In the early fifties, when poodle skirts were abundant, Ed Sullivan and Elvis Presley entertained the masses, and the average salary was less than $3,000, members of the 1st Pilgrim Holiness Church (now 1st Wesleyan Church) started a Tuesday night prayer meeting that would become the foundation of what would eventually be known as Garrison Hills Wesleyan Church. During its first 50 years, GHWC has seen 3 locations, 5 name changes, and 13 pastors and assistant pastors. Amid the changes of the world around it as well as the changes it has experienced within itself, the church has held steadily to its vision to reach the lost of Battle Creek.
The following is from “The History of Our Church,” written by Rebecca Langford for the church’s 50th birthday celebration in 2002.
The History of Our Church
In the early part of the 1950’s, nine members of the 1st Pilgrim Holiness Church in Battle Creek, Michigan began meeting in an old schoolhouse at 8283 Cooper Road. Every Tuesday night they would join in fellowship and prayer for the concerns of the church body. In 1952 the Cooper Road schoolhouse, known as “ Joy School,” became the location of an afternoon Sunday School class under the leadership of Rev. R. Hawkins.
1st Pilgrim Holiness Church received a vision for a new church in 1953, and Rev. W. N. Miller directed the nine original prayer group members to take the responsibility to plant the new church. A location was chosen on Franklin Street, and the newly planted church was appropriately called 2nd Pilgrim Holiness Church.
Rev. Leonard Pittman pastored the new church until July of 1955. The average attendance for the church’s first 2 years was 47. After Rev. Pittman left, Rev. J. C. Brillhart took over in August of 1955. The church was then known as Northside Pilgrim Holiness Church.
While at Hastings camp in the summer of 1958, Rev. Brillhart met Rev. James Witmer. He returned to the church with a proposal to hire Rev. Witmer as pastor, since Rev. Brillhart’s health was declining. Rev. Brillhart retired for health reasons that July, and Rev. Witmer began his role as the new senior pastor in August.
As Rev. James Witmer was settling into his new position, he received a vision from God to build a new building for the young and growing church. The current location on Franklin Street could no longer accommodate the needs of the congregation, and the building was put up for sale. It soon sold, and the church had to move out before the new building was completed. They rented a few classrooms from Battle Creek Christian School on Wagner Drive and proceeded to hold their services there until a more permanent location could be established.
In 1961, construction of the new building was completed. Northside Pilgrim Holiness Church moved into its new location at 195 Bradley Street, on the corner of Bradley Street and East Avenue North. Rev. Witmer took ill and died in April of 1963, not long after he witnessed the birth of his vision. Rev. Brillhart was asked to return to the church until a replacement could be found.
In August of 1963, Rev. Lyle Reynolds came to Northside. It was during his years as Pastor that he and his wife welcomed Cynthia, their adopted daughter, into their family. A parsonage was built next door to the church at 205 Bradley Street.
A bus was purchased for the purpose of picking up children for Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. Clifford and Marie Lake donated money for a sign that would be placed near the right front corner of the church. The name of the church was changed to Witmer Memorial Wesleyan Church, in honor of their visionary, James Witmer. Rev. Reynolds felt led to resign in July of 1967, with an average attendance of 93.
When Rev. David Leamon came to the church in August of 1967, some major changes were in store for the entire Pilgrim Holiness Church. After much talk of uniting the Pilgrim Holiness denomination with the Wesleyan Methodist denomination, both churches voted in favor of the merger at their General Conference in June of 1966. The decision was finalized and made official at the Service of Merger, which took place at eight-thirty in the morning, June 26, 1968 at Warner Auditorium in Anderson, Indiana. Thus, the general church became known as the Wesleyan Church, and Witmer Memorial Pilgrim Holiness Church became Witmer Memorial Wesleyan Church.
During Rev. Leamon’s time as pastor a new front door was built, the entryway was extended, and the church was carpeted. Rev. Leamon resigned in June of 1974. On his last week at Witmer Memorial, the mortgage was burned. By this time, the average attendance was 126.
On August 8, 1974, Rev. Eldon Leroy came to the church. A fence was added to the backyard of the parsonage in order to keep safe the Leroys’ son, Stephen. During Rev. Leroy’s time, the communion table was purchased and the parking lot was paved. In 1975, radio airtime was purchased from WDFP-FM. In church, music was led by David Crandell. A devotional program was also implemented and was held from 9:00-9:45 Monday through Friday. In 1979 the name of the church was changed from Witmer Memorial Wesleyan Church to Garrison Hills Wesleyan Church, named for the newly developing neighborhood it resided in. The church received the District Growth Award for 1978-1979. Rev. and Mrs. Leroy went on a missions trip to Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Barbados in 1979 with the help of the WMS.
In July of 1980, Mr. David Cox was brought in as assistant pastor. He stayed for one year.
Rev. Norman Wright became pastor of Garrison Hills Wesleyan Church in August of 1981. During April of 1984, a house at 69 Riverview was purchased for the coming youth pastor.
Assistant Pastor David McKain came in May. In September, the church purchased a house on East Avenue for $10,000 that would be used for youth gatherings and later as a home for staff. In November, Assistant Pastor David McKain left, followed by Rev. Wright in December.
Rev. Delos Tanner came to the church in March of 1985 and stayed until July of 1988. His wife Mary played the piano for church services and was responsible for starting the first Missionary Society of Garrison Hills Wesleyan Church.
Rev. Art Good took the position in August of 1988 and stayed until December of 1990. He then moved east to help in the planting of a new church near Buffalo, New York.
Because it was not the season for hiring in the Wesleyan Church, Rev. Dale Nye graciously stepped in to fill the position until a replacement could be found.
In September of 1991, Rev. Richard Weesner became pastor of Garrison Hills Wesleyan Church and continues in this position presently. In September of 1992, Tim Rinehart was brought on staff as youth pastor.
A 3,200 square-foot addition for the church building was approved in July of 1995, and $210,000 was borrowed from the Wesleyan Investment Fund. Construction for the new addition began that fall under the direction of member Max Crandell (son of Leo Crandell, charter member).
In June of 1996, Rev. Richard Weesner received an extended call. The building project was completed and dedicated in September of 1996. In December of that same year, Youth Pastor Tim Rinehart resigned. Tim Wygant was brought on staff to fill the position in 1997, and currently continues in this position.
In the fall of 2006, a Sunday school offering contest was held to raise money for a new steeple. The steeple was purchased in memory of Onalee Marr, charter member of the church, who had passed away the previous summer. It was raised on October 25, 2006.