The following is a condensed review of a report made in the Philadelphia area outlining the development of the assemblies as we know them today. Many details have been lost because they were not recorded and the ones that lived through the time of development have now gone Home. However we do have a general overview that we trust will prove to be of interest.
On at least five occasions in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells his readers to remember. By way of a backward glance he encourages forward movement. In chapter 7 he wanted them to remember what God had done for them in redeeming them out of Egypt simply because He loved them. In chapter 8 he wanted them to remember how “The Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness to humble thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thy heart; whether thou wouldest keep His commandments or no.”
The development of assembly testimony in the greater Philadelphia area was, for many, attended with great personal cost as they gathered unto the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not possible for us to properly record such experiences since we did not share this time. However, we do feel it is profitable to be reminded of what it meant to others that went before us.
In 1880, the population of the city was 847,170. By 1890, it grew to just over 1,000,000. When the city was designed by Win. Penn, Broad Street was the longest street in the world. South Broad Street was an avenue of fine mansions. Most of Philadelphias large buildings were in place by 1880. City Hall was occupied in 1881. The workday was 10 hours and the average daily wage was between $1 and $2. Monthly in-come was between $300 to $500. Transportation was horse drawn and it was 1890 before electric trolleys appeared. Two-story brick houses were built. They measured 16 X 31 and were sold for between $1000 and $2500, depending on location. The growth of the city was due to immigration, which was mainly Irish, English, and Scottish. In the 1900s, it was Austrian, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, and Russian.
Our story begins in July 1880 when a girl by the name of Mary Smith, not quite 16, was saved in her mothers kitchen in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. She had been attending meetings in a local schoolhouse conducted by two evangelists, Mr. James Campbell and Mr. William Matthews. Through John 3:16 she came to realize that “whosoever” was she and that Christ had died for her sins. By faith in His finished work she passed from death unto life. She was baptized and gathered with the Christians in Kings Mill, near Cookstown, Northern Ireland.
She sailed for America in May 1881, when not quite 17. She settled in Philadelphia but was not able to locate an assembly as she had known in Northern Ireland. So she went nowhere until 1884. In the meantime she corresponded with Mr. Campbell and pleaded that he and Mr. Matthews come to Philadelphia and work for the Lord.
His reply was that if the Lord opened the way, they would be glad to come. After three years, a letter was received saying that the preachers were coming to Philadelphia. First they visited Chicago for a conference. Mr. Campbell had visited there some years before. In May 1884 they came to Philadelphia and Mary Smith met them at the Broad Street station and took them to her mothers home.
The preachers began their first gospel effort in Philadelphia in a tent on south Broad St. below Federal Street. During this first season of gospel meetings the Lords hand was manifested in a wonderful way. Many souls were saved. In a number of cases, whole families were led to Christ. Mary Smith wrote, “what a time of rejoicing that was!”
The preachers were true pioneers. They slept in the tent and did their own cooking in the tent except when they were invited to various homes for their meals. All day long they went around the neighborhood distributing tracts and inviting everyone they met to the tent. Large numbers came and attended the meetings until the late fall.
It was in the tent on south Broad Street below Federal that the preachers gathered a number of believers and formed an assembly with the breaking of bread. There were just 7 when they began. The names apart from the preachers were Wm. McEwen, John Greer, Mrs. Charles Smith, Robert Smith and Mary Smith. When the weather in the fall was too cold for the tent, the assembly rented a hall over a blacksmiths shop at 11135. Broad St. It was over the blacksmiths shop that the first Philadelphia conference was held on Christmas day 1887. Some of the preachers at that conference were: James Campbell, Wm. Matthews, Charles Ross, Donald Ross, Dr. Case, who later went to China, Frank Crook, Wm. Staner, David Oliver, and John Haliburton.
In spite of the odors and the lack of suitable facilities the Christians had many happy times in the hall over the blacksmith shop. An outstanding characteristic of the Christians in those early days was their faithful attendance at all the meetings. Many of them had several miles to walk to the hall or had to depend on horse cars, which were very unreliable. From that small beginning the work grew. Many were added to the assembly. Some were new converts, some were from the “old country,” and some moved to Philadelphia from other areas of the USA.
In those early days the strongest opposition to the gospel was displayed when they held their open-air meetings. Occasionally they had dirt, stones, and bricks thrown at them, but they said that the “showers of blessing” far exceeded these minor hindrances.
Some of these Christians lived “uptown.” They eventually rented the “iron hall” and formed an assembly there in fellowship with 1113 S. Broad Street. The exact date is not recorded but I am inserting it now, preceding Bryn Mawr, which was formed in 1906. From the iron hall they moved to Howard Street and finally purchased their own hall at 2447 N. Mascher Street. This assembly grew to over 200 and then had a hive-off to form Olney in 1926. Masher Street ceased to exist in the late 60s due to the home-call of some believers and others relocating.
The Downtown meeting moved to 13th and Wharton, then to 15th and Federal, and then to 21st and Latona, and finally to a building at 20th and Dickinson St. Many large New Years day conferences were conducted at this address. This building was sold in 1945 and they moved to rented quarters at 71 St. and Woodland and then to 64th and Woodland until 1952 when the meeting disbanded after 68 years.
In May of 1906 a group of Christians that had been commuting into town from the suburbs met as the Ardmore assembly in the Merion Title Building. A year or so later they moved to Bryn Mawr and began to meet in the reading room, which was over the public library. They met there for years. Mr. Caesar Patrizio was commended from there about 1918. A new building was built in 1923-24, which is still used today. There have been two expansions to the building since the original, the first in 1975 and the most recent completed in 1994. Mr. Oswald MacLeod was commended to the work of the Lord in 1928, Miss Alice Martin to Chile in 1943, George Baldwin in 1951 along with Ray Zander, Gilbert Stewart in 1960, and in 1974 David Oliver. Gospel meetings were held on a yearly basis, an out-reach work in West Conshohocken consisted of a regular Sunday school and special gospel meetings. This work ended with the beginning of World War II and its many restrictions.
The next assembly to be formed as a break from the downtown meeting was Camden in September 1909. They first met in a building at the corner of Broadway and Walnut Sts. in Camden. Messrs. Beverage and Lamb had gospel meetings at the inception of the assembly They moved twice before securing a building in 1917 at 915 N. Front Street, where the testimony carried on until a new building was built and occupied in September 1961 in Pennsauken. Mr. David H. Oliver called Camden his home. Mr. Win. Warke was commended in 1924 and Mr. Eugene Higgins in 1974. The assembly is active in outreach work in the neighboring towns and has enjoyed seeing souls reached and added to the testimony.
The West Philadelphia assembly was formed after Camden, possibly about 1914. We do not have an exact date on this. It was an offshoot of the Downtown meeting because of a number living in the western area of the city. They first met in a storefront property on South 60th Street near Spruce. In 1933 the assembly purchased a building at 62nd and Jefferson Sts. in the Overbrook section of the city. They sold the building and moved to rented quarters in Broomall before moving to their new hall in 1967, located on Rte. 252, south of Newtown Square.
The next assembly formed was in Barrington, NJ, on June 6th, 1915. A number had been commuting for years to the Downtown meeting. Some had been saved as a result of personal testimony in the Barrington area and so there was a nucleus of an assembly. They first met in the Barrington fire hall at 2nd and Haines Ave. About 1920 a building was obtained at 207 Kingston Ave. The assembly met there until 1997 when they sold to build a new hall. The assembly has seen a nice growth in recent years as a result of a number of high school boys and girls being saved.
In 1921 a work was being carried on among Italian immigrants. Mr. Patrizio and Mr. Louis Rosania had tent meetings, and it was decided to form an Italian assembly because of the need to use the language for many immigrants who did not speak English. This meeting began in 1921. They met for years in different places in South Philadelphia. Among the various addresses was 8th and Reed Sts. In later years they moved to the Tacony section of Phila. and in 1966 the meeting was disbanded.
We now come to 1926. The next assembly to be formed was Olney, a hive-off of the large Mascher Street assembly referred to earlier. The brethren that left, in fellowship with Mascher Street, went to rented quarters on N. 5th Street between Lindley Ave. and Tabor Road. That was in 1926. In 1928 they moved into their present building at 314 W. Chew Street. Gospel meetings were a regular yearly habit with the assembly. The brethren were well known in the neighborhood for their open-air preaching at the corner of 5th and Tabor Ave. In the late 30s, early 40s, there were 5 preachers that made Olney their home assembly They were Charles Keller, J.P. Conway, William Robertson, Ed Richmond, and Clay Fite. In the late 40s Paul Plubell also made his home there.
In 1928 Mr. Sam Rea and Mr. Oswald MacLeod had tent meetings in Hatboro. A number lived in the area that were in fellowship in Mascher Street. As a result of some being saved in the summer season it was felt there was sufficient base to begin an assembly testimony In 1929 the meeting was formed in Hatboro. Today Hatboro is the largest of the meetings in the area. The believers continue in active gospel work, and another generation is rising to carry on the testimony
This covers most of the work that resulted from the beginning in South Philadelphia. One other work was in Darby. In 1915 a preacher named Nicholson had a tent and a number were saved. They began to meet in Darby and in 1917 moved to Collingdale and were known as the Collingdale Gospel Hall. Some from Downtown and Bryn Mawr became associated with the assembly there but the details from that early time are not available.
This brief outline does not account for the many names that represent the various testimonies or recall the numerous series of gospel meetings that were conducted yearly in the various halls. However all is accounted for on High and the day will reveal all that was for Himself.