Most people know it as the “Swamp Church” standing in a swampy area near Penn’s Creek. It has served five generations of faithful members seeking truce to dissension and animosity, finding new hope and the promise of peace. Its pastoral inspiration was Jacob Albright, a Methodist preacher of German descent. He inspired hundreds of congregations in Pennsylvania to build new houses of worship. With great missionary zeal his followers founded missions especially among the descendants of German settlers in Eastern Pennsylvania, and from there throughout the northern states and Canada. They created a new denominational organization (1803) which they later called Evangelical Association (1816).
Evangelical teaching was deeply rooted in Methodism although many of its intellectual leaders came from Reformed, Mennonite, and Lutheran backgrounds. John Wesley’s Methodism itself had been an 18th century offshoot of the Church of England, searching for scriptural holiness through methodical study and devotion, which had led to the nickname “Methodists.” Through Jacob Albright and his disciples, it was reaching out to millions of Americans. The Evangelical Association was calling them for personal salvation through conversion when, by God’s initiating grace, man responds to His invitation by entering the Kingdom and His church.
Early in the century, Evangelical missionaries were reaching the hearts and minds of many people of Centre County. In Farmers Mills, they were meeting with a number of devoted families, reading and discussing the Bible, and conducting worship services in private homes. It is difficult to estimate the beginning of this early congregation. But we do know that in neighboring communities (e.g. in Aaronsburg) Evangelical Association meetings were held as early as 1806 and houses of worship were erected during the 1840s. In Farmers Mills, meetings were held during the 1840s and probably earlier, and a house of worship was built in the following decade. Old newspaper reports point at 1855 as the year when the Evangelical Church was completed and dedicated to the service of God. In consideration of its location right on the bank of Penn’s Creek, it was named Bethesda Evangelical Church for a pool in Jerusalem which, according to Scripture, had healing powers (John 5:2-4).
It was built on the land of Michael and Elizabeth Ream who, in many ways, spearheaded and promoted its construction. In 1865, when the last pew had been installed and a brand new Sheffield bell had been lifted into its place, the land and structure were legally deeded to the Evangelical Association, U.S.A., for a consideration of $20. Henceforth a board of trustees was to manage the church affairs.
It was not the only church in Farmers Mills. In 1853, members of the Reformed and Lutheran churches had built a Union Church on a lot donated by John Rishel. Both groups formed an active congregation that from the beginning exceeded in numbers the Evangelical Association. For a total Farmers Mills population that never surpassed 200 souls, the prospects of the Bethesda Church in competition with the St. John’s Union Church were rather limited. Its membership never consisted of more than a dozen families.
Most Bethesda members were farmers. In those years, agriculture was the country’s largest business. It was prosperous as farmers were selling a growing share of their crops on distant markets. A generation earlier, the Pennsylvania farmer was still dressed in home-spun clothing made by his wife or daughters from wool raised on his farm. By now, farmers bought ready-made cotton cloth produced in factories, and sold their wheat, livestock, lumber, milk, and butter to millers, merchants, and dealers. This transition from mother- and daughter-power to water- and steam-power brought great changes not only to farming but also to social life.
In Farmers Mills, the economic life of farmers hinged around the flouring mill, store, and tan-yard of Adam Fisher. He was running a mill, built in 1815, with four runs of stones. Rebuilt and modernized in 1864, it served the community until 1936 when a flood burst the mill dam and brought the wheels to a permanent halt. During the Civil War, public meetings were held at the store and mill, which were addressed by eminent figures, such as Judge James T. Hale, member of Congress. In 1867, Major Jared Fisher, Adam’s son, opened another general store at the bridge, next to the Homan homestead. In 1872, he sold his interest to his partner, Mr. Gettig. The Fishers also brought a post office to Farmers Mills and served as postmasters. The building that housed the office and store burned in 1999.
A rural community needs a blacksmith who makes, repairs, and fits horseshoes and otherwise forges, shapes, and repairs farm implements with an anvil and hammer. Robert Jackson Smith was serving his community in this capacity. In 1865, when the Bethesda Evangelical Church was formally deeded to the Evangelical Association, he became a trustee together with John Ream and William Weaver. Robert Smith and his descendants, three generations of Homans, gave valuable support to the Bethesda Church in its long, colorful history.
The most popular and respected man in those years probably was John Rishel, Justice of the Peace for a period of 20 years. While the Rishels were founders and staunch supporters of the Union Church, their family ties were equally strong with the Bethesda Church. Catherine Homan Rishel, the Judge’s wife and mother of Judge Martin L. Rishel, was Evangelical. Their son-in-law, William Weaver, served as a Bethesda trustee.
In those years, the social life of a community centered around its churches. There were many classes of Sabbath School taught by the senior congregation members. Formal worship services were conducted every second Sunday when an itinerant minister addressed the congregation. Occasionally, Sunday evening services were held, as were mid-week prayer meetings in the evening. The Church then lit up with kerosene lamps, simple fixtures resting on wall brackets, two on each side. A beautiful chandelier with six kerosene lamps was hanging from the ceiling. It washed the sanctuary with a soft light, but bright enough to read the Scripture or sing a hymn. The Bethesda congregation was a singing congregation. Even those members who could not carry a tune were moved to join in. They were singing gospel-type songs, with cheerful melodies and lively rhythms. The organist, who played a melodeon, led them in tempo.
It was a joyful, active congregation that supported the numerous missionary programs of the Evangelical Association. To the best of its financial ability The Ladies’ Aid Society frequently collected money from its members and other residents and organized fund-raising festivals. On those occasions the Church and the yard were decorated with Chinese lanterns and festive posters, and a local brass band played popular hymns while the ladies served coffee, cake, and home-made ice cream to the visitors.
They all were proud of the community band that was known and appreciated all over the county. At the turn of the century, long before radio, television, and recorded music, the people depended on local talent and performance for musical enjoyment and entertainment. In Farmers Mills, Samuel Homan, Robert Smith’s son-in-law, conducted a ten-piece band of trumpets, slide trombones, bass and tenor horns with drum and fife, that would be professional today and would put many a high school or college band to shame. He played a great trumpet, composed many hymns and songs, and wrote the arrangements for the band.
There were few big political and social issues in those decades between the Civil War and World War I. Surely, the economic depressions of 1873 and 1893 were felt even in Farmers Mills when farm product prices tumbled and heavy losses were suffered, especially by farmers with mortgage debt. During the 1880s, the congregation suffered severe losses in membership when several families answered the missionary call for settlement at the frontier. Some of them moved to Jewel City, in Kansas, formed a new congregation, and built a house of worship that is still standing today, resembling the one they left in Farmers Mills.
Because of a division within the Evangelical Association in 1891, a minority of the churches withdrew and formed a new denomination known as the United Evangelical Church. By 1906 the Farmers Mills congregation decided to join the dissenting group and formally associated itself with the United Evangelical Church. The transfer was recorded in the Bellefonte Court records by trustees Amos Dunkel, Harvey Rote, and John Rote. A compensation of $150 was paid to The Evangelical Association. The Church remained a separate denomination until 1922 when a reunion with the Evangelical Association was affected under the new name Evangelical Church. In 1946, this denomination then merged with the United Brethren in Christ, another evangelical denomination formed by 18th century Germans in Pennsylvania. The united denomination adopted the name Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB). In 1968, finally, seven years after the last worship service at the Bethesda Church, the full circle was completed with a merger between the EUB Church and the Methodist Church. After 165 years of separation from John Wesley’s Methodism the German branch finally joined the mother church.
Since 1964 Bethesda has been the private property of Mary and Hans Sennholz. It is most befitting that they should be the owners as Mary is the great-grandaughter of Robert Smith, a founding trustee. For many years Mary and her mother Mazie Detweiler Homan faithfully played the tread organ. Mary and Hans were joined in wedlock before its altar and the Evangelical Congregation on July 25,1954, and feel forever bound not only to each other but also to the Church that joined them. There is no economic reason for its private ownership, merely an emotional attachment and a deep feeling of moral obligation to maintain and preserve its noble heritage. This is difficult and costly in our age of disregard of property and wanton destruction. The antique lights and the beautiful chandelier already have vanished and are difficult to replace. And yet, the Bethesda Evangelical Church lives on not only in the hearts of its former members all over the county, but also as a beautiful structure pointing at the heavens and the Creator of all.