A Family’s Influence in the Pioneer Founding of the Disciples of Christ Movement in Somerset County, PA

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Jacob Minerd Jr.’s will, 1842, naming the “Christian Church in Turkeyfoot”

When my great-great-great-great grandfather, Jacob Minerd Jr., wrote his last will and testament in Kingwood, Somerset County, PA in 1842, the same year he was crushed by a falling tree and died, he requested his wife Catherine (Younkin) Minerd to inter his remains in the burying ground of the Christian Church in Turkeyfoot. He also wrote in the document, “I earnestly entreat my wife’s utmost care respectively in and about the morals and education of my children … and desire that they be brought up and instructed in the doctrine and religion of the Christian Church.”

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Vogel’s book

So what was so special about the Christian Church in Turkeyfoot? The congregation’s history has been largely obscured by the misty haze of the past, and paper trail is very slim. After many years of off-and-on research, I was amazed when studying Peter Vogel’s 1887 book, Tale of a Pioneer Church, outlining how this little country church played a part in the founding of one of our nation’s leading denominations, the Church of Christ, and how many of our extended cousins were involved in some way. The denomination also has been known over the years as the “Disciples of Christ” – the “Campbellites” – and the “Christian Church,” all part of the “Reformation Movement.”

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Rev. Alexander Campbell, founder of the Disciples of Christ movement

The story starts in the late 1820s with Scotch-Irish immigrant Rev. Alexander Campbell, who with his father Thomas became disenchanted with the Redstone Baptist Association. Vogel writes that the Redstone Association “seems to have been a kingdom divided against itself.” Among Campbell’s complaints were the Baptists’ practice of rituals not specifically called for in biblical teachings, and the need for more reliance on scripture itself.

Campbell initiated discussions with other congregations expelled by the Redstone Association, and then reached out to other churches in the region, among them the historic Turkeyfoot Baptist Church in Ursina, Somerset County, PA, familiarly known as the Jersey Church. On Sept. 7-9, 1827, Campbell met with a number of Somerset County representatives, among them Dr. Jonas Younkin, to begin to map out a novel plan for a shared future.

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Jersey Baptist Church, Ursina, PA

In June 1829, Campbell’s father Thomas and brother Archibald visited the county seat of Somerset where they “preached a few times” and then went to Turkeyfoot “to work up interest in the Jersey church.” Then in September of that year, a reorganization of the movement was put in place in Somerset, with election of officers and charter membership, among them Dr. Younkin and his wife Martha (Prinkey) Younkin.

Some of the names of the Disciples leaders are familiar – Chauncey Forward, a former congressman who resigned to become Somerset County register of wills and part-time evangelist, and for whom Chauncey F. Minor (born 1840, the year after Forward died) may have been named –William Shadrack, a clergyman, who may have been the namesake of William “Shedrick” Younkin, born in 1838, at the height of Forward’s popularity – and Aaron Schrock, likely the namesake of Dr. Younkin’s son Aaron Schrock Younkin (born 1845).

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Fairview Church of the Brethren, on the site of the old Christian Church in Turkeyfoot, replacing a “shabby log school-house”

Forward established the Turkeyfoot church near Kingwood in the fall of 1831 or spring of 1832. Vogel describes the location as “about four miles southwest of New Centerville (fourteen miles in the same direction from Somerset) and known as Turkey-Foot, or Spruce Creek.” Among others, charter members included Dr. and Mrs. Younkin, Leonard and Martha (Minerd) Harbaugh Sr., Joseph Harbaugh and newlyweds Rev. Harmon and Rachel (Younkin) Husband.

Writes Vogel: “Dr. Jonas Younkin and Harmon Husband could preach pretty well. Forward visited them as often as he could, and so did Wm. H. Postlethwaite. Most of the evangelists that came to Somerset also took in Turkey-Foot…. They met for awhile in a shabby log school-house on the Turkey-Foot road. Afterwards they built a log meeting-house, which is now occupied by the German Baptists (Dunkards).”

Elijah Younkin wrote about the group in the church’s Millennial Harbinger newspaper, saying “The disciples in this place number about one hundred. The opposition from the sects is considerable, but is surpassed by the faithfulness of the Christians.”

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Paragraph about Abram Younkin’s alcoholism

One of the cousins ran afoul of church governors in the mid-1820s. Vogel writes about punishments which had to be meted out from time to time: “A stray line alludes to some church troubles in 1823 that broke out afresh in 1826, and then lasted about a year,” he says. “But the demon Drink always works such wicked havoc that it is still clearly remembered that Wm. Philson, Abram Younkin and Dr. Bruce, had to be frequently disciplined for drunkenness, and that their copious tears of penitence were never wholly able to wash this stain out of their natures.”

In 1834, a new Disciples congregation was planted in Milford Township, with 23 members, several of whom formerly had belonged to the Methodist church. When “brother Younkin” preached to the Milford congregation, an old woman in the audience stepped forward and asked to be baptized, saying that “she had been a praying woman for upwards of forty years, and a member of the Methodist church – but as the Lord required her to be baptized for the remission of her sins, she was resolved to obey Him.”

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David Younkin

David Younkin of Milford Township was one of those fortunate to have been baptized by Forward and was a great admirer. Some 53 years after the baptism, David wrote: “That good man, had he lived, I have no doubt, would have revolutionized this whole country.”

Wesley Lanphear and John Henry are known to have conducted a preaching tour at the Turkeyfoot church on Oct. 27 and 28, 1840.

As with many new institutions led by dynamic leaders, interest waned after these leaders eventually departed. Harmon Husband migrated to Illinois, “leaving the church a hundred strong,” Vogel writes. “But emigration thinned them rapidly, the reaper Death claimed his share, ‘the beggarly elements of the world’ devoured others, and drink got the better of the Doctor [Younkin], who then went to Iowa for a grave, and so, in the latter part of the fifties, the candlestick was removed. The light that goes out in this world is darkness forever.”

Rev. Charles Louis Loos, who had moved to Somerset in 1850, preached at Turkeyfoot as well as at Berlin and Shade and, on rarer occasions, Laurel Hill, Stoystown and New Centerville. He once wrote that “Outside of the town [of Somerset] I frequently preached in German. I found a very cordial reception among the ‘German brethren.’ I preached among them a good deal – in every one of the meeting-houses in the county but one…. My preaching at the other points in the county, as at Berlin, Turkeyfoot, etc., was principally at the good will of the church at Somerset. These places paid something, but by no means for the full proportion of my time. My going to these stations was an act of generosity, largely on the part of the Somerset brethren.”

During the winter of 1872, Rev. Edward Bevins, a native Englishman, organized another church at New Centerville, a 23-member congregation comprised of “remnants” of the Turkeyfoot and Laurel Hill and also drawn from local “transient preaching.” Bevins and M.L. Streator oversaw the organization of the church and appointed David Younkin as one of the elders. Then in July 1877, after a slow start, the church re-organized, with David accepting the role of deacon.

What rituals were practiced at the Turkeyfoot church? Vogel reports that “From two other sources have Somerset Disciples, as well as many others in Pennsylvania, been influenced. On one side this influence came from ‘The Church of God,’ and on the other, from ‘The German Baptists.’ The former practice, feet-washing as an ordinance, and the latter, feet-washing, trine immersion, anointing the sick, and the holy kiss as ordinances. As a result from these influences the Turkey-Foot Church of Christ practiced feet-washing as an ordinance and saluted with the holy kiss.”

At one point, the congregation in nearby Laurel Hill suffered a split over where to locate a new church building, centering on the “shades of difference between kindred creeds,” writes Vogel. “Self-interest, self-love, pride of self-consistency, etc., are so many microscopes which we either are not aware of possessing or know not how to tear from our eyes…. [It] was left to the Somerset church to select, under the guidance of Thomas Campbell, a committee or board of arbitration. The selection made consisted of Thomas Campbell as evangelist; Harmon Husband and Jonas Younkin, elders of Turkey-Foot…” When the arbitrators chose that the building should be centrally located, and charged the parties to forgive and forget, the losing party “refused to submit to the finding,” and ultimately left the Disciples.

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Mt. Bethel Church, Paddytown, site of a controversial meeting in  the mid-1830s

The small Mt. Bethel Methodist Church in Paddytown, Somerset County was the center of a controversy in the spring of 1836 or 1837. (This was in the years before Rev. Harmon Younkin took the pastorship there.) A local Welshman named John Thomas took offense at some statements about the design of baptism that Disciples founder Alexander Campbell allegedly had made in print in the Millennial Harbinger. At issue was the doctrinal belief that the “blood of Christ, abstractly considered, does not avail for the removal of personal transgression; but in the concrete form of specific obedience, as the baptism of a penitent believer, it cleanses from sin.”

The parties agreed to settle the matter in debate at Mt. Bethel, at which Dr. P.G. Young, Henry L. Holbrook and Rev. Turner participated. They held three sessions in a day, morning, afternoon and evening. Vogel writes that:

…the chief reliance of Elder Thomas was I. John i.7: ‘The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.’ Dr. Young stood erect with hand resting on staff and called attention to the fact that (1) this passage is not predicated of aliens seeking an interest in Christ, but of “us” who “walk in the light” and “have fellowship one with another;” that (2) it does not say, the blood of Christ “alone” or “abstractly;” but (3) it is a “concrete” offer through the “specific obedience” “if we confess our sins” and “walk in the light.” Jonas Younkin had demanded of Elder Thomas the particular year and number of the Harbinger in which he claimed to have found his wording of Campbell’s language. At a suitable juncture William Scott, a teacher, was called on to read the editorial publicly, but no such wording was found as Thomas had alleged. By this time the moral atmosphere was getting decidedly close. To add to other inconveniences, before the close of the afternoon sessions Chauncey Forward and Charles Ogle had arrived from Somerset with a formidable array of books. Before the night session the Methodists and Baptists, who had made common cause on this question and against the Disciples, had laid their heads together and decided on a course of action. In that conference the Methodist minister stated to Hiram A. Hartzell and other Baptists, that on some pretext or other the debate would have to be stopped that night or the “Campbellites” would ruin both Baptists and Methodists. Accordingly, at the close of the night session, Rev. Turner stated that the debate must end, since he one of the moderators, had important business to attend to, which demanded his absence. Ogle replied that there were plenty of able men who could take his place, and that the move looked to him like a lame trick to run from a foe they could not face and to flee from truth to which they had not the manhood to surrender. Turner answered that such language was unbecoming a consecrated house. Ogle rejoined, “Where lies this ‘consecration’? Is it in the plastering? in the boards? In the shingles? Or in that modern invention yonder, the ‘mourners’ bench’? And what has so ‘consecrated’ this house that truth dare not be here elicited, and that lame error must be here hidden by tricks and still steadfastly worshiped?” Nevertheless the debate ended then and there – a fact which is of itself a verdict.

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Rev. J.F. Kuhlman

While there is nothing more on the record about the Paddytown church debate, arguments continued over the decades about doctrine and practice. One of these was about the proper role of baptism for infants versus the free will baptism of a consenting adult. Many years later, on May 6, 1884, a conference of Lutherans gathered at Hooversville, with Rev. John Frederick Kuhlman among the participants. The proceedings were compiled and sent for publication to the various county newspapers. One of the paragraphs said that:

…the following subjects were discussed in well prepared and able papers: “Proper Subjects of Baptism,” by Rev. J.F. Kuhlman; “The Mode of Baptism,” by Rev. J.H. Zinn. It was conclusively shown that infants, as well as adult believers, are proper subjects of baptism, and that no particular mode is essential to the validly of the ordinance. This church question was thoroughly and impartially discussed, and the right of choice of Christian liberty fully allowed.

The final reference in Vogel’s book to one of our cousins was the summer 1879 formation of a Somerset branch of the Christian Women’s Board of Missions. The group had 46 members, with the presidency held by Martha Knable, daughter of Major John and Mary “Polly” (Younkin) Knable. Vogel reports that “The exercises of these meetings are of a superior character; their essays especially are all worthy of publication.” The branch’s fund of $73.16 was higher than Allegheny County’s (Pittsburgh) and Philadelphia’s.

The founder of the movement, Rev. Campbell, established Bethany College in Virginia (later West Virginia) in about 1840, which he used as a base of operations for educating future Disciples pastors and publishing his newspaper, the Millennial Harbinger.

Today, the Church of Christ is considered a mainline denomination in the Reformed tradition, with local churches governed by their congregations. National membership as of 2015 was 497,423 within some 3,267 individual congregations across the country. Its official website is http://disciples.org/.

 

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