Abington Presbyterian celebrates 300 years

Among anniversary events was a March 16 recital by Alan Morrison heralding the church's newly restored Möller pipe organ.
Among anniversary events was a March 16 recital by Alan Morrison heralding the church's newly restored Möller pipe organ. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 01, 2014

ABINGTON Before it was hemmed in by stores, offices, hospitals, and homes, Abington Presbyterian Church stood apart in the Montgomery County landscape, a Romanesque sanctuary "whose steeple, crowning the hills, can be seen afar for many miles," as a pastor wrote in 1889.

For 70 years before the current church was built, the church occupied a simpler stone meetinghouse. And for 70 years before that, congregants worshipped in a modest log cabin nestled beneath a tree on a corner of the reverend's farm.

This year, Abington Presbyterian is stepping back in time to celebrate its 1714 founding with a series of history-themed events, concerts, and guest preachers.

On March 16, the church held a recital for its newly restored Möller pipe organ, which had been out of service since 2011.

And on Saturday, a group of volunteers built a replica of that log cabin, roughly 12 feet by 20 feet, with simple slab benches similar to the original pews.

"I lay up at night and think about how it's going to look," said John Dean, a banker and amateur carpenter who planned the construction. "Nobody truly knows what it looked like."

Dean said he and architect Brian Fey, both members of the congregation, designed the cabin as accurately as they could by relying on descriptions from old church records and books.

Church leaders hope the cabin, standing in clear view of the endless stream of drivers on Old York Road, will spark meditation on a simpler time and respect for the forebears who made Abington what it is today.

Abington was not the region's first Presbyterian church. Sites in Long Island and Norriton date to the 1640s, and the colonies' first official presbytery was established in Philadelphia in 1706, according to the Presbyterian Historical Society.

But Thomas Murphy, a Philadelphia pastor who in 1889 wrote a comprehensive history of the early Presbyterian church in America, described Abington as among the most well-documented and steadfast of America's founding congregations.

In the 1700s and 1800s, the Presbytery of Abington changed names as it merged in and out of the Philadelphia and New Brunswick precincts. As Murphy wrote, in "Presbytery of the Log College:"

"It passed through many vicissitudes, sometimes the streams running into it and sometimes out from it;

sometimes bearing one name and sometimes another;

sometimes merged in another body for a time, then rising up again after years with another name;

but still flowing on with such elements of identity as make it ever the same."

More than a century later, Murphy's sense of permanence still rings true.

"I think it speaks volumes about the resilience of Abington Presbyterian Church that it is still going strong after 300 years in the same place," said Abington Pastor Brent Eelman.

In the 1700s, it hosted several firebrand preachers, celebrities of their day who drew crowds of thousands. It was visited by President Benjamin Harrison in 1889, and by Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan in 1914.

It is also home to what is thought to be the oldest children's missionary society in the United States, according to the tricentennial committee.

Nearly a dozen other Presbyterian congregations in the area - including Huntingdon Valley, Elkins Park, Fox Chase, and Carmel - began as Abington "districts" or "preaching stations" before becoming independent churches.

In 1872, one of Abington's most famous members - merchant and U.S. Postmaster General John Wanamaker - built a chapel in memory of his daughter. Nine years later, that chapel split off to become Grace Presbyterian Church of Jenkintown.

Wanamaker also donated the grand church bell that still rings out from Abington's steeple today.

In addition to the organ ceremony and the log cabin, the church plans to hold an old-fashioned tent revival for Pentecost Sunday in June. Members of Abington's 11 descendant congregations are invited to participate.

The log cabin will stay up all year and will be used for Sunday school, Bible study, perhaps even a wedding ceremony.

"It's to remind us where we came from, and what we were at one time," Eelman said. "It's a reminder of just how tough and how strong our ancestors were. They rode on horseback, sometimes 10, 12 miles to come to church here. It was that important to them."


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