It was a new movement he felt was needed to engage society and minister to the needy. In the following edited discussion,* three Nazarene historians met with Grace & Peace Magazine to talk about Bresee’s life, ministry, and vision. The panel included Stan Ingersol, denominational archivist for the Church of the Nazarene; Harold Raser, professor of the history of Christianity at Nazarene Theological Seminary; and Andrew J. Wood, recent lecturer in Wesley Studies at United Theological Seminary. Video of the discussion is available HERE.
Methodist Beginnings: Bresee's Ministry on the Iowa Frontier
INGERSOL: Bresee was very much a product of New York’s Catskill Mountains. He grew up in a stable community. He attended Methodist churches from his boyhood on, and his call to preach emerged within the context of New York Methodism. When he first was conscious of that call, one would have expected him to have become a preacher in New York. He was, after all, a fifth-generation Yankee, but his father decided to pull up stakes and move to the Midwest, specifically Iowa. Phineas was about 18 then. He and his brother-in-law, Giles Cowley (who was married to Bresee's sister, Diantha) worked on a farm for a few months and waited for his parents and sister to join them. In the interim, he attended Methodist class meetings where a “presiding elder” (district superin-tendent) fast-tracked him into the ministry. Bresee assisted in conducting revivals, preaching, and meeting with Sunday school groups and Methodist class meetings. Later, he got his first real appointment out on the Iowa prairies. It was a very different culture than what he had left in New York. By the time Bresee was 25, he was a presiding elder. When he left Iowa in the early 1880s after about 23 years of ministry, he had gone from being a raw, young neophyte pastor to a seasoned and accomplished minister who had served a number of urban churches and been very much involved in church-planting in the Des Moines area.
RASER: I’ve always thought that experience in Iowa gave Bresee his high regard for revivals and revivalism. One of the main things he did as an assistant circuit preacher was to conduct revivals, to function as the district or conference evangelist. He was very effective at holding them. In his pastorates, heoften began with a revival. He believed that a healthy church was one where a revival spirit exists all the time. He took that with him to California and certainly found it useful and important in establishing the Church of the Nazarene in the 1890s.
WOOD: Bresee’s experience was largely typical of Methodist ministers of this era. A number of others who came into the Church of the Nazarene had similar career arcs. However, Iowa provided opportunities the East would not have. Bresee was on more committees (in Iowa) than was typical. Iowa and Los Angeles were growing quickly in those days. When he arrived in California, he had a range of exposure and experience he likely would not have gained if he had stayed in New York.
INGERSOL: If Bresee had stayed in New York, we wouldn’t have had Bresee and there would not have been a Church of the Nazarene. If his father hadn’t decided to move the family to Iowa, Bresee probably would have had a very conventional, New York-oriented career. His father’s decision to move to Iowa initiated the family’s westward migration that eventually resulted in Bresee arriving on the West Coast. Without Iowa, there would have been no California Bresee, and no Church of the Nazarene.
RASER: In Iowa, Bresee gained experience in a number of areas that marked his ministry. He edited a church paper and was involved with institutions of Christian higher education. He was involved in the temperance movement and served on a conference committee on temperance—this became a particular interest and passion of his. He had conflict with some parishioners of Southern background over slavery in Iowa. When he founded the Church of the Nazarene, he held a special concern for marginalized people. Christian higher education was a priority. A publication was established promoting the new church. The move from New York to Iowa and then to California gave him experiences that fitted him to be a founder of a successful movement.
WOOD: Bresee also developed in fundraising. He was quite good at retiring debt and dedicating a new church building. In Iowa and California, new congregations were being started all the time and buildings were being expanded.
INGERSOL: Carl Bangs’ biography of Bresee brought out sharply that in Iowa, Bresee began relying on rich donors to help finance new church structures. This was true, for instance, in Red Oak, Iowa, where they built a new church. Bresee began gravitating toward those who could help financially with new church buildings. In California, J. P. Widney became the financier for Los Angeles First Church of the Nazarene. However, there was a collision of ideals: Widney wanted to build a fine church in Los Angeles, but the people were against it. They actually rejected his offer. They didn’t want to be beholden to a “money man.” They didn’t want to rely on someone else’s surplus but wanted to build out of their own gifts. Widney was certainly surprised, Bangs wrote, but Bresee was probably surprised as well, because his modus operandi suddenly hit a brick wall; those who had been gathered into the Church of the Nazarene had different values.
Growing into Grace: Bresee’s Journey with Holiness and the Holiness Movement
INGERSOL: It’s important to distinguish between the theology of Holiness and the Holiness Movement because what made it the Holiness Movement was the fact it was organized in different ways. You could know and preach the theology of Holiness without being part of the Holiness Movement. However, the Holiness Movement was very distinct. It had its origins in the writings and leadership of Phoebe Palmer (and Harold has written one of the truly great books on Phoebe Palmer’s life1). The National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness, which originated after the Civil War, spurred the Holiness Movement. Holiness camps were held across America sponsored by the National Holiness Association. Bresee was aware of it, but he didn’t become part of the organized movement until he went to California and fell in with a group of dedicated laypeople who were already active members in the Holiness Movement on the West Coast.
RASER: I’ve often been intrigued why Bresee’s involvement with organized Holiness came at such a late stage, considering that he had a profound religious experience in Iowa, an experience he later described as his baptism with the Holy Ghost (sanctification). This was many years before he openly identified with the organized Holiness Movement. So, there may have been a progression in his own thinking about his religious experience, a realization his own experience could be validated or explained by the teaching of the Holiness Movement. In some of his early preaching in Southern California, he preached sermons that critiqued the Holiness Movement. Atfirst, Bresee kept it at arm’s length. A lot of Methodists were in that boat, concerned about the divisive potential of this organized Holiness emphasis.
INGERSOL: Until well into the 20th century, the National Holiness Association (NHA) was firmly in the hands of Methodist loyalists who were careful about excluding discussion on what they called “the church question,” which was whether people should leave the mainline churches and go out and start Holiness sects. The loyalists leading the NHA sought to prevent defections, especially from Methodism. Until the Church of the Nazarene came into existence, Bresee was firmly committed to these goals. After the Church of the Nazarene was organized in Los Angeles in 1895, Bresee’s tie to the NHA understandably became more tenuous.
WOOD: Bresee became increasingly committed to prohibition politics. Holiness advocates were as committed to prohibition politics as other Methodists would have been. They were as committed to evangelistic ministry, to the practices around revival, and to urban missions. This commitment on the part of Holiness folks was most apparent in that when Bresee started having services in Los Angeles, the crowds who showed up most consistently were the Holiness folks. Much of Bresee’s storyline until that point is remarkably conventional. He was very much in the mainstream of Methodism. In Southern California, however, it was the Holiness crowd who rallied to him and his ministry. For Bresee, it was a point of powerful agreement.
INGERSOL: Bangs makes the point that when Bresee was fired from the Peniel Mission, it was the Holiness people who welcomed him as their leader.
The Gift of Persuasion: Bresee’s Leadership Style
INGERSOL: Bresee was not a controlling leader; he was an influencing or enabling leader. He was willing to greet other people as peers and equals and help them achieve their visions. On the merger of different Holiness groups into the Churchof the Nazarene, he let C. W. Ruth, an able organizer, lead. With cross-cultural missions, he let H. F. Reynolds lead. He didn’t feel he had to be in control. Some have a mythic understanding of Bresee as a big shot who was in charge of everything, but that’s not the way he was. I view him as the leader who attracted people of equal strength, and, because he was not a controlling leader, he didn’t repel them. He brought them in and gave them a place in the economy of the early Church of the Nazarene. The influencing leader probably will accomplish more in the long run because of the talent he or she attracts.
WOOD: I think of Bresee as providing a framework through which many others could work and make contributions.
INGERSOL: Bresee was largely self-educated. He went to school, but his formal schooling was slender. However, he was an avid reader. He read geography, history, biography. Out on the Iowa prairies, he read a multi-volume history of the Dutch Republic. He had very wide reading interests. He advised a young minister who could not attend college to read in all these areas, but also to read some popular magazines and some clergy magazines. He said that well-rounded ministers needed to know the social and political currents, and they needed to know the culture, and they also needed to know what was going on in the world of religion. Today, we would call him a lifelong learner, and this all came to bear on his preaching and other aspects of his leadership. It gave him a well of understanding that allowed him to meet and mix with a wide variety of people.
RASER: I also see Bresee as a skilled politician in the best sense of that term. He understood the importance of compromise, not on essential convictions, but on things that could be compromised. That’s what enabled him to be at the center of a movement that brought together different Holiness groups. Bresee was not an ideologue. He had his convictions, and we know the famous maxim that guided him, “Unity in essentials, liberty in nonessentials, charity in all things.” He was skilled at hearing other people, feeling out how rigid they were on these things, and then creating a compromise that everybody could live with. He was very collegial. Not autocratic, not authoritarian, but collegial. You could describe it as a leading from behind. Hearing people out, seeing their vision, and finding a way to make it happen in ways that involved the greatest number of people.
INGERSOL: One of Bresee’s primary contributions to the Church of the Nazarene was the form of government. Different governing styles existed in the groups that eventually merged. The eastern people were congregational, the southern people blended congregational and Presbyterian in elements, and Bresee, in 1904, began adapting Methodist Episcopal forms of church government for the Nazarenes. In this Methodist Episcopal form of government, the role of “general superintendent” was synonymous with that of “bishop.” The bishop in the Methodist system today is described as a general superintendent. The churches that broke from theMethodist Episcopal Church have adapted the Methodist Episcopal system in some form. This includes districts, district superintendents, and the rest. How did Bresee bear the office of general superintendent in an early Nazarene culture that was suspicious of Methodist bishops? Much like B. T. Roberts did in the Free Methodist Church, Bresee redefined the role. Being an influencing leader rather than a controlling leader, Bresee made this office palatable to a wide range of people who were predisposed against it. He placed this office within a more democratic form of Methodism, and those democratic roots run all the way through the Nazarene system—women were allowed to serve on church boards, as delegates to district and general assemblies, as pastors and evangelists and elders. He was able to exemplify a model of leadership that won other people over.
One question Bresee raises for us is: How do we conceive of district and general superintendency today? Do we conceive of the offices primarily as administrative or as pastoral offices? If we got back to first principles, we would understand them as pastoral offices with administrative responsibilities.
Rescue the Perishing: Bresee’s Commitment to the Poor and Needy
RASER: By the time Bresee began the First Church of the Nazarene in Los Angeles, he and the others were committed to ministry to the poor. It’s very clear in all of the founding documents this would be a mark of the Church of the Nazarene. Prior to that, Bresee hadn’t demonstrated much concern for special ministry to the poor. In fact, he made good use of wealthy members of the congregation to fund ministry and cultivated those people so the congregation could benefit from their resources. It’s always been interesting to me how he moved quickly from pastoring large urban churches with upwardly mobile affluent people to founding a movement that says our special passion, mission, and calling is to the poor. I’ve wondered if some powerful crisis experience moved him decisively in that direction.
INGERSOL: I would say that the decision he made didn’t come out of the blue. He was committed to prayer, Scripture, and discernment. As he prayed and read Scripture, he discerned a call that was, in some sense, alien. It came from outside himself. In Iowa, he was a pastor to plain folk. It was the same in California. He had become accustomed to moving between two worlds: the plain folks on one hand, but also the circles of the powerful and wealthy, with state senators and people who were influential in civic life and politics, and with very wealthy people who could be benefactors of new schools like the University of Southern California.
In 1894, he asked to be appointed to the Peniel Mission, an independent ministry in the Los Angeles slums. Methodistleaders wouldn’t do that because it was a non-Methodist appointment. So Bresee asked for special status—which was granted to him—and he spent a year at the Peniel Mission. During that year, he explored a sense of calling to something different from anything he had ever done before. By the end of that year, his call had been confirmed.
WOOD: There’s a lot of conversation among Methodists in that period about the importance of the city, and certainly the sense that cities and the West, and maybe especially western cities, would be the future of the nation. There was a lot of conversation about urbanization—not just the size of the cities, but how rapidly they were gaining as a percentage of the national population. In addition to discernment, Bresee was trying to get it right. What would an ideal church be? What would an ideal minister of the gospel be doing?
INGERSOL: In a fundamental sense, Bresee went back to the basic impulse of Methodism; he was rediscovering John Wesley. In Wesley’s time, there were many religious societies in England. What made the Methodist movement different from all the rest is that the Wesleys took the idea of the religious society and promoted it among the poor. That’s why Methodism became a movement and other religious societies didn’t. When Bresee committed himself to inner-city ministry, he was returning to the original Methodist impulse.
RASER: Bresee encountered a new situation after he moved to Southern California. He saw urban people, poor people, unemployed people, underemployed people, and destitute people. He saw a need in these multitudes. The tendency of many mainline, major denominational churches was to ignore or minimize outreach to urban immigrants. But Bresee believed that this was a providential calling to him and his people. The experience at Peniel Mission was critical. It’s interesting that he partnered with the Peniel Mission in the first place. That passion was something he was already experiencing when he began to move into ministry with them, and he took that with him into the Church of the Nazarene.
WOOD: Urban missions were common in Methodism. What was not common was to allow a single individual to beappointed year after year to urban missions, especially someone as experienced as Bresee. The thought was, “You can do the urban mission thing for a while, but we have large important churches where we need persons of your stature and experience. We can send the young men to the urban mission.” He may have known at that point the bishops simply weren’t going to allow him to stay in that ministry. They would expect him to continue to itinerate, especially in assignments appropriate to his range of experience and talent.
INGERSOL: He could have gone back into the Southern California Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church after Peniel Mission. He had burned no bridges at this point, but he would not have been appointed to another inner-city ministry among the poor because Methodists in Los Angeles didn’t have a ministry like that yet. He could have returned to the familiar, comfortable, and secure.
Pastor to the People: Bresee as Preacher and Worship Leader
INGERSOL: To understand Bresee, you have to understand it wasn’t just the role of the preacher, but the role of the pastor that was fundamental to him. Any other office he held was only an extension of the pastoral role.
RASER: Bresee lived among the people. He was skilled at building relationships, and he knew his people. He exegeted his congregation well. He knew his people’s needs and was able to preach to them in effective ways, to bring the gospel to bear in specific and direct ways.
WOOD: There was tremendous power in his preaching, but he didn’t lead in such a way that there was a lack of control. That combination of great piety and passion contained a sense of order as well.
INGERSOL: Today, after the worship service, the pastor typically goes to the back of the church and greets people as they leave. That was not Bresee’s style. He actually stood in the door and greeted people as they came into the church. He was their host, welcoming them into the sanctuary. After the service wasover, he would go down and stand by the altar. If people wanted to come up and talk to him, they could. But the act of welcoming people to worship says something about how important he thought worship was as a part of pastoral work. Preaching was at the heart of what he did. He was a good preacher, and my guess is this is the reason why Los Angeles First Church grew to be a truly large congregation. It had a membership close to a thousand and an active attendance of 500 or 600. We have a vivid portrayal of his preaching by J. B. Chapman, who described what it was like at Pilot Point, Texas, when the second General Assembly convened there. This was the first look most of the southern people had of Bresee. Chapman states that when Bresee stood and read his text from Isaiah, the sermon that followed was so spellbinding that even those who had regarded him with some suspicion were brought in through the power of his preaching. This is eloquent testimony to Bresee’s ability to preach for the moment and envelop people.
RASER: I’ve been impressed with how closely the descriptions of Bresee’s preaching are to the ideal sermon that Charles G. Finney, the prominent 19th-century evangelist, sets forth in his lectures on revivals and religion. I don’t know if Bresee read Finney’s lectures on revivals, or if he had read other writers on preaching, but Bresee’s preaching met almost all of Finney’s recommendations. Finney said preaching should be conversational. By all accounts, Bresee’s preaching was very conversational. Finney recommended that preachers use a number of illustrations to make their points clear and relevant to the people. Descriptions of Bresee’s preaching say that he preached directly to the people, and those who heard him experienced what many said they experienced with Charles Finney—that it felt as though he were speaking directly “to me.” Bresee had that ability and skill just as Finney had. Finney said preaching should be evangelistic, but it should also bring people to a point of decision, a place where they have to say, “How do I respond to what I’ve just heard? What does this call for me to do?” Accounts of Bresee’s preaching are that this was always a part of it.
WOOD: Bresee had a quarter-century of preaching experience by the time he was 44. He had a long time to hone his skills, to learn what does and does not work with diverse audiences.
INGERSOL: Pastoral authority is built in many different ways, and good preaching helps build it rapidly and strongly. Bad preaching can erode pastoral authority. When it came time for the merger of Holiness churches at Pilot Point, the people of the East Coast were suspicious of superintendents, because superintendency is a form of episcopacy, and they were congregationally-oriented and very anti-episcopal. Part of their willingness to merge with Bresee’s group was his bearing as a general superintendent and his understanding ofthe office as an extension of his pastoral ministry. His ability as a good preacher allayed some fears. He was able to preach Holiness from different angles of vision, using different texts and different understandings.
WOOD: Bresee always set his preaching ministry in the context of a worshiping community. He did not delegate worship leadership to anyone else and then say, “Now it’s time for my part of the service.” He was involved all the way through the service.
INGERSOL: He had a strong, negative reaction to anything in the service that smacked of entertainment. To him, when people gathered to worship, everything was to be directed toward God. There is an account in the Nazarene Messenger where one of the fine voices of Los Angeles was invited to sing one Sunday morning. Just before her song, she leaned over and said, “I’m going to have to leave after I sing, because I’m also singing at another church this morning.” Bresee said, “Well, if you’re not going to stay for the sermon, then you might as well leave right now because you’re not going to sing.” He explained in the Nazarene Messenger that the world is full of entertainers, but in the Church of the Nazarene, you don’t come to be entertained.
WOOD: Bresee refused to pay musicians as a matter of principle. Music would be given as a gift, one of the gifts and graces given by God back to God and to the Christian community, or one wouldn’t be allowed to participate.
INGERSOL: Bresee made it a practice of having Holy Communion on a regular basis, certainly monthly. He also had “love feasts,” an old tradition from the Moravians that had passed into the Methodist tradition. In the love feast not only were bread and water shared, but testimonies as well. In the early years of Los Angeles First Church, they would have Communion one Sunday and a love feast the next.
RASER: Bresee insisted that regular sharing of testimonies was a vital part of worship and a vital part of the formation of the people in the worshiping community. Virtually any gathering of the people was a fit time for sharing of testimonies. They were part of the preaching service and a central part of a love feast. They were a part of prayer meetings or watch night services—especially the New Year’s Eve watch night services his congregation was well known for. The emphasis on the sharing of testimonies, the importance of people verbalizing their experience and other people hearing— that was one of the ways that the glory was “gotten down,” one of his favorite phrases about what ought to happen in worship, “getting the glory down.”
WOOD: The affirming of God’s grace and blessing in someone else’s life broke down barriers of difference, because whateverI may or may not have in common with you, God is at work in your life, and therefore, you are my sister, my brother.
INGERSOL: Another part of worship was baptism. Bresee was very versatile. He would baptize people at any time, anywhere. He baptized one person during a meeting of the church board. Sometimes, when they went to the beach for their annual picnic, he would baptize people in the ocean. Later in life, after the merger of the various Holiness churches, when he travelled across America, he baptized infants at district assemblies. In those early years of the denomination, they would have the infant baptism service and the ordination service in conjunction with one another.
Bresee believed in orderly services. When he talked about “getting the glory down,” it meant that it was the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit. Bresee was very clear this would not happen until after the sermon had been preached. “Getting the glory down” was never a substitute for the preaching of the Word. It must be a response to the preaching of the Word. On one occasion where somebody got up and started getting very emotional while he was preaching, Bresee said, “Brother, sit down. It’s not time for the glory to come yet.” The preaching of the Word was primary, and then the glory could come down.
RASER: The concept of “getting the glory down” has sometimes been understood as unfettered emotionalism—the louder or the wilder, the better. Bresee, by all accounts, didn’t mean that at all. He certainly believed in worship that resulted in free expression. This response might be saying “amen,” it might be a shout or waving a hanky; however, it could mean for some people simply sitting in silence, experiencing and reflecting on the presence of God in the service. It didn’t mean that everybody responded in exactly the same way. It was definitely not for show. In 1906, when the Azusa Street Revival came to national attention, Bresee believed that some of what was going on there, whether intentionally or not, was showmanship. This had become an extravaganza, a demonstration. People came to see these bizarre things happening as a part of worship, as a part supposedly of manifesting the presence of God and the Holy Spirit in that congregation, and Bresee critiqued Azusa Street at exactly that point.
INGERSOL: In the Nazarene Messenger, he called it a “fleshly manifestation.”
WOOD: The primary sign of the presence of God is not chaos. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be demonstrations of emotion and energy, and some of it might not be surprising and amazing. You would expect the presence of God to be jarring at times, but not chaotic.
INGERSOL: Bresee channeled emotion in one way, through music. As far back as the middle of his Iowa ministry, he began introducing what he considered to be more lively songs of gospel music into the life of the congregation. By the Nazarene years, he was deeply committed to gospel music, but he never excluded the old hymns. In fact, if you look at the early songbook, you’ll see there’re a mix of gospel music and hymns. He also wanted the lively music of his day to be very much a part of all the worship services.
The Search for Authentic Christianity: Bresee and the Wesleyan Vision
INGERSOL: Bresee’s indebtedness to Wesley is very important. Not only did his vision of ministry to the poor reflect an early Wesleyan impulse, but Bresee was indebted to Wesley for his theology as well. When you think about the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, or even the Wesleyan tradition more broadly, what makes us all unique are certain beliefs. In the Nazarene Manual, they’re enshrined in Articles 6 through 10, articles that reflect the heart of Wesley’s spiritual theology—articles on atonement, prevenient grace, justification, and sanctification. Bresee was raised in a Methodist church in which this was the basic theology. All Christian groups have the Bible, but they interpret it differently. Each has its own exegetical-theological tradition. The Wesleyan exegetical-theological tradition goes back to John and Charles Wesley. If you look at A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, one of Wesley’s primary writings, you see some of the components of that theological development. You also see it in the early conference minutes of 1744-45. Bresee was indebted theologically to Wesley. That doesn’t mean he believed everything exactly the way Wesley did. In fact, the Holiness Movement added some things to their message that Wesley didn’t. However, without Wesley, there would be no Bresee.
RASER: Bresee always understood the Church of the Nazarene as a movement that captured the spirit of original Methodism, and he believed that Methodism captured the spirit of New Testament Christianity. The Church of the Nazarene was intended to express the spirit of New Testament Christianity, or scriptural Christianity as Wesley would have called it.
WOOD: The movement back to the New Testament to recover the piety and correctness of early Christianity is something the Church of the Nazarene has in common with many Protestant groups. It was early Christianity understood through the lens of primitive Methodism. Bresee looked back and saw that Methodism had a lot of things right, but by the late 19th century, things were not as they should have been.
INGERSOL: Early American Methodism was an extension of the Wesleyan revival. This revival became transatlantic with Methodist migration to the new world. Nazarene historian Timothy Smith used to argue that the first Holiness Movement in America was really the advent of Methodism in America, so that what we call the Holiness Movement today was really the second Holiness Movement. The first one was the spread of early Methodism throughout the colonies and the early American nation.
Maintaining the Trajectory: Following Bresee into the 21st Century
INGERSOL: It’s important to go back to first principles and ask ourselves, “Are we still on track with the vision of the founders?” Bresee was critical to the early Church of the Nazarene and to the initial trajectory of the church. The uniqueness Bresee gave to the Church of the Nazarene (besides its frame of government) was a vision for ministry, especially his attraction to the inner city and the diverse racial makeup of Southern California. He didn’t particularly take the lead in reaching out to other ethnic groups, but the people around him did. Mrs. Maye McReynolds, of Los Angeles First Church, started the church’s Hispanic ministries, which eventually spread down along the southern border. Other people close to Bresee opened up the work with Japanese and Chinese immigrants on the West Coast. He took the urban context seriously, as a vital place for Christian ministry to occur. The model he left us can help us break out of any suburban captivity of the church we might be caught in today. Perhaps he shows us a way to break out of the affluence that is so much a part of American and Western society today. Today, the Church of the Nazarene is only 30% U.S. and Canadian, and the average Nazarene is poor and is either a person of color or Hispanic. In terms of taking the city seriously, taking urban ministry seriously, and taking multicultural ministry seriously, Bresee has left us a very helpful model.
WOOD: Bresee was deeply committed to a life of ministry and to faithfulness in the Christian walk. He was a person who led with clarity, with graciousness, with openness to possibility and others’ contributions. Bresee’s leadership style drew gifts, graces, and talent from others. Bresee’s life has so many different contacts and connections, so many different people who were involved, so many different interests, that payingattention to Bresee at this hour could help us see how diverse the early church was, how many different leaders there were. Bresee was not a specialist in everything. There were many important figures whose contributions helped make us who we are. If we’re going to think about transforming what the Church of the Nazarene is, at the very least we should do it with an awareness of what we have been.
RASER: I had a colleague who would say, “Don’t forget the present gets at least one vote.” This spoke to the fact that the past doesn’t necessarily determine the future for an institution or a people. People in every time and place get to have a vote in where things are going, but it is important that the vote in the present not be made in a vacuum, or not be made with a mistaken understanding of what the past was. It is vital for the Church of the Nazarene today to know what the founders intended. Bresee is not the only founder of what became the Church of the Nazarene, but Bresee is certainly a principal founder of the Church of the Nazarene, and he was at the center of the union movement that drew together a number of other movements to form the core of today’s Church of the Nazarene. He was perhaps the most articulate in his understanding of the mission and the purpose of the church that was a result of those mergers. We need to know what the founders intended, to know whether our vote of the present is in keeping with the past. Bresee is a compass for understanding where the church has been and how the church has come to be where it is today. We need to think intentionally about where the church is going and what the church is going to be in the future. As an exam question in Nazarene History, I sometimes ask my students, “If Bresee suddenly appeared and saw the Church of the Nazarene as it is, what do you think he would think about our church? What would he approve of, what would he disapprove of?” Then I ask, “Why does it matter, if people like it? Or what does it matter what the founders, people like Bresee, thought? How should that be of any concern to us today?”
INGERSOL: Every denomination has a trajectory that is initially determined by the founders. Over time, other things alter the trajectory. Fundamentalism was one of those outside forces that altered the Nazarene trajectory. We could probably say, at least for American Nazarenes, that the culture of affluence that grew up after World War II is another outside force that has affected the trajectory of the Church of the Nazarene. When we go back and look at founders and first principles, we can ask the question: Have we gotten off track? If so, what steps do we need to take to get back to where we should be?