1911 – 1961
A Brief History of Bethany Bible Fellowship Church
by Daniel G. Ziegler
Bethany Bible Fellowship Church
521 Locust Street
The Gospel Herald Society is composed of men in uniform, called Gospel Heralds who are called of God to reach and sing the Gospel in open Air meetings, tents, halls and tabernacles and sell. Bibles, Testaments, Mottos, the official paper called “The Gospel Herald and Saturday Evening Call”, the Christian Service Calendar, and other religious publications. While engaged in this sort of work they are in training also for pastoral, evangelistic and missionary work at home and abroad as the Holy Spirit directs. (Mennonite Brethren in Christ Yearbook, 1334)
It was through the men of this Society, the home missionary arm of the Mennonite Brethren In Christ Church, that the Lord began in Lebanon the local church known today as Bethany Bible Fellowship Church.
The leader of the work at its start was Horace A. Kauffman, who recorded some of the facts of its beginning in his diary:
After spending a few months at Shamokin, Pa, as a helper to G. F, Yost and also doing some private secretaryship work for our President W. G. Gehman, I was appointed as header of the new mission that was opened in Lebanon, Pa. on January 11, 1911.
After considerable prayer and waiting the Lord gave us a hall situated on the 3rd floor of 781 Cumberland St., though this even was not received until all of our goods had been shipped and most of it had reached Lebanon already.
On Jan. 7, 1911, Bro. Gehman and myself left Shamokin at 6:30 a.m., came to Lebanon and finished renting the hall we having joint ownership with the proprietor, a mission place of 36 by 24 ft, a kitchen and bed room and storage room containing about 300sq. ft.
G. M. Reinbold and E. F. Richard were my helpers and we had 3 hard days work to thoroly cleanse the place and prepare it for the first service on Wed., January 11, 1911.
Rev. W. G. Gehman was the preacher at the first two services of the Lebanon work. Services were held nightly in the hall at 781 Cumberland Street; during which attendance went as high as 58. Brother Kauffman records that, in that 5 month period “only 11 services were held with no others but workers present.” Two men, Clay E. Witt and Norman H. Wolf, joined the team as helpers on Feb. 4 and March 3,. respectively
From June 1 to August 27, 1911 tent meetings were conducted at four locations, Fourth and Hathaway, Sixth and Locust, Third and Weidman, and Twelfth and Lehman. The 105 meetings drew a total attendance of about 11,000. Nine persons were baptized on July 16 in the Snitz Creek by Rev. J. G. Shireman.
The first meeting at the present location, 521 Locust St., was held on September 24, 1911. The Chapel was secured by paying an option of $100.00 for a three months trial “after earnest prayer and waiting upon God.” The purchase, from St. Stephen’s Reformed Church, was completed on January 3, 1912 at the cost of an additional $2000.00 cash. A period of intensive visitation and literature sales designed to solidify the work followed the move to the new location. The second baptismal service, on Thanksgiving Day, November 30, 1911 at the Snitz Creek, saw nine persons following the Lord in baptism.
The first of a number of Gospel Herald Conventions gathered in Lebanon, November 6-9, 1911. At these convocations the workers, who came from the different mission works, were housed with various neighbors and fed at church or parsonage. The close of the convention saw J. T. Anderson, C. E. Witt, A. F. Deckman, and Louis W. Gottschall stationed at Lebanon as assistants to Brother Kauffman. In May all but Brother Anderson were reassigned elsewhere.
During the summer of 1912 six weeks of tent services were held at Fourth and Chestnut Streets with modest results.
The fall found J. G·. Evans and O. E. Willow joining Bro. Kauffman and Bro. Anderson in the work. The year 1912 was one of extensive Literature distribution, as demonstrated in the fact that the men sold 10,465 copies of the Gospel Herald Magazine and 605 calendars which the workers called “wall rolls.” Brother Kauffman, commenting on the large amount of visiting done in this period, said, “My work for the Lord has developed here in Lebanon to be much of that sort. We have had many homes thrown open to us in all parts of city, where we repeatedly find a welcome.”
Sunday School work began in Lebanon on December 22,1912 and less than a year later, on September 30, the school had an enrollment of 10 teachers, 86 Scholars and 9 Cradle Roll members.
Summer activities in 1913 included three weeks of tent meetings at the southeast corner of Eighth Street and Hazel Alley, in August. On July 20 of the same summer five persons were baptized.
Workers assigned to assist Brother Kauffman during 1913 included H. R. Stengele, F. N. Sperry and J. B. Layne. Mr. and Mrs. W. K. Ruth and· G. M. Reinbold helped during the tent campaign. In November Brother Kauffman was transferred to Shamokin and N. H. Wolf succeeded him as leader in Lebanon.
The financial schedule for 1911-1913 shows the following total given
1911 – $ 754.06
1912 – $2224.93
1913 – $2113.61
The workers sometimes lived on a diet that was limited by low finances but experienced the Lord’s provision for their· needs.
The four years that followed saw varying teams of workers, among whom were E. J. Rutman, who was later to serve two additional terms as pastor·and W. F. Heffner, who returned as pastor in 1955.
W. W. Zimmerman became sole pastor of the church in 1917 and remained until 1920. He was followed by M. M. Myers, who remained at the church for eleven years, the longest consecutive pastorate in the church’s history. Brother Myers observed that “Lebanon was known as a hard field of labor, but it offered us a great opportunity to prove that God was able, I dare say that God blessed our ministry there for eleven years. A good foundation was laid for the well established church that is there today.”
Mrs. Myers, who was a sister to the late Rev. R. H. Gehman, pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, and preceded her brother in death in 1950, was known for her personal work. Brother Myers said, “I believe that half of a minister’s success is due to his faithful companion. Those eleven years were Esther’s greatest days of service for her Lord.” Mrs. Myers had the responsibility of caring for her home and family of three sons, but in addition she shared the pastoral calls, canvassing and literature distribution with her husband. On Sunday mornings she would go to homes in the “Hazel Dyke” section of the city to gather children for Sunday School. Frequently she would waken, bathe and dress the children to get them in to Sunday school. She also taught children’s classes.
The Gospel Herald Magazine continued to be sold by Brother Myers as well as all workers in the Gospel Herald Society. In 1924 the 20 members in the Society in seven missions sold 77,140 magazines and the following year 93,956 copies were distributed.
The Myers family resided in the parsonage at 251 South Fifth Street, which property formed an “L” with the lot on which the church stands. During the Myers years, on June 5, 1925, the church purchased the lot next to the building, on which the present parsonage stands. Apparently other improvements were made in the property, including a coat of paint applied by Pastor Myers, for the valuation of the property increased from $5,000.00 in 1924 to $8,500.00 in 1927.
Open air meetings are a regular feature of the work. Pastor and Mrs. Myers and the church folks would go out a street corner with a small folding organ to sing, preach and distribute literature. Saturday evenings found the group regularly at Ninth and Cumberland Streets or on Eighth Street near the Courthouse. Also at times they held forth on Thursday evenings in other parts of the town.
In the church’s twentieth year, 1931, meetings were held in a large tabernacle, which sealed more than 300 people. The report of the Gospel Herald Society to Conference in 1931 states, “The class is taking more of the nature of an established work for the Lord the last few years. There are whole·families which attend the meetings regularly and take active part.” At that time the Sunday school had an enrollment of nearly 100. Nine were baptized in 1931 when baptisms were held at Sunnyside, near Cleona.
In the fall of 1932 Brother Myers was transferred to Camden, New Jersey. For the next three years there were two and three men sharing in the work. Eugene George, C. E. Kirkwood, Joseph I. Somers and R. O. Snyder were assigned to Lebanon during that period. The Conference report in 1933 states:
The Lord has been blessing the work in Lebanon during the past year. The Word of the Lord preached faithfully, led quite a number to accept Him as their Savior, a number of whom are standing fast in the Lord. A number were gloriously healed according to James 5:14,15, proving that the Lord is the same yesterday, today and forever. The spirit of unity is increasing among the Lord’s people which will bring results.
At that time the church was characterize by a growing prayer meeting, open air meetings, eight baptisms and a ”live” Sunday School. The latter is evidenced by the fact that Pastor George was invited to address the Sunday School Convention in Wissinoming, Philadelphia, May 24, on the subject “How to Secure and Maintain a Good Attendance in the Sunday School.”
The following year, 1934 proved that “The class is well united throughout. The services are well attended.” For several months Sunday school was conducted in a school house near Cornwall. There were six baptisms in 1934.
New features in 1935 included a weekday children’s Bible School and a Missionary prayer meeting. The latter “started18 new people to attend the services.” One family traveled 32 miles to the church.
E. J. Rutman returned to Lebanon in the fall of l935 to begin an eventful 10 year pastorate.
Brother Rutman is known as one of the pioneer radio preachers, having begun his radio ministry while he was stationed in Harrisburg. After moving to Lebanon he continued to
broadcast over Harrisburg station WKBO and later also over WGAL in Lancaster. By means of these radio programs many people were reached with the message of the Gospel, and many came into the church, both for the broadcasts and other services.
An activity which was begun in 1934 was continued by Pastor Rutman – that being the Friday evening meeting at Sunset Farmers’ Market, one mile north of Lebanon, Mr. Iren S. Light, the owner, granted permission and encouragement for this work The services were held in the large boxing arena, with a seating capacity of more than 2,000. There were no rental or other charges for the use of the auditorium, lighting or public address system These meetings allowed the church to reach many of the estimated weekly crowd of 20,000 at the market. The 1936 conference yearbook reports, ”Some of`these have found their way to the Sunday school and the church, and were saved and stand by faithfully.”
1937 was a good year at Lebanon. Pastor Rutman baptized 23 persons that year The broadcast ministry and the meetings at Sunset continued. There was, also a strong emphasis on the Sunday school. At the Sunday school Convention, May 19 at York, Brother Rutman brought a fifteen minute address on “Winning the Children.” There must have been performance to back up this address, for in 1937 there was “an increase of nearly sixty per cent in the Sunday School attendance.
In the 1937-38 conference year the Sunday School enrollment climbed to 135. In that year “extensive repairs have been made on the parsonage and especially in the church where the conveniences were installed in the basement.”
1938 marked a major milestone for the church as the work was organized, when those who had been faithful in the work of the Gospel Herald Chapel and who wished to become members were received into membership. The church elected officers and at the Annual Conference both church and pastor were received as full members of the Pennsylvania Conference of the Mennonite Brethren In Christ Church. The church was incorporated under the laws of the State of Pennsylvania on February 11of the same year.
In 1939 further renovations were made in the parsonage. A survey of the statistics showed that 15 were baptized that year. Membership stood at 51, with the Sunday school boasting an enrollment of 161 and an average attendance of 109. There are 36 babies enrolled in the Cradle Roll. Total offerings were $3143.75.
Brother Rutman continued as pastor through the war until the fall of 1945, when he was succeeded by Rev. E. E. Kublic, who shepherded the flock for six years.
During Pastor Kublic’s ministry the church was strengthened and built up in facilities and finances. On March 29, 1948 the last of the debt on the mortgage on the church property was paid in full. Also in those years there were renovations on the house at 251 South Sixth Street, including removal of the front porch, which was replaced with concrete steps and a new sidewalk. The Church plant was also improved with the removal of the steeple, digging out and finishing of the basement, addition of an oil furnace and a coat of shingles on the building. The present garage was erected too. All these improvements were paid in full before Brother Kublic retired from the full-time ministry in 1951. Brother Kublic has continued in good health since his retirement. He has bee given frequent opportunities to minister and he and Sister Kublic are active and faithful members of the Lebanon church at this writing.
Pastor E. J. Rutman returned to Lebanon in 1951 for a four year term as pastor. He continued his radio ministry for most of those years, this time over Lebanon’s own station, WLBR. The now six-room brick parsonage next to the church was completed shortly before Brother Rutman retired in 1955.
Rev. W. F. Heffner arrived in Lebanon in October of 1955 and labored as pastor for five years until his retirement in 1960. Under Pastor Heffner’s ministry the church made rapid strides toward full maturity, particularly in the area of finances. The debt on the parsonage was steadily reduced until it was paid in full on February 19, 1959, which occasion was celebrated with a mortgage burning service. The offerings of the church increased from $5220.32 in 1955-56 to a 1958 total of $7152.93.
Pastor Heffner found the people of Bethany most kind and loving when he was stricken with a heart attack in his final year as pastor. He has enjoyed good health and continues to be very active since his retirement a year ago. The past year, the church’s fiftieth, has seen the addition of a new Sunday school area in the parsonage basement, connected to the church basement by a passage way, which was dedicated at the opening services of the Fiftieth Anniversary observance, Sunday morning October 22, 1961.
The church has received financial assistance from the denomination, which was newly named Bible Fellowship Church in 1959, for its entire history. The seventy-eighth Annual Conference, on October 11, 1961, reduced the denominational appropriation to a small, token amount. The church expects to achieve complete self-support within a year.
The Golden Anniversary finds a group of 58 faithful members rejoicing in God’s great faithfulness in the past half-century and looking forward to continued and greater blessing in the future years, until Christ comes for His church. The Sunday school continues to be active, with 122 enrolled at present and an average attendance in 1961 of 102. The mid-week prayer meeting is faithfully attended. There are also active Women’s Missionary Society and Youth Fellowship. Total offering in the past year exceeded $8,300.00.
Prospects for the future are as bright as God’s promises, as sure as His character and as big as His unlimited power.