This article was written by Jill Davidson, edited by Joel Alderfer, and originally published in the MHEP Quarterly (Spring 1999). Thanks to Jill, a longtime member and supporter of MHEP, for allowing us to republish. Images are courtesy of Archives of the Bible Fellowship Church.
When John H. Oberholtzer and other progressive Mennonites left the Franconia Conference in 1847 and formed the East Pennsylvania Mennonite Conference, or “New Mennonites,” not all were satisfied.
In 1858, Preacher William Gehman of the Upper Milford congregation, with other families from the area, left the “New Mennonites” and formed the “Evangelical Mennonite Society.” In the ensuing years, this group went through several name and organizational changes. From 1884 to 1958, the group was known as the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church (hereafter referred to as MBC), and in 1959 the name was changed to Bible Fellowship Church (hereafter BFC). This is the group whose women in ministry will be considered here.
Women licensed as evangelists
Annual Conference Proceedings of the Evangelical Mennonite Society for the first several decades mention nothing of women in any official capacity.
However, in 1885, the General Conference of the MBC decided the following: “Whereas, we believe that God, in former times, chose holy women to prophesy and labor in the church, therefore Resolved, that we allow a sister thus chosen of God, to preach and to labor for the salvation of souls, under the supervision of a minister or presiding elder.”
Three years later, the next General Conference decided this: “Resolved, that any sister who feels called of God to preach shall be recognized as an evangelist, subject to the minister in charge and the Presiding Elder. They shall be received the same as probationers except ordination.” This suggests that there were women interested in a public preaching ministry. There were some women known to have preached among the mid-western MBC in this period, but not yet in the Pennsylvania Conference.
The first woman officially recognized by the Pennsylvania Annual Conference, in 1890, was Mrs. Lucy Brunner Musselman (1842-1916), as an Annual Conference Licensed Evangelist. Lucy was the young widow of preacher Jonas Musselman, who died in 1886. All three of their sons eventually became preachers in the Pennsylvania MBC. In 1892, Lucy is listed as a candidate for the ministry who had been examined and accepted as a probationer, along with two men. For the next several years, Lucy worked through the reading course, the same as the men preparing for ordination. She also received an assignment from the Stationing Committee to assist a pastor, just as the male probationers did.
The Gospel Worker Society
In 1895, several developments occurred. Finally, there were more women in the pastoral lists: Miss Dora Rote and Miss Agnes Messinger. But more significantly, in January 1895, the Gospel Worker Society was organized by Rev. William B. Musselman with seven women members, at Annandale, New Jersey. W.B.’s mother, Lucy Musselman, probationer with the Pennsylvania Annual Conference, became Gospel Worker “Number One.”
The society seems to have been organized to give women more structured opportunities for public ministry, including preaching, in church related settings, but not under direct Annual Conference sponsorship. The Gospel Worker Society was modeled after the Salvation Army. The women wore uniforms, did street preaching, conducted rescue missions, tent meetings, and did colportage work (sold Bibles and religious literature). Those inclined played guitar, banjo, or mandolin to accompany their singing, even though musical instruments were not yet allowed in church services. Some of these endeavors led to the development of new churches.
In 1898, the Gospel Worker Society apparently became an organization independent of the MBC, and moved its headquarters, under W. B. Musselman’s leadership, to Williamsport, PA. From then on, only men were listed as Annual Conference Licensed Evangelists. The 1898 minutes of Annual Conference note: “By their own request the names of A. [Amanda] E. Shaffer, Lucy Musselman, and Dora B. Rote shall be erased from the Conference roll and transferred to the Gospel Worker Society.”
A resolution from the same year reads: “Resolved, that the missionary Presiding Elder shall transfer any young men, except local workers, who come out among the Gospel Workers to the Church and the Presiding Elder.” It appears that there had been a few men in the Gospel Worker Society at the beginning, but we have no record of names. A result of this action was the Gospel Herald Society for men, organized a year later (1899). [Author’s note: As of 2021, I have identified one of the men–Gospel Worker “Number Five” was Walter Caleb Betz.]
Another resolution of the 1898 Pennsylvania Annual Conference reads: “Resolved, that any single sister who feels a call in the work shall either work under the direction of the Quarterly Conference, and be accountable to the same, or join the Gospel Worker Society.”
These simultaneous actions officially excluded women from pastoral ministry in the Annual Conference congregations, but kept men preparing for ministry under the supervision of the Annual Conference. This doesn’t mean women didn’t preach as Gospel Workers; they did quite a bit of preaching in street ministry and tent meetings, but not in congregations. And some men who were converted through the preaching of Gospel Worker women later became pastors in the MBC.
The Gospel Worker Society continued its evangelistic work, under W. B. Musselman’s leadership. In time, they began to produce their own literature and established the Gospel Herald Publishing House. In 1907, the Society purchased a printing company in Cleveland, Ohio, and moved their headquarters from Williamsport, PA to Cleveland. Found and leader W. B. Musselman moved with the organization. After they moved to Cleveland, fewer Pennsylvania women joined the Society. As the years went on, the street preaching and tent meeting work diminished, but the printing business flourished. Today, this printing company is known as the Union Gospel Press and is owned and operated by the Trustees of the Gospel Worker Society.
The Gospel Worker Society was meant to be an evangelistic organization for single or widowed women, who were considered unencumbered. They were committing themselves to service for life when they entered; but, as would be expected, many women left the Society to get married. From a sociological viewpoint, the Gospel Worker Society met a need for single women. It was a better option than working at demeaning factory jobs. It offered adventure and spiritual value to one’s time and effort.
The Pennsylvania MBC did have one preaching woman who was not in the Gospel Worker Society. Sarah Musselman Brunner (1869-1950) was a Quarterly Conference Licensed Evangelist, and wife of C. H. Brunner (1864-1948), Presiding Elder of the Pennsylvania Annual Conference for several years before he became the founder of the Gospel Herald Society for men. Sarah’s marital status excluded her from the Gospel Worker Society. But she was a partner with her husband in training young men for the preaching ministry. She helped to teach the men and would at times preach in home mission settings.
What other ministry opportunities did Pennsylvania MBC women have? Foreign missions offered occupational ministry opportunities. Here follows a sampling of what some women did in the foreign mission field.
Henry and Kate Weiss were the first MBC couple to be sent to a foreign mission field. Of the many missionaries supported by the MBC, the Weisses were actually from the MBC. Henry was from the Quakertown area and held a Quarterly Conference license from the Coopersburg church. They lived in Milford Square prior to leaving for the mission field. In 1898, they went to Concepcion, Chile, settling in a German-speaking community there. Henry was involved in church planting. Kate did some visiting, comforting the sick and afflicted, distributing tracts. She also assisted in meetings and Sunday School. Does this mean she preached? We don’t know. Their reports were not specific about how she assisted in meetings.
By 1913, the Weiss’s daughter, Marie, was old enough to run the linotype machine for their twenty-page monthly Spanish-language periodical, published in Chile. Marie’s knowledge of English, German, and Spanish was a tremendous help in the literature printing part of their ministry. In 1915, Henry Weiss died, after which Kate found employment at the Missionary Institute of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in New York, where her children were studying.
Another couple supported by the MBC was J. E. Fidler and his wife Elizabeth, nee Rittenhouse. Fidler was a preacher in the Pennsylvania Conference. In 1900, they were recommended to the Armenian Relief Committee as missionaries to Turkey, where they were active in relief work. They did not stay long; in 1903, the Fidlers went to Canada with the MBC there.
Rose Lambert, daughter of George Lambert from the Indiana Conference of the MBC, with a single female co-worker, were a team running an orphanage in Turkey. She also worked as a nurse there. Ten years later, in 1910, Rose’s health broke down, forcing her to return to America. A year later, she resigned because of her health and occupied herself with writing and giving lectures. She later married David Musselman, moved to Texas, and had a family.
Miss Olive Rawn was another missionary, who served in Africa. She was raised in the Graterford MBC Church and the Hatfield MBC Church. She was a granddaughter of the late MBC Preacher Jacob H. Moyer (“Rose Jelly Jake”) of Vernfield, PA. Olive went to nursing school and Bible school in preparation for ministry. She worked in the Sudan first, then later in Zaire. Most of her work involved nursing, mostly in obstetrics. Olive later retired to Souderton, PA and was active in the Hatfield Bible Fellowship Church. She did part-time nursing in retirement, and was invited by churches to teach about missions and share her experiences.
MBC/BFC women in foreign missions have been involved in various duties including church planting, teaching women and children, running printing presses, running orphanages, nursing, and participating in their churches as lay persons.
Victory Valley Camp has provided ministry opportunities for women. Counselors are needed every year, and the positions of nurse and cooks are often filled by women. In 1984, Victory Valley hired a full-time program director, Donna Bauer. She had the responsibility of hiring, supervising, and advising male and female counselors. She also arranged activities and projects for the campers.
In 1892, the General Conference of the MBC adopted a resolution that the Annual Conferences should establish homes for widows, orphans, and the elderly. By 1909, the Pennsylvania Annual Conference had purchased several properties in Centre Valley, Lehigh County, for this purpose. That year, the home began its ministry when two widows were accepted. Mrs. Kate Fairheller was the matron for 25 years, ministering to the needs of the various residents. Kate became a resident herself in 1934, and Mrs. Lulu Cassel Wismer became the matron. The home in Centre Valley was in operation until 1960 when Fellowship Home in Nazareth opened, providing personal care. Fellowship Manor in Whitehall opened in 1988, providing long-term nursing care and independent living facilities. These two institutions offer employment/ministry opportunities for women (and men) as nurses, administrators, and program directors.
Ministry for lay women has developed over the years. In the late 1800s, some class stewards and Sunday School teachers were women. By the early 1900s, the Pennsylvania Annual Conference sponsored Sunday School Conventions. Sunday School superintendents, elected by the teachers of each congregation, gave reports at the conventions. Most superintendents were men, but Mrs. Florence Henry Deppe of the Northampton congregation was one of the exceptions. Many remember her reports as being the most interesting. Mrs. Deppe gave up her responsibilities when she began her family. Her husband then held the position for many years.
Sixty years later, in the 1980s, Mrs. Deppe’s daughter, Mrs. Doris Deppe Wire, became Sunday School superintendent in the Northampton congregation. She was rebuked by a new and young pastor, who felt women should not be Sunday School superintendents. When Doris heard this, she laughed, thinking he was joking. She quickly realized her mistake and entered into a discussion with the pastor on the matter. In submission and to keep peace, she soon resigned her position as superintendent. In time, that pastor recognized the contribution which women in the congregation made throughout the years.
The Bible Fellowship Church and women in ministry
In 1977, a denominational position paper was prepared and presented to Annual Conference. The conclusion of the paper places opportunities and responsibilities into two categories: those for Pastors and Elders and those for laymen. Pastor and Elder responsibilities deal with Pastoral relations, overseeing of congregations, and boards or committees that would have a pastoral function, such as the BFC Board of Directors. Other committees and boards are open to lay persons (men and women) such as the Board of Education, the Board of the Homes, and the Historical Committee.
How did the MBC/BFC move, in one century, from having several women preachers to having a young pastor insist that a woman could not be a Sunday School superintendent? Was this a reaction to the growing feminist movement in society? Was it an awakening to theological truth? Should BFC women be thankful for be relieved of such heavy responsibilities as the pastorate? These are sensitive questions and issues in the Bible Fellowship Church today, which this writer won’t attempt to answer here, but they do deserve consideration and discussion.
Jill Rickert Davidson, Lansdale, PA, is a member of the Graterford Bible Fellowship Church, is currently chairperson of the Historical Committee of the BFC, and vice-president of the Historical Society of the BFC. She graduated from Florida Bible College (1977) and from the Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield, PA in 1980 with the master of divinity degree (emphasis in exegesis). She was one of the first women to receive the degree from that institution. Though her church and denomination does not currently recognize women in pastoral ministry, she is active in other areas of church ministry including Sunday School teaching, leading women’s Bible studies, and in various music groups. She is a congregational historian and wrote an anniversary history of her church in 1992. Jill is married to Wayne Davidson. They have three grown children and six grandchildren. Jill credits Mary Jane Hershey and her article on Franconia Mennonite women, “‘Jacob Kulp’s Wife’ and Grandmother Bechtel’s Library: Stories from the Franconia Conference”, in MHEP Newsletter, Vol. 23, No. 2 (March 1996), 3-8, for inspiration to do this research and write this article. The editor and author acknowledge the assistance of Pastor Richard E. Taylor, Archivist of the Bible Fellowship Church, in obtaining the photographs for this article.