The Old Bethel Church of God, a small country church seen here in Hexebarger near Kingwood, Somerset County, PA, was a symbol of a national religious renewal among German-Americans in the 1840s, '50s and '60s. It's thought that cousins Harry David Miner and/or Minnie (Miner) Gary and their families are in this view.
A need for a strong local church presence followed the decline of an earlier reformed movement, the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church of Turkeyfoot), which was a strong guiding force from about 1829 to the late 1850s.
The Church of God movement was led by Rev. John Winebrenner, who some years earlier had resigned from the German Reformed Church to found the new church in 1826 in Harrisburg, PA. One of Winebrenner's chief colleagues was Rev. John Hickernell, who helped found Old Bethel, the first Church of God to be planted in Somerset County.
Hickernell's work at Old Bethel personally touched a number of our cousins who resided nearby. They included Harrison and Catherine (Minerd) Barnhouse, whom Hickernell married in May 1849 -- perhaps coinciding with an early visit to Kingwood. Early members were Charles and Adaline (Harbaugh) Minerd and their children, and Ephraim and Rosetta (Harbaugh) Minerd, whose family attended for several generations, and whose descendants are buried in the adjoining cemetery. Hickernell is known to have preached the dedicatory sermon at the church in 1858. Today the wood-frame building is gone, replaced by a modern brick structure across the road circa 1959-1960. Several Minerd descendants, including Olive (Faidley) Gary and Orion Nicklow, served on the building committee for that project. It was known among local residents as the "Winebrennarian Church."
Another cousin, Eli Minerd, likely attended Old Bethel as a teenager. Later, in 1878, he and his wife Mary Ann joined the Mt. Pleasant (PA) Church of God, just a few years after the church was built under the leadership of another important, pioneering preacher, Rev. Peter Loucks. Later in his career, Hickernell served the Mt. Pleasant church, following Loucks' tenure.
~ Origins of Old Bethel ~
On May 20, 1866, Old Bethel elder John Andrew Plowman preached an important sermon at Kingwood, "delivered to a large congregation," on the institution, form, administrator, subjects, mode, design and benefits of Christian Baptism. The sermon was so well received that it was reprinted in booklet form for wider distribution in the community. (Lancaster, PA: E.H. Thomas, Book and Job Printer).
Baptism was one of the hottest topics of the Protestant movement in the 1800s. For the founders of the Church of God, and before that the Disciples, it was a response to several established practices, first that baptism was a requirement for church membership, and second the belief that a gracious God would not condemn an infant to hell should he or she die before having received the ritual. In the sermon, Plowman opens by saying:
We shall notice that the ordinance of christian baptism is of divine appointment, that it, it is no human tradition or lesiglation from any ecclesiastical authority, but has been incorporated into the system of the christian religion by Jesus Christ, and is based upon his own holy and blessed example, precent and promise. See Matthew iii, 16; xxviii, 19.... He declared it to be the fulfillment of all rightenousness in his own act, and therefore must prove of equal importance to those who follow his holy example.Matthew iii, 15.
According to a manuscript authored by Harrison Grant King, entitled A "History" of Old Bethel Church, Plowman likely was pastor of Old Bethel in the latter part of 1857 and in 1858. He again was named pastor in 1865, replacing Rev. Benjamin Walker. Wrote King, "It was during this year that the brothers and sisters under their pastor's leadership again and for the third time erected large tents on what is now known as the Irwin Younkin Farm for the purpose of holding another good old camp meeting and which was held but not till after some wicked person or persons had burned them to the ground and the undaunted soldiers of Christ had again erected their tents on the sie where the former ones had stood."
Plowman continued to serve as Old Bethel's pastor in 1867 and 1868, which King wrote were "years which were rich in the harvest of redeemed souls by and for the Master. During a revival in 1868, that lasted for 6 weeks, more than 90 souls were converted. In the language of an eye witness of this 'when the meeting closed there no more to be converted at that time.' This church being the only Church of God in the county at the time, the people came long distances to see and hear the great soul awakening."
He found special ways to serve his congregation. For the family of Jonathan and Elizabeth (Dull) Dumbauld, he hand-inscribed the names and dates of birth of their children in the family Bible, published in 1864, doing the writing as Elizabeth dictated the information.
Plowman is known to have preached circa 1874-1875 in Akron and Canton, Ohio, with a local newspaper stating, "He is a preacher of no mean ability. Go and hear him. Take your bibles and pencils along, and if he preaches doctrines contrary to the book, mark it." Plowman died at Clearville, PA in May 1888 at the age of 70. Today a copy of his speech reprint is on file in the archives of the Historical Society of the Churches of God in Findlay, OH, and also in the Minerd.com Archives.
~ Church of God Authority in the Family ~
A widely respected authority on the Churches of God is none other than our cousin Dr. G. Richard Kern, whose wife Sharon (Sheldon) Kern is the daughter of Dorothy (Stoner) Sheldon and granddaughter of Letitia (Harbaugh) Stoner. Dick is the former President of the Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Findlay, OH, and retired Professor of History at the University of Findlay. The author of several books, Dick also has written many articles on "John Winebrenner and the Church of God" for The Church Advocate.
~ More on Rev. John Hickernell ~
Assigned to the Church of God's Pittsburgh Mission in the 1840s, he served followers in five counties, including mountainous rural Somerset. He once wrote that "I have to ride two hundred and sixty or seventy miles going and coming my route." The manuscript history of Old Bethel says that he came to Kingwood and preached with "power and eloquence" and that his "journeys were made and sermons preached at different intervals and thereby the seeds of truth [were] being sown on good ground in 1850."
Once the church was firmly planted, Hickernell returned to Hexebarger in about 1858 to preach in a "camp meeting" and to dedicate the building seen here. He came again in 1873-1874. Then in 1876, he helped dedicate the Kingwood Church of God.
He died in Findlay, Hancock County, OH at the age of 82 on Oct. 28, 1897. His remains were returned to Western Pennsylvania where they rest for eternity in Alverton Cemetery near Mount Pleasant, Westmoreland County, PA.
Said the history, Hickernell's "name and service in the cause of Christ will live for centuries in the memories of the rising generations of God's people..."
~ More on Rev. John Andrew Plowman ~
Much of Plowman's active and successful church planting career is outlined in the 1914 book History of the Churches of God in the United States of America, authored by Christian Henry Forney, D.D., LL.D.
Known as a "matter of fact man," Plowman at the age of 32 in 1851 is known to have authored this "Baptismal Hymn:"
In the writings of the gospel an ordinance we find,
The communities where he is known to have developed new churches include the following, in chronological order: Bedford, Bedford County, PA (1842) -- Somerset, Somerset County, PA (1858) -- Indiana and McKean County, PA (1861) -- Buckstown, Somerset County, PA (1861) -- New Brighton, Beaver County, PA (1862) -- Carrolltown, Cambria County, PA (1864) -- Kittanning, Armstrong County, PA (1866) -- Perryopolis and Fayette City, Fayette County, PA (1867) -- McKeesport and Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, PA (1868-1869) -- Tarentum, Allegheny County, PA (1869) -- Brackenridge, Allegheny County, PA (1869-1870) -- Clearfield County, PA (1870-1871) -- Greensburg, Summit County, OH (1871) -- Canton, Stark County, OH (1874) -- Medina County, OH (1874) -- and Kingwood, Somerset County, PA (1876).
Active in the Church of God's annual West Penn Eldership and East Ohio Eldership, he held official offices at following conferences: Bedford County, PA (1846) -- West Newton, Westmoreland County, PA (1859) -- Center Bethel, Westmoreland County, PA (1864 and 1869) -- Limestone, Armstrong County, PA (1866) -- New Brighton, Beaver County, PA (1868) -- and Cedar Valley, Wayne County, OH (1874).
Forney's book also sheds light onto some of Plowman's specific activities, opinions and influences. In 1846, he was named to a committee to schedule camp-meetings and "submitted ‘a proposition for a union between this Eldership and what he calls the General Conference of the Church of God.’ He asked for a committee to be appointed to meet a like committee... " in Bedford County, PA, "to mature and complete, on certain conditions, the proposed union.’ Owing to the fact that Plowman had formerly been a member of the church of God at Shepherdstown, Cumberland county, Pa., the Eldership declared that ‘it can not agree to notice any overtures from him.”
While at New Brighton, PA in 1861-1862, at a time when the congregation had committed to pay $750 to build and repair a house of worship, he was assigned to visit the various Eldership regions to collect donations to cover the amount. Then back in New Brighton for the 26th West Penn Eldership in 1868, he "was elected to read the opening sermon at the commencement of the next Eldership, he declined, 'being opposed to reading sermons under pretense of preaching,' and P. Loucks was elected in his place.”
In terms of evangelism, while at Brackenridge, PA in 1869-1870, he led a revival at which “many precious souls were converted.” then in 1874, having been transferred to the East Ohio Eldership, he took charge of a congregation at Canton and " gathered the wrecks of the original church which were loyal to the Eldership notwithstanding the seeds of error and disloyalty sown by M. Beck, and organized them into a loyal church."
It's not known if he attended the 37th West Pennsylvania Eldership held at the new Kingwood Church of God on Oct. 2, 1879. Forney writes that "For reasons not disclosed, the privilege of advisory membership was no longer to be extended to ministers not members of the Church of God. They were simply to be ‘introduced’ to the Eldership by the Speaker.... J.S. Marple preached the Opening Sermon from Matt. Xxviii. 19. The unusual act of a Speaker-elect refusing to serve was witnessed when G.J. Bartlebaugh was elected to this office, and so the honor was conferred upon J.W. Davis.”
Plowman died on May 10, 1888 at Clearville, Bedford County, PA, and rests in the Clearville Union Church Cemetery. [Find-a-Grave]
~ More on the Churches of God ~
On a national scale today, the Churches of God, General Conference (as it's now known) has about 31,000 members. (Click here for more history of the church.)
Old Bethel is discussed and pictured, as well as the role of Hickernell and his influence on the Kingwood community, in a lavishly illustrated, 2011 book -- entitled Well At This Time: the Civil War Diaries and Army Convalescence Saga of Farmboy Ephraim Miner. The book, authored by the founder of this website. [More]