General Conference 2018 will be celebrating 50 years since the founding of The Evangelical Church, but what really happened in 1968? Apollo 8 orbited the moon. There was war in Vietnam, and opposition to the war back home so much that the protests of the war turned violent outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. 1968 was the most chaotic presidential campaign year up to that point. Also in 1968, the Green Bay Packers won the Superbowl, the price of gas was 34 cents, and the price of a new Ford Mustang was $2,679.
The Evangelical Church was born in 1968, but the actions of that sunny day in Portland were a result of several years of decisions, planning, and events. The Evangelical United Brethren denomination had its origins in the eighteenth century, but had changed over time. The commitment to the Great Commission of the founders was a thing of the past. Now the denominational leaders took pride in being a part of mainline Christianity in America. Because of this mindset, they were working towards a merger with the Methodist Church, the largest protestant denomination in the United States. This was true of the EUB leadership and generally true of most of the denomination, but there were EUB’s in the Pacific Northwest and in Montana who were out of step with the rest of the denomination. They weren’t concerned about growing the organization, their focus was on growing the church by bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ.
In 1962 the EUB General Conference voted to merge with the Methodists to form the United Methodist Church. At that point, these rebels in the Northwest and Montana quit trying to keep the Evangelical United Brethren out of the merger and focused on keeping their conferences out of the merger. There was tremendous pressure placed on the renegade conferences. At that time, the title to church property was not held by the local church, but by the conference. Those who were not going to enter into the merger risked losing their buildings, and the pastors risked losing their pension. These threats from the denomination did cause a few to accept the merger, but the majority of the Pacific Conference and the Montana Conference were not going into this union.
Those who were rejecting the merger with the Methodists had made the difficult decision to leave their denomination at a time when denominational ties were incredibly strong. In many ways, they felt like their denomination had left them and they were almost forced to start something new. The Pacific Conference of the Evangelical United Brethren had three superintendents in the 1960s; one went in with the merger and the other two, V.A. Ballantyne, and George K. Millen led in the founding of the new denomination.
In the weeks before the founding of the new denomination the presidential candidates were in Portland campaigning leading up to the Oregon primary on Tuesday May 28th. Both Robert Kennedy and Richard Nixon set up headquarters at the Benson Hotel in downtown Portland.
Billy Graham was also in Portland the last part of May of 1968, holding a crusade at Portland Civic Stadium. Graham did not endorse a candidate for office, but he did meet with Richard Nixon while they were both in Portland. When asked about his meeting Billy Graham said, “There is no man I admire more than I admire Richard Nixon.”
Election day in Oregon on Tuesday May 28th Nixon easily beat Ronald Reagan in the Republican primary, and Senator Robert Kennedy lost to Senator Eugene McCarthy in the Democratic primary. The candidates moved on to California since that primary would be just one week later.
Also one week later, on a sunny Tuesday in Portland June 4, 1968 The Evangelical Church was born. They met at the Lents EUB church on 92nd and Foster in Southeast Portland. That morning at 10:00 a.m. Mr. Earle Riggs, the lay member from Salem Evangelical Church and chairman of the corporation opened the organizing session saying: “As Chairman of the Corporation of the Evangelical Church, of North America, I, Earle Riggs, do call this meeting to order.” Superintendent V.A. Ballantyne preached the first sermon of The Evangelical Church.
Recorded in the conference journal from the organizing session Superintendent George K. Millen outlined a statement of purpose for this newly formed denomination.
“The Evangelical Church of North America is orthodox in its beliefs, evangelical in its emphasis and Wesleyan-Arminian in its interpretation of the scriptural meaning of salvation. Thus its mission is to proclaim the glad tidings of a free and full salvation to all men in the present life.”
Millen then laid out a list of beliefs including the authority of Scripture, the sinfulness of humanity, the necessity of repentance, justification by faith, being filled with the Holy Spirit, freedom in worship and looking forward to the second coming.
Superintendent Millen’s resolution ends with: “It is the conviction of the membership of the Evangelical Church of North America that the matters mentioned above will be living issues always, and that they shall need to be emphasized to every age, lest this denomination lose its reason for existence… To carry the whole gospel for the whole man to the whole world demands total obedience to the divine mandate, until such time as Christ shall return to this earth…’”
This statement was unanimously adopted and became the original mission and purpose for existence of The Evangelical Church.
Rev. Brian Hotrum
Pastor of the Evangelical Church in Sweet Home, Oregon
Author of The Evangelical Story, and The Pacific Conference Story