In order to have a proper starting-point for our historical journey, we must imagine ourselves in eastern Pennsylvania a hundred years ago; to be more specific, in Dauphin, Lancaster, York and Cumberland counties.
This part of the country was then in the comparatively early period of its settlement, with much of the virgin forest still untouched. The effects of the War of 1812, which had ended but a decade before the time of which we are thinking, were still being felt, for Pennsylvania had furnished more money and men for that conflict shall any other State. Farming was the chief pursuit of the people, and prosperous agricultural communities had been established contiguous to Harrisburg, Lancaster, Carlisle, York and other towns. For then, as now, a soil was being cultivated whose fertility guarantees that seed-time will produce a bountiful response in harvest-time. Manufacturing of a rudimentary character was carried on to a limited extent in the more populous centers. Means of communication and transportation were yet in their infancy. The turnpike or toll roads had received a good deal of attention. The first in the country (that between Philadelphia and Lancaster) was located in 1792 and finished several years later. By 1828 more than a thousand miles of such roads had been constructed. A crude railroad had been built between Philadelphia and Columbia, by a company chartered in 1823, which was the beginning of what is now known the world over as the great Pennsylvania system. Canals were then receiving the special consideration of the people. The State, through its legislature, gave its financial encouragement to this project, just as it formerly aided in the construction of turnpikes and later in the building of railroads.
The people of these prosperous communities were industrious and thrifty. Theirs was the simple life, in the midst of primitive conditions. The German nationality was the most numerous, with the estimates of its strength varying all the way from one-fourth to one-half of the population. Benjamin Franklin, when he appeared before the House of Commons in England in 1765 to present the objections to the Stamp Act, estimated the population of the province of Pennsylvania at 160,000, "of whom one-third were Germans." And this one-third estimate would probably still hold good at the beginning of our historical narrative in 1825. This is the part of the population with which our history, as a religious body, is chiefly concerned, rather than with the English, Welsh, Scotch, Irish, French and other nationalities.
Most of the ancestors of these people came from that part of Germany known as the Palatinate. In their homeland they had been exceedingly heavy sufferers from the ravages of war during much of the seventeenth century and extending into the eighteenth, including the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). Concerning this awful conflict between Catholics and Protestants the historian says: "As the fruit of this most terrible war, Protestantism was saved, but at a cost which it is difficult even to estimate. The population was greatly decreased; intellectually and morally the people suffered a great decline. Germany was disintegrated, and the material losses were such that a complete recovery had hardly taken place at the end of two centuries." Not only had there been a tremendous loss of life, but also a proportionate destruction of property of all kinds, so that the poorer classes of people were left in dire straits. Their daily toil was a continuous round of hardship, and the outlook for something better seemed hopeless. To these heavy burdens of a material character were added the heart burdens of religious persecution, for every adverse wind fanned to a flame the smoldering fires of religious bitterness. Hence it is not strange that these people, like the emigrants of other nationalities, left their homeland to seek political and religious freedom in this New World.
William Penn, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, had published a pamphlet called "Some Account of the Province of Pennsylvania." The purpose of the author was to welcome the oppressed of all lands to his Province, and the pamphlet was translated into Dutch, German and French, and circulated over Europe. This, preceded by Penn's visit to Germany in 1677, prepared the way for the great German immigration into Pennsylvania, which began in large numbers early in the eighteenth century. These people became an important element in the population of the Province and later of the State, and it was among their descendants, for the most part, that our work as a religious body had its beginning a hundred years later. In the meantime they had become well established and prosperous.
Of still greater interest, so far as our present purpose is concerned, was the state of religion in this part of the country a hundred years ago. Then, as always, the Quaker influence was felt in the life of the Keystone State. So also, to a greater or less extent, was the Presbyterian, the Methodist, the Baptist, the Episcopalian and that of other Protestant faiths, along with the Roman Catholic. The Germans, for the most part, were members of the German Reformed and Lutheran Churches, but also included such bodies as the Mennonites, Moravians and the German Baptist Brethren Church.
We are particularly interested in those of the German population who were identified with the German Reformed Church, for it was among them that our movement had its beginning. Their religion in their homeland was largely formal, and its character was not made better but rather worse when it was transplanted to this new land. For the very freedom which they sought and found here, with the laxness of restraint which is always incident to such freedom in a new country, contributed to worldliness and reckless living.
The great need of the people, including most of the church people, was the regenerating grace of God, and the indications of such a work of grace were not wanting. The deplorable religious condition might itself be taken as a favorable sign, if we agree with Finney that "a wicked, formal state is one sign of a coming revival." But there were other evidences.
The Methodists were promoting evangelistic movements which were reaching many souls with salvation. Their work in this country had its principal beginning in Philadelphia, where the first Methodist meetinghouse in America was erected in 1768. Bishop Asbury, who died in 1816, had left the impress of his great life on the religious thought of the people.
William Otterbein, while a German Reformed pastor in Lancaster, after much prayer and supplication, had a conscious experience of personal salvation, in the year 1754. This produced a spiritual change in his work which aroused opposition on the part of many of the Reformed people on account of their formality and worldliness, and started an evangelistic movement among others of his people which finally resulted in the organization of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, a denomination which had a strong German element, and which had become quite well established by 1825.
And Jacob Albright, a Lutheran (later a Methodist) lay evangelist of great ability who had a personal consciousness of experimental religion was instrumental in a movement among the Germans of eastern Pennsylvania which resulted, in 1800, in the organization of the Evangelical Association, now the Evangelical Church.
It will therefore be seen, that from a religious viewpoint, the people of eastern Pennsylvania at that time were divided into three classes: those who made no profession of religion; those whose religion consisted of a nominal membership in the church and a formal adherence to its tenets; and those who had experienced the blessings of the new birth. While these three classes are found in every generation, the lines of distinction were much more clearly drawn then than now. Those of the second class were worldly and almost destitute of vital godliness. The devoted souls of the third class were seeking to correct this condition of worldliness and formality in the church with the only genuine remedy?a revival of God's redeeming grace. These efforts won a penitent response from some, but aroused the bitter opposition of others. These opponents, or at least their leaders, did not deny their need of spiritual improvement; but they opposed the "new measures" for its attainment. Dr. John W. Nevin, one of the prominent leaders of the German Reformed Church, makes this clear in his small book called "The Anxious Bench." He uses this name to include all that belonged to the "New Measures" (the revival methods), to which he discloses strong and even bitter opposition. He admits that the German Churches of that time needed to rise to a higher spiritual life; but he insists that "their resurrection should take place in the type of their own true, original, glorious life, as it is still to be found enshrined in their symbolical books." And in another work (his lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism) Dr. Nevin has this to say of the state of religion in the German Reformed Church:
"To be confirmed and then to take the sacrament occasionally was counted by the multitude all that was necessary to make one a good Christian, if only a tolerable decency of outward life were maintained besides, without any regard at all to the religion of the heart. True, serious piety was indeed often treated with open and marked scorn. In the bosom of the church itself it was stigmatized as miserable, driveling Methodism. The idea of the new birth was treated as a Pietistic whimsey. Experimental religion, in all its forms was eschewed as a new fangled invention of cunning importers, brought in to turn the heads of the weak, and to lead captive silly women. Prayer-meetings were held to be a spiritual abomination. Family worship was a species of saintly affectation, barely tolerable in the case of ministers (though many of them gloried in having no altar in their houses), but absolutely disgraceful for common Christians. To show an awakened concern on the subject of religion, a disposition to call on God in daily secret prayer, was to incur certain reproach. . . . The picture, it must be acknowledged, is dark, but not more so than the truth of history would seem to require."
Opposition to revivals in the Lutheran Church was much the same as in the German Reformed Church. Dr. Benjamin Kurtz, a minister of that denomination in a report of his work published in the Lutheran Observer of January 12, 1855, says: "Some thirty-five years ago , when God in his mercy sanctioned our labors with a glorious outpouring of his Spirit, and for the first time in our ministry granted us a mighty revival, the opposition of the world and the devil was almost unparalleled. A revival in the Lutheran Church was a new thing in that day. We had never heard of but one, and that was in Brother Reck's church in Winchester, Virginia. He can testify to the bitterness, malevolence, and awful wickedness that characterized the adversaries of such divine visitations in those days of ignorance, hardness of heart, and spiritual blindness."
Such were the religious conditions in eastern Pennsylvania a hundred years ago.
The Reformed Reader Home Page
Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved