committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs









      The second quarter of our century's history (1850 to 1875) has three outstanding features.

      The first may be called the final trials and triumphs of Winebrenner's life. At the beginning of this period he had already lived fifty-three years, thirty of which had been spent in the active ministry. These years had been attended with severe trials and many hardships. They had been years of indefatigable labors. And his labors and those of his co-workers had been crowned with gracious triumphs. Without any previous expectation he had been used of God in establishing a religious body whose work, in a quarter of a century, had been permanently established in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa and had branched out into a number of other contiguous states. He had been instrumental in organizing several Elderships and a General Eldership. He had seen several hundred churches and preaching places established. Scores of church-houses had been built, many of which he was privileged to dedicate. He had, as we now know, ten years more of life to live. During the first few years of this decade his activities continued as usual, with such special efforts as the expanding character of the work required. He and Harn made a missionary journey to the West during the summer of 1850, which required over four months time and brought much inspiration and encouragement to the brotherhood in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa.

      Winebrenner was establishing churches after the New Testament pattern. They were the same as the church which the Master had "purchased with his own blood" [Acts 20:28], and for which he, as a follower of the Master, was also giving his life?by wearing it out in service. Nothing was dearer to Winebrenner's heart than the church. This was true of all the churches which had been established, but we may well suppose that the original church held a special place in his affections. And it is easy to imagine the enthusiasm and joy with which he and the church, in 1854, took the forward step of changing to a more desirable location by selling the property on Mulberry street and buying and building on Fourth street. This was the most costly and elaborate house of worship which the Church of God had so far erected, and after more than three score and ten years it still serves its purpose and at the same time memorializes the consecrated labors and self-sacrificing devotion by which it was made possible. It was evidently intended to have more than a local influence among our people. The house was dedicated November 4, 1855. This was "a high day in Zion," and gave promise of greater accomplishments in Harrisburg than ever before.

      Little was it thought that during the next few years this "mother church," which, in keeping with the change of location was thereafter called the Fourth Street Church, and more recently the First Church, would pass through experiences alike distressing to the individuals connected with it and detrimental to the cause with which they were identified, but such was the case. The principals in this unfortunate controversy were John Winebrenner and James Colder. The latter had gone to China as a Methodist missionary in 1851. But, having changed his views, he left the Methodist Church and returned to the United States, in 1854, and became a minister of the Church of God. The difficulty was schismatic in its effects upon the Fourth Street Church. The rightful authority in the appointing of a pastor of this church was the technical question at issue, hence, in an ecclesiastical sense the whole East Pennsylvania Eldership was involved. And the situation was made still worse by the family element which unavoidably entered into it, for Colder was Winebrenner's son-in-law. The long, tedious and distressing course of events in connection with this matter need not be recounted here. It is a page of our history which it is better to forget than to remember. It is sufficient to say that the question was carried through the courts, and finally, in 1862, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania handed down a decision sustaining the authority of the Eldership in the appointing of pastors. This was a triumphant vindication for the followers of Winebrenner. It put them in possession of their church property on Fourth street, of which they had been illegally deprived for nearly four years. Spiritual and financial prosperity again attended their labors, so that this church has long since become one of the strongest in the General Eldership. [51]

      But Winebrenner did not live to see the successful outcome of this unfortunate and most regrettable experience of his career. After a period of failing health which extended over more shall a year, he peacefully entered into rest, September 12, 1860. He was conscious until the end and this was his final message to the ministry:

      "In the event I depart, preach Jesus. Oh, the glory of preaching Jesus! I have never seen the necessity of preaching Jesus in the days of health as I have seen it since I have been sick. Preach Jesus in the days of your health. Tell the brethren to stick together!"

      Owing to the litigation involving the bethel of the only church of God then in Harrisburg, the funeral services were held in the Methodist house of worship on Locust street. E. H. Thomas preached the funeral sermon, using as a text Hebrews 11:4. He was assisted by James Mackey, A. X. Shoemaker and Joseph Ross. The body was laid to rest in the Harrisburg Cemetery.

      The second outstanding feature of this historical period was the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865. It was during these years that this nation, "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," was "engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." The influence of the war on church work, as well as on every other kind of human activity, was far-reaching. So were the events leading up to the war, chief of which was the agitation of the subject of slavery. And the aftermaths of the war, as always, had their effects on the cause of righteousness. Hundreds of our laymen and many of our preachers entered the military service of their country, thus depleting, to that extent, the strength of the churches and the ministry. The courageous Harn, who had fought so many battles for the truth, was the most prominent of those who made the supreme sacrifice in the war. The life of the Union was at stake, and other things, for the time, were almost forgotten. The secular overshadowed the spiritual and the churches suffered the consequences.

      The third outstanding feature of this period of our history was its remarkable manifestation of missionary zeal. Church work was continued and enlarged in the states where it had already been established. Camp-meetings were held east and west, as many as twenty to thirty in one season. The winter revivals were prosecuted with creep earnestness and great faith. These were the years when the terms "big meeting" and "protracted meeting" were as appropriate as they were familiar. Scores of church-houses were built. Sunday-school conventions were held to strengthen and advance that important auxiliary of the churches. And the self-sacrificing devotion of our pioneer ministers urged them beyond the older established fields into new territory, including Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Texas and Arkansas. In addition to the ministers already named as having attained prominence during this period, the following are added: B. Ober, E. Marple, Wm. Vance. A. Megrew, E. H. Thomas, J. F. Weishampel, I. E. Boyer, J. A. Plowman, and L. B. Hartman.

      The great activity of these years was the more remarkable in view of the two features previously mentioned in this chapter, both of which were of a discouraging and hindering character. The neglect of church work during the war was largely retrieved by a renewed and increased diligence during the years immediately following.

      It may be said that some of the missionary zeal of this period, as well as that of other periods of our history, was not manifested according to wisdom. Hundreds of preaching appointments were opened which were sooner or later abandoned, and this was true in many places where churches were organized and houses of worship built. But the efforts put forth were praiseworthy nevertheless. The saving of souls and the establishing of churches were the supreme objects of these self-sacrificing pioneers. Their invariable method was to follow the tide of emigration. Their object was right and their method was wise. But as much could not always be said of the families of the Church in their plans of emigration. The family that moved hundreds of miles away from any other point of contact with those of their own faith could hardly expect to be followed by a missionary. Yet our brethren of the early years hesitated to make any exception when they heard a distant call. This extraordinary zeal and optimism must explain some steps taken during these years which failed to produce the hoped-for results. Otherwise it is hard to understand, for example, why missionaries were sent from Pennsylvania to Texas, in 1855, not only because of the great distance, but also because of the slavery agitation. At that time this agitation had become so acute in the South that any one coming from the North, and especially to represent a Church that was known to be opposed to slavery was met with a suspicion that it was practically impossible to overcome, as the unfortunate history of the Texas mission and its lack of substantial results show. The Chicago Mission also belongs to this period and is another case in point. Its beginning, in 1864, was one of the most ambitious missionary undertakings upon which the Church had entered. It had A. X. Shoemaker, one of our ablest ministers, at its head. But its failure, after a decade of strenuous and heroic efforts, seems to furnish the explanation that it was a greater undertaking than our people, at that time, were capable of carrying through.

      But, somehow, we cannot look upon these failures or speak of them in a spirit of criticism. As we read the record we think less and less of the failures and more and more of the heroic courage and the determined efforts, in spite of formidable obstacles, to glorify God in the upbuilding of His church. And the brethren of that time were not lacking in courage. They did not allow failures here and there to make them faint-hearted. They kept constantly at their task. As evidence of this, from 1870 to 1875, the period of the Chicago failure, seventy-seven houses of worship were dedicated, seven of them in Illinois, besides two rededications in Illinois and eight elsewhere.

The Reformed Reader Home Page 

Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved