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Saturday, 26 September 2009

Bethesda celebrates its 75th anniversary

Bethesda's original building
by Archibald Thackeray

Seventy-five years ago, in an old tire store on Nevada Avenue in Detroit, a mother of three started a Sunday School for her children and others in the neighborhood. The date was June 17, 1934.

Tomorrow - more than 3,900 Sundays later - what has become the Bethesda Christian Church will celebrate all that God has developed from such humble beginnings.

M. D. "Mom" Beall was the mother that started the Sunday School. She wasn't looking to pastor a megachurch, but that's what grew from her efforts. Over the decades, what was then known as Bethesda Missionary Temple, grew and grew without the help of church growth methods many advocate today. (A picture of Bethesda's congregation that was published in LIFE magazine in June 1958 can be seen here - after clicking on the link you will need to scroll down the page to see the photo).

September 21, 1979
According to her obituary in the Detroit News in September 1979:

"Membership in the tiny church, with Mrs. Beall as pastor, 'just exploded,' said her son, James. When the church grew out of its tiny quarters, Mrs. Beall's husband, a builder, joined the project.

"'Dad was the builder; mother the pastor,' her son recalled."

Today, Bethesda is a suburban church in Sterling Heights, Michigan, seating 3,000. It is non-denominational and can be characterized as Pentecostal or Charismatic (if by Pentecostal one means, practicing speaking in tongues, and if by Charismatic one means, operating in the gifts of the Holy Spirit; in this case, nothing more is implied by the usage of those labels).

After revival broke out in North Battleford, Saskatchewan in 1948, Mom Beall traveled to Western Canada to see what it was all about. Specifically, she went to meetings in Vancouver where the revival had spread as well.

She returned ablaze with revival fire and her church in Detroit became one of the centers of what became known as the Latter Rain Movement. Other cities with prominent Latter Rain churches were Portland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Memphis, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Cleveland, New Orleans, Houston, and, of course, Vancouver.

Noted Pentecostal historian Vinson Synan says, "The Pentecostal movement was at a low ebb in 1948, with a growing dryness and lack of charismatic gifts.  Many who heard about the events in Canada believed that it was a new Azusa Street, with many healings, tongues and prophecies.  A large center of the revival outside of Canada was the Bethesda Missionary Temple in Detroit, Michigan pastored by Myrtle Beale [sic].  From Detroit, the movement spread across the United States like a prairie wildfire."  An Eyewitness Remembers the Century of the Holy Spirit (Chosen), p. 35.


Another important Pentecostal historian, Allan Anderson, adds, "This movement emphasized the restoration of the 'ministry gifts' of apostles and prophets to the church, spoken prophecies, and the independence of the local church, tending to shun 'denominationalism'. Many of the independent Charismatic churches that constitute a large portion of Pentecostalism in North America today have roots in the Latter Rain movement." An Introduction to Pentecostalism (Cambridge University Press), p. 51.

As has been seen in far too many Pentecostal revivals, pernicious error crept into some of the Latter Rain churches. The most pronounced of these errors was a doctrine called, The Manifest Sons of God. One of the things that proponents of that doctrine taught was that it did not matter what they did in their mortal bodies because they had been spiritually glorified. Mom Beall and her children, who all followed her into the ministry, were grieved by such erroneous teaching and withstood it completely.

Veteran pastor Ernest Gentile, who first experienced the revival in 1950, also notes that, "Within a year of the start of this move of God's Spirit in North Battleford, there were a number of strange happenings throughout North America also labeled 'Latter Rain.' Many visitors to North Battleford, and [other] influential churches across the United States, caught the excitement of what was happening, but missed the basic truths and experience. Thus, as in every movement, characteristics were attributed to the Latter Rain movement that were not part of the original." Your Sons & Daughters Shall Prophesy: Prophetic Gifts in Ministry (Chosen Books).

James Lee Beall, the son quoted in the obituary above, gave some specifics:
James Lee Beall

“Some years back, a group of ministers whom I knew well fell into the trap of believing that the grace of God was license. One of them supposedly received a revelation from God based on Romans 8:10: 'And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.' This meant to him that if a person was in Christ, the body was dead in the sight of the Lord and whatever the body did was of no consequence. This opened the way for drunkenness, adultery, homosexuality, and what have you.

"When I heard what they were teaching, I confronted some of the men. But they were evasive. Some weeks later I received a visit from one of the men whom I had known for years. He asked me if he could conduct a series of meetings at Bethesda.

"I answered, 'Not until we have a few things straight.' Shortly, and to my horror, I learned that all I heard was true. I denied him the meeting, refused to bid him God speed, and made it clear that neither he nor any of his friends would be welcome in the church or in the homes of any of the flock." Your Pastor, Your Shepherd (Logos International), pp. 60-61.

Two well-researched books chronicle the history of the Latter Rain Movement. Richard Riss's The Latter Rain Movement of 1948 (Honeycomb Visual Productions) is currently the only book solely devoted to the topic. Winds from the North: Canadian Contributions to the Pentecostal Movement (Brill Academic Publishers), edited by Michael Wilkinson and Peter Althouse, devotes two chapters (D. William Faupel's, "The New Order of the Latter Rain: Restoration or Renewal?" and Mark Hutchinson's, "The Latter Rain Movement and the Phenomenon of Global Return").

Balanced Biblical teaching and spontaneous, anointed praise and worship have been hallmarks of church life at Bethesda. In fact, the late Judson Cornwall, known for his teaching on praise and worship, stood in Bethesda's pulpit once and told the congregation he was not sure why he had been asked to teach there because the first time he had ever heard the kind of praise and worship that he talked about he was listening to a tape recording of Bethesda. The beauty and harmony of Bethesda's spontaneous worship has been compared to a "heavenly choir" by many that have visited the church.

Bill Hamon further explains, "During [the Latter Rain] movement a new expression of worship and praise flowing up and down like rhythmic waves of gentle ocean breezes and then rising to a crescendo of melodious praises that is best described by the Book of Revelation as 'the sound of many waters' (Rev. 19:6) .... In the 1950s, the praise service would flow continuously for 30 minutes to three hours. Most Charismatics of the 1960s and 1970s came into the Latter Rain type of worship more than the Pentecostal ways of worship [which Hamon describes as shouting 'praises for two or three minutes']." The Eternal Church: A Prophetic Look at the Church - Her History, Restoration, and Destiny (Destiny Image Publishers), chapter 24: The Latter Rain Movement.

Vinson Synan confirms that this expression of worship came to be part of the Charismatic Renewal, as well. John Miller, an instructor at Elim Bible Institute reports, "Vinson Synan stated that the Catholic Charismatic Movement experienced the same heavenly choir phenomena, resulting from its earliest interaction with the Bealls of Detroit, Michigan. Students from Duquesne University (a private Catholic University in Pittsburg [sic], Pennsylvania) and the University of Michigan (a public university in Ann Arbor, Michigan) encountered the Holy Spirit at the Bethesda Tabernacle [sic], and later experienced similar expressions of the heavenly choir in the Catholic Charismatic Movement." "New Order of the Latter Rain: A New Perspective," in The Pneuma Review, Fall 2013, Volume 16, Number 4, p. 71.

As noted earlier, Mom Beall passed away in 1979. Her eldest, Patricia Gruits, is in her 80s
Patricia Beall Gruits
now, but remains active in teaching and missions ministries. Her book, Understanding God, is a best-seller that has been translated into several languages.

James Beall went on to become one of the most sought after speakers in the charismatic movement in the 1970s. From articles in the Logos Journal to speaking at major events like the World Conference on the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem to teachings delivered to Roman Catholic charismatic audiences, James was in the thick of things. He wrote several books, including Laying the Foundation, a methodical teaching on the Christian life using Hebrews 6 as its springboard. He assumed both the pastorate of Bethesda and the microphone of the national radio broadcast, America to Your Knees, from his mother. After decades in Bethesda's pulpit he retired from daily ministry in 2004. Today, the church is pastored by his daughter Analee Dunn. [UPDATE June  2016 - Analee Dunn has retired, turning over the senior pastorate to Patrick Visger.]

Harry M. Beall
The youngest of the three, Harry M. Beall, was for years Bethesda's minister of music in addition to ministering the Word there and in congregations throughout the United States. Now retired from Bethesda's ministry, he lives in Arizona.

I salute and thank Bethesda, its congregation and ministers for 75 years of faithful service. Enjoy your celebration tomorrow!
A video commemorating the 75th anniversary can be seen here.
M. D. "Mom" Beall and Harry L. "Pop" Beall


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