The History of Grace Bible Church, Portland

Here is a very brief summary of our church’s history that I delivered before a Sunday sermon.  A (very) brief history of Grace Bible Church

For the full version (and probably more accurate!), read on…

Grace Bible Church of Portland, Oregon, (formerly First Evangelical & Reformed Church, “First Church”) was born on September 26, 1874, under the leadership of the Rev. John Gantenbein of Philadelphia, PA.  Rev. Gantenbein was commissioned by the Tri-Synodic Board of Home Missions to establish a Christian ministry for the many German speaking immigrants from Germany and Switzerland who had settled in the State of Oregon.  With 25 charter members, the church was formally organized into a congregation on September 26, 1874.  Services were held for four months in a rented hall at 5th Avenue and Taylor Street in West Portland.  In January, 1875, the congregation moved to another rented hall located on Washington Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.  They continued to meet at this location while their new frame church building was constructed on property that the congregation had purchased on Southwest 10th Avenue and Stark Street.  The church was completed in 1877.  A parsonage was built adjacent to the church in 1881 at a cost of $3,000.  Five years later the church enjoyed a membership of 110 and had completely retired all of its financial debts.  Using the First Evangelical & Reformed Church as a base of operations, Pastor Gantenbein made many missionary journeys throughout the surrounding territory, ministering to the scattered people of the Reformed Faith.  Under his leadership the church became self-supporting in the fall of 1882.

Pastor Gantenbein journeyed to the eastern United States and Europe to secure ministers for the vast missions opportunities found in the Pacific Northwest territory.  During one of his absences, the Rev. Mr. J.G. Biegert served the church as interim pastor from December, 1890 to April, 1892.  When Pastor Gantenbein returned to Portland in April 1892, he tendered his resignation as pastor of First Church of Portland.  He had faithfully served his congregation for over seventeen years.  A biography (now out of print) was written of his life, The Man from Oregon.

From April 24, 1892 until June 30, 1895 the Rev. Theodore Wartmann served as pastor of First Church.

On July 1, 1895, the First Church Council engaged Rev. Gottlieb Hafner as supply pastor, with privilege of call.  On December 3, 1895 he was elected by the congregation to serve as their full-time pastor.  Rev. Hafner faithfully served the congregation for the next forty-seven years, until his resignation on September 30, 1942.  The parsonage that was construction next door to the church (1912) is now named after this beloved pastor, who was the first to occupy it.

In 1910, as the membership of First Church increased and the city of Portland continued to expand, the decision was made by the congregation to move to our present location on SW 12th and Clay St. The present cut-stone edifice was erected and dedicated on the first Sunday in May, 1912.  The architect was W.F. Tobey.

On January 13, 1925 the new church structure set afire by an arsonist.  The blaze destroyed the organ, the choir loft, the pulpit, and damaged many parts of the building itself.  Immediately, renovation and repair began on the damaged building, and a new pipe organ from the Guenther Organ Company of Portland was purchased.

During the early years of Pastor Hafner’s ministry, a German language school was operated to provide catechetical instruction to our children and young people.  This school was began in the basement of our old church building at SW 10th and Stark, and continued for many years in the new church building.   As an outgrowth of our catechetical classes a Christian Endeavor Society was organized, and flourished for many years.  The Sunbeam Society was formally organized on June 10, 1905 in the 10th and Stark Street Church.  Church records indicate that the Sunbeam Society engaged in many works of compassion and serving in the Portland area, such as providing care and religious services to residents of the Multnomah County “Poor Farm” and the county tuberculosis hospital.

On the occasion of the 68th anniversary of the founding of the congregation, Pastor Gottlieb Hafner tendered his resignation after forty-seven years of leadership given to the church.  In those years, Pastor Hafner received over 700 persons into the membership of First Church.  He assisted in the founding of three local churches:  The Second Evangelical and Reformed Church (now Second United Church of Christ) was founded in 1904 in the “Columbia Slough” area, and in 1950 was relocated to its present location on Northeast 30th and Ainsworth Street.  The Third Church was established in 1911 in the Lents district.  Finally, Hillsdale Community Church was began in 1920, and continues today.

On September 30, 1942 it was announced that Rev. CWH Sauerwein had accepted the call to serve as the new pastor.  He served the congregation nearly twelve years, until August 8, 1954.

Rev. EJ Ruff was called as pastor of First Church on August 15, 1954.  His years of ministry included the greatest upheaval thus far in the history of our church.  On December 8, 1955 the Executive Committee of the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches and the General Council of the Evangelical and Reformed Churches met jointly in Cleveland, Ohio and determined to unite their constituent churches into one fellowship, the United Church of Christ (UCC).  Upon examination of the doctrinal position of the newly formed United Church of Christ, the Church Council and the congregation of the First Evangelical and Reformed Church of Portland found that they could not in good conscience support the statement, and therefore determined to resist the union and, if necessary, sever all ties with the newly formed denomination.  Several years of difficult communication ended in the Multnomah County Courts, and the decision was made by the church and the denomination to sever ties.  The legal settlement required the church to cease using the name “First Evangelical and Reformed,” and left all church property under the sole ownership of the church itself.  The congregation chose for itself the name Grace Bible Church.  The change in name and dropping of denominational affiliation were representative of the church’s decision to function as an independent, self-ruling, non-denominational Bible church.

Upon the resignation of Rev. EJ Ruff on September 1, 1959, the congregation arranged for Rev. Hendrick Van Dyke to serve as pulpit supply until the pulpit committee could find a new pastor.  One month later, on October 1, 1959, Rev. Van Dyke began his ministry at Grace Church, and accepted the call as permanent pastor on October 30, 1959.  Another opportunity for service prompted his resignation of September 30th, 1962 after three years service at Grace Bible Church.

Rev. Thomas Roop was called as pastor on October 20, 1962, and began his service on November 4 of that year.  He served the church until January 1, 1971, when his resignation was accepted by the congregation.

For the next two years Grace Bible Church was without a pastor, though contacting a large number of men for the position.  It seemed that as the majority of the members no longer lived in the downtown area, maintaining a downtown ministry had become a very difficult endeavor.  Considerable discussion was given to the possibility of moving to an outlying residential area in order to be near the homes of people who could more easily attend the church.  However, serious consideration before God led the congregation to commit themselves to remain in downtown Portland and maintain a Bible teaching ministry in this vital area.

Having determined before the Lord to maintain a downtown Bible teaching ministry, the church wrote to Dallas Theological Seminary seeking recommendations to fill the pastoral vacancy.  The seminary referred us to Rev. C. Dwain Holsapple, who accepted the position of pastor and began his ministry at Grace Bible Church on September 1, 1972.

Rev. Holsapple served this church until his resignation on August 14, 1977.  His teaching ministry at Grace Bible Church produced a much needed stabilization of the church’s theological training and convictions.

Rev. Douglas Ketel accepted the position of interim pastor when Rev. Holsapple resigned.  On January 1, 1978, he accepted the call to become the full-time minister, and his ministry continued for more than twenty years until his retirement on May 31, 1998.  Rev. Ketel’s passion for evangelism opened new doors for outreach in downtown Portland, and under his leadership Grace Bible Church became the first church to formally partner with the Portland Rescue Mission’s drug and alcohol recovery program.

Soon after Rev. Kettle’s retirement, Rev. Dennis R. Holmes accepted the call to the pastorate of Grace Bible Church, where he served as senior pastor until November of 2002.

Pastor Ken Garrett accepted the call to serve Grace Bible Church, and was formally installed on December 5, 2004.  Pastor Ken is a lifelong resident of the city of Portland, and came to our church after a 20 year career in Multnomah County as an EMT-Paramedic.   Pastor Ken earned a Master of Divinity degree from Western Seminary in 2003, and earned a Doctor of Ministry in 2017, with the dissertation title, “Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery.”  He has served on short-term medical and relief missions in Iraq, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Nicaragua.

Today, Grace Bible Church continues to serve our Lord in downtown Portland with the same passion and commitment as our spiritual fathers and mothers who have gone before us.  We seek to increasingly demonstrate and proclaim the love of Jesus Christ to our neighbors and friends—reaching out to all with the gospel of our Lord from “our corner of the city” on SW 12th and Clay Street!