The Bresee family left all they had known in Iowa and hitched their private rail car to a California-bound train.² Soon after arriving, Bresee received a new church assignment and multiple committee appointments, including the planning of the Holiness camp meeting just getting underway.³
More than 400 people gathered in Long Beach to hear Bresee give the Friday night keynote address at the camp meeting. He opened his sermon with the question: “Behold, we have forsaken all and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?”⁴ The sermon’s title, “No Cross, No Crown,” addressed this question, but also anticipated a deeper challenge. Later, at age 58, Bresee would resign from the security of his life in Methodism to follow his heart’s call to preach the gospel to the poor. He would eventually bring many Holiness people under the large ecclesial tent of the Church of the Nazarene.
Today, Bresee is memorialized for his many pioneering achievements: founding a nationally-organized Holiness church, establishing a church-based university and publishing operation, as well as his enterprising work among the poor. What is not so commonly-known is that Bresee also bore his share of crosses and experienced his share of trials. He began ministry at the bottom of the ecclesial ladder and had to work through many challenging circumstances. He sometimes struggled to feed his family and meet his financial obligations. In his early ministry in Iowa during the Civil War, Bresee experienced strong opposition from Southern sympathizers for preaching against slavery (he was a strong abolitionist). He related that his life was threatened for “preaching the duty of men to uphold the government.”⁵ Later, after rising in prominence, Bresee lost his life savings when a failed mining venture resulted in sudden financial ruin and feelings ofembarrassment.⁶ His support of prohibition in Pasadena, California, prompted the public press to viciously malign him, and his likeness was burned in effigy after delivering a fiery temperance sermon. ⁷ Later, disappointed by close friends and a church system that failed to accommodate his vision, he left his church home, his ministry profession, and was thrust “under the stars.”⁸ Yet, that repository of pain yielded treasure and pearls of wisdom in rarified form. Such trials and tribulations matured and prepared Bresee for the work ahead.9
One of the most prominent themes woven into Bresee’s life and ministry and throughout his sermons is “self-emptying.” The Greek word for self-emptying is kenosis, the same word that Paul used to describe Christ’s humility in the second chapter of Philippians, where Jesus surrenders all of his divine privileges as God and swathes himself in flesh, becoming fully obedient to suffer death on a cross. In a sermon from Matthew 10:39, Bresee describes losing one’s life for the gospel’s sake, which is a form of self-emptying:
He that loseth his life—the word loseth means to leave behind, to forsake, to abandon, to be parted from. He who leaves, forsakes, abandons, is parted from his own life, really finds life. The self-life wrought out by man’s own device, by human invention and skill, centering in and about himself, is a no-life, a real loss of opportunity and possibility; while he who forsakes his own devising, abandons his own interests, leaves behind his own life, finds real and higher life. In this text, we have the highest touchstone, the highest principle, the divinest fact.10
In another sermon, he explained that the baptism of the Holy Spirit “imparts power to the soul,” not for greatness but for emptiness.
Great men and great deeds have little place in the thought of men illuminated by the Holy Ghost. But the power of humility, of gentleness,tenderness, power to be broken-hearted and contrite; . . . the power of being so lost to self, that God can shine. Not the power of genius, or human learning, or eloquence, but the power to be an empty vessel, that God can use to pour the water of life through.11
Bresee’s understanding of selfemptying as integral to holiness grew over the course of his life and crystallized in his later years as he observed how this principle applied to Scripture and to his own spiritual journey.
Not the power of genius, or human learning, or eloquence, but the power to be an empty vessel, that God can use to pour the water of life through. - Phineas Bresee
I love the cause of Christ with an intensity begotten of the fire off heaven’s altar. It drew me from my home in early youth. It has increased and strengthened and become more fervent as the days have gone by. My antagonism to worldliness and formality and earth-seeking becomes more and more intense. My soul looks up to God for heights and depths of anointing such as my earlier ministry knew nothing about.1²
Bresee, who did not disclose much in his sermons, revealed on one occasion how his religious upbringing differed from this later understanding.
People are led to seek for the religion of Jesus Christ where it is not, and seek for that which is not in it. I myself was. . . . I was thus inspired with the conviction that learning was the door-way to, and the great preparation for usefulness. The trend of my religious teaching was self. There was much truth in it, but the Cross was not the center; it did not lead to self-crucifixion and the enthronement of the Christ.1³
Bresee later wrote that, “God’s great call is not to usefulness, it is unto holiness.”¹⁴ So what accounts for this change? It was not an intellectual exercise in theology but a profound encounter with a holy God.
In 1866, on a blustery winter night in Chariton, Iowa, Bresee said, “I threw myself down across the altar” because “my religion did not meet my needs.”¹⁵ Buffeted by waves of disgruntled parishioners and barraged by storms clouds of doubt, Bresee “prayed and cried to the Lord.”¹⁶ God met his need, and he received “the baptism with the Holy Ghost.”¹⁷ In his words, the experience “took away my tendencies to worldliness, anger and pride, but it also removed the doubt.”¹8 Bresee later described this experience as his entire sanctification.
After this experience, God blessed Bresee’s ministry in Iowa, and Bresee continued to rise through the Methodist ranks. Yet, this act of self-surrender established a habit of self-emptying that safe-guarded his heart amidst crisis generated by two life-changing events: A destructive storm blew away his hopes for a church-planting enterprise in an underdeveloped area of Council Bluffs, and a deluge of subterranean river water rushed into the Mexican silver mines where Bresee’s investments were “for all practical purposes destroyed in an hour.”19
H. D. Brown, a Bresee associate, observed that had Bresee’s “wealth not taken wings, he would have continued a Methodist preacher in Iowa to the close of his life”²0 but that “God . . . knewhow to uproot, and still protect, His man.”²¹ Bresee offered another perspective:
I felt some degree of embarrassment at the thought of remaining in a country where I was supposed to be wealthy, when, in fact, I was very poor. Hence I deemed it best to take a transfer to some distant Conference. I formed the firm conviction . . . that I would never more attempt to make money, but would give the remainder of my life . . . to the direct preaching of the Word of God.²²
By divesting him of his wealth and position, God fashioned Bresee's life to fit the mission of preaching holiness to the poor. Bresee wrote later, “There is in the soul that God anoints the very elements of the commission inwrought in the very being. No one can really go unless he is the embodiment of the commission itself.”²³
Bresee soon learned that self-emptying is only the first act of a two-part drama, the precursor of dying that leads to rising, of travail that turns to triumph. The rising action that follows selfemptying is the exaltation that God bestows on his faithful Son and other servants who follow him to the cross. However, exaltation is not automatic. Unlike salvation and sanctification, which are free gifts in Christ, Bresee wrote, “Exaltation in the kingdom of God is not a gift; it is won.”²⁴ “The mind of Christ is the new way to glory—the way of humiliation, of shame, of burden bearing, of suffering, making ones’ self of no reputation. . . . Counting all earth with its honors and riches but dung that we may win Christ and know Him in the fellowship of His sufferings and the power of His resurrection.”²⁵
Perhaps when Bresee preached at the holiness camp meeting in 1885, he may have thought he was in his second act: that what he had lost in the first act would now be restored, that the warm reception into the conference would be the rising tide to lift him out of chaos onto shore. God would do more in Bresee’s life than turn the tables; He would lift his servant’s gaze to new heights of glory.
On one cool evening in 1885, after much seeking and prayer, in what Bresee had referred to as “the greatest experience of his life,”²⁶ his eyes were opened to perceive an “indescribable ball of condensed light” descend from the sky accompanied by a voice instructing him to “Swallow this.” When he tried to obey, he felt a burning sensation on his lips that lasted for days. Afterward, Bresee reported, “There came with it into my heart and being, a transformed condition of life and blessing and unction and glory, which I had never known before”²⁷ and “There came into my ministry a new element of spiritual life and power.”²8
Bresee’s visionary encounter strengthened him to endure the greatest trial of his life of losing his place within Methodism and for the pioneering efforts that followed.
Many of us have gone forth as Isaiah went, with our souls filled with the heavenly vision, and with the precious touch of the live coal on our lips; feeling, I have fire enough in my bosom to burn up the sins of the world, and light enough to shine away the darkness, and triumph enough to break down opposition and prejudice, and to capture the strongholds and bring them into captivity to Jesus Christ.²9
It does come true that these men who are despised and persecuted, and who have left the world and have the divine passion buring in them are the men who move the world. - Phineas Bresee
And yet, Bresee encountered among Southern California Methodists an increasing hostility toward holiness as well as resentment among “Come outers,” those who had left Methodism, toward those who had stayed in. The more he poured out love and prayers, and tears and testimonies upon them, the more it only fortified their defenses.³0 In a poignant testimony, Bresee disclosed how he suffered brokenness and betrayals by those he had once held close.
How often have I for a moment grown sick at heart and faint of spirit. The very ones I thought would stand closest to me, and by their confidence, prayers, and testimony, by their unworldliness and faith help to scale the walls, or shout the victory until the walls would fall down, have turned away, grown formal, or have driven their arrows through my soul until my spirit has quivered with unutterable pain.³¹
One of the formative lessons Bresee learned about self-emptying is that it is the way to holiness. Kenosis leads to theosis, or union with God, whereby one’s nature becomes so completely consumed by holy love that selfish pursuits are superseded by a passionate allegiance to serve a holy God no matter the cost. Holiness for Bresee was more than wholly dying to self; it was becoming fully alive to commune with Christ along the path from suffering to glory. Bresee described this theosis as holiness:
There is a life which is as far above all this [struggle for worldly things] as the heavens are above the earth, a life hid with Christ in God, a life in the pavilion of infinite love under the wings of the Almighty. It is a life in which Christ lives in the heart, and which has holy communion with Him. It is a constant triumphant march through this world. It is a life of loving service and filled with divine joy. One asks, “Are there no trials?” Yes, but He says, “My grace is sufficient.” Is that not enough?³²
Like the apostle Paul, Bresee was notspared suffering or pain but was given heavenly grace that so elevated him to a higher plane, he could testify that “the privilege of bearing reproach for Him, of suffering the loss of all things for Him, of filling up in our lives the measure of His suffering which remains, in order that holiness may be preached and testified to, is the sweetest joy which comes to us under the stars.”³³
The preaching that was to dominate the last years of Bresee’s life illustrates the two-fold dynamic of self-emptying and union with God: He proclaimed, “The kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of divine mystery, where up is down, and down is up’ where the crown is a crown of thorns’ where the glory is bloody sweat; where the throne is a cross’ where the higher you go the deeper down into these things you enter;”³⁴ and “There is such a thing as so standing with Christ and being so filled with his passion that we go deeper down and rise to higher heights of glory . . . .”³⁵ For Bresee, glory awaits just beyond Gethsemane. Jesus is the way; and the way to Jesus is through the self-emptying demands of the cross. While preaching at the Long Beach holiness camp meeting in 1885, Bresee proclaimed: “We must get out of our dignity and get down upon our knees. We want to escape the cross. But no cross, no crown. You cannot get around the cross, you must take it up and bear it for Jesus.”³⁶
If Bresee were alive today, pastors would imitate his methods and multitudes would flock to hear him speak. Yet his success is just part of the story. Bresee’s message for the church today would be much like the one he gave in 1885: “Those who lose their lives that they may find them, find life in the place which God gives them in this universe. It does come true that these men who are despised and persecuted, and who have left the world and have the divine passion burning in them are the men who move the world.”³⁷
Bresee’s life inspired a movement because God moved him from death to life. His life marked history because the Holy Ghost had first conformed his life to his message of preaching holiness to the poor. Bresee faithfully bore the stigma of reproach; and in displacement, his testimony grew stronger and more powerful. Because Phineas Bresee embraced the cross as he followed his Lord, this “Prince in Israel” entered glory to receive the crown of life. No cross, no crown!
JULIE C. BEST has served the Church of the Nazarene as a pastor on the L.A. District and as a missionary-teacher in Europe. She is currently working on her Ph.D. in Practical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.
3. Carl Bangs, Phineas F Bresee: His Life in Methodism, the Holiness Movement, and the Church of the Nazarene (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1995), 131-141.
4. Phineas F. Bresee, "No Cross, No Crown," Southern California Quarterly Review Vol. 1, No. 7 (September 1885): 119.
5. Bresee, "Righteousness in Politics," in Sermons on Isaiah (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1926), 63.
6. Smith and Purkiser, 95.
7. E. A. Girvin, Phineas F. Bresee: A Prince in Israel (New York: Garland Publishing Company, 1984), 88. See also H. D. Brown, Personal Memories of the Early Ministry of Dr. Phineas Bresee (Seattle: H. D. Brown, 1930).
8. "The Real Work," Nazarene Messenger Vol. 7, No. 38 (1903): 3.
9. Warren Wiersbe, "Principles Are the Bottom Line," Leadership Vol. 1, No. 1 (1980): 81. As Wiersbe discusses, character shapes ministry, and Bresee’s character was refined by his life experiences, which enabled him to be a true servant leader.
10. Bresee, "Losing and Finding Life," in Sermons from Matthew's Gospel (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1900), 175.
11. Bresee, "Baptism with the Holy Spirit," in The Double Cure, or Echoes from National Camp Meetings (Boston: The Christian Witness Company, 1894), 335.
12. Bresee, "Fidelity Is Better Than Fruit," in Sermons on Isaiah (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1926), 57.
13. Bresee, "The Motive to Endurance," in Sermons (Los Angeles: Nazarene Publising Company, 1903), 85-86.
14. Bresee, "The Rest Giver," in Sermons from Matthew's Gospel, 196.
15. Girvin, 51.
17. Ibid., 52.
19. Ibid., 76.
20. Brown, 31.
22. Girvin, 76.
23. Bresee, "The Gaze into Heaven," in Sermons on Isaiah (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1926), 43.
24. Bresee, "Ambition Versus Humility," in Sermons from Matthew's Gospel (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1900), 219.
25. Bresee, "The Mind of Christ in Us," in Sermons (Los Angeles: Nazarene Publising Company, 1903), 69.
26. Aaron Merritt Hills, Phineas F. Bresee : A Life Sketch (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1930).
27. Girvin, 82.
28. Ibid., 83.
29. Bresee, "Fidelity Is Better Than Fruit," 56-57.
30. Ibid., 57.
32. Bresee, "Losing and Finding Life," 178.
33. Bresee, "The Motive to Endurance," 89.
34. Bresee, "Ambition Versus Humility," 218.
35. Bresee, "Ambition Versus Humility," 220.
36. Bresee, "No Cross, No Crown," 119.
37. Bresee, "Losing and Finding Life," 174.