York Town Square

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This scene might have been part of 150th anniversary of York County, Pa., festivities in 1899. The stand is on West Market Street. The church was located where the old Woolworth’s store stood for years. Those sitting on the stand were treated to several parades in that milestone anniversary. The church building original served one German Reformed congregation, but a split occurred in the 1850s. Zion Reformed Church operated there until it moved to Penn Park when Woolworth's went in. Trinity German Reformed, now Trinity United Church of Christ can be seen one or two doors to the east - or at least its steeple is visible. – Zion United Church. (YDR file)

How did York County churches view the Civil War and its politics?

The Civil War era was pockmarked with conflict and strife in America.

So how did the bumpy issues of the day intersect with religious congregations in York County?

Predictably,  churches reflected the same divisions as found among people in every town throughout the county in the antebellum period and the Civil War.

York’s County’s position on the Mason-Dixon Line, where North met South meant political fault lines ran deeper here than, say, in Vermont. The county was barely in the North after borders were laid down by British surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in the 1760s.

At the same time, York County German Reformed and Lutheran denominations, among others, were undergoing additional conflicts. Should services be in English, German or both? Language aside, what should be the style of worship: high church with lots of liturgy or low church where preaching was front and center?

York County’s religious scene in the 1850s probably was as complex and heated as anytime in its 270 years.

Consider these Civil War-era stories about conflict in York churches, a time when York County experienced its own civil war:

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, York

Charles Baum, son of the minister of York’s St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, wrote that his father left the pastorate in the Shenandoah Valley because of his Unionist views. His family left in a hurry with only the “clothing on our backs.”

The minister also ran into problems in York County, with its Democratic majority. Most people in the county supported the Peace Democrats, the so-called Copperheads whose mantra was “The Union as it was. The Constitution as it is. The Negroes where they are.” Indeed, York County voted against Lincoln, a Republican, in 1860 and 1864.

Several influential members left St. Paul’s after guest preacher, J.H. Menges, proclaimed from the pulpit “all Democrats are rebels.”

Despite these tensions, Baum went on for a fruitful pastorate at St. Paul’s, overseeing construction of a new church building.

The family’s flight from the Shenandoah Valley settled into family lore.

Years later, his son wrote that his father probably had that journey in mind when he preached his first sermon from the York pulpit, based on Psalm 20:5 — “We will rejoice in thy salvation, and in the Name of our God we will set up our banners.”

Trinity German Reformed Church, York

Benjamin Griffin, in his 1984 history of what by then was called Trinity United Church of Christ, wrote that no record existed of where the pastor’s political sympathies rested during the Civil War.

J.O. Miller, the German Reformed church’s pastor in that era, hailed from Virginia and married a Virginia woman.

A document from a Trinity church newsletter discovered in the York County History Center’s archives suggests the war rankled some. In fact, the town’s leading family reportedly left the church because of the feeling that Miller sided with the South.

All of P.A. Small’s and Samuel Small’s families attended the German Reformed church before the war, according to the document. The pastor’s perceived lean to the South caused a split.

The Small family, after that, was associated with Presbyterian churches in town.

York’s Methodist Episcopal Church (now Asbury)

In the fall of 1861, members of York’s Methodist Episcopal Church found themselves with a vacant pulpit.

The Rev. David Shoaf had discovered a community fractured by the politics behind the war when he rode into York shortly after the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

The outspoken Shoaf, at the helm of the York area’s leading Methodist congregation, did not bring peace.

He was a Union man, he said, one who respected the Stars and Stripes.

“But, I think the South should be left alone,” he went on, “to do what the people want to do.”

Later, he stated his position even more strongly.

“I am against war of any kind,” he said, “and I am at a loss to know how any man professing to be a Christian could engage in such a murderous act.”

York residents perplexed the preacher, too.

“The people of York are so exceedingly ignorant,” he said, “they couldn’t tell right from wrong if the two were labeled.”

After the preacher asserted that Confederate President Jefferson Davis should be considered as much in power as Abraham Lincoln, people in the congregation voted against him. They withheld their weekly offering.

The Rev. Shoaf got the message. After several comings and goings and pulpit pronouncements, he left the community in late summer.

He would not be missed.

“History proves that the deepest and most desperate revolutions are brooded on by those who made professions of love of country, but who loved the enemies of their country more,” someone from the church wrote a York newspaper. “Hence, the man, that sympathizes with Jefferson Davis’ rebellion, is morally just as much a rebel as the chief of this ‘sum of all villainies.’ ”

First Presbyterian Church, York

The Rev. Thomas Street and a visiting geography book salesman squared off one Saturday in early 1862.

The minister had given the visitor’s product an endorsement but soon learned of his Southern sympathies.

He bellied up to the salesman.

“My friend, I’ll have to ask you for my recommendation (back),” Street said, “as I cannot endorse anyone who would curse the best government in the world.”

Soon, Street and another man, a wounded Union officer, sat in jail, accused of hitting the stranger.

Out on bail the next day, Street preached on “The Loyalty of the Citizens,” making no reference to the altercation.

Street, indeed, had a combative streak in him.

“It was no doubtful utterance which he made in the name of God for right and liberty and union,” someone who knew him said.

Still, his deeply divided church stuck together during his pastorate, which concluded just before the war’s end in April 1865.

When the enemy came, this pastor cried

The minister stood in the pulpit of a York church when a messenger approached.

The Confederates had arrived on Sunday morning, June 28, 1863.

“The reverend man folded his arms upon the pulpit, bowed his head upon them, and wept,” Mrs. Hartman wrote.

The congregation proceeded to the church steps just as the Confederates marched by playing “Dixie.”

The people followed them to the square.

The pastor ministers to the boys in blue

S. Morgan Smith was from Davie County, North Carolina. But he went to school and was ordained a Moravian minister in the North.

From his denomination’s beginning in 1457, Moravians had been pacifists.

Settling into York’s Moravian Church, Morgan Smith, his congregation did not wonder where this Southerner stood. Slavery was an evil that must be rooted out.

For that reason and others, he volunteered to be a Union Army chaplain.

His constant theme: “Choose, choose, choose! Choose you this day whom you will follow!”

Other points of mid-1800s tension

Worship services in German or English? Fledgling St. Paul’s Lutheran chose English and drew members from Christ Lutheran, the mother church that preferred German worship.

Meanwhile, other members of Christ Lutheran who opted for English and did not want to leave Christ Church formed Zion Lutheran next door.

In his book on “York County Lutherans,” Charles Glatfelter gives this snapshot of the transition from German to English in county churches.

In 1850, the synod, made up of Lutheran congregations from this area, published an equal number of copies of minutes in English and German. In 1825, the order was for 300 copies in German and 200 in English.

Glatfelter points out that the practice of having a German and English Communion service persisted at Zion Lutheran Church until 1909.

In the 1860s, York’s German Reformed church split because of language differences. The German-language backers got the building, then located at the site of the former Woolworth’s building. The congregation later moved next to Penn Park and today is known as Zion United Church of Christ.

The English-language backers erected a building a couple of doors east. That’s known as Trinity UCC today.

The German Reformed congregation probably had differences over liturgy and worship as well. Simply put, high churches emphasized liturgy and the sacraments in worship. So the altar sat in the center of the chancel, the front part of the church. In low churches, the single pulpit symbolizing the centrality of preaching and the sermon was positioned in the middle of the chancel.

The English German Reformed congregation definitely favored the high-church tendencies put forth from Mercersburg Seminary, where pastor J.O. Miller had graduated.

Benjamin Griffin, in his history of the church, does not state where the German speakers stood on the matter, but Trinity erected its new building in high-church style with the altar in the center, different from the former building in which the pulpit stood in the center.

Incidentally, the high-church Mercersburg Seminary had roots in York County. This seminary for the German Reformed denomination operated in York County in the 1830s before moving to Mercersburg, a small town in Franklin County. Today, the seminary is known as Lancaster Theological Seminary and an associated college, Marshall, moved to Lancaster to become Franklin & Marshall.

Its “Mercersburg theology” also addressed how the German Reformed Church should respond to the results of the Second Great Awakening, a time of revival in the early decades of the 1800s. But that’s another discussion for another post. (To learn more about tiny Mercersburg’s outsized national influence, check out The German Reformed Church.)

Strife over Civil War politics, language, style of worship — it’s a wonder those York churches survived. But after the Civil War, Lutheran and German Reformed congregations became among the largest in the city – a sign that these believers navigated the still challenging and uneven roads of that day.

Sources: Georg Sheets’ “Children of the Circuit Riders;” Steven Nicholas Jr. and Terrence Downs, “Re-Inventing The Wheel;” James McClure’s “East of Gettysburg;” York Daily Record files.

This drawing shows the German Reformed Church at left. It serves as a backdrop to a stage the basement of Trinity United Church of Christ in York. Trinity is a successor to the German Reformed Church. (YDR file).