An estimated 800,000 to 1,500,000 ethnic Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey) were systematically rounded up and killed by Ottoman authorities between the years 1915 and 1918. The Armenian Genocide, as it came to be known, is the second-most studied case of genocide, following the Jewish Holocaust.
Newspapers around the world reported on the suffering endured by the mostly Christian Armenians. Right in the midst of the conflict was Maria A. Gerber (1858-1917), an early Pentecostal missionary who had established an orphanage in Turkey for Armenian victims.
Gerber was born in Switzerland, where she was raised with 11 siblings by Mennonite parents. As a child, she did not have an interest in spiritual things, because she saw her mother weep when she read her Bible. She thought that Scripture must be the cause of sadness.
Gerber was a carefree child and loved to sing and dance. But, at age 12, she was stricken with multiple ailments, including rheumatic fever, heart trouble, tuberculosis, and dropsy. The doctor’s prognosis was not good — Gerber only had a short time to live.
Fear gripped Gerber’s heart. She had never committed her life to the Lord. She knew that if she died, she would not go to heaven. Gerber cried out, “Jesus, I want you to save me from my sins.” Immediately, she felt peace deep inside her soul. She was ready to die.
But God had other plans for the young girl. Gerber quickly recovered from her incurable illness, much to everyone’s surprise. Gerber’s mother had been so confident that her daughter was on death’s doorstep that she had already given away all of her clothing. Her mother scrounged around and found clothes for Gerber.
Gerber shared her testimony of salvation and healing at school and in surrounding villages. She found her calling. She read Matthew 28:18 and sensed that verse was meant for her: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me [Jesus]. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”
Gerber’s faith deepened as she blossomed into a young woman. She received training as a nurse, but in her heart she wanted to become a missionary. In 1889 a remarkable revival featuring healing and speaking in tongues came to her town in Switzerland. In her 1917 autobiography, Passed Experiences, Present Conditions, Hope for the Future, Gerber recounted the rapturous praise and numerous miracles that occurred in that early Swiss revival.
The young nurse wanted training for missions work and, in 1891, she headed for Chicago, where she attended Moody Bible Institute. By the mid-1890s, she heard about massacres of Armenian Christians that were occurring in the Ottoman Empire. Gerber and a friend, Rose Lambert, felt God calling them to minister to the Armenian widows and orphans.
Gerber and Lambert arrived in Turkey in 1898 and began working with the besieged Armenians. They began caring for orphans and purchased camel loads of cotton for widows to make garments for the orphans and for sale. Donors from America and Europe began supporting these two audacious women who had ventured into very dangerous territory to do the Lord’s work.
Gerber, in particular, found support among wealthy German Mennonites who lived in Russia. In 1904, they funded the construction of a series of large buildings to house hundreds of orphans and widows. Zion Orphans’ Home, located near Caesarea, became a hub of relief work and ministry in central Turkey. When persecution of Armenians intensified in 1915, resulting in the extermination of most Christian Armenians from Turkey, Zion Orphans’ Home was ready to help those in distress.
Gerber identified with the emerging Pentecostal movement as early as 1910. This should not be surprising, as she had experienced her own Pentecost 21 years earlier. The Assemblies of God supported her missions efforts, and numerous letters by Gerber were published in the Pentecostal Evangel. Assemblies of God leader D.W. Kerr, in the foreword to Gerber’s 1917 autobiography, wrote that he had known Gerber for 26 years and that her story will encourage readers “to greater self-denial and a deeper surrender.”
Gerber suffered a stroke and passed away on Dec. 6, 1917. Gerber’s obituary, published in the Pentecostal Evangel, stated that she was known as “the angel of mercy to the downtrodden Armenians.”
It would have been easy for Gerber to ignore the persecution of Armenians. The massacres were on the other side of the world. She could have stayed safe in America or in Europe. But Gerber followed God’s call and spent almost 20 years ministering to refugees who faced persecution and death. Few people today remember her name. But according to early Assemblies of God leaders, Maria Gerber personified what it meant to be Pentecostal.
Read one of Gerber’s articles, “Great Results Seen in Answer to Prayer,” on page 4 of the Dec. 4, 1915, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “Divine Love: The Supreme Test,” by Arch P. Collins
• “What Think Ye of Christ?” by M. M. Pinson
And many more!
Read Maria A. Gerber’s obituary in the Jan. 5, 1918, edition of the Pentecostal Evangel (p. 13).
Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.