History of the Church of the Nazarene

Historical roots

Thе faith has been handed down to the Nazarenes through historical religious currents and particularly through the Wesleyan revival of the 18th century. In the 1730s the broader Evangelical Revival arose in Britain, directed chiefly by John Wesley, his brother Charles, and George Whitefield, clergymen in the Church of England. Through their instrumentality, many other men and women turned from sin and were empowered for the service of God. This movement was characterized by lay preaching, testimony, discipline, and circles of earnest disciples known as “societies,” “classes,” and “bands.”

The Wesleyan phase of the great revival was characterized by three theological landmarks: regeneration by grace through faith; Christian perfection, or sanctification, likewise by grace through faith; and the witness of the Spirit to the assurance of grace. Among John Wesley’s distinctive contributions was an emphasis on entire sanctification in this life as God’s gracious provision for the Christian. British Methodism’s early missionary enterprises began disseminating these theological emphases worldwide. In North America, the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1784. Its stated purpose was “to reform the Continent, and to spread scriptural Holiness over these Lands.”

The Holiness Movement of the 19th Century

In the 19th century a renewed emphasis on Christian holiness began in the Eastern United States and spread throughout the nation. Among the leaders of the holiness revival were Timothy Merritt, Phoebe Palmer, Charles Finney, Asa Mahan, A. B. Earle and Hannah Whitall Smith.

In 1867 Methodist ministers John A. Wood, John Inskip, and others began at Vineland, New Jersey, the first of a long series of national camp meetings. They also organized at that time the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness, commonly known as the National Holiness Association. The witness to Christian holiness played roles of varying significance in the founding of the Wesleyan Methodist Church (1843), the Free Methodist Church (1860), and, in England, the Salvation Army (1865).

The rise of the Church of the Nazarene

In October 1895, Phineas F. Bresee and Joseph P. Widney, with about 100 others organized the Church of the Nazarene at Los Angeles. At the outset they saw this church as the first of a denomination that preached the reality of entire sanctification received through faith in Christ. They held that Christians sanctified by faith should follow Christ’s example and preach the Gospel to the poor. They felt called especially to this work. They believed that unnecessary elegance and adornment of houses of worship did not represent the spirit of Christ but the spirit of the world, and that their expenditures of time and money should be given to Christlike ministries for the salvation of souls and the relief of the needy.

Phineas F. Bresee’s 38 years’ experience as a pastor, superintendent, editor, college board member, and camp meeting preacher in Methodism, and his unique personal magnetism, entered into the ecclesiastical statesmanship that he brought to the merging of the several holiness churches into a national body.

The Association of Pentecostal Churches of America, the Church of the Nazarene, and the Holiness Church of Christ were brought into association with one another by C. W. Ruth, assistant general superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene, who had extensive friendships throughout the Wesleyan-holiness movement. Delegates of the Association of Pentecostal Churches of America and the Church of the Nazarene convened in general assembly at Chicago, in October, 1907. The resulting body was given the name “Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene.”

During the following year, two other accessions occurred. In April 1908 P. F. Bresee organized a congregation of the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene at Peniel, Texas, which brought into the church leading figures in the Holiness Association of Texas and paved the way for other members to join. In September, the Pennsylvania Conference of the Holiness Christian Church, after receiving a release from its General Conference, dissolved itself and united with the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene.

The second General Assembly of the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene met in a joint session with the General Council of the Holiness Church of Christ from October 8 to 14, 1908, at Pilot Point, Texas. This is considered to be the official birth of the Church of the Nazarene.

The General Assembly of 1919, in response to memorials from 35 district assemblies, officially changed the name of the organization to Church of the Nazarene because of new meanings that had become associated with the term “Pentecostal.”

The expansion of the Church of the Nazarene worlwide

The Church of the Nazarene had an international dimension from its beginning. By the uniting assembly of 1908, Nazarenes served and witnessed not only in North America but also as missionaries in Mexico, the Cape Verde Islands, India, Japan, and South Africa—living testimony to the impact of the 19th-century missions movement upon the religious bodies that formed the present-day Church of the Nazarene.

Expansion into new areas of the world began in Asia in 1898 by the Association of Pentecostal Churches of America. The Pentecostal Mission was at work in Central America by 1900, in the Caribbean by 1902, and in South America by 1909. In Africa, Nazarenes active there in 1907 were recognized as denominational missionaries at a later date.

Subsequent extension into the Australia-South Pacific area began in 1945 and into continental Europe in 1948. In these instances, the Church of the Nazarene entered by identifying with local ministers who already preached and taught the Wesleyan-holiness message: A. A. E. Berg of Australia and Alfredo del Rosso of Italy.

In developing a global ministry, the Church of the Nazarene has depended historically on the energies of national workers who have shared with missionaries the tasks of preaching and teaching the word of grace. In 1918 a missionary in India noted that his national associates included three preachers, four teachers, three colporteurs, and five Bible women. By 1936 the ratio of national workers to missionaries throughout the worldwide Church of the Nazarene was greater than five to one.

As of 2013 the Church of the Nazarene has a presence in 160 world areas. Thousands of ministers and church members have adapted the teachings of the Church to their native contexts adding their contribution to the mosaic of cultural identities that form our international communion.