A Brief History of Saint John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sinking Spring
By MARGARET G. RUMBAUGH
Saint John’s Lutheran Church celebrates its bicentennial in 2012 and this manuscript was written to commemorate this milestone anniversary. Although Saint John’s Lutheran church began in 1812, the earliest written records of the congregation are from 1896 when there was a dispute between the Lutheran church and the Reformed church in Sinking Spring.
After separating from the Reformed congregation the first order of business for the Lutheran congregation was to build a new church in which to worship. But why did they build the church right next to the Reformed church after the disagreement? This manuscript describes what happened and why.
Agreements and Disagreements
As early as 1818 the Lutheran congregation shared the Reformed congregation’s church building. Ten years later, on December 27, 1828, Elijah Ruth deeded two acres to the “Sinking Spring Congregation” for $99.56. However, the deed does not specify the congregation’s denomination. This tract of land lies to the west of the Reformed Church and includes the land on which Saint John’s Lutheran built their church.
Since the Reformed congregation agreed to let the Lutheran congregation use their church every other Sunday, the Lutherans helped to pay the church’s expenses. This informal arrangement lasted until the Reformed congregation added a steeple in 1851. Apparently the expense of this addition was hard to manage, and in 1854, a large amount of the expenses for the steeple’s construction remained unpaid. In order to satisfy the debts, the Reformed congregation and Lutheran congregation formally agreed for each to pay half of the church’s expenses. They also agreed to jointly elect pastors, and both congregations would equally split the salary. Finally the agreement stated that they would also equally share the expense for all improvements and additions to the church. The last provision stating that both congregations would share equally in paying for all improvements and additions to the church caused the disagreement over forty years later.
In 1896 the Reformed congregation wanted to remodel the church that would cause significant expense and disruption. The Lutheran congregation disagreed with this decision, and the resulting dispute led to annulling the 1854 agreement. The formal dispute began on October 2, 1896, when the Lutheran congregation filed the suit against the Reformed congregation.
While Sinking Spring families were preparing for Christmas, the founding fathers of Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Sinking Spring had something else on their minds. They were in the midst of a dispute with the Reformed congregation, and this was not something that faithful men undertook lightly. The final arguments to resolve the dispute were scheduled for December 21, 1896, but when the case was called, the officers of both congregations stated that they reached an agreement–an early Christmas present for both.
This agreement made front-page news in The Reading Eagle. The 1897 agreement rescinded the 1854 agreement and the settlement required that the Reformed congregation give the Lutheran congregation $2,500.00 and title to the western half of the land acquired from Elijah Ruth in 1828, while the Reformed congregation kept eastern half. Each congregation met to vote and accepted the agreement in January 1897. This is why Saint John’s Lutheran church is built right next door to Saint John’s Reformed.
Who were the men who took such bold action? The next section provides biographical sketches of Saint John’s Lutheran church’s founding fathers.
The founding fathers of the congregation are considered those who were vestry members when the Lutheran congregation split from the Reformed congregation. The congregation’s record book from 1896 identifies ten leaders:
- Adam Dechert
- Daniel Huyett
- Henry Huyett
- Joshua Huyett
- Howard Y. Â Potteiger
- Webster Potteiger
- Aaron Fox
- James Lash
- Charles Yocum
- Henry Yost
Since Mr. Adam Dechert was the congregation’s President in 1897, this manuscript begins with his biography.
No stained glass window bears his name, yet he donated a considerable amount of money to build the church. No plaque commemorates his service yet he was elected to be the congregation President, Vice President, and Elder year after year. His biographical sketch provides some insight into the man who was very influential in establishing the Saint John’s Lutheran church.
Adam Dechert was born on August 23, 1823, in Lower Heidelberg Township, son of Daniel and Maria Magdalena (Lerch) Dechert. He was educated in local German schools when the Psalter and the New Testament were textbooks. He was raised working on the family farm and stayed with his parents until he was twenty-four years old.
In 1851 Mr. Dechert married Maria Weitzel, who was born on March 31, 1819. They raised a niece as their own daughter who was given Mrs. Dechert’s maiden name, Maria Weitzel. Adam Dechert worked his own farm in Heidelberg Township until he moved to Sinking Spring in 1859. After 1860 he became the treasurer of the Sinking Spring cemetery. He built a house near the tollgate when he was the Berks and Dauphin turnpike manager after retiring from farming in 1863.
In 1897 Adam Dechert was instrumental in building Saint John’s Lutheran Church by generously donating $2,600 (almost $70,000 in 2010 dollars) and leading the building committee. He was unanimously elected as the vestry President in 1897 and held that office until 1900 when the Pastor became Vestry President. At that time the congregation elected him to be the Vice President and Elder. In addition to these formal offices in the congregation, he took a leadership role in maintaining the property including painting, lighting, and getting a new bell. Not only was he generous with his time, he was also generous with his money. He paid the bills when the treasury was low; once he donated $435 (equivalent to $11,600 in 2010) when the treasury balance was only $42.00. His generosity, however, was not limited to the church building. He also bought an acre of land adjacent to the cemetery for the poor who were unable to buy burial lots and donated it to the congregation.
His wife died on October 11, 1891, when she was seventy-two years old. The niece they raised as a daughter had grandchildren who lived with Mr. Dechert and took care of him until his death. Adam Dechert died on October 2, 1907 and although he left no heirs, his legacy lives on in the church he helped to build.
2. Daniel Huyett
Daniel Huyett was born August 7, 1836. In 1860 he married Lydia Ann Gaul who was born on October 26, 1830.
Daniel and Lydia had six children: Garson McClellan (June 21, 1863), Calvin Douglas (September 13, 1864), Emma Adeline (July 19, 1866), Martha Madora (November 27, 1867), Harvey Tyson (March 17, 1870), and M. Luther (August 7, 1874). They were all born on the 108-acre Huyett homestead in Cumru Township.
Daniel Huyett was a successful farmer and farmed the family homestead. It was excellent farmland that had a spring. For many years he owned a farm in Wernersville that he sold to the state of Pennsylvania to build an asylum. The Pennsylvania General Assembly authorized the creation of the State Asylum for the Chronic Insane (Wernersville State Hospital) on June 22, 1891.
In addition to being a farmer, Daniel Huyett was involved in church and community leadership. For example, he was a school board director in 1872.
He was elected Secretary of the Church Consistory in 1896 and a member of the building committee in 1897. Daniel and Lydia Ann Huyett also sponsored the stained glass window in the sanctuary with the flying dove. He died on December 26, 1900, when he was 64 years old. He was buried on New Year’s Day in Sinking Spring cemetery.
3. Henry G. Huyett
Henry Huyett was a son of Garson and Eve Huyett. Henry married Catherine Reber and had seven children: Thomas, Irwin, Harry, Nora, Sarah, Cyrus, and Mary.
Henry Huyett’s name is on the formal complaint that the Lutheran congregation filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County in 1896. He voted in favor of separating from the Reformed congregation along with the rest of the founding fathers. He was elected as an Elder for three consecutive 2-year terms in 1901, 1903, and 1905.
4. Joshua Huyett
Joshua Huyett was born on July 4, 1830. He married Annie Kurtz and had five children: Joshua, John, Catherine, Jacob, and Franklin.
Joshua Huyett was one of the leaders in the early days at Saint John’s, and he voted in favor of the resolution to separate from the Reformed congregation in 1896. He was elected to be an Elder in 1898 and 1899.
Howard Potteiger was the third child of Henry and Eliza Ann (Yocum) Potteiger’s twelve children: Daniel, Franklin, Howard, Albert, Henry, Webster, Emma, Charles, William, Samuel, Ellen, and Agnes.
Howard Potteiger was a leader in both the church and the community. At Saint John’s, he was one of the men who voted in favor of separating from the Reformed congregation. He was also the Teller for the Church Vestry (Council) election in 1897 and was nominated to be on the building committee to build the new church, but was not elected. Howard Potteiger was later elected as Church Elder in 1906.
In the community he was a member of two fraternal organizations: The Washington Camp Patriotic Sons of America and the Knights of the Golden Eagle. The Patriotic Sons of America is a fraternity that began in the early days of our American Republic. Patriots banded together to uphold American principles. It was formally established in 1847 to serve our country. It was incorporated by an Act of the Pennsylvania State Legislature on February 27, 1867.
Webster J. Potteiger was born December 9, 1861. He was brought up on the family farm and worked for his father until he was old enough to be out on his own.
After leaving home, Webster Potteiger worked in Conrad D. Reber’s warehouse in Sinking Spring. But farming was in his blood, so he returned to his roots and became a farmer. He bought milk from other farmers and delivered it daily in Reading from1897 until 1904. In 1904 he bought a 115-acre farm from Mrs. H. W. Potteiger of Reading. It had a large barn and well kept buildings. Mr. Potteiger had twenty head of cattle and horses as well. Webster was a well-known dairy farmer who lived in Sinking Spring and used modern methods and machinery on his farm.
On October 30, 1887, Mr. Potteiger married Miss Sallie Y. Phillips, daughter of Reuben and Mary (Yoder) Phillips. She came from a farming family in Leesport. Webster and Sallie had eight children: Herbert P., Reuben H., Clinton S., Grace E., Mary M., Mabel I., Granville W., and Paul E. The members of this family were all highly respected in the community.
Webster Potteiger held various leadership positions at Saint John’s. He was elected to be a Deacon in 1898 and 1899. The stained glass window with the lamb is dedicated to Howard and Webster’s parents by the children. Webster’s son, Reuben, followed his father’s example and became a Deacon in 1914.
7. James G. Lash
James G. Lash was a community leader in addition to his role as a founding father at Saint John’s Lutheran Church. The post office in Cumru Township was established in 1858 and James G. Lash was the postmaster there in1871 and earned $7.00 in annual salary.
Mr. Lash had experience prevailing in a dispute when he joined others in 1884 to prevent the construction of a turnpike road over a public road (Lancaster Road) in Cumru Township. The Reading Turnpike Company claimed that it could enter the public road to build a turnpike road by the right of eminent domain. The Court of Common Pleas ruled that they did not have the right to appropriate a public road unless the legislature specifically granted it.
In 1896 James Lash voted to separate from the Reformed congregation and became a member of the building committee in 1897.
James G. Lash also ran for Judge of the Appellate Court of the second district as a Socialist in 1912, but did not win the election. At that time the Socialist Party was the party of the working class. They were against a small number of individuals controlling the sources of the nation’s wealth for their private profit in competition with each other.
The Socialist Party platform in 1912 consisted, in part, of the following tenets, some of which we take for granted today. They believed that the Federal Government should:
- Provide work for the unemployed by building schools, and building canals.
- Own collectively all railroads, telegraphs, steamboat lines, and all land.
- Establish a graduated income tax.
- Permit equal voting rights for men and women.
- Establish a Department of Education and a Department of Health.
8. Aaron G. Fox
Aaron G. Fox was born on October 12, 1841, in Muhlenberg Township. He was raised on his father’s farms in Bern and Lower Heidelberg Townships and was educated in the public schools. In 1864 he worked for a butcher in Sinking Spring, took over the business after the owner retired, and ran that business for nearly forty years. In 1867 Mr. Fox married Ann Elizabeth Yocum, daughter of George and Catharine (Hemmig) Yocum, of Cumru Township. He and his wife lived in Sinking Spring after retiring in 1904.
Mr. Fox was elected to be Saint John’s Treasurer for six years from 1897 through 1903. He resigned as Treasurer in 1904 but was re-elected in 1905. He resigned as Treasurer in 1907 due to physical inability. In addition to serving as treasurer, he was also appointed to be on a standing committee for light in 1899 and on the church property committee in 1906.
9. Charles S. Yocum
Charles S. Yocum was born in 1846 and died on February 6, 1901. He was a carpenter, farmer, and a lifelong resident of Spring Township. He also served on Saint John’s building committee in 1897.
Charles Yocum was married twice. His first wife was Catharine Faust, and they had one son, William H. His second wife was Mrs. Kate A. (Shalter) Reeser, widow of Cyrus Reeser. She was born on October 19, 1848.
Politically Charles Yocum was a member of the Republican Party, and the Republican party of 1896 believed in:
- Taxing foreign products.
- Maintaining the gold standard.
- Providing Army veterans employment preference.
- Allowing every citizen of the United States to cast one ballot.
- Providing Congressional representation for Alaskans.
10. Henry H. Yost
Henry H. Yost was born in Cumru Township on July 8, 1856. He was the son of Amos S. and Catherine (Yocum) Yost.
Henry H. Yost was educated in Spring Township and was a farmer. At one point in his career he traveled through the West doing farm work in Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa, and learned different farming methods. When he returned from his trip, he bought a 207-acre farm in Lower Heidelberg Township. In 1899 he moved to Sinking Spring and built a house there.
Mr. Yost married Emma C. Pottieger, daughter of Henry Pottieger. They had two daughters: Stella and Florence. Florence died as an infant and the fist sermon preached in the church was her funeral on August 31, 1897. A stained glass window memorializes Florence.
Mr. Yost was a leader serving not only Saint John’s Lutheran Church, but also the local community. For example, he was on the building committee in 1897. Then he was elected Deacon in 1898 and 1899. In addition to being a Deacon, he was the Recording Secretary for six years from 1898 through 1904. He also served the congregation as a member of the standing committee on light. He took the initiative when there were problems. For example on July 24, 1903, the Church’s insurance was due and there was not enough time to call a meeting, so Henry Yost and Adam Dechert paid for the insurance coverage. The Council reimbursed them at the next meeting on August 3, 1903. He also served the congregation as the Financial Secretary in 1910.
In addition to serving Saint John’s Lutheran Church, he was a School Board Director and chairman of the board that incorporated Sinking Spring as a borough. Henry Yost was also a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
These ten men laid the foundation for the congregation and the church building. They were more than farmers and merchants; they were Christians with a strong faith who believed that they could build their own congregation.
Several of the founding fathers were members of the building committee elected on January 16, 1897, and they wasted no time getting started. They selected Mr. Isaac Maurer as the architect to prepare a plan for the new building by their next meeting on January 23, 1897.
Breaking New Ground
Mr. Isaac Maurer was a local builder who was born in Lower Heidelberg Township on May 31, 1835. He became a carpenter’s apprentice and worked as a millwright. With this experience Isaac Maurer worked extensively in contracting and building. The committee accepted his plans with a few changes. Next, the building committee agreed to pay ten cents per hour for common labor to build the church.
Mr. Maurer designed the church to be a two-story building 50 feet by 80 feet with a slate roof and a steeple nearly 100 feet tall. The first story was made of Berks County sandstone and was designed to be a chapel and Sunday School room with a 10-foot ceiling. He designed pilasters on both sides of the main entrance and two stairways to lead up to the Audience Room, which is what they called the sanctuary at that time. The interior woodwork was oak, and the original design called for the organ and choir to be on the left side of the pulpit. The pastor’s robe room was behind the pulpit.
The illustration below is the architect’s line drawing shows the initial plans for the church in 1897.
The congregation broke ground for the new church in March 1897. The cornerstone laying ceremonies were held two months later on Sunday, May 23, 1897, and were big events that attracted thousands of people from far and wide. There were at least 50 teams of horses in front of the cemetery and about 150 more at local hotels. Electric cars brought people from Reading, Womelsdorf, Robesonia, Wernersville, and other places along the railroad line. Anticipating a crowd, the congregation had stands that sold soda, mineral water, cakes, and candies.
There were two services: a worship service in the morning and the cornerstone laying service in the afternoon. The ceremony concluded by laying the cornerstone with a time capsule that contains English and German Bibles, a Lutheran Church Book, an Evangelical Lutheran hymn book, a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism, the minutes of the last Lutheran synod, church almanacs, wine, and the names of contributors towards the building. It also includes uncirculated U.S. coins of different values, the names of church officers and building committee, pastor, as well as national, state and county officials’ names. Finally they added a copy of the Reading Eagle newspaper article about the cornerstone laying.
The consecration ceremonies began on Saturday, October 23, 1897, and continued into Sunday, October 24, just five months after the cornerstone was laid. Berks County residents attended the services as the church was filled, and many more were outside. Services featured sermons by renowned Pastors along with hymns and musical presentations.
The pictures below illustrate the church’s exterior and interior in 1897.
Today the church looks different inside and out. The exterior is different because the grade of Penn Avenue was changed in 1940 to build a three-lane highway. Changing Penn Avenue’s grade required Saint John’s to build extra steps to access the church. Over the years there were many renovations, the most recent was a new organ installed in September 2011.
This manuscript describes the early days of Saint John’s Lutheran Church that was founded in 1812. The congregation’s formal records begin in 1896 and this manuscript summarizes that history. It describes the founding fathers who worked and worshiped together serving God and their community and reviews the special events that commemorate the church building including laying the cornerstone and conducting the consecration ceremony The congregation’s bicentennial is a time to reflect on the church’s history and look forward to the future.