written by Brian Schaffer
Bresee entered pastoral ministry at the age of 18, and took Methodist pastorates first in Iowa and then in Southern California. He was influenced by several godly men of his time as well as by those who had come before him. No one had a greater influence on him than John Wesley.
In the denominational magazine entitled “Herald of Holiness” there was an article written by Reverend C.E. Cornell, who was Bresee’s pastor at the time of his death on November 13, 1915. In the article Cornell calls Bresee the John Wesley of America. “I characterize Rev. Phineas F. Bresee as the John Wesley of American Protestantism. If that is too broad, he was surely the John Wesley of the modern holiness movement. He bore many of the characteristics of Wesley. He was kind and gentle except when the fire broke out in his great soul, and then he was a tornado. He was a friend of the unfortunate, and many are the individuals he has helped—literally thousands. He gave away all that he earned so that the home he bought years ago has never quite been paid for….Like Wesley, he was an original and deep thinker” (Cornell, 1915).
There is much to learn of Wesley from his diaries and journals that are available to the public. He possessed a love for the poor as did Bresee. Some of the most powerful sermons on stewardship stemmed from the battle that Wesley fought within himself towards the rich.These particular sermons confronted the believers that had become wealthy in earthly possessions, and failed to share with the poor.The most remembered sermons were entitled: “The Danger of Riches”, “On Riches”, “The Rich Man and Lazarus”, and “On the Danger of Increasing Riches”. Wesley became more intentional and passionate on this issue as he grew older and more concerned about the departure of Methodism from his principles. As Bresee studied Wesley’s works there must have been a connection made that spurred him on toward his dream of ministering to the poor.
During the time period that Bresee was ministering in Los Angeles as a Methodist pastor there were some transitions taking place as to where the church should be focusing its efforts. D. L. Moody was traveling as a revivalist and promoting social reform. The cultural dynamics that surrounded Bresee’s ministry were heavily influenced by the “social gospel” movement. There were many holiness groups involved in the transformation of their communities, but approached the societal problems on a spiritual rather than a sociological plane.
Social work among the holiness groups was emerging. Timothy Smith says that “the decisive factor which alienated many urban holiness leaders from the older churches was their participation in non-denominational mission and social work. Some of the movement’s finest souls turned away from sterile controversy to evangelize the poor. Their labors produced a class of converts who could scarcely be made to feel at home in the stylish churches “uptown”. The inevitable result was the organization of independent congregations” (Smith, 1962).
From 1860 forward, the holiness movement established hundreds of missions and rescue homes for those affected by the white slave traffic. They founded hospitals and orphanages to care for unwed mothers and their children, provided for impoverished immigrants, and returned thousands whom they found on today’s famous “Skid Row” to their native countryside.
The Salvation Army was one of the churches that hit the ground running in the 1880’s and began to expand their territories. They targeted large cities across America. Even though many needy people were being reached with the love of Jesus there were small groups of “gate keepers” in the church that did not like the idea of preaching holiness in the “red-light districts”. There seemed to be several people in the holiness movement that migrated to the social work among the poor, and became frustrated with the so-called sanctified believers within the traditional church that would not even think of lifting a finger to help the “least of these”.
Some of the same frustrations assumedly were held by Bresee, and obviously this helped fuel his dream. The early Nazarenes that Bresee led supported an evangelistic program accompanied by appropriate ministries of social welfare. Many of the urban congregations were formed directly from rescue missions that focused on reclaiming the lives of alcoholics and transients.