Let us go into the next towns,
that I may preach there also,
because for this purpose
I have come forth
THE BIBLE FELLOWSHIP
CHURCH IN THE CITY
Philadelphia in General
Wissinoming in Particular
Presented by G. Wayne Claper
The Historical Society of the Bible Fellowship Church
October 25, 2003
THE BIBLE FELLOWSHIP CHURCH IN THE CITY
CITY AND TOWN
A Biblical Orientation
The term “city” can be variously defined and explained. It has been understood as being a center of population, commerce and culture. In the United States it represents an incorporated municipality with definite boundaries and legal powers set forth in a charter granted by a particular state. One encyclopedia analysis begins by stating that a city is “a relatively permanent and highly organized center of population, of greater size or importance then that of a town or village.”
Our first contact with the word, in our English Bible translations, is in Genesis 4:17. We read of the building of a city, named for a son of Cain and his wife. The Hebrew term speaks of a secure and inhabited place. The Septuagint uses a Greek term descriptive of a protected and walled area. Such is the word used in Hebrews 11:30 when speaking of the walls of Jericho.
In the New Testament scriptures, we are first introduced to the term in Matthew 2:23 when we are told that Joseph, Mary, and the child Jesus “resided in a city called Nazareth.” Such place, not mentioned in the Old Testament, situated on the southern hill ridges of Lebanon, seems to have little fame except for the fact that it was home to the holy family.
It is from the Greek word, transliterated “polis”, that we get our terms of polity and political. In the original language, it refers to a significant dwelling place as might be denoted by “throng” or some such “fullness.” Dr. Joseph Henry Thayer makes the observation that it is used “of the visible capital of the heavenly kingdom (Revelation 3:12; 21:14, 22:14).”
In comparison, whether it be in the Old or New Testament, a city is larger and of greater significance then a town or village. In the Hebrew scriptures; a town, while separate from the open country, was a smaller (Numbers 32:41) encampment that was on occasion, even if somewhat larger in size, said to be unwalled (Deuteronomy 3:5) and of consequence unprotected. The distinction between city and that which is called a village is also notable (Joshua 13:23).
The Greek also speaks of that which is of greater size and significance, as compared to smaller dwelling areas, be they nevertheless established. The Lord Jesus is seen to make a distinction between city and town (Matthew 10:11). Nevertheless, be it a city or a village, it is recorded that Jesus went everywhere “teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people (Matthew 9:35).”
It is in that context that we are told that “when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd (Matthew 9:36).” He gives us a prayer concern: “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”
TOWN TO CITY
One example of a town evolving into a great city, is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the geographic context of our consideration. “Philadelphia, A 300-Year History,” edited by Russell F. Weigley, is a relatively recent historical review of that which was first envisioned by William Penn as a “greene countrie towne” and its evolution into a major urban metropolis. The opening chapters literally move us from “Village into Town” and “Town into City.”
It was evident, from the very beginning, to be a most commodious setting for the establishment of community life. Penn’s own description reasoned that the setting “...seemed appointed for a town, because of its coves, docks, springs, and lofty land.”
The original plan of the city, as charted by Penn, was two miles long, by one mile wide. A large ten acre square, now the site of Philadelphia’s City Hall, marked off the center, and in each of the four corner sectors was an eight acre common park area. Indeed, in many ways old Philadelphia was a well planned community.
Additionally, there was the resolve to explore what he called a “Holy experiment.” Penn, a Quaker, had experienced persecution in England and was determined that no such thing would trouble the residents of Pennsylvania, or Penn’s Woods. The province would of consequence be a haven to all seeking freedom of religion.
Like the Quakers, Mennonites were persecuted for their faith. Due to their unwillingness to conform to the state church systems of Europe, they were forced to move, ultimately great distances, in order to avoid related trials and tribulations. The developing colonies of America offered hope and the polices of Pennsylvania, in particular, were welcoming. Penn, himself, extended a personal invitation to thirteen Mennonite families, from Krefeld, Germany, to settle in Germantown, Pennsylvania, just north and west of the city limits.
Before William Penn’s initiative, in 1681, there was nothing resembling a commercial town in the Delaware River Valley. But, in 1776, Robert Morris, a Christian businessman and member of the Continental Congress, in consideration of “its central situation, the extent of its commerce, the number of its manufactures and other circumstances” concluded that Philadelphia was “to the United States what the heart is to the human body in circulating the blood.”
To the positives of being a quality environmental setting, a reasonably well thought out inhabitable design, and a community of religious tolerance, there were the added interrelated factors of developing industrialization, continuing emigration and ongoing urbanization, all producing an dynamic that was conducive for significant growth.
In rounded figures, the population of Philadelphia proper, in 1700, was about 4,500. In 1800, the count of city citizens was 42,000. By 1854, the number of residents had grown to about 565,000. It was in that year, by an act of the Pennsylvania legislature, that city and county were consolidated into one functioning municipality. Thus of necessity, the various suburbs, townships, and villages of the area were annexed into one metropolis.
From the mid 1800’s through the early 1900’s, an increasing demand for factory workers attracted literary thousands to the city of brotherly love. These emigrated from other countries, moved up from the southern States, or changed their residence from surrounding countryside. The 1880 population figure adjusted to 850,000 and the 1920 total reached 1,800,000.
That is not to say that everything was fine or that things were always tranquil in the city of brotherly love. The governing of the multitudes is often difficult and never easy.
Unfortunately, one of the major areas of conflict were the so-called “Church Wars.” While there was the promise of Religious Freedom, peace was not always evidenced between the various communities of faith.
The city experienced and survived one of it’s worst disruptions, with anti-Catholic riots, 1n 1844. Precipitous to such a confrontation was the organization of an American Protestant Association in 1842. George B. Ide of the First Baptist Church and Henry A. Boardman of the Tenth Presbyterian Church were among the signers of the groups founding constitution. The issue that sparked the street battles was what particular Bible translation to us for religious instruction in the city Public Schools.
While such things were going on, there was in Mennonite circles a consistency with reference to their own convictions in regard to non-violence and peace. However, it would appear that a different kind of struggle was boiling within that particular Christian denomination.
Mennonite historian, C. Henry Smith, in “The Mennonites and Their Heritage,” notes that it was when persecutions reached there peek, in the 16th century, that the Anabaptists experienced their greatest growth. In contrast, it is his observation that there was an apparent “spiritual decline” after experiencing the advantages of America. Unfortunately, the lack of stimulation from the outside “turned Mennonite energies in the direction of building ‘Mennonite Culture’ instead of winning converts to the cause of Christ.”
It was in this same general period that Mennonite preachers like Solomon Eby (1834-1929), William Gehman (1827-1918), Daniel Brenneman (1834-1919), and others arrived on the scene, each in their respective settings, with what Dennis D. Engbrecht, Missionary Church Historian, in “Merging and Diverging Streams,” cites as “a clarion call for revival and evangelism.”
Because it is not possible, in this study, to present all the details of providence in these regards, a greatly abbreviated summary for orientation purposes must suffice.
Eby, from Ontario, Canada, and Brenneman, of Indiana, teamed for the establishment of Reformed Mennonites in 1874. Others, so-called New Mennonites, united with them to form the United Mennonites. William Gehman, of Pennsylvania, who had been instrumental in gathering another group, the Evangelical Mennonites, participated in yet another union, forming the Evangelical United Mennonites. Finally, in 1883, there was a merging with an Ohio group called Brethren in Christ and the selection of a name, Mennonite Brethren in Christ, that was to hold for decades to come.
Through this progression of unions and influences a new body of believers was brought into being. The continuing Pennsylvania based denomination that has grown out of these mid and late 19th century ecclesiastical developments adopted the title of Bible Fellowship Church in 1959. For purposes of simplicity, the current name will be used and thought of in all of the discussions that follow.
If, in an earthly and temporal sense, one would be considered the founder of the Bible Fellowship Church, William Gehman would be that person. He was the recognized spiritual leader and official Presiding Elder of what was designated the Pennsylvania Conference. In general respect and admiration he was, and is, referred to as Father Gehman. He had a testimony of being a man of prayer and godly wisdom.
In succession, following Gehman’s death, William Brunner Musselman and Charles Henry Brunner, would be elected to leadership, as Chairmen, in the relatively young Conference of churches. Musselman chaired the Annual Conference of 1892 through 1898 and Brunner served in that capacity in 1899 and 1900. Each held the position of Presiding Elder, 1892 through 1898 and 1898 through 1907 (excepting 1903 and 1904), respectively. As a consequence of their vision and direction, there was a measurable advancement of the gospel and enlargement of the church. Two separate innovations were serviceable to these ends.
Two Separate Innovations
First, there was the organization of the Gospel Worker’s Society under the direction of W. B. Musselman. He had been elected earlier to serve as an assistant to Gehman and was the founder of what continues today as the Union Gospel Press.
The Gospel Worker’s Society had a similarity like unto other missions and agencies that came into being during that same general period. These were all created in response to the spiritual and social concerns of the time. In many cases, there was a particular burden as it would relate to the needs of American cities. Three ongoing examples can be cited.
Foremost, there is the model organization of the Salvation Army, started by William Booth, in 1865. It’s beginning was in London, England, with the American ministry commencing in 1880. Next, in sequence, came the American Rescue Workers in 1884, and the Volunteers of America in 1896.
W. B. Musselman explained the workings of his own Gospel Workers Society in the December, 1903, issue of the Gospel Herald. He said that “The primary work of this Society is, first, Colportage work, to scatter good instructive literature and visit all, in order to reach such who are neglected - with the object of finally bringing them to Christ.”
The work was served by teams of Christian young women burdened for the souls of others. Of particular concern to the work were the “young men it reaches and succeeds in bringing out - to dedicate themselves to God for life, and enter the ministry.”
Harold. P. Shelly, in “The Bible Fellowship Church” history text, makes notation that the Gospel Workers used uniforms to retard any “harassment in their saloon work” and also “to protect their throats for outdoor meetings.” Another similarity in comparison with the above cited groups was the utilization of musical instruments in the various meetings and services.
In 1898, the Annual Conference went on record as being supportive of the Gospel Workers Society, with a series of related resolutions. The subsequent 1899 Conference declared “- There is a mutual relationship existing between the Church and the Gospel Workers Society.” Early on, there were reports of significant labors and successes at York, Sunbury, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Daniel G. Ziegler, Director of Church Extension (1966-2000) in outlining “The Mission at Home (1890 Through the Outbreak of World War II)” saw Musselman as “a gifted and able leader” and made the conclusion that “his greatest contribution to church planting was undoubtedly his Gospel Workers Society.”
Eventually, W. B. Musselman gave his full time and work to the printing and distribution of Christian literature. Union Gospel Press moved out of the immediate Pennsylvania Conference area, first to Williamsport, and then to its present plant and offices in Cleveland, Ohio.
The second of invocations was that the Home Missions outreach of the Conference, under the initial direction of C. H. Brunner, adapted an organizational structure and ministry pattern similar to the Gospel Workers Society. Taking the title of Gospel Herald Society it used men, committed to Christ and the ministry of the church, in the endeavor of Christian witnessing and church extension.
Jansen E. Hartman has written a history and record of the Gospel Herald Society. This is was prepared and presented at the request of the Bible Fellowship Church Historical Society.
Unlike the Gospel Workers Society, which was more or less independent of the Conference, the Heralds had more of an organizational connection with the church. This was strengthened the more by a 1903 Annual Conference resolution to prepare articles of mutual agreement “for each one of them to sign.”
While there may have been, given our natural state, some rivalry between the Gospel Heralds and Gospel Workers, or perhaps better stated between the leadership of each, a general spirit of cooperation was manifested. It is interesting to note that Psalm 133:1 (“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”) was an often repeated opening sermon text at the Annual Conference (Example: 1899, 1901, 1905, 1906 -).
It is important to grasp the interrelated “win-win” relationship between the more or less independent Gospel Workers Society, in close association with Union Gospel Press, and the association of Gospel Heralds and Conference. To both, the larger towns and urban settings represented a need and a market. With an understood arrangement in regard to sale commissions there was of the possibility of some ministerial support.
Also, while good literature and Christian calendars were being sold, a list of area contacts was being cultivated. A 1906 Annual Conference resolution states “that we ask the Editor of the Gospel Herald to send each pastor a copy of the mailing list of the subscribers on his charge.”
In 1901, C. H. Brunner reported that things were progressing “spiritually” and “financially.” He noted that “large crowds are easily gathered in open air” in order to “hear the gospel and many get saved...” With the Conference now divided into two functioning districts, he observes that in both “there are places ready to build houses of worship.”
One Particular Church
These two organizations, the Gospel Workers Society and the Gospel Herald Society, were serviceable in the mobilization of the Church. In regard to the City of Philadelphia, a review of the Annual Conference minutes reveals steady progress. This was not, however, without certain challenges and frustrations along the way.
The Gospel Herald Society report to the 1903 Annual Conference announced the opening of new missions at Philadelphia and Stroudsburg. However, in 1904, the minutes sadly reveal that “In Philadelphia some of the best standby’s moved away.” Nevertheless, it went on to encourage that “a number are standing firmly.”
C. H. Brunner later made the observation, concerning the entire team of Gospel Heralds, that “The brethren have preached the truth without reserve from the pulpits and at the camp meetings, resulting in the salvation of souls; cutting loose the honest ones and cleaning out quite some of the rubbish.”
Two different locations are noted in the 1905 minutes in connection with Philadelphia missions and meetings. One is reported at 518 Lehigh Avenue and the other at 2310 Germantown Avenue. It is interesting to note that the old Germantown Mennonite Meeting House was situated at 6127 Germantown Avenue. Also, with reference to the Lehigh Avenue address, the adjacent two acre public Fairhill Park, established in 1851, would serve well for open-air services.
At about this time there was a transition in oversight. W. G. Gehman succeeded C. H. Brunner in the leadership of the Gospel Herald Society and as a Presiding Elder in the Conference. He continued in the Gospel Herald Society position for some thirty-six years (1905 through 1941). The progress in regard to the City of Philadelphia continued.
The 1906 Gospel Herald report announced that “The mission in Philadelphia is doing finely.” It noted three specifics: 1. “We held a few good tent meetings in this large city. 2. “The brethren have a large route whereby they sell 400 heralds weekly.” 3. “We have a fully organized Mennonite Brethren in Christ class of thirty members including Heralds.” The conclusion was that “This class is ready to be received into the Conference” and that “They desire to be self-supporting.”
And so it was, in 1907, that the new Philadelphia testimony was listed as what we would call a Particular Church of the Conference. In the division of districts it was under the Mt. Carmel listing, with W. G. Gehman serving as the designated Presiding Elder. In the successes of local church advancement, there was one recorded frustration as it would relate to missionary funds.
The 1914 minutes briefly explained the situation as “the matter relative to the mission money from the Philadelphia station that has been deposited in the German- town Avenue Bank which has since closed doors for business.” It was subsequently discussed and decided “that the Pastor W. J. Fretz, in whose name the money was deposited, should not be held responsible.” Nevertheless, Fretz was able to obtain and return, in time, the missing funds. Two thirds “of what was in the church account” was received in 1915, with the full balance returned in 1916.
The big 1915 announcement, however, was that the Annual Conference voted and agreed that the next meeting of the body would be in the City of Philadelphia. And so, the 33rd Annual Conference was held at the Philadelphia Church, 11th and Ontario Streets. In order to accommodate the Conference-wide Sunday worship services, special arrangements were made for the rental of the near-by Drury Theatre, situated at 13th and Tioga.
Serviceable to the traveling delegates would have been the North Philadelphia Station of the Pennsylvania Railroad, 2900 North Broad Street, build twenty years earlier in 1896. This facility is on National Register of Historic Places and is currently used by SEPTA/Amtrak. A couple of near-by Reading Railroad options were also available.
Philadelphia was a good host and the delegates stated their satisfaction in resolution form:
“Whereas, the pastor and members of the Philadelphia Class have spared no time, labor and expense, in providing for our entertainment, furnishing us with everything needful for our physical comfort, and
“Whereas, they have received us most cordially and entertained us most royally during the session of the Annual Conference, therefore,
“Resolved, that we highly appreciate their kindness and love to us, as well as their fellowship in the truth, and further,
“Resolved, that we manifest our appreciation by a rising vote of thanks, and unitely pray God’s blessings upon Pastor and people, so they may prosper individually as well as collectively.”
An official resolution of thanks, was also forwarded to Messrs. Wolf and Conway, owners and proprietors of the Drury Theatre. This was signed by both the Chairman, H. B. Musselman, and Secretary, C. H. Brunner, of the 33rd Annual Conference.
The next matter noted in the minutes was that Father William Gehman adjourned the concluding Monday afternoon meeting with prayer. Earlier it was noted that there was “a glowing report from our venerable Father William Gehman, who, although in his ninetieth year, was present throughout every meeting of this Annual Conference...” We have no record of the precise words that composed his closing prayer but it is neverthe- less reasonable to conclude that he thanked the Lord for all the advances of the Conference including the fact that a solid witness for the gospel has been founded and grounded in the great City of Philadelphia. Gehman was called to his eternal reward, at ninety-one, on April 12, 1918.
Louis Prontnicki has written a detailed history of the North Philadelphia Church, including notations in regard to the various pastors and building moves. Such was prepared in connection with the 100th anniversary of the church, commemorated on Saturday, September 20, 2003.
CITY TO TOWN
The Annual Conference was to return to Philadelphia in just one half dozen years. This time the thank you resolution would name two different, but related, City congregations. The North Philadelphia testimony had given birth to a daughter church, just a few miles to the East, in Wissinoming.
A number of things had happened “by the Providential permission of God” between the dates of the first and second Annual Conference sessions in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Major in these events is the fact that the United States entered the Great War (WW I) in 1917. With signing of an Armistice in 1918, the nation began an effort to return to “normalcy.”
The old and familiar ways of life were nevertheless challenged with the addition of two amendments to the United States Constitution. Alcoholic beverages were banned by the newly enacted Eighteenth Amendment and women were given the right to vote in the Nineteenth. Both became law in 1920.
In regard to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, there was the challenge of a serious influenza epidemic and, of consequence, a state-wide quarantine in 1918. Such necessitated a one month delay in the convening of Annual Conference, moving the sessions from October to November. Privileges were granted for the conducting of necessary business only and some matters were delayed to April, of the next year, in conjunction with the Ministerial Convention that was scheduled to be held in North Philadelphia. One of the significant oddities of this 35th Annual Conference was the fact that there were no sermons, the usual preaching services were eliminated from the schedule.
With reference to the City of Philadelphia, J. Hampton Moore was elected mayor in 1919. While he had certain concerns in relation to issues of political reform, he was not prepared to be the first of the City’s mayors to have to enforce Prohibition. Added to his stress was the regulating of automobile traffic and the need to fight a new kind of criminal, “the motorized bandit.”
The elections of 1923 yielded a new mayor, W. Freeland Kendrick, and an unusual appointment. General Smedley Darlington Butler of the U. S. Marine Corps was named Philadelphia’s Director of Public Safety. This was accomplished by his taking, with the approval of President Calvin Coolidge, an extended leave from national service.
It was into this world scene and urban context that the Wissinoming congregation was born.
A Community Description
Wissinoming represented a relatively new residential community. Local historian, Marie McHeran, in her published record “Wissinoming” gives specific boundaries to the one mile square neighborhood. Noted in terms of landmarks and streets, it is the neighborhood bounded on “the West by Wissinoming Park, the North by Wissinoming Creek (approximately the Robbins Ave. area), and the South by Dark Run Lane (Cheltenham Avenue).” The western side, street wise, is Frankford Avenue and the eastern boundary is that of the Delaware River.
Two early residents anchored the designated area that, before the consolidation of Philadelphia City and County, were included in what was called the Oxford Township. These were Robert Cornelius, of noteworthy photographic skills, who had his estate on the western side and Matthias Baldwin, of pioneer locomotive fame, who resided on the eastern side.
Wissinoming Park, a Philadelphia Department of Recreation facility, is all that remains of the former Robert Cornelius property. Some 40 acres of ground was sold by the family, after his death, and new homes constructed during the beginning years of the 20th century. A Pennsylvania state historic marker notes the location of his shop on 8th Street, between Market and Chestnut, in downtown Philadelphia.
Likewise, on the east, the Baldwin house ceased to be used as a residence and the related Locomotive Works at Broad and Spring Garden Streets, once the largest such producer in the nation, closed in the early 1900’s. Before and after these events, there was the progressive building of homes in the general vicinity of the Wissinoming train station.
The grid of streets is basically the same as that which was formulated at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. Two major exceptions are the north/south Interstate, I-95, and Harbison Avenue, which intersects the block of the Wissinoming Church building.
An official ordinance allowing for the opening of the Harbison Avenue route was dated 1926. Older residents summarize its story in three stages: “It was an idea in the 20’s, a joke in the 30’s, and a reality in the 40’s.” Thanks to the interests of Harbison Dairies a roadway was paved allowing movement from the older northeast area of the City to the new and developing Northeast.
The Yellow Jackets, predecessor to the Philadelphia Eagles, had their stadium in Wissinoming. Founded in 1899, the team joined the National Football League in 1924 and won the Championship in 1926. The franchise was sold, after the Depression, for $2,500.
The route that would have been of tremendous interest to the two Philadelphia congregations was Torresdale/Erie Avenue. Trolley route #56 served the entire distance between Torresdale at Cottman Avenue to Erie at 23rd/Venango Streets. Of consequence the two churches were easily connected in regard to transportation needs. Indeed, to trace the tracks of the developing public transportation system is to connect the dots between the various Bible Fellowship Church urban testimonies.
Trolley cars were first introduced to city in the 1890’s and, with reference to trains, work on the Broad Street and Market Street lines began in the early 1900’s. The Frankford elevated extension, a major gateway to the Wissinoming community , was completed in 1922. In addition to trolley and train use, cars were beginning to become popular and affordable.
Sadly, the minutes of the 33rd Annual Conference, in 1916, reported: “Mennonite Brethren in Christ worker M. W. Ettinger was removed from our midst by the Provident- ial permission of God during the past year, having met with an automobile and trolley car collision.”
Prayer and Conversion
The North Philadelphia Church ministry, in connection with congregational “cottage prayer meetings” on Monday evenings, began conducting Wissinoming based prayer and Bible study opportunities, where a few member families resided. Others, in addition to those who would ultimately form the nucleus of a Bible Fellowship testimony were already meeting and praying.
The local Christian Missionary Alliance and present Faith Tabernacle Congregation both trace their beginnings to the same general point in time. There was of consequence often a visiting and mixing, before any ultimate defining and dividing according doctrinal leanings.
Similarly, there was a Sunday school outreach more or less independent of the Bible Fellowship Church planting effort. Such Bible instruction is identified as taking place at a Mrs. Worrel’s home, on Howell Street, in Wissinoming. In a certain sense, however, it can also be said that things got started in her house.
Mr. William Campbell, an active member of the Wissinoming congregation for decades, cites another person, Miss. Stahl, with reference to the church beginnings in Wissinoming. He includes, in a 1995 correspondence, the statement that “we were raised in the church, which was started in Mrs. Worrel’s home” and goes immediately on, without further explanation, to give the account of his own conversion:
“We knew this person as a Missionary, her name is Miss Stahl, she did personal evangelism and personal visitation. One day she visited the cell of Anthony Zeoli and gave him a New Testament, he threw it on the floor of his cell. That nite he could not sleep, he picked up the Testament, and God convicted him of his sins and he gave his heart to the Lord.
“After he was saved Miss Stahl made arrangements to have cottage prayer meetings and give his testimony and speak from God’s Word.
“My grandmother had a Prayer Meeting at her home and it was there I was led to the Lord as my Savior...”
It is conceivable that the Sunday school and somewhat related neighborhood prayer meeting outreach had some connection with the American Sunday School Union, with headquarters on Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. This has not been confirmed.
We do know that the Anthony Zeoli, mentioned in the salvation account, because of his love and sharp memorization of the Scriptures, became known, in Philadelphia, as the “Walking Bible.” Billy Zeoli, founder of Gospel Films, now Gospel Communications International, is his son.
A documentary film/video “Free Forever” reviews the life of Anthony Zeoli. The description reads: “As a young man in South Philadelphia, Anthony Zeoli was wrapped in a web of crime and drug addiction that led to prison. Then a Bible tossed into his cell became the starting point in a true story of miraculous change.”
Wissinoming Bible Fellowship Church took a tour of the famous Eastern State Penitentiary, noting the particular cell of Zeoli, in connection with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the church.
Other neighborhood boys were at the above mentioned prayer meeting. John Dunn was one of them, at age seven, and traces his own commitment to Christ Jesus to the gathering. He was subsequently baptized in the Delaware River and, in time, enlisted into the ranks of the Gospel Herald Society.
Brother Dunn, now in retirement, faithfully served his Lord in Elizabeth and Irvington, New Jersey, the mission at Roxborough, Philadelphia, and in Trenton, where he met Cordelia, his wife. His pastoral responsibilities included the Bible Fellowship Church testimony in southwest Philadelphia.
Bill Campbell was ten years old at the time. In a few years hense, he would become the chauffeur of the appointed ministers of the Philadelphia circuit. In the community, he grew to have a clear witness as a Christian businessman, serving as the proprietor of Campbell’s Printery on Torresdale Avenue. In conversation’s with his pastor, he spoke of his father’s earlier conversion and the marked change (without going into any details) that it had upon his dad.
Thomas Campbell, Bill’s father, had accepted Jesus, as the Savior of his soul and the Lord of his life, in connection with a City-wide evangelistic campaign. Billy Sunday was the speaker at services arranged by John Wanamaker, a Christian layman and department store owner. In “’Billy’ Sunday, The Man and His Message”, by William T. Ellis, the evangelist is explained to be “a man’s man.” It is said that his audiences “resembled baseball crowds in the proportion of men present.” One thing is certain, Bill Campbell’s dad was never the same.
Tom ultimately associated with the testimony that would become Wissinoming Bible Fellowship Church. He served for many years as delegate to the Annual Conference and was an able Superintendent of the local Sunday School. In terms of humanity and laity,he has been considered a church founder and patriarch.
David E. Thomann was another boy in the neighborhood of Wissinoming. One day, at age six, he responded to a layman’s message in the basement church. The speaker is remembered only as “Happy Jack.” Latter, at age twelve, David dedicated his life to the Lord’s service, while at the Shamokin Camp Meeting.
His mother “became a believer” at the Faith Tabernacle Congregation and often met with other ladies in the neighborhood for prayer and encouragement. One of the women is said to have been a missionary, two others joined with the Thomann’s in affiliating with what would be Wissinoming Bible Fellowship Church.
Mother eventually told her story of how, during her pregnancy, she prayed “that the Lord would give her a male child and if so, that he would be a minister of the Gospel.” That boy was David, and in God’s time he would grow to be a faithful pastor and preacher.
David met Polly, his wife, at Mizpah Grove Camp, and together they have teamed in the Lord’s service. God’s call on David’s life has taken him to Gospel Herald Society charges in Trenton, Nazareth and Jersey City. Pastorate responsibilities have included Quarkertown, and Harleysville. For eight years he was the Director at Pinebrook Bible Conference.
It’s amazing what can happen when a “Happy Jack” tells the good news (in a humble basement church) to a six year old. The story goes on, because David’s son is pastor at Faith Bible Fellowship Church, Lancaster, and a grandson serves as a minister in Oklahoma.
Property and Construction
A record of spiritual victories and ministry efforts through all the decades, from the 1920’s to the present, will of necessity have to be a separate study. An abbreviated account of property advances, through 1957, will conclude this particular paper.
The Philadelphia Quarterly Conference Minute Book notes a July 30, 1921, authorization to purchase property on Van Kirk Street “in Wissinoming for $5,000.” Next in sequence there was the construction of a stone basement church building and the transfer of twenty North Philadelphia members to the new work.
The February, 1966, edition of the Conference periodical reviews building and property progress. In summary, the 1922 basement church was build under the pastoral supervision of F. M. Hottel, father to a future Wissinoming minister, W. B. Hottel. Adjacent to this building were three other structures. There was a house, on the far left, a shoe-repair shop, in between the church and house, and a barn, at the back.
The house, which had been rented as apartments, was ultimately used as a parsonage. It is recorded that during this particular segment of time, under the pastoral leadership of E. B. Hartman, that the indebtedness on the church properties was significantly reduced.
In 1957, under the ministry of W. B. Hottel, the church building was completed, with the addition of the upper main floor. It was at this point that the center “Shoe Shp” structure was torn day.
Under the guidance of Pastor LeRoy Heller (1957-62) the original basement level was partitioned, allowing for a series of classrooms, and church offices. In 1965, a new parsonage property was purchased, two doors down, and the old parsonage demol- ished. The cleared area was subsequently prepared as a lot for church parking.
The cornerstone of the building cites the two most significant dates in the construction process, 1922, when the basement level was constructed, and 1957, when the upper church level was added. A testimony of scriptural and spiritual reality is also noted with the quotation “Jesus Christ ... the Chief Cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).”
TOWN AND CITY
When the 39th Annual Conference met at the North Philadelphia Church in 1922, the combined Philadelphia and Wissinoming “circuit” was thanked for providing “the entertainment of the Annual Conference members and friends of the work.” In conjunction with such Conference arrangements, a second resolution of thanks is recorded in the minutes. This is addressed to the Erie Avenue Church of the Methodist denomination.
Specifically noted is the fact that the Erie Avenue Church, at 7th Street and Erie Avenue, had opened it’s doors to the Conference-wide worship service on Sunday and that they willingly “dispensed with their own services and worshipped with us.”
The Erie Avenue Methodist Church, constructed in 1909, like so many other testimonies in the City of Philadelphia, is no longer in existence. With reference to the Bible Fellowship Church Conference circle, the North Philadelphia Church made a prayerful decision to relocate to Maple Glenn. The Southwest Philadelphia Church, transferred from the Gospel Herald Society to Conference, in 1927, is now closed and the Roxborough Mission, which never matured to full church status, is no more. In short, in a city of one hundred plus neighborhoods, we have one Bible Fellowship Church.
Jane Jacobs, in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” speaks of three types of districts in the urban context. First and foremost, to many, is the center city or downtown district. Such, for many reasons, often gets the greater attention. The other two, for one reason or another, are sometimes left, in one manner or another, to police and/or govern themselves.
Another district type, a much smaller component in comparison to the whole, is that of a particular street or avenue. This could be a series of shops and stores along a block, or a series of residential homes. In an informal sense, there is the potential for trust and a general looking out for one another. There also is on occasion a willingness to be of some helpful assistance. At it’s best, there is the possibility of neighbors holding keys to each other’s houses.
The next is larger but nevertheless definable. Such is evidenced in the various neighborhood settings within the Philadelphia boundaries. Many of these are the former towns and villages that were in existence before the consolidation of City and County. Marie McHeran, in the earlier of two local histories, actually speaks of “Wissinoming My Hometown.”
In a presentation prepared for the 1989 Annual Conference, it is recommended that a plan be perfected to reach the City of Philadelphia. In regard to strategy, the suggestion is made that we target progressively each of the neighborhoods, as a mission area. Such parish districts have the possibilities for transformation, one soul at a time.
As in the ongoing Wissinoming story, there may already be the beginnings of a movement of God’s Spirit. In any case, let us resolve to take a closer look. Like our Savior, may we be moved with compassion. In response, we need to pray to the Lord of the Harvest.
Buck, Leonard E. (Editor)
What Mean These Stones? The Bible Fellowship Church Historical Society, 1983.
Philadelphia: Holy Experiment. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1945.
Dorsett, Lyle W.
Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1991.
Ellis, William T.
Billy Sunday: The Man and His Message. Chicago: Moody Press, 1959.
Engbrecht, Dennis D. (Missionary Church Historian)
Paper: “Merging and Diverging Streams”
Freitag, Alicia (Editor)
Historical Northeast Philadelphia. Holland, PA: Brighton Press, 1994.
The Death of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961
Hartman, Jansen E.
Paper: “The Gospel Herald Society”
Prepared and Presented for The Bible Fellowship church Historical Society.
Wissinoming. Philadelphia: Wissinoming Historical Society, 1997.
Wissinoming My Hometown. Philadelphia: Wissinoming Historical Society, 1989.
Paper: Concerning the History of the Salem (North Philadelphia) Church, now Maple Glenn Bible Fellowship, in commemoration of it’s 100th Anniversary, 2003.
Rasmussen, Larry, L.
Moral Fragments & Moral Community. Minnerapolis: Fortress Press, 1993
Shelly, Harold P.
The Bible Fellowship Church. The Bible Fellowship Church Historical Society, 1992.
Smith, C. Henry (Mennonite Historian)
Paper: “The Mennonites and Their Heritage”
Yearbooks, Mennonite Brethren in Christ, 1896-1942
Weigley, Russell F. (Editor)
Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982.
Ziegler, Daniel G.
Paper: “The Mission at Home (1890 through the Outtbreak of World War II)”
Prepared and Presented for The Bible Fellowship Church Historical Society.