By Darrin J. Rodgers
Gerald Derstine (1928- ), a Mennonite pastor who became a prominent early leader in the charismatic movement, has deposited materials relating to his life and ministry at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center. Derstine is perhaps best known for his roles as former president of Gospel Crusade, Inc.; founder of Christian Retreat in Bradenton, Florida; and founder of Gospel Crusade Ministerial Fellowship (now Global Christian Ministers Forum), a Pentecostal denomination.
The Gerald Derstine Collection includes books, tracts, periodicals, photographs, audio recordings, and unpublished materials documenting Derstine’s life, ministry, and the organizations he led. The collection provides valuable insight into segments of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements that have not been sufficiently documented and will be a boon to researchers.
Gerald Derstine was born into a conservative Pennsylvania Mennonite family, but as a teenager he became a functional agnostic. He was a baptized church member, but he had not internalized the faith and did not believe Christian claims. He offered two major critiques of Christianity: Christians seemed to lack joy, and twentieth-century churches did not seem to resemble those in the New Testament.
Derstine married Beulah, also raised a Mennonite, on June 25, 1949. On their honeymoon in Minnesota, a friend told them about miracles he had witnessed at a Pentecostal revival in Michigan. This piqued Derstine’s interest, and three months later he and Beulah visited a crusade in Reading, Pennsylvania, featuring Pentecostal evangelist T. L. Osborn. At the revival, Derstine was immediately struck by the warmth, friendliness, joy, and earnest faith he found among the Pentecostals. They kept returning to the evening revival services, where they saw miracles and yielded their lives to Christ.
They began attending services at the Brethren in Christ Church, an Anabaptist church impacted by the Holiness movement, which encouraged believers to have an experience of entire sanctification. Both Gerald and Beulah had this experience, they consecrated their lives to Christ, and Gerald felt called to the ministry.
Derstine knew that ministry would not be easy. From a young age, other children mocked “Pee Wee” Derstine for his small stature and his chronic stuttering. Not only would he have to overcome a lifetime of feelings of inadequacy, his stuttering would be an obstacle to ministry. However, Derstine recalled that Osborn encouraged Christians to pray for healing. He followed Osborn’s instructions to confess Bible verses about healing and was healed of stuttering.
Derstine began passing out tracts among alcoholics in street ministry in Philadelphia. His uncle, a Mennonite missionary to the Chippewa Indians in northern Minnesota, asked Gerald and Beulah to join him in ministry. In 1951, they moved to Minnesota. Gerald was ordained into the ministry in 1953 and became pastor of Strawberry Lake Mennonite Church (Ogema, MN), which had been started by his uncle.
In late 1954, an unexpected outpouring of the Holy Spirit, featuring a spirit of intercession, miracles, and spiritual gifts, changed the trajectory of Derstine’s ministry. He was leading a five-day Bible study retreat for 76 Mennonite youth between Christmas 1954 and New Year’s Day 1955, when a remarkable revival began. After a period of fasting and prayer by seven pastors at the camp, 13 unconverted youth accepted Christ on the first day of the camp. Soon afterward, several children reported hearing angels singing. The youth and adults began praying fervently for their unsaved family members and friends, and some experienced healings and gifts such as speaking in tongues.
After returning to his pastorate at Strawberry Lake Mennonite Church, similar charismatic phenomena began to happen in homes and in the church sanctuary. Word spread quickly and, in April 1955, Mennonite bishops and elders conducted a hearing that resulted in Derstine being “silenced” from the Mennonite ministry. They offered to restore him to ministry if he would publicly state that the manifestations had been an “act of Satan.” Derstine refused to deny the work of the Holy Spirit.
Later in 1955, Derstine met Henry Brunk, a Mennonite evangelist and businessman from Florida. In 1953, Brunk had founded the Gospel Crusade, Inc. as a non-denominational missions outreach to Haiti. Brunk encouraged Derstine to enter the evangelistic ministry and supplied him with a tent, a house trailer, and a car. Derstine began to receive invitations to preach and share his testimony, first from people at the fringes of the Mennonite community, and then from larger cities.
The Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship offered Derstine his first national platform, and he became well known in Pentecostal circles. Pentecostal revival began to break out in mainline denominations (often termed “charismatic renewal”) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Derstine also became a popular speaker among mainline charismatics.
The charismatic renewal made a significant impact on the Mennonite church, which officially “restored” Derstine as an approved minister in 1977. However, Derstine’s ministry went far beyond his ancestral denomination.
Derstine settled in Sarasota, Florida, a city where many Mennonites live or own winter vacation cabins. He started a non-denominational charismatic church, Revival Tabernacle, which included a core group of several former Mennonite families. In 1965, Derstine became president of Gospel Crusade, Inc.
God gave Derstine a vision for a conference and retirement center that would serve as headquarters for Gospel Crusade. In 1968, he purchased a 110-acre tract of land on the banks of the Manatee River near Bradenton, located just south of Sarasota. That same year he founded Christian Retreat and began building facilities on the land.
Christian Retreat in Bradenton became a focal point of Derstine’s ministry. He organized well-attended charismatic conferences, featuring prominent Pentecostal and charismatic speakers. He also established retreat centers in Ogema, Minnesota (Strawberry Lake Christian Retreat, which operated from 1965 to 2017) and in Hermon, New York (North Country Christian Retreat, which operated from 1982 to 2014).
Gospel Crusade has been active in global missions, supporting ministries in over 25 nations, including Haiti, Honduras, India, Israel, Philippines, Romania, and Trinidad. In 1981, Derstine began traveling to Israel and has ministered in many Jewish and Arab locations.
Derstine is a prolific author. The Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center holds 22 books and booklets that he wrote, as well as different editions and translations of his works into other languages. His daughter, Joanne Derstine, has been responsible for many of the publications of Gospel Crusade over the past 50 years.
Gospel Crusade Ministerial Fellowship (GCMF) was formed in the 1970s to serve as the credentialing arm of Gospel Crusade, Inc. By 2002, GCMF had grown to over 1,100 certified ministers and 67 affiliated churches. While some GCMF ministers came from Mennonite families, the Fellowship has attracted Pentecostals and charismatics from varied backgrounds. In 2009 GCMF restructured and became organizationally separate from Gospel Crusade and relocated its headquarters from Bradenton, Florida, to Denver, Pennsylvania. It was renamed Global Christian Ministry Forum in 2012.
Derstine established the Institute of Ministry in 1975 to provide ministerial training in a 10-week course. Approximately 8,000 students have graduated from the program. A local church, Christian Retreat Family Church (now The Family Church), was organized in 1986 by Phil and Jannette Derstine, Gerald’s son and daughter-in-law, and meets on the grounds of Christian Retreat.
Derstine, now 91 years old, has stepped down from most of his leadership roles. However, he continues to travel across the United States, preaching and sharing his testimony. Derstine, with his engaging manner, compelling testimony, and visionary leadership, has made a lasting contribution to the Pentecostal and charismatic movements.
Do you have Pentecostal historical materials that should be preserved? Please consider depositing these materials at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center (FPHC). The FPHC, located in the Assemblies of God national offices, is the largest Pentecostal archives and research center in the world. We would like to preserve and make your treasures accessible to those who write the history books.
Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center
1445 North Boonville Avenue
Springfield, Missouri 65802 USA
Phone: 417.862.1447 ext. 4400
Toll Free: 877.840.5200