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Photo Friday: “On the Battlefield for Souls” at the Virginia Mission

"Starting to build the Bethel Mission in VA -- first mission in VA" is the caption etched on the back of this photo. Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives.

Yesterday, I drove the approximately five-and-a-half hours to Dublin, Virginia, where tonight I’ll attend the annual meeting of the Southeast Conference of the Brethren in Christ Church. Part of my trip to this Blue Ridge Mountain country will involve a stop-off with Carl and Debbie Ginder, the recently retired pastoral couple at the Bethel (Hillsville) BIC Church.

In preparation for that visit, I did some research on the origins of their church, which began as a rural mission outpost in the early twentieth century.

Why Bethel was a “battlefield for souls,” and other revelations about this would-be church, after the jump.

Native Virginians Denny and Marie Jennings came to the Brethren in Christ Church through its Buffalo (N.Y.) Mission, where they were converted during a revival service. In their words,

We came from the world entirely never having known that there was such a church of people until going to Buffalo, N.Y. in 1914. . . . There we received the truth that took us out of the world and the world out of us . . . . Now we are justified, sanctified, happified, and soon to be glorified, Hallelujah. [1]

The couple was “out and out on plainess [sic], Divine Healing and Holiness” [2] — an oft-noted spiritual trifecta among Wesleyan-influenced Brethren in Christ of the day. Eventually, it seems, they were also “out and out” on evangelism: in 1917, under the auspices of the Church’s Home Mission Board, the couple established an outpost at Sylvatus, Va. (Around 1923, the couple would be invited to hold services in neighboring Hillsville — an invitation that no doubt led to the later establishment of an active congregation.)

As you can see in today’s Photo, the Jenningses supported themselves as farmers during their ministry in Sylvatus. What you can’t see in that photo — but what you can glean from the numerous reports and ministry updates the Jenningses published in denominational organs like the Evangelical Visitor and the Handbook for Missions — is that the couple’s initial ministry in the Blue Ridge Mountains did not yield immediate rewards.

In their second year of work, the couple reported that “one soul (worth more than the whole world) was gloriously saved from sin.” [3] That caveat — an interpretation of Christ’s words recorded in Matthew 16:26 — speaks volumes about the opposition (both internal and external) that the Jenningses faced in their first years of ministry. Times of discouragement are evident in the writings; enemies, as the Jenningses interpret them, abound. On more than one occasion, they note that some in the Church disapprove of their work. And they are quick to identify the most consistent obstacle to their missionary endeavors:

. . . We find that there is a wonderful enemy to the work of the Lord here as well as elsewhere. There are few who will listen to the still voice of God that speaks to them. [4]

Language of war — words like “enemy,” “battle,” and “soldier” — color their writing. Clearly, the Jenningses saw themselves “on the battlefield for souls.”


[1] Handbook of Missions Home and Foreign of the Brethren in Christ Church (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1923), 61.

[2] Ibid., 1919, 55.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 1923, 61.