OF THE EVANGELICAL MENNONITE FELLOWSHIP
OF EASTERN PENNSYLVANIA
By Dr. Harold P. Shelly
Professor of Church History at Alliance Theological Seminary,
Nyack, New York
Two Old Handwritten Journals
The German minutes of the Bible Fellowship Church (BFC) first came to the attention of the Historical Committee of the BFC in the early 1960’s. While some may have known of their existence, there was little concern about their contents. They read, “Verhandlungen der Evangelischen Mennoniten Conferenz oder Rathsversammlungen, von Ost Pennsyvanien. (Deliberatlons of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference or Council of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference or Council of Eastern Pennsylvania.”) The second sentence refers to the 1859 conference as “der ersten Rathversammlung der Evangelischen Mennoniten Gemeinschaft,” i.e. the first council of the Evangelical Mennonite Association.
The original German minutes, which cover the period from the first Tuesday in November 1859 to February 4-6, 1884, in outline relate how the small Evangelical Mennonite Fellowship conducted business and reflect the issues that concerned them most in their earliest years. Included in these minutes are the handwritten records of the semi-annual conferences of the Church from 1859 to 1879 and the annual conferences from 1880 to 1894.1 These are, in fact, the original and, for some years, the only official documents in existence from that period of the Church’s history.2 The Historical Committee of the Bible Fellowship Church makes these available in the hope that the Church will come to a greater appreciation of its roots and that persons interested in the history of the Church may use these records to approach greater understanding of this small branch of the Church of Christ as it attempted to be the Church in eastern Pennsylvania among German-speaking people during the last half of the nineteenth century.
A Different Church
These minutes, rediscovered a century after they were begun, reveal a fellowship of like-minded preachers, calling themselves die Evangelischen Mennoniten Gemeinschaft. They were quite different from the denomination which now calls itself the Bible Fellowship Church. Many changes have taken place besides the selection of a different name. Although their lineal descendants were still primarily located in southeastern Pennsylvania and they still considered themselves evangelical, they no longer thought of themselves as Mennonites. Many persons within the denomination traced their ancestry to a few of the original leaders. Moreover one word of the original name –Gemeinschaft– had re-emerged in the new name. Gemeinschaft was the word Luther had used for the Greek word koinonia, fellowship. This somewhat loose association of local congregations (Gemeinde) called itself a Gemeinschaft; the local house of worship they usually designated the Versammlungshaus, meetinghouse, although they sometimes used the term Kirche, church. In the earliest minutes, the first Tuesday in November, 1859, the assembly decided, “Each child of the Lord shall be free in every way to express himself according to his inner feelings toward the Holy Ghost.” In June, 1862, they expressed their intention to follow the New Testament alone. They believed that they needed no written rule of faith. A century later when on April 11, 1959, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania they assumed the name Bible Fellowship Church, Annual Conference chairman Franklin B. Hertzog expressed the following rationale: “Delegates to the conference based their choice of a new name on the concepts that the Bible should be their sole authority in matters of faith and conduct; that the fellowship of the believers is one of the greatest joys and blessings: and that the organization shall be dedicated as a church to bearing testimony to the Gospel.”3
One Hundred Years Later
They had once merely been a fellowship of German speaking Mennonites. Because of their interest in evangelism through revival practices common to the evangelical community of the mid-nineteenth century, they were suspect to many within the Mennonite Community. The original association had gradually become a Church, but they were no longer Mennonites. The Anabaptist notion that the church, as an assembly of committed Christians who gathered voluntarily and who have given witness to their faith by their baptism, remained central in their thinking. A century later distinctly Mennonite practices and outlooks, such as pacifism and plain dress, no longer played an important role in the Church. They must have recognized the drift away from Mennonite basics as early as 1874. In the minutes a discussion of the name is reported and two names were suggested, Gemeinde Gottes, Congregation of God, and Vereinigte Christen, United Christians (Minutes, November, 1874). Although they did not change the name in 1874, unquestionably the twentieth-century Bible Fellowship Church was no longer the nineteenth-century Evangelical Mennonite Fellowship. The Bible Fellowship Church had become another evangelical denomination, still claiming the authority of the Scriptures alone, but now distinctly reformed or Calvinistic in its theological orientation and presbyterial in its polity. How this took place is really another story. What their minutes reflect are the efforts of the story of a handful of Mennonite revivalists enthusiastically trying to evangelize their corner of the “Pennsylvania Dutch” world.
From the German to the English Language
The Gemeinschaft gradually gave up the use of the German language. As early as 1867 it was thought necessary to publish their Glaubenslehre/Faith and Order in English as well as German. The minutes of the conferences were recorded only in German until 1884. About the same time, English minutes began to appear alongside the German minutes although transcribed by another secretary. In the 1883 minutes, it is noted that they would print 100 English and 100 German schedules which suggests that the number of adherents or the use of the two languages was about equal. Earlier, in June, 1866, when they produced the Glaubenslehre/Faith and Order, they had ordered 800 German and 400 English copies. When Annual Conference in 1896 deemed it necessary to publish their minutes, the Yearbook appeared only in English. Although occasional German preaching continued for several decades and German choruses continued somewhat longer, the Conference was primarily an English-speaking Church by the turn of the century.
The influence of Pietism
The major influence in the revivalism, which is apparent throughout the minutes, is pietism. Pietism was found among most of the German-speaking denominations in Pennsylvania, especially The Church of the Brethren and the Moravians as well as the Lutheran and Reformed Churches. Mennonites were influenced by these groups but generally emphasized nurture within the believing community and simple discipleship over the more overt expressions of religious experience found among pietists. Pietists tended to emphasize a crisis conversion, sanctification of life, aggressive evangelism, fellowship with believers of all denominations, and the sole authority of Scripture. The effect of pietistic revivalism among Mennonites was usually disruptive. The Evangelical Mennonites were, if nothing else, revivalists.
In 1861 Eusebius Hershey joined the young Evangelical Mennonite Fellowship. The minutes record, “He presented a good certificate of release from the United Brethren in Christ Society (Gemeinschaft)” (Minutes, June 4, 1861). The group had as one of its earliest leaders one-time Mennonite Bishop turned revivalist Martin Boehm. Hershey arrived with recommendations from the following pietist pastors of Centre County, Pennsylvania: Levi Lukenbach, preacher of the River Brethren Society (Gemeinschaft), D.S. Tobias, preacher of the German Reformed Church (Kirche), Joseph Wilker, preacher of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, E.A. De Mayer, preacher of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and Heinrich Althaus, preacher of the Evangelical Association (Gemeinschaft). Hershey was, except for a very brief stint, always a Reiseprediger, a traveling preacher. The Reiseprediger was always important in the spread of revival movements and among the Evangelical Mennonite Association none traveled more than Hershey. The minutes show the number of miles traveled, the places visited and the number of sermons preached. Most prominent among other ‘traveling preachers reporting to the fellowship were Jonas Y. Schultz, Jacob “Rose Jelly Jakey” Moyer, Samuel M. Musselman, David U. Lambert, and William K. Ellinger.
Reiseprediger Jonas Schultz was accepted as a member of conference and permitted to take part in the decision making (Minutes, November 1861). A graduate of Hahneman Medical College, he only practiced medicine for about four years and then began his itinerant ministry. In 1870-71 he taught at the Mennonite school in Wadsworth, Ohio. In June 1875, “Brother Jonas Y. Schultz appeared and was accepted as an advisory member for this conference” (Minutes, June 1875). He appeared somewhat regularly from 1861 to 1877. On one occasion he received the blessing of the assembled brethren for a preaching journey to Canada. The minutes often make note of “evangelists,” “itinerant preachers,” “traveling missionaries,” and “opening new places for preaching.” (cf. Minutes, 1881, 1884, and 1885).
One distant effort to establish a congregation was in Wadsworth, Ohio. Eusebius Hershey was briefly connected with the congregation, but then it was reported, “Brother E. Hershey was relieved of having charge of the Wadsworth congregation, since Brother D.U. Lambert has taken over” (Minutes, 1875). Then there were reports that members of the congregation “were backsliding.” One year later Lambert was authorized to sell “our church property in Wadsworth, Ohio … to the highest bidder” (Minutes, 1876). Obviously the effort at faraway church planting had failed, but church planting in southeastern Pennsylvania continued.
Missions – Home and Foreign
From the earliest days the Fellowship had a lively interest in outreach. As has been noted, it was alleged excesses in revival practices which led to the expulsion of the Evangelical Mennonites from the “New” Mennonite Gemeinschaft. The enthusiastic young revivalists who “went everywhere preaching the Gospel” and especially those who were designated Reiseprediger(en) certainly meant to be missionaries. This, however. was not institutionalized until June 1864 when the secretary reported. “The time has come to form a Mission Society in our group” (einer Missionsgesellschaft in unserer Gemeinschaft) (Minutes, June 7, 1864). The Conference resolved that Euseblus Hershey, David Henning and David Gehman form a committee to write a constitution for the Mission Society, which they did, and presented to the next Conference in November of 1864. The organization was named The Home and Heathen Mission Society of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference of Eastern Pa. (Die Einheimische- und Heidenmissionsgesellschaft der Evanelischen Mennonitengemeinschaft von Ostpennsylvanien). The first annual meeting of the Mission Society was to be held the night before the next semi-annual conference. Article nine spoke of preachers sent out as missionaries and of their responsibility to report to the Conference. In November, 1865, Hershey presented his travel report which included the notation that he had received $100 from the Mission Treasurer. The following minutes contain constant reports from his travels to central and western Pennsylvania and Ontario. In June, 1868, the records show he traveled over 1500 miles. The minutes of the following meeting report his absence due to physical exhaustion. In June 1870 the Mission Society felt compelled to send out two traveling preachers. Four men volunteered; therefore, after “ardent or fervent. prayer,” lots were cast which fell on Hershey and Samuel M. Musselman (Minutes, June,1870). (Musselman was excommunicated in 1889.) By the mid-1870’s a preaching appointment had been established in Wadsworth, Medina County, Ohio.
Not all monies collected were used by the Reisepredigen. In November 1866 and again in November 1868 contributions were sent to the American Tract Society. It is of interest to note that the leader of the German branch of the Tract Society at this time was Edwin Long who reports on the beginnings of the Evangelical Mennonites in his account of his revival meeting and his “moveable tabernacle.” Among his German associates was Jonas Y. Schultz, sometime advisory member attending the conferences of the Evangelical Mennonites, who was also commissioned for evangelistic travels to Canada with the blessing of the Conference.
At the semi-annual conference in June 1876, a sermon on missions was preached by Brother Eusebius Hershey. After that, a collection was taken up, to be used for spreading the Gospel. (Minutes, June, 1876). During that same conference Hershey reported that he traveled 2000 miles.
By 1889 mission interest was also being focused overseas. In 1889 the Committee on Heathen Missions reported that it intended to send money to “Brother William N. Taylor” in China (Minutes, 1889). The following year they were to send their money to “Bishop Simpson in New York” (Minutes, 1890). In 1893 and 1894 the money in the “Heathen Mission Treasury” was sent to the “International Missionary Alliance,” “Bishop” A. B. Simpson’s foreign missionary agency. In 1894 the monies were sent undesignated. In 1893 they were designated for “Africa mission work.”
In February 1882, Conference required two boxes be placed at each church door, one for the “poor at home” and the other for “foreign missions” (eine Armen- u. eine Ausheimische Missionskasse) ( Minutes, 1882). Might this be interpreted as a concern for both the social and the spiritual needs of people?
Revivalists from Ontario and Indiana Merge
Probably the most discernible influence throughout the early minutes was that of pietistic, Methodistic, Mennonite revivalists from Canada such as Daniel Hoch. When mergers took place in 1879 and 1883, it was with kindred spirits, other revivalistic Mennonites beyond the borders of Pennsylvania.
The first merger in 1879 was with the United Mennonites of Ontario, Canada and Indiana, who were led by one-time Mennonite revivalists Solomon Eby and Daniel Brenneman respectively. Then they called themselves Evangelical United Mennonites. The excitement of this joyous occasion is recorded in the minutes of November 6 to 8, 1879. Samuel Musselman, the secretary reported,
Now a union was formed from the two bodies and when they touched, they ran together like two drops of water. All went down to their knees to thank the Great Shepherd that He had brought two flocks of sheep together into one herd. The whole experience was a soul-refreshing time. Many were praising God with loud voices. Many hopped or skipped about, others clapped their hands to praise God in the highest.
From their Ontario and Indiana brethren they also learned about camp meetings. From the outset they had held extended meetings wherever a home or a meeting house was available. Now they learned to take the meeting house and all its excitement into open fields where more might see and hear and feel it.
A principal focus of the Second Great Awakening had been the rise of the camp meeting on the frontier. The establishment of camp meeting among the Evangelical United Mennonites (E U M) is evidence of greater acceptance of revivalistic “means” to promote the Gospel. The first EUM camp meeting was at Fetter’s Grove, Elkhart County, Indiana, July 30,1880. Jonas Musselman and his brother-in-law, Abel Strawn, and several laymen from Pennsylvania took part. Upon return home, they introduced the camp meeting into the Pennsylvania Conference. The first camp meeting in the Pennsylvania Conference was at Chestnut Hill near Coopersburg in 1883, the second at Terre Hill, Lancaster County. Pennsylvania, in 1885 (Minutes, 1883 and 1885).
Four years after the merger with the United Mennonites, a few like-minded congregations, who called themselves Brethren in Christ, as some of the early Swiss Anabaptist had, joined the Evangelical United Mennonites and the group now called themselves Mennonite Brethren in Christ. This name was to be their name until General Conference took the name United Missionary Church in 1947. By special legislation. the Pennsylvania Conference continued to call itself the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church, Pennsylvania Conference. In 1952 the Pennsylvania Conference withdrew from the United Missionary Church and in 1959 took the name Bible Fellowship Church. The Bible Fellowship Church thus separated itself from those with whom it had merged in 1879 and 1883. It was back to the congregations related to the original Evangelischen Mennoniten Gemeinschaft begun in Upper Milford Township, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania 100 years earlier. Only congregations affiliated with the original Evangelical Mennonites or congregations begun by their lineal descendants were now part of the Bible Fellowship Church. The Gemeinschaft had returned full circle.
Like the Evangelical Mennonites of Pennsylvania. those with whom the 1879 merger had taken place had also departed or been expelled from the Mennonite Church for revivalist excesses. Uniquely most of this revivalism had taken place within the Mennonite community. As revivalism swept over their communities, many of these sincere folks began to examine their lives in the light of the excited preaching going on all around them. Some accepted the verdict that they needed to be converted and experience the cleansing power of the Spirit of God. Two means to bring people to this point of decision were the prayer meeting and the extended meeting. The camp meeting and tabernacle meetings also served this function. All these means centered on fiery preaching designed to bring the sinner under conviction leading to a glorious conversion. Most members of the larger Mennonite community rejected the intense emotionalism. They were offended to hear over and over that they were “unsaved” and needed to yield to the working of the Spirit within. Some, as they say, “came to scoff, but stayed to pray.”
At the eighth semi-annual preachers’ conference they decided, “We will hold on to the teachings of Christ, and the views of the Apostles and Menno and shall conduct our church services like the brethren in Canada in Brother Hoch’s district” (Minutes, June 1863). Brother Hoch was a Mennonite revivalist and friend of John H. Oberholtzer who was the leader of the “New” Mennonites of Pennsylvania from whom the Evangelical Mennonites has emerged. Writing to Oberholtzer concerning his failure to visit him in Canada, he inquires whether he had “fear of prayer meetings, immersion or hand clapping, the latter of which. Hoch suggests, seems to him to be the result of fanaticism.”4 Undoubtedly, the Evangelical Mennonites who wished to follow Hoch were accused of fanaticism by many among the Oberholtzer Mennonites. Of course it was not possible to follow a far-off example and soon the brethren began to determine what they needed by way of written doctrinal and behavioral standard for their small society.
The Anabaptist-Mennonite influence can be seen in the first Doctrine of Faith. The resolution which passed in November, 1859, at the Evangelical Mennonite Meeting House in Haycock Township, Bucks County read “That every child of God, having proved himself such by his walk and conversation, shall have entire freedom to express himself according to the inspiration of the Holy Ghost” (Doctrine of Faith, p. 5). The walk is an Anabaptist emphasis; however, the “freedom to express himself according to the inspiration of the Holy Ghost” is more revivalistic or pietistic than Anabaptist.
Articles of Faith
The first Articles of Faith were “composed” by a committee consisting of David Henning, William Gehman, Eusebius Hershey and Joseph L. Romig. The articles were. as the book says, “partly from the Doctrines of Faith (Glaubenslehre) of other Christian societies, and partly from the Holy Scriptures, simply and distinctly arranged according to the Word of God for the edification of the society, and for the benefit of all that may wish to connect themselves therewith.” (Doctrine of Faith, 1867, p. 6-7). Clearly, then, the Society did not intend originality, but to be in the historic Christian faith; in fact they insisted “it is our sincere wish to take the simple and secure Bible way. as Christ, the Apostles, and Menno Simons have taught” (Doctrine of Faith, p. 7). The heavy borrowing from the Mennonite Dordrecht Confession (1632) is evidence that they were trying to remain in Christian truth as the Mennonite Church taught it. A comparison of the Dordrecht Confession (1632) with the Confession of the Evangelical Mennonite Society (1866) is instructive. The Dordrecht Confession of Faith seems to be the basis for the “Statement of the Principal Articles of our Common Christian Faith” as set forth by the Evangelical Mennonite Society in 1866-67. An examination of the two side-by-side reveals many similarities, the most obvious of which is the order. It is also noteworthy that the Evangelical Mennonites tended to shorten the articles and to use fewer Scripture citations in support of the statements.
Article eight on Holy Baptism in the Dordrecht Confession says “with water;” the Evangelical Mennonites’ confession states, “in water to the burial of their sins;” and then adds, “Further, we believe in regard to baptism as Menno Simons teaches in his Articles of Faith, page 37, 38 and 39.” Menno expresses a criticism of those who “invented baptism of infants, asserting that infants are regenerated in baptism as if regeneration were simply a matter of immersing in water.”5 He also refers to “Scriptural baptism, the forgiveness of sins, the putting on of Christ, and the immersion into His church.”6 Our forefathers must have concluded that they were still Mennonites since Menno supported immersion even though the Mennonite Church did not. More likely this is a Pietist influence, but it was nice to find help in Menno. The minutes of the EMS state, “The article concerning baptism was widely discussed, but was unanimously accepted as it was laid down in the confession of faith” (Minutes, June 1866).
It is of interest that in June 1862, five years before the first Faith and Order, conference discussed the Mennonite Dordrecht Confession of 1632. “At the request of the conference, W. Gehman read the eighteen articles of the Doctrinal Confession of the Mennonites in Dordrecht, Holland and they were closely examined in order to accept them if they appeared good.” But, two articles, the 12th, “of Holy Matrimony,” and 17th, “How the shunned and separated of our church (Gemeinde) are to be avoided, were found to be “somewhat too stern for our times (etwas zu streng fur unsehre Zeit).” Finally, the whole confession was laid aside and the New Testament accepted as rule and order enough for our Society.” (Minutes, June, 1862). From the outset of the Fellowship, it was the Scriptures which was to “be their ultimate authority.
The Dordrecht Confession of Faith, an attempt to bring the Anabaptists of Holland and North Germany together, was originally written in Flemish, translated into German in 1658 and accepted by the ministers of Alsace in 1660. It was not until 1725 when the Pennsylvania Mennonites, many of whom were originally from Switzerland, adopted the Dordrecht Confession, making it the standard confession of faith for Mennonites in America.7
The Mennonite Encyclopedia credits the Evangelical Mennonite Society with the first new Mennonite confession of faith in America.
In North America the first new confession was that of the present United Missionary Church (formerly Mennonite Brethren in Christ), although it was never called a “Confession.” The first form was Glaubenslehre und Kirchenzucht-ordnung (Skippackville, P A, 1866), English from, Doctrine of Faith and Church Discipline (idem, 1867). In 1880 a revised edition appeared at Goshen, IN, in both English and German, and again in 1889 at Berlin (now Kitchener), Ont., in both languages. Later editions were in English only, Berlin, Ont., 1897 and 1905; New Carlisle, Ohio, 1920 and 1924, and later editions.8
Although the Glaubenslehre of 1866 states that the Evangelical Mennonite Society meant to be true to the teaching “of Christ, the Apostles and Menno Simons,” it is the teachings of Menno as they are found in the Dordrecht Confession.
The desire to use the Bible alone did not last and soon adherents were expected to affirm the confession of 1866-67. Question number three asks new members, “Are you acquainted with our Doctrines of Faith and Church Discipline?” Question four asks, “will you follow and defend them 1” (Doctrines, p. 40). Mennonites, who followed the Dordrecht confession, generally were not required to subscribe to it for Church membership. Thus the 1866-67 confession, which was basically Mennonite, may have been used in an un-Mennonite way.
When the Evangelical Mennonites adopted its first Glaubenslehre in 1866 it incorporated the Dordrecht Confession of 1632, 1725 as its statement of faith except for two items it considered zu streng fur unsehre Zeit. Article XI of the Dordrecht Confession calls for a literal observance of the practice of feet washing, following the example of Jesus, and cites John 13:4-7 and I Timothy 5:9 and 10. There had been discussion of feet washing among the ministers of the Oberholtzer Mennonites. The Evangelical Mennonites seemed to be among those who practiced feet washing (Minutes, November, 1866). (Feet washing was dropped as a required practice by the Bible Fellowship Church at adjourned session in 1962.)
In traditional Mennonite fashion ministers were chosen by lot–after the nomination of “such an one that at least possesses good faculties, such as a clear and distinct voice, natural oratory, but above all, to look upon a blameless life” (Doctrine of Faith, p. 28). After the nominations, the congregation was to narrow the nominees down to two before the lot. The article goes on, “and then prayerfully to nominate such, after which the congregation shall hold an election of those nominated, and those two who shall have a plurality of votes shall draw lots, and he upon whom the lot falls shall be willingly accepted by the whole congregation as a Minister of the Word, ordained of God” (Doctrine of Faith, p. 28). Concerning lot, the June, 1870 minutes read, “At the suggestion of Brother Hershey, a lot was cast which after an ardent prayer fell to Abel Strawn and S. M. Musselman” to be traveling preachers” (Minutes, June 1870). Others such as elders might have been elected by the body apart from the lot. From these “ordinary Ministers” the Elders were to be “elected according to 2 Timothy 2:24” (Doctrine of Faith, p. 26). There is, however, no statement of how these elders were elected, or by whom they were elected.
The class meetings of Methodistic revivalism and pietistic societies became the norm for the Evangelical Mennonites. In the “General Rules and Appointed Duties of the Society” it is stated, “In order that it may be better known whether the different members of our Society have an earnest to work out their soul’s salvation, the Society is divided into small companies, which we call classes. Each class consists of a number of fellow members who shall assemble publicly at least once a week; and it is the duty of the Preachers and Deacons, as frequently as possible, to attend the classes or prayer meetings, and to conduct them according to Scriptural order; yet the same privilege shall be given to each common brother at each time” ( Doctrine of Faith, p. 24, emphasis added) .
“All the members of our society shall endeavor to lead a Godly life , be diligent in prayer – particularly in secret– and, where it is possible to attend for their own edification all our meetings of Divine Service; to hold family devotions with their own, morning and evening, to set a good example in all Christian virtues” ( Doctrine of Faith , pp. 24-25, emphasis added) . The revival influence is also seen in the following: “The number of those, that desired to attend such meeting, soon increased. Such, that now received the Word, felt repentance and sorrow on account of their sins, that were inwardly renewed, born again, and baptized with the Holy Spirit of God, an became willing “according to the will of God and men, upon their true faith according to God’s ordinance, were baptized and added to the society” (Doctrine of Faith, p. 4, emphasis added). The “altar call” was a regular practice of revivalism. In revivalism the “seeker” came down the sawdust trail and “prayed through” until he felt cleansed.
The Evangelical Mennonites -had an article on dress which disclaimed plain dress as a way to save a person, “No one shall be allowed to make use of the following personal ornaments, to wit: Hoops, Women’s Hats, Feathers on Bonnets, Ear and Finger Rings, Powdering of the Hair, Ribbon Bows and Moustaches, and everything that is worn for pride and conformation to the world. 1 Peter 3:8; Romans 12:2” ( Doctrine of Faith, p. 22). As late as 1920, it was reported of the young people, “They manifest a willing and obedient spirit, being kept plain in attire and can be counted on for God” (Yearbook, 1920, p. 40, emphasis added).
Leaders, pastors and traveling preachers
Who were the men from the first quarter Of a century who carried on these revival meetings in southeastern Pennsylvania? Gehman, Schelly, Henning, Diehl, Schneider, Gottschall, Hershey, Stauffer, Musselman, Kauffman, Strawn, Romig, Schultz, Rosenberger, Lambert, and Frey were the preachers during that first twenty-five years recorded in the German minutes. Their parents, most of whom were Mennonite, had named them William, David, Heinrich, Joseph, Jacob, Eusebius, Abraham, Jonas, Abel, Joel, Sidenham, and Samuel. They described themselves as “preachers of the Word.” They called each other, “Brother.” Somewhat ironically it was to be that two men with non-Bible names, William Gehman and Eusebius Hershey were to have the greatest impact within the small association in the early decades. William Gehman became the first Presiding Elder in 1879. The peripatetic Reseprediger Eusebius Hershey who stimulated home and foreign missionary interest be c ame the first Mennonite foreign missionary from North America in 1890.9
The name of another William, William Brunner Musselman, appears for the first time in the 1884 minutes. He was to be the bridge between the founding fathers and his younger brother and cousins who were to be the leaders of the next half century, Harvey Brunner Musselman, Charles Henry Brunner, and William George Gehman. Toward the end of this period colorful itinerant preachers such as William K. Ellinger and Jacob “Rose Jelly Jakey” Moyer appeared briefly on the list of preachers and then disappeared almost as quickly. (Autobiographies of the last two are in What Mean These Stones, Coopersburg, PA: The Historical Committee, 1983.)
Many of the preachers and leaders of the earliest decades of the Church have been forgotten. In the 1949 Conference Yearbook there appears a list of “Deceased Pastors of the Pennsylvania Conference” (p.117). On this list were the names of William Geh man, Eusebius Hershey, Abraham Kauffman, Jonas Musselman and Abel Strawn who ministered in the Church before 1879. Missing from the list were David Henning, Henry Diehl and William Shelly (or Schelly) who were among the preachers and elders at the first conference of the new-born Evangelical Mennonite Association. Others who served as pastors before 1879 who are not listed are Sidenham Lambert, David U. Lambert, Samuel H. Frey, Joseph Romig, Jacob Gottschall, Aaron Unangst, Samuel M. Musselman, Joseph Schneider, Michael Landis, Jacob Ruch and Joel Rosenberger.
The frequent mention in the minutes of Jonas Yeakel Schultz a traveling preacher who also taught at the Mennonite school in Wadsworth, Ohio, suggests that the Evangelical Mennonites had connections with men who did not devote their whole time to pastorates in the Gemeinschaft. His name does not appear in later lists of preachers. Admittedly he and some of the others did not identify with the group long term. Some, however, invested many years of ministry with the denomination. The earliest death recorded in the 1949 Yearbook was that of Jonas Musselman in 1886, and, except for Eusebius Hershey, all of the preachers listed in the 1949 Yearbook are buried either in Zionsville or Coopersburg BFC churchyards. Perhaps the Church had simply lost track of some of the others. The records show that some of the men whose names were excluded had been disciplined, placed on probation or excommunicated by the Church and possibly for this reason their names were not included. But this does not apply to all. Some who were excluded, the records show, had even chaired a semi-annual conference. Perhaps there are other reasons. One must not speculate overmuch, but here is an area for further research.
Semi-annual conferences were held from 1859 to 1879 but the chairperson was not noted until 1861. Up until 1878 when Abraham Kauffman and Joel Rosenberger chaired the semi-annual conferences, the chairmanship rotated between David Henning, William Shelly, Eusebius Hershey, and William Gehman. No person chaired the conference more than two times in a row, Henning in 1861 and 1864-65 and Hershey in 1862-63. During those years, Henning served as chairman 11 times, Gehman 10, Shelly 9, and Hershey 4. Hershey might have served more often were it not for his many preaching excursions which kept him out of the area where the others labored.
After the merger with the United Mennonites in 1879, William G eh man was elected Presiding Elder and served as chairman until his retirement from office in 1892. By the time of Gehman’s election to the new position, the other former chairmen, all of whom were older than he, had departed or ceased to play a significant role in the politics of the Conference. It is interesting to note that in the early printed yearbooks the chairmanship of the semi-annual conferences was blank, but in the 1915 yearbook the editor, C. H. Brunner, credits Gehman with having chaired all the conferences before 1861. This is questionable since the early pattern is that of a rotating leadership and Gehman had not served before the second conference of 1863. One wonders why the editor saw fit to add this information to the first four conferences. Did new information come to light or was this a case of creative history in the making? Gehman was still living in 1915 and he might have given this information to Brunner himself.
In 1892 Gehman handed the gavel over to his nephew William Brunner Musselman who was followed by his cousin, Charles Henry Brunner, his brother, Harvey Brunner Musselman, and another cousin, William George Gehman, son of “Father” William Gehman, the first Presiding Elder. (The son, W.G. Gehman was later affectionately called “Daddy” Gehman.) Thus the chairmanship of the Pennsylvania Conference was to remain in the same extended family for 65 years. Clearly the Conference had changed by 1879 and a new period was beginning. A study of these previously unpublished minutes will reveal a different Church before 1879 and the development of the Church as it was to be in the first half of the twentieth century.
Changing Organizational Structures
The original organization of the association was a loose fellowship of like-minded revivalists, Methodistic in practice but Mennonite in theology and polity. Their local churches were congregationally organized. As late as November 1873, the appointment of ministers to various congregations was done by resolution. The following year the minutes simply show that appointments were made. In 1875 they were “assigned.” The explicit establishment of a committee to assign preachers to their congregations and the requirement of a commitment of loyalty to “God and the Conference” was first stated somewhat later in February 1890.
The first yearly conference convened March 15, 1880. For the first time there was a Presiding Elder and the first mention of a Stationing and Boundary Committee. Also in 1880 one finds the mention of English minutes.
Value of the minutes
One might wish to contend that the publication of these dusty old hand-written minutes will somehow affect history or might even alter the way people in the Bible Fellowship Church perceive themselves. Neither of these scenarios is at all probable; indeed, nothing so earth shaking is envisioned. Nevertheless, if these long-lost documents increase the self-understanding of interested persons within the Bible Fellowship Church and contribute to research into renewal movements among the plain folks of southeastern Pennsylvania, the efforts of the committee will be amply compensated. Hopefully Mennonite historians and others who are interested in a fuller picture of revival movements among Pennsylvania Mennonites may find a bit of data to assist their research. The early Evangelical Mennonites were not self-consciously historical, but their efforts to keep minutes is laudable. Perhaps there may be some re-evaluation of the past or a greater appreciation for the legacy of the past, but even if just one more small piece of a larger historical puzzle can be put into place, the committee will be satisfied.
People lost in the records of the twentieth. century should re-e merge. Some whom the editor of the History of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church (1920) failed to mention may appear once more. Leaders of the past may be seen more clearly, warts and all. Contacts with other revivalists such as the Germ an Eldership, Winebrenner and the Heavenly Recruits can be noted. Relations with the emerging General Conference Mennonites, from which the early revivalist had separated, also surface briefly. Concern for missions and outreach surfaces again and again. Changes in doctrinal em phases can be detected or at least the development of a greater consciousness of a written doctrinal statement with subsequent refinements can be seen. Matters of lifestyle and political concerns such as slavery and the temperance amendment briefly arise. Above all one sees the growth of a stronger central organization emerging along with the new leadership which was to lead the Church for nearly half of the twentieth century.
Ultimately the minutes are published for the glory of God who chose to work among our spiritual forefathers and for the furtherance of the church of Jesus Christ whom these men loved and loudly proclaimed with hearts full of devotion in meetings overflowing with enthusiasm. May the Spirit of renewal and outreach which appears again and again throughout these old German minutes continue to come upon His Church.
Bender, Harold, ed. The Mennonite Encyclopedia. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1955-59, 4 vols.
Buck, Leonard E., ed. What Mean These Stones. Coopersburg, PA: The Historical Committee, Bible Fellowship Church, 1983.
Glaubenslehre und Kirchenzucht-ordnung der Evangel. Mennoniten Gemeinschaft von Ost Pennsylvania mit beigefügter Constitution der Missions-Gesellschaft. Skippackville, PA: A.E. Dambly, 1866. (An English translation appeared in 1867 entitled, Doctrine of Faith and Church Discipline of the Evangelical Mennonite Society of East Pennsylvania with Subjoined Constitution of the Missionary Society.)
Hostetler, Beulah S. “Franconia Mennonite Conference and American Protestant Movements, 1840 to 1940.” Unpublished Ph. D. dissertation. University of Pennsylvania, 1977.
Huffman, Jasper A., ed. History of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church. New Carlisle, OH: The Bethel Publishing Co., 1920.
Lageer, Eileen. Merging Streams: the Story of the Missionary Church. Elkhart, IN: Bethel Publishing Co. , 1979.
Long, Edwin M. The Union Tabernacle; or Moveable Tent-Church: Showing in Its Rise and Success a New Department of Christian Enterprise. Philadelphia: Parry & McMillan, 1859.
Pannabecker, Samuel Floyd. Open Doors: The story of the General Conference Mennonite Church. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1975.
Smith, C.H. The Story of the Mennonites. Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1941.
Storms, Everek R. History of the United Missionary Church. Elkhart, IN: Bethel Publishing Co., 1958.
Wenger, John C. History of the Mennonites of the Franconia Conference. Telford, PA: Franconia Mennonite Historical Society, 1937.
1 The minutes for 1895 were taken from the Gospel Banner, February 19, 1895.
2 In June, 1864, the minutes report that the conference minutes will be published in the Christliche Volksblatt which was published by John H. Oberholtzer of the General Conference Mennonites. Beginning in June, 1867, minutes were published in Der Mennonitische Friedensbote. In 1874, the minutes were to be published in German and in English in the Christlichen Kundschafter (Christian Emmisary) . Conference also ordered 450 extra copies in a circular for distribution. In 1877, the minutes were published in the Reformer and Agriculturist and then the Bucks County Patriot, successors of the Volksblatt. Beginning in 1879, minutes were published in Daniel Brenneman’s Banner and Panier.
3 Quoted in, Bright N. and Joyce Heist, 1859 Zionsville Bible Fellowship Church 1959: Centennial Anniversary (Zionsville, PA, 1959), p.13.
4 In H. C. Smith. History of the Mennonites (Berne, In: Mennonite Book Concern, 1941), p. 601.
5 Menno Simons, “Foundation of Christian Doctrine,” The Complete Writings of Menno Simons c. 1496-1561, ed. Leonard Verduinn and J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), p.123.
6 Ibid, p.124.
7 J.C. Wenger, History of the Franconia Mennonite (Telford, PA: Franconia Mennonite Historical Society), pp. 435-37.
8 C.W. Neff et al, “Confessions of Faith,” The Mennonite Encyclopedia, H.S. Bender, ed. (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1955-59), I,684-5.
9 H.S. Bender, “Evangelical Mennonites,” Mennonite Encyclopedia, I, 226.