On Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1894, about eight faithful Christian workers covenanted to reorganize the then disbanded Cross and Crown Association which had been quite active in carrying on Gospel services. They decided to conduct prayer meetings and as a result many more workers were added to their ranks.
Desiring to reach non-church-going folks, they procured a Gospel Wagon and began to bold services at outdoor locations throughout the city during the summer months. In December 1895 they complied with a request that they assume responsibility for the operation of a mission hall at 23rd and Jefferson Streets.
One of the group, Brother Frederick Reel, became the first Pastor and continued in that position for twenty-six years, resigning at the age of 70 years. Since Pastor Reel held a responsible position with the Reading Railroad, he refused to accept a salary from the Church during the entire period. Brother Reel was a mighty preacher of the Word and harvested many, many souls for the Master. Under his leadership, Highway Tabernacle became known throughout the U.S.A. and, through its missionary representation on the foreign fields, throughout the world.
From its inception, Highway Tabernacle grew rapidly, necessitating the move from the small Gospel Chapel to an eight-room school house located at 22nd and Oxford Streets, which was remodeled to accommodate a main auditorium, baptismal pool and classrooms for the growing Sunday School Department.
On May 31, 1899 Incorporation proceedings were initiated with, 77 charter members. As God continued to bless the work in an outstanding way, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was experienced in various locations throughout the nation, and a deep hunger was inspired within the hearts of the saints at Highway, and ‘they too, began to seek after the infilling with the Holy Ghost.
Pastor Reel was called home to his eternal reward during the year 1925 and the work which he founded and nurtured through theyears stands today as a lighthouse in the Central Philadelphia area.
During the Thanksgiving Convention of 1919, Pastor Reel invited Rev. Ernest S. Williams to replace him as Pastor of Highway Tabernacle, since Brother Reel was now in his seventieth year and was planning to retire from the service of the Reading Railroad and also to retire as Pastor of Highway. After much prayer and seeking the will of God, Brother and Sister Williams felt led to accept the call, and took up their position in Highway on June 1, 1920.
God signally blessed the work under the ministry of Brother Williams and the congregation began to increase to the point where the building at 22nd and Oxford Streets could no longer accommodate the people. Although the building had been enlarged to its limit, it was found necessary to seek larger facilities. The members of the Official Board were led to investigate the availability of a former Presbyterian Church located at 19th and Green Streets. The property was acquired and completely renovated, providing a main auditorium which would seat 1100 persons, with a second auditorium seating about 200.
When the dedication service was held, every seat in the main auditorium was filled, the crowd overflowing into the adjacent auditorium, and great was the rejoicing as the Glory of God filled His house.
Under Brother Williams’ ministry, the young people of the church began to increase in numbers, and as they were filled with the Holy Spirit during the special revival meetings, they began to respond to the call of God to do service for Him. A church orchestra of about 45 pieces sprung up, as well as a Choir of 35 and the young people started to hold outside services on street corners, jails, hospitals, old folks homes, down and out missions, etc.
New missionaries were commissioned and sent forth to the various foreign fields to carry the Gospel to those so greatly in need of a revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pastor Williams was called to Springfield, Missouri in 1930 to serve for twenty years as General Superintendent of the General Council of the Assemblies of God. Under his consecrated guidance the Movement grew by leaps and bounds. In 1950 he left the office to become a professor of Systematic Theology at Central Bible Institute. Today, Brother Williams is semiretired, writing an effectual ministry in the Pentecostal Evangel.
As Brother Williams left to assume his new responsibilities, Reverend Flem Van Meter was called to pastor Highway Tabernacle and his faithful message rang from the pulpit as he carried the heavy load of the pastorate which was complicated by the great depression of 1931. Despite the lack of employment and a reduction in the income experienced by many of the members of the congregation, the indomitable faith and spiritual resources of Pastor Van Meter was a constant inspiration to all of our members.
Brother Van Meter strived at all times to lead his flock into a deeper experience with God. His ministry exuded love and he most certainly practiced and possessed his favorite theme.
One of his greatest desires was to see Highway establish out-station works, but this was never realized during his tenure as Pastor.
In 1936 Brother Van Meter was called to serve as Superintendent of the Eastern District, since Reverend Roswell Flower was leaving that position to become Secretary of the General Council in Springfield, Missouri.
Pastor Flem Van Meter was called Home by his Lord in July, 1954 after a life of outstanding service in the ministry.
On February 12, 1936 Brother Wesley R. Steelberg arrived in Philadelphia with his family from Sacramento, California to serve as Pastor of Highway Tabernacle. One of his first acts was to establish a Thursday afternoon prayer meeting, followed by a Missionary Hour during which missionary letters were read and prayer offered on their behalf.
The Ladies Bible Class of the Sunday School Department appointed Sister Hilda Simokat to visit homes in the neighborhood of the church, in order to reach Gospel-needy families. Later on the Church named Sister Simokat as fulltime City Missionary. As a result, Story Hours were opened in many homes throughout the City.
Brother Steelberg also initiated a Radio Broadcast with title of “Voices of Peace” which became a fruitful ministry. Letters began to arrive asking for spiritual help, and many of the listeners attended Highway where they found Christ as their Saviour.
Under Brother Steelberg’s ministry the church moved forward in a dynamic way, and the Young People’s Group engaged in active Christian work, conducting street meetings, visiting homes for the aged, hospitals, rescue missions, etc. winning many souls for the Master.
Upon terminating his ministry in Highway Tabernacle, Brother Steelberg held positions as Superintendent of the New York—New Jersey District, and as one of the four Assistant Superintendents of the Assemblies of God. In the year 1949, he was elected to the office of General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God with headquarters in Springfield, Missouri, serving until he was called to his Eternal Reward on July 8, 1952.
Brother Wallace S. Bragg was serving as Secretary-Treasurer of the Oklahoma District when he received a letter of invitation to become Pastor of Highway Tabernacle.
Under his dedicated ministry, the Sunday School Department was expanded and new interest was created in this area of the work.
Brother Bragg continued on with the Radio Ministry and encouraged more activity in the line of street meeting work and the establishment of more out-stations, reaching a still larger group of needy souls.During the Thanksgiving Convention of 1943 the mortgage on the 19th and Green Streets building was burned, amidst the rejoicing of the members and friends in attendance.
Highway opened its doors to a service for the Spanish-speaking people in the vicinity of the Church and arranged to have an Assembly of God Spanish pastor conduct the services.
Brother Bragg was also instrumental in starting a work among the Jewish people in Philadelphia, the actual contacts being made by Reverend Monty Garfield, Jewish Evangelist. The ministry to the Jews still continues on as of 1969, with gainful results.
In 1955 Brother Bragg accepted a call to pastor the church at Spokane, Washington, and shortly thereafter, entered the evangelistic ministry, traveling on an international scale.
Brother Bragg was called to his eternal home with the Lord during the year 1968. His ministry will never be forgotten by the many appreciative members and friends of Highway Tabernacle.
Pastor Roberson was saved while in his teens in the city of Detroit. About a year after his conversion, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and received a call into the ministry. On April 5, 1931 he was ordained to the ministry in his home church in Detroit, serving there as Youth Director until the summer of 1937.
In the fall of 1937, feeling the burden of a new work in Highland Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, he began prayer services in his home, which developed quite rapidly making it necessary to move to larger quarters. A building, formerly a bank, was rented and the Immanuel Gospel Tabernacle was established. Brother Howard Roberson continued to serve as pastor for thirteen years, leaving in July 1950 to answer the call from Calvary Assembly of God in Louisville, Kentucky. During his pastorate in Michigan he served as Sectional Sunday School Director, also as Home Missions Director.
He was active as a director of the Michigan Camp for almost ten years. In the Kentucky District, he served as District Secretary-Treasurer and also as General Presbyter. It was June 1955, that Brother Roberson accepted the call to pastor Highway Tabernacle. During these years, especially the past eleven years, he has served the Eastern District as Assistant Superintendent, also as one of the General Presbyters from the district. He was called upon to serve a term on the General Council Foreign Missions Board in Springfield, Missouri. Presently he serves as a member of the Board of Regents for Northeast Bible Institute. Only recently he resigned from the Board of Directors of Teen Challenge, which board he served on from the beginning of this work.
Under the leadership of Pastor Roberson and after much prayer, the present church edifice was purchased from the Fifth Baptist congregation. Immediately work was begun to renovate the building and educational unit. The first service was held on Thursday evening, October 13, 1960. Dedication ;was Sunday, November 20, 1960. In the spring of 1967 additional work begun in order to provide the needed class rooms for the Sunday School. A new chapel was also provided and the entire educational unit was air-conditioned. Under Pastor Roberson’s ministry the radio ministry was resumed and today is one of the well known religious programs that is aired in the Philadelphia area.
Since this history was written in celebration of Highway Tabernacle’s 75th anniversary (1969), the following have also served as pastor:
Robert L. Bartlett, Jr.
Reginald A. Stone
Otto J. Wegner