It was certainly a very wonderful
scheme to attempt to build up in Western Pennsylvania, a little community on
strictly mediaeval lines. It was a small affair, too insignificant to
attract the notice of the general historian, yet so unique in its inception,
operation and design, and cutting so closely into our ancestral prerogatives
and domains that it furnishes, at least, an excuse for taking any notice of
the footy little thing.
The town of Saeger had no corporate
existence during the first twenty-five years of its life, but was simply a
community located in the southwest corner of Woodcock township, without any
civic or municipal jurisdiction whatever over the inhabitants. The only
organic basis upon which it rested was the town plat made by Daniel Saeger,
which I am informed was never put on record and there is no one living who
ever saw it so far as I can learn. A part of the scheme as afterward
developed was ultimate control of all religious and educational functions
permitted within the limits, and to this end the said Daniel set apart a
triangular lot in the northwest corner of the plat for
church and school purposes, also a lot adjoining
Patrick McGill's line and within two hundred feet of his front door for a
graveyard. These lots were said to have been donated to the public, but they
were not - they were given to the Dutch Reformed and Lutheran churches -
these organizations having formed a combine in matters spiritual wherein
profits were equally divided.
A church and school house had
to be built to which the Burgomaster brought his acute methods forcefully to
bear and the designed temple was erected on a joint stock basis. It was
arranged that all who felt so disposed take stock in the building and the
majority stockholders should have preference in its use for public services
- the minority having a right to use the edifice when not occupied by their
betters. Under the Reformed and Lutheran combine their absolute control
could never be jeopardized, and all other stockholders could take their
chances about getting their money's worth out of the investment. The
Methodists had grown to be a factor in the surrounding country, and being
anxious to secure a place of worship in town took stock and ranked third.
The building of the temple
having been accomplished on a purely commercial basis in which the
contributors acquired a property interest in the structure - or thought they
did, the next movement in the deep laid scheme developed.
There arrived in the town two
gentlemen from Europe who were heralded as men of great learning and piety,
and after looking over the field these erudite personages proposed to enter
into a contract to do all the preaching that was necessary to be done - both
in German and English - in all the territory between Meadville and Erie, and
they were willing to guarantee for a stipulated salary that the preaching
should be of good quality with doctrines suited to the beliefs,
predilections and prejudices of each congregation, all in good order and
warranted to fit, the goods to be delivered on time at stated intervals.
These men - Shultz by name,
father and sonwere the guests of the Burgomaster and supposed to have been
present in the place at his invitation, as the entire Burgomaster class
interested themselves actively in promoting the scheme. The proposition,
elaborately outlined in writing, was laid before my father-who was the
leading Methodist in the community - by one high in the Dutch conclave. He
smiled audibly as the ramifications of the plan were unfolded, declined the
coalition and informed the emissary that, in this country, such a
combination could never be effected. The man was astonished, and could not
conceive it possible that men of scant means could reject such an economical
and advantageous way of working out their salvation. He said the Shultz
aggregation was the finest, and would bring to the community accomplishments
such as they could not otherwise afford to employ; that it would consolidate
and harmonize the church building combine so happily effected and greatly
enhance the value of the stock and from every point of view would prove of
advantage to the weaker congregations.
The Shultzs, father and son,
he said, were men of great learning, had been educated for the Army and were
officers of high rank in the Old Country, but becoming involved in political
troubles they were obliged to flee for their lives to this country. That
they had lost all they had, and not being trained to any other pursuits they
were obliged to enter the ministry as a means of support, and he thought it
a patriotic duty to rally to their assistance, especially as by so doing
salvation could be assured at such cheap rates. He was indignant that the
"Tam Irisher" should turn down benefits so benignantly tendered and waddled
away in high dudgeon.
The canvass was continued
over the proposed territory and proved an utter failure and the Burgomasters
found that outside their own bailiwick the people were altogether
indifferent as to their pretentions.
The Shultz outfit remained a
year or two, confirmed some classes in the rudiments of Christianity, as
they understood it, and then departed for pastures new. Their habits were
not conducive to good morals, even measured by Dutch standards and their
inebriety - the result of their military education for the ministry - was
such as to provoke criticism unfavorable to the organizations they served.
So they departed, and the brilliant scheme of reducing all religious
organizations to the civic control of the Burgomasters was practically, for
the time being, abandoned.
A long low school building
was erected in rear of the church and was in after years known as the
"Yellow School House." It was built by popular subscription and designed as
an adjunct to the church, and while not strictly a parochial school, was
under the control of the resident minister and was frequently taught by him
up to the time of the adoption of the free school system in A. D. 1834.
The Methodists were becoming
rather an active factor in spiritual matters in the vicinity; the proximity
of Allegheny college bringing many able men almost to our doors, who were
available for services any Sabbath when required, and these sometimes
preached in the sacred edifice in the afternoon to large assemblages of
There were several very
strong men connected with the Methodistic aggregation of that day-men of
stern convictions of right, who were not disturbed or intimidated by the
pretentious mass of ignorance and stupidity confronting them, who in their
class meetings and prayer meetings, held sometimes in the yellow school
house and sometimes at their private residences, had crystalized a force
against which the gates of hell could not prevail.
They were honest, brave,
intelligent, zealous, and without a thought of opposition to other churches,
or of proselytizing their members, intent only on doing the Master's work as
they thought it ought to be done, they had pushed to the front and became an
unconscious force in the moral world. Stern character and ability made them
a potent factor in community and meekly submitting to the inconvenience of
time and place imposed upon them, but firmly standing on their legal right
to the unoccupied pulpit, they brought strong men to preach to the people. A
spirit of religious inquiry was aroused-men and women crowded to the
sanctuary at all available times to hear the burning words of truth and
listen to the new songs that were being sung in Zion. A wonderful awakening
of the Wesley and Whitfield type swept over the community overwhelming
Deutcher and Irisher alike. The Presbyterian friends, always a spiritual
people, held not aloof, but joined in the fray.
There was consternation in
the Burgomaster Camp. A new problem was presented for their consideration-a
problem such as they had never heard of before! God was in the problem! and
had they not forgotten Him for lo! these many years and left Him out of all
their little calculations.
A fateful day arrived. It was
a Sabbath that left the pulpit vacant by the ruling powers-the Methodists
promptly claimed it. There was a great assemblage of people far beyond the
capacity of the auditorium. A slim, pale-faced young man stepped into the
pulpit and cast a swift, earnest look over the crowd. Every sound was
hushed, and it seemed that by some strange magnetic force he held his
audience in thrall before he spoke a word.
Then in clear, soft musical
voice he delivered his message from on high. Smooth and even came words of
mighty import like the flow of a great river. There was no rhetorical
effort-no frantic gesticulation-no attempt at display, but with growing
fervor and expanding power, truth piled on truth was launched upon the
devoted heads of spell-bound people, who shook and trembled under their
force. Unwilling tears dropped from the eyes of unbelievers who came to
scoff and went away to pray. Such eloquence had never before been heard in
Saegerstown, and never since, I believe. The young Burgomasters on the front
seats were thrilled as they never were before, as also were the poor Wentles
standing in the aisles and lobby. There was no other man on the continent
who could speak with such unconstrained natural eloquence as did that
student youth that day. The name of the fair-faced orator was Matthew
Simpson-then unknown to fame, but afterwards the great American Bishop, who
was the friend and associate of President Grant. He was that day a guest at
my father's house.
The spiritual awakening was
general and seemed, in some form, to enter every home and heart. The sturdy
old men behind the guns were not slow to grasp the situation and make the
most of it. Meetings were held every night and couriers rode back and forth
between the college and the village, bringing great speakers, strong in the
faith and zealous in the work to speak to the people and reason with them of
righteousness, temperance and a judgment to come. The space around the altar
was crowded with men and women kneeling for prayers until there was no more
room, and they were not alone country people, but Handwarrakers of
substance, and standing with their wives, sons and daughters -stern old
Boers with their hard, stubborn hearts all broken up and the more
tender-hearted Lutherans melting in the fervor of dissolving grace, alike
cried aloud for the forgiveness of their sins and sought redemption through
the atonement of Christ. The old droning perfunctory litany crooned from
unclean lips was then and there repudiated for the light of the Gospel, and
the punkey old combine seemed tottering to a fall. The meetings were
continued night after night with unabating interest, and when the doors were
opened for uniting with the church a strong Methodist class was organized,
drawing largely from the hitherto impregnable ranks of the larger
organizations. Affairs were looking desperate from the other side of the
fence. Secret meetings were being held day and night by the official
directorate, and plans discussed to stem the tide of personal righteousness
that threatened to overwhelm by mere moral force the little oligarchy with
its machine worships so deftly builded on mediaeval lines by the crafty
All pure animal organisms,
however brave to encounter a known antagonist, are timid in the presence of
the unknown, and our little friends were certainly up against it.
No such proceedings had ever
been heard in Lehigh County, from whence they came, and how to encounter
this spiritual revelry was the question of the hour. Strange as it may
appear, with all their acknowledged executive ability, they were nonplussed
and stood aghast while the revival rushed on like a torrent, penetrating the
sacred precincts of their homes and making their old vrows crazy. Something
must be done without delay !
A plan was finally agreed
upon and a protest more than a yard long was drawn up reciting the outrages
committed by the revivalists-their abuse of the sacred edifice by attracting
great crowds thereto-injuring the building and depleting the value of the
stock, and furthermore disturbing the peace and quiet of the town by their
tumultuous proceedings, penetrating the homes of quiet citizens and
saturating them with their vile doctrines -setting husbands against wives
and wives against husbands, thus creating domestic discord.
It was further charged that
members of their churches were being proselytized and led astray from their
vows and were being decoyed to eternal damnation, and they peremptorily
demanded that these hellish proceedings be stopped and the meetings
It happened on an evening
when there was no preacher present, and John McGill, the ranking lay
official, was conducting an informal prayer service, that the combine
preacher with his official retinue and the most daring of his adherents
formed a procession and marched to the church where they ranged themselves
in front of the altar and the preacher read the paper; then, having
delivered their fire, they silently marched out in the same order in which
John McGill arose from his seat
"Bro. S.-Will you please lead in
Alas, and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?"
The congregation arose to
their feet, and the rich "Irish brogue" and the "Sweet German accent"
blended together in such royal harmony that the gates of Heaven seemed to
open and Angels come forth to listen to the lofty theme.
"Bro. R.-Please lead in prayer!"
Down on their knees to the
last man the congregation bent and Bro. R.-fired with the Spirit of the Holy
Ghost and the belligerency of the occasion-poured forth the inspirations of
his grand old soul in resistless appeals to the Most High. The responses
rolled up like the murmurs of the sea, not in the cold, stilted form of the
ritual, but as the yearnings of the heart brought forth the cry for help,
forgiveness, charity and love.
"There will be no more meetings
of our people in this house," said the leader.
"We will meet at the usual
hour in the schoolhouse for Sabbath school and class meeting. We are turned
out of God's house, but God has not done this thing, and so sure as God
liveth, He will provide a way for His people. You are dismissed."
The next day John McGill
appeared at the office of Daniel Saeger - the proprietor - with his
certificate of stock in the church property, and producing it said, "Mr.
Saeger, I wish to surrender all my right, title, interest and claim in your
church property. I will have nothing more to do with it. I have been
wrongfully, insultingly and, I think, unlawfully turned out, and I wish to
peacefully retire from the combination. Others may do as they please. Some
will probably seek reprisals at law for the trespass and breach of contract,
but I, acting solely for myself, will not do so, and as the best evidence I
can give of that fact wish to surrender my stock. In my judgment the whole
scheme was ill advised from the start and ought not to have been done, and I
do not want to make matters worse and more disgraceful by fighting over
them. We will build a church of our own."
The troubled gray face of the
old proprietor brightened as he listened to this last remark, which to his
quick apprehension suggested an honorable way out of the trouble. "No,
John," he said, "You will not give away your stock-we will buy it from you.
You say you will build a church. I will donate to you one of the best lots
on our town plat for the purpose. It is worth one hundred dollars and you
may put that down as my contribution, and if you need more I will help you
more-and if your people will agree to the transaction we will buy all their
stock and pay the face value into your building fund, and that will give you
a good start." Then, thoughtfully, "You will build a church of your own,
John; well, it is better so." In thirty minutes those old men, each
practically the head of his clan, had established relations of amity and
good-will and out of bitterness of strife there came forth sentiments of
mutual confidence and respect. Mr. Saeger had made concessions not expected
of him, and John McGill came out of the office confident that the project
for which he had hoped and prayed for many years, of planting a Methodist
church in Saegerstown was about to be accomplished. Public sentiment was at
fever heat over the outrage perpetrated on the inoffensive Methodists, who
sought only the welfare of their fellowmen, and McGill was not slow to take
advantage of this state of affairs, and within an hour after leaving the
office of the Burgomaster he was in the saddle, scouring the country
soliciting pledges of funds for the erection of the new church.
It was built and served its
purpose for many years, when it was rebuilt on the same ground on ampler
lines, and it is now the finest, and the congregation the largest, and most
influential in n the town.
The building of this church
was the first break in the lines of the little mediaeval autocracy that had
been set up in the valley with the coming in of the Hessians, and John
McGill and no other led the assault and won.