Historical Trends in the Missions Outreach of the Bible Fellowship Church 1858 — 1988


by Roy Hertzog

November, 1988

Approximately six years after our fellowship of churches began on November 3, 1864 at the Eleventh Semi-Annual Conference, a Committee was formed to formulate a constitution that was to be called “The Home and Heathen Missionary Society of the Evangelical Mennonites.” This seems to mark the beginning of the foreign mission endeavor.

In the 1914 Yearbook of the Thirty-first Annual Conference, Rev. C. H. Brunner writes in retrospect.

The first congregation of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (at that time called Evangelical Mennonites) was organized near Zionsville, Pennsylvania in 1858. For the first twenty-five years from this date there is no record of any offerings for Foreign Missions. About this time the few churches then existing fastened two tin boxes at the door, marked “For the Heathen” and “For the Poor,” respectively. That year the contributions for the heathen amounted to$12.64. Thus, during the first eight years, up to 1890, the sum of $80.36 accumulated, which was then sent to Rev. A. B. Simpson of New York, President of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

On November 1 of this year (1890) Brother Eusebius Hershey left New York for Monrovia, Africa. He had been the pioneer Foreign Missionary to stir up the Church in this great work. Brother Hershey died in Africa, May 24, 1891. Although to many it appeared at that time as a rash and foolish move for an old man of sixty-eight (sic – actually 67) years to go to the hardest field in the world, yet it was the strongest rebuke to the inactivity of the Church and a loud call for a definite forward step in this direction.

The figures following this report tell the rapid strides the Church made after the death of her first representative on heathen soil. With the exception of $30.00 sent to John Washington, of Monrovia, for the burial expenses of Brother Hershey and a trifle for Missionary Receipt Cards, all the money expended to the present date was sent out to the foreign field through the Christian and Missionary Alliance except what was received for Armenia, as noted in the summary which follows (noted in his report but not noted here).

At a Sunday School Convention held at Allentown in the spring of 1893, the subjects of instructing the Sunday Schools along the line of Foreign Missionary work and receiving offerings from them was discussed. And although this aggressive step was opposed by a few of the older and more conservative members, it was decided that each Sunday School should hold an Annual Missionary Day and take up an offering for this cause. As the Sunday School at Graterford had already adopted the barrel system it was recommended that the system be adopted throughout. At the next Annual Conference, held in February, 1894, the offering from the various Sunday Schools amounted to $83.88 already. These offerings are still rising steadily so that by this date (October 1914 or for 31 years) the Sunday Schools of the Conference have contributed $33,286.46, while all the foreign Missionary offerings of the Conference amounted to the grand total of $80,159.37 Surely this the Lord has done.

The Conference supports sixteen missionaries in the foreign field, or one missionary abroad to every hundred members at home. The average contributions for Foreign Missions per member for 1914 was $4.08. (Conference Journal; 1914, pages 40-41)

So we note that there were no offerings for the first 25 years (1858-1882) and no missionaries for the first 32 years(1858-1890). Eusebius Hershey was a traveling evangelist and for many years carried a burden for Africa and then he was challenged by a missionary from India. He made a commitment to go to India as a missionary then requested and received authorization from the Annual Conference in 1890 to go to India. Exactly what transpired to change that commitment from India to Africa I do not know. His daughter wrote, “He had a great desire for Africa all his life.” He said, “God is calling, I must go.” He left from New York on November 1, 1890 and arrived in Sierra Leone 38 days later (about December 8, 1890). He died May 23 or 24, 1891 at the age of 67 (having been born August 14, 1823). His actual time of ministry in Liberia was less than six months. “…Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24 NASB). C. H. Brunner says of Hershey’s death, in the1911 Yearbook, “This stirred up the church and the seed commenced to grow, and the offerings about doubled each year, for several years until today the Conference supports seventeen missionaries on the field. Several applicants are under consideration who maybe accepted and sent during the coming year. The Foreign Mission Board is not in debt as so many are, but has a nice balance on hand.” (Proceedings of the Twenty-Eighth Annual Conference,1911, page 28)

At the Annual Conference in 1895 there again was a resolution to send the Heathen Missionary Treasury amounting to$386.37 to the “International Missionary Alliance” of New York through the conference Secretary (C. H. Brunner). I have not been able to discern how the relationship developed between the International Missionary Alliance (later to be known as the”Christian and Missionary Alliance). On several occasions we see that C. H. Brunner was the one that was to transfer money to that organization and it has been noted that he visited their office and they in turn have visited in his home and with “The Home and Heathen Missionary Society of the Evangelical Mennonites” “The Home and Heathen Missionary Society” later became known as “The Home and Foreign Missionary Society of the Evangelical Mennonite Society of East Pennsylvania.” The Constitution of this Society can be found in …What Mean These Stones? pages 41 and 42.

At the same Annual Conference in 1895, it was stated that the importance of missionary work was freely discussed. The following quote was then placed in the Minutes of this meeting.

The Presiding Elder (W. B. Musselman) gave a touching address concerning the increasing interest in the missionary work manifested in our church. At the close of his address he made the question, “How many of those present are willing to go to the foreign field as missionaries if the Lord calls you, will you rise to your feet?” Whereupon a dozen or more rose to their feet under a deep impression through the Holy Ghost. Many were moved to tears under the operation of the Spirit. Brother William Gehman, our dear Ex-Presiding Elder, who has founded the work here in Pennsylvania, and has been at the head of it for more than forty years until within the last few years, rose to his feet, after the others sat down, and said, “If I were a young man again and would see the great need of the 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.” Brother A. Strawn then rose up and made about the same expression. (Unpublished Minutes)

At the Annual Conference in 1896, “The Home and Foreign Missionary Society of the Evangelical Mennonite Society of East Pennsylvania,” became two separate entities–the “Foreign Mission Board” and the “Home Mission Board.” The Foreign Mission Board (hereafter called the “FMB”) was to be made up of five men. The Annual Conference Chairman would appoint three and the three appointed would appoint the other two. The Chairman appointed C. H. Brunner, L. B. Taylor, and M. Kaufman. The other two were: W.B. Musselman and William Gehman.

Within the Yearbook of the Thirteenth Annual Conference there was a list of “Business Rules of the Conference.” There were two items that related to special service for foreign missions.

D. FOREIGN MISSIONS, HARVEST HOME — Each Minister-in-charge shall hold a Harvest Home Service at each appointment annually, and speak on Foreign Missionary Work. The Annual Foreign Missionary Offering shall be received on this occasion.

E. MISSIONARY DAY — The Ministers-in-charge shall see that the Superintendent of each Sunday School appoint a”Missionary Day” annually. In this service the necessity of establishing and supporting Foreign Missions shall be impressed upon the minds of the children, and a collection taken up for the same. (Enacted February 3, 1894). (Conference Journal,1896, pages 4-5)

It might be added here that in Dec. 1899 at an Extra Session of Annual Conference, a further resolution was adopted, “RESOLVED, that we recommend the Sunday Schools to hold an extra ‘Missionary Day’ whenever they deem it advisable.” (Proceedings of the Sixteenth Annual Conference, 1897, Extra Session, no page number)

The first report of the FMB was submitted to Annual Conference in 1897 and reads as follows:

The Board met twice during the year. At its first meeting, February 13, 1896, it pledged $300 for the support of Fred. Sodaborg, of Africa, for one year. At its last meeting, December 21, 1896, it accepted C. F. Snyder, H. L. Weiss, and Mrs. H. L. Weiss as students of the New York Missionary Training Institute, making itself responsible for the tuition of one term each, on condition that they go as missionaries under the International Missionary Alliance on the first opportunity, or refund the money. –C. H. Brunner, Secretary. (Proceedings of The Fourteenth Annual Conference, 1897, Page 19)

In the Treasurer’s Report that followed the above report it indicates that Fred Sodaborg was on the field under the I.M.A. and the implication that the FMB was assuming his full support. The full cost for keeping one missionary on the field for one year seems to have been $300.

In 1898 there is no further mention of Fred Sodaborg and we assume that the FMB specified support for one year knowing that they would have the responsibilities of some of our own missionaries the next year. Fred Sodaborg is the first example in our fellowship of churches of a “surrogate missionary” or one who is not one of us but has become our representative in missionary outreach. In future years we see the concept of surrogate missionaries being employed when more funds were available than people to send into missionary work. Many surrogate missionaries were supported of which Earl and Pirkko Poysti are probably the last remaining.

In the Report to Annual Conference, which it states is the “Second Annual Report of the Board of Foreign Missions,” we see the authorization of transfer of funds from the FMB to the Christian and Missionary Alliance (the name must have recently been changed) for Brother and Sister H. L. Weiss (Henry L. Weiss and Kate Weiss). The support for the two was $600 per year. It further stated:

Brother C. F. Snyder, after attending the New York Missionary Training Institute for one term, was accepted by the Foreign Missionary Board of the Christian and Missionary Alliance as a candidate for Thibet in the Fall. We accordingly accept him as our representative in that dark land, pledged his support for the first year and took him into our home mission work until ready to leave.

We also pledged one year’s support for one missionary in Africa, the President being authorized to make the selection.

At the second meeting of the Board, Oct. 7, the President reported that he had selected a candidate of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, who expected soon to leave for the Congo. But for various reasons she had not been able to leave yet, neither knew when she could, therefore the resolution concerning the support of her or any other missionary in Africa for the present was withdrawn. (Proceedings of the Fifteenth Session of the Pennsylvania Annual Conference, 1898, page 23)

Again we have indication of a close relationship with the C&MA and that we are using them as our Sending Board. The FMB chose not to be a Sending Board but to use existing agencies. A pattern established from the very beginning, debated on various occasions and yet always returning to this same policy. We also note the importance that the FMB places on formal Bible and missionary training for missionary work. The training may seem minimal to us today but in that day they thought it to be sufficient. Also worthy of note from the Report of the FMB in 1898 was a quote from a letter from H. L. Weiss from Victoria, Chile dated Dec. 3, 1897. They sailed from New York on March 10, 1897 and arrived in Chile on April 19 where they immediately began language studies. They go on to state:

On July 23 I started on my first trip to the south. In the latter part of August we moved to Victoria, our present headquarters. From this point we are branching out among the various settlements. The work among the Germans is going on nicely, We organized a society called the “Evangelische Missions-Gemeinde von Sud Amerika.” They have pledged a certain amount for the support of Brother Valdivia, a native who is going out in the work.” (Ibid., page 24)

When they call Brother Valdivia a “native” they mean that he is a national from Chile or a Chilean. There were many German colonies that were established in Chile as well. They immediately began language studies in Spanish but capitalized on their knowledge of German and immediately began a work among the German colonies. It is noteworthy that this German society immediately committed finances for the support or partial support for a Chilean for missionary outreach to the Spanish speaking people. In the years following we see growing parallel ministries with the Chilean and German peoples.

In 1899 H. L. Weiss reported the growth of both the Spanish and German works and indicated that they were now supporting 5 nationals and that the income, seeming to be primarily from the German communities, was increasing. The FMB began supporting nationals formally in 1904 when H. L. Weiss recommended the support of David Mancilla in Chile. The FMB probably supported more than a dozen nationals and missionaries from other countries during those early years under the leadership and oversight of Weiss. It should be mentioned that these nationals came under the general oversight of one of our own missionaries. When they were deemed no longer worthy of support, they were dropped. This in fact occurred with the first national, David Mancilla after two years.

Weiss’s report to Annual Conference in 1900 indicated both the progress and the problems in the ministry in Chile.

We have organized the work in North Chile into a German Missionary Society, which is self-supporting besides assisting the work in the south. I visit these churches several time a year, hold their Conferences and Conventions.

We have now taken possession of the unoccupied southern part of Chile, having a parish of 200,000. Our work here is Spanish. We have our own printing press and print 1,000 copies of our Spanish paper, ‘La Alianza Cristiana,’ weekly for free distribution, besides a large number of tracts. (Proceedings of The Seventeenth Annual Conference, 1900,page 27)

In that same Yearbook of 1900 we have this quote from a letter of his dated Jan. 6, 1900, of some of the persecutions and hardships they were facing.

Several of our converts died triumphant in the faith. Three of the brethren have been put to jail for the Gospel’s sake. Another, a Chileno convert, was compelled to kneel down and pray, and was then shot and killed. (Ibid., page22)

The comments in the Minutes to the reading of this report, of which the above is only a partial report, was as follows.

The report of the Secretary of the Foreign Mission Board was read and received. (See report.)

The Lord touched hearts, and a real glory-cloud of the missionary spirit hovered over the Conference. (Ibid.,page 12)

During the 18 years that Brother and Sister Weiss served in Chile (1897 – 1915), there was a continued growth to the point where there were 14 missionaries working in 3 countries, Argentine Republic, Chile, and Venezuela for a period of 4 years, with 11 national workers. The missions team concept began among the BFC missionaries and was well developed by Weiss. From various Yearbooks we have some excerpts from the letters of Weiss and condensations from his letters by the Secretary, C. H. Brunner, that give some interesting characteristics of the ministry in South America.

Nearly all our churches are supplied by native pastors, as you will notice by my report. (Proceedings of the Thirty-Second Annual Conference, 1915, page 38)

Though the work is under the supervision of the Christian & Missionary Alliance, yet their organization and form of church government is patterned after our work herein Pennsylvania.” Brother Weiss’ position as Superintendent is similar to that of our Presiding Elders at home; in fact he is elected as such. They have divided their work into a Spanish and German division. Brother Weiss is presiding Elder of the Spanish District and Brother O. Barkowitz, of the German work. Brother M. P. Zook, a convert of the Gospel Worker Society and later a member of the Gospel Herald Society is Secretary. (Proceedings of the Twenty-Eighth Annual Conference, 1911, pages 29-30)

My object is to make the work self-supporting, gradually as soon as possible. (Conference Journal, 1913, pages 33-34)

As you look through the officers and leaders of the Spanish and German divisions, you will find a very healthy mix in nationalities. In many parts of the world, missionaries were building ministries that were basically led by expatriates. Governments were building their empires and colonialism was prospering. This had overtones in the way churches and movements abroad were led. Even though the indigenous church principles were taught and encouraged for many years, many churches and organizations were in fact NOT indigenous (self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing). From every indication that we have and the comments from Weiss, we see a truly indigenous church and associated ministries being established. We see a ministry of Americans, Germans, Norwegians, and Spanish that had a good mix in leadership and joint ventures. He and his missionary co-workers traveled much and strove for local leadership and support as soon as it was possible. Dr. Ralph Winter indicates that the most obvious outward trait of the period following World War II, “was the unprecedented “Retreat of the West” -a “collapse of four hundred years of European empire building in the non-Western World.” Governments and religious ministries had to be turned over to the nationals. Many ministries had ensuing problems of nationalizing their ministries. From all indications that we have, this was not a problem in the ministry that was developed in South America, basically under the leadership of H. L. Weiss.

In the summer of 1899, at Camp Meeting at Quakertown, two under appointment to Armenia (Sisters Marianne Gerber and Rose Lambert from Missionary Society “Light and Hope” from Berne, Indiana) and a native Armenian, spent several days in ministry at the Camp Meeting. Their ministry was much appreciated and as a result Rose Lambert was adopted “as our missionary in Armenia.” She became the first missionary who was not sent out through the C&MA. These two women sailed from New York on Nov. 2, 1898 (90years ago today) and settled at first in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey. Here they had charge of an orphanage. Evidently they moved shortly after their arrival and the address became Hadjin in Asia Minor. In 1904 Rose Lambert said, “The heaviest burden is not the work we do, but the work we constantly see remain undone.”

In the year 1900, two more missionaries, Mr. & Mrs. J. E. Fidler were sent to Turkey and evidently involved in orphanage work. Various personal and inter-relational problems ensued and the FMB was faced, probably for the first time, with a problem solving situation that involved missionaries and another sending board (variously named “Armenian Orphanage and Mission Board” and sometimes “Armenian Relief Committee”). The Fidlers were returned to the States after about 3 years on the field. Repentance seemed to have taken place and it seems that they were transferred to the Canadian Conference and at some later date were seemingly involved in orphanage work in Turkey once again.

From 1898 to 1914 offerings were received for the work in Armenia even though there may not have been any of our missionaries working in Turkey. It appears that the Canadian Conference was doing work with orphans in Turkey and perhaps they took responsibility for the work when we did not have any missionaries in Turkey. This is not very clear.

Rose Lambert came to the U.S. for furlough about 1905 or1906. The Presiding Elders established her deputational meetings throughout the Conference. (FMB Minutes of May 29, 1906. These unpublished minutes are found in the Archives of the Bible Fellowship Church located at Wallingford, Pennsylvania.) It was also noted that Rose Lambert had no church membership in our fellowship and the two Presiding Elders were commissioned to determine where her membership should be held. In the FMB Minutes of Oct. 12, 1906, it was indicated that “Rose Lambert was admitted as a member in the Allentown class.”

We indicated previously that a close working relationship with the C&MA was established from the very beginning. This relationship grew stronger during the early 1900’s. Some of the contacts that were developed with leaders in the C&MA were such men as: Rev. A. B. Simpson, President; Rev. A. E. Funk, General Secretary; Rev. J. D. Williams, Secretary; and Dr. R. H. Glover, Foreign Secretary.

Another field that was developing along with Soputh America and Armenia, was China. C. F. Snyder, one of our men, had a burden for Tibet and Chine and set sail in 1897(?) and served there until the U. S. State Department ordered evacuation sometime at the end of 1940, about 43 years of service for him and about 32 years for Mrs. Snyder. He, I believe, has the longest time of ministry abroad as one of our missionaries, although some of that time had been spent in ministry in the United States. The ministry in China with the Chinese, Tibetans and Muslims was indeed most difficult because of the opposition and the attacks of the enemy in many different forms. One attack on them that was very life threatening was in May of 1914–it was the raid of the “White Wolf.” (See 1915 Yearbook for some details and photos of the destruction of Taochow with only 37 houses left standing.) The mission station was completely burned down. At one time he mentions going through some very difficult times financially and apologizes for mentioning it and said, “It cannot be termed faith.”

At another time there was a movement afoot to exterminate all foreigners. Placards were posted to that effect primarily on the homes of foreigners. Snyder indicated that he traveled in one year almost 2,000 miles on foot and on horseback selling Gospels and distributing tracts. Most of his traveling was done alone. Snyder was most faithful in his communication with the FMB by letter and sending them diaries and photographs. Some of this information is quoted in the yearbooks with some of the photographs and we assume that much of the other material is lost.

C. F. Snyder was able to get some assistance but not as much as he would have liked. There were as many as 6 missionaries that were working with the C&MA that were supported by the FMB. They also worked very closely with workers of the China Inland Mission even assuming much of their work in that area during the furlough period of CIM missionaries. The FMB also began sending missionaries out under the CIM.

Through the years our missionaries have ministered in many different countries. Probably more than we can account for. I shall include a list of such countries in the appendices.

Let ‘s return to missionary support. Contributions for foreign missions, according to C. H. Brunner started in the existing churches in about 1883 by the tin box on the door marked “For the Heathen.” From the tin box it went to the barrels that came into existence in Graterford some time prior to 1893. In the Spring of 1893 it was agreed that this method would be used in all of our Sunday Schools. It is conjectured that the barrels continued in some Sunday Schools into the 1930’s when they faded away. It should also be noted that there was a decline in missions offering about this time and we are sure that other factors entered into it, such as the great depression period in the early thirties. Tin boxes in 1883 progressed to missionary barrels in 1893 which later led to Foreign Missions giving commitment cards that were to be filled out and turned in annually. I believe that this was basically a Faith Promise giving, In the early 1970’s progressed to the General Budget where all missions giving was to be included in this budget. In later years there is a trend to go to a Faith Promise method of giving. Presently churches that are giving the most per member to missions are using variations of the Faith Promise plan. This is probably the most prominent reason for the increase in giving to missions coupled together with a new motivation to support a growing number of missionaries that were raised in the BFC churches. As people have been made aware of world needs and missionary support and projects, the people have responded. The Faith Promise is a official vehicle of the church that permits people to immediately to respond to felt needs.

The Faith Promise is used in different ways. Sometimes to indicate how much the General Budget should be increased. Sometimes all missions giving is excluded from the General Budget and the church maintains two different accountings. And yet again sometimes the Faith Promise is used in addition to the General Budget in order to supplement missions giving to meet the needs that cannot be met through the budget.

We might also note that as of 1970 foreign missions offerings from Sunday Schools were dropped from the statistical charts in the Yearbooks. One may note from the statistical chart and the graphs in the appendices that the number of our missionaries on the field also decreased from 1928 to 1939.

It is encouraging to see the graphs and chart and to note the considerable increase in missionary giving and number of missionaries since 1939. Notable years for change are 1908 for a decrease in the percentage of money given to foreign missions; 1928 for a decrease in the number of our missionaries; and 1939 and 1981 for increases in missionaries.

In 1981 the FMB recognized that the work load for the General Secretary of the Bible Fellowship Church Board of Missions, was increasing to the point that he was unable to acceptably carry out his responsibilities in a part-time capacity. A special committee was formed and new legislation for first reading was submitted to Annual Conference to divide the responsibilities between two part-time persons and then as needed to increase to one full-time Executive secretary and a part-time Financial Secretary. Included in this legislation was a change of name from the Foreign Mission Board to the Board of Missions. The full official name would be the Bible Fellowship Church Board of Missions. In October 1983 Annual Conference approved legislation and two part-time men were elected – Paul G. Zimmerman, Executive Secretary; and David E. Thomann, Financial Secretary. New applicants became more numerous and the work load continued to increase and in October of 1985 the Executive Secretary position was increased to a full-time position. In that Paul Zimmerman, then the pastor of the Harleysville Bible Fellowship Church, became an applicant of the BOM for missionary work under the AIM in Kenya, he declined nomination for the Executive Secretary position. Roy A. Hertzog was elected previous to October 1985 and Annual Conference ratified the election.

There have been at least ten pastors or pastoral assistants in the BFC who have gone to the mission field. The men that we are aware of would be: Walter Frank, Brian Butler, Robert Draper, Richard Gehman, Herb Lee, William Mull, Lou Prontnicki, David Riddell, Philip Yerrington, and Paul Zimmerman. The BFC is following the example of the Church at Antioch in that they have sent out some of the best leaders within the church to represent them in world outreach. May it ever be in the days ahead! May we never forget God’s global cause to seek to give the Gospel message to those of “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” May each of us realize the truth of Acts 1:8 “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; AND you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, AND in all Judea AND Samaria, AND even to the remotest part of the earth.” The word is not OR it is AND! He has not given us a choice not to be involved in world missions – it is our mandate to be vitally involved in world evangelization at home and abroad. “God be gracious to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us–That Thy way may be known on the earth, Thy salvation among all nations” (Ps 67:1 & 2).