Written by Stan Ingersol
From his column Past to Present
H. V. Miller was elected general superintendent in 1940. When he died eight years later, he was only 54.
Miller is overshadowed in Nazarene memory by contemporaries R. T. Williams and J. B. Chapman, who were both at Pilot Point and had longer histories with the church. Yet Miller was one of the most highly-respected Nazarene leaders in his own day, and he ascended the leadership ranks with astonishing speed.
His ascent was propelled by a sound education, good judgment, administrative ability, gravitas, and good preaching.
Howard Vassar Miller was born in 1894 in Brookton (later Brooktondale), New York. He attended the Congregational Church as a child. His conversion experience occurred at age 16, while alone, but it was precipitated by the revival preaching of a Baptist minister whose church was near the Miller home.
Miller graduated from high school in Ithaca, New York, then entered Colgate University, an American Baptist college in Hamilton, New York. The First Baptist Church of Brookton licensed him to preach in 1915, and he did this regularly during his college years.
Even earlier, he had begun courting Rhea Ross, the daughter of a Baptist minister. A poet, she later achieved renown for writing the verses to the song, “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” Their courtship letters, donated by their granddaughters, have been housed in the Nazarene Archives since 1995.
Miller graduated from Colgate in 1917 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. That September, a council of Baptist elders examined and ordained him at the request of the Maple Flats and Constantia Center Baptist churches, a two-point charge he now served as full-time pastor. One week later, on September 12, he married Rhea Ross.
He came into contact with the Holiness movement soon after entering the ministry. Through its influence, he sought the grace of entire sanctification, eventually attaining it under the preaching of A. L. Whitcomb, a Free Methodist, at the Richland Camp in northern New York.
Other Baptists opposed his holiness theology. Miller decided to unite with the People’s Church of Providence, Rhode Island, the oldest Nazarene congregation in America.
Soon he was called to be pastor of the Nazarene congregation in Hartford, Connecticut, which he served for a little over a year. After less than two years with the Nazarenes, Miller was elected by the New England District as its superintendent—a strong tribute to the esteem in which he was held by fellow pastors.
He led the New England District for five years, then he became superintendent of the New York District, serving there for four years. In 1932, he accepted the call to pastor Chicago First Church. Then, in 1939, he became Dean of the School of Theology at Northwest Nazarene College.
There were two vacancies on the Board of General Superintendents when the 1940 General Assembly convened. J. G. Morrison’s death several months earlier created one of them. The other was caused by John Goodwin’s retirement at the assembly.
Miller and Orval J. Nease were elected to fill these vacancies, joining board members R. T. Williams and J. B. Chapman.
For Miller, the next few years were filled with extensive travel at home and abroad. Much of the world was already at war by late 1940, so foreign visitation was not carried out extensively during his first quadrennium, though he used airplanes to make trips to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in 1943, and in 1944 visited Nicaragua and Argentina.
The thorny issue of that quadrennium was the O. J. Nease problem. Miller’s colleague had long been aware of a morals issue involving his own son, a young minister, but had not disclosed it. This eventually became public knowledge, and Nease was accused of shielding his boy from church discipline in a way he would not have done for some other man.
Nease admitted bad judgment but complicated matters by accusing his associates of using the incident to force him off the board. His colleagues believed he was trying to shift responsibility for his bad decisions, and the relationship between Nease and the rest of the board completely broke down.
Williams, Chapman, and Miller entered the 1944 General Assembly convinced that the board would be dysfunctional if Nease was re-elected. Each of the three carried a resignation letter in his pocket. They were re-elected on the first ballot. After several ballots, Nease was not re-elected and withdrew his name, averting a far greater crisis.
The war’s end expanded the opportunities for foreign travel. In 1945, Miller visited churches in Argentina and Nicaragua. The following year, he went to Australia and organized the Nazarene district out of an indigenous church that had united with the denomination. He also returned that year to Nicaragua, and he visited Peru.
In 1947, he visited India, conducted services in Damascus, Syria, Jerusalem, and Palestine, and he met with Alfredo Del Rosso in Florence, Italy, to discuss bringing the latter’s indigenous network of Italian holiness congregations into the Church of the Nazarene.
During these years, Miller wrote several books, among them The Apostle of Personal Evangelism (Uncle John Vassar) with Edwin Hardy (1941), When He Has Come (1941), The Sin Problem (1947), and His Will For Us (1949).
Williams and Chapman died in 1946 and 1947, so Miller was the church’s senior general superintendent when he was elected to his third term in 1948. He seemed to be in perfect health. At that assembly after a hiatus of four years, Orval Nease was elected again to the Board of General Superintendents. Their relations appear to have been cordial.
Later that year, three days after Christmas, Miller and his son-in-law spent much of the day chopping down a large tree outside his home in Brooktondale. In the late afternoon, Miller suffered a heart attack and died without a word. His death was a great shock to his family and to the church.
His funeral was conducted in a Presbyterian church in Ithaca, New York, some eight miles from his home, and he was buried in the Brooktondale cemetery.
Stan Ingersol is manager of archives for the Church of the Nazarene.