THE CHURCH THAT BEGAN AT CAMP MEETING
HISTORY OF EBENEZER BIBLE FELLOWSHIP CHURCH
BETHLEHEM TOWNSHIP, PA
LEROY C. WILCOX
The Historical Society of
the Bible Fellowship Church
OCTOBER 29, 2005
The Ebenezer church, now in Bethlehem Township, PA, is the only Bible Fellowship Church to begin in a city that was chosen by lot and is probably the only one to begin at a camp meeting. Bethlehem is the only city in the United States to be chosen by lot. To understand the founding of Ebenezer it is necessary to understand the founding and development of Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Many Old Testament names were quite common back in the 18th and 19th Centuries, including the name Ebenezer. Local history and census records often list people with names such as Jacob, Jeremiah, Ebenezer, etc. Charles Dickens in one of his books, named a main character Ebenezer Scrooge. Ebensburg, PA, seat of Cameron County, is named after a pastor’s infant son named Ebenezer. The first mayor of Pittsburgh was Ebenezer Denny. The church at Mt. Carmel was named Ebenezer until about 1959, when it was renamed Bethany. The name is found in the Old Testament in I Samuel 7:12 where it says, “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying ’Thus far has the Lord helped us”. The Philistines, a powerful enemy, had come to attack Israel at Mizpah but God answered Samuel’s prayer and they were routed. Samuel now set up a stone to perpetuate this victorious answer to his prayer. The one or ones who named our church must have keenly felt God’s presence as they saw victory over their struggles at Bethlehem.
In Bohemia Pope Gregory VII had forbidden preaching in the Bohemian tongue and forced all ministers to be unmarried. The wine in communion had been taken from the people. Many people looked upon Christianity as a sham. A priest named John Hus lashed out at unholy living and brought out a new translation of the Bible. For this and other reasons he was martyred in 1415. A man named Peter of Chelcic continued his work and his followers were called “Brethren of Chelcic. A man known as Gregory the Patriarch became the leader of those who followed Peter and received the king’s permission to form a settlement at Kupwald. According to tradition the foundation stones of the Moravian Church were laid on March 1, 1457. Persecution began and the followers fled to the mountains but their numbers grew and the persecution ceased. Settlements sprang up everywhere. The ties with the Roman Catholic Church were broken in 1677. The Thirty Years War brought defeat to Protestantism in the Bohemian lands where this group had been the strongest. They were called Moravians, after the region of Moravia, home of most of the followers. By the beginning of the 18th Century most of the Moravians had disappeared. Twelve people, intensely loyal to their faith, fled from Moravia to Saxony in 1722 and found shelter at the estate of a young nobleman, Count Zinzendorf. Others followed. A settlement sprang up at Herrnhut which attracted many. However, the government banished Zinzendorf in 1722.
The people of Herrnhut sent out colonists to America as they were seeking a lasting asylum and also wished to spread their faith. Their first settlement was at Georgia in 1735. It was successful at first but war broke out between England and Spain and the Moravians refused to bear arms. Harassed, their numbers dwindled and the last ones left in 1740, bound for Philadelphia. They met George Whitefield, a noted evangelist, who was traveling north of Philadelphia to start an orphanage. Whitefield offered them employment to construct the building and they accepted. The site is now in the borough of Nazareth. In November of 1740 a doctrinal dispute arose during the construction and the Moravians were dismissed from employment. Nathaniel Irish, a miller and Justice of the Peace in the area, persuaded Whitefield to let them to stay through the winter. Irish was also a land agent for William Allen, who owned most of the land in the region. He offered to sell 500 acres of land at the junction of the Monocacy Creek with the Lehigh River. The Moravians had considered other sites such as Skippack, near Germantown, and Conestoga Manor, in Lancaster County. The Moravians decided to cast lots and the lot fell for the Monocacy Creek site, which they purchased on April 2, 1741. Thus Bethlehem is the only city in the United States to be chosen by lot. The tract was part of a 5,000 -acre plot which William Penn had sold to John Lowther, of London, who sold it to Joseph Turner, of Philadelphia. William Allen purchased the land in 1731.
A NEW VILLAGE
The first house was built near a large spring on a slope east of Monocacy Creek. One end served as a stable and the other end was used as a residence. Sleeping quarters were in the attic. They next built a community house located near the first one. In December 1741 Count Zinzendorf made his only visit to America, arriving in New York City. He went to Philadelphia and then set out for the settlement on the Monocacy. He and his party crossed the Lehigh at the site of the present Hill to Hill Bridge and arrived at the settlement on December 21. The people held a service on the evening of December 24 and sang an old German hymn entitled “Bethlehem Gave Us That Which Makes Life Rich”. It included the words “Favored Bethlehem”. Zinzendorf then proclaimed that the new settlement would henceforth be called Bethlehem.
Bethlehem received favorable attention from others in the Lehigh Valley. The area was increasing in population. The town supplied religious services to those who desired them as churches were not numerous in the area. Easton was established in 1752 as a political center but Bethlehem was the economic center. The principal road to Philadelphia was over the old Minsi Trail from Bethlehem. A ferry was established and later a bridge was built.
The Moravians preferred peace to progress and spiritual comfort to material prosperity. They lived to themselves as the nation forged ahead. The whole Lehigh Valley area was growing. Easton became a borough in 1789 and Allentown (then called Northampton) in 1811. The Moravians at Bethlehem avoided making their village into a borough despite the privileges that it would bring. They instead regarded borough status as dangerous to the maintenance of the type of community that they desired. Almost all of the land was under the control of the Church. Thus they controlled economic activity. Often, however, disputes arose. One such dispute caused the authorities in Germany to give up most of its powers to the local Bethlehem leaders. No longer could the “old guard” appeal to the leaders in Germany. The policy of secluding Bethlehem from the world was breaking down. The Moravian leaders prevented non-Moravians from settling in Bethlehem yet encouraged communication with outsiders. Visitors were welcomed and non - Moravian churches in the area were assisted. The Common Council was enlarged in 1819. The Lehigh Canal was completed through the village in 1829. The Moravians, after founding Bethlehem, began acquiring land on the south side of the Lehigh River. Four large farms were established.
Controversies arose between the businessmen and the clergy regarding ill-advised attempts by the clergy to direct economic affairs. The clergy realized that times were changing and the businessmen began gaining power. Economic hardships came and a growing spirit of secularism developed. Bethlehem was growing and many believed that the church would be more effective as an organization within the town instead of being the town. On Good Friday, March 21, 1845, the people of Bethlehem voted to make the church-village of Bethlehem a borough of Northampton County. Charles Luckenbach, an industrialist, became the chief burgess. Only one clergyman, Rev. Philip H. Goepp, was on the first Borough Council.
A NEW CITY
The new borough of Bethlehem ran from the Lehigh River north to Elizabeth Avenue along the Monocacy Creek and extended eastward to Linden Street. Non-Moravians began moving into Bethlehem, especially Germans. The new borough began to lay out streets but some landowners were reluctant to give up their lands. The area across the river was growing. The railroad arrived in 1855 and the first locomotive arrived from South Easton. The former Crown Inn became the first train station. On April 8, 1857 the Saucona Iron Company was established. Saucona Iron Company became the Bethlehem Iron Company in 1861. The railroad and industries drew many people to the new village of Augusta, which became Wetherill, then Bethlehem South. On August 21, 1865 it became the Borough of South Bethlehem. Manufacturing of steel rails began in 1873 and the Bethlehem Steel Company formed in 1899, absorbing the Iron Company. This became part of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation in 1904. Lehigh University opened on September 1, 1869 and grew rapidly. The population continued to increase.
The area west of Bethlehem was also growing. The Anchor Hotel was built in the early part of the 19th Century and a schoolhouse was built in 1853. The Monocacy Creek was bridged in 1870. The Moravian Chapel was dedicated in West Bethlehem in 1884. On September 16, 1886 the community was incorporated as the Borough of West Bethlehem. In August 16, 1904 the borough merged with Bethlehem.
Bethlehem was growing. The borders were extended north to Locust Street in 1856. No longer did cattle graze among the white oak trees. Orchards were giving way to streets. Non-Moravian churches were being established. By 1874 Laurel Street had been laid out but had only two houses. The year 1884 was a great year. The first floor of the old armory building on Broad Street was converted into a market place and formally opened on November 13, 1884 with a band and a speech by the chief burgess. On November 17 the Bethlehem Council met in their new chambers on the second floor of the market house. The Fairview Fire Company, in the northeast, began that year and the firehouse was built in 1885. On October 25, 1884 the first Lafayette – Lehigh football game was played. Lafayette won 56-0. Electric lighting was introduced in 1884 and a spiritual light, a Mennonite Brethren in Christ church, was founded. The Moravians bought property on Laurel Street in the north part of Bethlehem and built a chapel, which was completed in December 1887. Comenius Hall was built in 1888, relocating the Moravian College and Seminary. This was in an area bounded by Main, Locust and Monocacy Streets. Later a Mennonite Brethren in Christ church would be built next to the Moravian property.
Bridges were built across the Lehigh River, giving a sense of unity to the two boroughs. On July 10, 1917 a vote for the merger of Bethlehem and South Bethlehem was overwhelming. The new administration took office on January 7, 1918. Bethlehem was now a city.
A NEW DENOMINATION
The Bible Fellowship Church began when revivals took place among German-speaking people around the Hosensack Valley. There was a division in the Mennonite Church in 1847. Some withdrew and formed the General Conference Mennonites. William Gehman was chosen to be the pastor of the second Mennonite Church at Zionsville. Mennonite revival preachers began holding prayer meetings and revival services. The General Conference determined that prayer meetings were “unevangelical”. There were other problems as well. Finding themselves in trouble with the rest of the new group seven of these men decided to create their own society, dedicated to enthusiastic meetings. Their doctrines came from the Mennonites but their practices came from contemporary evangelists. William Shelly, a former bishop, Elder William Gehman, two preachers and three laymen met in the home of David Musselman on September 24, 1858 in Upper Milford Township. Here they formed a new fellowship and called themselves the Evangelical Mennonite Society. A church was erected near Zionsville in 1858.
Through union with the United Mennonites of Indiana, Ohio and Ontario (Canada), the Evangelical Mennonites became the Pennsylvania Conference of the Evangelical United Mennonites. In 1883, after a merger with a small group known as Brethren in Christ, they became the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, Pennsylvania Conference. They adopted the teachings and practices popular in Methodist - holiness revivalism. Revival meetings, tent meetings and camp meetings were held. The Gospel Herald Society was formed to train men for this work. The General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ was held in Potsdam, Ohio in 1947 and it was decided to change the name of the denomination to United Missionary Church and Mennonite Brethren in Christ. The Pennsylvania Conference and the General Conference differed in doctrine, organization and government. The relationship with the General Conference was severed in 1952.
A name change was desired and on February 22, 1959 the members voted decisively for the name Bible Fellowship Church. Annual Conference met at the Bethlehem church on April 11, 1959 in an Adjourned Session and ratified the vote. The delegates to the conference based their choice of a new name on the concepts that the Bible should be the sole authority in matters of faith and conduct and that the fellowship of believers is one of their greatest joys and blessings. Once an association of German-speaking revivalists, the denomination today embraces all ethnic groups and is found from Connecticut to New Mexico. Theologically the denomination has changed from Arminianism to a modified Calvinism.
In 1958 the Articles of Faith began to be rewritten. Biblical doctrine was examined and the Credentials Committee, in 1968, stated that our doctrine must be based on the Bible rather than on popularity. Articles were adjusted and clarified. The office of Presiding Elder gave way to that of a District Superintendent but in 1969 that office was abolished. The Official Board gave way to a Board of Elders. Today we are a fellowship of churches.
A NEW CHURCH
Life was rugged in 1884. There was a great deal of drunkenness and many a man was fished out of the Lehigh Canal on a Saturday night. The police had constant trouble with tramps and Hungarians, although newspapers seemed sympathetic to the Hungarians. Industrial accidents injured and killed many. Bolting horses upset wagons and injured drivers. Many were killed or injured by trains. Good things were also happening. On June 4 electric street lights lighted the town for the first time, making Bethlehem the first town in the Lehigh Valley to use them. It was a time when many churches were being established in Bethlehem and was also a time of camp meetings. The first Camp Meeting is said to have been held in Kentucky on the banks of the Red River in 1799 by both a Presbyterian and a Methodist minister. For several years these congregations held Camp Meetings together until gradually the Presbyterians withdrew and the Methodists continued. In the July 15, 1880 issue of the Gospel Banner, Editor Daniel Brenneman invited everyone who was interested to join in the first Mennonite Brethren (then part of the United Evangelical Mennonites) camp meeting. The camp meeting was to be held in a grove belonging to Peter Fetter, just outside of E1khart, Indiana. A contingent from Pennsylvania composed of John Traub, Sister Heller, Jonas and Lucy Musselman, and Abel and Hannah Strawn accepted Brenneman's invitation and attended this first Mennonite Brethren camp meeting.
When the Musselmans and Strawns returned, they were determined that a camp meeting should be held in Pennsylvania. A committee had been appointed to find a location for the camp meeting. They found a grove on land belonging to Milton Kauffman on Chestnut Hill between Coopersburg and Zionsville. On August 13, 1881 our denomination’s first camp meeting of Pennsylvania was held and continued until August 21. The Camp meetings at Chestnut Hill continued for the next 17 years.
People reacted very favorably to these camp meetings and three people from Bethlehem, Jonathan Moyer, Sarah Moyer and Adaline Ritter, attended Chestnut Hill in August of 1883. A year later at the camp meeting they were formed into a class by Jonas Musselman and began meeting together with others in the Moyer home at 316 North Main Street. Citizen’s Hall, on Main Street, built for concerts and lectures, opened in 1856. The Episcopal Church had begun a work in Bethlehem and on August 28, 1859, Bishop Bouman preached in Citizen’s Hall. Our church began meeting on the second floor of Citizen’s Hall in 1884 where Jonas Musselman preached every fortnight. Jonas erected a large tent on Garrison Street where meetings were held. The second tabernacle meetings were held in October 1885 at the corner of Goepp and Center Streets and like the first tabernacle meetings, met with much success.
The 1885 Annual Conference made the Bethlehem work part of a circuit with the churches at Coopersburg, Springtown and Ruch’s. Jonas Musselman was again assigned and was assisted by Owen Bitting. The 1886 Conference paired only Coopersburg and Bethlehem. Ten new members were received in 1885-1886.
The pastor, Jonas Musselman, died of dropsy (according to his obituary) on March 26, 1886. A preacher new to our denomination, William C. Detweiler, a dentist from Easton, took over. The 1886 Conference minutes state, “Resolved: that W. C. Detweiler of Easton, Pennsylvania be and was taken into our Conference as a member, and ordained as an Elder, and commissioned to go forth as an evangelist.” He was asked by the presiding elder, William Gehman, to be a supply pastor until camp meeting time, when Eusebius Hershey would take over. William Detweiler may have wanted to continue, as he left our denomination after Eusebius Hershey became the pastor. Although Eusebius was 63 years of age when he assumed the Bethlehem work, he put forth much energy in carrying out his assignment. One of his first endeavors was to construct a building for worship. He writes in the Gospel Banner, November 1, 1886, “By the request of our P. E. Wm. Gehman, I bought a lot on which to build a house of worship. The lot costs $400.00, of which I paid $100.00. Our class here is small and nearly all poor; therefore we need your assistance.” In December he held evangelistic meetings. Eusebius didn’t feel comfortable in a settled pastorate and asked to continue his work of church planting. A man given to expressing himself in poetry he wrote “If our fields can be filled without me then I’ll say:
Let it be so; then on a larger field
I’ll the Gospel trumpet blow
God’s hand I still expect to see
But don’t forget to pray for me.
The 1887 Annual Conference honored his request and William Musselman became the new pastor, also serving the Coopersburg church. He decided to move to Bethlehem and resided on Fairview Street. The 1887 Annual Conference ruled that Bethlehem should have a building and placed Thomas Geho, delegate from Coopersburg, in charge of this endeavor. Thomas collected money from other churches and a vacant lot was leased on the west side of Main Street near Goepp Street. A frame church building was erected but more permanent quarters were soon needed. A former member, and later a pastor, C.H. Brunner, remembered the “blessed services” held there. Sometimes the pastor held all-day services, assisted by other pastors of the denomination as well as from those outside our denomination.
A young woman, Lizzie Conover, a servant girl at the home of a friend of the church, Mrs. Miller, came to the church and was gloriously converted. She was a very helpful worker but became gravely ill and went to her parents’ home at Erwinna, about 15 miles south of Easton. Here she went to be in the presence of the Lord. After the funeral the pastor, William Musselman, sent a contribution to the parents that paid the expenses for the doctor and the funeral. This kindness was the beginning of a work in Erwinna. Tent meetings were held by Evangelist Noah Detweiler of the Canada Conference and a church in Erwinna was begun through the death of an early convert at Bethlehem.
The 1888 Conference, on February 8, resolved to elect a trustee board for construction of a church building at Bethlehem. Those elected were William B. Musselman, Charles Brunner and A.D. Ruch. A lot was purchased at the corner of West Laurel and Orchard Streets. A frame building, costing $3,409.29, was erected. That was an expensive amount in those days. Contributions to the Building Fund exceeded the cost by 20%, the people giving $4,091.65. Difficulties arose. The neighbors weren’t too happy about having a church in their neighborhood, especially a plain one, and neither were the bees. The hammering of nails during construction upset a neighbor’s bees and the workmen had to wear mosquito netting over their straw hats. After the roof was on the workmen awaited the plasterers. At noon a severe storm came from the northwest and blew the carpenter shop on Union Street from its foundation. The shop broke up in splinters and about a dozen large willow trees across the street were uprooted. The church building was moved about a foot from the basement wall, bulging the middle part of the frame structure about two feet. Equipment for correcting this was not readily available and someone suggested that John Fritz, president of the Bethlehem Iron Company, be contacted. Mr. Fritz was a member of the Methodist Church and had been very friendly with William Musselman. In fact he had already given him a liberal contribution toward the church. John Fritz sent men with jacks and windlasses and in a short time they had the problem corrected. The job was very satisfactory and the congregation awaited the bill, trusting in God, as they were small and not wealthy. The bill that arrived was quite expensive. However, at the bottom was written the words, “Paid in full!’ and it was signed by John Fritz. The roof trusses were reinforced and the building was finished. The building was dedicated on November 11, 1888 and called Ebenezer, for God‘s help to them during these difficulties..
The Gospel Banner reported on December 1, 1888 that “The dedication and convention which were held according to announcement began in full power on Saturday evening Nov. 10th. Presiding Elder Wm. Gehman came early on Saturday in good spirits, and till evening Elders F. W. Berkheiser and Oswin Hillegas were present too, and Eld. Berkheiser preached an appropriate sermon for the occasion, and after the sermon there was a general consecration of preachers and all Christians, which was acceptable to God; and great was the manifestation of the Holy Ghost. On Sunday morning Elds. M. A. Zyner, Joshua E. Fidler, A. B. Gehret and John Knauss also appeared, with many of the Lord’s people from different places, so that the new house was filled up all day. Presiding Eld. Wm. Gehman preached a powerful sermon in the morning after which there was some collecting done of which the outcome proved to be $368.00.” Dinner was prepared in the prayer meeting room of the church. The meeting opened at two o’clock in the afternoon and F. W. Berkheiser preached after which $135.00 more was collected. The church was then dedicated with William Gehman officiating. The church building was 50 x 36 feet. Joshua E. Fidler and Oswin Hillegas preached in the evening. On Monday morning the convention proper was open by William Gehman who, it is reported, preached a powerful sermon. G. A. Campbell preached in the afternoon and altar services followed the sermon. In the evening F.W. Berkheiser preached followed by L. B. Heller from Newark, after which there was once more a consecration meeting. Meetings were held each day through Thursday and it was reported that God wondrously blessed. The 1890 Annual Conference was held in this building. Marks D. Haws, a Civil War veteran who had trained near Easton, became the pastor in 1890 and was followed by Adam Gehret in 1892.
Oswin S. Hillegas came in 1895. He held meetings on New Street on the second floor of a building between Second and Third Streets and also erected a tabernacle on Spring Street, near Franklin. Cool weather set in and a frame chapel was built on the site of the tabernacle. The chapel was soon packed to capacity. He also held meetings on the North and South sides. Meetings were held on Sunday afternoons when meetings were not held at the other two places. Meetings in South Bethlehem brought the Matz family into the church. The news of these meetings reached Fountain Hill and brought in the families of J.G. Shireman and W.E. Edmonds. A Sunday School was organized and J.G. Shireman was elected Superintendent. Both he and his wife were faithful workers in the church and soon entered full-time Christian service. O.S. Hillegas had a parsonage built adjoining the Laurel Street church. After two years at Ebenezer Oswin Hillegas was sent to the Weissport - Lehighton circuit and was succeeded by H. B. Musselman. After two more years Harvey Musselman was transferred to Mt. Carmel. It appears that a problem had developed in the Bethlehem church in regard to loyalty. A church member, W.J Fretz, entered the ministry at this time and was sent to the Girardville Mission. The new pastor at Bethlehem was Richard L Woodring. He continued to hold services on the south side but no longer on New Street. Instead, meetings were held in a storeroom on Wyandotte Street. The chapel on Spring Street was on leased land and was sold. Tabernacle meetings were held on West Broad Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.
Richard Woodring was succeeded by William G. Gehman. Things were changing in the denomination. The Home Missionary Society under C.H. Brunner had grown to such an extent that it was deemed advisable to make him President of the same and be relieved of the duty of Presiding Elder. Also, there was a ruling that a Presiding Elder could only serve for five years, thus H.B. Musselman could not be reelected. William G. Gehman was elected and H.B. Musselman returned to a ministry at Ebenezer. It was reported at Conference in 1907 that there was progress in the district concerning loyalty, especially at Bethlehem. In 1907 the Conference split into two districts and H.B. Musselman became the other Presiding Elder. He had the Allentown District and W.G. Gehman had the Easton District. W.G. Gehman was also elected President of the Home Missionary Society, which became the Gospel Herald Society.
The new pastor was J.C. Roth. He was spoken of as a fearless pastor, preaching what he believed and asking favors of none. When his three years of ministry was completed he was replaced by Charles H. Brunner, who had formerly worked in South Bethlehem and had been a member at Ebenezer. During this time the three-year limit for pastors was dropped so they could serve indefinitely. He was followed in 1914 by William S. Hottel, noted as an excellent Bible expositor. He instructed his Sunday School teachers during the week so that they would be better prepared to teach on Sunday. People from nearby congregations began to attend these meetings.
One former member, Edna Cressman, related some memories of the Laurel Street church. She said,
“When I was a child growing up in the Laurel Street Church, we observed ‘Watch Night’ the last evening before the new year. It was an exciting time for the adults, but especially so for the children. We kids felt very worldly and grown-up, because we stayed up until about 12:39 or one o’clock!
The church service started at seven o’clock sharp! Most everyone was there on time with the exception of some of the men. They got home from work late, but hurried to church so as not to miss anything. Mama made us take a nap right after school, so we could be in tip-top shape for ‘Watch Night’. The song service continued longer than usual. When everyone was there, the special groups had the opportunity to show what they could do. We had duets, quartets, and groups singing all kinds of special numbers. How we enjoyed their participation.
Then there was preaching! For an hour the preacher admonished us to confess our faults and resolve to live ‘according to the Word’ in the year ahead. We kids either fell asleep or squirmed. About 11:15 we gathered round the altar for prayer, the preacher closing with a comprehensive and long prayer just as the church bells began to ring, and told us the year was ending.
Then we were ready for the ‘piece de resistance’! Usually Brother Ralph Weiss would start the march up one aisle and down the other- Everyone waving their handkerchief or clapping, and lustily singing:
‘We’re marching to Zion
Beautiful, Beautiful Zion,
We’re marching upward to Zion
The beautiful city of God’.
Oh what an evening, and what a climax! Finally mothers bundled up children and hurried home, at the very late hour of 12:30!” The methods used to evangelize and edify have seen many changes. There was quite an emotional aspect in our denomination in the earlier years. Shouts of “Amen!” were often heard.
Edna Cressman also remembered the prayer meetings at Laurel Street, which were held in the basement of the church. There were three tiers of benches. The women with their children sat in the middle row benches. The men sat in the tiers of side benches. No families ever sat together. A steward collected the Steward envelopes and took care of the needs of the pastor. Younger men were voted in as building-fund collectors.
Open air meetings were held on Saturday and Sunday evenings. The meetings would last about thirty minutes. On Saturdays the people gathered on Main Street in front of the Woolworth’s Five and Dime Store at 6:30. At a nod from the pastor the people would form a half-circle off the curb. If the circle was too large the children would stay on the pavement with the onlookers. The pastor would open with a hymn or two and then the people would give their testimonies. The pastor would then give an exhortation followed with an invitation to accept Christ. On Sunday evenings people gathered at the northwest corner of Main and Goepp Streets for the meeting. Those who came to church on the trolley car and those who had difficulty climbing the hill on Main Street went directly to the church. Here a song service started at seven o’clock, followed by a time of praise.”
The congregation was outgrowing the building and a new one was needed. H.B. Musselman, the Presiding Elder, reported on October 10, 1918 that the building fund had swelled to almost $7,000. Elmer Gable, a contractor and active member at Ebenezer, was hired to build a new church. A lot was purchased at Main and Durham Streets and Jacob Hartman was given the contract for the brickwork. The 1919 Yearbook, on page 44, recorded the report of H.B. Musselman. “A church building is now in course of erection, on the purchased lot on Main St., Bethlehem, Pa. The building will occupy the entire lot on which it stands and measures fifty-five and one-half feet front on Main Street, and ninety-five and one-half feet deep on Durham Street, with an approximate seating capacity of 1200. The main floor will seat about 450. The class at this place has been contributing nobly, and sacrifices are being made by them to finance this much-needed project.”
The last services at Laurel Street were held on May 1, 1919. Services were then held in the auditorium of the Franklin School building at Center and North Streets. The former church building was torn down and the lumber was used both for scaffolding and construction. The church was dedicated on February 8, 1920. At 9:15 A.M. the first hymn was sung, followed by a season of prayer and thanksgiving. William G. Gehman, the presiding elder of the Mt. Carmel District, preached the morning sermon and Charles Brunner, of Allentown, the former pastor at Bethlehem, preached in the afternoon. Harvey Musselman, of Bethlehem, Pa., presiding elder of the Bethlehem District, preached in the evening. Special services were held for the next two weeks. The newspaper noted that large crowds attended despite the snowstorms. This was remarkable, considering the fact that all the local trolley lines had to suspend operations because of the blizzard. Even walking was difficult and the only way the people from the far ends of the city could come to the services was by foot. The sanctuary was filled at the morning service. At the afternoon service the prayer meeting room at the east end of the building and the Sunday School room at the west end had to be opened to accommodate everyone. The congregation at the evening service was almost as large as that in the afternoon service. Other pastors and laymen attended. The offerings and the pledges throughout the day were large and liberal. Many contributions were received from people who were not members of the congregation, one giving the sum of $700.00. Quite a number of outsiders gave $100.00 each. The pastor, William Hottel, reported that H. B. Musselman “rendered most valuable services in helping to raise these offerings and pledges. Indeed, he was right in his element, doing so.” The new church building cost nearly $37,000.
When William Hottel left Ebenezer in 1920 it had the largest membership of any church in the Pennsylvania Conference and the second largest Sunday School. W.S. Hottel was replaced by C.H. Brunner in 1920, who came for the second time. F.M. Hottel came in 1923 and the attendance was increasing dramatically. He had married a Bethlehem woman, Ida Moyer, and had worked in South Bethlehem before entering the ministry. He taught the Bible Class, which became very large. Extended evangelistic meetings by the Bosworth brothers were held in the summer of 1932. A large tabernacle which seated about 1,500 people was erected and many people were converted in these meetings. Some converts began attending Ebenezer. In 1932 Sunday School attendance averaged 678 and the enrollment reached 801. Church membership also reached its highest point with 414 on the roll. One Easter Sunday the attendance was announced as being just short of a thousand. Hearing that, the pastor’s two sons went out and brought in the two or three needed to make a thousand. Franklin Hottel also began a Cradle Roll and the first baby registered in that department was Robert W. Smock, now a retired pastor.
The Hottels went to Reading in 1932 and Paul T. Stengele came from the Easton church. He remained at Ebenezer until 1945, when he was elected Presiding Elder. In 1938 a Fiftieth Anniversary of the church was observed, counting from the erection of the first permanent structure, the Laurel Street church. A week of special services was held and Mary Moyer, one of the first members, attended from Allentown and received a gift.
Norman Wolf, from Sunbury, replaced Paul Stengele. He too had married a Bethlehem woman, Esther Gehret, the widow of another pastor, H.A. Kauffman. She was also the daughter of Adam Gehret, a former pastor at Bethlehem. Their daughter, Thelma, married Robert Smock, who had been a member at Ebenezer. Norman Wolf left in 1954 and was replaced by William A. Heffner, who had been serving at Hatfield. He left in 1959, becoming Director of Church Extension. Wilbur W. Hartman came in 1959 and served until 1964, when he went to Shamokin. Evangelistic meetings were often held at the Main Street church. Speakers included Dr. Bob Jones, founder of Bob Jones University, and Dr. Torrey Johnson, founder of Youth For Christ International. Prayer meetings were greatly emphasized.
Frank L. Herb, Jr. came in 1964 and served until 1980. During his ministry at Ebenezer our present church was built in Bethlehem Township on Hecktown Road. The Main Street church was located next to the Moravian College property. The college was expanding, parking was an increasing problem and more space was needed for church and Sunday School activities. Other city churches were relocating to Bethlehem Township, where population was increasing and land was available. A site on Hecktown Road fronting on Easton Avenue was considered.
A 1741 map showed this to be part of the property of Caspar Wistar, a wealthy merchant of Philadelphia. On March 28, 1728 he purchased several tracts of land in the area from the sons of William Penn. One tract, of 500 acres, was willed to his daughter, Sarah, when he died. On March 27, 1793 she sold the land to William Butz, who established several businesses. A settlement grew called Butztown. The land was divided into smaller units through the years and in 1967 Ebenezer Bible Fellowship Church purchased about ten acres of this land from Vernon and Mabel Moser. It fronted on old Route 22 with Hecktown road running along the west side of the property. Originally old Route 22 was called the King’s Highway. It was laid out as early as 1750, connecting Bethlehem with the ferry at the present site of Easton and was later extended westward to Reading. It was then called the Allentown Road. Later the road was extended westward to Harrisburg from Reading and in 1916 was named the William Penn Highway. In 1927 a new highway linked Easton and Harrisburg via Hamburg, called Route 22. William Penn Highway in Bethlehem Township was then part of new Route 22. A new Route 22 was built to the north and our road is now called Easton Avenue. Hecktown Road, connecting with the village of Hecktown, was cut through in the late 18th Century. A pastor passing through the village in the 18th Century observed poor families but many offspring. He said, “"Sie gonnen gut hecken" - “at least they breed well“. From that time on the village became known as Hecktown.
The groundbreaking ceremony was held on July 28, 1968. The last service in the Main Street church was held on January 26, 1969, after which they met at Moravian College until the new church was finished. A service of dedication was held in the finished building on Sunday, November 9, 1970. The speaker was A.L. Seifert, the former District Superintendent and a son of the church. That evening a Homecoming Service was held and the speaker was the pastor, Frank Herb. Services continued to be held each evening throughout the week ending with baptism and communion the following Sunday. The sanctuary seated about 400 people and provided cushioned pews and carpeting. Moravian College built a new science building on the site of the Main Street church.
Many Hungarians from Miller Heights were converted at the evangelistic meetings held in the summer of 1932 by the Bosworth brothers. These converts began holding prayer meetings in their homes but a larger place was needed. They rented a nearby building and held meetings there. One of the families owned land across from their home and donated it for a church. This, however, was during the Depression and many of the men were out of work. A member of Ebenezer, Robert Jones, promised to help them erect a building. The women prepared the noon meals for the workers. The building was finished and called the Miller Heights Tabernacle. Robert Jones took charge of the meetings until they could obtain a leader. He was able to get different speakers and musical groups. Later this became a Home Mission church of our denomination. The church closed when Ebenezer church built its new building on Hecktown Road and many members joined Ebenezer.
The next pastor was Robert F. Johnson. He was stricken with cancer and unable to continue. John Riggall came as an interim pastor and was followed by Harvey Fritz, Jr., who was remembered for his compassionate shepherding. New ministries were created during this time. Small groups known as Kinship Groups began to meet twice a month for the purpose of teaching and fellowship. The sanctuary was remodeled with a redesigned baptismal pool. More room was needed for activities and Wayne Batten, an elder and architect, was contracted to draw up plans for this addition. Ground was broken on June 29, 1986 and the addition was completed the following year. A homecoming service was held on Sunday, September 20 at 10:00 A.M. and another service was held that afternoon.
Brian Cooper became the pastor in 1996. Membership grew to 316 by the year 2000 and to 341 by 2002. More room again was needed. The parking lot was enlarged. Again Wayne Batten was called upon to draw up plans for an addition to the addition. A ground breaking was held on April 20, 2002. A thunderstorm was raging outdoors so the ground-breaking was held indoors. An informal dedication was held for the finished addition in October. Growth has continued, with a membership of 500 and an average attendance of 600, according to the 2005 Annual Report. Another addition was completed yesterday.
We presently have a pastoral staff of four with a fulltime office manager. The Senior Pastor is Brian Cooper, Robert Fields is Pastor of Christian Education, Shad Gilbert is Pastor of Youth and Young Adults and Robbin Hunsberger is the office manager.
Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce Bethlehem of Pennsylvania 1968
Brunner, Charles Ebenezer
Buck, Leonard E. (Editor) What Mean These Stones? 1983
Ellis, Capt. F. History of Northampton County 1877
Henry, M. S. History of the Lehigh Valley 1860
Schwarz, Ralph Grayson Bethlehem on the Lehigh
Shelly, Harold P. The Bible Fellowship Church 1992
Smaby, Prior The Transformation of Moravian Bethlehem 1988
Walters, Raymond Bethlehem Long Ago and Today 1923
Ziegler, Daniel G. In Search of Eusebius Hershey 1996
Allentown Morning Call