Sunday, October 22, 2017

Winebrenner and Warner: Like-minded Reformers

History remembers John Winebrenner as the founder of a small obscure denomination from which Daniel Sidney Warner founded the larger, more influential Church of God Reformation Movement. In re-reading Richard Kern’s JOHN WINEBRENNER 19th CENTURY REFORMER, I find Winebrenner every bit the reformer that Warner’s Reformation Movement found in D. S. Warner.

Historically speaking, I believe reformation comes far more often through the accomplishment of many small increments rather than the super achievements of a few major league stars like Luther, Calvin, Wesley, or for that matter John Winebrenner or Daniel Sidney Warner. For that matter, the great reform movements were schisms in the body rather than reformations, for the political body of Christianity was across the centuries stubbornly opposed to any real reform

Born March 25, 1797, John Winebrenner died September 12, 1860 just prior to the Civil War. He experienced his personal religious conversion shortly after beginning theological studies in Philadelphia under Samuel Helffenstein on Easter April 6, 1817. Winebrenner confesses “It was on Easter Sabbath, in the city of Philadelphia, in the presence of a large congregation of worshippers, that Jesus the ‘Sun of Righteousness’ arose, and shone upon my soul, ’with healing in his wings’ (cf Kern p15).

Winebrenner was ordained September 24, 1820 at the Synod of the German Reformed Church assembled at Hagerstown, MD and soon began his pastoral ministry in Harrisburg,  PA (10-22-1820). When Harrisburg became the capital city in 1821, young Winebrenner found himself in the center of a significant community.

When Finney later brought his new measures Revivalism to Philadelphia, he preached for Dr. Helffenstein for four months and Winebrenner proved an apt student by placing great emphasis upon the personal experience as taught by Helffenstein and becoming an ardent revivalist as was 
Finney. In addition, he was well versed in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Theology, and proficient in Pastoral Methodology. 

Trouble appeared on the horizon for Winebrenner, however, when disagreement arose between him and  his Vestry. The Vestry filed a grievance against Pastor Winebrenner, charging him on several counts:
1. Acting as if he had no Vestry; 
2. Preaching and taking Communion with Methodists; 
3. Being revivalistic, and sometimes;
4. Allowing regular services to extend into irregular hours that included unbecoming behavior (groaning, loud Amens etc);  
5. holding meetings that sometimes began at 7 p.m. and occasionally extended until at late as 4:00 a.m.;
6. preaching judgmental sermons that prompted some  to withdraw from the church and preaching a  funeral sermon that suggested some people were in hell;
7. making arrangements with churches on his circuit  without consulting his Vestry; 
8. misbehavior that prompted some members to avoid calling him for funerals;
9. admitting people to membership without consulting his Vestry; and 
10. being remiss in certain pastoral duties.

Conflict continued until 1825 when he quit attending the Synod meetings and began preaching semi-independently around the Harrisburg area. With additional charges filed in 1827 and 1828, the Synod of 1828 finally appointed a committee to investigate ”the disorderly conduct of the Rev. John Winebrenner…” finding him guilty and determining that “he ought not to be any longer considered a member of this body” (p33 Kern).

Historian C. H. Forney noted that John Winebrenner’s only real departure from his German  Reformed Church related to “church name, and church formation and government” (Kern p46). He remained independent by name, Presbyterian by polity and in 1830 decided upon baptism by immersion. In 1829 he recognized foot washing as a “positive command.” Winebrenner biographer, Dick Kern, summarized Winebrenner’s journey throughout the 1830s until mid-1840 by listing Winebrenner’s  27  written points of doctrine and practice (cf Kern, 46-51).

Kern notes (52-53) that eastern PA was home to several independent  “churches of God”, one of which was led by one John Elliott, an Englishman with whom Winebrenner remained on close terms from as early as 1822. It seems these two men were exchanging pulpits for revival-oriented services and when Winebrenner dedicated his new Harrisburg “Union Bethel” (Union House of God) on May 12, 1827 Elliott was the guest speaker for that occasion.

Biographer Kern traces Winebrenner’s lengthy conflict with popular German Reformed leader John Williamson Nevin, and the results of that conflict. He follows Winebrenner through his personal journey on such issues as slavery, peace, and temperance in particular, all influential issues among the followers of D S Warner.

Of particular interest to me was Kern’s discussion of Winebrenner’s conclusions regarding these issues. I perceive the two men being in essential agreement as related to the individual issues, yet taking very different positions in reaching a conclusion about them. Slavery illustrates the difference in the personal temperament of the two men.

Winebrenner grew up in a slave-holding area of Maryland. He had slave-owners in his family. When “slavers” finally became a divisive issue in the pages of the “Winebrenner” publications, Winebrenner made it clear that he personally opposed owning slaves. He believed it wrong, but he chose a less perfectionistic approach than abolitionist extremists. Kern quotes Winebrenner’s 1852 correspondence with J. W. Loveland  in the “Advocate” of 6-19-52 wherein Winebrenner insists “that we have undoubted right to ‘withdraw ourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, ’but we have no right to withdraw from the Church of God. The Church is the body of Christ, and to withdraw from the body is to withdraw from the Head, and such a withdrawal must be fatal to every Christian” (Kern 116-117).  Winebrenner reflected a belief in biblical authority every bit as much as did Warner, but he remained less legalistic and less willing to divide brother from brother.

Kern continues: “This issue of ‘come-outism’ was an increasing source of agitation from the 1840’s on. Abolitionists were divided on it.  For Winebrenner, the issue was clear. To withdraw the hand of fellowship from an erring brother was one thing; to withdraw from the Church of God—which is to be identified here with the ‘true’ church—was quite another.”  

While Kern offers abundant illustration of Winebrenner’s “moderation” mindset, he suggests Winebrenner could only advise that 1849 congregation where ‘religion was almost forgotten by some; [and] politics was all the go’ that “He that loves his brother as Christ has loved us, will never have a hand in casting him out of the church for opinion’s sake” (italics mine, Kern 121).

After more than six decades, I yet remember the occasion of a church split in a southern state. I had nothing to do with, but my peers and I were heavily influenced by it, when one of our pastors was set aside (as we now say “decredentialled”). I made the personal determination to never be involved in such a purely opinionated separation of brother from brother--not in the name of Christ.

However you split the hairs of come-out-ism, many of my peer-friends across the past six to seven decades were anything but theological carbon copies of me and my core convictions. Many of them wore nametags denominated Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, even Pentecostal, but they were “disciples of Jesus, my Lord and Savior and part of God’s united church in a very divided world.

From the days before Warner’s Beaver Dam experience, when he stepped through the door of separation and into the “full fellowship” of God’s church he “seemingly” retreated into a reactionary mindset where “the buck stopped at his desk,” where it was “my way or the highway.” I find this more reactionary than pro-active, and filled with  a mindset of anti-authority and anti-organization.

Through the years, this sometimes splintered us and proved less than growth-producing. Our golden years as a Movement may well have been when people new us as the Church of the Christian Brotherhood Hour and we forthrightly proclaimed an open message of “A United Church for a Divided World” where we recognized “every blood washed one.” 

However, this deviates somewhat from my original purpose, which was to reflect upon the ministry of D. S. Warner, whose initials are carried by my son and my number one grandson. As much as I appreciate D. S. Warner, his message and ministry, and my Grand Junction heritage that goes back to 1927 or 1928, Warner probably taught nothing new from his mentoring among the followers of John Winebrenner. In fact, he probably owed Winebrenner most everything he taught, which we over-idealized and romanticized in self-adulation.

Martin Marty admitted he was halfway through doctoral studies before encountering John Winebrenner. This noted academician freely acknowledges Winebrenner as ”most painstaking about his attention to matters of the church … He was free to be free-swinging, ecumenical, quite open on many issues” (Kern viii).  As such, Dr. Marty felt free to write Kern’s introduction and offer Winebrenner “to the gallery of American originals … neither genius nor eccentric … what the times demanded, and … exacted from would-be leaders”  (Kern, vii).

Both men deserve their place in the history of the Church. Each made his contribution, as has each Family of Faith. I would suggest we could have made a better contribution together than we have made apart, toward the radical healing this world so desperately needs.

A Post Script of sorts:
Winebrenner wrote in 1829 “A Brief View of the Formation, Government, and Discipline of the Church of God” that I would still love to read. In it I see according to Kern:
1. A return to the original church;
2. An intense Biblicism;
3. Minimize the ecclesiasticism, tradition and authority of the established church;
4. Voluntaryism;
5. Revivalistic and Missionary in outreach;
6. Unity of all converted believers’;
7. The church as a reformation.


From; since it is all about God's Church and not about us, perhaps we ought to do something about it.  We share a lot in common!

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