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Bresee-picShould the sacrificial beginnings of the Church of the Nazarene be celebrated with a banquet? Maybe so. Los Angeles First Church’s precedent for eating together goes clear back to the days of the “Glory Barn,” the simple board tabernacle that preceded the neo-Gothic edifice that was built at 6th and Wall Streets.

 

Families came to church on Sundays, carrying food to share after the morning service. Every Sunday noon was banquet time, with the dinner followed by the afternoon service. That service was also a feast, a spiritual feast, with sacramental bread and the fruit of the vine offered in the Lord’s Supper (first and third Sundays) or the bread and water of the Love Feast (second and fourth Sundays). Food was also distributed to the poor of the congregation and the poor of the city around the church. The Church of the Nazarene began with feasting, fellowship, and feeding the needy.

"Waves of Glory” is much more than a title for a nearly forgotten hymnal.

I have named this meditation “Waves of Glory.” This was my first choice for the title of my biography about Phineas F. Bresee, but the publisher’s marketing study led to the conclusion that this title was unintelligible. Nazarenes of our era, it seems, know almost nothing about waves of glory. I was shocked to learn this. Nothing about waves of glory? Do they not know that was the name of the first Nazarene hymnal? On Sunday morning, Sunday evenings, and Thursday nights, not counting revival meetings, I probably cut my teeth, literally, on Waves of Glory No. 2, on its green cover with the title embossed in gold. (Thursday nights? Yes, early Nazarenes met for Tuesday morning holiness meetings and Thursday night prayer meetings.)

The marketing group apparently did not know of the first Nazarene hymnal. To their eyes, I must seem like the old man that I am. But “waves of glory” is much more than a title for a nearly forgotten hymnal. I want to ask two simple questions. Can there even be Nazarenes without waves of glory? And can Nazarenes have future waves of glory?

The exuberant joy associated with this term can be traced to early Sunday school picnics. Listen to this report from the Nazarene Messenger: “The annual picnic of the First Church Sunday School was enjoyed at Playa Del Rey, on July 23. Several [street] cars loaded with friends conveyed them to the beach, where a pleasant day of boating, bathing, and fishing was enjoyed. A very enthusiastic and spiritual service was led by General Superintendent Reynolds, who gave a brief gospel message, after which a season of testimony was enjoyed and three souls sought the Lord. After this service, two persons were baptized by Dr. Bresee, and soon after the friends returned to the city.”

At another picnic at Terminal Island, Bresee closed the day with a Bible reading and an invitation. The Nazarene Messenger reported: “Two came and were gloriously blest. The glory of the Lord came over the people like the wave of a great ocean.” Waves of glory! It is no coincidence, I think, that when Pacific Nazarenes published their first hymnal two years later, they called it Waves of Glory.

Bresee, so long a Midwesterner, came to California and fell in love with the seashore. He often used the idioms “waves of glory” and “tides of glory.” Perhaps he was still not sure about the difference between a wave and a tide. Nevertheless, this gives me warrant for using the “waves” idiom to make some observations about early Nazarene history.

Those who play at the seashore, from small children splashing in the waves to the surfers who ride the breakers, know that from time to time there is a big wave, one that lifts, threatens, inundates, crashes, alters the beachscape, until everyone knows that was a big one. Would signs of “a big one” be seen in Bresee’s boyhood, in his early life?

“You will be a preacher,” and Bresee could not deny it. He had known that all along.

Bresee told E. A. Girvin, his earliest biographer, about an encounter with Colonel Miller, a neighbor, who asked the lad what he would be when he grew up. Bresee was bashful and would not reply. But Miller said, “You will be a preacher,” and Bresee could not deny it. He had known that all along. As a small boy, he already knew what his life should and would be.

There were other indications. His own father was the old school type who expected a son to work on the farm or in the family business. Until age 12, Bresee took his turn milking cows twice daily. He attended a fine school in Franklin, a prep school aimed at Harvard and Yale, and he made a beginning in Latin and Greek, history and mathematics. But his attendance was sporadic. It was a long daily journey by horseback to the school. When chores piled up, he could not go. Later, when his father sold the farm and bought a general store, it was understood that Bresee, now a teenager, would be the store’s clerk. There was another fine school in nearby Oneonta, but he could only attend it sporadically. The local one room school, right on the Bresee property, did not command his respect. He knew more than the teachers, he told Girvin.

At the time of his conversion, he had a clear understanding of the issue: would he break from the servitude that had been his lot and accept his divine destiny to be a preacher?

Bresee-pic2What word adequately describes this rare quality of Bresee’s seriousness and decisiveness? A recent writer suggests the Latin term gravitas. It is a quality of weight, of seriousness, of intensity, a force that impels to a destination. It is evidenced at any age. The infant who knows to smile at loved ones, the boy or girl who does not give way to incessant triviality, and the young person who understands the seriousness of the delights of love and affection. In Bresee’s case, it was the preacher who is oblivious to career advancement but who is given totally to proclaiming the gospel.

There is another way to get at his gravitas. In the many historical records that I researched, Bresee was always at home when I called on him (which is, after all, what a historian does). He was always there, never evasive or lost in abstractions and distractions. He lived in the present tense. He was present to God, present to family, present to parishioners, present to fellow clergy, present to the public and religious issues of his day. Bresee was present to a world in transition, present to people who were in need and pain. With joyful gravitas, he was seldom absent.

A wave was building inside Bresee throughout his life. It was building in the circuit rider with no parsonage whose circuit touched a long string of settlements on the Iowa frontier. It was building in the pastor who fearlessly defended the Union to his congregation of Southern sympathizers, and in the man who, at an early age, became a presiding elder in Winterset, Iowa. It was building in the youngest Iowa delegate to General Conference and in the pastor who enlarged or replaced the building at almost every church to which he was appointed. It was building in the entrepreneur who hoped to remedy the preachers’ pension program with financial speculation from Mexican mines. It was building in the collaborator in the land development of the southwest section of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and in the pastor of Southern California’s largest churches, the early defender of Methodism against the “come outer” holiness people. It was building in the Pasadena pastor who took in a thousand new members and had to build a tabernacle alongside the church to accommodate the crowds. It was building in the visionary who helped instigate Simpson Tabernacle, the largest church on the west coast with 2,500 seats (all ventilated!). It was building in the Southern California presiding elder who finished a year’s worth of bureaucratic paper work in three months so he could give the remaining nine months of his year to evangelism. And this building wave gave him the honor of being elected as the first ministerial delegate to the General Conference in 1892. The Methodists had a great man in their midst, and he should be remembered by them and by us.

He lived in the present tense. He was present to God, present to family, present to parishioners, present to fellow clergy, present to the public and religious issues of his day.

There can be no doubt a mighty swell was forming on the ecclesiastical sea in the mind and heart and commitment of Bresee. How would it develop, and where would it crash in a great wave of glory?

The really gigantic waves are most likely to occur when two waves meet in conflict and combination. So it was in our story. The Church of the Nazarene was not founded by clergy alone but by a wide variety of believing laypeople. Without them, Bresee’s story probably would have moved in conventional patterns: having served the largest Methodist churches, he would begin to move sideways, slow down, and gently retire to engage in hobbies and draw whatever pension there might be for old Methodist preachers.

But our story turns on the fact that, in Los Angeles, at the Fort Street Methodist Episcopal Church, there were members who had experienced the joy of the sanctifying Holy Spirit. Bresee had believed the doctrine and professed the experience. Now he was reinforced by a company of believers who challenged him to be clear in his message and life and accept burdens of leadership far more onerous than even those in the large churches he had served.

To this end, we should honor not only the founder but also the founders of the new church. We must not make too much of the charter members. Some did not last, and there is no definite list or total. There were around 100, probably. But let me mention some of those whom I knew.

At the Simpson Tabernacle, one of the Epworth League members was a young woman, Emma Stine. She became a Nazarene in Los Angeles back at the very beginning. Around 1900, she married Mr. Colborn and moved to Seattle. When Bresee organized a church there, he appointed Sister Colborn, Brother Amon, and Brother Bangs (my father) to be the planning committee. I remember all three of them. Mrs. Colborn was always honored as a charter member of the denomination.

The youngest of the charter members was James Proctor Knott, son of Judge William S. Knott and Mrs. Lucy Knott. J. Proctor Knott was my first church history teacher. His work on the British evangelicals of the Clapham sect, and their wide range of Christian social concerns, had a lasting influence on me. His mother lived down the street from us in Pasadena. She was a lay woman when she became a Nazarene, but she later became a pastor. Bresee ordained her in 1903. The list of early Nazarene lay people is long and impressive. These lay members were part of “the waves of glory” from the very first.

Waves of glory rolled over the beginning of the Church of the Nazarene as Bresee, with magnetic power and presence, and the laity, with holy hearts and sacrificial lives, converged under the blessing of God in Los Angeles in 1895.

But we must ask: “Can there be more waves of glory?” Let me recall a conversation with my father. He had suffered a stroke, and I was about to leave the west coast to go to seminary in Kansas City. We both knew we would never again see each other on earth. Here is one thing he said: “Don’t let them try to tell you about the good old days. I was there. They were days of conflict and hardship. No two people had the same idea about what the Church of the Nazarene should be.”

It is in that observation that we see that waves of glory arise when believers trust God and each other even in the midst of confusion and uncertainty and rivalry and disagreement. If there are to be waves of glory in our time, the price will entail suffering love in the midst of confusion, changing times, and even confrontation.

Bresee brought to those pioneer days the power that had been building up in him—the sanctified gravitas that marked his personal and professional life, something needed again and again in every spiritual movement. The early lay members brought simple faith, inspired courage, and the joy of hearts made pure. The two waves—Bresee and the holy people—converged, boiled, roiled, and swirled. The result was “waves of glory,” not only at Sunday school picnics, but in the church’s corporate life of worship, witnessing, evangelism, education, and social service.

Is there, now, another wave of glory out there, developing inexorably from across the sea and across our borders, about to converge in boiling, confusing, yet joyous encounter with the tide of Nazarene history?

We can see signs of this wave in our cities, where varieties of histories, languages, and races converge, struggling, hoping, sacrificing, and reconciling. And there are many other encounters and potential waves of glory on the horizon. In the midst of this, the church is called to live another round of “good old days,” but apparently suffering and confusion come first.

If the Church of the Nazarene can be led by the Holy Spirit to move with the perfect suffering love that casts out fear, then someone else a century from now will tell others about our good days, when the church was tossed around, turned upside down, and exhilarated again in “Waves of Glory.”

CARL O. BANGS taught at Olivet Nazarene College and St. Paul School of Theology. His books include Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (1971) and Phineas F. Bresee: His Life in Methodism, the Holiness Movement, and the Church of the Nazarene (1995).

NOTE: This article originated as a banquet address on the eve of Los Angeles First Church’s centennial. First published in Grow magazine, it was re-edited for Grace & Peace. Since 1995, the very elements that Bangs identified with “waves of glory” (leaders “with magnetic power and presence” and laity “with holy hearts and sacrificial lives”) have altered Nazarene life. It is witnessed, among other places, in indigenous-led ministries in East Africa, where Nazarene leaders have died as martyrs and yet the church flourishes, and Bangladesh, where 193 pastors were ordained in a single day. Waves of glory, indeed!