Chelten’s ministry began in 1891 when a Sunday school was organized in a store at the corner of Chew Street and Woodlawn Avenue in Germantown, PA. Over the next six years, this congregation of 45 people moved to a private home and then to a small chapel. To help provide historical context for this period, the president of the U.S. in 1897 was William McKinley, and the Spanish-American War took place at the end of the 19th century.
During this time exciting things were happening in the little congregation in Germantown. In 1897 fifteen people from Third Baptist Church of Germantown were commissioned to form a new church, merging with the congregation of 45. By 1898 the church was recognized by the North Philadelphia Baptist Convention and became known as Eastside Baptist Church with Dr. L. T. Denchfield serving as pastor. The original church building was erected in 1899 on Chelten Avenue east of Boyer Street. Subsequent pastors were Rev. J.H. Joliffe (1900-1902) and Dr. J.E. Sagebeer (1903-1904) and the name of the church was changed to Chelten Avenue Baptist Church in July of 1904 during the pastorate of Dr. David Spencer.
The Young Men’s League was organized in 1910 and in 1912 the church was gifted with a beautiful pipe organ. One hundred people professed Christ, and 65 were baptized during 1916. Attendance at prayer meeting was so large that it was necessary to move the meeting to the church auditorium. Rev. George July, Dr. John Love, Rev. P.R. Hayward, Rev. O.S. Weistner and Rev. R.T. Tumbleston served as pastors from 1909 until 1923.
The 1920s began with the last American troops returning from Europe after World War I. This was a decade of change as women were given the right to vote, the first commercially licensed radio broadcast was heard, and commercial passenger air travel began.
It has been said that the war and economic depression caused many to turn to God and others to turn away from him. Thankfully at Chelten, growth was happening. The rebuilding of the church basement was completed in 1926 while Rev. W. Dallas Cope was pastor. Following Pastor Cope’s death in 1928 the congregation voted to carry out his long-expressed desire to have pews in the church. After a year of sacrificial giving the pews were installed as a memorial to the pastor.
Late in 1928 the church welcomed Rev. Hammond Crossan who was known as a man of quiet faithfulness. Historical notes indicate that Rev. Crossan accepted no salary from the church. He owned a printing company and donated the printing of the church bulletin for several years. Long-time members recall that Mrs. Crossan was a Sunday school teacher for their parents in the early 1930s. The Great Depression took place in the 1930s, and when the Depression reached its lowest point, 15 million Americans were unemployed, and nearly half of the country’s banks had failed.
The church called Rev. David Allen as pastor in 1937. Although the country was still suffering from the effects of the Depression, Chelten experienced considerable growth under his leadership, and within a few years the church mortgage was satisfied. At one service, five young people committed their lives to Christ; under Pastor Allen’s guidance all five entered training for full-time Christian ministry.
The U.S. entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and before long everyday life in America dramatically changed. Food, gas and clothing were rationed. To help the war effort, women found employment as electricians, welders and riveters in defense plants. Finally, when the war ended in 1945, life in America began to return to normal as servicemen returned home and industry started producing goods that improved the lives of American families. The economy was strong, and by 1946, unemployment was low and wages were at record levels.
Rev. William McIlhenny was among the servicemen returning to Philadelphia. An outstanding Bible teacher, he came to Chelten in 1946 after serving as an army chaplain in the war. Attendance and contributions increased, and a Christian education annex was built in 1948. Chelten commissioned its first missionaries in the mid-1940s: Bud and Ellen Cramer to Ecuador and Elsie Rohrer to India.
Historians use the word “boom” to describe many things about the 1950s: the booming economy, the booming suburbs and most of all, the “baby boom.” This boom began in 1946 when a record number of babies were born after the war. By the time the boom tapered off in 1964, there were close to 77 million “baby boomers.”
Chelten experienced a boom of its own during those years. The congregation withdrew from the Northern Baptist Convention and joined the Conservative Baptist Association in 1949. Rev. John Fissel was called in 1953, and under his direction the sanctuary on Chelten Avenue underwent extensive renovations. The church experienced record financial giving in 1956, and 40% of the budget was allocated to missions. Seeing the need for ministry in the suburbs and having a vision for the future, Pastor Fissel led the congregation in the purchase of a property in Dresher. In 1961, the church purchased a house, barn and over 7 1/2 acres of ground on Limekiln Pike.
While the country was struggling through a decade of great tragedy in the 1960s, Chelten was transitioning from Philadelphia to the suburbs and finding ways to impact their new community under the leadership of Rev. William Randolph who had been called in 1961. Following the purchase of the Dresher property, services were held in both Philadelphia and Dresher for over a year. Church families who met in Dresher volunteered to care for the church building and grounds during that time. In 1963 the congregations were reunited. While the church met temporarily in the house on the church property and later at Jarrettown Elementary School, a new building of 10,000 square feet was constructed and dedicated in 1965. A parsonage was built on the church property in 1969.
In the fall of 1974, Rev. Glenn R. Blossom was called to Chelten. Under his leadership the church flourished. Community groups were started, and daycare was added to the existing nursery school. Eventually pre-K and kindergarten classes were included, and the school became known as Chelten Child Development Center. The number of missionaries Chelten supported increased considerably. In 1978 a large addition was built providing a spacious sanctuary, offices, library, lounge and several much-needed classrooms.
Beginning in 1980 Chelten played a vital role in the founding of Seminary of the East. Classes began in the fall of 1985, and eventually four teaching centers were established. Today there are close to 350 graduates in the U.S. and worldwide.
A new church constitution and bylaws was adopted in 1986, restructuring Chelten’s ministries under Edification, Worship and Evangelism/Mission. These ministries functioned under the newly- established Board of Elders.
Pastor Blossom and his family moved to their own home in 1990, allowing for the division of the parsonage into two missionary apartments. Continued growth created new space issues, and in 1991 a 17,000 square foot education wing was built. A long-standing vision of the church was realized in 1994 when approximately 40 members were commissioned to start a daughter church in the Chalfont area. Grace Community Church now has a congregation of approximately 150 members. Chelten’s Mandarin Chinese congregation was started in 1998.
Rev. Tom Allen came to Chelten in an interim role in 2000. In 2001 Andrew Hudson was called as Pastor of Church Ministries and Rev. Allen’s position was changed to Pastor of Teaching Ministries. Chelten became a partner in the Chosen 300 ministry in 2005, preparing and serving meals to the homeless in the Philadelphia region each month. Dr. William Krewson assumed responsibility as Teaching Pastor in 2006, and Dr. Bill Smith began Chelten’s Counseling Center the same year. Seeds of Hope, a food pantry ministry, began in 2008 and currently serves 160 families and distributes 7000 pounds of food weekly. Over 40 volunteers and an experienced staff care for customers and keep the pantry operating efficiently. The church also played a key role in providing seed funding for Chariots for Hope in 2009, offering financial and relational support to the Maai Mahiu Children’s Home in Kenya, East Africa and sponsoring close to 70 children.
Rev. Neil Kulp was called as Executive Pastor in 2010. Later the same year the Center for Biblical Transformation was launched, offering college-level courses for Chelten members and the broader community to help deepen understanding of the Bible and Christian theology. To date, 120 individuals have graduated from the program. In 2014 a pastoral leadership team comprised of senior pastors of mission, discipleship and worship was established. Conversation Café, an outreach that began in 2017, has provided opportunities for discussion and connection with those for whom English is a second language. A year-long visioning process took place in 2017-2018, providing missional direction for the next five years at Chelten. And in the summer of 2018, 180 enthusiastic volunteers worked with over 260 children at Chelten’s Vacation Bible School.
Today the church is known as Chelten, a Church of Hope. It has been sustained by the grace of God for 120 years and the church’s vision remains firm: to worship the triune God, to nurture his family, and to share his gospel of hope. May God continue to enable Chelten to serve others and reflect his love as we anticipate his coming.