Chapter 6: Hemet Church of the Nazarene

While the city of Hemet was still in the planning stages, an important decision was made to change its initial location. The city fathers discovered the original site would be too far from the proposed railroad being built from Perris to a new San Jacinto depot. According to the Hemet Area Museum Association, the new site for Hemet was relocated to the Estudillo tract where the railroad tracks were being constructed.
By the end of 1894, the little settlement of Hemet had its own train depot, hotel, grammar school, and, most importantly, all the water it needed for growing almost anything. When the city of Hemet began, it was primarily an agricultural center. Located as a rural community east of Los Angeles, the town was known mostly for its orange groves and apricots. 
The fertile valley found its initial water supply in the Lake Hemet reservoir, which was completed in 1906. In the years that followed, a severe drought required the city to dig a number of wells to supplement the water supply. Taking their cue from city leaders, the first leaders of Hemet Church of the Nazarene made strategic moves and “dug new wells” to increase the effectiveness of their ministry. Each new property and transition to a new location demonstrated the missional faith needed to move the church forward. And, the Lord blessed their vision.
It wasn’t long after the city was founded in 1910 that a group of Nazarenes began efforts to start a new Church of the Nazarene in Hemet. They met first in homes in the community before eventually moving into one of the downtown storefronts. As the new congregation continued to grow, they worked to find a more permanent location. Their ministry was officially organized as a Church of the Nazarene in 1919.
In the early 1920s, they purchased property at the corner of Franklin Street and St. John’s Place. With primarily volunteer labor, they constructed a wooden white frame building that served their needs until the 1960s. That sanctuary would seat about 100, with a small nursery in the rear and a small office on the side. There were two front doors: one faced St. John and the other Franklin street. Inside were old fashioned covered pews made of hardwood. A swamp cooler attempted to cool the building. A grassy lawn was on the east side between what was called the Annex building, which later became Smith Hall.
Pastor Danny and Carolyn Steele came to pastor the church in 1966. It was their first pastorate. About 60 people were attending at that time. Many remembered great services with wonderful music. Sermons were punctuated by song on many occasions. In 1967, the congregation began discussing a new property since their existing building was well worn and beyond repair. They submitted plans to build on a property they had purchased on the corner of Cornell and Whittier, but were unable to obtain a use permit from the city. So, they decided to move in another direction.
After much discussion and prayer, they decided to demolish their building and rebuild on their existing site. The entire membership was enlisted on a wide range of committees, including evangelism, education, children, social, and worship. An elected building committee was assigned responsibility to oversee the entire project.
An architect from Long Beach was selected to draw up the final plans for the new building. After presenting the plans to the banks, the District Advisory Board, and city offices for approval, the plans were sent out to several contractors for bids. All these bids proved too high for the congregation, since their income in 1968 was around $15,000 a year. Again, they adjusted their plans.
The congregation agreed this would become an “owner builder” project, complete with all volunteer labor. As Bill McClary described it, he said “we dug, tore down, nailed, wheeled cement, and cried…a whole lot [before] we finished in several months.” The total cost of the new property was $47,000 – about $7 per square foot!
When the officers of Hemet Federal reviewed the finished property, they said it was a miracle. Their monthly mortgage payment was $440 – a giant payment in those days. Many months they barely made it, but, with the Lord’s help, the loan was paid off in nine short years. In 1968, Don and Joann Thurman came to pastor the Hemet Church of the Nazarene. They were energetic leaders and connected effectively with the congregation and the community. During the 1970s, when the Jesus Movement was sweeping across Southern California and the nation, the congregation also experienced an outpouring of God’s Spirit that was profound and unmistakable. Many Sundays, services centered around multiple sessions of prayer at the altar rather than sermons.
A number of spontaneous ministries developed during those days of spiritual revival. A family camp meeting was held on the old County Fairgrounds at the corner of Palm and Florida. The whole fairgrounds were rented for the week-long family camp, with activities starting at 6:00 a.m. running until 10:00 p.m. On the closing night of Family Camp, over 1,000 were in attendance for a special service of prayer in which many were seeking the Lord. The next year the district decided they wanted to launch an annual family camp for all the congregations of the Southern California District.
In the 1980s, the major building project was adding an extension to the existing property to better serve the needs of the growing congregation. Larry and Gwen Brooke were the pastors to help complete the Smith Hall project, helping the congregation grow to over 300 in membership.
Then, in the 1990s, the congregation began to discuss another vision and new property. Initially, a property was purchased on West Johnson Street to begin a move and construction of a new church building. But a number of issues developed that made those plans untenable. Then, in 2002, the congregation purchased 12.5 acres on the corner of East Florida Avenue and Soboba. When the church building project broke ground in August 2007, plans called for a new main sanctuary and an educational building. The educational wing would house Sunday School rooms, an office suite, a new church library and fellowship hall, complete with a full kitchen.
While the building of the new property was being completed, the congregation met for worship each week at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. During the 22 months of construction, the church family rented until they were able to move into their new church home.
To Be Continued…

Chapter 5: The American Holiness Movement

In the 1830s, after the independence of the United States of America was established but before the first outbreak of the Civil War, Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States from France to study and write at length about “the American experiment.” In his now classic work, Democracy in America (1835), Tocqueville wrote:

“Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country.”

But, at the same time, traditional religion went through a number of major upheavals and innovations in America. Understandably, the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church struggled to gain a foothold in American society. Presbyterian and Congregational Churches with roots in English Puritanism did far better at first. But, the true winners in the early American religious economy were those Baptists and American Methodists who forged a new and distinctively American kind of Christianity in revivals and camp meetings on the western frontier out of the spiritual fervor of the First and Second Great Awakenings. In the late 1700s, the spark of American Methodism had all but completely died out. By the 1820s, it was the single largest religious denomination in the United States.

To be sure, the seeds of what later historians would come to call “the American Holiness Movement” did not come from any single denomination or religious tradition, but from a number of different streams and currents in American history flowing together. After two “Great Awakenings” of the American religious conscience, one Civil War, countless camp meetings, and an age of reconstruction, the second half of the nineteenth century was ripe for a rebirth of spiritual revival and social reform. Charles Finney’s “new measures”–such as the Mourner’s bench (now “altar call”), regular revivals, and camp meetings–had all but replaced the sacraments, liturgies, and more traditional methods of John Wesley. But, though the methods were different, they insisted, the message was the same.

As one of our most well-known historians, Timothy Smith, explains, “Here were holiness and humanitarianism working hand in hand, as in the days of Wesley. And sectarian feeling was rejected.” And, in these days, the line between religion and politics was barely discernible. For many revival preachers like Charles Finney, Phoebe Palmer, and Dwight Moody, certain kinds of political activism were part of Christianity’s mission of “universal reform.” In many ways, the Holiness movement, the Universal Suffrage movement, prison reforms, the emergence of labor unions, the Social Gospel, even early Prohibitionism shared a lot in common–not least, an optimistically progressive vision of the Kingdom of God in America.

Thus, in America, Wesley’s message of Christian perfection was transposed into a new key. After all, Wesley had been an Anglican priest theologically committed to the Church of England and the creeds, prayers, sacraments, and liturgies of an ancient faith. American holiness preachers were much more narrowly and thematically focused on the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” they read about in scripture, and the experience of “entire sanctification” as a spiritual state of grace secondary to conversion. Nevertheless, the same Spirit they testified to as a personal religious experience drove them out into the world to preach the gospel of Jesus among the poor: to pray, protest, and work self-sacrificially for the rest of society and for the common good.

Such was the Spirit that conceived Peniel Mission, an interdenominational holiness rescue mission that was born in the late 1800s in downtown Los Angeles at the hands of Theodore and Manie Ferguson, George Studd, Joseph Widney, and Phineas Bresee. In their own words,

“Our first work is to try to reach the unchurched. The people from the homes and the street where the light from the churches does not reach, or penetrates but little. Especially to gather the poor to the cross, by bringing to bear upon them Christian sympathy and helpfulness…. It is also our work to preach and teach the gospel of full salvation; to show forth the blessed privilege of believers in Jesus Christ, to be made holy and thus perfect in love.” (Peniel Herald)

The founders of Peniel Mission were also decided upon what they agreed was a “simplest statement” of faith: “The Peniel Mission is an organization for Christian service and fellowship. It will be required that those who seek to become members of the Peniel Mission be sound in the faith on all the main points of Christian doctrine, which may be particularized as follows:

  1. The Divine inspiration of the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments.
  2. The Trinity of the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
  3. The Fall of man, and his consequent need of Regeneration.
  4. The Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ for all men.
  5. Justification by Faith in Him.
  6. Sanctification by Faith in the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, and the Baptism of the Holy Ghost.
  7. The Resurrection of the dead.
  8. The eternity of Reward and Punishment.” (1894)

In 1895, Phineas Bresee, a former Methodist pastor, and Joseph Widney, physician and philanthropist, founded the first Church of the Nazarene in urban Los Angeles in much the same Spirit together. This pair also played a foundational role in the beginnings of the University of Southern California. Bresee would go on to found Pacific Bible College (now Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego) and to be one of the first General Superintendents of the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene, which resulted from mergers with other holiness associations across the country in Pilot Point, Texas, in 1908.

Thus, the Church of the Nazarene, as we still know it today, was born. We are a “holiness church” (or union of churches) with a purpose to preach the gospel of full salvation to the poor. A church unmistakably founded on American soil and ideas, but intentionally international in identity and missionary from the outset. A church of over 2 million members, 22,000 organized churches, more than 50 schools, and 1 hospital in more than 150 countries around the globe. But most importantly, a church with a heart for God’s mission and a theology of love.

Chapter 4: The Wesleyan Way of Salvation

John Wesley was born and raised in England in the first half of the 1700s, to a church and country profoundly shaped by centuries of Catholic tradition, lately refined by the fires of the Enlightenment and Reformation. John Wesley’s father, Samuel, was a priest of the Church of England; so naturally, young John was sent to study at Oxford with a special interest in religion. He was already proficient in several languages, natural philosophy (science), and logic, preparing to enter the priesthood himself when he started reading the works of William Law and the medieval monastic reformer, Thomas a Kempis. From this, he acquired a taste for deeper spirituality and began to apply himself to the problem of sanctification, which he termed “Christian perfection.”

The Holy Club, where John Wesley and his friends would meet at Oxford University

Wesley wasn’t just reading about sanctification, he was trying to attain it. As his meticulous journals from this period of his life attest–constant communion, private prayer, confession, fasting, visiting the sick, giving to the poor–these things Wesley practiced daily without neglecting faith. And all while he was a student, then tutor, at Oxford university. Other students were naturally drawn into his passionate pursuit of perfection, starting a “Holy Club” that would be derisively called “Methodists” by their peers.

Years later, John was an ordained priest with some pastoral and missionary experience when he began to harbor sincere doubts about his own religious experience. Now more distant from Oxford and the hub of Anglicanism, new friends began to influence him in a more distinctly Lutheran direction. Wesley was listening to someone reading from Luther’s commentary on Romans when he began to feel his heart “strangely warmed” within him. It was here that he felt he perceived the profound significance of the Reformation, and the doctrines of justification and the new birth, for himself. At any rate, from this point on, these themes found his way into nearly all his journal entries, letters, and sermons.

But this was still quite far from the end of Wesley’s life. He lived an extraordinarily long time as an itinerant evangelist, writer, and leader of a growing, popular Methodist movement, covering most of England, Scotland, and Ireland’s urban and pastoral landscape on horseback or on foot. His little “holy club” at Oxford had grown into a massive, well-organized holiness movement that spanned continents. They were still called “Methodists,” but Methodism was no longer a joke. Wesley’s success was not just a matter of personal charisma. He had found a way to join people of all different stations, churches, and religious opinions together into groups, classes, bands, and societies that offered each member spiritual support. And, he had found a way to weave together England’s competing narratives. His faith was no mere compromise, but was a practical, viable, and coherent “middle way” (via media) of salvation bringing together the classical Christian tradition of holiness with the Reformers’ message of grace.

Wesleyan Methodism took on a life of its own in later American history. Many Methodist preachers in the American colonies before the Revolutionary War returned to England at Wesley’s own request. After the war, his loyalty to the crown and explicit abhorrence of slavery put Wesley at odds with many early Americans. Consequently, at a conference held on Christmas Day in 1784, the remaining American Methodists, led by Francis Asbury but also Thomas Coke, declared their own independence from the leadership of Wesley.

Nevertheless, God worked powerfully through John Wesley to reform and revive the Spirit of “primitive Christianity” in England, and to make a lasting impact on the history of the church in North America. Not just among Methodists, but widespread religious movements like the Second Great Awakening, the American Holiness Movement, and Pentecostalism all pay some homage to the name and methods of Wesley, together with various denominations like the Wesleyan Church and the Church of the Nazarene.
Recommended reading: A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, by John Wesley

Our Story…Continued (3)

Chapter 3: Always Reforming

Celebrating the triumph of orthodoxy in the creeds and councils of the ancient Christian church does not mean turning a blind eye to corruption in church history–by which we mean the dark ages, the inquisition, the crusades. On this score, John Wesley, the eighteenth-century evangelist and Anglican cleric, is worth quoting at length:

“Persecution never did, never could, give any lasting wound to genuine Christianity. But the greatest it ever received, the grand blow which was struck at the very root of that humble, gentle, patient love, which is the fulfilling of the Christian law, the whole essence of true religion, was struck in the fourth century by Constantine the Great, when he called himself a Christian, and poured in a flood of riches, honours, and power upon the Christians; more especially upon the Clergy… Just so, when the fear of persecution was removed, and wealth and honour attended the Christian profession, the Christians did not gradually sink, but rushed headlong into all manner of vices. Then the mystery of iniquity was no more hid, but stalked abroad in the face of the sun. Then, not the golden but the iron age of the Church commenced” (The Mystery of Iniquity, Sermons of John Wesley 61).

Along with the general spread of the gospel, the authentic development of Christian theology, and the positive influence of the church in civil society, all manner of temptations and corruptions crept into the church. Movements to cleanse or purge the church from evils naturally followed. The Donatists of North Africa, for example, insisted that sacraments performed by certain corrupt priests were invalid, and that theirs were the only true, holy churches of the Spirit. Against them, St. Augustine rightly insisted that the whole, universal church should be considered the “true and mixed body of the Lord”–that it was the will of God that the church of Christ should be composed of saints and sinners, as in Jesus’ parable of the wheat and weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), so that the grace of God alone might continue to sanctify the church in time and validate the sacraments performed in Jesus’ name.

Augustine is widely regarded as one of the great minds in the history of the church and Western civilization, but, his greatest gift to the church might be his legacy of church reformation. In an age of Christianity’s unmistakable corruption, he became a profound witness to the incorruptibility of the love of God in Christ and the power of God’s grace to sanctify the world. And, in his time, but also for centuries to come, the Spirit gave the church a vision to “always be reforming” by its very nature, from within (ecclesia semper reformanda).

Reformation is a theme that rightfully belongs to all of church history, not just the final chapters. Time and time again, God has breathed new life into the history of Christ’s bent and twisted, but unbroken body through reformers, so that the church can be a sign of the regenerating power of the gospel for each and every age. Reformers like Augustine, Benedict, Bernard, Francis, and Dominic pointed a corrupted but beloved church back to the heart of Jesus. We believe the same Spirit inspired those later Protestant Reformers–Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and others–whose own intentions were never to break faith with the church, but to bring a spiritual reformation in their time that, like leaven, would cause the whole batch of dough to rise (Matthew 13:33).

In the true spirit of the Protestant Reformation, Karl Barth titled his multi-volume masterpiece of modern evangelical theology, Church Dogmatics, a title that well represents the purpose of evangelical reformers and reform movements since the time of St. Augustine: to resource, renew, and reinvigorate, but not replace the church, which is the one holy “true and mixed body” of Jesus Christ the Lord. Following the example of John Wesley and the early leaders of the American Holiness Movement, we believe we have been called forth by the Holy Spirit, not to bring further division in the body of Christ or confusion among the churches, but to renew, resource, and leaven the whole batch of dough, as a reform movement within the one historic and universal church that exists to point a confused, corrupted people back to the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene.

Chapter 2: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic

The early church of the first few centuries after Pentecost understood well the meaning of “taking up your cross” (Matthew 16:24). Eleven of the twelve apostles were publicly executed in the course of their ministry; the twelfth was exiled to the island of Patmos, from which he never returned. Like the Sanhedrin in the book of Acts, the Roman Emperors were relentless in their efforts to stamp out Christianity. Countless Christians died as martyrs in ten severe “waves” of persecution from the time of Nero and Domitian in the first century to the time of Diocletian in 303 A.D.

Remarkably, the church not only survived–it thrived in these conditions. As one early Christian writer, Tertullian, observed in the year 197: the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the early church. Churches started sprouting up in surprising places all around Africa, Asia, and the Roman Empire. Missionary bishops like Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons eruditely defended the faith of the apostles in encounters with different cultures and sophisticated readers. The surest proof of their faith in Jesus’ resurrection was the way these Christians faced the threat of death without fear. The early, persecuted church grew as an organic social movement out of deep spiritual resources and rising popular sentiment. “And the Lord added to their numbers daily those who were being saved” (Acts 5:14).

Then, just after the turn of the fourth century, A.D., the world turned upside down.

In 313 A.D., after centuries of state-sponsored persecution, the Roman Emperors of East and West signed an Edict of Toleration which granted legal status to Christianity and promised benevolence toward Christians. Under these new conditions, the church was faced with a different kind of challenge. Could a faith forged in diverse conditions and galvanized under the threat of a common enemy hold its center and stay relevant without the blood of martyrs? Could this church work alongside the kings and powers of this age to keep the peace, bring justice, truth, and order for the common good?

A profound, affirmative answer came in the form of the Council of Nicaea, an assembly of the church’s leaders and teachers called together from all corners of the known world by the Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. What might have been an occasion for division and political strife became a celebration of the unbroken unity of the Christian faith and the triumph of the biblical story of God for all the nations. Under the influence and direction of the Holy Spirit, the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) reaffirmed and summarized the faith of the apostles in a definitive statement that would be come to be known as the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father,
and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
He spoke through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.

Our Story…

Chapter 1: The Story of God

The story that makes us who we are begins and ends with God. We find ourselves, and the meaning of our life together, in the middle of the greatest love story ever told: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever trusts in him…shall have eternal life” (John 3:16). Our story is about the person revealed to us in the gospel of Jesus, the Nazarene, who is God the incarnate Word and Son conceived by the Holy Spirit–the face of the eternal, infinite, unchanging Trinity of love–through whom all things were created in the first place and in whom God has acted freely for us and our salvation.
Ours is also a story of cosmic proportions. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The story that begins with the creation of the universe at the dawn of time aims toward the promise of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1)–a renewal and consummation of God’s creation still to come by the power of the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. That’s how our Bible begins and ends, after all, why our hymns celebrate “

all creatures of our God and King,” and why we continue to practice careful stewardship of our planet.

Within that frame, we focus on the history of humanity made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27): the story that starts with Eve and Adam’s fall from paradise in the Bible and leads to the incarnation of divine humanity in Christ. This story is about the entire history of our human struggle between right and wrong, which God assumes and heals in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the second “Son of Man,” and the triumph of God’s Spirit of love in our very human nature culminating in the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). It’s a message for all people, regardless of creed, color, language, or nationality, and a calling to “make Christlike disciples in all nations”–to save and to serve the whole human race.

Within the scope of that grand biblical narrative we call the story of God, we find the particular story and calling of the church. It is the story of a peculiar people God raised up for a special purpose: not just to be saved but to be an instrument of God’s salvation for all. God said to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2, 3). Abraham went on to become “a father of many nations” (17:5), but his greatest gift to the world was the heritage of a universal faith. That faith embodied in a community of hope and love was the promise passed down through many generations, the inheritance that would be fulfilled in Jesus and his disciples, the seed of the Kingdom that would flourish in the Spirit of Christ and his church.

In the biblical history of Israel, we find the mystery of our own calling revealed as hope within history for all the peoples of God. So, even though we come from different tribes and histories, we boldly confess with St. Paul, that “our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea…and all ate the same spiritual food [that we eat], and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10). In Moses, we ourselves have received the gift of God’s law to bring about justice for all. In David, the promise of the Kingdom is truly ours as well, so the sovereignty of God may be known in every land. In the Hebrew prophets, we have heard God’s call to holiness for people of all tribes and nations. And, all because all that belongs to Christ is also ours in him (1 Corinthians 3:22)–which is to say that we who “once were not a people, are now the people of God” (1 Peter 2:10).
Further reading: The Story of God, by Michael Lodahl