THE MISSION AT HOME
1890 Through the Outbreak of World War II
Daniel G. Ziegler
The nineties were a decade of transition and change for the Bible Fellowship Church—the 1890s, that is. This paper will examine the church-planting ministry of the denomination from 1890 to the outbreak of World War II, December 1941—a significant half-century of growth and new church formation.
I shall refer to the denomination by its present name throughout, though we know that it was Evangelical Mennonite from 1858 through 1879, Evangelical United Mennonite from 1879-1883, and Mennonite Brethren in Christ from 1883 through 1959. In using the current name, I wish to simplify this presentation and emphasize our continuity with our Church as it was a century ago and even one- hundred-forty-one years ago.
As the Church entered the “Gay Nineties,” it was impacted, and to a degree, shaped by many factors in its world and national contexts, changes on the ecclesiastical scene in the USA and factors within itself.
The Church was born in the Second Great Awakening—the so-called Prayer Revival of 1858, the last great spiritual awakening on a national scale. Their profound spiritual experiences imparted great fervor to our first BFC forebears. That revival saw the rise of lay persons to leadership in the churches. It made a deep impact on the entire nation. Out of a population of thirty million people in the nation, one million professed faith in Christ, were baptized and added to the churches in that time.
The Bible Fellowship Church, while still seeing itself as a Mennonite Church, was primarily a revival Church, heavily influenced by the fervency of those times and the theology and ecclesiology of the Wesleyan Methodist movement that played a key role in the awakening.
We shall consider the ecclesiastical impact in a moment.
Hard on the heels of the 1858 Awakening came the Civil War, which convulsed the young nation like no other event in its history and changed it profoundly. The war was followed by the difficult and painful Reconstruction era.
Other major national contextual factors in the latter half of the nineteenth century that affected the Church included the rise of industrial capitalism fueled by the use of coal for power, the telegraph for communication, the railroad for quick, economical transportation (with the automobile coming on the scene later in the century) and fed by consumer demand
that was shaped by advertising. All of these factors produced great and rapid change. These changes also helped to step up immigration and urbanization in the United States.
The American context in the first generation of the life of the BFC changed profoundly. These changes may have been more radical and rapid than those of any other thirty-year period in the history of the US.
Before the middle of the nineteenth century, evangelical Protestants, mainly in the Churches with Calvinistic or Reformed theologies, were powerful in shaping the culture and influencing life and government. The 1858 spiritual awakening set in motion rapid-fire change in the theological and ecclesiastical contexts in America.
The 1858 Revival de-emphasized doctrine and denominational distinctives and emphasized human response to the Gospel. Following that spiritual awakening, American Christendom was Arminianized. Wesleyan theology gained favor; Calvinism in the American Churches was modified or abandoned. Whole denominations with Reformed traditions forsook those roots for beliefs that were more “user friendly”—emphasizing human experience and feelings at the expense of the divine initiative and sovereign grace in salvation.
As the revival fires cooled down in the wake of the humanistic trend in the Churches’ belief systems, rationalistic and experiential theology jumped the Atlantic Ocean from Europe and began to “modernize” the major denominations in the US replacing historic biblical doctrine with non-supernatural, humanistic beliefs. This was abetted by the rise of Darwinism. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, buttressed by the application of Darwin’s Theory beyond biology to social development, an optimistic spirit thrived in the US. Postmillennial eschatology became the view of most of American Christendom.
As the century drew to a close, the power of the old Evangelical hegemony had gone, and the stage was set for the modernist-fundamentalist divide and controversy that so dominated the American Church in the early decades of the twentieth century. The old period of revival, which saw many people converted and added to the Church was followed by a time when there was no longer the kind of openness to the Gospel that there had been in the 1850s and 1860s. Evangelism and the spread of the Church would need some new approaches and methods for the new climate.
The marked changes of the era, including the rise of industrial capitalism and the new consumerism led to the relocation of increasing numbers of people to take the new jobs. Uprooted, restive, impacted by increasing immigration, coping with change, many Americans sensed an unease and anxiety in the face of the increasing pace and demands of life. For many the last decade of the eighteen hundreds was more the “anxious nineties” than the Gay Nineties.
Changes were also occurring in the Bible Fellowship Church. At the Annual Conference in February 1890, only three men answered the roll call who had been at the 1861 Conference—Eusebius Hershey, Abel Strawn and William Gehman. They represented the tail end of the original leadership. Strawn, the youngest of the three would continue to be active in the Church for another thirteen years. Hershey, the eldest at sixty-six, would shortly sail to Africa, where he was to die a little more than a year later. Gehman, sixty-three, was still serving as Presiding Elder and would do so for two more years. In 1890 it was evident that the baton would soon be passed to new, younger leaders.
In chapter six of his history of the Bible Fellowship Church, Harold Shelly notes some of the organizational changes in the little denomination during its first generation. The group had moved considerably in its organization and beliefs from simple Mennonite bodies to more complex organization after the Methodist model. The mergers of 1879 and 1883 expedited the changes with other small revivalist sects in the Midwest and Canada with parallel Mennonite roots.
During the 1880s, the Sunday school came into wide usage in the Bible Fellowship Church. In 1881 there were but three “Sabbath Schools” among sixteen “appointments” or preaching points. By 1890 the sixteen appointments had become twenty-four, a 50 percent increase, but now there were sixteen Sunday schools, a 533 percent increase.
Prior to 1890, the major vehicle for spreading the Gospel beyond local communities of the churches, and hopefully extending the Church, was the traveling evangelist. The traveling evangelist was probably co-extensive with the revival era. Through the labor of these energetic itinerant ambassadors for Christ, multitudes heard the Gospel and thousands responded to that message and received Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
That the labors of the traveling evangelists did little to form new churches is demonstrated in our own premier traveling evangelist, Eusebius Hershey. Prior to coming to the BFC, Hershey was a church planter with the United Brethren in the Susquehanna Valley of Pennsylvania. In that capacity he planted four or five congregations that continue to this day as United Methodist Churches.
With the BFC, on the other hand, in his thirty-year career as a home missionary, he had a stated ministry in only two areas Juniata County, Pennsylvania, where a small congregation had a brief life and Germania, Pennsylvania, where a continuing congregation did not form.
In 1891, a year after Hershey’s departure for Africa and just three months before he died, the Annual Conference recognized that “… we do not have traveling evangelists…. ” New forms had to be found to do evangelism and to extend the Church.
One of these new forms, which would have major impact on and beyond the Church in the period of our inquiry (1890-1941), would be the camp meeting. Camp meetings began in the Bible Fellowship Church in 1881, gained momentum through the next two decades, andculminated in the purchase of Mizpah Grove in 1910. Maximum impact of the camp meetings lasted through the late 1940s and then began to wane, coming to an end with the sale of Mizpah Grove in 1968.
One of the greatest needs for new leadership was created by the vigorous growth of the young denomination, which needed to be shepherded, stimulated and perpetuated. Between 1881 and 1890, the number of churches grew 140 percent from five to eleven; the number of “preaching places” (appointments) increased 50 percent, from sixteen to twenty-four; and the membership swelled 159 percent from two hundred to five hundred seventeen. The magnitude of the growth might be appreciated if we project the same percentages of growth on the present day denomination. In this case, our number of churches and missions would rise from the present sixty, to one hundred forty four by 2008 and the membership from the current 7,120 to 18,440. For any enterprise, the management of such explosive growth is a great challenge.
If the fast growth were to continue, there would be the need for more men to serve in the pastorate and they would need to be trained for that work.
Four men rose to top leadership of the denomination between 1892 and 1905. All four were second generation Bible Fellowship Church men; all four had long-terms of leadership service; all four had a part in the church-planting work of the half century which we are considering.
W. B. Musselman succeeded William Gehman as Presiding Elder in 1892. He was a gifted and able leader. His greatest contribution to church planting was undoubtedly his Gospel Workers Society, “ … a band of young lady missionaries who realized a divine call for missionary work” (C. H. Brunner: “The Church and Missions,” 1930 Yearbook, p. 37). That Society was a new departure for the Bible Fellowship Church—a sodality something like an order in the Roman Catholic Church, which was strongly autonomous, only loosely connected to the denomination and free to develop new ways of working. The Gospel Workers Society, through its women workers, planted four missions, which were turned over to the denomination and became particular churches. They were located in Shamokin, Sunbury, Scranton, and York, Pennsylvania and all continue to the present. The workers also assisted in the planting and growth of other young mission churches.
C. H. Brunner succeeded W. B. Musselman as Presiding Elder in 1898. By that time, perhaps challenged by the example of their sisters in the Gospel Workers, “a number of young men had been expressing a call from the Lord, asking for opportunities in missionary work” (Brunner, ibid.).
In the same year, Brunner founded a sodality similar to the Gospel Workers Society, in which young men could serve in evangelism and church formation, learning the work of the ministry as interns or apprentices. That organization came to be known as the Gospel Herald Society, with Brunner as its first president. All the way to 1941, it was the major producer of new congregations for the denomination.
In 1900, the Annual Conference decided to divide the church into two districts and elect a second Presiding Elder. H. B. Musselman was elected to serve along with Brunner. “H. B.,” the younger brother of “W. B.,” served for forty-five years as Presiding Elder and forty-one years as chairman of Annual Conference. His impact on church planting was indirect. Some of the stronger churches, which comprised his district, were able to form new congregations as daughter churches. He also helped by endorsing and promoting the work of the Gospel Herald Society, encouraging strong support for home mission by those churches. Further, he personally formed three new churches at Spring City, Lehighton and Mt. Carmel, respectively, before being elected Presiding Elder.
“If H. B. Musselman was the man at the center of the Conference [and he was], the man on the cutting edge was W. G. Gehman.” (Shelly, p. 221, brackets mine). Gehman was elected to succeed C. H. Brunner as Presiding Elder in 1905, when he also became president of the Gospel Herald Society—a post he would hold for thirty-six years till his death in 1941.
The gifts of both H. B. Musselman and W. G. Gehman were well suited to their respective roles. H. P. Shelly notes Musselman’s intellect, eloquence, piety, strength and conviction. He was gifted with organizational and management skills. He was at the right place and seemed to love his work.
Gehman was a visionary with tireless energy. He was an earnest and powerful preacher. He was a scrupulous business manager, who taught “his boys” in the Gospel Herald Society to be absolutely careful and accurate in handling and accounting for money. He made a strong personal and inspirational impact on his “Heralds.” My parents knew Brother Gehman well. They admired his zeal, his piety and his vision. He seemed well suited for leading the outward growth of the Bible Fellowship Church through the nearly four decades in which he served.
Before we review the home mission and its effectiveness between 1890 and 1941, we might consider briefly some of the major events and movements that would impact the secular culture, the ecclesiastical environment and the Bible Fellowship Church during that time period.
In the US generally there was the rise of the labor union movement, World War I, Prohibition, the Great Depression and the ominous events that were prelude to US
involvement in World War II. Each of the five factors was significant if not profound in its effects on American life and culture.
Some of the major trends and events in the ecclesiastical world in American involved the triumph of modernist theology and destructive higher criticism of the Bible in the mainline Protestant churches; the emergence of fundamentalist separation, especially in some small reactionary splinter groups that came out of the large denominations, the Scopes Trial, in which the anti-evolution forces won the case but lost the war in school and in the larger context of American culture, the resurgence of premillennial eschatology as part of a more pessimistic era after the optimism of the latter nineteenth century, the rise and acceptance of dispensationalism and “Deeper Life” (Keswick) teaching among evangelicals, the origin and early growth of a number of “holiness” groups, which believed in a “second blessing” in one’s Christian life that could eradicate the sinful nature and lead to sinless perfection, and the origin and early development of the Pentecostal movement, which proclaimed a latter day renewal of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” with supernatural confirmation in tongues speaking. There were also the emerging new cults which developed on American soil – most notably Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A few years ago, Marie Bean recalled for me how it was when she was young. After the major denominations departed from biblical faith, there were few churches that held that faith. In the area where Sister Bean, and later I myself, grew up, there was a strong Anabaptist or Anabaptist-like presence in the Mennonite, Church of the Brethren, and Brethren in Christ (River Brethren) Churches. There were some Evangelical and United Brethren Churches including the Evangelical Congregational Churches. Independent evangelical churches were about unknown, as were Pentecostal and Holiness churches. Congregations like those of the Bible Fellowship Church were few and far between. We knew that we were a minority people in the spiritual sense.
Within the BFC, there was the beginning and rise of involvement in foreign missions. The amalgamation with the western conferences, while remote and aloof, was steady all through the period. The long-term leadership, especially that of H. B. Musselman and W. G. Gehman was dependable and stable. The camp meetings were a very prominent feature of the life of the fellowship. The doctrines did not change.
I propose to identify seven characteristics of the home mission/church extension work of the BFC, 1890-1941. Following that survey, we shall briefly assess the effectiveness of that work.
In citing these seven factors, I ask that we stipulate that wholesome spiritual motivation and commitment to the Gospel is a given. The men who did the church planting work knew the Lord, believed the Bible, were committed to fulfilling the Great Commission,
sought to be led by the Holy Spirit, and saw themselves as ambassadors for Christ to take His Good News to all, to work with Christ to build His Church and to labor for the glory of God.
Strong, visionary, long lasting leadership of the Gospel Herald Society by W. G. Gehman is perhaps the major factor of success. He provided continuity and constancy to the program. While being long on vision with a view to the overall program, he was also attentive to detail and expected his men to see to the details of administration and finances so as to be credible and above reproach.
His leadership was inspirational and spurred the young evangelists and church starters to seek to excel and to give of themselves and their energies with whole hearts and undivided minds.
2. The Gospel Herald Church Planters Persistently Made the Gospel an Issue in Their Communities.
Some of the ways they did this included:
(1) Selling the Gospel Herald magazine and other Christian literature door-to-door. Of course, one of the motivations for doing this was to put food on the table. It was a major means of their financial support. But it got them out into the community constantly and put Gospel literature into the hands and homes of the people they met. Often in one year over one hundred thousand copies of the Gospel Herald were sold.
(2) Local camp meetings. Some of the communities where camp meetings were held and churches were established were: Quakertown, Macungie, Royersford and Spring City, Northampton, Weissport, Walnutport, Terre Hill, Easton, Harrisburg.
(3) Tent meetings. Camp meetings are differentiated from tent meetings by the fact that people stayed and lived at the camp meetings. Tent meetings were more frequently used by the Gospel Heralds, where a large meeting tent was erected and used for one or more weeks of evangelistic preaching.
(4) Protracted meetings in chapels or other halls. These would often continue every night for two, three, even six weeks in a row.
(5) Open air meetings. These were conducted on the streets or in other places where people congregated. The program would normally consist of singing, testimonies, preaching and inviting observers to respond. “Large crowds are easily gathered in open air to hear the Gospel and many were saved and filled with the Spirit (C. H. Brunner, Report to Annual Conference, 1901 Yearbook, p.12).
(6) Public outdoor baptism services. There were times, particularly in city areas, when hundreds even thousands of people would gather to listen to the hymns and the testimonies of the recent converts, watch them be immersed and then be invited to respond to the Good News.
(7) Sunday schools. These were regarded as a major evangelistic method. Children of non-believing parents were rounded up and brought to Sunday school. Many such received Jesus and became faithful followers of the Lord.
(8) Cradle Roll and Home Department. The former enrolled newborns and their mother for care and visitation by the church lay women. The latter provided Bible study materials and visits to people who were homebound or for other reasons unable to come to the Sunday school.
(9) Some of the young churches used radio broadcasting to reach people with the Gospel when radio was really the premier medium.
3. They Used Teams to Plant Churches
In what turned out to be his last report to Annual Conference on October 16, 1941, W. G. Gehman described the Gospel Herald Society as “… a movement of the Pennsylvania Conference … composed of men in uniform who are called of God to preach and sing the Gospel in open air meetings, tents, halls and tabernacles. They sell Bibles… the official paper called the ‘Gospel Herald’ … and other religious publications. While occupied thus, they are in training for pastoral, evangelistic and missionary work at home and abroad as the Holy Spirit gives the ability.” (1941 Yearbook, p.33). Interestingly, the statement makes no reference to the church or to the formation of new churches as the central purpose of the Society, though the report goes on to discuss each of the missions in some detail.
The statement is of interest because it points up the dual nature of the Society—to preach, sing, etc.—that is, to do the work of the ministry—but only as they are in training for that work.
In its earliest days and then for many years, the Bible Fellowship Church was opposed to higher education. Yet the need for training of ministers was recognized. The answer to that need was the Society.
The formation and use of ministry teams may have come about by accident more than by design. The apprenticeship model was built into the Gospel Herald Society. The more experienced Heralds would teach disciple and train the recruits and other men also their juniors. To do this it was necessary to have several men working together in one location—the leader and two or three helpers. That was or became the ministry team.
The Scriptures make a compelling case for the ministry team. Jesus sent the twelve, and later the seventy-two out into their evangelistic work “two by two” (Mark 6:7, Luke 19:1). When the Holy Spirit initiated intentional church planting at Antioch, Acts 13:2, He directed the elders, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work (church-planting evangelism) to which I have called them.” The Spirit specified a team. When Paul and Barnabas agreed to disband their team (Acts 15:39), each man selected a new teammate to share the work with him.
It was the rule for Paul always to be part of a ministry team as he evangelized the Mediterranean world and planted many churches. One purpose of the team was the training of junior members such as Timothy, John Mark, possibly Epaphas, Aristarchus and others. The primary purpose of the team was to evangelize and start churches.
On two occasions, Paul went to a locale to plant a church and did not have his team with him. One was in Athens (Acts 17: 16-34); we do not read anything in the New Testament that recognizes a church in that city. Later Paul writes to the Corinthian church and tells them how he walked away from an open door for the Gospel because he did not have the team, “… so I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia” (II Corinthians 2:11, 12).
Ecclesiastes 4 says that “two are better then one” (v. 9) and, in essence, that three are better than two (v. 12). The writer, “the Teacher,” gives four reasons why the team in work is better than the individual:
(1) They are more productive (v. 9).
(2) A teammate who falls has one to help him up (v. 10).
(3) Teammates can warm each other (v. 11).
(4) Two can defend against the enemy when one alone would be overpowered (v. 12).
This preponderance of biblical evidence for ministry teams is clear and powerful. To neglect it would be foolhardy and dangerous. Yet, in the US, few church planters go forth in teams at this time.
The Gospel Heralds served in teams and were blessed and successful in planting churches because they did, in marked contrast to the solitary traveling evangelists of the earlier era.
4. They Planted Churches in the Cities
The response of the Bible Fellowship Church through its Home Missions department to industrialization, immigration and urbanization was to take church-planting evangelism to the cities. That was where the masses were; the need was great, as was the opportunity.
Everek R. Storms in his History of the United Missionary Church, [the denominational name adopted by the Western Conferences] (page 72), observes that the Pennsylvania Conference outstripped the other conferences in growth. He cites the urban church plants as a major reason for Pennsylvania’s exceptional growth. “Churches were built in new centers, many of them in cities where opportunities for advancement was unlimited. During the thirty-five years, 1912-1947, the number of appointments increased only slightly, from twenty-nine to thirty-seven; but the church membership more than doubled rising beyond the four thousand mark. One reason for this was the fact that three-quarters of the churches were located in cities of over fifteen thousand people, and only one-fifth were in rural districts or small villages.”
The response of the Bible Fellowship Church to the burgeoning immigration was not as direct or alacritous. It is not apparent that planned outreach was directed toward any of the people groups who were coming to America with possibly two exceptions. It might have been that the eastern European immigrants were in view when decisions were make to open mission in the anthracite towns of Shamokin, Girardville, Mt. Carmel and Scranton.
It is more likely that German immigrants were targeted in some of the new city missions. Germans were doubtlessly closer culturally to the constituency of the BFC than were any of the other peoples. At least four city neighborhoods chosen for church plants in our era were predominantly German: Wissinoming in Philadelphia, Glendale, Queens in New York, the Petersburg section of Scranton and the Clinton Hill area of Newark as well as the city of Irvington. People of German stock were added to all of these congregations.
In 1890, of the seventeen appointments, three were in cities—Allentown, Bethlehem and Reading—all quite close to the original non-urban churches that comprised the denomination.
In 1941 there were forty-six preaching points, twenty-five of which were city congregations. The percentage of the churches, which were urban, had risen from 18 percent in 1890 to 54 percent in 1941.
5. Our Church Planters Felt They Were Part of a Worthwhile, Going and Growing Movement
There was a high morale and a sense of momentum. There was a consciousness that the group was growing substantially. Perhaps the best overt evidence of this is a graph of several growth areas that was incorporated in one of the yearbooks of the twenties or thirties.
In 1890 all of the denomination’s congregations were in Pennsylvania—in fact in just six eastern contiguous counties. From that center, the borders of the Bible Fellowship Church were, under W. G. Gehman’s direction, pushed out in all directions. Churches were planted or attempted in most of the cities in eastern Pennsylvania. Eventually there were four congregations in Philadelphia. Three churches were established in the Susquehanna Valley along with those in the Anthracite Region.
Gehman made his home in Easton, on the Delaware River, about as Far East in Pennsylvania as one could live. He owned a summer home in New Jersey. His direction took the Church into three new states—New Jersey, Delaware and New York. During his regime, at least eleven missions were opened in the Garden State, most in big cities. Three congregations were operating in New York City in 1940-41. In 1941, there were eight Gospel Herald missions, six of which were in New Jersey and New York, and all eight in large cities. The southern and northern borders were pushed out to Wilmington, Delaware and Binghamton, New York, respectively. In the latter city, the Heralds were known to remark that “we’re going to push on north all the way to Syracuse.”
6. They Created and Sustained Circuits
A circuit was a cluster of two or more congregations served by one pastor. Circuits were not new to the 1890-1941 era. In 1873, the Annual Conference passed a resolution that created four circuits. (Verhandlungen, pp. 20, 21). Usually a circuit was governed by one Official Board and represented at Annual Conference by one lay delegate.
The use of circuits allowed the denomination to grow by having more congregations while having less pastoral manpower. Often the circuit was created when one congregation opened a new preaching point to be served by its pastor.
The reports of the Stationing, Boundary and Appropriation Committee recognized Stations (single churches with a sole pastor), Circuits and Missions (congregations which were receiving financial assistance, which sometimes included some circuits). In 1941 there were five self-supporting circuits comprised of twelve churches and three mission circuits incorporating six congregations.
The normal pattern was that when circuits were divided and each congregation welcomed its own pastor, most of the churches grew and flourished. A few of the weaker congregations never became self-supporting and sooner or later ceased to be.
During the era the circuits were implementers and abettors of denominational growth.
7. Home Missions Enjoyed the Wholehearted Support of the Denomination at the Grass Roots.
In my boyhood home there was keen interest in our home missions. I remember seeing and hearing the Gospel Heralds at Camp Meeting when they would sing and speak. Many of the men played stringed instruments. Among them two were legendary as they played together. E. B. Hartman was small of stature and played the banjo with its long neck that required the player to do some stretching. Next to him was C. E. Kirkwood, a giant of a man with massive hands and thick fingers, plucking the little mandolin.
Perhaps my parents’ concern was heightened by the fact that they came to be part of the Hatfield church soon after is was reopened after long years of dormancy. They remained there to see it become a strong, vigorous, self-supporting church.
The Heralds would occasionally come to our church, to tell of their ministry. We prayed for them. As a young lad, those missions seemed to be far away in a different world—Philadelphia, Camden, Trenton, Jersey City. Binghamton, New York City. I can recall visiting a number of those missions with my family, often to present family musical programs. I specifically recall going to Roxborough, Trenton and Glendale.
The churches’ support of both foreign and home missions was through faith promises. Each year small printed pledge cards were distributed to the people—white for foreign missions and blue for home missions. In our home each of the children was encouraged to make and honor pledges out of our small allowances.
When the people themselves directly supported home missions by faith promise giving, the proportion of financial support was generous. All through the 1890-1941 time period, the level of that support across the denomination held at 5 to 6 percent of the churches’ total offerings. Even during the difficult days of the Great Depression, giving remained at or near that level, which enabled the work of church planting to remain vigorous.
A Half-Century of Good Growth
Recently while traveling, I was listening to a musical program on the radio. As the show drew to a close, the announcer delivered a closing signature line that grabbed my attention: Remember the Past, Live the Present, Trust the Future. I submit that applied to the life and mind of a believer, based on the teachings of the Scripture, that is a pretty sound credo. (It might make a good slogan for the Historical Society.) One of the great values of remembering the past is that it can and ought to prepare us better to live the present and trust the future.
1890-1941 was an exceptional period of stability for the Bible Fellowship Church. Throughout that time, despite sea changes in the secular and ecclesiastical contexts, the Church maintained virtually unchanged doctrine, organization and leadership.
We isolated seven elements in the culture of the Bible Fellowship Church in that era: able leadership, making the Gospel an issue in the communities where churches were forming, church-planting teams, going to the cities, a sense of elan in being part of a growing movement, yoking churches in circuits, and enthusiastic, generous support for home missions by the churches at the grass roots. That complex of factors would seem to be predictive of good growth.
And it was an era of exceptional growth. From seventeen churches/twenty-two preaching points in 1890, the denomination grew to forty-five churches and missions in 1941—an increase of 105 percent.
Our own history reveals that when we plant churches our membership increases. If we plant more churches, membership goes up more rapidly. When church planting slows down, membership growth also decelerates. If we stop planting churches, total membership will plateau or decline. Our experience is confirmed in growth studies of all other denominations.
Between, 1890 and 1941, the total membership of the Bible Fellowship Church increased from 517 to 4033—almost seven-fold, precisely 680 percent.
A graph would show that this growth was remarkably steady—ever upward. Every denomination will have fluctuations in membership growth and at least occasional decline. In only eight of the fifty-one years of our study were there declines. Those averaged merely 19 per incident.
I remember W. G. Gehman. He seemed to this boy a very tall man, with piercing eyes—an awesome presence. He was animated and dynamic as a preacher, often speaking loudly. When he did that, he would frighten some of the small children in our church and they would cry.
Brother Gehman was ever a “fisher person for people.” Charles W. Weaber was a friend and frequent attender of the Bible Fellowship Church in Lebanon in the 1930s. His wife, Catherine, was a committed Christian. Chas would volunteer to do construction work at the church building. He could work like a bull.
One Wednesday evening at Quarterly Conference, when Brother Gehman came into the church building, he saw Chas sitting in a pew. It was customary for the Presiding Elder
to speak before the business of the meeting was conducted. Brother Gehman leaned toward the pastor seated next to him and whispered, “I’m going fishing tonight.”
That evening he spoke directly to Chas Weaber. At the end of the message he walked down the aisle, looked Chas in the eye, and asked Chas if he was ready to receive the Lord Jesus. He was, and he did! He became one of the finest, most faithful, committed and supportive churchman this pastor has known.
As a boy of nine, I attended Brother Gehman’s funeral in November 1941. From that day, It would be nine years before another new mission would be opened.
The 1942 Yearbook was the only one ever to have a black cover. I often wonder whether it was black because of Brother Gehman’s death (that book contained his eulogy) or because of the start of World War II. Both events occurred within about two weeks. If there be such a thing, that black cover might have been prophetic of a whole generation of non-growth of the Church which would follow.
Learning with a View to Future Application
If we were to remember the past with a view to applying its lessons as we live the present, we would be wise and might have added reason to trust the future.
We might well yearn to recover and enjoy the kind of vigorous growth that the Bible Fellowship Church enjoyed from 1890 through 1941.
We ought to learn from that era so that we might do all that we should and then look to the Lord to build the BFC (Matthew 16:18) and to “make things grow” (I Corinthians 3:7).
If by God’s grace and by the Holy Spirit’s power we were able to replicate the growth of the BFC in that golden era, we might see the following in the next half-century, if it please the Father and the Son tarries:
Churches in 2048 123 an increase of 105%
Membership in 2048 55,536 an increase of 680%
If it happened in the first half of the twentieth century, should we preclude the possibility that it could happen in the first half of the twenty-first? Does the “all things” that are possible with God exclude that?
I propose to set forth some lessons for future home mission work through the Bible Fellowship Church which we many gain from remembering part of our past, 1890-1941. Every era has its successes and failures, its home runs and its errors. The first three lessons are negative—what we ought not to not do in reaction to what they did.
1. We should seek to enlist, for church planting, experienced pastors with a history of growing churches rather than men without prior pastoral experience. Many young men came into the Gospel Herald Society while still in the teens, sometimes without completing high school. Our times demand much more.
2. We should try to keep effective, successful church planters in the church planting work. In the Gospel Herald society, the man looked forward to the day when they would be assigned to a conference appointment—a “real church.” That could not help, but hinder new church formation. If we are to employ able, experienced pastors as church planters, we need to be prepared to compensate them on a level of salary and benefits that they are already receiving.
3. We should seek to avoid rapid-fire changes of pastors of young churches, which are so upsetting to the program and people of a fragile, young congregation.
4. We should plant new churches in the cities and within new people groups coming to America.
5. We should be willing to take risks in church planting. Our forbears did and they grew the BFC. In the fifty-one years of the study, forty-five missions were started. Only twenty-two, or 49 percent of those congregations survive today. Many of the rest died after only a few years. While we may hope to have two-thirds or more of our new church attempts “make it,” a 51 percent failure rate may not be incompatible with prudent risk. Two-thirds of Southern Baptist church planting attempts never make it to chartering as a fully formed church.
6. We should make the Gospel an issue whenever we start congregations. If the old methods of protracted meetings, tent meetings, door-to-door literature sales and open air meetings do not work today, we must discover other methods that do work and use them.
7. We should never depart from the use of church-planting teams as the norm in our work. In the first generation of the BFC, the lonely traveling evangelist was our model for outreach. As far as we can tell, it produced no lasting congregations. Teams were used to plant many churches and grew the Church from 1898-1941. Then the use of church-planting teams ceased and there was a whole generation of few new churches and virtually no membership growth. In 1970 the team concept was reintroduced. New churches began to form at a more rapid rate and a membership growth momentum was reestablished.
It would be inaccurate to fail to note that there were other factors at work during the non-growth generation (1941-1069) that affected growth. There was the whole redoing of the Articles of Faith and the Form of Government. At the same time the old circuits were being dissolved. There was new leadership for the denomination. All of these may have diverted energy and inhibited the growth rate.
8. We should continue and accelerate pushing out our geographical borders with a view to becoming a national Church in due time. The US is the third largest mission field on earth. There are places, regions and people groups that need the Gospel. We must accept our share in reaching out to them.
9. We should commit ourselves to offering much more financial support for our home mission. That 5 to 6 percent of total offerings that was set by our people over some eighty to ninety years by their faith promise giving should be reaffirmed by the churches today as a goal followed by financial planning to make it a reality within five to ten years.
Without that kind of support, our church planting efforts will have to languish, we will not be a vibrant movement, and our world mission involvement will wane because new churches that might have supported new missionary families will not be there to do so.
10. We should enlist our best men as home mission leaders who can provide vision, energy and effectiveness for that task other than which there is none higher.
Frank, Douglas W. Less than Conquerors; How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986.
Shelly, Harold P. The Bible Fellowship Church. Bethlehem, PA: The Historical Committee, Bible Fellowship Church, 1992.
Smith, Timothy L. Revivalism and Social Reform; American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.
Storms, Everek R. History of the United Missionary Church. Elkhart, IN: Bethel Publishing Company, 1958.
Verhandlungen (1859-1895) Richard E. Taylor, ed., Trans. From the Germanty, Coopersburg PA; Historical Committee of the Bible Fellowship Church, 1989.
Yearbooks, Mennonite Brethren in Christ, 1896-1942.