by Jill Davidson

At the mention of the word “sister,” some people think with fond childhood memories of that girl with whom they shared parents. Some people think of single women in ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, the women called “nuns.” Other people think of “sister” as a female fellow believer in the Lord. This paper has to do with sisters, the women in the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church, now known as the Bible Fellowship Church. Attention will be drawn to formal and informal ministry of women, and attitudes toward women.

Gospel Workers Society

At the mention of formal ministry for women in the MBC/BFC, the Gospel Workers Society first comes to mind. The Gospel Workers Society had its official organizational beginning in 1895, but women in ministry began before that.

In the 1885 General Conference minutes we read “Whereas, we believe that God, in former times, chose holy women to prophesy and labor in the church, therefore Resolved, that we allow a sister thus chosen of God, to preach and to labor for the salvation of souls, under the supervision of a minister or presiding elder.” [1885 p5] In 1888, [p16] “Resolved, that any sister who feels called of God to preach shall be recognized as an evangelist, subject to the minister in charge and the Presiding Elder. They shall be received the same as probationers except ordination.” This suggests that there were women in the MBC eager to get into full-time, recognized ministry. The earliest for whom a record exists is Janet Douglas Hall, whose ministry was recognized in 1883. She was from one of the Mid-West Conferences of the MBC.

In the Pennsylvania Conference, there are several women who were Annual Conference Licensed Evangelists and some were Quarterly Conference Licensed Evangelists in the early 1890’s. This includes Lucy Musselman and Dora Rote, both of whom we shall look at later. The interest of women in entering a full-time ministry and the need to preach the Gospel among the unsaved, unchurched communities in some areas led to the official organization of the Gospel Worker Society on 5 January 1895 by W. B. Musselman, then Presiding Elder of the Pennsylvania Conference of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. At first, the Gospel Workers Society included men. We see in the 1898 yearbook of the PA MBC, page 16, “Resolved, that the Missionary Presiding Elder shall transfer any young men, except local workers, who come out among the Gospel Workers to the Church and the Presiding Elder.” The Gospel Herald Society for men was organized a year later, headed by the new Presiding Elder C. H. Brunner.

The year 1898 saw other significant changes. W. B. Musselman resigned from the position of Presiding Elder in order to devote more time and energy in overseeing the Gospel Workers Society. This marks the beginning of the Gospel Workers Society as an organization separate from the MBC. It was an amicable separation. Annual Conference offered to the Gospel Workers one day at each camp meeting and invited them to bring their book tent to camp meeting.

The women’s activities in the 1890’s, before and after the official organization of the Gospel Workers Society, included street preaching, rescue missions, tent meetings, and colportage work; i.e. selling Bibles and religious literature. It was patterned after the Salvation Army. These activities within a community would sometimes lead to the formation of a new congregation which would later have a male pastor assigned to it.  

For a few years, literature published by others was sold. By 1902, The Gospel Worker Society developed its own literature, a periodical entitled “The Gospel Worker Society Herald.” In a short time, the Society acquired their own printing press. This publishing business was first called The Herald Publishing House and was located in Williamsport, PA. By 1907, the press was moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to be more centrally located. This tells us that many of the Gospel Worker women were coming from the Mid-West Conferences of the MBC. In 1922, the printing operation became known as the Union Gospel Press, the name it uses today. It is still operated by Gospel Worker women. By 1911, the Gospel Workers Society was seen more as a publishing house than as public speakers. In 1912, they were publishing “The Gospel Herald,” “The Gospel Messenger,” (a Sunday School paper), and “other good religious papers.” [p16 1912 yearbook] As a business, the Union Gospel Press did well; so well, in fact, that by 1935 an offering was no longer received by the Pennsylvania Conference for the Gospel Workers Society. W. Bruce Musselman, grandson of founder W. B. Musselman and one time general manager of the Union Gospel Press explains that the offering was not needed and in fact several years later the Gospel Workers Society/Union Gospel Press had actually accumulated a surplus of over $5 million dollars.

The Union Gospel Press, today operated under the Incorporated Trustees of the Gospel Worker Society, continues to produce Bible-based Sunday School materials and teaching aids. However, since the Bible Fellowship Church has not maintained their official association with the Union Gospel Press as it did in former years, we shall leave our discussion of the Gospel Workers Society and now focus on a few individuals who were part of the Society.

Lucy Musselman, nee Brunner, was born in 1842. When she was in her late teens, she married Jonas Musselman, who later became a preacher in the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. Their three boys, William B., Harvey B., and Allen B. Musselman all served as pastors in the MBC. W.B. and H.B. also served as leaders. Jonas died at age 46, in 1886, leaving Lucy a young widow with three teenage sons.

Just a few years later in 1890, Lucy became an Annual Conference Licensed Evangelist. By 1892, she was listed as a candidate for the ministry who was examined and accepted as a probationer along with two men. She was assigned by the stationing committee to be assistant pastor to J.E. Fidler at Coopersburg, Emmaus, Springtown, Ruch’s, and Zion’s Hill (Verhandlungen, p212). She retained this assignment in 1893.

In 1894, Lucy was still a probationer, proceeding through the reading course along with the men. She earned good grades in everything but Church History which she had to repeat. This time the Stationing Committee assigned her to assist J.B. Knerr at Coopersburg and Springtown.

In January 1895, the Gospel Workers Society was officially organized by and headed by Lucy’s son, Presiding Elder W.B. Musselman. Lucy became Gospel Worker number one. Since the Gospel Worker Society was not a separate organization yet, Lucy was still listed as a probationer along with several men. The report of the Committee on Examination of traveling Elders recommend the Conference to ordain R.D. Dreisbach who had proceeded through the reading course the same time as Lucy. Lucy was not mentioned concerning ordination; we have already seen that the General Conference of 1888 acknowledged and accepted the ministry of women except for ordination.

The report of the Stationing Committee in 1895 is most interesting, but leaves unanswered questions. First of all, Lucy was no longer serving at Coopersburg. Agnes Messinger was now assistant to Wilson Steinmetz at Coopersburg, Quakertown, and Springtown. Lucy Musselman and Dora B. Rote were listed among the evangelists along with two men. After the appropriations report of 1895, we read the following: “The above report was received with the following changes: Walnutport and Lower Siegfried Mission – Lucy Musselman. A. Strawn, overseer.” (V p.244). A.M. Clauser was assigned there in the original report. A revised list of the Evangelists omits Lucy’s name. This report was given on February 19, 1895. A look at the Quarterly Conference records of Walnutport and Lower Siegfried (a.k.a. Northampton) states the following for March 2, 1895: “Bro. A.M. Clauser was appointed Pastor of Northampton and Walnutport Mission by the conference in place of sister Lucy Musselman.” Did Lucy serve as pastor for a week or two? We are inclined to say “yes” because in later years, in the memories of those now living, assignments were taken the Sunday following Annual Conference. Why was her assignment there an after-thought at Annual Conference? Why was A.M. Clauser sent there after all in March? When Lucy assisted at a charge with several churches, did she preach at one church while the pastor was at another? We may never have the answers to these questions. One thing is clear from the Walnutport – Northampton Quarterly Conference records: Lucy was called “pastor.”

In 1898, the Gospel Workers Society as an organization separated from the MBC. Now only men are listed as Annual Conference Licensed Evangelists. Lucy is listed in the new category of “Gospel Workers” along with twenty-five other women along with W.B. Musselman, President. The following appears in the 1898 minutes of Annual Conference: “By their own request the names of A.[Amanda] E. Shaffer, Lucy Musselman, and Dora B. Rote shall be erased from this conference roll and transferred to the Gospel Worker’s Society.” (p14). A resolution from the same conference reads thus: “Resolved, that any single sister who feels a call to the work shall either work under the direction of the Quarterly Conference, and be accountable to the same, or join the Gospel Workers’ Society.” (p16). Thus we have an official exclusion of women from the pastoral office. This did not mean they didn’t preach. As Gospel Workers they preached on streets, in city missions, and in tent meetings. A lot of BFC congregations had their start in this way.

In 1907, Lucy moved to Cleveland, Ohio when the Herald Publishing House moved there. She lived out her remaining years there, and died on October 20, 1916. She is buried in Brooklyn Heights Cemetery in Cleveland, eventually joined by her son, W.B. Musselman, his wife, and a number of Gospel Workers.

Gospel Worker number two was Dora B. Rote. The Rote family was from a Western state and had relocated to Reading, PA in the early 1890’s. Dora was saved under the preaching of W.B. Musselman. Dora and her sister, Jennie, became involved with the Gospel Workers from the beginning. “The Rote sisters were very very talented girls.” says W. Bruce Musselman who knew them. (July 11, 1992) Dora and Jennie played stringed instruments and sang, preached, and exhorted as did the other Gospel Workers.

By 1893, Dora was involved in the founding days of the Graterford Church. Her name appears in the early account books along with others who established the congregation. She moves onto the Lehighton area by 1895, and was mentioned in their Quarterly Conference records.

In Weissport, a blacksmith named Richard Woodring was led to the Lord by Dora Rote. By 1898, Richard was a licensed preacher. Richard and his wife gave the name “Dora” to a daughter born to them. This daughter Dora married Rudy Gehman, also a pastor in the MBC. Their only child, Richard Gehman (named for his grandfather) is now a BFC missionary in Kenya, Africa, involved in training African nationals for the pastorate. Although as a Gospel Worker Dora never married nor had children, she had many spiritual descendants, world-wide.

Dora was involved in the street preaching, tent meetings and such activities as the other Gospel Workers did. When the Gospel Workers Society moved to Cleveland, she also moved with them. She labored faithfully until her death in 1947, out-living her sister Jennie by thirty years. Those who knew her describe her as “a very lovely lady.” (W. Bruce Musselman, July 11, 1992)

Foreign Missions

We now move to foreign missions. Here follows a survey of what work women did on the foreign mission field.

Henry and Kate Weiss were the first MBC couple to be sent to a foreign mission field. Of the many missionaries supported by the MBC, they were some of the few that actually came from MBC churches. They went to Concepcion, Chile, settling in a German-speaking community there. In their time there, Henry helped to start about twelve churches, trained about twenty pastors and workers and baptized almost two thousand people. Kate did some visiting, comforting the sick and afflicted, distributed tracts and assisted in meetings and Sunday School. By 1913, their daughter, Marie, was old enough to run the linotype machine for their twenty-page monthly paper in Spanish. (1913 p. 35). In 1914, it was said of Marie Weiss that her “knowledge of English, German, and Spanish is a great help in the printing of literature. This and having their own presses has cut down their expenses to a minimum.” (1914, p. 37) Henry died in 1915, after which Kate found employment at the Missionary Institute of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in New York where her children were studying.

Another couple supported by the MBC was J.E. Fidler and his wife. In 1900, they were recommended to the Armenian Relief Committee as missionaries to Turkey. As the name suggests, they were involved in relief work. They did not stay long; in 1903 the Fidlers went to Canada with the MBC there.

Rose Lambert, with a single female co-worker, were a team running an orphanage in Turkey. She also worked as a nurse there. Ten years later, in 1910, Rose’s health broke down, forcing her to return to America. A year later, she resigned because of her health and occupied herself with writing and giving lectures.

In 1903 Mr. and Mrs. H.W. Feldges went to Chile. H.W. Feldges was in the Gospel Herald Society. They were involved with evangelizing, church planting, and training in the pastorate along with the Weisses. It is interesting to note that in 1913 the Feldges were home on furlough. It is stated in the yearbook that “THEY [emphasis mine] are speaking in several of our churches.”

The Feldges’ only child, Grace, was licensed in 1932. She became Mrs. Fred Whale in 1933. Together they went to North Nigeria in Africa, then to Sudan in 1934, working with the Boys’ Brigade organization.

In 1913, Miss Anna LeFevre was working in a school in Santiago, Chile, “principally among the children, besides helping some in the printing work.” (1913, p34) Her work among children included teaching Sunday School, holding Children’s meetings on weekday afternoons, teaching hymns and Bible lessons from pictures. When Henry Weiss died in 1915, Anna took over the charge of the printing operation in Chile, with the help of four orphan boys who were in her care.

Mr. and Mrs. C.F. Snyder were missionaries to China as early as 1915. They were involved with Evangelism and church planting. Mrs. Snyder was in charge of a girls’ boarding school with about thirty students. She also held two weekly services for women, a reading class for women, and tended to some medical needs.

In 1918, Miss Grace Harkless was a missionary in China. Her co-worker, Mrs. J.A. Diehl, did regular preaching for special women’s meetings. (1918, p61)

Miss Mary Butterfield worked in Palestine (now Israel) with Rev. Ethan O. Jago. They were there before World War I, but left that area during the war. After the war they returned as Red Cross workers for a while then returned to their church planting work. Mary would “encourage” in the service but not preach; the men would preach (1919 p76,77). The 1921 yearbook reports that Mary Butterfield “has spoken in a number of our churches. Her addresses have always been very earnest, touching, and instructive.” (1921 p63)

Also in the 1921 yearbook is a report from Christian and Missionary Alliance missionary, Mr. Rader. “Mr. Rader makes a very strong, urgent plea for men, a strong, organized body of consecrated, God-called men, not discounting women and the great work they are doing, often beyond their strength and sphere, but emphasizing the special need of men.” (1921 p61) How were women working beyond their sphere? Mr. Rader doesn’t say. In the same report he says there were 129 men and 203 women missionaries on the foreign field. (1921 p62)

In 1922 “Mrs. Nettie Meier has charge of the mission at Victoria. By reports from others, she has from very small beginnings built up a strong, spiritual church at this place.” (1922 p85) It sounds like Mrs. Nettie Meier is church planting.

Miss Best, working in Madaba, Palestine in 1928 works primarily in a girls’ school. At times she would go out among Bedouin encampments and gather women around her, telling the old, old story. (1928 p70)

Moving up to 1949, “sister Luella Reinhart gave several missionary messages at Mizpah Grove camp meetings in Allentown.” The Board of Missions planned her itinerary for her during the fall months of the year. (1949 p67) Luella was from the Stroudsburg church and served in the Belgian Congo. (1941 p58)

What was the attitude of MBC people toward women in foreign missions? There was a great deal of respect because it was the Lord’s work. Also, for a number of decades, women, particularly single women, in foreign missions were seen as somewhat glamorous. They had opportunity to travel to exotic places in the world; something most people did not do. As women missionaries would return to the United States for deputation, they would have opportunity to speak at supporting churches and to speak at Camp Meeting. The women were generally well-received.

For many years, most of the missionaries supported by the MBC were from Christian and Missionary Alliance churches. One that was MBC born and bred was Miss Olive Rawn, granddaughter of Evangelist “Rose Jelly” Jacob Moyer. Olive was born in 1921; some of her growing up was in the Graterford church. When she was 16, the family moved to Hatfield and attended Bethany MBC of Hatfield. As a child, Olive was impressed with missionaries who spoke at camp meetings and at church. She also had an interest in nursing. Various experiences confirmed her interest in both missions and nursing. She attended nursing school and Bible school with the blessing and support her family and her church. Olive expressed her interest in foreign missions to her pastor who then encouraged her and gave her specific direction in making application for foreign missions. During this time, Olive continued in her nursing job, gaining valuable experience and additional training. As the time approached for her to leave, she received some practical help from many people, from supplying her with household goods to building crates in which to ship them. She first left for Africa in 1949. Most of her work involved nursing, mostly in obstetrics.  

When Olive returned from Africa from time to time, she had opportunity to speak at churches. Sometimes she led the Sunday School session and had the morning service in which to speak, not preach.

When Olive was 55 years old, she returned home from Africa in order to take care of her aging and ailing parents. Thirteen years later, after both of her parents had gone home to be with the Lord, Olive requested to go back to Africa. She was now 68 years old. Both the BFC Board of Missions and Africa Inland Mission carefully considered and granted her request, evidence of their respect for Olive and her work. Olive remained in Africa another four and a half years, then was required to return to the United States, at age 73, evidence of the Board of Missions’ and Africa Inland Mission’s respect and concern for Olive.

Miss Olive Rawn now lives in Valley Vista retirement community in Souderton and is active at Bethany BFC in Hatfield.

Doris Hoyle is another woman missionary who was MBC born and bred. Doris was born in 1930 in Allentown. Doris’ mother, Cora Schearer Schaeffer, was a Gospel Worker for a number of years before her marriage. Doris grew up in Allentown, Bethel MBC. She trusted the Lord as Savior at a Mizpah Grove Camp Meeting when she was six years old.

After high school, Doris went to Wheaton College. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Greek and a Master of Arts in Theology. While at college, the college librarian, on her own time, instructed Doris on library science.

After college, from September 1954 to May 1957, Doris taught Greek, Music, and missions at Berean Bible Institute. Theology and Bible were taught by men. Doris also ran the library at first. She thought it was all a bit much for someone just out of college. During the summers, Doris was occupied elsewhere. During one of these summers, Doris, along with Joyce Gehman of Bethel Church in Allentown, organized the girls’ week at the newly formed Victory Valley camp.

At Berean, Doris’ main task was to teach Greek. She was told it was OK for her to teach the language, but leave the theology teaching to men. She chuckled to herself, knowing she had more influence teaching the languages because she taught interpretation. Doris taught men who later became pastors in the BFC such as Harold Weaber and Robert Johnson and missionary Dick Gehman, to name a few.

During her three years of teaching at Berean, interest in missions was stirred up in her. Norman Jerome, also teaching at Berean, advised her against it because she was single. “Never go as a single person,” he said. Nevertheless, after a battle with the Lord, Doris declared the matter settled and determined to go to foreign missions.

As Doris considered where to serve, Walter Frank suggested Europe as he was involved with Greater Europe Mission. They had several projects going and asked her to consider teaching at the European Bible Institute, to teach in English and French. Doris had studied Spanish for five years, but this was seen as an asset to learning French, not a hindrance. They recognized that Doris had a gift with language learning.

Miss Doris Schaeffer met Ron Hoyle when she arrived in France. They married a year later. Ron’s responsibility was in church planting. Ron and Doris were variously involved in market evangelism, children’s clubs, and tent meetings. Doris taught children and played piano and sang at times. When their children were small, so many of their ministry activities were in their home that Doris could do a lot. Later, with the children in French public school, Doris could still do a lot in ministry because the children’s long school day freed up her time to do so.

Ron and Doris later became involved with Camp of the Peaks. Doris’ experience with Victory Valley served her well here.

While in Bouffemont, Doris taught for ten years at the Bible Institute, teaching Greek. She also taught Ladies’ Bible Studies various times.

Ron and Doris have recently retired from their work in France and are now living in Emmaus, and are attending the Nazareth church where Ron is assistant to the Pastor.

Joy Pattison is another woman missionary, BFC born and bred. Joy was born in 1969 and was the first baby dedicated in the present facility of Cedar Crest Bible Fellowship Church. Joy earned a degree in Elementary Education. She expressed to the Elders of Cedar Crest her desire for foreign missions. They wisely suggested she teach in the United States for several years first, to gain experience teaching in her own culture and language before trying it in a second language. She taught two years in Pennsylvania. Then she attended language school for a year in Costa Rica. After that, Joy went to Bolivia to teach national children there. She was not there long when she appreciated the advice given her by the Elders of her church. She was thankful for the adjustment in stages to her work in Bolivia. More recently, Joy returned to the United States because of health problems. Having recovered her health, she returned to Bolivia to be part of a feeding program for poor, orphaned children. Joy’s experience has been one of support and guidance for her to have an effective ministry and for her welfare.

Lillian Solt de Ramirez, a health-care missionary in Costa Rica, is a child of MBC/BFC missionaries to Mexico, David and Georgina Solt. Lillian went to Costa Rica single and met and married a Costa Rican man. They have a daughter, Rebecca. When Rebecca was a baby, Lillian’s husband left them. Lillian’s divorce has been an embarrassment to her and she questioned her worth as a missionary. She was deeply touched by the outpouring of concern and support from her supporting churches. Lillian continues her health-care work among the rural poor of Costa Rica.

Joyce Musselman is another BFC woman involved in missions though in a different way. In 1968, Charlene Cassel, wife of pastor Carl Cassel, asked Joyce to write a monthly article so that the young people at church would get to know the missionaries. Joyce agreed to do this so she started writing to the missionaries to obtain news. Originally, this prayer calendar was intended for Allentown – Bethel BFC only. In time, other churches wanted it also. Since January 1980, the Board of Missions has been printing the prayer calendar for distribution to each family in each church.

Joyce also writes a monthly letter for the purpose of contacting missionaries in order to obtain news. The letter contains “lighter news” that is shared among the missionaries. This letter is sent to all the pastors to be passed on to the mission organizations. Some churches duplicate the letter and distribute it to each family.

A ministry Joyce has in her own church (Cedar Crest) is the weekly letter. This was originally intended for shut-ins to keep them up-to-date on the lives and activities of people at church. It is now also passed along to college students, and people who move away. This is a useful tool to help keep the church family in touch with each other.

In summary, we see that women missionaries were working most often with women and girls, often in a teaching position. Some worked as nurses, some in printing operations. It looks like some did actual preaching and church-planting work. Another item for observation concerning women in missions is the noting of a double standard, apparent for a century. When missionary couples are listed, the man and his wife are both listed, and in the earlier years of licensing, both were licensed. However, whenever a list of pastors in presented, the wives are never listed along with their husband. Is this not a double standard? Are there different expectations of wives of missionaries than of wives of pastors in the United States? This curious situation persists to this day. It is as if the missionaries are a team, but the pastor and his wife are not. Is this not a double standard?

Pastor’s Wives

This leads us to what was/is expected of the pastor’s wife. In the nineteenth century, if a young lady had a paying job before marriage, it was expected that she would quit that job when marrying. She would have plenty to do to run her own household, especially those on a tight budget as was often the case with pastors. This was true no matter what the husband’s job was. This was the situation for most of the first half of the twentieth century. Things started changing in the 1960’s concerning married women with children at home.

The pastor’s wife was expected to be at every service and sit up front. She did whatever was asked of her in the church. When N.H. Wolf was pastoring in Sunbury in the 1930’s, his voice failed him, so his wife got up and finished the service. This happened twice. Mrs. Esther Wolf always taught Sunday School.

Pastor Evans was blind. His wife read theological books to him and helped in other ways that allowed her an opportunity for public ministry.

Mrs. C.H. Brunner was an exceptional pastor’s wife. She was a Quarterly conference-licensed Evangelist. She went around training Gospel Herald men and preached at times. Her children were already grown, so her home responsibilities were less than those of younger women.

There were no Ladies’ Bible Studies before about 1960. So many women had the responsibility of making clothes for their families and preserving food, homegrown or store-bought or donated. Women just didn’t have time for a Bible Study during the week. Having lunch with a friend during the week was not done either.

The Pastor and his wife usually did not cultivate close friendships in the congregation. When they moved on to another church, contact was not maintained with anyone from the previous charge. This has loosened up over the years so that pastors and their wives can keep somewhat in touch with people from a previous church. Improvements in communication, transportation, and household labor-saving devices have made this possible.

Victory Valley Influence

Women were instrumental in the formation of Victory Valley Camp for children. In the mid 1950’s, it was decided at annual conference to begin a camp for children. The pastors assigned to this task approached Joyce Gehman (Mrs. Kermit Gehman) and Doris Hoyle, then Miss Doris Schaeffer, to run the weeks of the girls’ camp. Joyce and Doris had already proved themselves in this area. Joyce directed Camp Bethel, a camping experience held by Allentown-Bethel MBC for their own children. Doris started the Explorer girls program (high school division of Pioneer Girls) at Allentown Bethel MBC. Doris brought with her the campfire idea and songs from Sandy Cove. She also learned archery there and was able to teach that skill at Victory Valley. Some of the ideas that Joyce and Doris brought to the girls’ week at the beginning are still used today.

Another woman involved with Victory Valley Camp is Donna Bauer. Donna was born in 1953 in New Jersey, near Cherry Hill. Her family was involved in a local independent church. Donna began attending Camp Sankanac when she was six years old and it was there several years later that she trusted in Christ as Savior. It was the exemplary life of the counselors, and the “fun stuff,” that drew her back to camp in subsequent years. When she was thirteen, she was challenged to serve the Lord after hearing a woman missionary speak at camp. Through her high school years she had a vibrant and outspoken testimony to those around her.

After high school, Donna eventually graduated from Philadelphia College of Bible with a Bachelor’s degree in Christian Education with a minor in youth ministry. She taught second and third grades in a Christian School in North Carolina for three years, and then seventh and eighth grades in Florida for four years. During vacations, Donna enjoyed “roughing it” camping and hiking. She also worked at several Christian camps, including Victory Valley. Donna became program director at Victory Valley in 1979 but was not a full-time employee until September 1984. As program director, Donna arranges activities and projects for the campers. She also hires the male and female staff and supervises and advises them. Only once did a potential counselor turn down the opportunity to work at Victory Valley, stating as his reason that he did not think it right that he, as a man, should be under a women’s authority, even though that authority is delegated to her by a man to whom she remains accountable. With Donna’s education, experience, and sensitivity to the Lord’s direction in her life, we have a fine program director at Victory Valley.

Sunday School Leadership

We now turn our attention to Sunday School; more specifically, the Sunday School Superintendent. For so many years the Sunday School Superintendent in each congregation was elected by the people in the Sunday School. The Superintendent was responsible for ordering materials, recruiting teachers, and at times instruct and encourage teachers. Most of the Superintendents were men. However, there were some women at times.

In the early 1920’s, Mrs. Florence Henry Deppe was Superintendent at Bethany MBC of Northampton. At the annual Sunday School convention, every Superintendent had to give a report. Valeria Boyer remembers Mrs. Deppe’s report as being the most interesting. Others of that time period concur. Mrs. Deppe was young then. When she started her family, she resigned from being Superintendent. Interestingly, her husband then held the post there for many years.

In the 1930’s and 40’s it was still mostly men who were the Superintendents. Mrs. Cora Fox of Spring City was Superintendent there for many years. Miss Bessie Heberling of Weissport served a number of years. David Thomann, who entered the Gospel Heralds in 1937, remembers Cora Fox and the conventions of those years. He did not sense that the women were treated any differently.

In contrast, Mrs. Doris Deppe Wire, daughter of Florence Deppe, became Sunday School Superintendent at her church in the 1980’s. For this she was rebuked by a new and young pastor accepting the call to that church. He did not believe women should be Sunday School Superintendents. It seems he was influenced by an older, conservative pastor under whom he served as assistant just before accepting the pastorate at Doris’s church. When Doris heard him say he did not believe women should hold that position, she laughed, thinking he was joking. She quickly ascertained her mistake and entered into discussion with the pastor on the matter. She resigned her position as Superintendent soon after so as to make peace. In time, that pastor recognized the contribution which women in the congregation made throughout the years.


Another topic under the title “Women in the MBC/BFC” is that of widows. What responsibility did the church take for widows? How has the church taken care of widows of pastors?

When Pastor A.B. Gehret died in 1898, he left a young widow with several small children, including six-year-old Esther. The widow and children had to leave the parsonage right away so the new pastor and his family could move into it. Some of the children, including future pastor T.D. Gehret, were “farmed” out to other people. The widow Gehret tried to keep her daughter, Esther, with her and most of the time she did. Mrs. Gehret did some babysitting, washing, and ironing for a certain family. Because of her experience, she saw to it that her children learned a trade. The boys were trained machinists and daughter Esther was a dressmaker. Mrs. Gehret later remarried a Mr. Eddinger. This was the typical experience of widows everywhere in that day.

When Esther Gehret reached adulthood, she married pastor Horace Kauffman. He was pastor of the Royersford/Spring City circuit when he died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Besides his widow, he left a young son, Horace, and a baby on the way. Again, the widow and the son had to vacate the parsonage immediately for the new pastor. Esther moved to Bethlehem to live with her mother who was recently widowed for the second time. There Esther gave birth to their daughter Ellen. A year or two later, W. G. Gehman told young Gospel Herald N. H. Wolf that Esther Gehret Kaufmann “would be a good wife for him. She had two children but would be better for him than Miss X over there.” {interview with Ellen Kaufmann Derck and Thelma Wolf Smock, Oct 8, 1996}. Pastor N. H. Wolf married the widow Kaufmann. They had two daughters together: Beatrice and Thelma, who is now wife of Pastor Robert Smock. Sometime after the Wolf’s marriage, he was assigned to the Royersford/Spring City circuit. Esther thought that was insensitive and thoughtless of the powers-to-be that she should have to return to live in the house where such a traumatic personal tragedy occurred. Nevertheless, they moved to the parsonage in Spring City. Son Horace was given the master bedroom because Esther did not want to sleep in the room where her first husband died. Years later, Esther would physically shudder when reminded of that painful time in her life.

Fast forward to 1988, seventy years after Horace Kaufmann died, to when pastor David Chappell died suddenly at the age of 47 in July of that year. He was pastoring the Walnutport church at the time and exploring the possibility of a move to Maine. His widow, Barbara, was not forced to move out the parsonage immediately. She was offered the use of the parsonage until January 1, 1989 when the new pastor would begin at the church. Barbara stayed until December 1 when she was ready to move to Maine. The Walnutport church paid her husband’s salary for several months until Social Security payments began, something the widows Gehret and Kaufman did not have available to them. As a pastor, David Chappell had a life insurance policy (another thing the earlier widows did not have) which paid for funeral expenses. Barbara received so many cash gifts, from church people, community people, some she did not even know, some gifts were anonymous. David had another life insurance policy which Barbara used to buy a house in Maine.

Barbara had several offers of employment from concerned people, but continued with her plans to go to Maine. She went to Maine as a home missionary, being commissioned by the Board of Missions in 1989. Barbara was able to raise her support in good time. Most of her support comes from BFC churches, the rest from other churches and a few individuals. Barbara’s experience in the crisis of her widowhood has been one of overwhelming love, concern and support.

What about widows among the laity? What care was provided for them? In 1892, the General Conference of the MBC adopted a resolution that the Annual Conferences should establish homes for widows, orphans, and the elderly. By 1909, the Pennsylvania Annual Conference had purchased several properties in Centre Valley for use for a home. The home was opened in 1909 when two widows were taken in. Over the years, the home provided the needs of a number of elderly widows, elderly couples, and some orphaned boys, including Edgar Glass, father of Barbara Chappell. The orphaned boys would stay until they were of age. Sometimes people would stay a short time then were provided for in another way. Not all the residents were from MBC churches. Others were accepted.

The home in Centre Valley was used until 1960 when this ministry was moved to Nazareth. Today, Fellowship Home in Nazareth provides personal care and Fellowship Manor in Whitehall, opening in 1988, provides long term nursing care for men and women. More recently, independent living quarters became available. Details of the history of Bible Fellowship Church Homes, Inc. can be found in a paper entitled “History of Bible Fellowship Homes, Inc. or History of the Home” by James A. Beil, presented to the Historical Society of the Bible Fellowship Church on November 6, 1993.

Women’s Attire

We now turn our attention to women’s attire. The MBC came out the Mennonite tradition. The early decades of our denomination were not far from the Mennonites in regard to dress. Photographs from the late 1800’s into the twentieth century show women in the typical conservative dress of the day. The 1920’s brought a revealing style: mid-calf to knee-length dresses, lower necklines and shorter sleeves. This was seen as lewd and promiscuous and was preached against most vehemently. Women could not wear red; that was the color of prostitutes. Sleeves must be to the wrist, necklines must go all the way to the neck. Feathers in hats were frivolous, thus taboo.

A pastor’s wife bought a coat in the 1920’s that had a cape on it. She had to remove the cape as being unnecessary. Jewelry was not allowed, not even wedding rings. It was embarrassing for MBC women to be pregnant and have young children but no wedding ring. People thought they were unwed mothers. Ironically, what was intended to be a stand against worldliness gave the young women the appearance of sin.

Not only was there a strict idea of what the godly woman wore, but it was preached from the pulpit. Sometimes individual women were singled out for what they were wearing. Mrs. Florence Deppe of Bethany in Northampton was singled out for wearing a Stetson hat with a pheasant feather on it. The Presiding Elder at the time said from the pulpit, “You should not spend money on expensive clothes and hats with feathers like that one [pointing to Mrs. Deppe]. Instead, the money should be given to the missionaries and to the Lord’s work.” Mrs. Deppe piped up, “I already paid for this hat and I gave to the missionaries. Now would you please get on with your sermon.”

At Mizpah Grove in 1945 or 46, P.T. Stengele spoke on the sin wearing silk stockings. The sermon was broadcast to the cafeteria where a lot of ladies were working. Young Bob Smock was washing dishes at the time and heard the protests of the ladies. The preachers may have dictated a detailed dress code but it was not accepted without question or protest.

Not every preacher was so fussy about “the dress code.” When a kind friend bought nice, stylish anklets for N.H. Wolf’s daughters to replace their hot, long stockings, he accepted them with gratitude and allowed the girls to wear them.

How did the MBC compare with other churches in regard to women’s dress? It was definitely more conservative than most! The neighboring Mennonites were already stricter and more defined in what was acceptable. However, individuals generally were not singled out from the pulpit. The Church of the Brethren is another conservative plain group in the area. A casual survey of other denominations reveals that it was not an issue among Lutherans, some Methodists, Evangelical United Brethren, and others. Some Baptists were strict and conservative.

By the 1950’s, so much of these “dress codes” were being relaxed, though gradually. There was still the feeling that if something was fashionable, then it was worldly and unsuitable for a Christian. However, wedding rings were starting to be used and even those who had been married for years bought rings. Today, the BFC churches have many women who are quite fashionable, yet still modest and godly.

The Role of Women

In the early 1970’s, the “Women’s Liberation Movement” gathered enough momentum and respect to have the United States Congress pass the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA failed to be ratified by enough states, though. The influence of the “women’s lib” movement was sufficient to provoke the writing of a Denominational Position Paper on “the Role of Women in the Church” in 1977. “There is obviously a great deal of ferment in Society at large on the place of women. This ferment has spilled over into the Church in recent years and is growing in intensity.”

The paper presented a number of scriptural references concerning women in ministry, women of authority, and women in a congregation of believers. The paper concludes on page 170 of the 1970 yearbook that “…it seems evident from this passage that a woman could not serve in any authoritative or ruling office in the church where she would exercise authority over men. This is in harmony with the Biblical texts that deal with ‘elders’ or ‘overseers.'” The paper more specifically concludes that “women have the same possibilities to function in the life of the church in those areas that are allowable to non-elder men.”

In keeping with this conclusion, the 1996 annual conference presented a report of the Study Committee to Clarify the use of the words “Laymen” and “Laypersons.” The report specifies which boards and which committees could have women serving on them. Basically, those Boards and Committees “which perform the responsibilities of an elder, which oversee ministers or elders, or which oversee the ministry of congregations or Particular churches shall be composed of ministers and elders.” Women can serve on the other boards and committees, including the Historical Committee, to which Jill Davidson was elected in 1997 as the first woman to serve on that committee.

In Summary, women have served in several official capacities in the MBC/BFC. On the foreign mission field, not a whole lot has changed concerning opportunities and need. Women on the foreign field still have more freedom of place of service and participation than in the United States. We are happy to observe strong support of and respect for missionaries, both men and women.

In the Pennsylvania MBC/BFC, we have seen women go from being assistant pastor (and briefly, pastor) to being allowed to serve on some Boards and Committees. Some women were Sunday School Superintendents in the 1920’s to the 1940’s, but in the 1980’s, a pastor did not think that was appropriate. What happened here? Is this an awakening to a more scriptural view of the role of women in the church or is it an extreme reaction to the militaristic women’s liberation movement? Maybe its some of both.

In regard to the care of widows, the BFC now has two homes to care for the elderly, men and women. Social Security and insurance has changed the financial situation for widows, orphans, and the elderly. We no longer have a stationing committee, thus some time will lapse between the death of a pastor and the arrival of his replacement. A pastor’s widow is no longer quickly put out of her home.

We still don’t have an answer to why wives of missionaries are included in the lists but pastors’ wives are not included in lists of pastors.

We express appreciation and support for women in the MBC/BFC, for those in official positions and for laywomen. Thus concludes our look at “sisters.”


Verhandlungen (1859-1895), Translated by Frank Litty, Richard E. Taylor, Editor. Coopersburg, PA: The Historical Committee of the Bible Fellowship Church, 1989.

The Bible Fellowship Church, by Harold P. Shelly. Bethlehem, PA: The Historical Committee of the Bible Fellowship Church, 1992.

Yearbooks of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, Pennsylvania Conference, 1896-1957, 1977, 1996.

General Conference Minutes of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, 1885, 1888, 1896.

“One Century, One Passion” by Pastor Richard Taylor. Fellowship News, March 1997.

“In Memory of Her” by Jason C. Garnaat, published in “Reflections” A publication of the Missionary Church Historical Society. Fall 1995.

Quarterly Conference Records of Northampton Mennonite Brethren in Christ.

Quarterly Conference Records of Lehighton Mennonite Brethren in Christ.

Account book of the Graterford Bible Fellowship Church, 1893-1902.

“History of Bible Fellowship Homes, Inc. or History of the Home,” by James A. Beil, presented November 6, 1993 to the Historical Society of the Bible Fellowship Church.


Marian Barlow

Olivia Barnes

Donna Bauer

Irene Bishop

Beth Brown

Barbara Chappell

Willard Cassel

Ellen Kaufman Derck

John Derck

Ella Leatherman Fryling

Richard Gehman

Gospel Herald Tapes

Esther Groves

Dorothy Hendricks

Doris Schaeffer Hoyle

Ronald Hoyle

Julia Mehl

Annabel Musselman

Joyce Musselman

Reuel “Bud” Musselman

W. Bruce Musselman

Jemima Parks

Joy Pattison

Olive Rawn

Blanche Diehl Rickert

Dolores Diehl Rickert

Robert Smock

Thelma Wolf Smock

David E. Thomann

Pauline Thomann

Clara Vaughan

David Watkins

Doris Deppe Wire

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *