The early 19th Century was a cauldron of experiential religion in America, with the result that many traditional churches that had their roots in Old Europe were torn asunder. Churches split, and split again, as doctrines, practices and Old World languages were unceremoniously stripped away or abandoned to make room for the “New Measures.” Perhaps, no individual better personified this movement than the founder of the “Church of God,” John Winebrenner.
The future pastor was born in Frederic County, Maryland, on March 25, 1797, and, since his parents were members of the German Reformed Church he was baptized and, eventually, confirmed in the faith in the Glades Valley Church. His parents did not agree as to what career he should pursue and he decided to follow his mother’s advice and pursued his interest in the gospel ministry. John Winebrenner’s decision to follow his heart and seek pastoral training started him on a path that would end in a very different place than anyone would have expected. His habit of following his heart would become a hallmark of his life and ministry.
Seminaries usually have a profound effect on young students for the ministry. But during the early 18th century, the German Reformed Church did not have a seminary and aspiring pastors were trained by older and more experienced pastors. Winebrenner spent three years being trained by the prominent Philadelphia pastor, Dr. Samuel Helffenstein. There were two experiences during his time in Philadelphia that would echo throughout his ministry. First, Dr. Helffenstein became involved in a controversy regarding the use of English in worship and was locked out of his church by those on the council who favored German only. He was eventually restored to his pulpit by the courts and the congregation was ordered to recognize Dr. Helffenstein as their pastor. In a few years, Winebrenner would have his own controversies with the church council. Second, in 1817, Winebrenner had what he subsequently described as a conversion experience. This experience, coupled with Dr. Helffenstein’s emphasis on developing a warm personal relationship with Christ, were catalysts for Winebrenner’s openness to a different approach to ministry than what was common in the German Reformed tradition.
After he completed his training, Winebrenner accepted a call to a church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The call also included three smaller country churches around Harrisburg. Winebrenner energetically pursued his calling and during the first few years of ministry a new church building was erected. He developed a reputation as a popular preacher and he was well received in the town by those who were not German Reformed, but not all was well. In the fall of 1822, the Consistory (church council) gave the Synod which was meeting in Harrisburg a list of grievances as follows:
He proceeds in the affairs of the church as if there were no vestry.
He holds prayer meetings called “anxious meetings” where he divides the members into two classes:
(a) those who say they experienced a change, and believed themselves Christians;
(b) the sinners, who believe themselves “mourning sinners.” And during the prayer meetings he encourages groaning thereby disturbing others who might, if the groaning were omitted, receive some benefit. He also allows certain persons during prayer to respond ‘Amen! Amen!’ thereby drawing the attention of the gazing crowd which usually collect on the outside.
At a conference meeting on the last Monday of July, he encouraged persons to speak to the sinners, he and Rev. Jacob Helffenstein and others exhorted and continued until James Officer commenced singing a lively tune, which produced a state of confusion. After that, Mr. Winebrenner called out if any persons wished to be prayed for they should come forward. Numbers came forward.
He held an “experience and conference meeting” the previous May which began at 7 p.m. and lasted until 4 a.m., at the breaking up of which he said, “This is the way to fan the chaff from the wheat.”
His denunciation from the pulpit towards members and others have caused members to withdraw themselves from the church. Officiating at a funeral, he told the mourners, “If I were to judge from Scripture, the majority buried in the neighboring graves must be in hell.”
He has refused to baptize the children of the members when he had been particularly requested.
The Consistory also accused him of inviting men from other denominations to speak without consulting them. The publishing of these charges prompted a seven hour meeting with the Consistory where Winebrenner defended his actions. This meeting did not resolve the problems and afterwards Winebrenner published an account of the meeting that he entitled, The Truth Made Known. In that pamphlet, Winebrenner admitted that most of what he was accused of was true, but that there was nothing wrong with what he was doing. He indicated that his motives were to address what he considered to be the low spiritual condition of the church. Winebrenner’s insistence on using these new techniques was beginning to split the church and his relationship with the Consistory continued to deteriorate to the point that a large portion of his salary had been withheld.
By April of 1823, the Consistory in Harrisburg locked Winebrenner out of the church building. This did not stop him from meeting with those who had gathered. He led them to the shores of the nearby river and held a worship service. The situation had become intolerable and in 1824, the Synod required a new vote by the congregations of the charge: Winebrenner won all four. Yet, this still did not resolve the issue because his opponents who dominated the Harrisburg congregation refused either to participate or to recognize the results. They had already called the son of Dr. Helffenstein to be their new pastor anyway. By 1827, Winebrenner had been dismissed from all of the pulpits of the Harrisburg charge and, while still on the roll of ministers in the German Reformed Church, he engaged in an itinerant ministry which included speaking engagements at various camp meetings. He was eventually removed from the roll of ministers after being charged with rejecting infant baptism and meddling in the affairs of other congregations. Nevertheless, the church in Harrisburg had already split and the supporters of Winebrenner built a meetinghouse two blocks away from the German Reformed church building.
By this time, Winebrenner had already broken with some of the distinctive practices of the German Reformed Church. He rejected the use of “human creeds.” The German Reformed very affectionately held to the Heidelberg Catechism as their expression of biblical Christianity. Winebrenner also rejected the practice of Confirmation in favor of the conversion experience practices of the revivalists. He also criticized the German Reformed regarding the non-practice of foot-washing which he considered to be a perpetual ordinance. He also rejected predestination and, eventually came to accept only immersion (subsequent to the conversion experience) as the mode of baptism. He himself was re-baptized in 1830. But it was his view of the church and church government that prompted what he did next.
Winebrenner thought that most of the existing denominations were sectarian and did not have a biblical church polity. He did not intend to form a new denomination. Yet, after prompting from congregations which agreed with his views, he decided that they should form a modified presbyterian type of polity in a new association called the “Church of God.” (The Church of God has changed and modified its name many times. What has become known as Church of God, General Conference is distinct from the other denominations called Church of God.) Winebrenner’s intention was for the new association to have autonomous congregations, ruled by local lay-elders, with no hierarchy that would interfere in the affairs in the local congregation. Winebrenner had followed his heart in leaving the German Reformed Church, but he had not heard the last words from the German Reformed. His use of the revivalist “New Measures” had drawn the attention of a notable professor of the German Reformed seminary at Mercersburg—Rev. John Williamson Nevin.
The opening salvo was in the August 10, 1842, issue of the Weekly Messenger. Nevin wrote concerning the Church of God the following criticism: “This latter sect especially glory in being the patrons of ignorance, rail at hireling ministers, encourage all sorts of fanatical unscriptural disorder in their worship, institute their own fancies and feelings in religion, for the calm deep power of faith. In doctrine they are of course pelagianistic.” This public criticism started a yearlong exchange of letters which were published in the Weekly Messenger and Winebrenner’s Gospel Publisher.
Winebrenner responded to Nevin by writing that indeed, “groaning, crying, shouting, clapping of hands, jumping, falling down, etc.” did occur in his meetings and that women prayed publically in meetings with men. What he denied was that these activities were problematic. Winebrenner asserted that the real issue was the “true conversion of soul.” After seeing Winebrenner’s defense, Nevin announced his intention to publish a tract critiquing the “New Measures” under the title The Anxious Bench.
One historian has noted that “Nevin’s pamphlet The Anxious Bench was one of the most renowned condemnations of New Measures revivalism ever published. It first appeared in 1843 but was followed the next year by a revised and enlarged edition…He contrasted the weaknesses of the ‘system of the bench’ with the strengths of the ‘system of the catechism.’ He said the anxious bench promoted a vulgar, irreverent style of religion that was unfavorable to earnest piety and even discouraged the serious seeker of religion. Despite his promise not to mention Winebrenner and his movement, he specifically referred to the ‘spurious conversions’ at Winebrennerian camp meetings.”1
It was Nevin’s opinion that Winebrenner was one among many examples of a sectarian spirit that had taken hold in the United States. In 1849, Nevin harshly criticized Winebrenner in the Mercersburg Review. He said, “Mr. Winebrenner’s portrait may be said to go beyond all the rest, in a certain self-consciousness of its own historical significance and interest. It has an attitude, studied for dramatic effect; an air of independence; an open Bible in the hands; in token, we presume, that Winebrennerism makes more of this blessed volume than any other sect, and that it was never much understood till Mr. Winebrenner was raised up at Harrisburg, in these last days, to set all right, and give the “Church of God” a fresh start, by means of it, out of his own mind.”
Undaunted, Winebrenner continued to labor in the Church of God and in various social causes. From very early in his ministry, he was troubled by what he considered to be laxity among the German Reformed in the use of “ardent spirits” and tobacco. (His speaking out against tobacco fell on deaf ears though. The use of chewing tobacco was nearly universal—including women and children.) He also was active in anti-slavery movements. Like many of his time, he initially supported the effort to settle freed slaves in Africa, but eventually became active as a leader in the local abolitionist organization. Along with temperance and anti-slavery activities, Winebrenner was also active in the American Peace Society and opposed the Mexican War. He said that, “all civil wars are unholy and sinful, and in which the saints of the Most High ought never to participate.”
One thing that the observant reader will notice is that Winebrenner spent only a few years in active pastoral ministry. After his break with the German Reformed Church, he carried on an itinerant ministry and was appointed as “preacher at large” or “general missionary” in the Church of God. He supplemented his meager earnings by engaging in various business ventures of varying success.
John Winebrenner died on September 12, 1860. He lived in tumultuous times in the church and in the civil sphere and his life reflected his times. His zeal for a warm, heartfelt and personal relationship with Christ was his driving motivation. In this, he is in good company in the history of the church. But a clear-eyed analysis of the methods and results compels one to question whether he accomplished his goals. His stated desire was to labor against sectarianism, and in the process, he divided the church. As Nevin observed at the time, how could so many who claim to have “no creed but the Bible” have so many differing opinions on what it said? That was, and remains, a good question.
1 J. Harvey Gossard, From German Reformed Roots to The Churches of God.