately emphasized the importance of evangelism—this is a matter in which Bresee never wavered.
As a pastor less than 30 years old, during his appointment as pastor of Chariton Methodist Episcopal Church in Iowa (1866-68), Bresee had a great passion to see people accept Jesus as Savior. A layperson by the name of Fred Harris, who himself would later become a Methodist minister, left behind memoirs that give us valuable insight into Bresee’s passion for lost souls. Harris writes that Bresee “had a great passion for soul-saving and no Sunday’s work seemed to satisfy him unless he had the joy of seeing some one saved.” On “many a Sunday evening,” he would go “into his room alone, would prostrate himself before God in humiliation and sorrow because souls had not been saved.”1
The passion for evangelism intensified as his ministry progressed. More than a decade later, in 1881, during the second Methodist Episcopal Iowa State Convention held in Des Moines, Bresee delivered an address on “The PastoralOffice.” After being careful to note the ultimate source of power as the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the agent, he claimed that the first calling of a pastor was to the work of “an evangelist,” ministering in
that large borderland where the Church and the world meet and mingle, where those who are not Christians, yet permeated largely with Christian thought and Christian principles, sit in our sanctuaries and abide in our homes, and when just outside of this circle there are large numbers almost under the shadow of our church who are devoid of all Christian life.²
The church and the pastor have their first responsibility there, he said.
The pastor must always be evangelistic. It would seem to be a poor ministry of thegospel of Jesus Christ that was not an evangel to unsaved men. It would seem a very barren ministry that gathered no souls to the crop.³
The matter of saving souls was something for which the pastor must take responsibility: “And no special evangelist can take the place or do this work for the pastor.”⁴
Even though evangelism was the first priority for the pastor, Bresee was clear that “this is not a priestly or ministerial office.” And, although the church sanctuary was a place were people should be urged through preaching to accept the gift of salvation, he also urged all Christians to go out into
the highways and hedges . . . the places where there are those who have not heard or who have not been pressed with the privileges of the gospel. Weare to go to them with the gospel of holiness and constrain them by love and kindness. There is work for all in this mission of mercy.⁵
Later, Bresee would implore, "You— brother, sister—are the connecting link by which the living wire is to be connected to the dead soul. "⁶
If people are to be reached, they must be sought outside of religious assemblies. They are at the beaches, at places of amusement and entertainment, or finding recreation in the mountains, while not a few are in places of dissipation. No doubt many of those are within reach of personal influence and unless somebody goes out into the highways where they are, and insome sense compels them to come in, they will never hear.⁷
Although Bresee’s pastoral ministry typically resulted in many conversions and yearly gains in church membership, his most significant emphasis on evangelism followed what has been described as his mystical “ball of fire” experience, in which he received a fresh infilling and power for the great work still to follow. As he reflected on the experience to E. A. Girvin, he reminisced about his ministry at Fort Street Methodist Episcopal Church after this special anointing in early 1885:
I have never gotten over it, and I have said very little relative to this; but there came into my ministry a new element of spiritual life and power . . . there were more persons converted; and thelast year of my ministry in that church was more consecutively successful, being crowned by an almost constant revival. When the third year came to a close, the church had been nearly doubled in membership, and in every way built up.8
This renewal of passion for the lost spilled over into his next ministry in the newly formed boomtown of Pasadena, California. He reported to the 13th Annual Session of the Southern California Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1888: “The spiritual condition of our work is very gratifying; more than four hundred conversions reported during the year. . . . From a membership of 1,072 we have increased to more than 1,700.”9
Bresee carried this passion for lost souls into the formation of his new denomination: the Church of the Nazarene. On October 30, 1895, the local church minutes reflect the Articles of Faith and General Rules established during the organization of the First Church of the Nazarene in Los Angeles. The first responsibility articulated is evangelism: “Feeling clearly called of God to the carrying on of His work in the conversion of sinners . . . . This work we aim to do through the agency of city missions, evangelistic services, house-tohouse visitation, caring for the poor, comforting the dying. To this end we strive personally to walk with God and to incite others so to do.”10
Eight years following the organization of Los Angeles First Church, the congregation moved into its first permanent home. On March 22, 1903, a dedication service was held. The service progressed as one might expect, until
Brother Joseph Jamison led in prayer, in conjunction with which the heavens opened and the presence of the Master was peculiarly manifest. The regular offering forthe work of the church was made. Just as the sermon was about to begin, a weeping man came to the altar asking for prayers that he might be saved. It seemed to strongly emphasize the fact that the one great thing here is not preaching, or singing, or giving, but salvation. For that, all things must wait. It was but a few minutes of prayer until the penitent man heard the voice of God, "Thy sins are all forgiven thee." And he sat beside the altar to hear the word of life.11
In a Nazarene Messenger article from 1910, Bresee exhorts: “The Pastor is a soul winner. Not by a spasmodic effort, but by all kinds of methods—preaching the Word of Life, individual effort, bringing personal influence to bear on family life, leading the children as well as the older ones to the feet of Jesus.”1²
Throughout Bresee’s entire ministry, his urging of Christians to continue and grow in evangelism effectiveness never lessoned in intensity. The year before his death, in 1914, Bresee wrote a letter to L. E. Gratton who was seeking his help in securing a pastorate. Part of Bresee’s advice is striking in its imagery: “Make of yourself a real Bible student, and while you are doing this scratch gravel to save men. Get heaven down—burn with the fire of the Mount of Transfiguration. Make the garden patch where you labor the most productive because of the most intense farming that there is in the country.”1³
One hundred years have passed since the death of Phineas F. Bresee; 100 years since the church he founded has heard his voice pleading for the souls of lost people; 100 years since the passion and love of his soul impressed evangelism upon the Church. Bresee asked a series of questions of his previous denomination 100 years after the death of its founder, John Wesley. These are the same questions that we must answer today as we approach this 100th anniversary of Bresee’s death:
Why is it that churches grow old and break down? Is it that thedivine power is failing? Are the Everlasting Arms growing weary? Is it that which God would do in the past He is unwilling to do now? Or is it rather that the divine power is wasted and lost in the human machinery, through which the world tries to make it act? Is the ecclesiastical wheelwork becoming so multiplied and so complicated that the motive power has no chance to accomplish results? Is the Church aiming too much to become an educational and social power and forgetting to go out with Christ to the highways and byways of life?1⁴
STAN REEDER serves as the Superintendent of the Oregon Pacific District.
2. Ibid., 114.
4. Ibid., 115.
5. C. J. Kinne, Soul Food for Today: From the Writings of P. F. Bresee, (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1995).
6. Harold Ivan Smith, The Quotable Bresee, Beacon Hill (Kansas City:Press of Kansas City, 1983), 202.
8. E. A. Girvin, Phineas F. Bresee: A Prince in Israel (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1916), 83.
9. Donald P. Brickley, Man of the Morning: The Life and Work of Phineas F. Bresee (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1960), 99.
10. Ibid., 137.
11. Ibid., 151.
12. Harold Ivan Smith, 158.
13. Ibid., 197.
14. Harold Ivan Smith, The Quotable Bresee (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1983), 90. This quote is originally from a publication entitled The Preacher.