Phineas Bresee and the Politics of Prohibition

Written by Stan Ingersol
From his column Past to Present

Prohibition March in Walla Walla, Washington, c. 1910-1912.

Phineas Bresee’s early ministry coincided with the explosive issues of slavery and Civil War, and he aligned with the Republican Party of that day. By 1900, though, he was critical of Republican leaders, particularly President McKinley. Why? Because early issues had faded and been replaced by other ones.

The campaign to prohibit the sale and distribution of liquor was chief among them, and here is where Bresee’s disdain for McKinley entered: McKinley and other Republican leaders were not committed to prohibition, whereas it was a prime issue for Bresee. His Los Angeles First Church became a temperance movement center for California.

Bresee’s first great stand against the saloon occurred in Pasadena, Calif., while he was a Methodist pastor. The large church building where he preached hosted a temperance rally in early 1887, and Bresee joined 540 others in a pledge to boycott local businesses that did not support the city’s anti-liquor ordinance.[1]

Local businesses wanted to repeal the ordinance. The Southern California Christian Advocate told readers: “This occasioned the preaching of a stirring temperance sermon by our pastor, P. F. Bresee, who is always at the front on this great question. He took for his text the passage narrating the casting out of the legion of devils. We do not remember ever hearing a more powerful sermon, so clearly and forcibly did he illustrate the workings and effect of the ‘whiskey devil’.”[2] Bresee’s opponents in Pasadena not only criticized him, they burned his effigy.[3]

For several decades, every Nazarene district had a Prohibition Committee.

Anti-saloon politics carried over into the Nazarene movement. Bresee’s first Manual (1898) for Nazarenes in the West stated: “The Holy Scriptures and human experience alike condemn the use, as a beverage, of alcoholic drinks. The manufacture and sale of such liquors for such purposes is warfare against the human race. Total abstinence from all intoxicants is the Christian rule for the individual, and the total prohibition of the traffic is the duty of civil government.” After more pointed statements, the paragraph ends in this stricture: “Only unfermented wine is to be used in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.”[4]

The prohibitionist stance attracted Dr. Stephen Bowers, who joined the Nazarenes in 1900. A well-known Methodist minister and California geologist, he was a prohibition leader in the state. Bowers began writing the Nazarene Messenger’s “Civic Righteousness” column, which championed temperance and prohibition.

Bowers also chaired the Prohibition Committee, which reported to the Tenth Annual Assembly (1905) that “the saloon and the house of prostitution go hand in hand as twin sisters of the Devil.” The report added: “We hereby place ourselves on record in favor of equal suffrage, and we pray God will hasten the day when the mothers, daughters, and wives of our land shall have the privilege of marching with their husbands and brothers to the polls to strike to its death the hideous liquor curse.”[5]

Here was a key connection! The national Woman’s Christian Temperance Union not only crusaded against the saloon; they also crusaded for female suffrage. Bowers and Bresee reflected this linkage. Among early Nazarenes, there was great support for empowering women with the vote.

In 1900, Bresee wrote that “the Nazarene Messenger is not a political paper,” noting that “its banner…. is Holiness through the blood of the Lamb.” But he added: “this fact makes it the enemy of the saloon and the earnest advocate of the destruction of the liquor traffic.”[6]

Six years later, though, politics certainly entered into play when the same paper endorsed Dr. Wyley Phillips, a prohibition editor, for mayor of Los Angeles, stating: “There ought to be enough clean men in this city to elect a clean Mayor . . . Vote for Mr. Phillips.”[7]

The groups that united with Bresee’s in 1907 and 1908 to form the Church of the Nazarene shared his opposition to the saloon. For several decades, every Nazarene district had a Prohibition Committee.

National prohibition was tried and discarded, but temperance reform had not failed. Americans’ annual per capita consumption dropped drastically over the nineteenth century, from 7.1 gallons of absolute alcohol in 1830 to 2.6 gallons by 1910, and to less than a gallon by the end of the twentieth century. Historian Jennifer Woodruff Tait suggests that temperance reformers probably never realized how much success they actually achieved.[8]

Stan Ingersol is manager of archives for the Church of the Nazarene.

[1]Carl Bangs, Phineas F. Bresee: His Life in Methodism, the Holiness Movement and the Church of the Nazarene (1995): 165.
[2]Donald P. Brickley, Man of the Morning (1960): 42?????
[3]E. A. Girvin, Phineas F. Bresee: A Prince in Israel (1916): 88.
[4]Manual of the Church of the Nazarene (1898): 19-20.
[5]Nazarene Messenger (Oct. 19, 1905): 4.
[6]Quoted by Timothy Smith, Called Unto Holiness (1962): 125.
[7]Nazarene Messenger (Nov. 29, 1906): 11.
[8]Jennifer L. Woodruff Tait, The Poisoned Chalice: Eucharistic Grape Juice and Common-Sense Realism in Victorian Methodism (2011), 9-10.