Preaching In Historical Perspective
by Willard E. Cassel
October 10, 1983
"For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe."(KJV) The words of the apostle Paul from I Corinthians 1:21 could well be the text for this paper, It is clear that it is through the foolishness of preaching and not through foolish preaching that God accomplishes His purposes. The longer I live and the more I delve into our history, the more I am amazed that God has blessed the Bible Fellowship Church as He has. My amazement grows when I remember the frailty of us human beings and recognize what was pawned off as preaching and Christian living.
Before I go further, I would like to insert a disclaimer. To protect those living or dead, no names, dates or places will be given except those references to my father, E. N. Cassel. We must realize that from the beginning most of the preachers were farmers who felt called of the Lord to proclaim the gospel. The story is told of one man who, while plowing his field, looked into the sky to see clouds which formed the letters G. P. C. He saw it as a sign that he was to Go Preach Christ. Later, many who heard him were sure that it had meant Go Plow Corn. Experience has shown that some of our early preachers did mistake the G. P. C. in the sky and should have continued to Go Plow Corn.
For many years there were established preaching points without established pastors. A man might preach wherever he had opportunity; wherever there was a group of people who would assemble In one place. Here I will quote from the report of the preachers for six months as recorded in the conference minutes of June, 1876:
David Henning preached 22 times; visited 24 families; traveled 316 miles
William Gehman preached 62 times; visited 84 families; traveled 740 miles
William N. Shelly traveled on November 10, 1875 to Canada and Ohio; preached during this time 95 times; visited 109 families; traveled 21589 miles
Henry Diehl preached 29 times; visited 20 families; traveled 228 miles
Jones Musselman preached 64 times, visited 57 families, traveled 725 miles
Abraham Kauffman preached 51 times; visited 52 families
Joel Rosenberger preached 15 times, traveled 287 miles
Samuel Musselman preached 59 times; visited 49 families; traveled 263 miles
Eusebius Hershey preached 106 times; visited 212 families; traveled 2,000 miles
Sidenham Lambert preached 54 times; visited 79 families; traveled 917 miles
Samuel H. Frey preached 23 times; visited 33 families; traveled 513 miles
David L. Lambert preached 30 times; visited 47 families; traveled 500 miles
The language used in preaching was High German, the language of the people. My father began preaching in the transitional period when the language of the preaching went from German to English. From 1902-1905, in Zionsville, he preached in German at all times. The people were convinced that God spoke only in German. From 1914-1920, in Allentown, Salem, he preached in German Sunday morning and in English Sunday night. This bi-lingual service is also reflected in the German minutes when in a service a German sermon was preached as well as an English sermon. Before his death, while his mind was comparatively clear, I asked my father if he preached in High German. With a twinkle in his eye, he said, "No, Mother would help me read the Scripture from Luther's translation (she read German better than Father) and I would slip into the vernacular, Pennsylvania German, for my sermon. The only time I needed to revert to the High German was for theological terms for which the Pennsylvania German had no words."
Sometime during the years of 1925 - 1932, Father arranged to conduct a German service in the old Reading Church on North 10th Street. The speaker of the evening was H. K. Kratz and the special music was presented by a mixed quartet from Emmaus, Macungie and Zionsville composed of Mr. and Mrs. Allen M. Gehman, Charles Kline and Anna Heist. The church was filled almost to overflowing. I attendedut understood nothing.
A fond memory of mine is my attendance at the Thursday night prayer meeting in Coopersburg, in the summers of 1938 and 1939· There was an element in the group that knew and enjoyed German singing. The old German hymns had many stanzas and when memory failed on one's part, another would pick up the stanza. Those were the days of Pappy and Mammy Kauffman, Miss Elda Ott and Mrs. Lizzie Hottel.
It is a shame that there are no manuscripts of sermons extant today. If there were it would take many pages of paper to record them since they were exceedingly long in comparison to sermons today. When a Presiding Elder was "let loose" at camp meeting, he was good for at least two hours. The slatted benches of Mizpah Grove got mighty hard!
In the twilight of Father Gehman's ministry, one of the young aspirants to the ministry remarked to him, that he only had a few texts from which he preached. Father Gehman replied that the questioner had many texts but just one sermon. A research of the German minutes, which are in the process of translation and publication, reveals that at successive conferences, Father Gehman spoke from I Timothy 4:16 three times. "Take heed to thyself and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in so doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee." Also at five successive conferences he spoke from Acts 20:28 "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost had made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood". My father observed that William Gehman was a more orderly preacher than his son, W. G. Gehman.
As was stated above, the preachers of our early history were non-formally educated farmers, called of the Lord to preach. Maybe we can attribute same of`the antics in and out of the pulpit to this lack of education. For instance, a man, with a head of unruly hair whipped out his comb and straightened his hair while preaching at Mizpah. Although I never heard any statements from the pulpit concerning formal education there seemed to be an anti-educational philosophy for the clergy - "if God can us a D. L. Moody without an education, he can use others, maybe me." This historical anti-educational feeling needs to be investigated. I do not know of any definitive statement. One observation to be made is that the average level of education of a given congregation was low and so an uneducated clergy was tolerated.
The German minutes do not reflect that there was originally any committee to screen applicants for the ministry. We read of a man who came upon the scene, preached at an evening service of worship, was appointed secretary of the conference and by the next conference had passed from the scene. In later years there was a process through which a man must pass in order to attain an Annual Conference License. In this process any man who expressed a call of the Lord to preach was accepted on the basis of the word of one man. In commenting on this situation, my father said that the rigors of church planting were so great that many men passed through the sieve and never made it to the Annual Conference. He further stated that some who should have passed through the sieve didn't. There was little emphasis on doctrine so that men were not attracted to our denomination because or our doctrinal stand. One's reading or the historical doctrinal statements shows that they were not definitive and a far cry from the Articles of Faith of today.
In 1890 a Reading Course Committee of Annual Conference was formed. The novices for the ministry were asked to do independent study and take at least annual examinations on books of the Bible and other volumes that were studied. Later, semi-annual examinations were provided, The minutes of 1892 state that an average of 50 needed to be attained in order to pass the Reading Course. The Reading Course eventually evolved into the formation of Berean Bible School and Pinebrook Junior College. Now, the Ministerial Candidate Committee requires a minimum of three years of Biblical and theological studies in order for a man to be considered as a Candidate.
A paper such as this should have something to say concerning pulpit mannerisms. A spittoon was provided near one pulpit and one man was even heard to have thanked the Lord for the good tobacco he was chewing. On another occasion, at Mizpah Grove, after a public address system was installed, a pastor had difficulty staying behind the microphone - he was used to roaming in his own pulpit. At the conclusion of the message, the Presiding Elder commented rather strongly on his actions and his inability to stay behind the microphone. A dear sister from the pastor's congregation, called out from the audience, "But it was good."
Also a certain Presiding Elder while preaching at a certain church became enthused and descended from the pulpit to get closer to the people. He continued preaching while he roamed up and down the center aisle. While backing up, he fell over the altar rail, got to his feet again, and never lost a word.
Some illustrations were used in sermons and today the illustration rather than the point illustrated is remembered. (1) Job's turkey was so poor that it needed to lean against a fence to gobble. (2) The waiter couldn't imagine why there was a hair in the apple sauce as it was made from Baldwins. (3) A man was having difficulty stroking a cat because he was rubbing the cat the wrong way. Someone suggested that he turn the cat around. (4) A pastor's report was read at Annual Conference in poetry and was signed Shakespeare,
Applications of Biblical truths were strange in some sermons. It was observed that one pastor could find three possible applications in any text or passage -divine healing, tithing or dress - depending on who was in the congregation. My informant said he could tell, without turning around, if a certain couple arrived late for the service.
I can recall standing at the bookstand at Mizpah Grove one morning, playing hooky from the service. The clerk st the stand commented that the pastor was almost finished as he began speaking of the Second Coming of Christ.
Now after a bit of jest, let us examine the preaching which was carried on in our heritage. Every delivery which can be designated as a sermon needs to meet a need or it is just an address. I find that every sermon should be used for at least one of the following: instruction, challenge, conviction, motivation. If we have not brought our hearers to a point of decision, we have not fulfilled our duty in preaching.
A very interesting practice is revealed in the German minutes. It was called either "admonishing'' or "an afterword." It seem a man would preach, and then one of his associates would continue (hopefully) his trend of thought and bring the congregation to a decision. This practice can be seen in the prayer meeting controversy.
Without going into all the details, it is sufficient to say that for a period of time, Father Gehman had been conducting prayer meetings in his home on a Sunday afternoon. He was accused by his brethren of holding secret society meetings, After further persecution and harassment, he arose one Sunday morning, after the sermon, and invited all to attend a prayer meeting that afternoon at his home.
I wish now to examine the German minutes of which I have a translation to discover some of the texts which were used at the semi-annual conferences. The comments, in most instances, are of the recording secretary of the Conference.
In June, 1863, Hershey gave a warm invitation to the brethren, suggesting if anyone present felt themselves compelled by God's Spirit to do God's work as a travel preacher (because it is not man's work) they should make themselves known. Previous to his statement, the Presiding Elder laid upon the hearts of every servant the urgent need that at the present time we are in need of more traveling preachers, and that God would expect more from our small group since we have reason to believe that souls are being lost, which otherwise could be saved with the help of God and more willing itinerant preachers.
The next year's report of Hershey's activities states, "Brother Hershey gave a short, but satisfying report about his 6 months of mission work in Canada which included Brother Levi Jung, who accompanied him. He reported about his income and his expenses. He also spoke about how God made their preaching effective, although he and his helper were only weak servants, that some souls were converted to God, Sometimes they had open air meetings where they proclaimed the Word of the cross. Sometimes they had to endure abuse and insult, but to God be the glory."
From the minutes of November, 1866, "The meeting on Sunday afternoon was dedicated to missions. Brother William N. Shelly preached with blessing on Mark16:15,16 'and He said unto them go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature...' Brother Hershey followed with a short but moving message about the necessity of mission work. He mentioned among other things, that in the northwestern part of the state, there are settlers, mostly Europeans, which have not heard the Word of God for 2 years. Some did not know anything about salvation in Christ. many were unbelievers and atheists which persecute the servants of the Gospel. But then there are also many who hunger and thirst after the Bread and Water of life. He revealed to the congregation how God in His wise providence did guide so that he found houses and hearts open for divine seed of His Word and he intends to keep on doing this work in power and grace for the well-being and the salvation of immortal souls, as God will lead. He asked that all God's children should pray for him in case he should fall."
From the minutes of November, 1869, "As decided before, a missionary meeting was held Monday, November 1, 1869, at which Brother Eusebius Hershey preached with blessing about the words of Jeremiah l:7, ... 'for thou shalt go to all that I send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt apeak,'"
A note of challenge and conviction is seen in the minutes of November, 1861. After Eusebius Hershey had preached from I Timothy 4:16, the secretary commented, "The powerful and pointed lesson of the sermon left a deep impression of the members and gave the servants new courage to work in the vineyard of the Lord. Brother Gotshall urged the members on and closed the meeting with a hymn and prayer.""In the forenoon, Brother Christian Peffly preached to a devout congregation about the words of Psalm 126:5-6, 'they that sow in tears shall reap in joy.'" This note of motivation was taken from the June, 1865, minutes.
Very little is evident from the minutes of the doctrinal position at this time concerning holiness and sanctification. A statement is made in a man's obituary that he, the deceased, professed entire sanctification, The minutes of June, 1866, reflect that Brother David Henning preached from Ephesians 4:22-24, "that ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and timeliness."
Sometimes, we preachers, when we have a problem in our churches, take the problem into the pulpit. Maybe the denomination had a unity problem in 1867 when Eusebius Hershey "preached with blessing about the words of John 17:21, 'that they all may be one: as thou Father, art in me.'"
An element of instruction is seen in the minutes of June, 1869, "In the forenoon the Conference sermon was preached by Brother Henning. After Psalm 37 was read, verse 5 - "commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him; and He shall bring it to pass' - was expounded to the congregation, among other things, how all true Christians and children of God, each one for himself as well as in the affairs of the assembly must commit all their ways unto God. In contrast all actions and undertakings done in one's own strength are in vain. Brother Gehman admonished and closed with prayer."
One could wish to have heard some of the sermons of which the minutes reflect. Such as November, 1869. 'Tuesday morning the Conference sermon was given by Brother Christian Peffly after reading I Peter 5:2-4 with much expounding and victory to the general satisfaction of all the children of God: - 'Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock and when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.' The part of the sermon about the calling of his servants or undershepherds by the chief Shepherd was especially interesting and moving, in which he remarked, among other things, that we read of no one in the Bible who was not first converted by God before he was called and commissioned by Him to preach."
As you have noticed, Eusebius Hershey had a great influence on our church. He was a frequent preacher at the semi-annual and annual conferences. I quote concerning one of his sermons in June, 1874; "Tuesday morning, 9:00 a.m., the Conference members, as well as a good number of brethren and sisters and friends gathered from far and near. The opening sermon was given by Brother Hershey. His chosen text was an important part of the Holy Scripture, II Corinthians 4:1 & 4, 'therefore, seeing we have this ministry...' He spoke with much influence and information concerning the carrying out of the work of the ministry. Brother Henning followed with an earnest admonition and closed with singing and prayer."
The manner of some preaching can be seen from the minutes of June, 1875. "In the evening Brother Samuel H. Frey preached before a full house of attentive people, not with high level words or human wisdom, but in the power of God, about Revelation 3:5, 'He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life.'"
An expansion of the admonition is found in the minutes of November, 1875. "On Sunday morning, Brother William N. Shelly gave the opening sermon about II Timothy 4:1-5, 'But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.' Brother Jones Y. Schultz admonished earnestly about the importance of the position of an evangelical preacher in this time full of confusion."
It would appear that not all of the preaching was expository. Some of it was textual and some based on a phrase. I quote from the minutes of June, 1876: "On Sunday morning, Brother William Gehman delivered the opening message on II Timothy 4:2, 'Preach the Word.' Brother Henning admonished and closed with singing and prayer. In the afternoon an hour of communion was held remembering the Lord's suffering and death. Brother William N. Shelly spoke on Matthew 17:8, "Jesus only."
There is no record of a sermon being preached at the uniting conference of November, 1879, when the Evangelical Mennonites of Pennsylvania and the United Mennonites of Canada, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio merged. The Conference was held in Upper Milford, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. I wish to quote two interesting paragraphs from these minutes:
Then the matter of unification was taken into consideration and the church disciplines read, to see how they conform with each other, and it is indeed marvelous, that both are extracts from the Bible and the doctrines so much alike,
Now a union was formed from the two bodies and when they touched, they ran together like two drops of water. All went down on their knees to thank the Great Shepherd that He has brought two flocks of sheep into one herd. The whole experience was a soul refreshing time. Many were praising God with loud voice. Many hopped or skipped about, others clapped their hands to praise God in the highest."
"RESOLVED: that each preacher in charge of a circuit shall, at each place of preaching, speak once every year about temperance." This is a quote from the minutes of February, 1890. For many years we carried an item in the standing rules that each pastor shall preach a sermon on matrimony during his first year at the church. It has been reliably reported to me that a man, serving a two church circuit, in the morning worship, preached on "The 31 Salient Points of Matrimony." The length of the sermon was 2 ˝ hours. In the afternoon he preached the same sermon to the other church. Then it took him only two hours, Then in the evening he preached for another hour to the combined congregations.
As a final quote from the German minutes, I am reading from the report of the Committee on Resolutions; "Since the Brethren Menno Bowmen from the Canadian Conference and Andrew Good from the Indiana Conference who were sent to this Conference as delegates, have been a great blessing for the Pennsylvania Conference, therefore, RESOLVED: that we as a Conference render our hearty thanks to the brethren for their love and respect they have shown us, as well as their advice and counsel. They have given us some red-hot sermons filled with God's power, so that the result was a great blessing and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Some came forward to the altar and received victory." H. B. Musselman, Noah Detweiler, Committee. (February, 1892).
1. It was by the foolishness of preaching that souls were saved.
2. God used men regardless of their lack of formal education and crudeness.
3. Not many people were wide awake or comprehending what was being said at the end of a two hour sermon.
I was told, early in nly ministry. that if I did not strike oil in thirty minutes I should stop boring.
As a final challenge, continue to preach the Word. A film series is good, but it does not take the place of preaching. Biblical truth shown in drama is good but it does not take the place of preaching. Remember it is by the foolishness of preaching that God has ordained to save them that believe,
Rose of Sharon Revisited reflects that much of our original hymns centered around the truth of the Second Coming of Christ. Have you preached or heard a sermon recently on the truth of the blessed·lope? Have we gotten so rooted here on earth that we have lost sight of the blessed time to come in the presence of the Lord?