WINEBRENNER'S FIRST PASTORATE.
The closing paragraph of Winebrenner's testimony, just quoted, succinctly mentions facts of sufficient historical importance to command the next two chapters for our consideration.
He began his pastorate of the Reformed churches named at a time of their worldliness and formality. This condition, as we have seen, was quite general. But it was also a time when many hearts were being touched by revival movements, led by earnest souls who were concerned for the spiritual welfare of the people. And when we recall the devout disposition of Winebrenner from his youth up, and his glorious conversion while he was a theological student in Philadelphia, we are not surprised that in the prevailing conflict between the forces of formality and spirituality he took his stand with the latter and soon became a leader among them. He was pre-eminently an evangelistic preacher, and God honored his preaching with "glorious revivals of religion." But it also aroused, as he says, "vehement opposition" on the part of those who were unwilling to yield to his pleas for a genuine Christian life. This was the primary and fundamental cause of the cleavage which, about five years after he assumed the responsibilities of this pastorate, resulted in his separation from the German Reformed denomination.
The difficulties between the pastor and a part of his church membership and the futile efforts to adjust matters, which extended over much of this five-year period, need not be considered at length. Minor and incidental factors naturally entered in from time to time. But that the vital cause was the one mentioned is evident from the official complaints which his opponents lodged against him. They complained that he sometimes attended the Methodist meetings, occasionally preached for them, and even advised his people to attend there when they had no services of their own; that he held too many prayer-meetings or anxious meetings and conducted them with too much noise and confusion; inviting those who wanted to be prayed for to come forward; allowing persons to groan during prayer and others to respond with amens; also that he continued these meetings till too late an hour of the night. And as a condition of compromise they proposed that "he must preach for them only, and not for other congregations; and hereafter not invite so-called unordained ministers to preach in his pulpit; and not hold more than one prayer-meeting a week, nor keep it up later than nine o'clock at night." Winebrenner's answer was "I will not consent to these arrangements, for I am a free man, preach a free gospel, and I will go where the Lord calls me to go."
The Sunday following this meeting with his vestry, which was in the Spring of 1823, he found the church-house in Harrisburg locked against him, and, with the part of the membership which stood with him, estimated at about one-half, went to the bank of the Susquehanna river, two blocks distant, and held their service. He received similar treatment at other churches on his charge. "This state of things," says Winebrenner, "lasted for about five years, [till 1825] and then resulted in a separation from the German Reformed Church." He speaks of this separation as his withdrawal. The Synod of 1825 was the last he attended. But it was not until three years later that official action was taken by the Synod to the effect that "he ought not to be any longer considered a member of this body."
No doubt Winebrenner sincerely felt, as he says, that "the members of these congregations or churches were unconverted, with few exceptions, and many grossly ignorant of the right ways of the Lord." With this sense of pastoral responsibility he preached "experimental religion," using as his favorite text, "Ye must be born again" [John 3:7]. And those who accepted the truth and entered into the joys of spiritual fellowship with their Lord, naturally followed their pastor when the crisis came and he severed his denominational ties. They felt that they could not be unequally yoked together with those who rejected the offers of mercy and refused to enter into the blessings of regenerating grace.
While Winebrenner was intensely evangelistic, with the enthusiasm of a young convert of the cross, he was in no sense a mystic. He was more than a theorist. He was practical as well as pious. One of the first acts of his pastorate was to organize a Sunday-school for the Salem Reformed Church. This was one of the new features being introduced into the work of the Reformed churches at that time, parochial schools having been the principal means for the religious training of their children.
Feeling that in order to do aggressive work a better building was needed than the log house in which the church had been worshipping, he started a movement toward that end. As a result, in less than eight months after he assumed the pastorate the corner-stone was laid, and the new house of worship was dedicated August 4, 1822. This building, after more than a hundred years, is still in splendid condition, is used regularly by the Salem Reformed congregation, and is one of the prominent church-houses of Harrisburg.
This pastorate was of itself a heavy responsibility for a young man just out of school. The building program which he launched and successfully carried out, a very ambitious one for that time, added greatly to his responsibilities and labors. He also married and established his own home, Charlotte M. Reutter, of Harrisburg, becoming his wife on October 10, 1822. And finally, he ended that period of his life's work by withdrawing from the denomination in which he had been born, raised and educated and by which he had been inducted into the Christian ministry. And all this in the short space of five years?from 1820 to 1825, and while he was passing through that period of his early manhood between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-eight.
His deepest desire was to bring his brethren of the Reformed Church to an experimental knowledge of personal salvation. He had no desire to leave his denomination, and did so only when circumstances forced him to that decision. And when the crisis came it involved a sacrifice not easy to realize. It meant the turning away not only from the Church of his childhood and youth, but also from the faith of those nearest to him by the ties of blood. Nothing but the voice of God could justify such a step, and it was that Voice which Winebrenner verily believed he was hearing and heeding. From the time of his genuine conversion, eight years before, he had exercised an abiding confidence in the Lord, and by Him he was sustained. This enabled him to pass through these most trying experiences of his life with Christian fortitude. In evidence of this there has come down to us a precious glimpse into his inner life at this time, a brief meditation written on March 25, 1825, his twenty-eighth birthday, in which he says:
"Today l am twenty-eight years old. Hitherto a kind and gracious providence has brought me. And by the grace of God I am what I am. I have abundant cause to say, that, in very deed the Lord has been good to me; infinitely more so, than I have in any wise deserved, or could have expected, considering how often I have sinned against him and how little I have glorified him. But, I desire to be unfeignedly thankful to God for the past, and to trust him for the future. If my life should be spared 28 years more, I do most devoutly hope and pray that I shall have done 28 times as much for God as I have hitherto done or accomplished for him. My ardent desire is to live to the praise of God, and to the good of my fellow creatures, whilst I have my abode in this world. And, whether my years be many or few in this world, I wish to spend them all in the ways and service of my Maker. It is now about eight years since I left the Egypt of this world, and entered upon the spiritual journey towards the Canaan in the skies. And though, like the Israelites of old, I have had to drink the bitter waters of Marah, like them also I have found the sweet and delightful waters of Elim."
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