June 15, 2006 by Joseph Krohn
Forty years has come and gone, a generation is fading away. The past is now, but a memory. Now is the time where a new generation is taking the place of the old, and another is waiting in the corridors of time. In the short history of the people and churches that make up the now Great Lakes Conference of the Bible Methodist Connection, many changes have been made in the march toward this present age. Some of them were necessary and beneficial; still others caused difficulties, trials and betrayals. Despite all that, one fact is proven to stand out in the four decades of our history, that we have stood together promoting “the gospel and spreading scriptural holiness across these lands.”
The Free Methodist Church established in August of 1860, became the object of dissention in the early 1960’s. Three main groups left the Free Methodist Church resulting in the schism from the mid-1950’s to the late-1960’s. These groups were the Midwest Holiness Association, the Evangelical Wesleyans of North America (these two groups later merging in 1963) and a smaller group centered in Michigan, called the United Holiness Church of North America (1966).
In the early months of 1966 a group of ministers, centered in the North Michigan Conference of the Free Methodist Church, began to coalesce around the leadership of E.D. Coxon. The North Michigan Conference had been “increasingly infiltrated by those wishing to adhere to compromising policies of the general church. Old line ministers and layman throughout the conference have been vocal in opposition to the general disregard of Free Methodistism’s first-generation standards of conduct and spiritual fervency.” The ministers under the leadership of E.D. Coxon concluded that there was no other course but secession from the church. Booklets stating the reasons for such action were distributed throughout the churches in the conference on Sunday, February 16, 1966. These were signed by eighteen withdrawing members and their wives (the ministers withdrawing were: Rev. Lowell Betts, Rev. E.D. Coxon, Rev. Marvin Sickmiller, Rev. Justin Dowd, Rev. David Parks, Rev. Rudy Potter, Rev. L.D. Coxon, Rev. Lowell Derschied, Rev. D.M. Kiffer, Rev. DeWayne Coxon, Rev. Robert Truesdale, Rev. Robert Sickmiller, Rev. James H. Storey, Rev. Carl Johnson, Rev. Kenneth Stetler, Rev. C.K. Carlisle, and Rev. Eugene Book).
Bishop E.C. John after talking with other bishops met with the withdrawing members on February 19, 1966, discontinuing their salaries, defrocking them from the ministry and giving them thirty days to vacate all parsonages. On February 22-23 the dissident ministers and 350-400 laymen meant at a rally in Muskegon, Michigan, in which great revival fires burned in their hearts with many seeking at the altars. Many of the societies in the early days met in homes until alternative property could be secured. This schism in the North Michigan Conference left many churches in the area with only a handful of members as a large portion of the membership endeavor to follow God’s call for separation from the world and in emphasizing scriptural holiness.
The Heart of the Early United Holiness Ministers “We remain Free Methodists of heart. We realize that some good preachers and laymen will stay with the church, but subtle pressure will be on them to leave the old paths (Jeremiah 6:16).” On the hearts of the founding ministers of the United Holiness Church was a deep concern for the worldliness that had become abundant in the Free Methodist Church. They had a deep concern for their children and grandchildren lest the end results of remaining with the church would result in the damnation of their souls. It was not easy to leave the mother church. It would have been much easier to stay in the church with the securities of it. The early ministers gave up churches, parsonages, and salaries to follow God’s leading. They left everything, but there again, God called Abraham to leave all and follow Him.
Larry Smith, editor of the Earnest Christian writes, “We admire this action by our brethren in the North Michigan Conference. There is nothing that is more desperately needed throughout the holiness movement than clear-cut separation from worldly religious organizations. Free Methodism has been universally betrayed into the hands of the enemies of historic Methodism. How tragic that good and holy men should remain within a backslidden denomination which God has largely forsaken. [We admire] their action that said if this means secession from the church or even expulsion, let it come.”
The first General Conference of the United Holiness Church of North America was on June 15, 1966, held at a camp meeting in Carson City, in which E.D. Coxon, a former Free Methodist District Superintendent was elected the General Superintendent of the new denomination. The United Holiness Church soon grew to include between thirty to forty churches in addition to which was added mission work in Texas and Mexico. The denomination also published their own paper, known as the United Holiness Sentinel.
The denomination soon established Jordan College, located at Cedar Springs, as its denominational school. It became the centre of controversy in the late-1970’s and caused many churches to leave of which the majority become independent. In 1985 the denomination changed their name to the Wesleyan Bible Church of North America in an attempt to improve their image and to distant themselves from a Pentecostal group that was using a similar name in the southern United States.
In the mid-1990’s the United Holiness Church began to seek merger with the Bible Methodists and invited Dr. James B. Keaton Sr. to become the General Superintendent (former G.S. being: E.D. Coxon, James H. Storey, and Lowell Derschied). In 1994, merger with the Bible Methodist Connection was established and the United Holiness Church, became the Great Lakes Conference. The Conference’s current leader is Rev. Blake Jones, who became conference president in 1999.