committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

 

CHAPTER IV.
OUR WORK ESTABLISHED AND ORGANIZED.


      The "glorious revivals of religion" which took place under Winebrenner's pastorate in the German Reformed Church were not interrupted but rather stimulated by his separation from that denomination. He was then freer than he had ever been before. He could worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience. He could preach the gospel as enlightened and prompted by the Holy Spirit and none could hinder. And those who were like-minded, especially those who had been converted under his ministry stood by him. They continued their work with ever-increasing zeal and activity. They held religious services and evangelistic meetings in private houses, in school-houses, in barns, and in "God's first temples"?the groves. The revival fires thus kindled in Harrisburg spread in nearly all directions, and in towns and country-sides gracious works of God's redeeming grace were witnessed, resulting in the salvation of many precious souls, the number reaching far into the hundreds. And among these converts and others who identified themselves with this evangelistic movement some were found capable and worthy to be co-laborers with Winebrenner in the gospel ministry.

      Very soon the need of some kind of organization was naturally felt by these converts and their leaders. There were questions to be decided in connection with their spiritual interests. And if their work was to be continued and made permanent there were temporal matters to be looked after, such as the support of the ministry, the building of meeting-houses and many other things involving the transaction of business. The natural and sensible conclusion which they reached was that local churches should be organized in their respective communities.

      The first church was organized in Harrisburg. The exact date is somewhat in doubt. But its house of worship, called Union Bethel, on Mulberry street, where the Harrisburg Hospital now stands, was built in 1827, and the church was evidently organized prior to that time, but not earlier than 1825. This important step taken by the brethren in Harrisburg was naturally followed by the organization of churches in other localities.

      This organizing of churches involved a great deal more, at that time, than appears at first thought. Winebrenner and his co-laborers were not organizing Reformed churches, nor local churches for any other denomination; had they been doing so, it would have been a simple matter?the mere carrying out of a familiar formality. Instead, every step taken was on new ground, and without any previously conceived plan. They met each problem as it arose, trusting in God for divine wisdom to solve it. The situation, says Winebrenner, "led me to a closer and more careful study of the Scriptures; and this, in turn, led to a change of views in relation to the subjects of baptism, confirmation, feet-washing, church titles, government, discipline, etc. Under God, and through these marvelous changes and reformations, I was led to fall back upon the primitive and scriptural platform of establishing churches, administering ordinances, and teaching the way of the Lord more perfectly."

      The restoration of primitive Christianity was the watchword of Winebrenner and his followers, and it was on this primitive and scriptural basis that all questions, after a careful study of the word of God, were decided. For example, these churches that were being organized must have a name. What should it be? The criterion adopted was that Bible institutions should be called by Bible names, and that Bible names should not be applied to human institutions. They believed that the church was unquestionably a Bible institution, and to the Bible they turned for its name. There they found, again and again, the title, "church of God," and no other church name, and that settled the first and one of the most important questions.

      These churches must also have officers. Again they turned to the New Testament, and found there that the officers of the church are elders and deacons, and these were elected in the organization of the churches. Winebrenner made a careful study of this subject, and in 1829 published a small book on local church polity, in which he gave his views of the church, its officers, their respective duties, and the proper manner of governing the church and exercising church discipline. He declared the presbyterial system, or government by presbyters, or elders to be the scriptural form.

      The interpretation given to the Scriptures with reference to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, by Winebrenner and his followers, was substantially the same as that of other religious bodies of the Arminian faith. But the disputed subject of the ordinances of the church received careful and prolonged consideration. Then, as now, the Lord's Supper, or the Communion occasioned no dispute. As to baptism, Winebrenner had been brought up under the teaching and practice of sprinkling, and it was not until 1830 that he reached the positive and final conclusion that the only scriptural baptism is the immersion of believers. No sooner had he reached this conclusion than he proceeded to put it into practice. On a Sunday afternoon in the summer of that year he preached a sermon on baptism in the Union Bethel on Mulberry street, Harrisburg, after which he led his congregation to the Susquehanna river near by, where he was baptized by a close friend, Rev. Jacob Erb (later Bishop Erb) of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.

      The washing of the saints' feet as a church ordinance was another subject which claimed the earnest attention of Winebrenner and his followers. This rite had been practiced for many years in this part of the country by certain religious bodies, including the German Baptists and the Mennonites. The United Brethren also practiced this ordinance during the early years of their history. Winebrenner was present on different occasions when this ordinance was observed by the United Brethren, but when invited to participate he excused himself on the ground that he had not yet come to a definite conclusion. Finally his study of the word led him to accept this truth and put it into practice. This was about the time that he came to a fixed opinion on baptism, or a little earlier, probably in 1829. From that time on he regarded feet-washing as one of the three monumental and symbolical ordinances which Christ set in the church, and ever after preached this doctrine with force and clearness.

      It should be remembered that the momentous experiences through which Winebrenner passed during these five eventful years (from 1825 to 1830) were without previous plans. He went out from the German Reformed Church through force of circumstances, feeling that he must continue his great work of evangelism and soul-winning. At that time he had no thought of organizing churches. This question, as well as those of the church name, officers, doctrines and ordinances and all other matters were taken up and settled when forced upon him by the course of events. He had no human program to carry out. But we are glad to believe that he had what is infinitely better?the providential guidance of the Most High.

      Everything which Winebrenner and his people taught and practiced could be found in other religious bodies?but not in the same combination. There were bodies which agreed with Winebrenner's views on the ordinance of baptism, but not as to the ordinance of the washing of the saints' feet. This was true of the Baptists. It was also true of the Disciples, who had already presented the unsectarian conception of the church. On the other hand, denominations which observed the ordinance of feet-washing were not in accord with Winebrenner's views on baptism, and so on. Even the Free Will Baptists, who were more nearly in harmony with his views than any other body of people, had not accepted what Winebrenner believed to be the divine name?"the church of God." Hence, while our great human leader was not the discoverer of any new doctrine or practice, he is to be credited with the selection of a more perfect body of scriptural truth for doctrinal teaching and practice than any other extant, either then, or now. He and his people could have found in other Churches everything which they believed and desired to teach and practice. But they could not find these things in any one church. Neither could they affiliate with several different Churches. This was the situation which marked the beginning of a new movement and made necessary the organization of churches according to the New Testament plan?churches for the teaching and practice of "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

      Winebrenner's views on church polity were, as might have been expected, a gradual growth. When circumstances seemed to demand the organization of local churches he gave to the subject of their government his most earnest thought. His consideration at that time does not seem to have gone beyond the local church. No occasion had yet arisen to require further attention. And the plan of government set forth in the New Testament, which he had taken as his "rule of faith and practice," was limited to local churches.

      But since the association of these converts in church organizations in their respective communities proved wise and helpful, it soon occurred to them that a wider form of association of these churches by which their representatives might co-operate in the propagation of their common faith and in the carrying out of their common plans and purposes would also be profitable. Accordingly a meeting was called for this purpose. Concerning those who composed it and the work done, Winebrenner has this to say in his "History of Religious Denominations":

      "From among the young converts, in these newly planted churches, it pleased God to raise up several able men, to take upon them the solemn and responsible office of the gospel ministry. These ministering brethren, with a few other great and good men with similar views and kindred spirits, labored and co-operated with each other for a few years without any regular system of co-operation; but, finally, they agreed to hold a meeting for the purpose of adopting a regular system of co-operation.

      "In October, 1830, they met together for this purpose, pursuant to public notice, in the Union Bethel at Harrisburg, and organized the meeting by appointing John Winebrenner, of Harrisburg, Speaker; and John Elliott, of Lancaster, Clerk."

      The forenoon was spells in devotional services. In the afternoon Winebrenner preached a sermon from Acts 5:38, 39. The sermon dealt with "the conversion of sinners, the formation of churches, and the supply of the destitute with the gospel ministry." The speaker declared that the discharge of the third duty mentioned?"the supply of the destitute with the gospel ministry"?was the principal reason why "we purpose to unite on the best and most efficient plan of co-operation." Then followed the adoption of a brief statement in keeping with the line of thought followed in the sermon.

      "Thus originated," says Winebrenner, "the Church of God, properly and distinctively so called, in the United States of America; and thus, also, originated the first Eldership."

 
 
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