The Yankee Politics of Phineas Bresee

Written by Stan Ingersol
From his column Past to Present

The Glory Barn—which served as the home
for what would become Los Angeles First
Church of the Nazarene at the transition from the
19th to the 20th century—prominently displayed
the American flag, symbolic of Bresee’s
strong Union sympathies.

They say “politics makes strange bedfellows.”

One could surely say the same of religion.

Take Phineas Bresee. He entered the ministry three years before the Civil War began. His political leanings were never a mystery to his congregants. In 1860, Bishop Edmund Janes appointed him to the Grinnell Circuit. Despite its location in central Iowa, Bresee later described one of the appointments on this charge as “made up largely of Southern people.”[1]

During Bresee’s year there, Abraham Lincoln was elected president, southern states seceded, and America plunged into a tragic Civil War. During this period, Bresee made a practice of draping his pulpits with the American flag. He told E. A. Girvin: “I was very strong in my loyalty [to the Union] and anti-slavery conviction.”[2]

With some congregants “strong in their feeling of sympathy with the Rebellion,” Bresee felt that he had “more or less grieved these people by my preaching of what they regarded as Abolition doctrine.” He requested a different appointment in 1861 and was sent to the hardscrabble Galesburg Circuit.[3]

Bresee’s political persuasion was also evident in the figures he most admired, which included Bishop Matthew Simpson in particular. A friend of President Lincoln, Bishop Simpson lectured throughout the northern states advocating loyalty to the Union, the emancipation of Blacks from slavery, and support for President Lincoln.

Regional prejudices still influenced Americans and their churches over forty years after the (Civil) war, and yet Jernigan and Bresee proved willing to reach across the social and political divide.

After Lincoln was assassinated, Simpson gave the prayer at the president’s funeral in Washington, D.C., and delivered the sermon at the service in Springfield, Ill., where the president was buried. Bresee later participated in the naming of Simpson College in Iowa and the impressive Simpson Tabernacle in Los Angeles after the bishop.

He also admired Gilbert Haven, editor of Zion’s Herald, New England’s Methodist periodical. A radical crusading abolitionist, Haven advocated the inclusion of Blacks in American society and provocatively argued that interracial marriage was the best solution to America’s race problem. Bresee, a delegate to the 1872 General Conference, got the Iowa delegation lined up firmly behind Haven’s election as a Methodist Episcopal bishop, which proved crucial to his election.[4]

In 1883, Bresee decided to leave Iowa. Friends in San Antonio informed him that they could secure him an invitation to a fine Methodist Episcopal congregation there. He considered the matter but decided to move to Southern California instead. In describing this decision to Girvin, Bresee noted that he decided to avoid a situation where he would have to battle southern prejudices.[5]

How surprising, then, to find him in Texas a quarter-century later, engaged in meaningful conversations with southern people about forging a national holiness denomination based on the union of northern and southern churches. Yet that is precisely what he did.

The First General Assembly, held in Chicago in October 1907, united eastern and western groups into the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene. Invited by C. W. Ruth, Bresee’s assistant general superintendent, seven representatives of the Holiness Church of Christ attended the Chicago assembly. All seven returned to their respective homes in Georgia, Texas, and Arkansas as ardent advocates of merger.

In January 1908, Ruth held revival meetings in Texas. Bresee followed behind in April and organized a Nazarene congregation near Greenville, providing a venue for clergy and lay members of the Holiness Association of Texas to unite with the Nazarenes.

Phineas Bresee (l.), an ardent pro-Union
minister, and C. B. Jernigan, the son
of a Confederate captain, set aside political
and social differences to help found
the Church of the Nazarene.

Then he proceeded to Pilot Point, north of Dallas, to engage in direct talks with C. B. Jernigan and other primary leaders of the Holiness Church of Christ.

Jernigan’s orientation toward the Civil War could not have been more different from Bresee’s. Jernigan was the son of a Confederate captain. His mother had once stood up to a band of foraging Yankee soldiers. His family lost their cotton plantation in Mississippi and were destitute after the war. They had moved to Texas to start over.[6]

Regional prejudices still influenced Americans and their churches over forty years after the war, and yet Jernigan and Bresee proved willing to reach across the social and political divide. So, too, did the colleagues and associates of each.

Their fruitful discussions set their respective denominations on a course that led to the Second General Assembly in October, conducted in Texas, and the merger of northern and southern denominations.

Out of that, the Nazarenes emerged as a national church. “Phineas Bresee had exerted continuous effort toward this proposed outcome.”[7]

Truly, religion can make for some strange bedfellows.

In a subsequent essay, we will examine the politics of the prohibition movement and Bresee’s efforts in that endeavor.

Stan Ingersol is manager of archives for the Church of the Nazarene.

[1]E. A. Girvin, Phineas F. Bresee: A Prince in Israel (1916): 39
[2]Girvin, 16, 40.
[3]Girvin, 40-41.
[4]Girvin, 57.
[5]Girvin, 77.
[6]C. B. Jernigan, From the Prairie Schooner to a City Flat (1926): 13-18.
[7]Historical Statement, Manual of the Church of the Nazarene (1989). Carl Bangs, writing his biography of Bresee at the time, insisted that this sentence should appear in the revision of the Historical Statement in 1989.