A Study of the Greatest Growth Period in Bible Fellowship Church History

1910 - 1940

Donald R. Knauer

From 1853 when a group of Mennonite ministers left the established Mennonite Church to hold prayer meetings and preach the word to 1858 when William Gehman founded the Evangelical Mennonites, to 1879 when the Evangelical United Mennonites were formed, to 1883 when the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church was formed, until this present day, we scan the history of this 85-year-old church or 110 year old church to find the period of greatest growth, We find the period to study is between 1910 and 1940.

Church membership in 1910 was 1,503; it grew to 4,106 in 1940 - an increase of 2,603 in 30 years. This is an average yearly gain of 87 members. In 1910 there were 27 churches; in 1940, 35 churches - an increase of only 8 churches. This indicates that the churches themselves grew rather than an increase in the number of locations. Indeed, if we would look at these locations over this 30 year period, we would see that many churches closed and many new ones opened. Where the Gospel was not received, they moved on.

We ask the question, what caused this period to experience the greatest growth? We seek the answer in many areas because many factors converge to produce the final result.

I. Spirituality

Certainly the hand of God was upon these men of God as they labored diligently and faithfully for the Lord. But we shall see that even though God used certain methods in the past, it does not follow that we can merely duplicate them.

II. A look at the times

World War I did not affect our growth pattern as much as World War II did. The depression did not adversely affect us, nor the roaring 20's, nor the affluency of 1938, 1939, and 1940. Communications and travel were slower. Most of our people had little more than grammar school education. They came from the hard working class socially and economically. They were basically a group of "have-nots."

Large denominations were considered apostate. Our church was held as the only true church. The wealthy churches relaxed standards and caused a concern for holiness, separation, and frugality among those desirous of deeper religious experience. The need for evangelism and purity banded many to the gospel message. At this same time a great growth period can be seen in the Holiness Movement (Methodists, Pentecostals, Millenialism, and Dispensationalism) and the cults. Why? Perhaps people were sensing their need for God. Perhaps the Spirit was working in a greater way. There is a definite relationship between economic conditions and spiritual receptivity.

III. Church organization

Our church organization during this period is important to note. The Methodist system was adopted with quarterly, local, and annual conferences. The question, of authority was largely vested in the presiding elders of which there were two. The Annual Conference power was overshadowed by the presiding elders since no man wished to risk his chance of advancement because of a dispute with the presiding elder. This would be to his detriment. The system flourished when a godly charismatic leader was in command. And while the people were socially, educationally and economically in a state of poverty, and willingly agreed to give their loyalty and support to the charismatic leader, the system functioned.

I remind you of the transition between Moses and Joshua and the more disastrous transition to the period of the judges. There is a gem that arises in the leadership of Samuel, who was pretty much the commanding figure in his day. When Israel asked for a king, he opposed it. In his old age this was a shaking structural changes which challenged his authority. But because he was close to God and to the people, he was able to accept it and give guidance to it because he heard God tell him it was all right. The people were not rejecting him, but the Lord. In fact this new organizational structure was later to be used of God to usher in the Messiah with the kingly tribe of Judah - a monarchy.

I am simply trying to say the organizational structures need revision and change as the times change. I think I hear our people saying something to us today.

IV. Emphasis of the preaching

A. On sanctification, separation, holiness of life; strong reprimand if caught violating standards of conduct; tongue lashing from the pulpit (name-calling) to bring individuals into subjection; verbal force with rejection.

B. On second coming and judgment. Our need for purity and urgency for evangelism reflected the practical application of this spiritual truth. Also, social-economic fibers were woven into the appeal to be palatable to the low income individual such as warnings that the wealthy and privileged would fall and the humble and poor would be exalted, the rich sent away empty, and the hungry filled.

C. On the saving grace of Jesus Christ; personal confrontation of the claims of Christ; the need for confession of sin, repentance, forgiveness and restoration.

D. On a definite Arminian position in theology. Some taught you could fall from grace; some taught sanctification was instantaneous, some taught sanctification was a process; salvation was taught as the bestowal of free grace of God (See Free Will in old discipline)

E. On divine healing - an important teaching.

F. On baptism by immersion and feet washing was practiced.

During these 30 years a transition from Arminian Theology to Dispensationalism took place. More recently we have moved to a Baptistic (Reformed-Calvinistic) position.

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V. Personnel - the men God used and their activities

The Presiding Elders from 1910 to 1940 were H. B. Musselman and W. G. Gehman. These were charismatic leaders who gained the respect, loyalty, and support of their co-workers and followers. Leadership is both born and developed; some will never possess the quality of soul to be a leader, try as they might to develop it. When charismatic leadership ends, there is a need for bureaucratic-democracy to rule, I can only surmise here as to the value of the leadership of these men.

The leadership training of the clergy was a reading course, self-study program, no formal schooling. To my knowledge little was done to train lay people.

The pastors of this period– God used at least 20, men during this period harvest souls for Him. I state 20 because those 20 have reported the most numbers received into fellowship during the 30-year period. Teamwork, competition, disagreement all had a part in the struggle. I am sure the constraining love of Christ was the greatest motivating factor as I view these men’s names.

What activities did they carry on? a) Private prayer and in homes; b) Established preaching points in fire halls, homes and small group Bible study; c) Contacted people - confronted them with the gospel; d) Visitation (I was surprised on this one):

Average number of visits









Length of the pastorate: During this period pastors stayed the longest at each church in the history of our denomination. There was no limit and there was no moving about every one or two years, This was both good and bad. It provided a strong ministry where all was going well, but a weaker one where problems existed.

VI. Ministries, methods, and meetings

A variety of ministries was used. Perhaps prayer meeting, Sunday school and camp meeting were the strongest. There were protracted evangelistic meetings lasting 6 to 10 weeks. This was a different day with different time demands. There were outdoor meetings, camp meeting and tent meetings moved to where the people were. Perhaps transportation was a problem. There were 3 locations for camp meeting. Centralization limits the area ministered to.

The radio broadcasting of the Allentown church began then. There are no statistics.

The nature and length of the meetings: informal, emotional type with rhythmic singing and freedom of expression (hallelujah and amen); known by many as "holy rollers", some would get happy, shout, wave arms, etc.; strong personal appeal to make outward manifestation of an inward work of grace with altar calls, prayer around the altar, crying, handraising, etc.; preaching services were one and a half hours in length three times on Sundays; protracted meetings lasted 6 to 8 weeks every night (what was the attendance? did it matter?); gospel songs and music with stringed instruments, pianos, and finally organs were used.

The method of the Gospel Herald Society as an organization for training pastors or as an evangelistic arm for church planting cannot be evaluated here.

VII. Church planting principles

Circuits were used when there was a shortage of manpower or when a church was too small to have its own pastor or to test an area for its reception to the gospel.

Mother-daughter church idea - does anyone know if any churches were started by a group leaving a strong church and moving to a new one in this period? Wissinoming was started this way.

Location of churches: Many of our churches are near railroads, a common means of transportation in those days when the church was started. Some are on small side streets. This reflects low economic level since these lots are less expensive, but also reflects poor planning. Perhaps the situation was inevitable with no choice.

What determined when a church was self sustaining? What determined where a church would be started? There seem to be little guidelines here.

VIII. Denominational ties

    I am not at all sure what the impact or contribution of having been the Pennsylvania Conference of the M. B. C. during this period may have been. But we did enjoy: a) A common manual of discipline and doctrine; b) A common message with its emphasis and appeal; c) A common ministry. In our distant past lie a total of three mergers. What effect these have had on us I do not know.

Summary - Lessons from this period of growth

A. Adequate leadership with training programs for pastor and people - that God would raise up men of His choice, endowed with sensitivity toward God and people.

B. Organizational Structure that is suited to the times and needs of the group.

C. Make contact with people - in small groups, Bible study, discussion, prayer.

D. Adjust the emphasis of the message to the changing times and needs of men.

E. Avoid mimicking the methods of the past in the hope they will bring the blessing of God.

F. Recapture the dedication, quality of soul, burden for the lost, willingness to pray, seeking after God that our beloved pastors of old had.

G. We must know and understand man and his needs today. We must know and understand God’s Word and His will to adequately minister. To preach to reach men’s hearts today.

H. Should. We consider finding a group to affiliate and unite with as we were during, these 30 years? We must be doctrinally evangelistically, and organizationally in agreement.

     To be sure it is a difficult task to determine what brought the blessing of God in those days. We can learn from mistakes and gain help from right procedures as we look at the past, but somehow I believe we will gain more by looking at the examples of principles portrayed in the book of Acts, which I believe is a guide or handbook of mission activity and growth today.