A BRIEF HISTORY
OF OUR DENOMINATION
Mennonite Brethren In Christ
Bible Fellowship Church
A Fellowship of Evangelical Mennonite Revivalists
Seven Mennonite revivalists, under pressure from their bishops to give
up their style of evangelism, huddled at a farm house in Milford Township,
Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. It was Friday, September 24, 1858, just two
weeks before the next high council. Should they acquiesce to restrictions
upon the freedom of expression they enjoyed in their revival and prayer
meetings? No, they would not. And so they established the Evangelische
Mennoniten Gemeinschaft (Evangelical Mennonite Society). In their new
fellowship which would remain Mennonite in doctrine, they would continue
enthusiastic evangelism. Within two weeks all seven--elder William Gehman,
bishop William N. Shelly, preachers David Henning and Henry Diehl, and
deacons David Gehman, Joseph Schneider and Jacob Egoistical outside the
New Mennonite association (now the General Conference Mennonite Church).
One year later, the first Tuesday in November 1859, they held their first
semi-annual preachers conference in the Evangelical Mennonite Meeting
House in Haycock Township, Bucks County. Eleven days later they dedicated
a new meeting house in Upper Milford Township, Lehigh County. Thus began
the Bible Fellowship Church.
The prayer meeting crisis -- The crisis which led to this new fellowship
of Mennonite revivalists had erupted in the Upper Milford Mennonite Meeting
House, "number two." Nummer zwee, as the congregation was called
in the local dialect, was one of the new progressive congregations which
had come out of the Franconia Conference of the (Old) Mennonite Church
in 1847. John H. Oberholtzer, bishop of the Swamp Mennonite congregation,
had resisted the pressure to wear the traditional unrolled coat collar.
He also urged the conference to allow written minutes and a constitution
(German, Ordnung). Division followed, some congregations separated from
the conference and a few new congregations emerged. Into the progressive
Upper Milford congregation came a young convert named William Gehman.
Evidently a magnetic individual he was soon selected preacher by vote
and by lot.
Gehman preached and conducted prayer meetings wherever he gained entrance.
In 1853 the high council of the "New" Mennonites discussed their
type of prayer meetings and allowed them to continue. Some evidently remained
suspicious of these enthusiastic meetings; more discussion ensued. In
1856 the bishops restricted these prayer meetings. The following year
bishop William N. Shelly, one of the bishops who had enjoined the prayer
meetings, had a change of heart and entered a formal protest. He attempted
to demonstrate to the council that these prayer meetings were in accord
with the Gospel. The vote went against Shelly. These prayer meetings had
to cease. Thus his name was stricken from the list of preachers in May
1858 and the others had until October to conform.
Unacceptable restrictions -- A controversy over the ownership of the Upper
Milford meeting house followed. The congregation by one vote rejected
Gehman's claims on the meeting house. Through a financial settlement and
contributions he and his followers began to erect their own meeting house,
which was known as nummer drei(number three), in the valley. In it he
preached, prayed, exhorted and from there went forth to homes and nearby
churches spreading the joy of the message he loved. He inspired many young
men from his congregation to follow him into ministry. Possibly the most
significant was his wife's cousin, Jonas Musselman, whose three sons became
The Fellowship Reaches out -- In 1861 Eusebius Hershey, a traveling preacher
from Rebersburg, Center County, Pennsylvania, joined the Evangelical Mennonite
Society. He inspired many as he traveled widely conducting protracted
meetings and prayer meetings throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and Ontario,
Canada. He also kindled interest in overseas missions. After years of
travel in America and as an old man he moved on to Liberia, West Africa
where he preached the Gospel and soon laid down his life.
As other young men joined the preachers in revival, the organization developed.
In 1866 they published their Glaubenslehre which contained a statement
of faith and church order along with a constitution for their mission
society. The articles of faith were essentially the Mennonite Dortrecht
Confession of Faith of 1632. The organization was doubtless derived from
the Ordnung of the East-Pennsylvania Conference of Mennonites. The missions
constitution may have been their own creation. It certainly was what they
were all about. Their mission was to proclaim the Good News everywhere
they could and to help others do the same where they could not go. They
added meeting houses and preaching stations from Coopersburg, Pennsylvania
to Wadsworth, Ohio. Congregations in the Lehigh Valley survived; Wadsworth
passed away. It was just too far away for proper nurture.
Mennonite Brethren in Christ, Pennsylvania Conference
Union with like-minded Brethren -- Other Mennonites were influenced by
the same revival winds which blew through southeastern Pennsylvania. In
Canada Daniel Hoch spread the Word. He encouraged the Evangelical Mennonites,
but many opposed him in Canada. Other Mennonites in Canada and the midwest
came under the spell of the revival tides. Among these were Solomon Eby
of Ontario and Daniel Brenneman of Indiana and their followers who were
excommunicated. They joined forces to become the Reformed Mennonites (1874).
Some New Mennonites, followers of Daniel Hoch, united with these Reformed
Mennonites to become the United Mennonites (1875). These kindred spirits
found the Evangelical Mennonites of Pennsylvania and together became the
Evangelical United Mennonites (November 1879).
With the new union came a church paper, greater structure and new theological
emphases. The Gospel Banner edited by Daniel Brenneman provided reports
of evangelistic activities, stories to challenge the heart, and doctrinal
articles which developed a new way of thinking. When the preachers conference
excommunicated those who refused to relinquish their life insurance policies,
the Banner cheered. Reports from camp meetings challenged people to seek
entire sanctification and healing. Articles selected from Methodist sources
pointed away from Mennonite emphases. A new understanding of the Return
of Christ to establish His earthly kingdom gained acceptance.
William Gehman, the only active preacher of the founding seven, was elected
the first presiding elder of the Pennsylvania Conference in 1880. At the
time there were five active congregations: Zionsville, Coopersburg, Quakertown,
Fleetwood, and Springtown. It was about this time that a stationing committee
began to assign preachers to the congregations.
In 1883 a small group in Ohio which called itself Brethren in Christ merged
with the Evangelical United Mennonites to form the Mennonite Brethren
in Christ. This was the last merger of the Pennsylvania Conference. At
the time many wondered whether it was time to drop Mennonite from the
name of the denomination. Tradition and the concern to allow young men
to be certified conscientious objectors in Canada preserved the name.
Leadership for the new century -- New leadership arose in the final decade
of the nineteenth century, from which issued the leadership for most of
the first half of the twentieth century. They launched new efforts at
evangelism and church planting. Tabernacle or tent meetings were conducted
in various places where homes were not obtainable. The first Sunday School
Convention was held in 1889.
In 1892 William Brunner Musselman became the second presiding
elder. A man of boundless energy, he developed the first denominational
hymnal; created the Gospel Worker Society, an organization for women's
ministries; inaugurated a new magazine, the Gospel Worker Society Herald;
and began a printing organization known as Union Gospel Press. Later he
moved the press and his organization to Williamsport, Pennsylvania and
eventually to Cleveland, Ohio.
Charles Henry Brunner, writer, poet and musician, succeeded his cousin
as presiding elder and chairman of annual conference. C.H. and his wife
established the Gospel Herald Society for men. Together with the Gospel
Workers they planted many new congregations on the edges of Conference.
He promoted foreign missions in the Pennsylvania Conference through the
newly formed Christian end Missionary Alliance in which he became an honorary
vice president. He edited the Gospel Banner and for many years, the Annual
Conference Yearbook (1896-1941).
The Conference began to commission missionaries to diverse parts of the
world, Henry and Kate Weiss to Chile, Calvin and Phoebe Snyder to China,
and Rose Lambert to Armenia, Turkey. Others soon followed. For the early
decades of the twentieth century the majority of missionaries were associated
with The Christian and Missionary Alliance.
New articles of faith were debated and approved. The Wesleyan emphasis
on a "Second Blessing" or second work of grace, was evident
in the article on Entire Sanctification. According to this teaching, the
sin nature could be eradicated and the sanctified person be free from
all conscious or intentional sin. The new articles on the Return of Christ
reflected the widespread preoccupation with the impending end of the age.
The leadership of the Pennsylvania Conference until the fourth decade
of the twentieth century was essentially the same. Presiding elders Harvey
Brunner Musselman and William George Gehman controlled every aspect of
the Conference. Musselman chaired annual conference and Gehman governed
the Gospel Herald Society during a period of growth. Interest in outreach
and missions increased. The vision of reaching beyond the old boundaries
and into nearby urban areas inspired many.
World War One, the Great Depression, and the outbreak of World War Two
did not dampen the spirit of evangelism. By 1920 the Conference was double
what it had been in 1900. In the next twenty years it doubled again.
Loyalty was a central theme during this era. Most people trusted and submitted
to their leaders with little resistance. Disloyalty was unacceptable.
A drift from the Wesleyan doctrine of the late nineteenth century grew
as the twentieth century progressed. The Wesleyan notion of eradication
of the sinful nature was replaced by the idea that the tendency to sin
was counteracted by living victoriously in the Spirit as taught by Keswick
sources. This was the beginning of an emphasis on the process of sanctification
rather than on a second work of grace. Pastors began to write Sunday School
lessons for the Uniform Lesson Series which were published by the Union
Gospel Press. The Conference had its own hymnal, Rose of Sharon. The first
history of the denomination, History of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ,
edited by Jasper Huffman was published in 1920.
New leadership and new directions -- The end of an era began with the
death of W.G. "Daddy" Gehman in 1941. Four years later H.B.
Musselman became emeritus. Paul Timothy Stengele and Timothy D. Gehret
provided transition to a new, post war era. Relations with the other Mennonite
Brethren in Christ conferences were not good. Doctrinal and ecclesiological
disagreements were magnified by personality differences. When General
Conference in 1947 voted to change the name of the denomination to United
Missionary Church, the Pennsylvania Conference resisted. Pennsylvania
was allowed to use the old name, but five years later voted to separate
from the other conferences. The official reasons included differences
over the doctrine of holiness, foreign mission programs, educational plans,
financial autonomy, church government, and objection to a projected merger
with The Missionary Church Association.
The Gospel Herald Society became the Home Mission Society; later it became
the department of Church Extension. Other changes followed. Berean Bible
School was opened in 1950 to prepare pastors, missionaries and Christian
workers for the church. A shortage of ministers was stemmed and new missionaries
were commissioned. After eighteen years as a three-year Bible school,
the school became Pinebrook Junior College. The college closed in 1992.
College and Seminary had become the preferred preparation for ministry.
To compete with existing theological institutions which were considered
acceptable did not seem wise to many.
The Bible Fellowship Church
In 1959 the Conference adopted a new name, Bible Fellowship Church. New
articles of faith were ratified which reflected more accurately the beliefs
of the Fellowship. The practice of feet washing was dropped. The title
of presiding elder which had recently become district superintendent became
conference superintendent when there was only one such officer for the
denomination. Finally when a more presbyterial structure of government
was adopted, the position was dropped altogether.
An important feature of the Conference was camp meeting. This was the
place where the whole Conference came together. Here they heard other
preachers and met brothers and sisters from other congregations. They
worshipped, prayed, fellowshipped and ate together. The first site was
Chestnut Hill, near Coopersburg, in 1881. Other locations were used until
the purchase of Mizpah Grove in East Allentown in 1910. There and at Edgewood
Grove near Shamokin many encountered God in special ways and made lasting
commitments. Evangelism, Bible teaching, reports from missionaries, children's
meetings, and youth meetings inspired the campers. A children's camp,
Victory Valley, near Zionsville, opened in 1956. In 1968 the Fellowship
sold Mizpah Grove and purchased Pinebrook Bible Conference. Pinebrook
became the center for summer and winter spiritual vacations and retreats.
A home for the aged and for orphans was begun in Center Valley around
the turn of the century. An autonomous board controlled this operation
until the title was transferred to the Conference in 1954. Few aged and
fewer orphans lived in the home. A new home for the aging was opened in
Nazareth in 1960. Two years later the original home and farm were sold.
A larger facility for the aging was recently opened near Allentown.
The pursuit of a biblical basis for every facet of the denomination characterized
annual conferences and ministerial conferences. A multitude of study papers,
discussions, and recommendations focused on a wide range of topics such
as, eschatology, inerrancy, finance, ordination, church government, the
relationship between the Annual Conference and the particular church,
divorce and church membership, church discipline, total abstinence and
church membership, and the role of women in the church. Abortion, homosexuality,
the aids crisis, and other social issues were addressed.
From a loose association of Mennonite revivalists, influenced by the holiness
movement to a Wesleyan denomination to a Reformed fellowship holding to
believers baptism, the Bible Fellowship Church stands today. Once each
congregation was autonomous. Later they came under the strong hand of
presiding elders in a modified episcopal system. Today particular Bible
Fellowship Churches are ruled by local elders. Each particular church
sends elders along with their pastors to Annual Conference. New churches
continue to be built, education facilities are being added and new congregations
and daughter churches planted.