Presbyterian Congregation of Middletown
On March 31, 1852 lots number 63 and 64 at the Southeast corner of North Union and Water Streets in Middletown were conveyed to Elder Daniel Kendig, for the purpose of building a church at that location. The brick structure, which included lecture and Sunday school rooms, was completed in November 1852.
From 1852 until May of 1884, the church at the corner of Union and Water Streets was served by numerous pastors, and despite a number of time periods when the congregation was without a permanent minister, the church’s work continued. According to an 1879 report to Presbytery, “After the Reverend C. M. Bailey accepted the call from the congregation to become pastor, there followed a very marked increased of attendance and the pews were filling up.” However, in 1884, the church lost its then pastor, the Reverend W. G. McDannold. For more than two years after the departure of Reverend McDannold, the pulpit at the church was vacant. During these years, the church was served irregularly by supply ministers. In its April 1886 report to Presbytery, two years after Reverend McDannold’s departure, the Session stated that:
“Since last April, we have had but twelve servicesand having held no regular Sessional meetings, the minutebook is of course, without minutes. The church has not heldCommunion services for over a year. Last fall we conferredwith the Paxton people in reference to uniting with them andjointly calling a pastor...”
The union with Paxton Church did not come to pass; however, it was a critical time in the history of our church. Membership had dropped to fifty and the church had lost some of its best contributors. In addition to the infrequency of Session meetings, the Board of Trustees appears to have been inactive.
The situation was so critical that the pastors of Harrisburg Presbyterian churches became interested in it. A suggestion was made to ask the Reverend John H. Groff, pastor of the Church of Steelton, to supply the pulpit of the church in Middletown once each Sunday. Reverend Groff agreed to the arrangement and began preaching in Middletown in June of 1886. Eventually, Reverend Groff was installed as pastor of the church in Middletown, serving the congregation for a period of twenty years—the longest pastorate in the history of the church. The church immediately began to manifest new zeal, under the leadership of Reverend Groff.
During Reverend Groff’s tenure with the church, the congregation had to face the fact that the existing church building was in poor condition. In 1889, needed repairs were estimated at $5,000 and the Board of Trustees decided that rather than repair the building, they would try to raise the money to erect a new structure. A building committee was formed and a design for a new church was submitted by J. C. Smith, an architect from Harrisburg. The design was adopted and the old church edifice was torn down and construction of the new structure commenced on July 27, 1889.
The cornerstone, which was taken from Roundtop Quarries, was laid on Thursday, October 19, 1889 at 4:00 pm. The contents of the cornerstone box included: copies of the Holy Bible, the Profession of Faith and the Order of Service; a brief history of the church; a list including the names of all the members since the church’s organization, a list of all of the pastors, the names of all the Elders; a short history of the Sabbath School, extracts from the Ladies’ Missionary Society; a copy of “The Church and Home Presbyterian;” a copy of “The Journal;” a copy of “The Press;” and some coins.
The new building was completed on September 30, 1890 and dedicated on October 7, 1890. The church was constructed of brownstone and brick with a slate roof. The church was of the gothic style of architecture, with a battlemented stone bell town at the northwest corner. The church also contained and auditorium, Sunday school room and library. All of the windows were of stained glass, with four large ones being very handsome and elaborate. A small window on the west side of the church is inscripted as follows:
“Presented by J.C. Smith, A.F. Smith”
These two men were the architects that designed the church building. Another window on the west side of the building bears the inscription:
“In memory of the Reverend John H. Groff who served this church so faithfully from 1886 to 1906”
This inscription was added in 1940, upon the 50th anniversary of the building, in memory of a remarkable man.
July 2, 1911 saw the installation of the Reverend Dr. Thomas C. McCarrell to the pulpit of the church, where he would serve for a period of eighteen years. At the beginning of Dr. McCarrell’s ministry, the church had 165 members and a Sunday school of 209 members. Dr. McCarrell was known for giving good sermons, which lasted about a half-hour and he was know for his attentiveness to the congregation. Members, who were not in church on Sunday, were likely to see Dr. McCarrell on Monday, asking if they had been ill. During the years of Dr. McCarrell’s service to the church, the congregation grew to 299 members. In addition, during Dr. McCarrell’s pastorate, the church boasted an active Women’s Missionary Society, a newly formed Men’s Association and a Ladies Aid Society. The strength of the bond between Dr. McCarrell and his congregation was shown in the sadness and regret with which the Congregation agreed to his request for retirement in 1929. None knew him but to love him, none named him but to praise.
In July of 1930, a call was extended to the Reverend Robert S. Marsden and he was installed as the new pastor on September 30, 1930. Unfortunately, Reverend Marsden’s pastorate was a difficult time for the church and is best remembered for the schism that developed within the congregation. To understand the schism, the following account, taken from church records, will be helpful:
“The 1920’s saw a battle raging between fundamentalism and modernism. The issue created a severe time of testing for our entire denomination. Liberal forces included Henry Sloan Coffin and Harry Emerson Fosdick, while the conservative camp contained Gresham Machen, Clarence Macartney and Oswald Allis. These three conservative leaders were Princeton Seminary Class of 1905 graduates.
Even before Machen and his conservatives left Princeton to form Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, the forces of Liberalism were at work among the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York. Several renowned scholars of the day split with the Presbyterian denomination to join more liberal churches. The more radical of these men were called modernists. Machen and his fellow conservatives advocated a strict interpretation of scripture and a fundamentalist approach to worship and salvation. When it became evident that this group [of conservatives] could not become the ruling voice of the denomination, they left."
All of this touched our local Congregation when Robert Marsden was installed as pastor of this church in the 1930’s. As time passed, it became evident from Marsden’s sermons and behavior with the Session that he had serious disagreements with theology and policy with the Carlisle Presbytery. He was a graduate of Westminster and very much under the influence of Dr. Marchen’s teachings. As a result, this Presbytery defrocked him in 1936 and he then established the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
With Marsden went many members of the young married couples’ class and their families. Loyalties and some families were divided [between the two churches]. It was a disturbing and trying time for our church.”
As this account states, in 1936, Reverend Marsden left our church and helped establish a new church in Middletown, know as the Calvary Presbyterian Church of North America. The full impact of this action is shown by the fact that in the April 1938 annual report to Presbytery 78 members of the church were suspended, most of whom had gone to Reverend Marsden’s new church.
After Reverend Marsden’s departure, the Reverend J. Willard Dye was elected and installed as pastor on December 3, 1936. Reverend Dye would serve the congregation in Middletown until September of 1948.
Perhaps the most significant event that occurred during Reverend Dye’s pastorate was the action taken by the congregation in 1947 to start plans to expand the church. As the Sunday school grew larger in the 1940s, it became evident that additional space was needed for classes. To address the problem, the decision was made to build an addition to the church—what is now the Christian Education Building. The bids for the new building were submitted and opened May 24, 1949; the low bid was $83,260.
During the summer of 1954, under the leadership of the Reverend William McElwain, a fund raising campaign was undertaken by the church. The congregation pledged $55,000 of the funds needed to construct the new building. Because of the time that had passed since the first round of proposals, new bids were submitted in 1954. At that time, the low bid was $77,153 and was accepted by the church. On February 13, 1955, ground was broken for the new building. The cornerstone of the Christian Education Building was laid on June 5, 1955. The addition to the church was completed in October 1955 and dedicated on April 15, 1956.
The beginning of the 1960s was a busy time in the life of the church. In 1961, the Reverend Richard Neff answered the call to serve as pastor. Shortly after Reverend Neff’s arrival, plans were underway to remodel the sanctuary and replace the church organ. New pews, flooring, carpeting, and furniture were added and by the fall of 1963, the renovations were completed.
During this time period, the church’s membership included a large number of families that found themselves in Middletown because of Olmstead Air Force Base. The congregation experienced a constant coming and going of members, typical of churches near military bases; however, membership consistently remained above 400 and hit a high of 485 in 1965. Unfortunately, such prosperous times were not to last. In 1968, Olmstead Air Force Base was closed. Seventy-eight of the families that attended the church were directly affected; 53 of the families were transferred out of Middletown. By the end of 1969, membership in the congregation had fallen to 384. Reverend Neff left the church in June 1969 and the pulpit remained vacant for more than a year.
On September 2, 1970, the Reverend Arthur Haaf was installed as the new pastor of the church. Reverend Haaf came to a church that was feeling the losses associated with the closing of the air force base. In addition to the difficulty of the base closing, Reverend Haaf led the congregation through the 1970s, which presented other challenges as well. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes struck the area, causing devastating flooding and in 1979 an accident occurred at Three Mile Island—a nuclear power plant located in Middletown. Thankfully, Reverend Haaf was a compassionate leader for the congregation during these trying times. He was known as a man who easily expressed his love for others, listened well and had an uncanny ability to remember names. Reverend Haaf ended his ministry in Middletown on April 15, 1980; church membership stood at 301.
In October 1993, after the departure of the Reverend John Dryer, the Revered Charles Terry, who had faithfully served the congregation as pastor from 1955-1961, accepted the position of Interim Pastor. Reverend Terry served as interim pastor until February 1, 1995. The congregation’s affection for Reverend Terry was obvious during this time and in March of 1995 Reverend Terry was named Pastor Emeritus by the congregation.
At Reverend Terry’s departure, the congregation had its first woman in the pulpit. The Revered Michelle M. Moe was installed as pastor on March 26, 1995. During the four years that Reverend Moe served the congregation, many improvements were made to the church facilities. Early in Reverend Moe’s pastorate, a new sound system was installed in the sanctuary, a new organ and new hymnals were purchased. In 1999, the sanctuary, vestibules and stained glass windows all underwent renovation and restoration. During Reverend Moe’s pastorate, membership and giving increased, as well. On August 15, 1999, Reverend Moe left the congregation for the Grand Canyon Presbytery.