A Legacy of Letters: How H. F. Reynolds and Phineas Bresee Built a Denomination through Correspondence

A Legacy of Letters: How H. F. Reynolds and Phineas Bresee Built a Denomination through Correspondence

The written word helped forge a united, respectful, humble, and friendly leadership at the very beginning of the Church of the Nazarene.

Hiram (H.F.) Reynolds was an adept and prolific composer of virtually every sort of written communication—notices and articles for denominational publications, pithy telegrams conveying urgent information at the least possible cost, detailed news reports from the mission field to be shared with the Nazarene world as a way of engaging those at home in the work of the church around the world, one full-length book and the manuscript for a second, sermon notes overflowing with Scriptural references and personal testimony, and letters . . . countless letters.

Reynolds sent letters to farmers, widows, young children, and every other stripe of Nazarene who turned to him for spiritual direction, practical advice on submitting pledged mission monies, and counsel. He also sent letters—sometimes several in one day—back to Headquarters, to advise those handling the minutiae of administration on promises made, schedules disrupted, costs incurred, supplies needed, and personal matters to be managed.

Each of these, written early in the formation of the Church of the Nazarene, helped to mold the denomination’s practices, sharpen its theological statements, assess its standards, determine its bedrock commitments, and establish the manner in which Nazarenes would engage the world. Perhaps the most important of these early communications were letters shared among the first generation of general superintendents.

These letters helped set the tone for the early groups of formerly independent groups of Holiness Christians who came together under the leadership and Manual of the fledgling denomination.

At the outset of our life as a new church, generals often traveled together to attend district assemblies. However, virtually all of their remaining time serving together was spent serving apart. Our first two general superintendents, Phineas Bresee and H. F. Reynolds, along with those who were later elected, set a pattern that continues to this day: heavy schedules that require extensive travel to far-flung corners of the globe.

While today we have the advantages of digital, real-time communication, Bresee and Reynolds had to rely on the postal service and Western Union’s cables.

Even as they were undertaking the massive and delicate task of uniting disparate groups with differing governments, temperaments, and expectations, they did so primarily through the medium of the written letter. Added to the various stresses of constant travel on shoestring budgets, families left behind for extended periods, and the need to learn the cultures and concerns of their multiple constituents, Reynolds and Bresee needed to get to know each other.

The two had spent their professional lives on opposite ends of the United States: Bresee in the West and Reynolds in New England and New York. They first met in April, 1907, when contingents of their respective organizations—Bresee’s Church of the Nazarene and Reynolds’ Association of Pentecostal Churches of America (A.P.C.A.)—broached the possibility of joining forces, to more effectively proclaim the message, “Holiness unto the Lord!”1 

Only a few months later, in October 1907, the two groups joined forces as the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene, with Bresee and Reynolds elected as the first two general superintendents. Suddenly, two men who had previously stood at the helms of their own distinct organizations found themselves thrust together to nurture and manage a hybrid creation, not entirely certain how to incorporate the elements of each into a functional whole.

When more holiness groups joined the denomination at the Pilot Point General Assembly in 1908, the potential for both blessings and pitfalls grew along with the membership. Reynolds and Bresee recognized that a united, respectful, humble, and friendly leadership was essential to the young denomination’s survival.

During that first round of district assemblies, as strangers slowly became one church, Bresee and Reynolds traveled together, presenting a united front, and offering a vision of a common future blessed by a holy God. Reynolds had no experience being a general superintendent. As such, Reynolds took the opportunity to learn from Bresee during this initial tour. Bresee presided, and Reynolds spoke of home and foreign missions, thus dividing the areas of expertise while both serving as generals.

By choosing to share power in this way, with each exercising his greatest strength, the watchful assemblies noted the mutual respect, genuine humility, and willingness to serve.

Certainly, such thoughtful and consistent brotherhood between these two broadcasted loudly the pattern being established. Nazarenes could have confidence in their leaders and could follow the example they set of genuine Christian devotion to one another, the church, and the Lord they loved. Reynolds expressed his admiration of Bresee as “a master of assemblies, eloquent and profound with sublime dignity,” while he described himself as “a mere boy beside the saintly (Bresee), inexperienced in the work of superintendency, limited in ability.”2 Bresee and Reynolds continued the professional relationship until Bresee’s death in November 1915.

Reynolds wrote long, detailed letters to Bresee, often extended to a dozen pages, including as much information as he could when asking for advice on church polity, interpretation of a Manual provision, or a clearer sense of direction. Bresee’s responses tended to be direct and to the point, brief (rarely running even half as long as Reynolds’), and instructive. Reynolds was likelier to express his heart as he wrote, while Bresee responded with language that addressed the nuts and bolts of whatever issue was at hand.

They also developed keen awareness of each other’s hardships, affection for one another’s families, and the expression of fellowship and concern. “I write again to ask you to be very careful and not do anything not an absolute necessity. Do not lecture or preach . . . Be careful. Please do this,”3 urged Bresee to Reynolds in one impassioned letter following Reynolds’ near-fatal case of food poisoning.

Trust was built along the way, and Reynolds grew into Bresee’s equal in both their eyes and in those of the denomination.

From the beginning of their association, Bresee was unwell. As his health continued to decline, Reynolds assumed more leadership. By December 1913, Bresee wrote of a difficult situation in Japan, ending with: “You know what I think pretty well, and I only write to bid you God-speed,” certain that Reynolds would handle the crisis in ways that reflected their joint position.4

Although their styles and experiences differed, Reynolds and Bresee forged a genuine bond of shared servanthood and devotion to Christ and the Church, being careful to express their thoughts respectfully and to receive one another’s thoughts with generous goodwill. They set a standard that we, the inheritors of their legacies, should embrace in our communication for the good of our Church’s witness, to the glory of God.

Mary Lou Shea is the author of In Need of Your Prayers and Patience: The Life and Ministry of H. F. Reynolds and the Founding of the Church of the Nazarene. She currently serves as associate pastor for liturgy and care at North Street Community Chapel in Hingham, MA.

[1] “Twelfth Annual Meeting,” Beulah Christian, vol. 16, no. 15, April 13, 1907, 14.

[2] Amy Hinshaw, In Labors Abundant (Kansas City, MO: Nazarene Publishing House, 1938), 198.

[3] P. F. Bresee to H. F. Reynolds, August 3, 1915. Hiram F. Reynolds Collection. Nazarene Archives.

[4] P. F. Bresee to H. F. Reynolds, December 18, 1913. Hiram F. Reynolds Collection. Nazarene Archives.

Holiness Today, Sept/Oct 2019