In the morning session on September 4, 1900, Jacob Cassel polarized the delegates of the conference with his address: “Are we ready to enter the foreign mission field?” Discussion regarding the formation of a foreign missions organization within the conference itself met with resistance. In response, the moderator suggested that those who were interested in continuing discussion on such an organization should meet outside under the trees.
Rev. Bauman, an active participant at the hot, 2 p.m. open-air meeting, wrote in his unpublished manuscript on the history of Brethren missions: “the group betook themselves to a little knoll to the north of the building where the conference was being held… On this spot these missionary enthusiasts who refused to have their ardor cooled, conceived and brought to birth The Foreign Missionary Society of the Brethren Church.”
Newness often has a built-in excitement and vitality: a sense of vision. Believing they were led by the Spirit of God, these Brethren were eager to be about the task. As yet, however, they had no missionaries to support or fields of service designated. The Brethren were urged to proceed zealously in their plans for missions through careful investigation of the various fields compared with the resources available, and the organizational requirements for the long-term success of the mission’s development.
Cassel and Bauman investigated several foreign fields: Cassel’s interest tended toward Peru, South America, while Bauman was impressed with Persia. When Bauman was introduced to Yonan Y. Auraham, a Persian believer, excitement mounted as the Lord’s leading seemed obvious. Auraham, a member of Bauman’s church, was approved as the leader of the first mission point during the 1902 conference. Disagreement abounded on the decision; however, supporters of missions set their efforts to helping the Society face the problems and opportunities inherent in developing a ministry in a far-off land.
In April 1903, Yonan Y. Auraham and his family settled in his native area around Lake Urmia (Urumiah, modern-day Reza’iyeh) in northwest Persia (modern-day Iran). Alice Harley, from the Allentown (Pa.) Brethren Church, was approved by the 1903 general conference to work with the Aurahams, but she died that same year. Between 1903 and 1905, hostilities between several ethnic groups in the Urmia area increased.
In 1905, the Foreign Missionary Society’s president, Charles F. Yoder, was sent to investigate the potential for missions work in Russia and Persia. By that time, fighting between the Turks and Armenians in the Urmia area apparently convinced Yoder that Persia could no longer be seriously promoted as a mission field. The Brethren Church supported the Auraham family for only three years (1903-1906) but the Aurahams continued serving on a self-supporting basis until Yonan’s death in 1915.
In 1902, the Brethren Church also assumed responsibility for the German Baptist Brethren Montreal Mission, which had been in operation since 1899. In 1903, Vianna Detwiler was supported by the Foreign Missionary Society as she assisted A.B. Maldeis, a self-supported worker. The work was slow and unfruitful as they focused on evangelizing English-speaking Protestants. Detwiler believed the need was for a sense of permanency; hence a building and additional missionary families were necessary to add stability to the work.
In 1908, Charles Yoder served as pastor of the mission in preparation for his work in Argentina. Cassel replaced Yoder as pastor (1909-1912), but “time proved that it was an impossible situation even with a Brethren-owned building purchased with a promise of permanency.” The mission was closed in 1916 following a series of financial difficulties.
Despite these setbacks, interest in missions continued to increase. Needful lessons were gained from these ventures as the Brethren leaders began to explore the responsibilities inherent in operating a foreign mission enterprise.
(Reprinted from Remember the Commitment, A Story of Vision, which was published in 1989 to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Grace Brethren International Missions.)