«Great Preachers of the Missionary Church Dr. Paul Erdel Over the last century the Missionary Church has produced preachers in numbers and quality ...»
Reflections 9 (Spring and Fall 2007) 4-17
Great Preachers of the
Dr. Paul Erdel
Over the last century the Missionary Church has produced
preachers in numbers and quality that have belied its small size. Many
worked diligently within the denomination. A few have left long shadows
across the evangelical world. But all of them have nurtured three hallmarks
of great preaching in the Missionary Church: a call to holiness, a
commitment to the Spirit-filled life, and the challenge of proclaiming Christ to the nations. They have been preachers of the Word more than dogmatists, men of action more than oration. In their persistence, skill, and integrity in calling people to follow the Lord, these men and women have much to teach us today.
The Farmer Preachers Awakened from their Anabaptist slumbers by Methodist enthusiasm from without and by spiritual rebirth within, the farmer preachers were shunned by their more traditional Amish and Mennonite brethren. In the mid- nineteenth century these warm-hearted men began to find one another across the United States and Canada. Perhaps the most outstanding among them was Daniel Brenneman, one of the founders of the Missionary Church.
By all accounts Brenneman was a gifted preacher: "eloquent, aggressive, a good singer, and full oflife" (Hartzler and Dalliel Brenneman Kauffman 1905,339). He conducted the 4 Erdel: Great Preachers mE:etlI1§~s ever Mennonite Church in the United States. Soon he was in demand as a speaker in churches and meeting centers in an area stretching from his home in Elkhart County, Indiana to as far as Pennsylvania.
After ten years of cutting-edge ministry in the Mennonite Church, Brenneman was told on 25 April] 874 that he was being excommunicated from it for his evangelistic preaching (as well as for singing bass and preaching in English). He promptly fainted for the only time in his life.
Recovering, he was soon speaking in homes, barns, schoolhouses, and rented churches-wherever there was an opening, leaving a trail of newly- formed congregations.He was the most popular preacher for funerals in his county. Once he was called from the road, work clothes and all, to conduct a funeral service in a home which he was passing, since the designated speaker had failed to appear.
Brenneman's counterpart in Ontario was Solomon Eby, whose church in Port Elgin broke out in revival when he himself was converted in
1869. Soon a whole generation offanner preachers, caught up by the Spirit more than taught by men, was following Brenneman and Eby into a new fellowship eventually called the Mennonite Brethren in Christ.
Out ofthe Canadian Amish came one of the greatest farmer preachers of all. Young Joseph Ramseyer was converted while following the plow in 1885 in the burned-over thumb area of Michigan. Six years later in July, 1891, kneeling in a willow bush, Ramseyer was overwhelmed by a powerful filling of the Holy Spirit. He remembered singing a song "the words and music of which I had never before nor since heard" (Lugibihl and Gerig 1950,23). At once he began to preach wherever people gathered to listen.
Nourished by contacts with the early Christian and Missionary Alliance, for several years Joseph Ramseyer's inspired preaching blazed a revival trail across Midwestern "Egli Amish" congregations and beyond.
The "Egli Amish" were followers of Bishop Henry Egly, himself expelled a generation earlier from his original Adams County, Indiana Swiss Amish community for persistently preaching, "You must be born again!" Wherever Ramseyer spoke people were healed, whole families came to Christ, and young people began to train for service at the Bethany Bible Institute in Bluffton, Ohio. Nothing held these young enthusiasts back. When loudcroaking frogs drowned out Ramseyer's voice in a revival tent pitched beside a pond, his farm-wise song leader, Peter Eicher, stilled them by throwing rocks into the water all through the sermon.
Conservative pastors among the Egli Amish expelled Joseph Ramseyer (and Joseph Egly, Henry's son) from their fellowship in 1895, but his powerful ministry continued. Spirit-filled believers gathered about him, 5 Preachers alld Prpo,./;'i"u
The Evangelists The twentieth century brought a new generation of evangelists.
Edison Habegger, a young roughneck from a Berne furniture factory, was converted in the late I920s. At Fort Wayne Bible Institute, he further yielded to the Spirit's sanctification and discovered his gift of evangelism. With a machine-gun delivery and his crystal-clear storytelling of the gospel, Habegger drew people to Christ. Teaming up with the dynamic Cleveland Colored Gospel Quintette in 1934, Eddie and his African-American friends stormed through North America and Europe, appearing in humble chapels, massive 6 Erdel: Great Preachers halls, and even before audiences. Their rendition of old-time religion resonated with multitudes. Eddie later became a popular radio evangelist, a district superintendent on the West Coast, and the president of Cascade College. His identity, however, was always tied up in evangelistic preaching tours.
During World War II a new army of young American evangelists swept into action, launching Youth for Christ and other crusades for Christ.
Caught up in this tide were youth from the Fort Wayne Bible Institute, among them Richard Reilly and Harold Walker. Reilly was a Detroit newsboy who wandered into a Mennonite Brethren in Christ church in Detroit and was saved. Quickly recognized as a gifted speaker, he became a popular evangelist, prophecy teacher, and missionary to India. Returning home because of illness, he became the Foreign Secretary of the United Missionary Society. His challenge-"When God wants something done, first he looks for a man!"-was repeated time after time in passionate sermons.
Another passionate preacher in the Missionary Church was Harold Walker. Never married, Walker gave his whole life to earnest evangelism. Walker was respected for his warm sincerity and his willingness to go anywhere with the Word. He could wring a gospel challenge out of almost any passage of Scripture. I once heard him give a Sunday morning sermon in which he traced Christ through every book of the Bible. Many came to Christ through his long years of witness, and not a few young preacher boys were buoyed by his encouragement.
In the 1950s a new generation of evangelists added to the rich tradition of great Missionary Church preaching. Paul and Joan Grabill, graduates of Fort Wayne Bible Institute, warmed the denomination with their preaching for 19 years. While Paul's voice boomed in a church's sanctuary, Joan captivated children in the basement below.
As a student at the Fort Wayne Bible Institute Eddie Jones read the Apostle Paul's words to "do the work of an evangelist" and knew they were God's personal call to him. He took his charge seriously, serving twenty years in itinerant evangelism and preaching over 4,000 evangelistic sermons. One memorable service was a four-hour youth meeting at Beulah Missionary Church where the altar was filled repeatedly with fresh waves of seekers.
Jack French spent 35 years as a bilingual evangelist in North America and Brazil. Trained at Bethel College, French built long-term friendships with many churches, returning to individual congregations up to six or eight times. The tent meetings he held as a missionary to Brazil left a trail of churches across that country. A highlight of his ministry was
helping organize a conference for itinerant evangelists sponsored by Billy Graham.
Two Torch bearers Quinton 1. Everest and Jared Gerig are the two men who set the pace for great preaching in the Missionary Church. Both grew up in the 191 Os as Indiana farm boys and went on to graduate from Fort Wayne Bible Institute in the late I920s. Each left his imprint on a long generation of young preachers.
Everest had yet to preach his first sermon when his district superintendent asked him on the very day he graduated from college to preach the next two Sundays in rural Chapel Hill. To Everest's surprise he remained there for the next two and one-half years. In his next charge he began the weekly Your Worship Hour radio program, which continued for 50 years. Eventually the program was heard over 125 North American stations and over missionary radio stations around the world. Until retirement age, Everest pastored several growing local churches in northern Indiana and served as an evangelist for several denominations across the United States and Canada. His passionate sincerity, his riveting golden voice, and his f10wing thought made him one of the most popular preachers in America.
He was the leading founder of Bethel College and the chairman of his denomination's mission board. Despite his accomplishments, he was profoundly kind and humble. Yet he spoke with a prophetic voice regarding the role of preaching in the Missionary Church. In 1967 at a convention at Yale, Michigan, Everest declared, "With all the emphasis that I know how to say it, the one great need of our churches... is a... convincing, HolySpirit empowered... ministry of sane, sound, Scriptural, evangelistic preaching." Everest preached his own great radio messages standing before a pulpit in an empty church auditorium. This seems appropriate, for the pulpit was his home.
If Quinton 1. Everest set the example in the Missionary Church for great preaching, Jared Gerig taught young men how to do it. Gerig honed his own preaching skills at pastorates in Auburn, Indiana; Cleveland, Ohio;
and Phoenix, Arizona. Wherever he served as pastor, he attended local colleges. By 1945 he had earned a master's degree and had become dean at the Fort Wayne Bible Institute. Gerig was also the school's professor of homiletics. His students loved him, partly because he took his students seriously and felt their sermons. When young Don Rohrs preached a practice sermon in class, using a striking illustration of his desire to burn out for Christ, even Gerig wiped his eyes and was reluctant to critique it. In weekly chapel messages, he modeled strong expository preaching. In the classroom he taught it. Tossed a Biblical text by his students, within a few 8 Erclel: Great Preachers seconds he had isolated its central theme. Within a minute or two he had worked out the main divisions ofthe text, often three phrases and almost always alliterated. The following outline from a September 15, 1956, sermon
entitled "Christ at the Center" in the Missionary Worker was vintage Gerig:
"Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Colossians 1:27) Christ must be the center of any soul-saving creed.
Christ must be at the center of any life-giving consecration.
Christ must be at the center of any world-evangelizing church.
Christ must be at the center of any age-enduring civilization.
Great Ambassadors ofthe Evangelical World Though modest in size, the Missionary church has been the mother of many outstanding evangelical spokespersons. The earliest was Jasper A. Huffman, the champion of higher education in the Mennonite Brethren in Christ and across the American holiness movement.
Huffman began the twentieth century as a twenty-year-old pastor with an eight-grade education. Breaking his Mennonite mold, he graduated from Bonebrake Seminary. After further training, in 1914 he began a professional odyssey as a "pied-piper" theological professor attracting Mennonite Brethren in Christ youth to a series of Christian colleges where he 9 · Preachers alld Pnwchilli' taught: BlufIton College, Marion and Taylor University. Typical of these students was Ward Shantz fron1 Ontario, who later founded Emmanuel Bible College and became a leader in the Missionary Church.
Similar to Wilbur M. Smith of Moody Bible Institute, Huflman also became a popular proponent for evangelical scholarship. For many years he was either dean or president of the Winona Lake School of Theology, a respected summer seminary program. The author of many books, for decades Huffman spoke in Bible conferences across the nation. He also helped launch Bethel College near the end of his life.
Clyde Taylor, born in the Missionary Church, was recognized by United Press International as one of the ten most influential Protestants in the post- World War II generation. Reared in the Phoenix Missionary Church in Arizona, in 1932 he became a missionary with the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Colombia. During World War lIthe t1edgling National Association of Evangelicals needed a spokesman in Washington, D.C. to help secure missionary visas. Tapped for this job, Clyde did the work of several men for the next 3S years. His crisp country-by-country surveys of world missions were breathtaking. He knew all the important Washington officials and how to approach them. He was in touch with Christian leaders across America and around the world. Somehow he still had time to befriend the Missionary Church, of which he was a lifelong member, and to serve for three decades on the Fort Wayne Bible College Board.
Kenneth Geiger rose through the ranks of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church to become District Superintendent of the Indiana District, then General Superintendent of the United Missionary Church, and finally President of the Missionary Church after the 1969 merger of the United Missionary Church and the Missionary Church Association. He was an effective parliamentarian who knew how to transact business efficiently in the many conferences of the districts and the denomination that he chaired.
Iiis leadership skills were recognized by the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Holiness Association, two organizations on whose boards he served for many years. His ministry was cut short by a tragic auto accident while on a missions visit to Nigeria, West Africa.