William Gehman – His Life and Times
Richard E. Taylor
They called him Father Gehman. The title, “Father,” was not a reference to an ecclesiastical office. Rather, it was a sign of the high regard in which he was held by most in his church and community. He is acknowledged by many to be the founder of the Evangelical Mennonites who began in the 1850’s in the small town of Zionsville, just south of Allentown. The Evangelical Mennonites would later become part of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ and even later would be known as the Bible Fellowship Church. Those who speak of the events which surrounded the formation of the Evangelical Mennonites say that Father Gehman was a very prominent figure in the struggle. His significance is perhaps best seen in the fact that many of his concerns and emphases in ministry continue as part of the ministry of the Bible Fellowship Church today.
This paper is divided into six sections: 1. His life and background; 2. His leadership in the crisis. 3. His subsequent leadership; 4. His Ministry; 5. Recollections; 6. Observations.
1. HIS LIFE AND BACKGROUND
Christian Gehman arrived in America at Philadelphia from Rotterdam on the ship Samuel on August 11, 1732. (1) He became the owner of 300 acres of land near Seisholtzville, Hereford township, Bucks County. He and his first wife Anna were the parents of 13 children. The eleventh of these children, who was born October 19, 1753, was named Jacob. Jacob Gehman is buried at St. Peter’s cemetery near Seisholtzville. A plaque at the grave identifies him as a veteran of the Revolutionary War. He is listed in the Fourth Class, Captain John Miller’s company, Sixth Battalion, Berks County Militia. (2) Jacob Gehman married Anna M. Fretz. Their marriage produced three children, the second of which was George (Georg) born July 30, 1788. George Gehman subsequently married Sarah Schwartz (3) and they were blessed with five children, the second of whom is the subject of this paper, William Gehman. William was born January 22, 1827 and died April 12,1918. He lived to the age of 91 years, 2 months and 20 days.
The reasons for Christian Gehman’s decision to come to America are not known. If he was one of the number of Mennonites coming to America for religious freedom, his children were not inclined to remain in the Mennonite fold, Jacob’s participation in the Revolutionary War signals that the ardent pacificism of the Mennonites was not part of his thinking. George was buried st St. Peter’s cemetery and was known as a Lutheran. Father Gehman was converted and left the Lutheran Church. No details are known of this most critical event in his life. The time and the circumstances are at this time shrouded in the fog of history. What is known is that in 1849 he appears as a minister of the new group of Mennonites who were led by John Oberholtzer. He was 22 years old then. It is safe to assume that his conversion occurred prior to this date.
Father Gehman was by trade a miller. However, when he married Anna Musselman, who was an only child, (4) he received or purchased the Musselman farm and became a farmer. (5) He would continue as a farmer throughout his life. Today he would be called a tentmaker, referring to one who received his income from secular employment while preaching the gospel. The house in which he lived still stands near Vera Cruz though the barn was destroyed by fire some years ago. He would also later own a quarry which would add to his work and means. He would continue as a farmer throughout his life.
Father Gehman must have possessed a good amount of resourcefulness and ingenuity. C. H. Brunner wrote, “Having bought a farm on which were many large stones which led him to construct a large stone and stump puller, a novelty throughout the county, the originality of design of which was unsuccessfully contested in the courts of Lehigh county.” (6)
Of Anna Musselman Gehman we know little. It is safe to assume that she was a faithful help meet to her husband. His work would have often taken him away from family and farm leaving her with much responsibility. H. B. Musselman wrote of her, “Much credit is also due his departed wife and mother of these children, who always exhorted the children to have great respect for their father, and high esteem for the church for which he labored and loved.” (7) Celia Shelly remembers that her grandfather said she was a pretty woman. She also remembers that she would call him for supper by calling, “William,” from the porch.
The marriage of William and Anna Gehman produced nine children Allen (1866), Amanda, Frances, Hannah (1869), Henry, Mary Ann (1861), Menno (1852), Sarah Ann, and William George. Of this family, H. B. Musselman wrote in a tribute to Father Gehman, “All of his four remaining sons hold office in the church: one is a presiding elder of a part of the church; another is a class leader and one of the trustees at Emaus, Pa; another one is a class leader, and also one of the trustees st Macungie, Pa., as well as the treasurer of the Annual Conference for many years already; the fourth son is the missionary class leader at South Allentown and also holds a Quarterly Conference license for many years. A large number of the grandchildren are also members of the church.” (8) Later generations would produce pastors and missionaries and lay leaders. Rose Lambert recalled that Father prayed regularly for his children to the fifth generation.” (9)
The Gehman home probably was typical of those with a German background. Father Gehman’s grandchildren recall that emotions were not outwardly displayed. The Gehmans tended to be more reserved in displays of affection. This did not imply to these same grandchildren that there was any lack of love. Love can be shown in other ways then emotions and affections.
The language in the home was German. Father Gehman could speak English to a degree but spoke German both publicly and privately. J. and E. Guy wrote of a meeting with him in 1892, “Left the next morning for Upper Milford dined with Bruner also called on Ex, P. E. Gehman. Bro. Gehman greeted us cordially but did not weary us with talking as we could not understand each other. Should have enjoyed a conversation had it been otherwise.” (10)
Edwin Long, a minister for the American Tract Society spent some time in the Hosensack Valley. What he said of the people there seems to apply readily in the case of William Gehman. “The valley is settled by farmers whose untiring industry has brought their land under a high state of cultivation.” (11)
Father Gehman died on April 12, 1918. He had been strong and healthy for most of his life. He testified at the age of 88 at the Annual Conference of 1915, “I am like a tamed wild goose which will be content with the geese an the farm until in the fall when the wild geese are flying south, then you will have to clip its wings or it will fly away with the flock. I often said, ‘I will not goto the next conference, but when the time comes you would have to clip my wings to keep me at home.” (12) He caught a cold which quickly developed into pneumonia. He died three days later in his home.
Funeral services were held later at his home and at the church. H. B. Musselman preached the funeral message from 2 Timothy 4:7-8. 0. S. Hillegas, the pastor of Zionsville at the time, took part in the service as well as B. F. Bohner of the Evangelical association. Also present were W. B. Musselman, who at that time was leading the Gospel Workers Society from Cleveland, Ohio, and A. E. Funk, of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. A pastors quartet composed of F. M. Hottel, C. H. Brunner, B. Bryan Musselman and R. W. Dickert ministered in song. (13) Following the service, the body of William Gehman was returned to the ground in the cemetery behind the church which he helped to found.
II. HIS LEADERSHIP IN THE CRISIS
In 1847, there was a division in the Mennonite church. John Oberholtzer was the leader of a number of men dissatisfied with certain Mennonite practices and impatient with the rigidity of that church. When the difficulties became irreconcilable, Oberholtzer and others separated themselves to form what is commonly known as the General Conference Mennonites. Soon the little town of Zionsville had two Mennonite churches. The residents of the town called them”Nummer Eins”and”Nummer Zwei” William Gehman was joined to Nummer Zwei. The facts that explain why and when are unknown at this point. For whatever reason, he was part of this progressive group of Mennonites who could no longer be part of the Old Mennonite Church. Joseph Schantz had been serving as the preacher in Zionsville since 1844 and became pastor of Nummer Zwei when the split occurred. In 1849, it became necessary to select a new preacher. Two candidates were selected by the congregation, William Gehman and Samuel Stauffer. Samuel Stauffer was a justice of the peace as well as a farmer and operator of a saw mill and grist mill. With a bit of controversy, William Gehman was selected to be the pastor of Nummer Zwei. It is said that this selection was contrary to the expressed wish of the Bishop. The story as C. H, Brunner tells it sounds like a first hand account perhaps from Father Gehman himself.
When the time came to vote for a minister, they selected two candidates, S. Stauffer and William Gehman. The congregation voted and gave the vote to W. N. Shelly to take them to the Bishop John H. Oberholtzer. On the way down Shelly told G. how the vote stood, confidentially. When they came there 0. said, It seems unnecessary to have a lot but take the highest vote (thinking that of course S. had the most.) Then Shelly gave the votes to 0. who counted them and said, “it appears that God wants a lot!” Then he put the papers into 2 books and asked G. to pick the book. He said let S. pick and of course the lot fell on me (apparently, Gehman) (14)
At first, it appears that William Gehman was at home among the Oberholtzer group, In 1851, he is a member of a committee to investigate disharmony in the Skippack district. (15) But a storm was brewing. There were clouds on the horizon for several reasons, among which were feet-washing and the observance of the Lord’s Supper. However, the major problem seems to have been the desire of some to hold prayer meetings and protracted or evangelistic meetings. Such meetings were connected with revivalism.
The origins of these meetings are in doubt. Revival was sweeping the entire nation. More particularly, revival was sweeping through the Hosensack Valley. There seems to be some evidence that it was brought there by the group known as the Evangelical Association. Edwin Long, who ministered on behalf of the American Tract Society wrote, “In Hosensack Valley are also many liberal brethren in connection with the ‘Evangelical Association’ who also contributed very liberally. Their customs and doctrines being very similar to those of the English Methodists, it is unnecessary to describe them farther then to simply to state that in this country they number 36,000 members and 600 preachers.” (16) The Evangelical Association ministered primarily to German speaking peoples in eastern Pennsylvania. Among the books of William Gehman are found two song books printed and circulated by the Evangelical Association. (17)
The issue of prayer meetings arose in May,1853. At first, it seems that there was no problem. The minutes of the General Conference Mennonites read, “Are prayer meetings to be regarded as good and edifying etc, It was therefore resolved that prayer meetings may be held at proper times and in proper order by such members or churches who may desire them; but such members are not to hold it against those who do not feel as they do on this account and again those·who do not approve of them are not to disrespect those who do so that love on both sides may not be found wanting.” (18) That was not to be the end of the matter.
On October 2, 1856, this decision was modified. In a meeting of the bishops at the home of William Gottschall, the bishops expressed the view that prayer meetings were not “evangelical.” It would be allowable to hold such meetings, but they were not to be considered “gospel,” that is, taught by the Word of God. This decision must have been viewed as something of a compromise. Of this action, C. H. Brunner wrote, “At Skippack Conference nothing was said until late in the afternoon when it was soon time to adjourn. The chairman said it was to be the time to discuss the subject of prayer meetings but it was too late. Then he asked Bro. Gehman if he was willing to leave it to the decision of the Bishops if they would meet tomorrow, to which he answered yes. Next day the Bishops met except Clemmer and decided. A few days later, Joe Schantz brought the decision to Bro. Gehman and asked him to sign it, which he refused.” (19) The compromise did not settle the issue. Father Gehman was not inclined to accept that prayer meetings were unevangelical. That he was a man to follow principle and stand upon conviction without compromise is evidenced in this refusal. It must have been about this time that Edwin Long, of the American Tract Society brought his movable gospel tent to the Hosensack Valley. The controversy was raging and he heard about it. He says of his time there, “But not only did I find this big ‘Pantaloon-Pocket’ thus wide open, but also their hearts and houses. Never did I find a people who seamed to relish the gospel feast so much. Not being accustomed to prayer meetings or night meetings, I accepted invitations to preach in their private dwellings…” (20) He viewed the problem in this light, “The history of the Mennonites is but a faint picture of great struggle between dead orthodoxy and living Christianity now going on in many sections of Pennsylvania among the Germans.” (21) Where Long stood on the issue of prayer meetings is revealed in a footnote about the Evangelical Mennonites. He writes “Some Daniels there were in the congregation, who dared to disregard the ‘decree’ of men as to how they shall pray. These, Daniel-like, still pray and gave thanks to God as they did aforetime.” (22)
The issue was brought to a head at a meeting held on October 1, 1857. At that meeting, William N. Shelly, one of the bishops, was to be given opportunity to show that the bishops’ decree that prayer meetings were unevangelical was itself unevangelical. Among the papers of C, H. Brunner, there is one entitled, “Wm. Gehman’s Trial”. This paper has the sound of a first hand account and tells of Gehman’s involvement in the issue.
Shortly before this conference Bro. G. preached at Schwenksville and asked Moses Gottschall and he said, ‘How do you hold your prayer meetings?’ He(apparently Gehman said), ‘We come together, someone reads a portion of Scripture and then we pray, sing and go home.’ ‘Well, a person cannot say anything against that but let us go over and see my father, Deacon Wm. Gottschall living in the other side of the house.’ Then he said to G. ‘Now tell my father about your prayer meetings.’ He (Gehman)told him and then he (Gottschall) said ‘Who can say anything against that?’ Then G. Said, ‘If they forbid prayer meetings we will lose some of our best members. Then Moses G, said ‘Yes, it is the same way here. We have the same troubles as you have. The next conference was held in Springfield. The church was packed. Here the chairman said,’ Now G. shall prove that the decision of the Bishops is unevangelical. If the majority will then vote that the decision of the Bishops is evangelical, then Gehman and all those who take his part shall regard themselves as excommunicated.’ G. stated his position Oberholtzer wanted to take the vote. G. said, ‘They don’t understand what the chairman said. If you vote for the decision then we are out. ‘No, it doesn’t mean that,’ some said. ‘Yes, that is what it means,’ Gehman said, ‘They want you Oberholtzer to explain the question,’ But he refused after a long debate. Soon he left, saddled his horse and went home. So they voted and the matter stood decided. (23)
The minutes of this meeting in the Springfield Meeting house on October 1,1859, record the following, “Since the Bishops report of May 2, 1856 concerning prayer meetings, was presented, some of our ministers have manifested dissatisfaction and Bro. Wm. N. Shelly presented a formal protest against it with a request that he be allowed to show publicly that it is unevangelical, The request was allowed. The vote that followed against it showed three for declaring the report unevangelical and 24 against it.” (24)
At the next meeting on May 5, 1858 at the West Swamp Meeting house, William N. Shelly was given opportunity to accept the decision of the conference. He refused and saw his name stricken from the list of members by a unanimous vote. At the meeting held October 7, 1858, it was noted that some ministers had not appeared and had not responded to communication from the conference, Their names, Israel Beidler, John Latshaw, Nathan Pennypacker and William Gehman were stricken from the list of ministers. Why the first three refused to appear is not apparent. The reason why William Gehman did not appear is that two weeks earlier he had attended another meeting. In the doctrinal statement of the Evangelical Mennonites published in 1867, it is recorded, “On the 24th of September, 1858, the first meeting of preachers or Conference was held, even in the private home of David Musselman, in Upper Milford township, Lehigh County, Pa.” (25) The break was complete. The rift was irreparable. A new church or fellowship was born. Nummer Zwei would feel the wrenching effects of the decision of the conference. The church would have to determine where it would stand. Would it stand with William Gehman and his progressive desires or would it stand with the conference? C. H. Brunner recorded the story as follows:
Then G. claimed half rights at Zionsville Church. The trustees were in favor. So they called a meeting and voted 24 for and 25 against G. They then gave it over to S. Stauffer to decide. Next Monday D. Gehman came to Allentown to see Lawyer Robert Wright on personal business, While talking Mr. Wright asked G. “What do you have among yourselves down there?” Then he told him that S. Stauffer had been there to get advice how to keep them out of the church, cause: : Because he persists in baptising in the water. A few days later W. G. and D. G. went up to see Mr. Wright and D. G. told him why W. G. did not baptize anyone since he was put out. He told him what the facts were. After the explanation Mr. Wright said, “I see that the trouble is in prayer meetings. They can lock you out of the church but they cannot keep you from building a church on the lot. Now I tell you what to do. You announce a meeting in the church, any day, if they don’t come or lock the door, put a box there and get vote and that will then stand. You can build a church any place on the church grounds’.” But they did not want to do that. So W. G. and D. G. went to see Stauffer to talk the matter over saying that “It is left to you to decide this matter.” He said, “Yes this had made me an awful lot of trouble already.” They told him that the law allowed them to build on the lot. Finally, they told him, ‘We have a proposition to offer you; If you give us $300.00 and the privilege to hold our funeral services in the church and burying on the cemetery we will not build on the church ground. “Well” said Stauffer, ” This sounds as though God was in the proposition, I am sure the congregation will agree to this. I will bring it before them on Sunday. They agreed to it and sent someone around but they collected only $102.00.” (26)
Later, a plot of ground was donated by Abraham Kauffman near a small grove of giant oak trees in Zionsville. A church was erected there by Nathan Stahl at a cost of $1200.00. (27) Now Zionsville had a third Mennonite Church, Nummer Drei. The division which had occurred was not accomplished without pain. The memories of that time include persecution and various “dirty tricks” by those who opposed the action of Gehman and his followers. (28) At the Annual Conference in1915, Father Gehman reflected on these events, “At this session, Father Gehman gave us a very stirring and touching address during which he remembered that after eight years of ministry in the old church under much opposition he was voted out of the church at their regular session at Springtown, PA. He was a member of a conference for forty-seven members and was expelled because he held prayer meetings. Of these forty seven, he is the only survivor.” (29) There are some alive today who speak with sorrow about these events. Was William Gehman a trouble maker? Did he misuse his position to create division? Obviously, the different parties involved would answer the question different ways. It seems clear that Father Gehman was a man of strong conviction. He would not accept a compromise. Mr. Norman Schantz, who is 92 at the time this paper is written remembered Father Gehman and remembered this characteristic about him, that he had strong convictions and stuck to them. Those who did not share his convictions would most certainly consider him stubborn and divisive. It is significant to observe that the events which finally resulted in a division developed over a period of six years. That itself makes it clear that no one rushed headlong into the division. Mennonite Historian J, C. Wenger writes,”Perhaps even more regrettable than the old order schisms has been the loss of the revivalistic ministers (such as Daniel Brenneman) and members who withdrew from the more quiet and sober main body of the church. Would it not have been the will of Christ to exercise patience with the more exuberant Christians in the church?” (30)
III. SUBSEQUENT LEADERSHIP
A new church has begun: The leaders of this church were listed as follows:
Elders: William N. Shelly
Deacons: David Gehman
Preachers: David Henning
Henry Diehl (31)
It does not appear that in these early days any one man was dominant in the leadership of the church. The first printed Conference Journal in 1896 lists no chairman or secretary for the first four years. This is consistent with the minutes which list no officers in those years. In the 1915 Journal, William Gehman is listed as the chairman of these four conferences. It may be assumed that the editor or the Journal, C. H. Brunner, added Gehman’s name to these four meetings. Even if we accept Brunner’s account, then Father Gehman was only chairman at 17 of the first 44 semi annual conferences. That is less than half of the meetings. Later, in 1879, when the office of presiding elder was instituted, William Gehman would be called as the first in Pennsylvania. He would serve as presiding elder for 13 years until 1892.
These facts point out that the leadership of William Gehman emerged. It is probably accurate to say that from the mid 1870’s to the mid 1890’s or a period of about 15-20 years he was a dominant leader.
There are two reasons that may explain why the leadership of William Gehman emerged. The first is the age of the men involved in the controversy. The ages of four of the men in 1858 who were leaders of the Evangelical Mennonites are as follows: William Gehman, 31; Henry Diehl, 42; David Henning, 50; William N. Shelly, 41. (32) Those acquainted with the working of church bodies will acknowledge that the mantle of leadership tends to rest on the shoulders of older men. If it is true that age was a factor, then Father Gehman received more leadership as he matured.
The second factor to explain the emergence of his leadership is that the other key men in leadership were gone by 1881. Two men never seemed to have any prominence in leadership, Joseph Schneider and Jacob Gottschall. That left five men, William Gehman, William Shelly, David Gehman, David Henning, and Henry Diehl. In 1878, William Shelly and Henry Diehl left the church because of their ownership of life insurance policies. (33) In 1881, both David Gehman (34)and David Henning (35) died. Of these five original key men, William Gehman alone remained in 1881.
Only on two occasions does it appear that his leadership was challenged or questioned, The first occasion was in 1891. The committee to examine the presiding elder reported that “he has not held as many meetings for missions as requested by our church discipline,” and “that the results would have bean better if he would have spent more time on the various fields of service with preaching and by visiting the members of the congregation.” (36) The minutes continue to state that there was a discussion of ·these matters and that Father Gehman justified his actions to everyone’s satisfaction.
The second occasion began with an unsigned letter with accusations against Father Gehman which appeared in 1892. The conference examined the letter and found it to be “suspicious, slanderous and disgraceful.” It was determined immediately that there was no weight to the charges and that the culprit was to be found. The matter was not settled until 1894 when the writer was discovered to be a J. D. Fackenthal. He appears as a member of the committee in charge of tents and one can only assume that his charges involved matters relating to camp meeting. Fackenthal was removed as a member and to be excluded until he would repent before his quarterly conference.
An examination of the committees on which Father Gehman served gives a picture of the particular areas of his leadership. Father Gehman appears to have been a key person in the development of the doctrinal positions of the church. In November 1861, it is he who presents for consideration the articles of the Doctrinal Confession of the Mennonites in Dortrecht. In 1865, he is part of the committee to prepare a statement of faith and practice. At the Annual Conference of 1873 he raised the issue of women’s dress as to whether a woman might wear a hat or not. (37) In 1875, he helps to draw up rules to serve as a guide at future conference. At the General Conference in 1882, he is appointed to help select books for a reading course for probationers. In 1887, he serves on a committee to examine a doctrinal complaint against William H. Gehman. At the General Conference in 1888, he is on a committee to examine the references which appear with each article of faith. At the General Conference of 1892, he is assigned the task of preparing an article on the presiding elder. Father Gehman exerted his leadership in the area of church planting. His reports to the Gospel Banner were few and brief. They reveal his enthusiasm for the mission of expanding the church. He writes on April 25, 1873,
Glory to God! Last Sunday I was at my new appointment, Graters Ford, preached three times and baptized a family, man and wife in the afternoon. They were also received into church-fellowship. God blessed us greatly. The pilgrims here have good courage to go forward. The class is not large but they undertook by the help of God, to build a church last fall. The people in general wonderfully helped them so that now they have a beautiful brick building 28 x 40 ft. and all paid for. God shall have all the glory. The meetings are attended each time beyond expectation by all denominations and more houses are opened continually for prayer meetings. We have also organized a sabbath school. Bro. J. Krupp is superintendent. The members of the class have not many children yet the number of scholars on the roll is 62 and it seems to be a promising school. God bless the work at Grater Ford, as well as elsewhere is my prayer. (38)
On June 15, 1885, he writes, “The work is spreading more and more. Two meetinghouses are to be build this summer, one in Perry Hill (Terre Hill), Lancaster Co. and one in Springtown, Bucks Co. Pa.” (39) He writes Dec. 15, 1885, “May the Lord grant many rich blessings unto the dear brethren and sisters of Terra Hill(Terre), in their new house of worship in the future is my prayer. A house of worship was also erected in Springtown, Bucks. Co., which was dedicated on November 15 in the presence of a large crowd of people, also free of debt. There also was a glorious feast of good things from the land.” (40) In June,1886, he states,”There is a tabernacle meeting in progress at Emmaus on brother Frey’s field. May the Lord bless his cause among us and everywhere is my prayer.” (41) In the November 1, 1886, issue of the Gospel Banner, Eusebius Hershey writes from Bethlehem, “By the request of P. E. Wm. Gehman I bought a lot on which to build a house of worship.” (42) W. B. Musselman, then presiding elder, writes in 1892, “On the following Monday I started for Graterford where I arrived in time to hear Bro. Gehman preach a sermon on baptism, in a private house, to an attentive audience, and he baptized one sister who was converted to God since he is on this charge. Our Ex-presiding Elder is bringing in his first fruits in his new charge.” (43) Father Gehman writes in December of 1892, “We. held protracted meeting in East Hereford for three weeks.” (44) Evidence seems to point to the fact that Father Gehman also helped to open works in Allentown (45) and Fleetwood. (46) The minutes of the Annual Conference of 1895 show that there was a discussion of the work of missions. After many had spoken, Father Gehman, now 68 years of age rose and said, “‘If I were a young man again and would see the great need of missionary work as I see it now, I would go myself. I have often wondered,’ he said deeply moved, ‘Why some of our young men are not called to go as missionaries.” (47)
Father Gehman also became a proponent of the institution of camp meeting. J. B. Huffman reports that the first camp meeting of the church was held in Fetter’s Grove, Elkhart County, Indiana, beginning July 30, 1880. Present at this meeting were several from Pennsylvania including Jones Musselman and Abel Strawn. (48) The news of the camp meetings and their use for the developing of holiness were brought to Pennsylvania. On September 15, 1881, Jonas Musselman wrote, “Our Presiding Elder, Bro. William Gehman, became so intensely interested in the work of the Lord, and so filled with His power that he at once purchased the grove(Chestnut Hill) for the express purpose of holding annual camp meetings there as it is a beautiful local as well as a central point of our work. May the Lord bless Br. Gehman.” (49) In the summer of 1882, Father Gehman was able to attend camp meeting in Breslau, Ontario. (50) Camp meeting seems to have been a significant part of his work. Father Gehman served for a number of years on committees relating to camp meeting, His reports again speak with enthusiasm about what he observed. Of the Chestnut Hill Camp Meeting in the summer of 1887, he writes, “This camp meeting has been especially blessed of the Lord. Many prayers and praises were offered to the Lord of Mercy. Also, many testimonies were given to the forgiveness of sins, the cleansing of the depraved nature, and the healing of the body, A goodly number came to the altar of prayer, some prayed for pardon, others for the cleansing of their hearts. Many of these testified of answers to their prayers.” (51) Of the meeting in the summer of 1888, he wrote, ‘We can truly say we had a blessed camp meeting from first to last. The powers of God were manifested in a special manner, so the saints could hardly wait on each other in testifying of what the Lord had done for them. Whenever the invitation was given to come to the altar for prayer it was filled at once. Many souls were converted and others made the experience of entire sanctification, testifying with gladness of heart to the same.” (52) The Reading Eagle gave this account of Father Gehman’s own participation in its July 22, 1901 issue. “Tuesday services at the camp meeting of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ at Wyomissing Grove, Mohnsville, were characterized by stirring addresses by the clergy. The first was delivered at 10 a.m. by Rev. William Gehman, of Vera Cruz. He thought that Christians should read the Word of God and study His works. He pleaded with listeners to ‘strip for the race for salvation, which will effect a complete change both within and without. If preachers had a little more salvation, they wouldn’t need to wear collars so high that they have to jump in the air to spit.'” (53)
Father Gehman also gave leadership in the development of young men and pastors. His view of training is revealed at the Ministerial convention of 1893. “An interesting address was given by Eld. W. Gehman on the subject ‘Our Circuits, should they be large so that inexperienced ministers could be used on them as helpers?’ It would be good if young inexperienced ministers could be placed under more experienced ministers on large circuits.” (54) Father Gehman helped to develop the reading course, as well as serving on the stationing committee and also as the supervising pastor of younger men for many years.
IV. HIS MINISTRY
Of his work, it is probably to be believed that the work of the ministry was most important to Father Gehman. He was a preacher and a pastor. Norman Schantz recalls that when Father Gehman preached, he had common sense and dignity. It was clear that he spoke with emotion recalls Brother Schantz but was always proper in his presentation. Of course his preaching was in German for he could only have been comfortable and communicated in that language. Brother Schantz recalls that he spoke for two hours on one occasion. Brother Schantz says that the kingdom increased under his reign.
Celia Shelly, Father Gehman’s granddaughter recalls that his messages were Biblical and that he did not knock people down. She also recalls that on one occasion a man who was reported to be the town drunk died. No minister would agree to have the funeral, Father Gehman agreed to conduct the service, saying, “I preach to the living, not the dead.”
Others spoke of the preaching of Father Gehman. A. Kauffman wrote from Terre Hill, “Everything was abandoned and all attended the opening sermon, which was delivered by P. E. Wm. Gehman from Matt. 19:27-29, to an attentive audience, in which he earnestly exhorted all to look to God and to consecrate themselves wholly unto Him.” (55) Sue S. Michael, also of Terre Hill, wrote, “There was an invitation given for those desiring sanctification and a great many obtained the blessing. I thought I was in possession of all that was necessary but two weeks afterward Bro. Gehman came to our place and preached a holiness sermon. I was convinced that there was more for me, and on the way home I said to sister Mildred, I want to be fully sanctified.” (56) In 1892, Presiding Elder W, B. Musselman wrote, “Our old Bro. Gehman was also very happy, still he begins to feel his age, but when in the pulpit age has no effect on him. He preached in power.” (57) In 1894 the minutes of the Annual Conference states, “Since Elder Wm. Gehman has so many requests for preaching and because of this desires to be free to meet these requests, therefore we gave him permission for this year and wish him God’s blessing.” (58)
A review of Annual Conference messages preached by Father Gehman show a variety of texts relating to the ministry. Of these, two stand out, Psalm 127and Acts 20:28. He preached on these two texts 6 times each. It may be his use of few texts that gave rise to the following story. It is said that a man observed to Father Gehman that he had one text but many messages. Father Gehman is said to have observed in response that some men have many texts but the same message.
Father Gehman’s view of the ministry appear in an essay given at the ministerial convention of 1893. The minutes of that convention give the following: “The characteristics and habits of a successful minister and the hindrances to the same by Eld. Wm. Gehman. His own state of grace must be good and he must stand firm. He must hunger and thirst after the fullness of God, and shall guard himself against such things which he warns others. His habits should be manly. He must be punctual in business as well as at meetings etc. Should manifest simplicity in his dress, teaching and conversations; and clear in his preaching. He should be friendly, mild, but straight according as the circumstances demand it. The hindrances are heedless conversations, sharp dealing, an unchaste conduct, contracting debts which he cannot pay, poor preparation for the pulpit.” (59)
Many of the letters already quoted reveal a concern for the souls of men in Father Gehman. His willingness to travel to such places as Terre Hill and Graterford show a dedication to the ministry. These were long journeys in a day when transportation was by horse and buggy or railroad. In the years from 1873 to 1879, conference minutes include a statistical report of the activities of the ministers. Father Gehman averaged during these years 95.5 sermons per year, 103.5 family visits per year and 1274 miles traveled per year. It is evident that he was no slouch when we recall that his primary means of income was his farm. His letters of report to the Gospel Banner are not filled with the bizarre and miraculous happenings that same seemed to relish. Rather, his letters report the results of the people who have responded to the preaching afterward. On January 1, 1893, he wrote, “We have been holding revival meetings in Upper Milford for three weeks now. Bro Weber has been helping us in the last week. The Lord is working wonderfully. Many sinners have been melted down, eight so far found peace according to their confession. Five are still at the altar and fresh ones are coming every evening, The power of God is manifested as I have never seen it before. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord.” (60) On January 15, 1893, we read, “Brother Wm. Gehman informs us of a glorious revival at Terry Hill, Lancaster Co., Pa. at that writing seventeen souls had been at the altar of prayer and some had obtained the sought for blessing.” (61) It was the ministry of William Gehman to bring men and women to Christ and to the fullness of what he saw to be Christ’s intended blessing. Thus, as he saw people responding he would rejoice.
Norman Schantz recalls an event that was out of character for Father Gehman in his ministry. During a testimony meeting, a brother was to testify that the Lord had shown him that he would not die. He was to be taken to heaven in an Elijah-like way in a chariot of fire. Father Gehman walked to him and seized him roughly by the shirt and said, “I want to tell you – change your mind or you will go to hell”. Mr. Schantz says it was the strongest statement he ever heard from Father Gehman.
It is also said that Father Gehman did not share the strong separational views that came to dwell in a later generation or the church. It is probably correct to say that he was swept along by the revival taking place in eastern Pennsylvania. That revival had come to many different churches. He was willing to go where the revival led. He was welcome in Lutheran and Reformed pulpits of the area with the message of revival. Pastor Blatt of the local Lutheran church was said to have had Father Gehman preach and pray in his church. (62)
Another aspect of Father Gehman’s ministry was his stewardship and giving. It cannot be determined whether he was a wealthy man or not. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at $4339.39. It is certain that what he possessed he used for the Lord’s work. It has already been noted that it was Father Gehman who purchased the Chestnut Hill grove in order to keep it as a site for camp meeting. The Annual Conference minutes show that Father Gehman held the mortgage on the Reading church in the amount of $2100.00 for a period of about 2 years. (63) It is alleged that Father Gehman gave $3000.00 toward the founding of the Gospel Press. (64) Others tell simply of his generosity toward those who were in need. Those who came to Father Gehman’s door were not turned away. His will shows a number of outstanding loans, some to family members, others to neighbors.
The Annual Conference Minutes of 1894 contain the following statement, “Since Elder Wm. Gehman has so many requests for preaching and because of this sincerely desires to be free to meet those requests, therefore we gave him permission for·this year and wish him God’s blessing.” (65) On one hand, this tells of the eager desire of Father Gehman to serve the Lord, on the other, it signals his intention to retire from active ministry. He was 67 years of age. The year of 1897 is the last in which Father Gehman appears as a pastor of a church.
Father Gehman died in 1918. Fortunately there are some alive today who remember him. In this section, some of the recollections of those who knew Father Gehman will be reported. They add to our knowledge of this man. It must be remembered that these recollections are highly subjective and reflect that subjectivity.
Celia Shelly was Father Gehman’s granddaughter. She was 20 years old at the time of his death and has a good memory. She was the daughter of Horace and Hannah Heist. The Heist family lived in the house adjacent to Father Gehman’s house. She recalls that they were not to go to his house unless they were invited. However, during thunderstorms, it was in his house that she and other children would take refuge, She remembers that there was always some mint candy on the table. She cannot remember that he ever raised his voice to scold or rebuke. On one occasion, they were walking to church. She and two other children were being children and being lighthearted. He said to them on this occasion, “You must give an account of every idle word you speak.” She remembers also that his views were broad minded. He advised her to marry a Christian man. It was not necessary that he be a Mennonite but it was important that her husband be a Christian. She feels he did not reflect the harsh demands that came at a later time to the church. She recalls that he sat on the right side of the church often resting his elbow on the window sill.
Horace Heist was a brother to Celia Heist Shelly. He was about 9 years old at the time of Father Gehman’s death. Mr. Heist’s memories of his early days at the Zionsville church are not always pleasant. However, he holds his grandfather in the highest regard. He saw him as a gentle and kind man. He recalls that Father Gehman kept a horse named Major which was used only for traveling. When Father Gehman returned from a trip, he would unhitch the horse in front of the barn and then pull the carriage around the back by himself, It was the delight of the Heist children to climb aboard for a brief carriage ride. He always seemed to enjoy giving the free ride. He recalls Father Gehman sitting in his rocking chair with a cushion on his lap. Mr. Heist would come to get the pillow to lay on it. Father Gehman would tease him and pretend that he didn’t see or hear him. He remembers that his grandfather bought him a pair of boots. Mrs. Heist told him not to get them dirty. Later she saw that they were a mess. She said, “What will your grandfather say if he sees them”. Horace replied, “He told me to go in the mud and see if they were any good.” On another occasion, Father Gehman bought a dozen bananas for Horace’s brother Carroll. Mrs. Heist asked Father Gehman why he bought a dozen bananas and let Carroll eat them all. Father Gehman replied, “Why, he said he liked bananas.” Horace too remembers the mint candy with little pink flowers on the top.
Ruth Gehman Hilbert was 14 when Father Gehman died. She was the daughter Allen Gehman. She remembers that he brought candy to the grandchildren. She recalls that he was reserved and not given to emotions. She recalls that he gave the advice that if you are faithful, God will take care of you. She recalls his opposition to the use of tobacco and the day a visiting preacher came and spit his tobacco out the window.
Norman Schantz was a neighbor of Father Gehman’s. He was 26 when Father Gehman died. He was a member of Nummer Zwei and his views reflect the perspective of the “other side.” Brother Schantz holds Father Gehman in high esteem. It is clear that he did not have the same convictions as Father Gehman but respected him none-the-less. Norman Schantz characterized Gehman as a self made man with much natural ability. He recalls a time when Menno Gehman, Father Gehman’s oldest son, was replanting corn. Father Gehman told him in essence that replanting and marrying a second time were not worthwhile. He recalls an occasion when Father Gehman preached for 2 hours and 15 minutes. He adds that it was not tiresome. He says that Father Gehman was not a disagreeable man. He recalls Father Gehman’s attempts to win his neighbor to the Lord. The man was very wordly. He moved away to escape these attempts going to Pleasant Run to open a tavern. He says that Father Gehman was well liked in his community and that none would say a word against him.
Father William Gehman was not a complicated man. In his secular employment he was a simple hard working farmer. In his Christian calling he was a preacher of the Word of God. He sought to win men and women to Christ and to bring them to the fullest enjoyment of the blessings of salvation. There is room for much more research to fill out the details of the life of this man but the picture of him as a man who loved God and followed his convictions will probably remain unchanged by further research.
The question may be raised as to whether Father Gehman was ever truly a Mennonite. It is obvious that he saw something positive in the Mennonites. He came to them by choice at his conversion. It is also to be observed that he was drawn to Mennonite groups that were seeking something more than what had been sought traditionally in the Mennonite church. Traditional Mennonite concerns do not appear to have been a major part of his ministry. The emphasis upon pacificism and community which are so much a part of Mennonite thought do not have preeminence with him. Rather, Father Gehman was more concerned with revivalism and Biblical truth. That is not to say that Mennonite traditions were ignored by him. Rather, the quest for Biblical truths and revival became a higher priority then the preserving of Mennonite traditions.
Father Gehman left a legacy which is apparent in the history of the Bible Fellowship Church. As a man involved in the development of the doctrines of the church when it began, he endeavored to lead as he saw God was directing in the Scripture. It is obvious that the question of what the Bible teaches was important to Father Gehman. He examined the Scriptures to see what they would say. In his role as a leader, he was the rudder who gave doctrinal direction as the new church was launched on its way. Others would help to provide the zeal and fire but he would give stability. Subsequent history shows that the church moved and even changed direction theologically but it did so because it was committed to the truth of God’s Word and was willing to change when it believed God was calling for these changes.
Father Gehman left a legacy of revivalism. He did not settle for a dead orthodoxy in the Christian life. He sought an abundant and overflowing life for himself and others. It is clear that the church today does not hold to the same view of sanctification which he taught. It is also clear that the history of the church has been one of calling men and women to experience the fullness of life in Christ.
Father Gehman also left a legacy of vision. He was one of a group of men committed to the task of building the church. His concern for the planting of new churches is illustrated in his comments and his actions. The task of missions, both home and foreign was a significant part of the new church. While the Bible Fellowship Church was dormant for a number of years, its vision was undimmed. Father Gehman would probably rejoice to see the missionaries presenting themselves for service, the new churches that are being formed, and the dramatic rise membership of recent years.
If Father Gehman could fellowship in this church he helped to form what would he think? Certainly such a question is difficult to answer. Surely there are things which would trouble him. Yet one has to feel that he would be pleased to see that the church is still committed to seeking Biblical truths and still willing to change its ways when it believes God has spoken. He would be pleased to see that the church is still committed to the task of missions. One has to feel that the spirit of his thinking is alive and well in the Bible Fellowship Church.
1. This and the following information are supplied by Joyce Heist.
2. From Muster Rolls, Associates and Militia of the County of Berks, Pennsylvania Archives, Fifth Series, Volume V, page 248. This information supplied by Horace Heist.
3. According to the custom of the day, William Gehman was probably given his mother’s maiden name for his middle name. It does not appear that Father Gehman chose to use this initial. This too may have been by custom since the lists of Mennonite leaders often do not use the middle initial.
4. This information was supplied by Celia Heist Shelly.
5. This information was supplied by Mildred Gehman Henry.
6. This information is taken from the papers of C. H. Brunner. These papers are not published. Typewritten copies were supplied by his daughter, Mrs. Dorothy Wentz. These papers are contained in the archives of the Bible Fellowship Church located in Wallingford, Pennsylvania.
7. H. B. Musselman, The Eastern Gospel Banner, May 2, 1918, page 8.
9. This information is supplied by Bright and Joyce Heist who heard this from Rose Lambert, granddaughter of Father Gehman and missionary to Turkey.
10. J. and E. Guy, The Gospel Banner, September 1, 1892.
11. Edwin M. Long, The Union Tabernacle, page 86.
12. Conference Journal – 1915, page 35.
13. Conference Journal – 1918, page 34. See the original obituary composed by H. B. Musselman, Eastern Gospel Banner, April 25, 1918, page 271.
14. C. H. Brunner, papers.
15. Minutes of the Eastern Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America, May 1, 1851.
16. Long, The Union Tabernacle, page 86.
17. These books are the possession of Ruth Gehman Hilbert. They are Gesangbuch deer Evangelische Gemeinschaft fur Effentliche und Gottsdienst (1871) and Gebet und Danklieder fur Erwekungs and Gebetversammlungen, of the Evangelische Gemeinschaft (1886).
18. Minutes of Eastern Conference, May 5, 1853.
19. C. H. Brunner, papers.
20. Long, The Union Tabernacle, page 80.
21. Ibid., page 84.
22. Ibid., page 84, footnote.
23. C. H. Brunner, papers.
24. Minutes of the Eastern Conference, October 1, 1857.
25. Doctrine of Faith and Church Discipline of the Evangelical Mennonite Society of East Pennsylvania. Skippackville, Pa.: A. E. Dambly, 1867, page 4.
26. C. H. Brunner, papers.
27. Centennial Anniversary Book, Bible Fellowship Church, Zionsville, Pennsylvania.
28. Ibid.., see section, “Memories.”
29. Conference Journal – 1915, page 34.
30. J. C. Wenger, The Mennonite Church in America. Scottsdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1966, page 240.
31. Doctrine of Faith, page 4.
32. R. B. Graber, “Archival Data on Pennsylvania German Schisms, 1778-1927.” Mennonite Quarterly Review, January, 1983, page 54.
33. Minutes of the Evangelical Mennonites, October 1878.
34. Ibid., March, 1881.
35. D. K. Cassel, History of the Mennonites, Philadelphia: D. K. Cassel, 1888, page 275.
36. Minutes, February 2, 1891.
37. His view in this practical question is probably revealed in the resolution in which it is said that a woman might wear a hat if she were humble about it. See Minutes, June 3, 1873. Rose Lambert related to Bright and Joyce Heist that on one occasion she had been rebuked by a church leader for wearing a certain dress. When Father Gehman viewed the dress, he could see no reason for the rebuke.
38. The Gospel Banner, April 25, 1873, page 12.
39. Ibid., June 15, 1885, page 9.
40. Ibid., December 15, 1885, page 8.
41. Ibid., June 1, 1886, page 9.
42. Ibid., November, 1886, page 4.
43. Ibid., May 15, 1892, page 141.
44. Ibid., December 15, 1892, page 5.
45. Minutes, November 10, 1874.
46. Minutes, June 3, 1872.
47. The Gospel Banner, February 19, 1895, page 4.
48. J. B. Huffman, History of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, New Carlisle, Ohio: The Bethel Publishing Company, 1920, page 149.
49. The Gospel Banner, September 15, 1881, page 142.
50. Ibid., July 15, 1882, page 108.
51. Ibid., September 15, 1887, page 4.
52. Ibid., September 15, 1888, page 8.
53. Reading Eagle, reprint of July 22, 1901.
54. The Gospel Banner, March 7, 1993, page 9.
55. Ibid., September 1, 1887, page 4.
56. Ibid., June 15, 1883, page 93.
57. Ibid., October 1, 1892, page 5.
58. Minutes, February 6, 1893.
59. The Gospel Banner, March 7, 1893, page 9.
60. Ibid., January 3, 1893, page 12.
61. Ibid., January 15, 1893, page 9.
62. This information was supplied by Celia Shelly.
63. Minutes, February 1, 1892.
64. This information was supplied by Mildred Gehman Henry who received it from Dr. Ralph E. Neighbor.
65. Minutes, February 2, 1894.