Our Story

THE HISTORY OF LAUREL MOUNTAIN MINISTRIES

Office 1956 | Our Story

In The Beginning…

Laurel Mountain Ministries began as a storefront church on Fairhill Street in post-World War II Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the children attending the church played on the busy street, dodging streetcars and automobiles. It was dangerous but there was no alternative. It was city living. The children either played in the streets or stayed couped up in the narrow inner-city rowhomes where they lived.

The storefront church, then known as Union Gospel Church Missions, reached out to the community with children and teen programs and quickly grew in size. As more neighborhood families attended, the church opened its doors daily to the young people in the community. It became a safe haven for the kids who formerly played in the streets.

Still, the parents in the congregation dreamed about a country retreat where they could safely take their families to learn about Jesus, rest in the presence of the Holy Spirit, and play in woodlands rather than the city streets. To some of the congregation, the country retreat was little more than a dream. To other members of the church, the retreat was more than a dream. It was a promise from God. They began a season of prayer for a retreat and trusted God to honor his promise.

Not long after they started praying, the core congregants realized that a purchase of real estate required cash. The church paid its bills, but enough cash for a down payment was out of reach. In 1949, they started collecting newspapers, cardboard, and metal to sell for the needed cash.

Three nights a week the church members raced ahead of the City Trash Trucks to gather scrap to sell. Within a year and a half, the congregation earned enough money from scarping for the earnest money deposit on three adjacent parcels of wooded land outside the little town of Boyertown.

Mary’s Cabin 1955 | Our Story

The Origin of the Ministry

Lead by Pastor David Johns, the passionate group from the storefront church located and purchased a parcel of about 30 forested acres outside of Boyertown in 1951. Traveling from Philadelphia to Boyertown every weekend, within a year the dedicated congregation transformed the raw land into a campground built with lumber, cut from trees growing on the property, and inexpensive army surplus tents.

During the early years, campers ate food cooked in an outdoor kitchen. They dined under a canopy of oak tree branches. Their water for drinking and bathing was carried by hand, first from a spring on the property and later from the first well drilled in 1953. Campers and workers like slept in drab green canvas tents of varying sizes and conditions left over from World War II.

A favorite activity of the early campers was changing car tires, especially when a first-time visitor hit a jutting tree stump hidden by the rutted dirt driveway. Because the campers love changing times, the second favorite activity of the campers was digging stumps out of the road.

The mid-1950s brought significant changes to the campground. A dining hall with running water replaced open-air cooking and eating. The running water came from a hose that ran 200 feet on the ground from the good faucet to another outdoor faucet on the wall of the Dining Hall. Shortly after that, small cabins appeared each with four surplus steel spring beds. The beds and mattress provided more comfort than the old army canvas cots found in the tents. Finally, a new paved entrance cut into the side of the mountain eliminating the flat tires and the need for stump removal.

The biggest change to the campground came with the construction of an open-air tabernacle. The used wood for the tabernacle came from an old Lancaster County tobacco barn. The wood was donated, but there was a catch. The campground volunteers had to tear down the barn without destroying the wood and then transport it forty miles to Boyertown.

They did it in two weekends.

The old tobacco barn was reconstructed into an open-air tabernacle. There were no doors and no windows because there was nothing in the piles of barn wood that translated into doors and windows. During the first winter, the tabernacle was “sealed” to prevent snow from entering with canvas pieces cut from the old green tents. The next spring, the canvas was rolled and tied above the windows and doors.
Sawdust trucked in from the Boyertown Planing Mill, became the Tabernacle carpet. When the carpet got dirty, fresh sawdust was shoveled into the building through the windows and a clean carpet was laid.

In 1955, used drab green industrial windows were purchased at auction and quickly installed. The windows cracked open but had no screens to protect worshipers from insects, bats, and birds. It took the removal of more trees before the vermin disappeared.

Double glass greenhouse doors were installed with the windows. The doors were donated and constructed of leaded glass panels held together by wooden frames. The doors and industrial windows made the Tabernacle look like a gardener’s workshop. Looks aside, the building was sealed. It was a gift from God.

The following year, the sawdust carpet was covered with concrete and a lean-to room containing an oil furnace was hung on the back of the Tabernacle on stilts. The Tabernacle was now weather tight, and with heat, useable year-round.

The Tabernacle was remodeled and expanded many times over the last 60 years. The building now known as the Chapel on Laurel Mountain looks nothing like its beginnings as a tobacco barn, except for one thing. To be more precise, two things remain exposed from its tobacco barn origin.

When you walk into the Chapel, look up. The wooden beams that run across the building holding the lights and projection equipment are the original 175-year-old hemlock beams that supported the old tobacco barn. The beams remind us of the Ministries’ origin and hold the promise of God’s future blessings.

The Ministry Becomes Elim Tabernacle

Late 50’s Tabernacle Exterior with Boardwalk
By the late 1950s, the “Camp” became the focus of Union Gospel Church Missions. A handful of the Fairhill Street Church regulars relocated to Boyertown and Pottstown to avoid the long weekend drives. About the same time, Reverend and Mrs. Johns started building a small home on the property. They found working all day on the grounds, evangelizing all evening at camp meeting services and then sleeping on a cot exhausting. A home on the campground was the answer.

Eventually, more members of the Philadelphia Church came to Boyertown for the weekend than attended the Philadelphia church. No one knows remembers whose idea it was, but one Sunday Morning in the late 1950s, the Union Gospel Church Missions Campground became Elim Tabernacle the church.

Elim was a rest for the Children of Israel as they wandered for forty years in the wilderness. The Oasis at Elim had twelve springs of fresh, cold water and 70 date-bearing palm trees to provide shade. In Hebrew, Elim means “a place of refreshing.” The new congregation agreed that it was an appropriate name for what they found on the campground.

Over the years, the grounds changed. The Tabernacle was updated and enlarged. Modern restrooms replaced the old outhouses in the woods. The cabins crumbled and a few newer cottages took their place. A “Dining Hall” made of raw wood replaced the outdoor kitchen and tables. And lawns replaced stumps on about five acres.

The campground became a church, and other than on special occasions, tents disappeared from the grounds. Sunday and Wednesday services replaced Camp meetings. The services became more formalized than the camp meetings and, Evangelist David Johns, once again became Pastor David Johns.

The transformation from Campground to every Sunday Church did not change the essence of ministry. Elim Tabernacle’s focus remained on children and youth. Every year Elim ran Vacation Bible Schools (VBS) with more teens and children than could fit into the Tabernacle. When VBS ended, teenagers went to camps in other states and local youth rallies at no cost to the youth. During the school year, Elim sponsored Bible Clubs for elementary-aged children.

Oversees missions were another important focus for Elim Tabernacle. In one iteration or another, Elim Tabernacle supported up to twenty-eight different churches in Haiti and continued to do until a military junta removed Baby Doc (Jean-Claude Duvalier) from power and threw the small Caribbean County into chaos.

In 1973, both Pastor and Mrs. Johns turned 70. Age and health soon took their toll on their ministry. Church activities and one-on-one ministry slowed to the level of the Johns’ health and vigor. Elim Tabernacle suffered accordingly. By 1978, church attendance reduced to a few families and about 20 people.

Laurel Mountain Ministries is Born

Late 50’s Tabernacle Exterior with Boardwalk

In August of 1974, Pastor Johns’ son, Dave, entered the University of Valley Forge (then Northeast Bible College) pursuing a degree in Bible and Ministry. On the first day of new student orientation, he met Gail Hobbs from Springfield, Vermont while waiting in line at the college’s library. The chance meeting was the beginning of a lifelong romance between Dave and Gail.

In 1977 Dave and Gail married. Their first home was on the Campground. In 1980, Dave and Gail’s union produced a son, Bradley. Presently, Brad lives in Kona, Hawaii.

After receiving their Batchelor’s Degrees in May of 1978, followed by a three-month missions trip to Haiti, the young couple began working as Associate Pastors at Elim Tabernacle. During that time, they grew a vibrant youth ministry and forged relationships that endure today.

In 1983, Dave’s father passed the pastoral mantel to Dave and Gail. The next thirteen years changed Elim Tabernacle. In 1984 under Dave and Gail’s leadership, the Tabernacle was expanded and modernized. A meeting room was added to the rear of the building and the restrooms improved. The old industrial windows were replaced with modern insulated ones. The concrete floor was raised and covered with hardwood. A modern gas furnace with central air replaced the ancient oil heater. With the remodel completed, it appeared that all remnants of the tobacco barn Tabernacle were replaced or covered.

Shortly after Reverend Johns passed in 1989, Dave and his sister Eleanor Bissinger, reorganized the church and the old corporation creating Laurel Mountain Ministries, Inc. They moved Union Gospel Church Missions assets into the new ministry. At the same time, Dave recommended to the church that they change the confusing name of Elim Tabernacle to Laurel Mountain Chapel. The congregation approved the name change and Laurel Mountain Ministries was born.

When Elim’s Youth Ministry expanded, Dave and Gail caravanned the Youth to Camp Ridgedale in Vanleer, Tennessee, where they eventually became Camp Directors for the week that they attended with their young people. https://www.facebook.com/campridgedale. Camp Ridgedale is a ministry of the (Original) Church of God Fellowship and attracts young people from eighteen states.
At Camp Ridgedale, Dave and Gail experienced God with their “kids” outside the walls of church buildings and prayer closets. They discovered that people opened their hearts to the Holy Spirit and minds to the Word of God when they weren’t confined in a building. For the first time, they realized that there is a difference between church and real ministry.

Dave and Gail made life-long friends at Camp Ridgedale. Even after the needs of their ministry pointed them in a different direction, their Camp Ridgedale friends stayed a part of their lives. Visits to those friends became regular. Some years Dave and Gail visited Camp Ridgedale friends from Tennessee and Arkansas and some years the same friends visit them in Pennsylvania. Some years the friends vacationed together.
One year while driving through Southern Virginia on the way to the Smokey Mountains to vacation with camp friends, God gave Dave and Gail a special vision for Laurel Mountain Ministries. While they drove, the presence of God filled the car. Tears ran down Gail’s face. She turned to Dave and saw him staring strangely at the highway in front of him. “What’s happening?” she inquired.

For the next 15 minutes, Dave told Gail what he saw. Dave told his wife about a new Laurel Mountain Ministries with events of different kinds happening every week. With families gathering to worship around an outdoor stage, teens playing games, and seniors praying in gardens. There would be cabins for people to stay while attending events or stay while seeking respite from the stress of the world. On the top of the hill would be a media center. The Chapel would be the focal point of the ministry but no longer a gathering place for a small congregation.

The couple returned to Boyertown ready to chase the vision God gave them. Dave felled trees to make room for games and a stage. After the trees were cleared, a bulldozer pushed unsafe, leftover buildings from the camp to the ground. The bulldozer dug out stumps and flattened areas for tents and future construction. The available ground across the lane from the Chapel now exceeded that of the old campground.

Each played a different role. Gail shared the vision with the Church Leadership and Dave pushed the church to help build a pavilion and a volleyball court. The new Laurel Mountain Ministries was taking shape.

Then suddenly, nothing happened. The Laurel Mountain Chapel congregation decided they liked being the “little church on the hill.” Others who believed in the vision moved out of the area. It was as if the momentum train hit the side of the Mountain and the vision shattered among the rocks.

Life moved on. Over time the vision of a new Laurel Mountain Ministries diminished to all but Dave and Gail. After much prayer, the couple decided that they needed to wait on God’s time if the vision was ever to be fulfilled. A few years later, the couple tried to resign from the Laurel Mountain Ministries Board while Dave attended law school in Virginia. The Board of Directors would not accept their resignations. Instead, the Board voted to change their status to inactive.

In the Spring of 2019, Gail received a telephone call from the Biker Church asking for help resolving some legal and leasing problems. For the first time in years, Dave and Gail returned to the grounds in an official capacity.

Things have changed a lot since the last time they visited the Mountain. There were no tractors or chainsaws. The forest crept over large areas of the fields. In places, brush grew to the edges of the lane. Cottages deteriorated. The pavilion showed signs of age. The Baptismal pool was filled with debris. A load of keeping the campus fresh was too much for the remaining Board Members. Thirty acres is too much for anyone or two people to keep up.

Even with the campus in decline, to Dave, the Laurel Mountain Ministries Campus felt like home. It was home. Gail felt the same way. “We started our ministry here. We need to finish it here,” she said climbing into the car after meeting with the Biker Church. The vision of a Christian Event Center and Ministry Outside the Walls of the Church returned with passion. The couple knew that it was now God’s time to move forward.

Within weeks of Gail’s proclamation, friends from the past offered help. New friends also join the fray. Before long, a reorganized Laurel Mountain Ministries, Inc. was formed to make the twenty-year-old vision a reality. Board members became workers. Donations came without asking.

Things on the Mountain changed again. Almost every weekend and many weekday evenings, volunteers worked on the Campus. It took two years to transform a dying ministry into a vital part of the Christian Community. An outdoor stage still waits to be constructed. The cabin has not yet appeared and neither has a media center. Yet, everyone who visits the Mountain knows that God is doing something special there.

They too sense that today is God’s time.