Allen Fretz, Shepherd of Souls (Part 1)

Written by Forrest Moyer on August 12, 2020

Allen M. Fretz (1853-1943) was a longtime pastor and outstanding leader among progressive Mennonites locally. In 1997, the MHEP Quarterly published a sketch of his ministry, written by grandson J. Herbert Fretz (1921-2013). We publish it now for the internet audience in two parts. The text is slightly rearranged from the original publication, and headings have been added.

First love lost

It was early September, 1883, when 29-year-old Allen Myers Fretz and his companions from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, were visiting friends and relatives in Ontario, where two wonderful surprises awaited him.

For almost a month they had been journeying westward from Pennsylvania, sight-seeing and visiting. Why had they taken this trip? Many years later Allen shared his reasons [in an interview with the author, J. Herbert Fretz, Sept. 11, 1942; also in Pastoral Record Book 1, “Notes of a Trip to the West and Canada, 1883.” Allen’s pastoral books and scrapbooks, now preserved as Hist. Mss. 414 at the Mennonite Heritage Center, provided many details for this article.]

The recent months in 1882 and 1883 had brought tragedy to Allen’s life. After returning home from Wadsworth (OH) Seminary in April, 1870, he seemed to take new direction and interest in life; expressing to his parents a desire to be a school teacher. His father and mother, Ely and Mary, recognized his love of books, even though he had not done well in school until his maturing experiences at Wadsworth. In the fall of 1870 he responded to the call of Christ and his congregation and made a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord. He was baptized at the Deep Run Mennonite Congregation (now called West) by Bishop Moses Gottschall.

The next year he continued his education at Excelsior Normal Institute in nearby Carversville, Pennsylvania to prepare for a life of teaching. He also took a short course at the West Chester Normal School in June, 1873. He was better trained for teaching than many others in that day. He enjoyed being with children and taught in various country schools in Bedminster Township from 1872 through 1884. He found success in teaching during the winter months and assisted his father on the farm in the summer months.

During this time, he fell in love with Sarah G. Leatherman, and they were married September 18, 1880. However, tragedy struck in late March, 1882. In the midst of childbirth, his “Sally” and their infant son were taken from him. Their bodies were laid to rest at the Deep Run (West) Meeting House. He wrote:

Farewell, Sally, my dear, Farewell.
You part from me with Christ to dwell.
Our union here on earth was brief;
My heart is filled with naught but grief….

Soon after he and Sally had been married, Father Ely divided the large farm and built new buildings on the south part of the land across the valley along the road to the Deep Run Meeting Houses. He had moved into the new house, and had lived with Allen’s younger brother, Francis, who now was farming the new place. Allen and Sally had moved onto the homestead and all of life seemed so inviting before them – and then this happened. In the midst of Allen’s grief, the family of Sally came to take back the things they had given to Sally for her new home. They even took the empty apple butter crocks! Allen watched as they loaded the wagon with pieces of “their” furniture and possessions. [Author’s interviews with Francis M. Fretz, 1947-49.]

His grief began to heal, and he tried to find a new way in life. In November of 1882, he allowed his name to be put on the local county ticket as a nominee for the State Legislature from Bucks County. The Republican ticket, which normally stood a good chance for election, was totally defeated that year. Allen admitted years later that he felt this was God’s leading away from any possibility of a political career.

When the farm work was done in the late summer of 1883, Allen decided to take a trip to “get away from it all,” and attempt to find himself again.

Meeting Anna and a letter from Deep Run

But what two experiences were to happen in these early September days in Ontario which would shape his life? The first event was the meeting of an attractive young lady at Jacob Rittenhouse’s home in Campden where they stayed overnight September 9, 1883. Among the girls was one “Anna.” It was she whom he would correspond with during the next fall and winter months, and finally propose marriage.

And what was the other event? During those same days in Ontario, he received a letter from back home in Pennsylvania with utterly surprising news. The Deep Run congregation by a near unanimous vote had chosen him to be their minister!

He had not expected such a calling! To be sure, in the early ’70s he had not only entered with zeal into the work of school teaching, but expressed his new-found faith in the work of the Deep Run congregation. For ten years there had been no Sunday School instruction among the people and the children. In 1872, through his efforts, the Sunday School was reorganized and Allen became the superintendent. For ten years he led this ministry of the congregation. In fact, in 1876 Minister Jacob S. Moyer of Springfield and Deep Run, reported to Conference that a spiritual awakening had taken place at Deep Run. In addition to the active Sunday School, nine young people were under instruction in the catechism, and Bible study was being held every two weeks on Saturday evenings during the winter. Allen stood beside Preacher Moyer in these activities.

It is little wonder, therefore, that the congregation, who had observed and encouraged Allen in his work, would now desire to have their own pastoral leader. Two names had been presented to the congregation and the drawing of lots was planned as the congregation gathered in September. But the people were surprised when in meeting, the “other name,” Henry Leatherman, stood up and withdrew his name in favor of his friend, Allen M. Fretz. [Source: Francis Fretz interviews.] As a result, according to the Eastern District Conference Constitution of 1847, no lot was needed. All this transpired without the knowledge of Allen who was far away in Indiana and Ontario.

Years later, to his grandson, he confided that these two unexpected events – the meeting of “his dear Anna,” and that letter from Deep Run informing him that God and the people were calling him to the Gospel ministry – transformed his outlook on life. In the midst of grief had come new goals.

Allen and Anna Rittenhouse Fretz at the time of their marriage in Ontario, 1884. Credit: Mennonite Library & Archives, North Newton, KS.

Ordination and early ministry

On the 13th of October, 1883, Allen was ordained at Deep Run by Bishop Moses Gottshall of Schwenksville; assisted by Jacob Moyer, the Springfield minister who had served at Deep Run. He would never forget the scene of that ordination. The large audience was melted to tears and both the elder Gottshall and Allen were visibly affected when Moses laid his hands on Allen’s head.

Six days after the ordination this young school teacher without ministerial experience was asked to speak at the funeral of Susanna Myers, wife of Abraham F. Myers.  And then on October 28, he was asked to give his first sermon which he noted in his record book with these words: “My first regular sermon with the help of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, at Deep Run. Text: I John 4:16, title ‘God is Love!'” Allen then recorded the outline of this message in his record book in German, signifying that this first message was given in that language. The three points of the outline of that message in translation would be as follows:

1. God’s Love is revealed in the creation.
2. God’s Love is revealed in the leading of His people.
3. God’s Love is revealed in Christ.

Thus, his first message spoke of the simple and sublime Love of God, a theme which was to dominate his ministry and his life for the rest of his days.

From the years of 1883 to 1892, he preached regularly at Deep Run and occasionally at many other congregations in the Eastern District Conference. He also preached in homes, school houses, and churches of other denominations in the surrounding counties of Pennsylvania, sometimes two and even three times on Sunday. At various times he would be called on preaching missions or evangelistic services in Clarence Center, Western New York, and in the Niagara Falls area and across into Ontario near his wife’s parents’ home.

Deep Run (West) Mennonite Meetinghouse, Bedminster, Bucks County, where Allen was ordained a minister in 1883 and served for nearly sixty years. Photo by D. F. Ziegler. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection, Hist. Mss. 414.

Planting a church in Souderton, 1893-1915

In April, 1893, Allen Fretz began his ministry at the newly organized Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, a work initiated by N. B. Grubb of Philadelphia and A. B. Shelly of Quakertown, but Allen was called to be the pioneering pastor. A new building had been built and was ready for occupancy that spring. Allen did not leave the ministry at Deep Run. They lived in Souderton, while he regularly traveled the eleven miles to work and worship at his home congregation in Bedminster. He did not wish to forsake his original calling there.

During the seventeen years as pastor at Souderton, many wonderful things took place. The membership of the Zion congregation increased from 19 to 164. A Sunday School and a Christian Endeavor Society were formed for the young people. A Ladies’ Aid Society was meeting and other activities were taking place.

Zion Mennonite Church and parsonage, Broad St., Souderton, circa 1895-1900. A. M. Fretz served here as pastor from 1893 to 1909. Hist. Mss. 414.
Zion Mennonite Church interior, after renovations in 1908, with pastor Allen seated behind the pulpit. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection.

A paper read at a ministers’ meeting in February, 1901, composed by Allen Fretz with the title, “The Proper Relation between Devotional and Active Christianity,” reveals some of the dynamics of this man during these years. He wrote:

…These two elements – Devotional and Active Christianity are the two essential elements of a real Christianity… The puffing, almost bursting steam­charged locomotive standing on yonder siding well represents the devotional element, while that locomotive attached to a dozen or more coaches filled with human freight, steadily coming up that steep grade, grandly rounding the sharp curve, flying through dark tunnels, over shaking trestles and down along the meadow vales, represents active Christianity….

In May, 1908, while on a preaching mission in Ontario, he describes the beauty of the Canadian countryside along the Niagara River about eight miles above the Falls at Black Creek, Ontario. “Just came back from a morning walk along the river bank. The river is very calm this morning. As far as the eye can reach, it is an unruffled sheet of glassy water in which are beautifully mirrored the shade trees, blossoming fruit trees, and beautiful homes on its bank.”  He then goes on to further describe Queen Victoria’s birthday, May 24, a national holiday in Canada, “devoted to patriotic exercises in the schools. Being myself very much interested in school work and somewhat both American and Canadian patriotic, I accepted the invitation to attend such exercises and give an address.” He adds, “There was not a little sarcasm…for the Americans present. Of course, we were glad to learn of their patriotism and to pass over their assertions of ‘grandest country on the earth’ and their reference to patriotic spots near and dear to the Canadian.”

The ups and downs of ministry

Such colorful and romantic scenes were soon to change. For the rest of 1908 and all through 1909, Allen and Anna Fretz were to undergo a wrenching mid-life crisis in his ministry at Souderton – the pregnancy of a young daughter, and the resulting birth of her son.

During May 1908, as was noted, Allen had been invited to assist in evangelistic meetings in Ontario, and Anna with the smaller children had gone along to visit relatives and friends at “The Twenty”. It appears that Allen afterwards felt it had been short­ sighted of them to leave behind a recalcitrant teenage daughter to stay with friends in Souderton. [Author’s interviews and correspondence with children of A. M. Fretz, 1971-73.]

Family of Rev. Allen M. & Anna Rittenhouse Fretz, Souderton, Pa., circa 1907. Hist. Mss. 414.

He was now experiencing “The Ups and Downs of a Pastor”. This was the actual title of a paper he read at a meeting of ministers at Germantown, October 6, 1909. Some of the “downs” for a pastor he mentions are “a consciousness of human weakness,” “humility,” “poverty,” “apparent failure,” and “gossiping” which is damaging not only to the pastor and his family but, indeed, to the entire work of the church. He closed his paper pointing out that there are also “ups” which can be used by the pastor as “stepping stones to higher ground.”

These were times of utter discouragement, which are evidenced in letters that were written in either criticism or in defense of Allen’s ministry during those months, and preserved by him in his scrapbook. The Zion Church building had been enlarged and rededicated, August 23, 1908, and many things had seemed to be pointing forward. In the midst of all this a wonderful friendship bedspread was made by the Zion women, embroidered with dozens of Souderton and Eastern District names and given to their pastor on Christmas, 1908, as an affirmation of Allen’s devoted service.

Nevertheless, in November, 1909, Allen Fretz resigned his ministry at Zion. In the past he had taken courageous stands in the pulpit and had spoken out on such issues of the day as lodge memberships, temperance and tobacco.

Five years later the family moved to Perkasie, Bucks County. From June to November 1915 they lived in temporary quarters until their new large brick house could be finished on Callowhill Street at the eastern edge of Perkasie. These were years of readjustment with a call for new life purposes and new visions of ministry. Allen’s brother, Mahlon, at Deep Run, was taken suddenly  from this life, as a young man in 1907. His father, Ely, died in 1909, after a lingering illness.

About this time, Allen was invited to give special meetings at the Silver Street Mennonite Church near Goshen, Indiana. He reported a good experience in these gatherings. He would have been able to continue ministry in this area if he had so chosen, but in talking this over with his wife and family, and earnestly praying about these matters, he felt called to continue his ministry at Deep Run.

He was presented with new opportunities to assist in local ministry in the Eastern District Conference, and he accepted them with new confidence. Such were his interim ministries in 1910 and 1912 at Allentown where he was much appreciated. He weathered the middle years of family crisis with the challenges of criticism in the congregation, and he was stronger for them. His ministry continued.

Continue to Part 2…

Allen Fretz’s Easter greeting card for neighbors of the churches that he was pastoring in 1910 at Deep Run and Allentown. Hist. Mss. 414.

J. Herbert Fretz (1921-2013), of Goshen, IN, was a grandson of Allen M Fretz and grew up in the Grace Mennonite Church, Lansdale, PA. He was pastor of the Deep Run West Mennonite Church, Bucks County, in the late 1940s, and was later on the staff of Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, IN, for many years. Herbert donated Allen Fretz’s papers to the Mennonite Heritage Center in 2002, along with his own historical and research collection (Hist. Mss. 414).