York Town Square

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Jacobus' Christ United Methodist Church came up on the Evangelical Association side of United Methodism.

Why does York County have so many religious congregations?

When William Penn  set up his commonwealth, he also created what would become a land of many churches.

“The Quaker ideas of religious toleration and equality of all before God attracted immigrants from many lands,” “A History of Pennsylvania” states, “attracted immigrants from many lands, who, when scattered in a region of geographic diversity, produced an ever more complex culture.”

A different model – that of a state church – took root in Massachusetts, Virginia and other places.

So Pennsylvania had an array of Christian Protestant denominations to join Penn’s Quakers: Lutherans, German Reformed, Moravian, Anglican (Episcopal), Methodist, Presbyterian and more. Pennsylvania – and York County –  also hosted congregations of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Jewish faith groups, among many other groups.

The Protestant denominations without a strong hierarchy – say, compared with the Catholics headquartered in Rome – had a tendency to divide, then and now. The result of all this? About 500 houses of worship, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives in 2010.

York County an early adopter

York County, the fifth oldest of the state’s 67 counties and the first on the frontier west of the Susquehanna, caught an early wave of settlers.

Add to that the fact that York County has always been in the top tier of counties in population and geographical size. So there would naturally be more population centers over a broad area to support churches.

The early wave is important because that meant early congregations weathered the controversies spawned by revivals in the early- to mid-1700s (First Great Awakening) and the late 1700s to early 1800s (Second Great Awakening). The revivals sometimes caused divisions that meant splits in Protestant denominations or in congregations. Congregations that were influenced by revivals also wanted to spread the Good News, and one way to do that was to plant other churches of that denomination.

Here’s an example:

Jacob Albright was a Lutheran pastor who left his denomination to form a group of churches called the Evangelical Church.

Philip William Otterbein was a German Reformed pastor who departed to form the United Brethren group. In the 1760s, he ministered at York’s German Reformed Church.

So a community like Jacobus had a union church in which Lutherans and German Reformed congregations shared a building. But it also had an Evangelical Church, now called Christ United Methodist Church, because of its division from the Lutherans.

In York, Otterbein United Methodist on West Philadelphia Street had United Brethren roots. Its congregation merged into Asbury United Methodist, with English roots, in recent years.

United Methodists

Most United Methodist congregations in the county today stem from Albright’s Evangelical or Otterbein’s United Brethren, which merged to become Evangelical United Brethren or EUB congregations.

Francis Asbury and other circuit riders crossed York County in the 1700s planting Methodist Episcopal Churches, part of an English denomination following the teachings of John Wesley. Asbury in York would be considered the mother church. Otterbein and Albright knew many early Methodists and would worship in their churches, so the three denominations have a long common history.

The Methodists merged with the EUBs in 1968 to become the United Methodist Church.

Methodist congregations in York County, 2010: 86.

German Reformed (United Church of Christ) congregations: 37.

Evangelical Lutheran congregations: 65.

Christ Church’s lineage went from Evangelical to Evangelical United Brethren to United Methodist.

The Presbyterians

This Protestant denomination is sometimes called the “split P’s” because of its many divisions and branches. As a general rule, the Presbyterians started under John Knox’s preaching in Scotland.

Over the years, many Scots settled in the Irish region called Ulster and established churches there. In America, these settlers formed what is today the mainline Presbyterian Church.

Other Scots came directly to America and formed smaller denominations that formed the United Presbyterian Church in 1858 before merging with the mainline Presbyterian Church in 1958.

So you have Presbyterian churches fairly close together at, say, Guinston (Scottish) in Chanceford Township and Centre Presbyterian Church (Ulster) in New Park.

Presbyterian congregations in 2010: 15

There are also numbers of other small Presbyterian congregations in York County today.

Other congregations

Roman Catholics: The hearth of the Catholics operated at Conewago Chapel, just over the Adams County line. The church there was the center of Catholic operations in the area.

The Catholic congregations multiplied around 1900 and 13 operate in York County today.

Anabaptists: I address these congregations in the post: Why are there so few Amish in York County compared to Lancaster?

Quakers: William Penn’s denomination formed a band of churches across York County’s northern tier – Newberrytown, Lewisberry, Warrington etc. – plus a prominent congregation in York.

Independent churches: These churches are made up of individual, unconnected congregations. I will address these churches, growing in numbers today, in a future post. Many black and Latino churches are in this independent group.

New denominations: In recent years, several longtime Lutheran, United Church of Christ and Presbyterian congregations have separated from their parent denominations and joined with other, usually conservative denominations. So, we have affiliations with the Evangelical Presbyterians from the South and Evangelical Covenant churches from the Midwest.

What would have William Penn thought?

One can only speculate about his view of 500 houses of worship in York County’s 900 square miles. But this summary might be about right: Better to have 500 congregations of numerous denominations than one denomination with 500 congregations.

For background, check out this series of Facebook posts on the religious scene in York County, past and present.