We've Come This Far By Faith

“We’ve Come This Far By Faith”

A Talk given by Rev. David S. Parker, Pastor Hepburn Baptist Church

at the September, 2021 Meeting of the Blooming Grove Historical Society

This story begins in 2 places in Europe at the time our country was in its infancy, but to set the stage, we need to look back to October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church doors in Wittenburg. His primary problem with the Catholic Church was it’s emphasis on good works and receiving of the sacraments as the path to salvation. Luther, on the other hand, believed that man was incapable of earning salvation. He believed the Bible’s clear teaching that salvation and eternal life with God are not earned, but instead are offered by God as a free gift to all who believe that Jesus Christ is God the Son, who came to earth, born of the virgin Mary, lived a sinless life, died on the cross, shedding his blood to pay the penalty for our sins and then rose again on the 3rd day conquering sin and death. As the old hymn Rock of Ages would simply put it: Naught the labor of my hands, could fulfill the law’s demands” but: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.”

Unfortunately over the next 250 years, the denomination which bore Luther’s name replaced the Roman Catholic Church in Northern Europe as the official state religion and in so doing, took on many of the same unbiblical practices and beliefs which Luther had protested against.

As a result, those who held to the tenets of a true church composed of only those who had personally accepted God’s free gift by faith alone in Christ alone felt compelled to separate themselves from the Lutheran Church. These “separatists” as they became known refused to have their infants baptized or send their children to catechism classes and many refused to serve in the army which often resulted in harsh prison sentences.

2 men who became leaders of this “separatist” movement in the German state of Wurtemberg were Johann Georg Rapp and Dr. Friedrich Conrad Haller. As persecution of the Separatists intensified, Rapp and Haller felt compelled to voyage to the newly independent United States of America in search of a place where they could live and worship free from government control and opposition. Their plan was to find a “promised land” where they could establish a community founded on biblical principles. They arrived in Philadelphia on Oct. 7, 1803. They set about exploring the Mid-Atlantic region and eventually parted company, probably due primarily with differing visions of how their new communities should be structured Rapp, for instance wanted communal ownership of everything and leaned towards requiring celibacy (Judging by the size of some of the families in the valley, I’m not sure that would have gone over big here).

During this time, Haller became acquainted with several groups of German Baptist Brethren in MD and PA. They had been given the nickname of “Dunkards” or Tunkers due to their practice of baptizing believers by “dunking” them 3 times one time each for the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Several sources indicate that Dr. Haller became convinced that their faith and practice were correct and was himself baptized with the three-fold immersion.

In 1804 a group of some 50 separatists from Wurtemburg set sail for Philadelphia aboard the sailing ship Margaret. After perilous journey involving 68 day sea voyage, during which 2 small children perished, they arrived in Philadelphia and connected with Dr. Haller. Somewhere in fall and winter of 1804-1805 the group purchased a plot of 422 acres north of Williamsport from a Quaker land speculator named Jesse Willits. One account seems to indicate that the new immigrants were “taken for a ride” financially by Mr. Willets, having paid $3.65/acre when other land in the area was going for $1.00-1.50/acre.

In the spring of 1805 they journeyed overland. By the time they arrived the dogwood and rhododendron were in full bloom, so that the woods filled with white, leading the party to name the area “Blumengrofe” or Blooming Grove. They set about clearing the land and building homes and as families grew and others came to join them, they spread throughout this valley from Fairfield and Eldred to Anthony.

On the Sabbath, they would gather together in barns and houses for worship. With no professional clergy, they undoubtedly followed a shared leadership of worship with men taking turns as is still the practice among the Amish today.

Dr. Haller lived in a house across the road from us and continued to serve the people of Blooming Grove as doctor, preacher and schoolmaster until his death in 1828, the year this meeting house was built.

Moving on to follow the second strand of this story, in 1830, a young man of 19, by the name of Konrad Fleischmann encountered a stranger during a ferry ride on Lake Geneva in Switzerland who shared the Gospel with him and as a result, young Konrad accepted Christ as his Savior and was converted. Fleischmann had grown up in Nuremburg, Bavaria and came to Switzerland as a student. After his conversion he began attending a Seperatist church where believer’s baptism was practiced. In 1835, he entered the theological training school Karl von Rodt and soon after he was called to pastor a small church in Emmental.

In 1838, Fleischmann received a letter from George Mueller, the well-known evangelist and founder of the Ashley Down Orphanage of Bristol, England. In the letter, Mueller urged the young man to go to America to preach to the German immigrants there. There was no promise of support but after much prayer, Konrad consented to go.

He arrived in New York in March of 1839 and while there, received a request to go and pastor a small German protestant church in Newark, NJ. His ministry there was deemed a failure because he would not baptize their infants nor would he administer the Lord’s Supper because, as he told them in no uncertain terms that they lacked the essential ingredient of a Christian life, that being a personal experience of faith which involved belief in Jesus Christ as God’s Son and the sacrificial lamb of God who paid their sin debt by shedding His blood on the cross of Calvary. Before leaving, he did baptize three persons on confession of faith and these became the foundation for the Clinton Hill Baptist Church of which a number of my ancestors were members.

After this rather dismal start to his ministry in America, the young man sought a field where his countrymen might be more receptive to the Gospel message. Konrad came in contact with some Baptist ministers in Philadelphia and eventually he was offered support of $20/month by the Pennsylvania Baptist Convention if he would become a missionary to the German immigrants. In the summer of 1840, he travelled here to Lycoming County. I’ll pick up the story by reading from Rev. JC Grimmell’s rather flowery sermon given at Calvary Baptist Church in Williamsport on Sept. 20, 1891 during the Golden Jubilee celebration of the German Baptist Churches in North America.

“We turn back to the year 1840. A young man of twenty-eight years, Rev. K. A. Fleischmann, riding upon a pony, is inquir­ing the way to one or the other of the hon­ored men whose sons and daughters have so cordially opened their commodious and hospitable homes to this the largest Eastern Conference ever held. In the absence of the more recent railroad, that pony had brought Brother Fleischmann all the way from Read­ing, where he resided.

 

Converted nine years before in Germany, he had come to America as the first Baptist missionary among his countrymen. His heart is aglow with enthusiasm for the cause of Christ. He halts at every German door, converses with every one able to understand him, giving a tract or selling a book from the supply of his large saddle-bags; and where two or three can be gathered in Jesus' name, a service is held with song and prayer, and, above all, an exposition of some part of Scripture. This was the heroic method which all our pioneers so successfully pur­sued.

 

When he arrived at BloomingGrove, Fair­field and Anthony Township, he received a welcome that amply repaid the inconveni­ences of the long ride, Jacob Michaelis, also a young man, had, upon Fleischmann's ad­vice, gone over the same road from Reading as a colporteur. Here in Lycoming County he found the spiritual field ripe for the har­vest, so that at his request Brother Fleischmann came to aid in the work of ingathering souls, happy in the fresh experience of redeeming love and regenerating grace.

 

The old log-houses among the forests, now but fancies hung on memory's walls," resound­ed with prayer and songs of praise. On Tuesday, February7, 1841, twenty-nine happy converts stepped into the flowing stream in Hepburn Township, then called Blooming Grove. In the same month there were bap­tisms in Fairfield and Anthony. We are, happy to have with us six of those constitu­ent members of the first German Baptist churches of America. They tell us how the ice was broken and the pieces placed for a dam in old Quinne-shokenv Creek, but how they heeded not the cold, their hearts being warm with the precious love of Jesus!

 

Men and brethren, pause a moment. Can you hear the derisive sarcasm of an un­friendly world as it said:'' Aha! the Ger­man Baptists have come to America; they have founded three little churches out in the backwoods of Pennsylvania." Oh, how our God has turned that sneer into honest and increasing respect!

 

Eighteen hundred and forty-one showed three churches in the forests of Penn­sylvania ; 1891 points to over two hundred churches and ió,000 members, in twenty-two States, Ontario and Manitoba; and could we count all that have found a more agreeable place in English speaking churches, the num­ber would not fall short of 25,000. Nor are our sons and daughters confined to America. They fill posts of honor and responsibility in Germany ; they preach among the five millions of Germans in Rus­sia and the one hundred thousand in South Africa ; they are in the ranks of successful missionaries in India and China.”

 

It was this time of revival, resulting in over 200 baptisms, that led to the founding of Baptist churches in Warrensville, Hepburn, Anthony, Buchanan and Williamsport which are still proclaiming the gospel and shining the light of Christ in their communities. 50 years later, at their 1891 conference, the German Baptists, who at that time numbered some 16,000 spread across 22 states and 2 Canadian provinces, identified this valley as the birthplace of the German Baptist movement in America. Today, the denomination is known as the North American Baptist Conference, which in 2002 had over 64,000 members in 444 churches across the US and Canada.

From our church alone, have come at least 3 pastors, Thomas Shafer, David Heim and Harold Bower. In addition, Ralph Gehr served as president of the Pilgrim Tract Society for 37 years and Ruth Ulmer dedicated her entire adult life ministering to the spiritual and physical needs of rural Kentucky.

My own connection to the German Baptists stems from my Great-Great Grandfather, George A. Schulte, who emigrated to the US from Ostfriesland Germany in 1850 and served as a pastor in Buffalo and New York City and as Superintendant of German Missions for the Baptist Home Missions Society and General Secretary of the German Baptist Churches. He came to Hepburn and Williamsport several times for annual conferences, etc. Because of this heritage, I have a feeling of spiritual connection to this building and this valley and to all of you.

The state of our nation and the church in 2021. The need for revival and the prerequisites

13 "When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 (NIV)

From Pennsylvania Folklife Vol. 41, No. 2 Winter, 1992 By; Nancy Kettering Frye, William B. Fetterman and Anndette Lockwood describing this Meeting House at Blooming Grove:

“Carrying infants and toddlers, many walked from as far as six miles away to attend services which were usually held here Sunday afternoon; evening services were rare. Women sat to the speaker's left; men to the right. Benches were plain, hard, and backless, but small children were allowed to sleep beneath them. Clear-glass window panes, nine lights over six, admitted soft, natural light, while candles in holders gave flickering illumination; a cast-iron stove with a stove pipe offered some heat. A simple table for the preacher, on the same level as the congregation, still holds only a large Bible, symbol of the beliefs and practices of the creedless, non-liturgical, Bible-centered Brethren. No pulpit here, no altar, no cross, no candl es, no musical instruments, no stained glass, no statues, no steeple, no bell; only the unified witness of the wood, the light, and the Word. Truly, it has been said that "architecture is the most revealing of the arts. Its forms reflect, with unique direction, the manners, mores, and happenings of an era. A building mirrors ... the mental processes of its creator.”

Jesus was born in a wooden feed trough and died on a simple wooden cross. Maybe it’s time for a new reformation and a new revival. Amen!

 

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