Nazarenes have had a home in northern Appalachia and the Three Rivers area from the early days of the movement. What started as the Pittsburgh District in 1907 has spawned three separate districts which have likewise grown into other districts, together comprising hundreds of local churches with thousands of members and thousands more sharing the fruits of our ancestors’ faithful ministry.
Over the past 110 years, our district has uniquely witnessed the rise and fall of the domestic steel, oil, and manufacturing industries which generated so much of the nation’s wealth and drew so many here during the Industrial Revolution and which subsequently dispersed so many of our neighbors in recent decades. Even as our region embraces its new identity as a world-leading technological, medical, and educational center, that quintessentially rugged-and-resolute, consummately loyal, and characteristically blue-collar culture still thrives.
Today, the Pittsburgh District represents over 6,000 members among 76 local congregations across western Pennsylvania. Together, we are making Christlike disciples in the nations and close to home.
Below is a brief history of the Pittsburgh District compiled by two saints of the church, Marion Acton and Lauren Cousins, to commemorate our first 100 years. For a brief history of the Church of the Nazarene globally, please see the “Historical Statement” in the Manual.
A Brief History of the Pittsburgh District Church of the Nazarene
Compiled and edited by
Marion Acton (through 1982) and Dr. Lauren Cousins (1983–2007)
In the beginning days of the Church of the Nazarene, the Chicago Central District was the first organized in the Midwest. This included the territory between Pittsburgh and the Rockies. Rev. L. B. Kent, pioneer leader of the Illinois State Holiness Association, joined the Nazarenes in 1905 and became the first district superintendent for Chicago Central. At this time, several independent congregations who believe in holiness joined the denomination.
Previous to the time of the organization of the denomination, there were several holiness groups establishing churches in this area. In the year of 1897, Rev. J. H. Norris, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, and his wife were sanctified at Hollow Rock Camp Meeting. The first Sunday after returning home, he preached on holiness. The congregations immediately rejected his message and asked that he be dismissed as pastor. One hundred members withdrew with him and formed the Pentecostal Church which became the Pittsburgh First Church of the Nazarene [Located on Mt. Washington, First Church was later merged with Pittsburgh Sheridan and renamed Pittsburgh Greater Pittsburgh. In 1994, it was closed and disorganized]. The Lord blessed the church with many souls who were saved and sanctified. Many were saved during a Ten Days Holiness Convention with Joseph Smith in charge.
Pastor and people, with a burden for the lost, went out into the city holding revivals. As a result of these meetings, a new church at Lincoln Place was organized . When this church was two years old, they had a membership of two hundred and three hundred enrolled in Sunday School. Many holiness revivals were held in these two churches in Pittsburgh.
Another church was started in Bradford, Pennsylvania, in 1904. Frank Skuce, of Olean, NY, met a local resident, John Worden, and decided to start a church. They were successful in establishing a congregation which became the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene. Rev. Schaffer and Rev. Lewis Miller pastored the church in these early years.
In 1905, Mt. Zion Nazarene Church began in the spacious home of William Creal, wealthy owner of a furniture company in Warren, Pennsylvania. Its spiritual roots go back to a holiness revival held in Grace Methodist Church by Evangelist L. Milton Williams. Following the General Assembly of the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene at Pilot Point, Texas in 1908, newly elected General Superintendent Hiram F. Reynolds and Evangelist Williams came by train directly from Texas to receive the holiness group into the brand new denomination. We know it today as Warren First Church of the Nazarene.
In 1907, C. A. Imhoff, a former Methodist evangelist, conducted a revival in New Galilee, Pennsylvania. A church of thirty-four members was organized. Within a year, they constructed their own church building.
T. H. Agnew, an evangelist and member of the Rock River Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, joined the National Association for the Promotion of Holiness in Chicago. At the request of several ministers on the district, he was appointed by Dr. [Phineas] Bresee, in 1906, as superintendent of the Midwestern work. For the next five years, he ranged the country from Ohio to Iowa looking for holiness groups and missions willing to be the nuclei of Churches of the Nazarene. Within a year he organized twelve congregations.
The eastern end of the territory had a rapid growth resulting in organization of two new districts. The Pittsburgh District at this time included all of Ohio, West Virginia, and the western part of Pennsylvania. [The actual date of the organization of the Pittsburgh District was May, 1907]. The first district assembly was held May 20, 1908 under the leadership of Dr. Bresee and H. F. Reynolds. There were twenty-three delegates with four churches represented. Rev. J. H. Norris of Pittsburgh was elected the first district superintendent. The following committees were appointed:
- Advisory and Missionary Board
- State of the Church
- Temperance and Prohibitions
- Publishing Interests
- Public Worship
In one of Dr. Bresee’s messages to the assembly, he made the remark in connection with Nazarene churches that they were like multiplying onions; when you planted one, there would soon be a dozen surrounding it (Beulah Christian, June 6, 1908). The blessing of the Lord was on this our first District Assembly. It was a time of great rejoicing.
During the year, Rev. Norris helped to establish congregations in Newark, Columbus, and Lithopolis, Ohio, and several places in Western Pennsylvania.
The second assembly was held May 19, 1909, in East Palestine [Ohio]. General Superintendent H. F. Reynolds was in charge. C. A. Imhoff of Clarion, Pennsylvania was elected as their leader. Two pastors were ordained: William Merry of Mahaffey [, Pennsylvania] and E. B. Fisher of Warren, Pennsylvania. By this time, there were thirteen churches on the district. Five of these were in Ohio: Columbus, East Palestine, Lisbon, Lithopolis, and Troy. Eight were in Pennsylvania: Lincoln Place, Mahaffey, Burnside, McPherson, Munhall Terrace, New Galilee, Pittsburgh First, and Warren. Each evening at the close of the evangelistic service, there were many at the altar seeking the experience of sanctification.
The 1910 assembly met in Warren, Pennsylvania with Dr. Bresee. Seven new churches were organized during the year: Canton, Mount Olive, Bentonville, and Bradyville, in Ohio; McKeesport, Oil City, and Bradford, in Pennsylvania.
Five more churches were organized by the 1911 assembly: Newell, West Virginia; East Liverpool and Uricksville, Ohio; and Claytonia and West Bradford, Pennsylvania. There were two outstanding revivals this year: one in Bradford and the other at Claytonia, Pennsylvania. Large crowds attended with one hundred seekers at each place.
District superintendent Imhoff suffered the loss of his home and most of his household goods by fire this year. The new district tent which was stored in his home was also burned.
By October of the same year there were 951 church members and 1,517 Sunday School scholars in the district. This showed a good increase.
The following year, five more new churches were organized: New Philadelphia, West Point, and Dayton, in Ohio; Willow Creek and Tarentum in Pennsylvania. The following year one more in Dyesville, Ohio, was added to the list.
Because of ill health, Rev. Imhoff resigned December 15, 1912. Rev. N. B. Herrell of Olivet, Illinois, was elected at the assembly. Dr. Reynolds inspired the members of this gathering with his messages. Street meetings were held before the evening services. These were times of refreshing with the blessing of the Holy Spirit. The Sabbath began with a love feast. This service was long to be remembered by those who attended. God’s presence was very real. One person who attended remarked, “I have never been to a place that is more like heaven than this assembly.”
The boundaries of the Pittsburgh District were changed in 1915. All of Ohio, the western part of Pennsylvania and northwestern panhandle of West Virginia made up the district. [Records do not show if the remaining part of West Virginia was placed under the jurisdiction of a different district or whether this was the beginning of the West Virginia District. The latter seems most likely.].
During the following years there was considerable opposition to the doctrine of Scriptural Holiness. However, the church moved ahead and continued to preach the full gospel. Five new churches were organized in 1916. At the district assembly of this year, Rev. James Short was elected district superintendent.
The church at this time was catching a new vision for home and foreign missions. Also, the Young People’s Society was growing both numerically and spiritually. Reports of many good revivals at this time manifested the presence of the Holy Spirit in the churches. Two tents were purchased for the purpose of holding revivals in new cities. Seven new churches and four missions were organized on the district by the assembly in 1918. Rev. Short resigned as district superintendent and was succeeded by Dr. Howard Sloan.
At this time they felt it advisable to divide the district into the new Pittsburgh and Ohio Districts. At the close of the 1919 assembly, with a feeling of sadness and the singing of “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds,” the group was divided. The line of division was from West Cleveland, Ohio, south to Charleston, West Virginia. The Western Ohio District extended to the Indiana state line. This left the Pittsburgh District with 28 congregations and 1,123 members. In spite of the difficulties in the following year, there was a revival spirit manifested throughout the district. New churches were organized at Grafton, West Virginia, and Canton and Springfield Heights, Ohio. Three new ones were added the following year. A tent meeting was held in Butler, Pennsylvania, with promise of developing into a permanent work later on. A district camp meeting was held at East Palestine, Ohio. The support from the district was not too encouraging.
For the next few years the accomplishments seemed to be comparatively few: not for lack of devotion or sacrifice on the part of the people, but for lack of funds. However, several tent meetings were held with good results. The necessity for spreading Scriptural Holiness was especially emphasized: the only answer to many of their problems. In spite of the difficulties, eight new churches were organized in 1923.
The year of 1926 showed a renewed passion for lost souls. Spirit-filled revivals broke out in many of the churches. The preceding years had been difficult, the trials many, but with God’s help they were conquered and the district moved forward. There was a oneness of purpose and unity amongst the people all over the Pittsburgh District. A net gain of 800 members was made this year.
Rev. C. Warren Jones was elected district superintendent at the 1928 assembly. The Sunday School, Young People’s Society and Missionary Society all showed remarkable growth during this year.
In 1931, the district comprised of 81 churches with 6,142 members, showing a good increase over the years. Most of the churches were greatly strengthened because of the excellent revival spirit that prevailed.
The 1932 report showed a gain of 1,039 in membership making a total of 7,978. God was still blessing with good revivals. Eleven new churches were organized in 1936, bringing the membership to 10,020.
Rev. O. L. Benedum was elected district superintendent in 1937. Under his leadership, the churches at Greensboro, Somerset, and Confluence, Pennsylvania were organized in 1938. In 1939, Scottsdale, Mercer, Kittanning, St. Petersburg, and Sharpsville, Pennsylvania were organized. The district at this time owned five tents which were used for Home Missions in different cities, towns, and communities. Places without the holy enthusiasm of a Church of the Nazarene presented a challenge to the people of the district.
At the 1942 assembly, the new Akron District was formed. Also, the state of West Virginia was made into a separate district [Many records show that Akron District was organized in 1940 with the West Virginia District organized two years later in 1942. Evidence supports the earlier date for the formation of the Akron (now East Ohio) District. It is possible that, in 1942, the panhandle portion of West Virginia was transferred to the West Virginia District that had been formed in 1915.]. Rev. Robert Heinlein was elected Pittsburgh District Superintendent.
Alameda Park, one and one half miles from Butler, was purchased in 1944 for a district camp. The plot included 57 acres with much of the equipment already on the grounds. The first camp was conducted July 6–16, 1944. The camp meeting was proved to be a great blessing to many. The Young People’s Society held very successful youth camps with many of our young people finding the Lord. The district camp became more and more an avenue of blessing to the churches on the district. The mortgage was burned at the fourth camp meeting.
When the Akron District was organized, it left the Pittsburgh District with 61 churches, most of them small. In five years, the district had 77 churches, most of these were self-supporting. By 1953, there were 94 churches.
In the year of 1957, two weeks before the assembly, Rev. Heinlein passed on to his reward. He had faithfully served the district for many years. At the assembly, Rev. R. B. Acheson was elected district superintendent. Acheson ably carried on the work at this time of adjustment. There were now 106 churches on the district.
Rev. Acheson resigned at the 1964 assembly, feeling called of God to pastor a church on the Indianapolis District. Robert Goslaw was then elected. In his first report to the district, he said, “Our people place top priority on spiritual things. They are devoted to the cause of holiness. They are wanting God to make them more fruitful in the salvation of souls, the sanctification of believers and the spreading of Scriptural Holiness around the world” (District Journal, 1965, 52).
Because of a highway [US 422] going through part of our camp grounds and the need for expansion, another site (the Crisswell property) was purchased. In looking over the situation, it was decided unwise to continue with developing the land. Crisswell was sold and the Mt. Chestnut property was purchased. A new district parsonage was built on this property in 1967. With the help of the lay people and pastors and the prayers of many, the needed facilities for the camp were built. The Lord helped in a marvelous way. The funds were raised by a program called “Treasures in Heaven.” In 1972, the Robert Heinlein Auditorium was dedicated: a cement floor, steps, platform and a tent top. Reider Pavilion was also built and named after our own missionaries, Rev. and Mrs. Stephen Reider.
For three years there was a losing trend in membership on the district. But in 1966, this trend was turned around with a gain of 179 members, mostly by profession of faith. In 1973, there was a net gain of 218 new members, second highest in 25 years.
In 1974, the district had the distinction of paying the highest percentage of general budget [now called the World Evangelism Fund] and the highest in ten percent giving for World Evangelism of the 72 United States and Canada Districts.
There was a renewal of the desire to reach more people for God and the church in the year of 1978. Several personal evangelism seminars were held. During this time, the church in Clarion was organized with Rev. Russell Collett as pastor. This church has had an exciting growth.
Dr. William Prince came as our leader in 1979. Monroeville was the new target area for a church at this time. This church was organized at the Home Mission service of the 1980 assembly.
The last Saturday evening of our 1980 camp meeting, there was a terrible storm. The old tent top to the tabernacle, which had been repaired many times, was completely destroyed. Through the generous giving, the hard work of pastors and laymen of the district and God’s help, a beautiful new tabernacle was built.
Dr. Prince went to Mt. Vernon, Ohio to be the president of our college. Rev. Jerry Lambert, pastor of the Grove City, Ohio, church came to be our new district superintendent. Since he came the new church at Greensburg has been organized.
The district has been blessed with faithful, Godly men as leaders. Rev. Lambert’s desire was to see a holiness revival on our district. May this be the heart cry of us all.
Dr. Jerry and Verla Lambert came to the Pittsburgh District in the fall of 1980. Right away, one of his first assignments was to oversee the repair of the tabernacle roof. He was also helping one of the largest churches on the district to call a new pastor since Dr. Dallas Mucci (Bethel Park South Hills) had been called to be the new district superintendent on the Metro New York District. This was a busy beginning for our new superintendent.
There was modest growth on the district during Rev. Lambert’s three years with us. Membership grew by nearly 100 to 8,085 and three churches were organized: Erie Millcreek, Indiana First, and Sheakleyville. In 1984, Dr. Lambert was elected president of Nazarene Bible College in Colorado Springs, CO.
With only a short time until the district assembly, Rev. Donald Chamberlain, Pittsburgh District secretary, was asked to serve as the interim superintendent. At the 1984 district assembly, Rev. J. Roy Fuller was elected as district superintendent. He and Nina had served as district superintendent of the Quebec Canada District and, previously, were missionaries to Italy.
During his thirteen year tenure, the number of organized churches grew to a high of 96, the highest number since 1966. In 1988, the total raised for all purposes by the churches on the district surpassed the $5 million dollar mark. Three churches were organized: Uniontown, Saltsburg, and Punxsutawney. A work was also started in St. Mary’s that never became an organized church.
Soon after his arrival, Rev. Fuller was involved in an attempt to establish a new district. The new district was to be called the Central Pennsylvania District, comprised of churches in Pennsylvania from the northern part of the Mid-Atlantic District [then called the Washington District] and from the eastern part of the Pittsburgh District. Rev. Tom Cahill was the leader of this pioneer district. However, after several efforts, the General Church of the Nazarene decided that it was not feasible to start a new district.
Another major effort by Rev. Fuller to spark growth on the Pittsburgh District was prompted by the denominational effort called “Thrust to the Cities.” Rev. Fuller initiated a district-sponsored mission to the city of Pittsburgh called People United in Love, Service, and Evangelism (PULSE). This was led by a committee of pastors and laypersons and resulted in the establishment of a work in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. This work joined the primarily African American church in Wilkinsburg—another tribute to Rev. Fuller’s effort to establish and strengthen the work of the Church of the Nazarene in Pittsburgh.
Some other “firsts” during Rev. Fuller’s tenure included hosting a major denominational TEACH conference, building a church for Indiana First in just a week, and being awarded an honorary doctorate of ministry by Trevecca Nazarene University.
The economy of the region took a major plunge when the coal mines and steel mills started to close in the late 80s and early 90s. Many of the churches saw steep declines in attendance, membership, and finances. Many churches were forced to close their doors or merge with nearby churches.
In 1997, Dr. Fuller was called to be the district superintendent of his home district in Alabama South. Rev. Stephen Dillman was elected to the office. This was the first election of a district superintendent from the district in fifty years. Rev. Dillman was pastor of Irwin-Norwin and had served as district secretary on the district for over seven years. He and Glenda moved to Butler and began their ministry that fall.
The downward trend continued with more church closings until there were 79 active congregations and nearly 7,300 members. A recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted that the economic effects of twenty years ago are still being felt today in every community across the western Pennsylvania region.
The district proceeded to re-evaluate its mission, establishing four core values: (1) strengthening local churches, (2) developing leadership, (3) building community, and (4) being missional. Two churches were organized: Duquesne City of Hope and Chartiers Creek Community. District structure was reorganized to promote Kingdom growth through:
- Church health training
- Education and continuing education for ministers
- Assessment and coaching for new pastors
- Starting new churches
The district developed a core of pastors who are trained and motivated to reach lost people for Jesus Christ. Working together they strengthened congregations and pastors to reach into their communities and find people who need God and His Church. They started new works wherever there appeared to be an opportunity in the belief that many will become organized churches. For this latter mission, Rev. Paul Willette came to the district as an Associate for Missional Development. This action resulted in thirteen “NewStarts” with several more potential ministries. Statistically, the Pittsburgh District began a turnaround that has all the earmarks of a positive trend. To God be the glory!
In 2004, with the blessing of the district, Rev. Dillman earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree in Organizational Leadership. His focus was servant leadership … something that uniquely identifies his ministry.
Dr. Dillman also led the district toward the fulfillment of a goal begun over 20 years ago under Dr. Fuller’s leadership. The Mt. Chestnut District Center began a transition from being used a few weeks each year to a year-round retreat and conference center. In 1998, the district made major progress in that direction with the addition of the Multipurpose Building/Gym. Despite some difficulties, other improvements were steadily made to the point that a group is on the grounds nearly every week. The current staff, led by Executive Director Phil Heckman, continues to develop the mission of the center as well as the facilities.
The missional work of Christ is the work of faithful pastors and lay persons on the district. Wherever the Great Commandment (love God and your neighbor as yourself) and the Great Commission (go into the world and make disciples) are being lived out across the Pittsburgh District Church of the Nazarene, there is church health and Kingdom growth. While we reminisce and rejoice in the good things God did in the past, our focus is on what God plans to do in our future. We are ready and already working.
And so ends the first 100 years of history for the Pittsburgh District Church of the Nazarene. Will the church continue to build on the foundations laid in the first 100 years? Will there be a godly vision of “Kingdom Building” throughout the district? Has enough been learned so that mistakes will not be repeated? The answer rests with the people of the Pittsburgh District and their desire to see where God is at work and then join Him there.
Beulah Christian, June 6, 1908.
Pittsburgh District Church of the Nazarene. 1965. Journal of the Fifty-ninth District Assembly of the Pittsburgh District Church of the Nazarene.