Written by Stan Ingersol
From his column Past to Present
Beneficial partnerships between clergy and lay leaders undergird effective ministry. Leslie F. Gay’s relationship with Phineas Bresee helps illustrate this.
Gay was born near Joliet, Illinois, on November 10, 1845. Though raised on a farm, he was able to attend an academy and became head of its business department after two years.
Urged to move to a warmer climate, he went to California in the winter of 1874 and found a job tending bees. Later, he became a partner in a fruit and nursery business in Los Angeles.
He married Cora Seamons of Aurora, Illinois, in 1881 and brought her to his western home. Their domestic tranquility was blessed with a son, Leslie F. Gay, Jr.
The Gays were members of Fort Street Methodist Episcopal Church (M.E.C.)—now First United Methodist. Rev. Hardin Wallace, a Methodist evangelist, initiated a series of holiness meetings in southern California in 1880. Gay was sanctified fully in one of these, as were other Fort Street members.
Gay began to organize other laymen to foster the pursuit of holiness. In his home, he conducted a weekly meeting to promote Christian holiness patterned on Phoebe Palmer’s Tuesday Meeting in New York City a generation earlier.
The Hardin Wallace campaigns had led some people to leave their churches and gather in the Holiness Church, a new and somewhat narrow denomination that required entire sanctification as a membership requirement. Gay worked with pastor E. S. Chase to keep as many as possible in the Methodist churches.
Throughout the winter of 1883, he hosted in his home Rev. William McDonald, president of the National Holiness Association (NHA), and Rev. George D. Watson as they engaged in holiness revivals in southern California.
In 1886, he hosted Rev. J. A. Wood for several weeks. Wood was one of the NHA’s founders and an author of classic holiness texts: Perfect Love (1860), Purity and Maturity (1876), and Christian Perfection: As Taught by John Wesley (1885). Gay suggested that Wood move to California, and Wood ended up buying a farm in South Pasadena where he soon relocated from the East Coast.
Bresee entered this world when he moved to California. He had experienced entire sanctification as a pastor in Chariton, Iowa, yet lacked a clear understanding of what had occurred and did not identify with the holiness movement. This was about to change.
Immediately after arriving in California, Bresee was appointed pastor of Fort Street M.E.C. Here, Gay helped to awaken Bresee to the literature and personalities in the Wesleyan-Holiness movement. Following a month of holiness meetings by William McDonald at Fort Street, Bresee identified with the holiness movement.
Gay’s prominence in religious circles grew. He joined the NHA in 1887—one of only seven laymen nationwide permitted to do so. (Bresee joined in 1891.) Moreover, the Southern California Conference elected Gay as a lay delegate to the 1888 General Conference of the M.E.C.
In 1892, Gay became general manager of the 14,000-acre David C. Cook fruit ranch in Ventura County and held that job for the next seven years. The owner was the same David C. Cook who founded a company in Chicago in 1875 to publish Sunday school materials. Cook, too, had moved west. The local culture around the ranch emphasized education, religion, temperance, horticulture, and “happy homes.” Gay was right at home.
Gay moved back to Los Angeles in 1899 where he engaged in real estate and insurance. He supported various Methodist churches, especially smaller ones, but in 1902, he and Cora united with Los Angeles First Church of the Nazarene where Bresee had come to pastor.
The congregation still met in “the Glory Barn” but would soon move to a substantial brick building at Sixth and Wall. Bresee immediately gave Gay a large Sunday school class to teach, and he remained at its helm until his death in 1930.
Gay was a passionate advocate of home and foreign missions. He promoted outreach to the Mexican and Japanese populations in Southern California and went to immigrant camps to conduct services as a lay leader.
He had supported Methodist missions in India and did the same as a Nazarene, organizing a local missionary society and serving as its treasurer. As far back as 1905, he advocated “ten percent giving” by the local church toward missions. According to his wife, “‘Go ye’ was a fire in his bones that pushed him on to do his best for Christ and the world.” (Herald of Holiness, (Dec. 24, 1930): 14).
After the mergers at the First and Second General Assemblies, Gay became treasurer for the General Missionary Board’s Western Division. He also served for several years as a member of the General Missionary Board and the Board of Foreign Missions.
One tragedy marred his life. His son, a notable chronicler of California history and a member of the University of Southern California faculty, died at age 30 of tuberculosis.
Leslie F. Gay, Sr., died on November 5, 1930. His funeral service, which drew a large attendance, was conducted in Los Angeles First Church by pastor H. H. Hooker.
Stan Ingersol is manager of archives for the Church of the Nazarene.