Pilgrim Holiness Church: 1919-1929

Mergers and acquisitions


1919-1929 was a time of change for America. World War I had ended and the communist revolution began in Russia. President Woodrow Wilson proposed the League of Nations, Prohibition was made national law, women received the right to vote and business and speculation was booming. The period ended with the stock market crash and the Great Depression. The International Holiness Apostolic Union entered this period with 8000 members and ended it with a new name, the Pilgrim Holiness Church. In 1919 General Superintendent George Kulp was 74 years old and would serve only two more years. By the end of the period Seth Rees would return as GS, but we are getting ahead of our story.


By 1919 Kulp had “herded the cats” into something that looked like a denomination. He had produced enough structure in the Manual to provide for a series of “mergers and acquisitions” with holiness denominations and mission agencies, eight to be exact. Here they are—the “mergers and acquisitions.”


1. The Holiness Christian Church (1919)

The Holiness Christian church brought 2167 members into the 8000-member Union, mostly from Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. The resulting denomination was renamed the International Holiness Church. This mini-denomination was actually founded before the Union (1882) by five people (3 men and 2 women) in Philadelphia as  theHeavenly Recruit Association.C. W. Ruth was their “Presiding Elder.” Later (1897) they renamed themselves the Holiness Christian Church and purchased the Fairmount (Indiana) Camp Meeting grounds (1912). The successor to C. W. Ruth was the widely published C. C. Brown, who had started the Holiness Bible School (also an orphanage) in Carlingville, Illinois. This merger brought in a host of strong leaders including George Huff and A. D. Buck (who had built 48 churches during his 84 years all the while mentoring more than 140 young people into the ministry).  And this merger would give the denomination a new (Acting) General Superintendent. In 1921 seventy-six year old George Kulp retired as General Superintendent and C. C. Brown became the Acting GS for the years 1921-1922. This merger swelled the ranks of membership by 27% and brought significant numerical strength in Indiana making it a new hub of influence in the denomination.


2. Pentecostal Rescue Mission of New York (1922)

Canadian John Scobie had started this work and by 1903 the mini-denomination was mostly focused in upstate New York—Binghamton, Troy, Albany and Schenectady along with the Mooers (N.Y.) Camp Meeting near the Canadian border. They joined the former Union (now renamed the International Holiness Church) in 1922. This merger/acquisition contributed 15 churches and 400 members, plus mission fields in the Caribbean, South Africa, and at Skagway, Alaska. More important, they contributed a family of leaders that would influence the Pilgrims (and the later, The Wesleyan Church) for generations. Powerful preacher, A. H. (Allie) Wilson later became an Assistant General Superintendent serving on a per diem basis while he continued to pastor the Albany, NY Church for 30 years and simultaneously serve as District Superintendent of the District. Allie Wilson’s brother, David Wilson was also a powerful camp meeting evangelist and was the father of Augusta Brecheisen, who is the mother of Jerry Brecheisen[1]. The other brother of Allie Wilson was a factory worker and lay preacher who fathered two sons who would influence the denomination for years: Norman Wilson (the preacher on The Wesleyan Hour for decades), and Earle L. Wilson, renowned preacher and President of United Wesleyan College and later as General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church for several decades. Once again, a merger with a mini-denomination had contributed a few churches but many leaders to the denomination.


--The Pilgrim Church of California (1922)

(Occurred at this point but will be addressed last in this list)


3. The World Wide Missionary Society (1922)

Probably the shortest-lived foreign entity to join the collection of people to be called Pilgrims was H. J Olsen’s missionary society. The reason related to a disagreement with the missionary board in Cincinnati (connected with God’s Bible school). When the missionary family who led the field in Swaziland came home from the field, the work was left in the hands of single missionary, Miss. Lena Roy. The British officials in Africa refused to accept a woman as the leader, insisting on a proper leader—that is, a male leader. The Cincinnati board in Cincinnati[2] seemed to casual about sending a male missionary to “rescue the work” so Olsen took it on himself to found a missionary Society and borrow the money to immediately send the W. E. Reed family.  In the following 18 months the newly founded society wound up supporting 18 missionaries from Panama to Africa and in 1922, just a year and a half after founding, the new society was merged into the foreign missionary work of the Pilgrims.[3]


4. The Immanuel Mission on Barbados (1923)

Samuel Bagley, a Methodist from the British Isles had founded The Immanuel Mission in 1890 after being influenced by A. B. Simpson, the founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. By 1923 it was led by indigenous ministers and in 1923 it joined and brought ten mission stations on Barbados into the Pilgrim Church.


5. Bible Home and Foreign Missionary Society (1924)

In 1890 holiness people from Attleboro, Massachusetts founded a work on St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. Kitts and Montserrat but the urgency for “holiness missions” had waned in New England and when the Pilgrims agreed to assume the work the administrators at God’s Bible Schools arranged for the Pilgrims to absorb this four-island work.


6. The Pentecostal Brethren in Christ (1924)      

This mini-denomination of holiness brethren folk in Ohio, along with their Camp grounds in Springfield, Ohio was absorbed into the Ohio district of the Pilgrims bring a new group who practiced the rite of foot-washing into the increasingly mixed group of people now called the Pilgrim Holiness Church. It also brought a new leader, Joel Harmon.


7. People’s Mission Church of Colorado (1926)

In 1834 Daniel H. Lee went west to carry the gospel to the Flathead Indians, traveling the entire distance to what is now Oregon from St. Louis on horseback. Linking up with Lee later was Moriah T. Ware who sailed around the Cape to become a missionary teacher. The single missionary teacher later married the single missionary and one of their eight children was William H Lee who later moved to Oklahoma, then Kansas where we was converted in a Salvation Army meeting under the preaching of a sixteen year old woman. He entered evangelism and while preaching a revival in Colorado Spring was asked to take over the leadership of the People’s Mission in Colorado Springs which included several storefront missions in Colorado, a large “Workingman’s home” in Denver, a home for unmarried mothers in Pueblo, the Pike’s Peak Holiness Camp Meeting and the Western Holiness College and Bible Training School.  Lee supervised this work and also erected the large “tabernacle” at Junction City, Kansas to reach the soldiers training there in connection with World War I. In 1926 this work was merged into the Pilgrim denomination and the school, (which had been closed due to lack of funding) was reopened as the Pilgrim “Colorado Springs Bible Training School.” The Pilgrims needed a Bible school in the west and the People’s Mission needed the money—it seemed to be a win-win merger.[4]  The Pilgrims got prominent leaders from this merger including the former superintendent of the work, Paul Westphal Thomas who would become a Pilgrim denominational leader along with his son, Paul William Thomas, (who also served many years in denominational leadership). The father and son team were to become the eventual authors of the official history of the Pilgrim Holiness Church.[5]


8. The Pilgrim Church of California (1922)

Though occurring third in this list we are listing of the merger of the California Pilgrims last since it leads into the next chapter of Pilgrim history—how founder Seth Cook Rees became a Nazarene, got excommunicated from that denomination and returned to the church he founded, bringing in the Pilgrim Church of California and giving the group its new name. Since this story will be the focus of the next chapter, for now we will simply record the fact that in 1922 Seth Rees led a merger with the International Holiness Church bringing 457 California (many-former-Nazarene) members[6]  along with 22 missionaries who were members of his church (including prominent Mexico missionaries Francisco and Nellie Soltero) The Pilgrim magazine, and the Pilgrim Bible College[7] in Pasadena. It was a tiny group that merged in 1922 with the International Holiness Church but it may be a testimony to the power and influence of Seth Rees that the tiny group gave the larger denomination its new name (The Pilgrim Holiness Church) along with returning the founder into the fold again. Four years later Rees would be General Superintendent again. But before we tell that story we need to next tell the very messy (and very interesting) story of how and why Seth Rees got booted out of the Church of the Nazarene.



Pilgrims seemed to care little about their denomination’s name—they exchanged names as easily as a pair of shoes. And (at this stage at least) they were an open door for other groups.  They welcomed missionary fields planted by British Methodists, independent regional mini-denominations, strings of rescue missions, orphanages, ministries to soldiers, along with River Brethren churches who still practiced foot-washing. They weren’t just welcoming to the churches but also welcomed their leaders at an astonishing rate, often making them denominational leaders within a few years, sometimes right away. It was the roaring twenties for the new denomination. In 1919 the Pilgrims had 8000 members. Five years later in 1924 they had grown to 15,000 members. Sure, they got 3,000 of those by merger, but the other 4000 came by evangelism and church growth. By today’s standards 15,000 members seems like a small number. However in that that day the attendance generally ran 2-3 times the membership—which may imply that by 1924 every week in Pilgrim churches as many as 40,000 people gathered for services which is quite a testimony to an evangelistic church. The “open door” approach of the Pilgrims during this brought an influx of new blood into the church and that was a good thing—that’s what I think.


So what do you think?

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Keith Drury   September 22, 2009



To think about….

  1. The Pilgrims were merger-friendly during this era—what makes a denomination friendly to merger? Is merger a good thing or does it signify a dying church?
  2. Pilgrims carried their open door policy past denominations to embracing the new leadership from those formerly “outsiders” –Is your own denomination open to “outsiders” from other denominations today or do you have to have a long heritage in the denomination to get into leadership?
  3. How would you respond to Great Britain’s refusal to accept a women leader of a mission?
  4. What do you think of the notion of changing the name of a denomination or a local church—is it a  good thing or bad? What are the reasons to get a new name or to keep a traditional one?
  5. What was going on in American culture and politics at this time and how might it relate to what happened in the church at this time?
  6. How do you think 8000 Pilgrims added 4000 other members in just five years—beyond merger gains? What kind of numbers would this mean if we saw this sort of gain in today’s church?



[1] Jerry is the present (2009) editor of Wesleyan Life

[2] I have run out of research time to check who served on this board, but we have already observed that the board was initially three women: Mrs. M. W. Knapp, Bessie Queen and Mary Storey.  A court later forced the expansion of this board, but it was these three women only at first. I am not sure if the board had yet been expanded. However, I can imagine three strong female leaders not freaking out over leaving the missionary work in the hands of a single woman.

[3] Is this an early tremor of the later (and gradual) drifting away between God’s Bible School, the missionary board in Cincinnati and the Pilgrim Holiness Church? Especially after Seth Rees’ own differences with the board over their using “missionary money” for home missions along with “foreign missions?” Has anyone done a dissertation or thesis on the relationship of the Pilgrims and God’s Bible School and the missions board there?

[4] It should be pointed out (in light of the coming story of the Rees-Pasadena incident) that the seven  congregations of the People's Mission Church  had before this (1911) united with the Church of the Nazarene but nine months later they withdrew as they had found the "distinctively congregational form of government" in the Church of the Nazarene was not suitable for a work so "pioneer and aggressive" in as theirs. Apparently they found among the Pilgrims what they wanted, though later in the story there would come another secessionist movement from the Pilgrims in Colorado, so maybe not.

[5] The history is titled The Days of Our Pilgrimage, published 1976 by The Wesley Press, Marion Indiana. I am following the general outline of this book in recalling these stories, though augmented by other works and personal conversations. I also have a copy of this book where my father, Leonard Drury made annotations throughout with his personal connections with the story.

[6] Of these members 325 were in one church—Rees’ own church.

[7] This institution later merged with the Bible school in El Monte, California (1946), “Western Pilgrim College” which still later was merged with “Central Pilgrim College” in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and (after a post-1968 merger with the Wesleyan Methodist Miltonville college (Kansas) eventually became “Bartlesville Wesleyan College” and now, “Oklahoma Wesleyan University.”