Church History – The Beginning

Church History – The Beginning

The “tabernacle,” Spencerville’s first church in Silver Spring, barely resembled a church at all. It was a crude structure hastily put up by volunteers in two weeks using rough lumber taken from other buildings. The rough boards on the inside of the building were noticeable: on the ceiling, on the walls, and on the bare floor. Also noticeable were the rows of wooden folding chairs where the members, although they would not have believed it at the time, would sit through Sabbath School and worship every week for ten years. Some still remember the one small window over the rostrum, which could not be opened. Though it seemed useless, in the spring when the dogwood was in bloom, a little spray of blossoms hung over the window making a lovely picture.

Spencerville Church Tabernacle, est. 1936
The Spencerville Church Tabernacle, est. 1941.

The wonder of it all is that people left their comfortable churches and drove miles to this little country tabernacle to worship. They came from Takoma Park, Hyattsville, Silver Spring, and Laurel. Some came, no doubt, out of curiosity, but some came time and time again, eventually deciding to become members of the new congregation.

The area where the church and school are located has seen many changes since 1940. The narrow roads and little lanes of that era have become highways and secondary roads, and many housing developments have taken the place of extensive farmlands. Shopping plazas have replaced country stores, and new modern schools have been built. Even the names of the roads have changed. Colesville Pike is now New Hampshire Avenue, and Laurel Road has become Spencerville Road. Recently a section of Good Hope has been redone and its name changed to Cape May Road. But the intersection of Spencerville Road and New Hampshire Avenue is still known as Brown’s Corner as noted on the map of Montgomery County.

In the Beginning

According to charter member Christine Seibel (Erickson) one must start back in 1936 to get to the very beginning. [Note: Christine Erickson, the last remaining charter member, passed to her rest on January 7, 2012] She tells this story:

Adventist laypersons, C. B. (Bennie) Hamm and his wife, bought a place in Nortonsville, Virginia in 1936. One side of the house had a long room that at one time was a store and then a doctor’s office. Hamm wondered what he might do with this unique space. One night he had a dream where he saw a woman walking up the steps where she looked into the window of the house. He later decided the space would be ideal for a place to hold meetings and engaged the services of an evangelist.

They passed out cards and advertisements to the surrounding homes inviting them to the meeting. Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hall decided to attend. When Mrs. Hall walked in, Hamm immediately recognized her, saying, “That’s the woman in my dream!” Mrs. Hall went on to accept the Adventist message.

Mr. and Mrs. Hamm later invited Mrs. Hall and her son, Johnny, to go to camp meeting in Takoma Park, Maryland. While there, attending a cooking school class, Mrs. Hall met Ray and Anita Doyle. She asked the Doyles if they would go to visit her two daughters, Alma and Gladys, to give them Bible studies. Her daughters lived in the Burtonsville area and had married men who were cousins both named Wilson. The two women were joined in their studies by Thomas Haviland and Bill and Anna Dresser. All of them were baptized in the Hyattsville Church on April 19, 1941 by Pastor F. D. Nichol (also editor of the Adventist Review). Roy Wilson, wife of Alma, was eventually baptized on November 19 of the same year although in the Patuxent River instead of the baptistery.

A segment of the hand-drawn map of the Burtonsville area where door-to-door evangelism was taking place

The Wilsons, Doyles, Gladys Wilson, and Dressers all attended the Hyattsville Church. They would meet on Sabbath afternoon in Roy and Alma Wilson’s home and discussed how they might evangelize the Burtonsville/Spencerville area just as the Hyattsville Church had done in their surrounding neighborhood. By November 1940, the small group decided to divide the roads in the Burtonsville area within a 10-mile radius. They would go from door to door and leave the small tract Present Truth at each house making a person-to-person contact whenever possible. The group created hand-drawn maps of the area noting each house and business as well as names of the people living there. Notes were added if there was an interest expressed, children in the home, or simply a welcoming face. Bill and Ann Dresser, along with Alma Wilson, took the area from Burtonsville to the Patuxent River. It was in this way that Christine Seibel met her first Adventists. First, visited by Alma Wilson, and later invited to Bible studies by Anita Doyle.

This plan began with literature distribution, Bible studies, eventually leading to evangelistic meetings that would culminate in the organization of a church in this remote vicinity. The distribution continued until March 1941, a period of approximately twenty weeks. Ella May Robinson, granddaughter of Ellen G. White and a diligent worker in the program describes it best in a letter written at the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the church.

“Sitting quietly while waiting for the Sabbath Service to begin, I can but think of the days when our dear Sister Doyle, with prayers and entreaties, gathered all whom she could persuade into a working group. Week after week on Sabbath afternoons we plodded up and down those long country roads, sometimes wiping perspiration from our faces, at other times shielding them from the wintry blizzards, knocking on doors, and leaving leaflets that told the good news of Jesus’ soon return.”

And a Church Was Born

In 1940, the property on the comer of Good Hope and Spencerville roads where a little red brick church now stands was a beautiful wooded area owned by Mr. and Mrs. Frank DeVilbiss, an elderly couple living about a mile away on Colesville Pike (now New Hampshire Avenue). The lay members passing out literature in the vicinity no doubt traveled by the woods many times, never dreaming that this was the property where the church they were hoping to build would be located.

“Present Truth” literature was distributed in the Burtonsville area, ahead of the public meetings.

In December 1940 when Mr. Arthur Hume with his wife and sons, Franklin and Rudy, were delivering “Present Truth” tracts, they came to the DeVilbiss home a few yards from Brown’s Comer. The De Vilbisses had been receiving the tracts for several weeks but had never met the one who left them. When Mr. DeVilbiss, answering a knock at the door, saw Mr. Hume standing there with the literature in his hand he was delighted and graciously invited him to come in.

The two men were soon talking like old friends, their conversation interspersed with a tune or two on the fiddle. Remembering their father’s penchant for long conversations, the Hume boys knew they were in for a long wait, and, indeed, Mr. Hume seemed in no hurry to leave. He told Mr. DeVilbiss about the work he and his group were doing, of their hopes of establishing a church in the community, and their need to hold an evangelistic campaign so that the people in the neighborhood could hear our message.

Mr. DeVilbiss told how he had met his first group of Seventh-day Adventists when he attended a few meetings in Grange Hall in Burtonsville approximately ten miles away (no longer standing). He spoke of how much he liked the ministers and how much he had enjoyed the gospel songs and the sermons. Then he spoke of his dismay and anger when he went to the meeting one night and found that they had been discontinued by order of the town fathers who did not like the Adventist’s teaching that Saturday was the Sabbath. That night DeVilbiss had vowed that if he ever encountered another group of Seventh-day Adventists he would give them land on which to build a church. At some point in the conversation, he offered the Hyattsville group the use of his large field on the south side of Spencerville Road for evangelistic meetings. More than that, he offered them land for a church building. Just as the sun was setting signaling the end of the Sabbath, Mr. Hume said “goodbye” to his host, and returned to his weary family who had been sitting in the car for two long hours.

The seven acres of donated property was in Potomac Conference territory. The Doyles appealed to H. J. Detweiler, president of the Potomac Conference, for help, but, for some reason, he was not interested in establishing a church in this area (a decision later regretted by the Potomac Conference officials). He advised them to go to C. V. Leach, president of Chesapeake Conference, for help. Elder Leach gladly accepted responsibility for the project and began to plan for evangelistic meetings. Interestingly, Elder Leach was home sick in bed when the fledging church leadership approached him. He gladly welcomed them into his bedroom where they began the plan of establishing a new Adventist church in the area.

In July 1941, a tent was erected in the DeVilbiss field. Evangelist Walter Riston and his wife and music director John Hickman and his wife arrived to start the meetings. Fliers advertising the coming event were delivered to the homes in the area; everything was ready to go. Christine Erickson recalls, “Alma Wilson invited me to attend the tent meetings and I went to every meeting [even] taking my little child along each time I could not get a sitter. I enjoyed every meeting so very much and the association with all the wonderful new friends I gained there.”

The meetings continued through the summer; then Sabbath services and Wednesday night meetings were held in the tent until it became so cold they had to be discontinued. The Early in September the believers organized into a company with Elder Riston as their leader, Mrs. Raymond Rokes as clerk, Mrs. Floto Riston as treasurer and H. Ray Doyle as Sabbath School superintendent.

The Chesapeake Conference had offered lumber for a “tabernacle” from cabins they no longer wanted in Catonsville. Several men took trucks up and down the road between Catonsville and Spencerville in order to bring the lumber. A hastily prepared wooden structure was built in two weeks on the DeVilbiss property.

On October 12, the tent was taken down. Although the tabernacle was already in progress on the Good Hope Road property, it was not available for Sabbath. This would mean there was no place to hold services until Mrs. Clara Tapp, one of the recently organized company, offered her home for meetings. The following Sabbath, October 25, the congregation worshiped for the first time in the tabernacle.

On December 27, 1941 came the day when the small company organized formally into the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church. After Sabbath School and worship services and an intermission for lunch, the company assembled at 2:45 p.m. Elder Leach addressed the company stressing the part the laity had played in soul winning as they united their efforts with that of the gospel ministry. When he had finished speaking, he asked all who wanted to unite with the church to stand. A large number responded. From this group he selected H. Ray Doyle, Elder Riston, and Lawrence Delong to present letters from Hyattsville, Hagerstown, and Pulaski, New York churches. These formed a nucleus of the Spencerville Church. The list of the Hyattsville members with letters of recommendation was read by the clerk. One by one, each member was voted into the church until thirty-seven were received. Then the names of Lillian Amos and Christine Seibel (now Erickson) were accepted subject to baptism. Thus, the Spencerville Church was born with a membership of thirty-nine. Elder Riston’s closing words were “Truly this whole day was a joyous occasion and one long to be remembered. The Lord’s presence was felt.”

In later years, Elder Riston wrote, “The day of the organization was cold and windy. The furnace, which supplied the heat, was insufficient to keep the wintry blasts from penetrating the bones of the worshipers. Furnace fuel was supplied from large chunks of wood from trees, which had been cut down to provide building space for the tabernacle. Though the fire was red hot, the cold persisted. Nevertheless, a warm feeling from within each heart radiated out in a glow of happiness on each new member’s face as he was being voted into church fellowship.”

Shortly after the official organization, other members were added to the church, some by baptism, and others by transfers until exactly one year from its beginning the fifty-sixth member was added. Elder Riston soon left to carry on his evangelistic work in another place, and for a time ministers came, stayed a short time and left. Elder Hans Kotz, home on furlough from Africa, was pastor for part of 1942. Then Elder Lester Coon came as a part-time minister, shared with the Laurel church. Spencerville was fortunate in having Elder Robinson, always glad to help when needed.

Mr. Eugene and Mrs. Dores Robinson

Elder and Mrs. Dores Robinson deserve special mention for their contributions to the church and school sharing their funds, their expertise, and their seasoned judgment. Even though Elder Robinson was in his mid-sixties, he was still working full time in the White Estate at the General Conference. He had been in denominational service since he was a young man working as Ellen G. White’s secretary, spending years as a missionary in Africa and pastoring churches at home. The Robinsons never refused to tackle any task. They helped with getting the schoolroom ready for opening day, and took part in fund raising efforts. Elder Robinson spoke at church services and frequently took time off from his busy schedule at the General Conference to transport two teachers who lived in Takoma Park, to and from school. There was help from other sources as well including the General Conference, the Theological Seminary, and Washington Missionary College (now Washington Adventist University)

The excellent help received from Elder Leslie Hardinge is especially remembered. The congregation felt honored that he would give their lowly little church time from his already busy schedule. Elder Frank Yost was also a very welcome speaker after the move into the first church, and there were many others.

Many Hands Make a Church Grow

As soon as the church was organized, members began talking about starting a church school. Finding it impossible to organize a school in 1942, they decided they would definitely plan for one the following year. In August 1943, the Board voted to ask the pastor to find a teacher for the school. Soon Miss Ruby Ingle was engaged to teach with a salary of $90 a month for the first four months and the promise of a 10 percent raise for the last five months. This was a promise the church was not able to keep until the 1944 school year.

Preparations for the school included making some changes in a room on the left side of the tabernacle, which was added as a Dorcas room. Board members looked around and found used desks, which, no doubt, had been discarded by some other school. They also had to find a stove, dig a well, secure a pump, and build a chimney.

First group of children in front of the school with teachers, Evelyn Nesbitt (right) and Irma Brown (left).The United States was at this time involved in World War II and no stove was available, nor could Ray Rokes purchase one from his friend as suggested. The Board minutes reveal that Brother Rokes loaned the school his stove, but he never got his stove back. Four years later the stove was found cold one icy school morning and a new stove was purchased.

Some of the school’s needs were easily met. The Board minutes read, “Elder and Mrs. Robinson presented a dictionary to the school, Brother Rokes, a broom, and Sister Fuller, soap.” At a later meeting, the well committee reported triumphantly, “The well is drilled one hundred eleven feet with a good supply of water, costing more than $250. We tried to pump the well dry, but couldn’t.” [Note: This particular note brings a smile when one realizes that the spring found under the school continued to give and give creating interesting water issues for the years that followed giving it the name “Spencerville Springs.”] The Board wanted, if possible, to install an electric pump. Apparently, no electric pump was available until 1948, when a new school was built, so the children pumped water by hand bringing it into the school in a bucket. There was no indoor plumbing, and things were not very sanitary.

In September 1943, Spencerville school opened for the first time with six children from three families: Haviland, Adams, and Shifflet, a boy and a girl from each. Earl Adams, one of the six, using the first letter of each family name called it the “HAS School.” The school was small for the first three years, but it was not to remain small forever. In the 1946 school year, there were twenty students and two teachers, Irma Brown and Ethel Nesbitt. Although it returned to a one-teacher school the next year, it was only temporary for the enrollment grew rapidly (click on the photo above).

In 1947, the Spencerville congregation decided that they could begin construction of the church they had dreamed of building, but just as they were ready to start, they were faced with a dilemma. The school enrollment was on the verge of outgrowing its quarters. The room that barely accommodated ten to fifteen children could in no way house twenty, the expected number for the coming year. It was clear something must be done.

It was no easy problem to solve, but after many discussions by the Board and congregation, a decision was made. Realizing that there was no other way, the Board voted to use the church building fund for the erection of a two-room cinder-block school. There was not enough money in the church fund to cover all the expense of building, but the congregation felt that by combining the funds on hand with faith and hard work, it could be done.

First cinderblock two-room school. Click to enlarge.In late summer of 1947, the men of the church began work on the new school. On Sundays and often in the evenings during the week all the men who were able came to work. During the week throughout the school year teacher and students often caught glimpses of Eddie Reifsnyder and Lynwood Stimpson laying cinder blocks even when the weather was cold. Eddie had left his business in the hands of his workers so he could work full time on the school site. He later reported that he had suffered no financial loss by leaving his work to others while he built the school.

In mid September 1948, one room was finished, and a happy group of kids and one teacher left the little room on the side of the tabernacle and moved to a beautiful schoolroom. Building the school meant that it would be three years before a permanent church building could be started, and yet as time went by people realized that they had made a wise decision. Not only did the school enrollment increase but the church membership increased as well.

Let Them Build Me A Sanctuary

Spencerville Church’s second building, circa 1950, at Good Hope and Spencerville Roads

In August 1950, the members again took up the matter of building a new church, but it came as a shock to some to learn that they did not know to which conference they belonged. Chesapeake Conference now wanted Spencerville to stay in their conference, but technically the church was in the territory of the Potomac Conference. Building plans could not go on until this matter was settled. It was a problem for the Columbia Union Conference to consider. The matter was soon settled in favor of the Chesapeake Conference, and construction was able to begin.

Soon after the foundation was in, leaves on the ground between the school and the old tabernacle caught fire from the incinerator, burning the tabernacle beyond reasonable repair. Services in the little building came to an abrupt end, and the only solution to the problem was to worship in the church school. This necessitated holding two services simultaneously, one for the young people and one for the adults. The lack of space presented some problems for the Sabbath School, as there were no rooms for the various groups to meet separately.

Ella May Robinson wrote, “Then came the tragedy by fire which confirmed our decision to build the new church and gave impetus to its progress. There were no rich donors among us but we put our ‘littles’ together, and there were many in our congregation who were skillful workmen rich in love and willing to devote many hours of free labor. It was no unusual occurrence for the building operations to be carried on Sundays and after working-hours on weekdays. Sometimes the work continued far into the night.” One of those times was when Pastor Teel and Blane Ullom worked all night on the heating and Mrs. Teel came down toward morning to see what was happening. Some experiences were a bit frightening such as the time Elder Teel lost his footing while shingling and came sliding down the roof. Fortunately, Darrell Smith was there to catch him.

The unfinished basement of the church was used for the first time for a Christmas program given by the schoolchildren in 1950. There was much hurry-up work to be done; Darrell Smith, principal, and Elder Teel worked up to the last minute to get it ready. For a few weeks after this the basement was used for church services, but, with nothing but sub flooring and tarpaper above, the snow and rain leaked through, and the basement became too wet. Reluctantly, the members returned to the school and the double church services where they stayed until summer when the roof was on the church.

The basement served as a place of worship until the main part of the sanctuary was completed. The first meeting in the church proper was in the early part of 1952 (click to photo to enlarge) when Elder Teel held a series of evangelistic meetings. Midway through the meetings, he accepted an invitation to pastor the University Church in Loma Linda, and Elder Leslie Hardinge was asked to complete the series. In another example of commitment, the Spencerville members dedicated this same church on April 3, 1954, just two years after its completion. The $100,000 church was dedicated without debt. The Columbia Union Visitor reported:

“Elder D. K. Smith, who has been pastor since March 1952, and his devoted members who have donated many free hours of labor and thousands of dollars to this new church edifice and school, still are planning with God’s direction to build a recreation center for the school children. The pastor, each consecrated member, and others who have had a part in helping push forward this work of faith say, “To God be the glory” (Columbia Union Visitor, May 13, 1954).

In 1966, Elder Teel wrote from California, “We consider it a real privilege to have been a part of your on-going and ever-growing program. We worshiped with you in the moth-eaten and termite-tattered tabernacle. We saw the school experiencing birth pains. We helped cut down the trees for a church site. We saw the women pound nails for the subfloor of the sanctuary. We were there when the tabernacle burned and were glad we could collect the insurance. We were there when we moved into the basement of the new church with only the subflooring and tarpaper above us for a roof. We were there when we moved into our new church home, and it was beautiful!”

During the construction of the church, people were heard to say, “Why are we building such a large church? We will never fill it!” When that church was dedicated in 1954, the membership was 164. In 1966, it had grown to 354 and it was necessary to have two services each Sabbath. By 1973, the membership had risen to 433 and was still growing. It was time to build again. Committees were formed, plans were made, and an eight-acre site on New Hampshire Avenue was purchased. Because there were two differing opinions among the members—some wanted to put an addition on the old church, while others wanted to build a new one—and because the county was so long in providing a permit, it was 1978 before construction began. Once again, the members were willing to put in hours of volunteer work. There were those in the congregation who donated their skills in earth moving, insulation, painting, cabinetry, and installation of a fire-alarm system. Nearly every member of the congregation provided funds, and early in 1980, the new church was ready for occupancy.

The Modern Era

Many members gave of their time, talents, and finances to bring the building to completion. The new building was located back on “Brown’s Corner” and the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and Route 198. The last time Spencerville members met in the old church on Good Hope Road was January 26, 1980.

On February 2, 1980, they met in the newly finished church for the first time, and on February 9, the church was dedicated. Life continued and grew in the new building. The new electronic organ along with the choir lifted their voices of praise. The children’s offering started back in the old church continued. And the sanctuary that many thought could never be filled, began to fill Sabbath after Sabbath.

In December 1989, a pipe organ was donated to the church by former long-time members Frank and Dolly DeHaan. This would involve many dollars and much work to renovate the sanctuary in preparation for installation of the organ, but little did they know then, the degree of patience it would require for both the board and the church members as the work progressed. Renovations, major and minor, included the extension of the rostrum, improvement of the sound system, replacement of the glass on the south side of the sanctuary, and improved lighting. There were also some unexpected repairs. In the demolition process, the wall behind the rostrum was found to be hanging without support. This had to be replaced.

spencerville church organ
The Spencerville Church pipe organ, a Moller Opus was commissioned for service in 1991.

The unsupported wall was only one of the unknown problems that were discovered under the watchful eyes of project managers, Wally and DeVona Malcolm. Later DeVona discovered that the carpet had deteriorated and was in need of replacement. Instead of carpet, the board voted to install a slate floor.

Sanctuary renovations started in September 1990 and were finished in September 1991. An inaugural concert was performed by English Organist Simon Preston to a packed audience of Spencerville members, friends from the community, and visitors. The organ is often the centerpiece of the monthly Evensong Concert Series, which attracts music lovers from the surrounding community. Membership continued to expand and grow in the new church so that soon the membership was nearing 800. This had a profound effect on school enrollment. Now the building that began with just 20 students had expanded to more than 350. Elementary grades had expanded to a junior academy and now extended through the twelfth grade. The current building added in phases could no longer contain the program. It was time again to build, however, this time; it would be a new school.

On July 31, 2011, a grand opening was held at the new Spencerville Adventist Academy (see photo below). A project that was 14 years in the making, now stood as an additional testimony to the commitment, generosity, and tenacity of the Spencerville church members. Yet another accomplishment under God’s leading.

spencerville adventist academy
Spencerville Adventist Academy, completed in 2011.

Spencerville’s pioneers were full of faith and courage as they toiled along with few resources. With the death of Christine Erickson, they are all gone and will not know until the resurrection that their little church of thirty-nine members is now at more than 2,000 members. In addition, just as they began as a church plant from the Hyattsville Church, Spencerville has contributed to the establishment of two other neighboring congregations—Triadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church and Olney Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Certainly, the history of the Spencerville church is replete with years of tenacity, hard work, accomplishment, and giving. In 70 years the Spencerville congregation has: built a makeshift tabernacle, added a Dorcas Room, converted the Dorcas Room to a church school, built a two-room school, built a church, added seven rooms to the school, built a gym, added a three-story addition to the school, built the present church, renovated the sanctuary, added two additional pastoral offices, installed a Moller pipe organ, landscaped the current church, bought new property for a school, expanded the current church’s parking lot, built two new Sabbath School classrooms, expanded and renovated the kitchen, and built a $23,000,000 state-of-the-art school facility. In the early days when the pioneers of Spencerville Church were just beginning, Anita Doyle was often heard to say, “That just shows how God is leading in this work.” Today, looking back over seventy years, we too can say, “God has led us all the way. His providences have indeed brought forth noble achievements from small beginnings.

—compiled by Merle Poirier from several historical accounts created for the 50th and 60th anniversaries as well as several narratives written by Christine Seibel Erickson and Alma Hall Wilson, January 2012