Written by Charles Barnes:
In the history of the churches in Idaho Falls, the pastor with the longest record of service, at 50 years, is Rev. Donald Austin. The pastor with the second longest period of service in Idaho Falls is Dr. Joseph Gulick, who served here from 1923 to 1959. Here is a brief account of his story.
Joseph Isaac Gulick was born on a farm near White House, New Jersey in 1890. One of his earliest memories, before he turned three, was seeing his mother frantically trying to revive his father, who had come into their house from farm work and collapsed onto the floor from heart failure. Following his death, the family, with 4 young children, moved to his grandparents’ farm.
Joseph writes that when he was about 12, became tired of school and decided to quit. I could see no use in “wasting time” on such things as grammar, learning to phrase and diagram. So he went to work on neighboring farms and later learned the blacksmith trade. After several years working as a blacksmith he was overcome with the desire to go to college, and prayed to God for months to make it possible.
God answered his prayers when after a church service, the minister pulled him aside and told him, “Joseph, I can’t understand it, but something has been working on me, pushing me, telling me that I ought to talk to you about going to college and preparing for the ministry! Have you ever thought of it?” So Joseph started the long process of finishing grade school, completing high school, and going on to college and finally seminary.
His college years were interrupted by a year of sickness. Joseph came down with a severe case of typhoid fever, and was cared for by his mother and brothers. At one point his heart stopped, and his mother dropped to her knees and prayed desperately for God to give him back to them. Another time when he was sinking low, he sensed he was floating through a tunnel. He writes, “At the end of the tunnel, light was shining. I floated slowly toward a ball of indescribably beautiful colors! Around about were equally beautiful sounds! Instinctively I knew I was drawing near a theophany—a manifestation of God!”
His illness left him weak from a loss of weight and angry with God for getting even farther behind in his education and also because of a broken engagement. He writes, “God was letting me pass through the furnace so I would understand lives of people who later came to me for help.”
He also had an experience one Sunday afternoon when he went out into the woods to “wrestle with God and while there, I had a dramatic conversion experience, not unlike St. Paul’s on the Damascus Highway.” Many years later he wrote of it, “What a powerful evangelist I might have become had that Pressure of God’s Presence remained with me as I felt for some days after that experience of joy and inner illumination in the woods. But though it gradually faded, I had been given both new conviction and a new life direction by it!”
Prior to his final year in Princeton Seminary, he took a summer assignment in Soda Springs, Idaho. Back at Princeton he received many letters from individuals in Soda Springs asking him to return, and Joseph tried to persuade other students at Princeton Seminary to go. Finally he prayed to the Lord for guidance and had an immediate answer, “Go, and I will go with you!”
Borrowing money for the trip West, Joseph arrived in Soda Springs on May 31, 1920. In the nearly three years he spent there, the congregation grew from 36 to 105, and for the first time in their history, became self-supporting. He began raising funds for a new building, but ran into opposition within the congregation and the community, and sensed it was time for him to move on. Soda Springs’ loss was Idaho Falls’ gain. However, just before coming to Idaho Falls, Joseph married a member of the Soda Springs congregation, Winifred Louise Ferebauer, and gained a family, as she had two young sons.
On an earlier visit to Idaho Falls, Joseph had been impressed by the architecture of the newly constructed Presbyterian Church. He writes in his autobiography, “As I left the sanctuary, a sudden prophetic insight swept my soul, ‘This is yours! God will call you to this church to serve it!’”
In 1919, Idaho Falls was in the midst of the post-World War I boom, enjoying a period of prosperity. The town was growing and churches were flourishing. The First Presbyterian Church had been organized in 1891, and that same year they built a small building at Shoup and A Streets. They met there until 1917, when they had grown to about 260 members and were cramped in their building. Temporarily meeting in a building hastily constructed on Eastern Avenue south of the present Museum, they began construction at their current location in 1918 and dedicated the building on April 11, 1920. Then the depression of 1920-1921 hit. Jobs were lost, people were leaving Idaho Falls. The congregation of First Presbyterian, which had grown to 366 by 1920, was reduced to 155 in 1923. Pledges that had been made toward funding the building were not being fulfilled.
According to the history of the First Presbyterian Church, “Dr. Joseph Gulick came to the church in 1923 on a starvation wage, supplementing his income by teaching history at Idaho Falls High School.” Joseph Gulick actually taught three history classes and one English class, and for it received a salary of $150/month. Still there came a time when he needed to withdraw the last cent from his bank account to buy groceries. Many years later he reflected, “This was to be the story of our years of ministry in Idaho Falls—through daily prayer attempting to secure God’s guidance, and in every crisis, going into the sanctuary at night, lifting our eyes to the beautiful dome above and beseeching God for help!” He also wrote that his time teaching at Idaho Falls High School “caused me to be favorable known by both Mormons and Gentiles.”
Rev. Gulick served at the First Presbyterian Church of Idaho Falls for 36 years.
“The first thing that needed to be done,” he wrote, “was to encourage a very discouraged congregation and to make them aware of God’s presence with them.”
One of the first needs he focused on was building a youth group. When he came to the church there was none, and the “Old Guard” had no interest in teens. Within three years, over 70 were coming to the youth group meeting he started.
One of the next needs he saw was to pay off the debt for their building. In January 1925, after his sermon he invited all the men who wanted to be part of a campaign to reduce the debt to come into his study. Nearly every man showed up; many couldn’t get in. Both men and women took up the challenge, and Joseph later reflected, “It was a demonstration of the presence and power of God in the life of His Church.”
In January 1929, Rev. Gulick began broadcasting worship services over KGIO radio (which later became KID). According to his autobiography, it was the first religious broadcast in Idaho.
Two of the goals of the church in 1931 were: (1) a 25% increase in average attendance and (2) a new experience of the Presence of Christ in our lives, and a new loyalty to the church and the Kingdom. The church made that year, which was their 40th anniversary, a year of prayer.
In 1932, Joseph asked for a year of leave, in order to work on his Master’s Degree. He took his family to Washington DC where he and his two sons all studied at George Washington University.
Coming back to Idaho Falls alone, while his sons continued their studies and his wife stayed with them, he threw himself into his ministry. “One thing that contributed to the work pressure upon me was my inability to delegate responsibility to others. It was my custom to pitch into every project and do everything possible that I myself could do.” One Sunday night he discovered a leak in the church roof. As he worked to minimize the damage, he became angry at the church trustees for not repairing the roof, and an elder and his wife who were leisurely visiting with his wife instead of helping him. The following day, as he was walking to Emerson School to give an address to the Parent Teachers Association, he became disoriented. He eventually got to the school but as he began his talk, he felt weak, sat down, felt sharp pains in his cheeks, and then collapsed. It was the beginning of long days of both mental and physical pain and depression.
In his words, “It was a jagged, wounding, storm-covered mountain top experience in my life, but God was in and throughout it all, hammering and tempering His instrument as the blacksmith tempers his metal in the heat and cold.” He gives much credit to his wife for getting him through this period of weakness. He also came to understand that because of it he could better minister to people with mental problems, and it taught him not to try to carry so much responsibility on his shoulders.
In 1947 Joseph completed his Doctor of Divinity Degree through the College of Idaho.
Remembering the years 1947-50, Dr. Gulick writes, “If certain important events were like mountain peaks on the skyline of Idaho Falls Presbyterian Church history, the “New Life Movement” launched by the General Assembly in 1947 was the Mount Everest of them all! It was the period in the Idaho Falls Church’s history when the Holy Spirit’s directing Presence and Power, like that reported in the Book of Acts, was felt more vividly than at any other time.”
Prior to this date, for many years the church had not been adding more than 20 members annually. And over the years Dr. Gulick had become sort of a “Community Pastor,” with an increasing load of funerals, counselling sessions and community demands. [He was also called “The Fishing Preacher,” as he spent one day, and sometimes two days, each week during fishing season on the river.] One focus of the New Live Movement was personal witness. Following a 5-day training session at a Regional Conference and a sermon series focused on an individual’s relationship with Christ, teams were ready. On Monday, November 17, 1947, 18 men went out in pairs to share the gospel. Though 16 of the 18 men had never spoken to anyone about a relationship with Christ before, that day the teams led 21 people in decisions to become followers of Christ. The following Sunday 50 people became new members of the church, and over the next 13 months more than 175 people found Christ. Dr. Gulick writes, “Though I had always relied upon the Holy Spirit, I needed to realize that the Holy Spirit can work through others as well as myself, and it is wisdom to involve others, especially the men, in the work of church visitation.”
After 30 years of ministry in Idaho Falls, Dr. Gullick took a sabbatical in 1953 to study for six months in Israel, Egypt and Europe. After getting home he showed slides of his trip 96 times and gave 21 lectures based on what he saw and learned.
Dr. Gulick’s final Sunday in the pulpit at the Presbyterian Church in Idaho Falls was June 28, 1959, but his ministry was not over. The first year of his “retirement,” Dr. Gulick served as the District Governor of Rotary. During the next seven years he led churches in Swan Valley, Ririe and Rigby. In 1967 he entered into complete retirement in order to devote himself completely to the care of his wife, who was suffering from declining health, and passed away in September, 1969. Joseph Gulick died in Idaho Falls on March 3, 1972.
[Note: My primary source for the above was a copy of the first 118 pages of his autobiography, Joseph I Gulick, God’s Missionary, privately published and undated. I have not been able the find the remaining 152 pages. If you have a copy or know of one, or have memories of Dr. Gulick that would add to this story, please contact me.]