This paper has been written by me in the course of my theological studies at European Nazarene College (www.eunc.edu). You may use this text as a part of your work provided that you give credits to its author – Petar Neychev. If you have questions – please, leave a comment or contact me through the Contact Us page.
The purpose of this biographical review is to present to the reader, the spiritual development, the ministry, and the work within the Church of the Nazarene in the life of Seth Cook Rees. Through this review, you will have to opportunity to read about his conversion to Christianity, his pastoral experiences, and some facts from his personal life, which led Seth Rees to his experience of sanctification, and later had impact on the Church of the Nazarene through his ministry as a pastor of the Pasadena University Church. As a conclusion, there will be a reflection on the changes that Rees’ life and ministry led to in the Church of the Nazarene.
(This biographical review is based on information entirely taken, unless explicitly mentioned otherwise, from Rees Paul S. Seth Cook Rees The Warrior-Saint, Holiness Data Ministry: Digital Edition 03/18/2002)
Seth Cook Rees was born at Westfield, Indiana, on August 6, 1854. He is the first child of his mother Luzena Rees, and the tenth child of his father Zechariah Rees.Tracing the origin of the Rees family, we can go back to the history of Wales from the 11th century. There are two important persons under the original Welsh spelling of the name Rees – Rhys in the history from that time: Rhys Ap Tewdor was Prince of North Wales, and Rhys Ap Tewdor Mawr, who was a King of South Wales. Later in 1599 the Rhys family from the South emigrates to England where their name receives its spelling “Rees”. In 1700 several men from the family move to Pennsylvania, from where one of their sons, David, moved to North Carolina. David and Mary Polk have ten children, and one of them is Zechariah Rees – the father of Seth C. Rees.
Prompted by the large exodus of Quakers, who did not agree with slavery, from North Carolina in the first years of the 19th century, Zechariah Rees and his brother headed towards the western states Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa. There in Westfield, the home of the Rees family hosts Quaker ministers and their large meetings.
Typically for that time, the whole family was involved in work at home, and particularly, the farm that they had. Getting up at four in the morning, winter and summer, and working until dark was the everyday life for Seth Rees and his relatives. Personally, young Seth was responsible for nearly a hundred animals in the farm.
Besides a farmer, Zechariah Rees is also a miraculously converted servant of God. Raised in a distillery, and not being able to read or hear the Word of God read to him, Zechariah experiences the work of the Holy Spirit very strongly. His grandfather often comes to him and asks for money, because the production from the distillery is never enough, and he constantly owes money to someone. One day, changed by his revelation, Zechariah sets one condition for the money – alcohol should no longer be produced in his grandfather’s house.
Both Seth’s parents maintain a warm spiritual atmosphere in their home. One of the most appreciated moments in the family is when mother and father read the family Bible. The family worshiped in the Quaker style, and this is the reason why Seth has not heard an audible prayer until his conversion at nineteen years of age.
After a period of rebellion and sin in his teen years, in March, 1873, Seth Rees experiences the Holy Spirit and is converted to God. After responding to the call for showing the need of prayer by standing up in two night meetings in a row, this is how Rees personally describes his experience:
When the meeting was well under way, a strange power came over me and I arose and confessed that I was an awful sinner. I was not on my feet thirty seconds, but I sat down a saint! Up to that time I had not attempted to pray. I had not shed a tear. Now my eyes were fountains; I wept like rain. The complexion of everything changed. Every blade of grass, every drop of water and every bird of forest and field, seemed to dance with delight” (Rees 9).
In August, 1874, Seth Rees makes his first attempt to preach at a Quaker Quarterly Meeting in Westfield, Indiana, attended by nearly 8000 people. The leaders immediately recognized his gifts, and gave him the title “Minister of the Gospel of Christ”(Rees 10). Soon after that, young Rees is leading revivals in many small and big places in the area.
While evangelizing in Ohio, Rees starts a correspondence with his future wife – Hulda Johnson. The first time they meet Rees is still not converted, and Hulda is to meet a reclamation during one of Rees’ services. In December, 1876, Hulda Johnson, who is at this time already a recognized minister and preacher, and Seth Rees are married. They form a strong marriage, and both are strongly devoted to serving God with their lives.
Even though the wonderful preaching gifts and the successful marriage, ten years after Rees is converted, he is overwhelmed with confusion, concerns and uncertainty. In 1883, Rees listens to the voice of the Holy Spirit and what he hears is sanctification. Together with him, his wife Hulda is also fully sanctified. One question raises in Seth’s mind – will he leave his previous teachings if the Holy Spirit leads him in this direction?
After ministering among Indians from different tribes for awhile, the Rees family decides to go back to the Friends Meeting, which was also the place where Seth Rees had received his initial education back in Westfield. In April, 1884, the family moves to New York and leads a great revival there.
On the Sunday following the Ohio Yearly Meeting in 1886, Seth and Hulda are baptized with water. This event raises the issue of freedom concerning the rules of the church that can exist. It was discussed very intensively among Quakers from the whole world. This all resulted in condemning Seth and Hulda Rees in uncertain loyalty, which appears to be a stumbling block several times later in their ministry.
In 1890, more precisely, July 25, the first Portsmouth Camp Meeting took place. After a time of changing mission fields within the Quakers, Rees feels that this is the place where they should spread the Gospel. Three years later, in the spring of 1893 the family leaves Portsmouth. During their ministry in the Camp Meeting, they often received opposition to their liberal views concerning the doctrines of the church and the divine healing.
In 1897 Rees unites with Martin Wells Knapp in the organization known as International Holiness Union and prayer League. Besides focusing on Christ as a Savior and Sanctifier, the new organization includes in its doctrine the premillenial view of Christ’s return, and divine healing. Those two aspects of their doctrine brought them the label of a radical movement. Later the Union developed into the Pilgrim Holiness Church, after the union with the Pilgrim Church in 1922.
After building this union Rees becomes the Associate Editor of “A Full Salvation Journal”, where he works together with Knapp. In the meantime Rees is still preaching and leading meetings in Ohio. Being the time of writing camp meeting history, it should not surprise us that Seth Rees was very active in that. He is preaching at meetings in Cincinnati, in 1898, and in Georgia, in 1900. In 1901, Rees together with several brothers leads two gatherings, one in the two biggest Methodist Churches in Chicago, and one in Boston. Both meetings lead to literally thousands of people being sanctified.
1901 seems to have been a year filled with emotions for Rees. In that year, Knapp dies, after which Rees is called to start missions for reaching prostitutes in Chicago. Later this spread over Columbus, Kansas City and Pilot Point. In the first years, this work is done under the control of the Society of Friends, but later Rees begins working with the Church of the Nazarene. It is in 1908 when the Rees family moves out from Chicago, to go to the West.
In 1912, after already participating in several revivals, including one in the First Church of the Nazarene with Dr. P.F. Bresee as a pastor, Rees receives an invitation to become a pastor of the University Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena.
There, in Pasadena, Rees and Dr. H.O. Wiley work together very well, which empowered by the blessings of God, leads to the great revival in 1914. This revival is considered by some the “most notable event in the four years that these men labored together” (Rees 49). Class rooms turned into altar call places, people from various classes were touched, Bresee preached every morning and evening… Hundreds of students were sanctified.
Not very long after that, Wiley resigns his presidency of the Pasadena University, and becomes a pastor of the Nazarene congregation at San Diego.
By the time the new leadership takes its place, there are a lot of controversies within the community of the university and the church. Rees was in the center of them. One of the biggest issues was about Rees’ methods of leading the church. This all started with the case of a young minister, closely related to the family of Bresee, who was blamed for certain mistakes. After the young man surrendered, the pastor decided to make the case public. It is interesting to notice, that despite this fact, later Bresee remains on the side of Rees when he is blamed as a pay back (Smith 276). Another issue, problematic for Rees was his opinion that they do not teach holiness at the University. He even went that far to claim that what was taught by some people was even not accepted by the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene (Smith 275)
The peak moment comes when the District Superintendent Howard Eckel comes at the service on Sunday, February 25, 1917, and disorganizes and dismembers the congregation form the Church of the Nazarene, using the authority “granted him by the most recent Nazarene Manual” (Smith 278).
The separation of the congregation is where sources about Rees’ life contradict with each other. According to Rees’ biography, written by his son Paul S. Rees – Seth Cook Rees The Warrior-Saint, the congregation was “expelled by disorganization on charges that had to do neither with morals or doctrine, and this without a hearing” (Rees 51). According to Called Unto Holiness by Timothy L. Smith, which was published 28 years later, in 1962, “the congregation of the University Church had meanwhile decided to move from the college chapel to a building of their own” (Rees 278). Despite those contradictions, which may appear because of subjective reasons from the side of Paul Rees, or because of later re-evaluation of the facts from the side of Smith, one thing is for sure – Seth Rees’ congregation was not a part of the University Church anymore.
As a result of this separation, in June, 1917, the pastor and his people organized themselves as “an independent unit” (Rees 51), called the Pilgrim
Tabernacle. Protesting against the actions from the leadership of the Nazarene
church, the former chapel congregation adopted the name “Pentecost-Pilgrim Church”. As it was mentioned earlier, this organization united with the International Holiness Church, in 1922, to form the “Pilgrim Holiness Church.”
Towards the spring of 1917, Reynolds, Goodwin, and Williams meet without the third General Superintendent – Walker. At their meeting they interpret the Manual in the periodical of the denomination – Herald of Holiness. The conclusion is that 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” (Smith 281). Besides that, they were convinced that any disorganized church had the right to oppose the decision and require a revision of it. The final decisions from that meeting were applied to the situation with the University Church. In the meantime, however, Rees and his people have decided that working together with the Nazarenes is impossible (Smith 281).
Thus, joining the Church of the Nazarene in the beginnings of its Leadership crisis, Seth C. Rees leaves it in the midst of it. After leaving the Church of the Nazarene Rees focuses mainly on mission ministries. Soon he travels with his family the long way to North and West Europe, The Middle East, and finally China and Japan. Rees returns to Pasadena in 1926, to be elected a General Superintendent, and work in camp meetings in the Pilgrim Holiness Church for six years – until his death in 1932.
After a devoted ministry to God, after reaching thousands for Christ, after many dissensions with his co-workers at different churches, Seth Rees’ life can certainly teach us several lessons. Focusing on his quite short ministry in the Church of the Nazarene, we see many weaknesses of the church revealed. In the events from 1917 we can surely recognize the importance of the leadership in the church. Although, judging from a time distance of almost a whole century is not always precise, one fact is still remarkable – a misuse of authority leads to losing an active local leader. The impact of this fact can be made even stronger if we consider the great revival that took place on the campus of the Nazarene university in Pasadena… Under the leadership of Rees. The well-organized work of Rees and Wiley is a witness that if we do not create any boundaries, God can work miraculously through us and among us.
The cooperative work of Seth Rees and the Church of the Nazarene mainly reveals different weak and strong aspects of the still young and vulnerable church. There are not many changes that Rees has lead to directly. The disorganization of the University Church may seem at least a little bit more logical to those who are familiar with the Leadership Crisis, which happened at that time. Bresee, the founder and leader who was able to resolve problems of this size quickly and authoritatively, was gone. Another General Superintendent also died with him – Wilson. The authority that the first leaders and also founders practiced had to be compensated by new people.
If we understand the church as an organization which aims to reach people for God’s Kingdom, then we can see one encouraging lesson in Rees’ separation – as long as we are walking in the way of righteousness, God can reach people through us, despite of our church membership. In his ministry before, and especially after the experience with the Church of the Nazarene, Rees is able to initiate missionary work in many fields, and help people convert through multiple camp meetings.
More specifically, Rees’ life in and out of the Church of the Nazarene is an example of holiness in practice. Soon after his experience of sanctification, Seth Rees is encouraged to bring the opportunities for the same experience to the people who do not have it. His ministry among the Indian tribes represents his devotion to this mission.
Unfortunately, there was not a lot of information available to me, concerning Seth Rees, besides the biography, written by his son, and several references in books on early Nazarene history. For the purpose of this biographical review, however, I believe it is sufficient to summarize even those bits of data. They clearly show us the difficulties that churches face in their early development, and the great responsibilities of their leaders. The importance of the person in the church and their ministry first for God, and then for the earthly institution, or organization. The separation of Rees from the Church of the Nazarene could also be a warning for us today, that although, we are a holiness church, we can still act in ways that are not attractive to others. This is why I believe it is important for Nazarenes today and in the future to know about the life of Seth Cook Rees.
Rees, Paul S., Seth Cook Rees The Warrior-Saint. Holiness Data Ministry: Digital Edition, 03/18/2002 <http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyctr/books/ 2001-2100/HDM2047.PDF>
Smith, Timothy L., Called Unto Holiness. Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1962