In 1866, American Methodists celebrated the centennial of their church. Methodist historians and popular orators shared stirring accounts of a century of spiritual vitality and expansive growth that had made Methodism by far the largest and most widespread Protestant movement in the United States.
In many parts of the United States, Methodism was still in expansion mode. One such place was Iowa, literally part of the American frontier at the time. Iowa’s population had swelled from less than 200,000 people in 1850 to almost 700,000 by 1860. Methodism had moved in with the first settlers, had quickly established itself as the largest Protestant denomination in the state, and continued to grow rapidly. Many Iowa Methodist preachers lived the life of the famous Methodist “circuit riders” of the preceding century: They rode on horseback or in horse-drawn wagons from settlement to settlement and farm to farm, conducting worship and offering what pastoral care they could during their brief, periodic visits. These traveling circuit preachers were still a familiar part of the Iowa Methodist landscape in 1866.
Not all Methodist preachers in Iowa, however, were riding circuits at the time of the centennial. Many were settling into town and city pastorates where they had care of only one congregation. Some congregations were becoming large and affluent enough to support a full-time minister and to build and maintain permanent church buildings. In addition, Iowa Methodists were turning their attention to future needs of the church, especially clerical and lay education. In 1866, they reorganized a small Methodist school at Indianola into Simpson Centenary College (so named for Bishop Matthew Simpson [1811-84] and the centennial of Methodism) and began a concerted effort to make it a viable liberal arts institution.
Prominent in Methodism in Iowa in 1866 was a young minister: Phineas Franklin Bresee (1838–1915).1 Bresee had moved to Iowa with his family in 1857 when he was 18 years old and within months had become a Methodist preacher, assisting an older colleague on a “four week circuit” (i.e., it took four weeks to visit all the “preaching points” on the circuit, which included schoolhouses, farmhouses, and at least one log cabin). Bresee had been converted to Christianity in a Methodist “class meeting” in his hometown in Franklin County, New York, just a few years earlier.
Bresee began his ministry as the circuit “evangelist” with special responsibility for conducting periodic “protracted meetings” or “revival campaigns” across the circuit. Bresee quickly developed skill as a revival preacher and became convinced at the very outset of his ministerial career that frequent revivals were necessary for the health of every congregation.
Bresee’s trajectory through 19th-century Methodism and on into independent holiness work illuminates some of the central tensions, transitions, and challenges affecting American Methodism at the end of its first century.
In 1858, after one year as an assistant preacher, Bresee was given his first solo circuit. After serving with notable success in this and two subsequent circuits and traveling constantly, Bresee was appointed in 1862 (he was only 23 years old at the time) to one of the two Methodist congregations in Des Moines, a congregation that had a permanent building and a parsonage to house their pastor. Bresee’s work for two years in Des Moines earned him an appointment as presiding elder—a district superintendent—over a group of churches and preachers. This was definitely a promotion for the young Bresee, but the new work demanded almost continuous travel by horse and buggy over prairie expanses visiting the churches and preachers under his care. The hard travel and heavy responsibility wore on Bresee, and after two years he requested to be reassigned as a pastor. He was relieved of his duties as presiding elder in 1866 and appointed as pastor at Chariton, Iowa.
Following his success in Chariton, Bresee advanced regularly to pastor a series of larger and more prestigious congregations over the next 17 years. Thus, Bresee packed much of the story of American Methodism’s first century into his own biography. Bresee was steeped in “frontier Methodism” and revivalism. He had literally been born in a log cabin in western New York State and was raised in New York in a Methodist church that had been planted in his community barely 15 years prior to his birth. His earliest experience of Methodism involved itinerant preachers, outdoor meetings, fervent preaching, and informal, revivalistic worship. Moving from New York to Iowa in 1857, Bresee found the same familiar frontier form of Methodism, but it was moving into a building and consolidating mode. Church buildings needed to be built, Methodist schools needed to be established, and Methodist publications were required to promote the church and to rally and encourage the Methodist faithful. Bresee poured himself into all of this work for 26 years (1857-83).
Bresee’s personal biography took a distinctive and fateful turn, however, in that centennial year of American Methodism. Bresee was experiencing considerable personal distress at the time. The exact nature of this distress is not completely clear, but Bresee had struggled through several very challenging ministerial assignments in the years before going to Chariton, and the Chariton congregation, although relatively large and affluent, was quite contentious. Bresee said that about a quarter of the congregation was always angry with him for something, “but not the same quarter, as they took turns.”² Also, Bresee had used his travel time during his work as presiding elder to read widely and had apparently encountered authors and ideas that unsettled him and challenged his Christian faith.
We can probably assume that Bresee went to Chariton more or less “burned out” in body and spirit. He was steadily climbing the ladder of ecclesiastical “success.” He was working extraordinarily hard to “make things go.” But at the same time, he was wrestling with personal issues, including intellectual doubts, and a sometimes combative congregation. Many years later, Bresee recalled of this time in his life: “I had a big load of carnality on hand always,” which “had taken the form of anger, and pride, and worldly ambition.” He also remembered that, “at last, however, it took the form of doubt . . . it seemed that I doubted everything.”³
All of these things came together in the early months of Bresee’s pastorate at Chariton to provoke a personal crisis in his life. This came to a head in a protracted (revival) meeting during Bresee’s first winter there (winter of 1866-67). Bresee was himself serving as the evangelist (a typical Bresee practice). It was a bleak, snowy night. The crowd was small, but Bresee preached fervently, and urged seekers to the mourner’s bench. No one responded, even though Bresee moved among the congregation, personally inviting people to pray (another typical Bresee practice). Then suddenly, Bresee later declared, “In some way it seemed to me that this was my time, and I threw myself down across the altar and began to pray for myself.” As a result, Bresee claimed that he experienced a fresh empowering of divine grace that resolved his various personal and professional struggles. Bresee in later years referred to this experience as his “baptism with the Holy Ghost,” in which “the Lord gave him more grace, liberty, and blessing in every way.”⁴ The importance of this experience is twofold: first, it occurred at a critical point in the history of American Methodism, and second, it was the initial step for Phineas Bresee down a road that would eventually lead him out of mainstream Methodism and into his role as founder of a new denomination.
As the centennial year of American Methodism, 1866 was a time when American Methodists recalled their past, reflected on what their movement had been and what it had become, and contemplated its future shape. Not coincidentally, in the summer of 1867, just after the centennial year, the first distinctively holiness camp meeting was held in the Methodist village of Vineland, New Jersey, organized, conducted, and attended mainly by Methodist ministers and laypeople. The special purpose of this camp meeting was to revive “the work of holiness in the Church” by helping Christian believers to “realize a Pentecostal baptism of the Holy Ghost.”⁵ At the close of this meeting, the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness (later Christian Holiness Association) was organized.
The Vineland holiness camp meeting and the National Camp Meeting Association marked the crystallization of a movement that had been building within American Methodism since at least the 1830s. This Holiness Movement (whose most widely recognized leader was Methodist layperson Phoebe Palmer) had as its objective the preservation and propagation of the historic Wesleyan-Methodist doctrine of Christian Perfection. Supporters of this movement feared that this distinctive Wesleyan-Methodist doctrine and the life of earnest, simple holiness that it entailed were in danger of being neglected as Methodism in the United States grew rapidly in membership, expanded geographically, and became more affluent and worldly. Holiness people saw the defining thread of Methodist history as the doctrine and life of Christian perfection and dedicated themselves to keeping this at the center of Methodism’s identity in the future.⁶
Between 1867 and 1883, Bresee continued to serve as a Methodist minister in Iowa. He apparently continued to enjoy the blessing of the “baptism with the Holy Ghost,” and continued to occupy prominent ministerial roles, but he gave no indication whatsoever of supporting the “organized holiness” work that was rapidly spreading across the United States during these years.
In 1883, however, Bresee moved with his family from Iowa to Southern California and over the next few years was appointed pastor of a series of large, prominent Methodist congregations. It was in the first of these, Fort Street Church in Los Angeles (also called “Old First Church”), that Bresee seems to have first encountered people fervent about organized holiness and began to be drawn by them into the Holiness Movement. By the time Bresee moved on to his next pastoral assignment, he had fully thrown in his lot with organized holiness and was on his way to becoming its chief spokesperson in Southern California. Less than 10 years later (1894), Bresee withdrew from the Methodism that he had served so notably for 37 years to engage in fulltime independent holiness work. In 1895, he organized the first congregation of the Church of the Nazarene.
Baptized with the Holy Ghost, according to Bresee, meant that the Holy Spirit of God is “resident in man,” cleansing the human heart from sin and providing power for service to one’s neighbors.
Bresee’s trajectory through 19th-century Methodism and on into independent holiness work illuminates some of the central tensions, transitions, and challenges affecting American Methodism at the end of its first century. It also helps to illuminate the nature of the American Holiness Movement.
As noted, Bresee was born on the frontier, experienced Methodism in its frontier form, and began his ministry in Iowa under largely frontier conditions. Itinerant ministers, fervent evangelization, frequent camp meetings and protracted meetings, revivalistic forms of worship, heartfelt religion, and simple piety were the chief elements of frontier Methodism. Bresee learned all this early and would value these elements as essential to authentic Christianity for the rest of his life. However, in Iowa, Bresee also experienced a Methodism transitioning from youthful movement to a more settled denomination. Iowa Methodism was consolidating its gains—publishing religious literature, building permanent church buildings, establishing colleges, and otherwise creating the necessary structures of denominational life. Bresee appears to have also embraced these aspects of a more settled “institutionalized” church and excelled at leading congregations that largely reflected this side of 19th century Methodism. He also learned and practiced various “institution building” skills that served him well when he later founded and led the Church of the Nazarene.⁷
On the other hand, Bresee became increasingly disillusioned during his 37 years of Methodist ministry with the growing affluence of many Methodists and with a certain spiritual “coldness” and “formality” that he sensed in some congregations. He was also troubled by some of the theological reappraisal taking place in Methodism (and many other American denominations) in the second half of the 19th century. He feared that various forms of “creeping rationalism” were undermining Methodist commitment to traditional Christian orthodoxy.
Bresee’s “baptism with the Holy Ghost” may be seen as a turning point for him in dealing personally with the changing shape of Methodism. This “baptism” (language he apparently did not use until he learned it in the 1880s from the organized Holiness Movement) reinforced Bresee’s sense that authentic religion is heartfelt and experiential. Whatever else a church might be, it must be a place where people experience the presence of God, which finds its expression in Christlike service to others in everyday life. To be “baptized with the Holy Ghost,” according to Bresee, meant that the Holy Spirit of God is “resident in man,” cleansing the human heart from sin and providing power for service to one’s neighbors (“God’s dynamite in the soul”).8
Bresee’s conviction that revivalistic, experiential religion is the essence of authentic Christianity also had implications for his generally negative attitude toward the theological reappraisal taking place in late 19thcentury American Methodism. For Bresee, the felt presence of a supernatural God in a person’s life (and in the life of a congregation) attested to the authority and truth of the Bible as traditionally interpreted. Any approach to the Bible or Christian faith that appeared to undermine their supernatural and divine character was, for Bresee, contradicted by the experience of the “abiding Spirit” alive “in human souls.”
As for the growing affluence of many Methodists in the late 19th century, Bresee first embraced and then rejected this. Throughout his ministry in Iowa, Bresee was quite comfortable with wealth and cultivated close relationships with his more wealthy and influential parishioners. In fact, he seems to have considered himself one of them. For nearly 20 years, he dabbled in business ventures in partnership with a friend, a Methodist preacher turned business speculator. However, it was a disastrously failed business deal with this friend that drove Bresee away from Iowa to Southern California in 1883. After this disaster (and personal embarrassment), Bresee pledged that he would never again dabble in business and would give himself wholly to preaching the gospel.9
From this point on, Bresee became increasingly critical of the new wealth in many Methodist congregations. He also began to emphasize the fact that the earliest Methodism directed itself primarily to the poor and marginalized and that, in fact, the whole tenor of Scripture challenges pretensions of human wealth and power and calls for special care and protection of the poor, widows, orphans, “aliens,” and other marginalized and powerless people. By 1894, Bresee had become so driven by a burden for ministry to the poor that he left Methodism in order to work full-time in a downtown holiness mission in Los Angeles that served the poor. When this arrangement did not work out as he hoped, Bresee organized the Church of the Nazarene to minister “in the neglected quarters of the cities and wherever also may be found waste places” through means of “city missions, evangelistic services, house-to-house visitation, caring for the poor, comforting the dying.”10
Thus, Phineas Bresee’s personal disillusionment with pursuing wealth, his experience of the plight of the poor in an explosively expanding urban area, and his religious experience and the way in which he came to interpret it theologically combined to cause him to become increasingly dissatisfied with the growing affluence of much of late 19th-century Methodism. This, together with his deeply held commitments to a revivalistic, experiential form of Christianity, which he believed was becoming less and less characteristic of Methodism, led him—somewhat unwillingly—out of denominational Methodism and into the role of founder of a new independent holiness church. His vision for the Church of the Nazarene was, “to get back to the primitive simplicity of the New Testament Church in spirit and methods, to be rid of the cumbrous machinery, the worldly methods of money getting, so much of form and ceremony, and to have in their place the Pentecostal baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire.”11 Phineas Bresee believed that this described original Methodism—indeed original Christianity—and it was his intention that the Church of the Nazarene be a faithful embodiment of both.1²
HAROLD RASER is Professor of the History of Christianity at Nazarene Theological Seminary.
Copyright © 2010 by Wipf and Stock Publishers. All rights reserved. This reprint is an edited (by the author) version of the original essay. Used with permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.
2. Girvin, 50.
4. Ibid., 52.
5. Advertising insert entitled “General Camp-Meeting” in The Guide to Holiness, July 1867.
6. The standard accounts of the development of the Holiness Movement are Melvin E. Dieter, The Holiness Revival of the Nineteenth Century (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1980) and Charles E. Jones, Perfectionist Persuasion: the Holiness Movement and American Methodism, 1867–1936 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1974).
7. Bresee was notably active in leadership in Iowa Methodism. He pastored its largest congregations, served as a presiding elder, was a leading member of the board of trustees of Simpson College during its reorganization as a liberal arts institution (his work for Simpson earned him an honorary Doctor of Divinity), served as a conference “visitor” (i.e., trustee) of Garrett Biblical Institute in Evanston, IL, and was editor of the Inland Advocate, one of several regional Methodist papers carrying the Advocate name, among other things.
8. See “To Know Him,” a sermon based on Philippians 3:10-11, in Phineas F. Bresee, The Certainties of Faith: Ten Sermons by the Founder of the Church of the Nazarene (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1958), 86-87. See also “The Atmosphere of the Divine Presence,” a sermon based on Isaiah 33:14 in The Certainties of Faith, 91-95.
9. Noting Bresee’s “executive” abilities, Carl Bangs remarks that Bresee could easily have “been a corporation president.” See Bangs, 99. The nature of the “failed” business venture in which Bresee was involved is not entirely clear. Bresee himself blamed it on bad luck and natural disasters (earthquake and resultant flooding of a silver mine) and this is the story passed along without question by E. A. Girvin, 72-76, Donald Brickley, 82-84, and Timothy L. Smith, 94-95. However, Bangs has dug more deeply into the sources, and as a result paints a more complex, somewhat less savory picture involving fraud—although probably not on the part of Phineas Bresee himself. See Bangs, 97-104.
10. Local Church Minutes, “Meeting of the Congregation,” Los Angeles, October 30, 1895, 3.
11. The Church of the Nazarene (pamphlet), Los Angeles, November, 1895, 3.
12. For an analysis of Bresee’s place among a variety of holiness “come-outers” at the end of the 19th-century see Harold E. Raser, “’Christianizing Christianity:’ The Holiness Movement as a Church, the Church, or No Church at All?” Wesleyan Theological Journal, Vol. 41, No. 1, Spring 2006 116-147.