until his last three-and-a-half years of life. Bresee regarded other roles, particularly that of general superintendent, as extensions of the pastoral office—a critical insight into his sense of purpose and self-identity and his understanding of the church and its ministries.
Bresee’s pastoral authority included several elements: his personality, his attention to detail, thorough preparation, and an ambitious reading program. He possessed gravitas, wrote biographer Carl Bangs.1 But Bresee’s pastoral authority was built primarily upon his leadership in worship. His liturgical style and the spirit and quality of his preaching all came to bear on this, as did his personality. Bangs devotes a chapter in his biography to an examination of how Bresee ordered congregational life through worship.2
One of Bresee’s Sunday morning practices shows that he regarded the pastor as a host. Like someone welcoming guests into their home, Bresee greeted people at the door as they entered the church, rather than when they left the sanctuary, extending personal personal welcomes to guests and regular congregants alike. At the conclusion of worship, Bresee remained at the front of the sanctuary, near the altar rail, available to those who sought to converse, while allowing others to exit efficiently.
Bresee was constantly aware of worship’s sacred character. He wrote: “Worship rises high above all forms. If it attempts to find utterance through them, it will set them on fire, and glow and burn in their consuming flame, and rise as incense to God; if it waits to hear His infinite will and eternal love, it spreads its pinions to fly to His bosom, there to breathe out its unutterable devotion.”3
Worship’s focus was the glory of God. A telling story illustrates this: one Sunday morning, a soloist sat beside Bresee on the platform. She leaned over and apologized; she would have to depart after her solo to sing at yet another church. Bresee informed her that she could not sing if she was not remaining for the sermon. “We studiously avoid performers,” he once wrote. On another occasion, he said that the church is no “ballet girl dancing and singing for the world’s amusement . . . [and] God’s holy people are neither players for the world’s amusement, nor caterers to the world’s taste.”4 The only proper focus of worship was God, whose Holy Spirit hallowed the service with the Divine Presence. Anything that shifted the focus to the preacher or the musicians tended toward self-aggrandizement and idolatry.
“Worship rises high above all forms. If it attempts to find utterance through them, it will set them on fire, and glow and burn in their consuming flame, and rise as incense to God; if it waits to hear His infinite will and eternal love, it spreads its pinions to fly to His bosom, there to breathe out its unutterable devotion.” —Phineas Bresee
Bresee was a “revival preacher” like most 19th-century Methodist ministers, and his pastorates were typically marked by revivals. The Methodist church of his day did not provide for full-time evangelists; therefore, revival work was always considered to be pastor’s work. His own conversion at 16 occurred at a class meeting that met shortly after revival services conducted by his own pastor and assistant pastor. Consequently, he always approached worship with a keen sense that its elements should be avenues of God’s redemptive purposes. The main elements of divine worship—prayer, music, testimony, and sermon— should invite a redemptive response in worshipers with willing hearts. Music and testimony witnessed to the joys of salvation, while the sermon might call for various responses from the congregation. Worship through sermon, prayer, and song showed the unconverted a vision of a blessed community of grace into which they were invited, while the faithful were called to a deeper Christian life and to authentic discipleship.
Music was vital to worship and Bresee drew upon three strands of hymnody. He utilized the great hymns of the Christian Church on Sunday mornings, particularly standard hymns from composers like Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts. Thus, the first songbook published by Los Angeles Nazarenes, Waves of Glory (1905), contained 40 hymns by the Wesleys and another 84 standard hymns. But early in his ministry, Bresee also reached for the growing body of gospel songbooks that proliferated after the Civil War. He was attracted to the vibrancy and optimistic tenor of their songs.5 Still later, after he became active in the organized Holiness Movement, Bresee became aware of a genre of gospel music stemming from the holiness camp meeting movement and began utilizing it, too. It was characterized by its testimony to Christian holiness and the use of metaphors (like “Beulah land” and “Canaan”) as synonyms for the holy life. Bresee was not particularly good at carrying a tune, but he expected the congregation to unite in spirited singing.6
Bresee closely studied the Wesley hymns related to consecration and sanctification (he counted nearly 60 of them in the Methodist hymnal) and found them to be “very clear in reference to the doctrine of entire sanctification.” He notes: “Over and over is repeated the deep impassioned cry, the promise of God, and the way to enter in[to]” the sanctified life. He especially liked Charles Wesley’s “Wrestling Jacob” (better known today as “Come, O thou Traveler Unknown”), which “not only delineates the way, but dwells upon the glory and triumph of the obtained experience.” He was less taken with songs like “Rock of Ages” and “Jesus Lover of My Soul,” or songs that were “simply sentimental” or mere cries for help. Instead, he preferred “songs of worship and adoration” and triumphant hymnody that corresponded to Christian literature emphasizing victory over sin.7
Preaching stood at the center of worship. J. B. Chapman, founding editor of The Preacher’s Magazine, first encountered Bresee after the latter was in his 71st year and past his prime; yet, Chapman still found Bresee to be a compelling preacher. Chapman first heard Bresee preach at the uniting General Assembly at Pilot Point, Texas, in October 1908. Thirty years later, he looked back and wrote:
The first time I saw Dr. Bresee in the pulpit was when he arose to lead the devotional service on the afternoon of the opening of the General Assembly. His patriarchal appearance so impressed me that I think I was more or less prepared for the marvelous address he gave on the 60th chapter of Isaiah. For many years Dr. Bresee made a special study of Isaiah and frequently took his text from that wonderful book. . . . It was the presence and bearing and emphasis of the man that made the impression and constituted this an occasion of a lifetime.8
Chapman subsequently heard Bresee preach numerous times. He described him as one with “an evident spirit of prophecy upon him” whose “expositions of the Scriptures were always clear, but never strained and local. One could always feel that he was using the Scriptures according to their essential meaning . . . He was always interesting and vital, but never spectacular.” Chapman added one more thing: the theological orientation of Bresee’s sermons was based on the Bible and “the Wesleyan standards.” 9
Bresee’s preaching abilities were enhanced by good “retentive memory, vivid imagination, keen analysis, marked synthetic ability, the power of analogy, and an exceptionally rich and copious vocabulary. His diction was beautiful.” 10 He read widely in history and often used historical anecdotes, but he also drew on his other reading, which included secular and religious magazines.11
Bresee took sacraments quite seriously. In a general discussion of Bresee’s use of ritual, E. A. Girvin provides two insights into Bresee’s typical baptismal practice. Girvin was Bresee’s younger contemporary and a fellow pastor who witnessed key events in Bresee’s later life. Girvin states that Bresee’s “conduct of the baptismal service was especially helpful and edifying.” He emphasized the duties and privileges of parents in rearing their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and gave a beautiful exposition of the real spiritual significance of the ordinance of baptism. After performing the actual rite, he would take the little children in his arms and kiss them. This he did so lovingly that the hearts of the parents were always moved.” 12 These words portray Bresee as a gentle pastor whose spirit and decorum elevated the occasion. But the passage also constitutes reliable testimony that infant baptism was the norm at Los Angeles First Church during Bresee’s pastoral tenure there. Bresee’s ability to edify the whole congregation through this practice underscores that baptism was not just a means of grace for the one receiving water but was truly a sacrament of the church. In similar manner, Girvin notes that when Bresee conducted weddings, “He strove to make [the marriage ceremony] a real means of grace to all that were present.” 13
Bresee placed great significance upon the Lord’s Supper. In American Methodism, quarterly Communion was the norm and the minimal requirement, and during Bresee’s two years as a presiding elder in Iowa (1864-66), one of his primary duties was providing Holy Communion to the far-flung communities on his wide district. Many years later, he introduced monthly Communion to Los Angeles Nazarenes and, according to Bangs, later conducted Communion on alternate weeks. At this point in his ministry, the Eucharistic service was typically celebrated on Sunday afternoons, in services in which the Supper, not preaching, was the primary focal point. Testimonies were also part of this service, so that the elements of worship in the Sunday afternoon service all tended toward edifying the saints.14 Once Bresee’s people began conducting annual and general assemblies, the Lord’s Supper was also celebrated at the outset of these meetings, framing the work that followed.
Bresee also celebrated the love feast regularly. The love feast stemmed from the Moravian tradition but became integrated into many parts of 19th-century American Methodism. The love feast typically included a ritual of sharing bread and water. It was considered to be a means of grace, but not a sacrament, and was not to be confused with the Lord’s Supper. However, Bresee made testimonies an integral part of the love feast service, as he did with Holy Communion.
Easter was not the only part of the liturgical calendar that Bresee emphasized: he always conducted services on Christmas Day, another service on New Year’s Eve, and he observed and emphasized Pentecost Sunday. He also held services on two national holidays: Memorial Day and Independence Day.15
Bresee took up weekly collections for the poor. At the same time, he largely kept politics out of the pulpit.16 A wellknown and very public adherent of the Prohibition Party throughout his California years, a prohibition newspaper yet noted that he “seldom proclaims his party’s faith from his pulpit”—consistent with his determination to keep the focus of worship on God.17
Bresee’s effectiveness can be gauged in part by the fact that his congregation in Los Angeles grew to become, by far, the largest congregation in the early Church of the Nazarene. This can be credited, in large degree, to his pastoral vision and leadership in worship.
STAN INGERSOL serves as denominational archivist for the Church of the Nazarene.
1 Carl O. Bangs, “Waves of Glory—Then and Now: Reflections on the Ministry of Bresee,” Grace & Peace Magazine (Summer-Fall 2011): 69-70.
2 See Carl O. Bangs, Phineas F. Bresee: His Life in Methodism, the Holiness Movement, and the Church of the Nazarene (1995).
3 Quoted in E. A. Girvin, Phineas F. Bresee: A Prince in Israel (1916), 360-361.
4 Bangs, Phineas F. Bresee, 238. All references to Bangs hereafter refer to this work.
5 Bangs, 105-106, 239.
6 Floyd Cunningham et. al., Our Watchword & Song: The Centennial History of the Church of the Nazarene (2009), 285-286.
7 Girvin, 365-366.
8 J. B. Chapman, “Dr. Bresee an Apostolic Leader,” The Preacher’s Magazine (December 1938): 2.
9 Chapman, 2-3.
10 “Biographical Sketch of Rev. P. F. Bresee,” The Pentecostal Herald (Dec. 1, 1915): 17.
11 James McGraw, “The Preaching of Phineas F. Bresee,” The Preacher’s Magazine (Feb. 1954): 6.
12 Girvin, 386.
13 Girvin, 386.
14 Bangs, 235-236.
15 Bangs, 223-224; and George Newton, “Pentecost at Los Angeles,” Christian Witness and Advocate of Bible Holiness (May 31, 1894): 12.
16 L. B. Kent, “The Church of the Nazarene,” The Nazarene (May 17, 1900): 1.
17 Rev. Ervin S. Chapman, “A Prince Among Men: Phineas F. Bresee,” The New Voice (Feb. 26, 1903): 3.