Phineas Bresee: Pastor to the People

18126212It’s a courageous act to put a hero under the microscope, but Carl Bangs does just that in Phineas Bresee: Pastor to the People (Beacon Hill Press, 2013). In this abridgment by Stan Ingersol of a more scholarly, larger work by Bangs, the portrait that emerges of Church of the Nazarene founder Bresee  is one of a powerful preacher, capable administrator and principled social activist. Though not without weaknesses and acquainted with failure, Bresee’s legacy is of an ordinary servant of the Lord set on fire by God’s perfect love.

As one who grew up in Upstate, New York, I found Bresee’s little known origins in Franklin, New York to be of special interest. Bresee as a teenager clerked in a store and one day was invited by the local Methodist pastor to come to church. Following the service, he attended a class meeting and there prayed through to faith in Christ. Knowing the importance of the class meeting to how early Methodism carried out discipleship, I was surprised to have never known this important tidbit about Bresee’s spiritual awakening. Throughout his ministry in both Methodism and later in the Church of the Nazarene, Bresee maintained this small groups emphasis as an important part of a larger constellation of prayer meetings and evangelistic services. It is only in the past two decades that Nazarenes have rediscovered this lost part of our heritage.

For readers unfamiliar with Bresee’s story, it will be surprising to see the twin emphasis he placed upon holiness and temperance, the latter indicating unremitting opposition to the production and consumption of alcohol (p. 115). Some of the most impassioned pleas on the floor of Nazarene General Assemblies in the later part of the twentieth century were on the subject of alcohol, especially against proposals to soften the total abstinence stance of the denomination. The denomination maintains its tee-totaling stance in solidarity with those who have been damaged by alcohol’s excesses. Pastor to the People is a reminder of the long pedigree that this stance has among the people called Nazarenes.

Phineas Bresee’s way with words shines through at various points in Bangs’ biography. In a 1903 sermon on Isaiah 4:2-6, he cautioned the church against moral compromise (p. 175):

Without holiness and the presence of him who dwells only in holy hearts, the church is soon a conquered church driveling for show; a beggar holding out a dirty hand for the world’s pittance; or a ballet girl dancing and singing for the world’s amusement and pay; or a blind old Samson grinding at the mill — brought out occasionally for the amusement of the Philistines. God’s holy people are neither players for the world’s amusements, nor caterers to the world’s taste.

This is a message as timely at the beginning of the 21st century as it was at the rise of the 20th.

His formidable skills notwithstanding, I was glad to see Bangs humanize Bresee by including not only stories of success but also accounts of failure, including the closing of the Methodist Simpson Tabernacle (pp. 124-27) and his short tenure at the independent Penial Mission (p. 136) where as one of the pastors he was unceremoniously asked to leave. Even the inclusion of an side remark that Bresee was a poor singer who would start songs in the wrong key and expect instrumentalists to fix the problem (p. 175) helps the biography steer clear of hero worship.

Phineas Bresee: Pastor to the People at just over 200 pages is an accessible introduction to the man and ministry that helped set the Church of the Nazarene on its course for the next 100 years. It is a helpful read for anyone who wants to understand the theological and practical worldview of Nazarenes, especially those in North America.

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