Did the Pilgrims Split from the Nazarenes?

The Seth Rees Conflict in Pasadena



We wish that holiness churches didn’t have messy stories like the Rees incident in Pasadena to tell. But holiness people sometimes get themselves into conflicts that fall short of the mark of perfect love. Such was the case in Pasadena in the mid teens of the 20th century. Most conflicts have “two sides to the story” and there is plenty of guilt to go around.  Today’s Nazarenes and Pilgrims remember the story differently, and with its re-telling sometimes add new facts to the story and attribute new motivations to the players. History is a tricky thing and we remember it from our own perspective (and the perspective we inherit).


To present this story with the full emotion of the time, the following account describes the same conflict from two different perspectives. The whole truth will probably never be known on this earth. Only God knows and fairly judges the hearts of men and women. But since we are telling the story of the Pilgrims we cannot avoid telling this messy story, though it is more a part of the Nazarene story than the Pilgrims. Here are two ways to “remember” the Rees incident in Pasadena.


         From one perspective                                     From another perspective

Seth Cook Rees was passionate about holiness evangelism. Everywhere he went hundreds—even thousands—came to Christ and were sanctified. His thunderous preaching as the “Earth Quaker” was used by God to strike fear in and trigger confession from sinners all across the nations and around the world. A loving man who was feared by anyone guilty of sin or not committed to pure holiness teaching.


Rees was minding his own business in the cause of evangelism and missions when he was called by Phineas Bresee to hold a revival meeting in California. The revival prompted the people of the new University Church who were meeting on the campus of the new Nazarene University to call Rees as their pastor. Rees considered the invitation prayerfully and took the assignment moving to Pasadena. Soon Bresee had left the Presidency and the new president of the University was E. P. Ellyson


Rees soon found he faced strong resistance from President Ellyson. He then discovered that Ellyson had worked behind the scenes to persuade the church to not call Rees as pastor in the first place. Rees preached on anyway in spite of this underground resistance to his powerful preaching.


While Ellyson and others resisted, ordinary people did not resist. Students were sanctified, faculty found new fervor and the church flourished, becoming the third largest Nazarene church at the time. Rees had been a traveling evangelist so he understood resistance to preaching; he had faced similar resistance in revival meetings and know it was often rooted a person’s own private sins.


Knowing that the holiness movement was essentially a revivalist movement Rees constantly preached for revival—repentance, confession, restitution and a moving of God. When a young minister (closely connected with the Bresee family) surrendered after some “mistakes” he had committed, Rees made the case public believing sin cannot be hidden but should be confessed to and repented of. Some disagreed and thought the man’s sin should have been kept quiet.


President Ellyson continued to resist Rees’ preaching and a group of nay-sayers developed on campus. When a female student secretary accused President Ellyson of impropriety Rees believed he now understood why Ellyson had feared Rees’ preaching—he was hiding sin in the camp. Could Rees ignore this behavior and let it pass because the man was President? He could not. He expected the President to resign. Having been elected to the board of the University he would not sweep this matter under the rug and called for Ellyson’s resignation. Even Bresee agreed that Ellyson had to go and finally he was removed. As a result Rees’ good ally in revival, H. Orton Wiley was promoted from dean to president.


Then a mighty revival broke out on campus in 1914. There was spontaneous confession, prayer, heart-searching, contrition, and restitution. This was exactly what Rees had been working for. He redoubled his efforts to preach in the Spirit and revival fires burned hotly. But when the Lord revives His work the Devil revives also revives his work too.  Detractors charged Rees with human manipulation and stirring up emotions to extravagance. Rees had seen dozens of revivals like this in his nationwide preaching and his heart rejoiced at the Spirit being poured out on students and faculty alike.


Rees and H, Orton Wiley were as one man in loving the work of the spirit. But others criticized and discounted the work of God. As Rees became more familiar with some of the detractors he came to understand why. Professor A. J. Ramsey was teaching that teaching that God’s righteousness was imputed, not imparted to humans. Ramsey’s teaching was downright opposed to the central message of the Church of the Nazarene and of any other holiness group. Rees did what any pastor who cares for what students are taught—he raised the issue. Either Ramsey should teach what the Nazarenes believed or he should go to another college where he would fit better. Even H. Orton Wiley agreed that Ramsey was a theological threat.


Rees also faced opposition from a neighboring pastor, Fred Epperson for his approach. Rees might have understood opposition from professors, but why would a fellow pastor be a detractor of revival?  Convinced there was a cadre of revival-resistors in Pasadena, Rees preached onward under the power of the Spirit, hoping to break down the walls of resistance to the Holy Spirit’s work. 


The Rees enemies next orchestrated a move to elect Howard Eckel, a bitter foe of Rees, as District Superintendent. They could not get enough votes to produce an election so, when the DS vote was deadlocked, they moved on to elect University trustees. His enemies organized a move to get Rees off the board of the University and they succeeded. When the Assembly then returned to the DS election they got their anti-Rees champion into office, Howard Eckel One of Eckel’s first acts of triumph was to close Rees’ “Hillcrest Home for Fallen Women.”  There would be more acts to come.


The acting president of the University, George Fallis, weakly led the University and gave little concern for holiness and revival. Even the students compared what the Nazarenes said in the Manual with what they got at the University and simply lost confidence in Fallis. Students got up a petition of non-support, and when a group stood up in chapel to state their non-support, half of the students walked out of chapel in agreement. Rees was a bystander in this incident though he did agree with the concerns of these students—and it wasn’t just Fallis, for there were other faculty members who simply did not believe in holiness the way the Nazarenes taught it in the manual.


Rees had no intention of leaving the Nazarenes. He was off the University board and his enemies were gaining ground. Next, out of the blue the University Trustees kicked his local Nazarene church off their campus. Rees had no other recourse but to find another place for his Nazarene church to meet. The vibrant congregation of 400 members complied and moved off campus starting their own building.


Then the fateful day arrived. On Sunday morning February 25, 1917 during the morning worship service, DS Howard Eckel marched to the pulpit, pulled a paper from his pocket and excommunicated Rees and the entire congregation from the Church of the Nazarene. Rees had discovered one of the most important lessons for any Nazarene pastor—never cross your DS. Rees did not leave the Nazarenes, he was excommunicated illegally[1] by a power-wielding DS.


The congregation and pastor were hurt and blistered by their excommunication without trial. They were forced to organize independently and called themselves what they felt like--“Pilgrims” in a strange land. By the time the Nazarene General Superintendents ruled Eckel’s actions out of order they were too hurt to trust the denomination enough to return.

Phineas Bresee, founder and a General Superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene had a big vision. He dreamed of founding in California a single high-quality university for the entire denomination that would grow to 3000 students. In 1910 this new Nazarene University opened in Pasadena, California with Bresee as President. The school initially had only five students at the college level (1910) but the vision was big and the school grew quickly to more then 400 students. When Bresee stepped down as president in less than three years (1912) E. P. Ellyson became the new president and Pasadena became a growing center of Nazarenedom.


In 1912 a new Nazarene congregation that was meeting on the campus of the University called the nationally prominent evangelist Seth Cook Rees to be their pastor. President Ellyson knew this was trouble and tried to influence the church against bringing Rees. The church elected the popular evangelist anyway.[2] Though Rees had Quaker roots he saw his work as warfare and his followers as warriors and he saw anyone who disagreed with him as enemies. As a traveling evangelist he was able to show up, fire his guns and walk away, leaving the pieces for the local pastor to clean up. He was simply unprepared to work in the collaborative environment of a university church and campus.


Rees had a history of expecting to have his own way. In 1905 when the Cincinnati/God’s Bible School missions board refused to bow to his demand that missions funds had to exclusively go to foreign missions instead of also supporting stateside orphanages he simply resigned as the leader of the Union and went off to Chicago to run his own show. Now the independent-minded Rees became the pastor of the new campus church at the new Nazarene University.  


Rees was a revivalist through and through; believing the best state of the church was to be in constant revival—what he considered normal Christianity. Rather than reach outside to the poor and unevangelized, Rees focused more on sin in the church (and on the campus) which he believed was a barrier to bringing true revival. When a female student secretary accused president Ellyson of an indiscretion, Rees demanded Ellyson be fired for this “sin in the camp.” Rees had been elected to the board of the University so he pressured for action. Fearing Rees’ national prominence and local power, even Bresee acquiesced and Ellyson was soon gone. Bresee himself now feared the powerful Rees. Bresee did not return to the presidency, so H. Orton Wiley was promoted from dean to president of the Nazarene University.


Then a mighty revival broke out on campus in 1914. There was spontaneous confession, prayer, heart-searching, contrition, and restitution. Rees fanned the flames of revival by beginning a series of fiery sermons on judgment and confession, whipping everyone up with emotional intensity and extending the revival for five more days, all accompanied by singing, shouting, crying, wailing and confession until the entire campus was afire. H Orton Wiley was impressed but others worried that Rees was a power-grabbing trickster who had extended a true revival with human-manipulation for his own purposes. When the high emotions of revival died, the emotion was transferred to cleaning up imagined sin and supposedly bad theology on campus.


The campus and community became divided into “sides.” Only Bresee’s intervention kept them together but the division continued. Rees then questioned what was being taught in the theology department, especially turning his guns on Professor A. J. Ramsey who was teaching doctrines not up to Rees’ standards of holiness.


Rees also aimed his guns at Fred Epperson the neighboring Nazarene pastor of Pasadena First church who was not suitably revivalistic for Rees’ tastes. Rees’ people organized and went to District Assembly cocked and loaded to get their own people into office, and to take control of the district and University trustee election process. The district deadlocked on electing a DS so they moved on to elect trustees of the University. The delegates saw what was happening and did not elect the trouble-making Rees to the University board. After defeating Rees they returned then to the election of DS and the Assembly put a no-nonsense man who was a foe of Rees, Howard Eckel into office.


Even though Rees had lost his Trustee seat he next attacked the University for cooperating with unbelievers—the University intended to enter a float in the Los Angeles Day Parade. He persuaded enough students to protest the idea so that no volunteers showed up to make the float.[3] Rees then quietly prompted a group of students to rise in chapel to denounce acting President George Fallis for “not being a holiness president.” Half of the student body walked out of chapel in a show of non-support. Then Rees’ people began to circulate an anonymous petition against faculty who “did not believe in holiness.”


The board of the university saw Rees as the trouble-maker he was so they ordered Rees and his church off campus. Rees left the campus and began building a facility in town where he committed an act of sedition for Nazarenes—he put the title to the property in his own name. That was the final straw for DS Eckel. It was obvious that Rees planned to get control of the university and lead a secessionist movement out of the Nazarene church. Eckel took the bull by the horns and showed up at the Sunday morning service on February 25, 1917 and disbanded the congregation as a Nazarene church and eliminated the narrow-minded power-hungry Rees from the Church of the Nazarene.


Rees’ trouble-making almost destroyed the University. He took with him several of the faculty and half of the student body for his church and new school. The resulting turmoil and financial crisis virtually vetoed Bresee’s vision for a single nationwide Nazarene University in California. Only by God’s grace did a viable university survive to become what we now know as Point Loma Nazarene University (which eventually did grow to more than Bresee’s initial vision for 3000 students).


Rees was a narrow-minded manipulating preacher who manipulated people to build his own kingdom and to destroy the work of great men. He wanted to be a Nazarene General Superintendent himself but finally self-destructed and wound up presiding over his own split-off church and a small bible school collecting unto himself a few other malcontents which he called the “Pilgrim Church of California.”


Unable to foist his peculiar brand of conservative revivalistic holiness on the Nazarenes, He eventually took his band of Pilgrim conservatives into merger with his former International Holiness Church which he got renamed the Pilgrim holiness Church. Stymied in his own hope to become a General Superintendent of the largest holiness denomination, he had to settle for becoming a repeat-General Superintendent of the much smaller Pilgrim Holiness Church. When Rees was gone everyone was glad to see him go.



Of course, this is an embarrassing story for everybody. I have been more depressed writing it than you got reading it. However the messy story might be redeemed if we remember that conflicts like this still happen occasionally in the church. Maybe examining the ‘two sides” in a past conflict like this could teach us how to head off similar conflicts in the future. That’s what I think.


So what do you think?

During the first few weeks, click here to comment or read comments


Keith Drury   October 6, 2009



To think about….

  1. Do you “lean” toward one or the other “side” in this story? Why? What personal experiences have you had that nudges you one way or the other?
  2. In a conflict like this can people on both sides be “pure in heart” or does conflict like this mean there is always sin in someone’s heart? Who was “more right” or “more wrong” in your eyes?
  3. This incident seemed to “stick in the craw” of both denominations for more then 30 years—with each denomination remembering the incident differently. Have you ever seen a similar incident that had long-lasting repercussions?
  4. Conflict is sometimes seen like a fire…early on it can be doused with a glass of water but left go it can burn the whole house down. If you were one of the players in this story how could you have brought peace earlier?
  5. Some Nazarenes considered the Pilgrim Holiness Church a “split” from the Church of the Nazarene—what are the arguments for and against this thesis—how would you answer the question that is the title of this article?
  6. For a long time Pilgrims considered Nazarenes “more liberal” than themselves (and Nazarenes often considered Pilgrims “more conservative” then they were)—where in this story do you see support for this idea?



To read more on the Rees-Pasadena conflict consider these sources:

a.      An excellent and revealing view from the Nazarene (and University) perspective is found in Promise and Destiny—Grace in the History of Point Loma Nazarene University by Ronald B. Kirkemo See especially pages 42-55

b.      Paul Rees gives his (and his father’s) perspective in the biography: Seth Cook Rees the Warrior-Saint   See section 09 -- Battle Scars and Re-Formed Lines.

c.      The “official” Pilgrim view is found in The Days of our Pilgrimage—History of the Pilgrim Holiness Church by Thomas and Thomas 

d.      See here the paper written by Petar Neychev, student at European Nazarene College Seth Cook Rees – A Biographical Review

e.      See also Timothy L. Smith’s Called Unto Holiness for a Nazarene take on the conflict.

[1] In 1917 the General Superintendents of the Church of the Nazarene made a ruling interpreting the Manual that District Superintendents may disorganize churches only if they are “too weak to continue their work or when they persisted in a “hopelessly unorthodox or immoral” course.” The 1919 General Assembly also chimed in by rejecting such disbanding, but it was too late for Rees and his congregation to return by then.

[2] There apparently was some “history” between Rees and Ellyson, but I do not know this story. If anybody knows the story please contribute it for the record.

[3] However, a number of other students did show up on a truck for the parade.