When looking at differences, we want to be careful not to overstate them and to be clear about why Christians believed or practiced as they did. In other words, why did they feel this or that issue was important? We try to understand our fellow Christians in ages past, which is a sufficient cause to do our work. Yet, we also hope that this will aid us in understanding ourselves and our fellow Christians in the present.
How might we classify the Church of the Nazarene? At the simplest or broadest level, Nazarenesare Christians. Second, Nazarenes are part of the very large family of Protestant Christian churches. More specifically, we are evangelical Protestants; much of Nazarene identity, historically and presently, is a shared identity with evangelical Christians through the ages and around the world.1 Among evangelical Protestants, we are Wesleyan evangelicals. That is, we belong to the family of churches that look to John and Charles Wesley and the evangelical revival in England as a historic marker of who we are. It is at this level of specificity—that Nazarenes are evangelical Wesleyans—that we come up against a key problem in our self-understanding and especially in our terminology. Historically, there is another word for a church that is: 1) Protestant, 2) Evangelical, and 3) Wesleyan. It is a word Nazarenes rarely use. That word is Methodist.
Why do we not use “Methodist” as a description of who we are? Many, perhaps even most, followersof Wesley in Britain and America (and in much of the world) have and still call themselves Methodists. I think this is largely because we have preferred to label ourselves a Holiness church and have most often done this precisely to distinguish ourselves from mainline Methodism, which rejected the emphases of the Holiness Movement.
Let us be candid. Nazarenes have a strained relationship with mainline Methodism. Much of how we understand ourselves has been specifically in comparison to Methodism. However, while we describe ourselves as evangelical, Wesleyan, and Holiness, we may be missing an opportunity to think more clearly about how we came to be and much of the historic thrust of Nazarene mission and identity. Within the family of Christian churches, we are best understood as a dissenting church within the Methodist tradition. That is, we are within the Methodist family; within it, we have disagreed or dissented from the eventual emphases of “mainline” Methodism (the Methodist Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and now, the United Methodist Church).
WE TRY TO UNDERSTAND OUR FELLOW CHRISTIANS IN AGES PAST, WHICH IS A SUFFICIENT CAUSE TO DO OUR WORK. YET, WE ALSO HOPE THAT THIS WILL AID US IN UNDERSTANDING OURSELVES AND OUR FELLOW CHRISTIANS IN THE PRESENT.
We are not the dissenting wing; we are not alone in disagreeing. For example, we have common (and largely unexplored) dissenters’ ground with the African- American Methodist Churches and an especially close family resemblance to the Wesleyan Church and the Free Methodist Church as fellow Holiness dissenting churches within the Methodist tradition/family. There is a long history of intra-Methodist dissent, marked not only by the debates within mainline Methodism but also by the list of churches that have “come out” of mainline Methodism, seeking to be more Methodist than the mainline Methodists were.
We see this clearly in Phineas F. Bresee, first general superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene, and B. F. Haynes, first editor of the Herald of Holiness. Bresee and Haynes did not reject Methodism. From 1857 to 1894, Bresee was a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church (37 years). From 1873 to 1911, Haynes was a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (38 years). They did not reject the Methodism deep in their bones! Rather, they believed that the Church of the Nazarene was to be what mainline Methodism said it was and had been but was no longer.
Nazarene origins are best located in disagreementsthat were internal to Methodism. If Nazarenes by the early 1900s could no longer affirm the main thrust of Methodism in America, they could still find historical and current models of piety within it. Beyond John and Charles Wesley, few would have doubted the piety of Bishop Francis Asbury, E. M. Bounds, or E. Stanley Jones, who lived and died as Methodists. Nazarenes then and now have known and have worked with dissenting Methodists who remained within the mainline Methodist world. It is ironic then—with Nazarenes setting out to be more Methodist than the mainline Methodists—that we today often seem unable or unwilling to understand ourselves as members of the broad Methodist family. Nazarene doctrine has clearly been shaped by Methodist doctrine, and it is here that the word “Wesleyan” is a most appropriate descriptor of Nazarene identity. From prevenient grace to universal atonement to Christian perfection, our doctrine has been thoroughly steeped in Wesleyan and/or Methodist beliefs (including those of the Holiness Movement, which were obviously steeped in 19th-century Methodism). Much has been written about the Nazarene church’s Wesleyan theology, and rightly so.
In polity and mission, however, the Methodist family resemblances are both especially strong and widely unacknowledged. It has been commonplace to describe Nazarene polity as a blending of episcopal and congregational polities. This is misleading and, in the former case, imprecise if not simply inaccurate. Nazarene polity is, at base and most fundamentally, a Methodist polity. It is modified with certain specific congregational elements, most particularly in the call of a pastor and corresponding lack of appointment and in itinerancy.
Yet our superintendency or episcopacy is very Methodist and in certain ways more Methodist than that of the United Methodist Church today.² We have itinerant general superintendents who are elected by the general assembly, travel throughout the church, and preside throughout the church. We do not have diocesan episcopacy (where bishops are elected by a specific area and only preside/travel in that set area like, for example, the Episcopal Church). We balance lay and clergy representation in decision-making bodies. We meet quadrennially at the general level (from 1928 to 1980 we met in the same years the as the mainline Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church). We meet annually at the district level (Nazarene districts combinethe functions of United Methodist districts and annual conferences).
There is a Wesleyan/Methodist tradition of polity and ministry, not just a Wesleyan/ Methodist tradition of doctrine. Instead of a fusion of episcopal and congregational polities, I believe a more accurate characterization of our fusion is that Nazarenes are basically Methodist in polity but decidedly more “free church” and democratic in sentiment and culture. This fits most of the dissenting groups in Methodist history that modified their polity to be more open and less autocratic than mainline Methodism (e.g., the Methodist Protestant Church, The Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church, and even the Evangelical United Brethren). Mainline Methodism elects its bishops for life; Nazarene general superintendents serve terms, face reelection, and have age limits to their service, each being a “free church” and democratic amendment to what is basically Methodist polity.
Early Nazarenes were attempting to recreate the best features of “primitive” or early Methodism itself: the emphases on evangelism, sanctification, a mobile clergy and superintendency, and high moral standards. They left behind those parts of Methodism, as it was then, that they did not favor: worldliness, bishops who mistreated clergy they disliked through the appointment system, rejection of Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification, and so on. Early Nazarenes were attempting to “get it right” through what Bresee called “organized holiness.” This encouraged and required ongoing discussion, largely carried out through the pages of the denominational magazine, the Herald of Holiness. The passion and zeal of early Nazarenes was precisely for this sanctified conference, for this more “Methodist” Methodism.
Methodism has a long tradition of members who feared that Methodists were declining in spiritual power, had lost their way, and needed to get back to the piety of their former days. In Methodist history, such people are called “croakers.”³ Nazarenes are inheritors of this tradition. We should not be surprised when we find Nazarenes making this same argument today— that Nazarenes have lost our way and need to get back to the piety of former days. This is a family resemblance of Methodism (and Protestantism in general).
We Nazarenes have this in our blood. We are idealists. We want a holy church. We want our church to be all it should be. In so many of our debates with each other, everyone in the debate is arguing that we should live up to high ideals—wejust disagree on what that looks like or how to get there.
That too is not surprising—at least not to a church historian! A church committed to high ideals and a big mission is more likely to have arguments than one that has little idealism or missional commitment. We are a church of idealists born of a Methodist tradition that grew rapidly and spread the gospel around the world—all while it was arguing vigorously with itself! We are best understood as a dissenting church within the Methodist tradition. We may be more than this, but we are not less. In this, we are not now, nor have we been, alone. There are many living witnesses among us to this tradition and there are many in other churches as well. Moreover, there are a great host of witnesses to this who have gone on to their reward, one Phineas Bresee among them.
ANDREW J. WOOD is former Lecturer in Wesleyan Studies and Church History at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
2. United Methodists now elect their bishops only by “jurisdiction”—similar to Nazarene regions—and those bishops only travel and preside within that jurisdiction. Methodism before 1939 had itinerant general superintendency that the Church of the Nazarene maintains. Most Methodist churches (e.g., the AME church) have largely stayed with the itinerant general superintendency theory of episcopacy inherited from pre-1939 mainline Methodism.
3. John H. Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in American (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 181. Wigger says, “So common were complaints about American Methodism’s lost zeal that dissidents become known by the widely recognized label of ‘croakers.’” He goes onto say, “Methodist croakers were troubled by the conviction that amid Methodism’s great success, ‘we have become a people very different from our Fathers . . . we have fallen from their exemplary piety and virtue, and from their regard to God.’”