Bible Fellowship Church of Ephrata
In 1847 a group led by William S. “Father” Gehman called “Evangelical Mennonites” emerged, who believed in meeting regularly to pray with and for each other. In 1879 they hooked up with a group from Canada and became known as “Evangelical United Mennonites.” At the annual conference on December 27, 1883, The Brethren in Christ in Ohio merged with the Evangelical United Mennonites, and from then on was known as the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (Buck, 3-5). Although the church already experienced major changes, the largest transition of all would take place in the mid-1900’s when the Pennsylvania Conference would move doctrinally from Weslyan to a Calvinistic faith.
Primarily, it appears that the men who founded our denomination were praying that the Lord would fill them with the leading of His Spirit. Here is a prayer quoted from the preface of the “Doctrine of Faith and Church Discipline of the Evangelical Mennonite Society of East Pennsylvania” in 1867:
It is our earnest wish, that our society in the future may be gifted with men for office, filled with the Spirit of the Lord, because the harvest is great and the faithful laborers are few. Yea, may the Lord . . . pour out his Holy Spirit upon our society. Of course, if we only look to ourselves, or if we were obliged to undertake and carry through the important cause of our society in our own strength, we should have to despair, but let us look to Him that He will verify His precious promises to us: Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to grant you the Kingdom. Amen. (Buck 24)
The Mennonite Brethren in Christ of PA was very dedicated to Sunday School, prayer meetings, foreign missions, camp meetings, and training and equipping men to become church leaders. In September of 1950, the Berean Bible School would replace the Gospel Herald Society. The Berean Bible School, however, was open to both men and women as a regular Bible School, training them for ministry within the church. The United Missionary Church (the new name of the General Conference) had a historian named Everek Storms who offered a suggestion on the cause of the shift in doctrinal views:
The cause of the gradual swing of the Pennsylvania ministers toward a form of Calvinism, is not easy to explain. It may have been due in part to the unconscious influence of the guest speakers at the annual camp meetings, many of whom were not strong “holiness men.” Again, the use by all the churches of certain type of Sunday School literature, may have been another contributing factor. The change of course, whatever the cause, was gradual; but eventually, by and large, the Wesleyan emphasis became less and less and even violently opposed by some. (Shelly 297)
The Mennonite Brethren in Christ of PA believed in the great importance of missions. Although we were not our own sending board at that time, we were closely acquainted with the Christian and Missionary Alliance church with regard to sending missionaries overseas. Charles H. Brunner, founder of the Gospel Herald Society, was in fact honorary vice president of the C&MA (208). Brunner’s influence on the theology of the Pennsylvania Conference was probably more significant than any others (164). Many regard him for how much he loved to read and study. Brunner studied the teachings of Albert B. Simpson of the C&MA, “whose Four-fold Gospel of Jesus Christ as Savior, Sanctifier, Healer, and Coming King, he promoted” (165). Whenever Brunner came across an evangelical journal that he found to be worthwhile, he would encourage his fellow church leaders to read it. Eventually, although he was against the idea of higher education, he decided to take a correspondence course. He had as his mentor Frederic W. Farr who was a graduate of Newton Theological Seminary and the first Dean-administrator of Simpson’s Institute. Brunner enjoyed it so much that he found himself desiring to attend the college, though he never did (165). Instead, he founded the Gospel Herald Society in 1899 as a means to train church leaders.
As a result of Brunner’s influence, the PA Conference began to shift their camp meetings away from the Weslyan teaching of Entire Sanctification and the Doctrine of Holiness. “Teaching on separation was part of the doctrine of holiness. A holy people are a separated people, the attitude of the heart within is evidenced by the behavior and appearance of the outer person” (Shelly 258). Speakers were brought to the camp meetings either from the C&MA, or from a variety of churches that proposed a selection of doctrinal views. Although they were varied in their beliefs, none of them held to the Weslyan-Armenian Holiness doctrine. “Mostly they were moderate, somewhat Calvinistic, dispensational fundamentalists” (259).
William G. “Daddy” Gehman’s theology was also described as Calvinistic. He was the Presiding Elder of the Easton District of MBC and “Father” Gehman’s son. Daddy Gehman was an avid proponent for the Doctrine of Eternal Security. His sermons revolved around sanctification and the return of Christ before the Tribulation and Millennium. He was said by Brother Hartman (a Herald to New York) to be a fervent preacher who “could make the people laugh and cry as he vigorously pressed his points, holding his audience’s undivided attention until weariness set in” (229).
Charles I. Scofield, founder of Philadelphia College of the Bible, introduced dispensationalism through the publication of his Scofield Reference Bible. This work of dispensationalism began to be used by many within the PA Conference. “Howard Shelly, Sunday School superintendent at Coopersburg, gave a Scofield Bible as a reward to anyone bringing a certain number of visitors” (263). Since Sunday School attendance was numerous in those days, the impact of this Bible upon church goers must have been monumental.
Sunday School itself helped to encourage the doctrinal transition. Lesson plans were “prepared by W.S. Hottel of the Union Gospel Press and The Sunday School Times.” (260). Sunday School Conventions became an annual event within the denomination, and Mennonite and Holiness proponents began to fade out of the Conventions as dispensationalists became prominent. Between the Depression and the end of World War II, Home Bible study groups focused on the study of prophecy. Topics such as pre-tribulation, pre-millennialism were studied through the eyes of dispensationalism (261). They began to look at figures in Palestine and the Bolshevik Revolution as potential candidates for the Anti-Christ (261). Periodicals by C.H. Brunner and W.B. Musselman began to take off with their dispensationalist views.
Another significant factor in the doctrinal changes was the influence of Faith and Westminster Seminaries. Donald T. Kirkwood and Carl C. Cassel were both graduates of Faith Theological Seminary. These gentlemen, along with two other pastors’ sons, started a new phase of seminary-educated ministers (286). Donald T. Kirkwood was instrumental in educating the pastors of the time. “When dispensationalism no longer satisfied pastors, he pointed them to Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, Puritan theologians, and the Westminster divines past and present” (315-316).
Daddy Gehman’s death in 1941 brought the end of a generation of leadership. Shortly thereafter, other patriarchs either passed away or retired from their ministries (271-272). As a result, new leadership emerged who had been greatly influenced by their predecessors and provided transition during the post war era. They, however, were willing to introduce further change that their predecessors resisted.
What was the key factor in the doctrinal transition? Although the Mennonite Brethren in Christ was a member of the General Conference (which included Canada and Ohio), we were never truly unified. Pennsylvania was always its own separate organization. We began to push away anyone who held to the Wesleyan doctrine and then we replaced them with Calvinists. I believe that all this happened because we had church leadership who primarily were seeking to be filled and led by the Holy Spirit.
Bible Fellowship Church History Web Site, www.bfchistory.org/files/briefhist
Buck, Leonard E. ed. What Mean These Stones?. Coopersburg, PA: The Historical Committee, 1983.
Shelly, Harold P. The Bible Fellowship Church. Bethlehem, PA: The Historical Committee, 1992.