Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Phineas F. Bresee & First Methodist Church

Lucas County has at least two links to the fascinating rise of the penticostal-holiness movement in American Christianity during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One is a series of holiness camp meetings at old Olmitz in Pleasant Township to which one of the nation's largest pentecostal denominations traces its roots. One of these days, I'll gird up my loins and write about that one.

The other is simpler. It involves a stained glass window at First United Methodist Church in Chariton that commemorates, among others, the principal founder of the Church of the Nazarene (left), now the world's largest Wesleyan-holiness denomination with some 2.3 million members, represented in Chariton by First Church of the Nazarene.

That window, in the southeast corner of the sanctuary, contains a list of ministers who served the congregation from its beginning in 1851 until the main block of the current building was constructed during during 1899-1900. Midway down the list is the name "P.F. Bresee" --- Phineas F. Bresee, who served the congregation from the fall of 1866 until the fall of 1868 (the date inscribed in glass is a little off).

I'm not even going to start trying to explain the theological and social factors involved in founding the Church of the Nazarene, but it's useful to know that more than a quarter century passed between the time Bresee and his family left Chariton in the fall of 1868 and 1895, when he founded the first Church of the Nazarene in Los Angeles.

Bresee went on to serve many other Iowa Methodist Episcopal congregations, including those in Red Oak and Creston, served as district superintendent and was instrumental in the development of Simpson College, all before departing the Midwest for California in 1883. He remained a Methodist preacher there until 1894.

His time in Chariton encompassed a highly significant event in Bresee's spiritual development --- Chariton's 1864 brick Methodist church, located where the current building still stands, was where he experienced what later would be called "entire sanctification" --- alone at the altar on a 20-below winter night while his small congregation hovered around the stove trying to stay warm. For that reason, Chariton had a special place in his memory --- even though he apparently had a few issues with the congregation.

I've lifted the following brief account of the years Bresee and his wife, Maria, spent in Chariton from one of his early biographies, Ernest A. Girvin's "Phineas F. Bresee: A Prince in Israel," published in 1916 by the Pentecostal Nazarene Publishing House, Kansas City. There are later and better biographies, but this one can be found in its entirety online at Google Book --- to read more, go here. Here are the paragraphs related to Chariton:


In the fall of 1866, Brother and Sister Bresee went to Chariton, the county seat of Lucas county. It was a pretty little city of about 3,000 inhabitants. The Methodist church was the strong church of the town, having a good congregation, with some wealth, and a considerable degree of worldliness. Brother Bresee, in narrating this chapter in his career, says that he kept about a quarter of the congregation angry at him all the time, but not the same quarter, as they took turns. He did this by preaching to them about their worldliness and needs, and, to put it in his words, "They seemed peculiarly adapted to not liking it very well." One dear sister said, "He will never get me mad," and the very next Sunday she went home feeling very much offended. He preached to them one morning on their idolatry, and told them that they were worshipping the world, and were without God. At the class meeting which followed this service, the local preacher, who had been a traveling preacher, but was broken down in health, said that it was very difficult for him to have things properly adjusted; that whatever he did, he did with all his might; and when he went to college, he studied with all his might; and when he preached, he preached with all his might; and now that he was a farmer he farmed with all his might. He concluded his remarks by saying: "If I don't get to heaven, I will be the worst disappointed fellow you ever saw."

Winter came on and they were in the midst of a protracted meeting, but the terrible doubt which tortured Brother Bresee during his Presiding Eldership, continued to plague him. To again quote his words: "There came one of those awful, snowy, windy nights, such as blow across the Western plains occasionally, with the thermometer twenty degrees below zero. Not many were out to church that night. I tried to preach a little, the best I could. I tried to rally the people to the altar, the few that were there, and went back to the stove, and tried to get somebody to the Lord. I did not find any one. I turned toward the altar; 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. I had come to the point where I seemingly could not go on. My religion did not meet my needs. It seemed as though I could not continue to preach with this awful question of doubt on me, and I prayed and cried to the Lord. I was ignorant of my own condition. I did not understand in reference to  carnality. I did not understand in reference to the provisions of the atonement. I neither knew what was the matter with me, nor what would help me. But, in my ignorance, the Lord helped me, drew me and impelled me, and, as I cried to him that night, He seemed to open heaven on me, and gave me, as I believe, the baptism with the Holy Ghost, though I did not know either what I needed, or what I prayed for. But it not only took away my tendencies to worldliness, anger and pride, but it also removed the doubt. For the first time, I apprehended that the conditions of doubt were moral instead of intellectual, and that doubt was a part of carnality that could only be removed as the other works of the flesh are removed."

Under the ministry of Brother Bresee, the work at Chariton was fairly prosperous. The Lord gave him more grace, liberty and blessing in every way. He held a good revival meeting with some fruits. It seemed, however, as if there was always a fuss in reference to something. The folks were stirred up about tobacco, or worldliness, or something else. But many friends rallied around them. They met with good success, and the church grew and prospered. As Dr. Bresee put it, "Nobody got sancitfied but myself, and I did not know anything about it." There was an uplift of spirituality, and one or two seemed to enter into the experience of full salvation. But, as Brother Bresee preached a more spiritual gospel, there was more antagonism.

The two years pastorate at Chariton was a trying time. When the Bresees went there, they found no proper conditions for a minister's family. As there was no parsonage, they moved into a part of a house, where they had the use of one room and a little bedroom, which had been changed into a kitchen. A young woman of the family lived in the other room, taught music, and played the piano to the point of distraction. The members of the family were fine people and the mother, Mrs. Mitchell, was a mother in Israel. Her son was a Methodist preacher, who in 1912, was still living in Northwestern Iowa. His name was Bennett Mitchell, and he was then Presiding Elder of the district in which Chariton was located. Often the mother and her daughters would take care of the baby while Mrs. Bresee went to church at night. The room occupied by the Bresees was their bedroom, study, dining room, parlor and everything but the kitchen. They were compelled to make beds on the floor.

Shortly before leaving Chariton, in the autumn of 1868, their daughter, Bertha, was born. At the beginning of their second year in this place, they secured a cottage with four rooms, where they lived very comfortably, so far as house room was concerned, but they were greatly tried financially, and as Doctor Bresee expressed it: "There never was a time when we had as much difficulty in getting along, and getting something to eat, as during our second year there. I do not know how or why it was, but there was not anything in the market, and we did not have money to get along with. We left the charge in debt. We didn't have butter, meat, or the ordinary things. We fared very hard indeed. I do not know that we went hungry, but we lived in the most frugal way. We were like old Brother Thayer, who said that he didn't know that the Lord had allowed him to go hungry, but he had allowed him sometimes to have a most excellent appetite."


Quite frankly, the Rev. Mr. Bresee comes across as a little whiney in these paragraphs, and that may be because I know something about two of the parishioners referenced specifically.

"Mrs. Michell," with whom the Bresees lived during their first year, was Eliza (Henderson) Mitchell (1808-1884), then in her late 50s. She and her husband, Joseph, had brought their family to Chariton from Indiana during 1852 and settled on the site just northwest of town where the HyVee frozen foods distribution center now is located.

By the time the Bresees arrived in town, her husband was dead, two of her sons, James and David, had died while in service during the Civil War and, in fact, only four of her 13 children remained alive. She was living on an $8 monthly pension awarded to her in the name of her late son, David. So she had known troubles that the youthful preacher --- then not yet 30 --- hadn't even dreamed of.

The Methodist preacher-turned-farmer cited by Bresee's biographer was Asbury Collins. He left Chariton with his family not long after the Bresees did, moved to Red Oak, then onward to Nebraska where he was among the founders of Kearney, a principal organizer of its Methodist Episcopal church. In Nebraska, he returned to the active Methodist ministry and served as church planter, missionary and pastor to congregations scattered across the plains for many years thereafter.

Neither of these two good souls, however, founded a denomination.

Bresee had been, prior to and during the Civil War, an ardent abolitionist --- more or less driven out of an earlier charge in Pella because of his views. In Chariton, he incurred the wrath of some --- including the virulently racist publisher of The Chariton Democrat --- by inviting "Brother Lewis," a black preacher from Des Moines, down to conduct services.

Brother Bresee also appreciated the finer things in life, which may be why the living conditions in Chariton during those early years of his ministry rankled. Later on, he joyfully mixed commerce with preaching in order to acquire more of those finer things --- and didn't complain when he became one of the most highly paid clergymen in southern California. On the other hand, a principal motive in founding the Church of the Nazarene was his conviction that mainline Methodists were not ministering effectively to those less fortunate than they were.

So he was a character of considerable contradiction, and these guys of course are the most interesting.

The photo below shows the church the Bresees found when they arrived in Chariton. The parsonage to its right was built during 1868, but it's not known if Phineas, Maria and their children ever lived in it.

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