January 1976 (revised December 2010)
It is not by accident we've received such a heritage. In 1670 there began a great migration to America of unhappy Scotch Irish immigrants. They fled their homeland seeking religious freedom and most of them settled here in "Penn's Woods" where they could clear the land, erect their churches and schools and be free--free to be Presbyterians and suffer no more persecution or discrimination.
Tradition claims a society was formed in 1711 at Centerville (Hensel) near what is known as the Morrison Cemetery.
The second building, if there was a first, was a log structure erected in 1729 by the old cemetery, at the foot of the hill just south of the village of Chestnut Level.
The third house of worship is the one we worship in today, making our congregation 165 years old. In 1765, William R. Ritchie and wife Jane deeded 1-1/2 acres and 20 perches to the church for 10 pounds ($28.00). Mr. Ritchie made a few stipulations however:
We are not certain about the erection of the church, but some claim it was begun in 1765 and completed in 1767. Others claim it was begun during the Revolutionary War, stood unroofed for a time, and completed after the men returned from the war.
On the 250th anniversary of our church, Dr. G. Aubrey Young delivered a sermon, "History, Heritage, and Hope." A few words from his research fit well here. He wrote, "If the Reformed faith was born when Martin Luther nailed his thesis on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, then the church at Chestnut Level is more than half as old as Protestantism. Measured in terms of our own denomination's history in America, this church was founded only 5 years after the organization of the first Presbytery and 78 years before the first General Assembly. Even more remarkable, is the fact that this congregation was organized 11 years before George Washington was born!
Chestnut Level was a church before American was a nation. Consider therefore, what this congregation has been witness to, and has participated in, across the years. It endured the early stages of colonization in a forest wilderness. It passed through oppression, depression, revolution, panic and more wars that we want to count. In the course of time it saw a few English colonies, scattered along the eastern sea board, developed into a great and independent nation. It had a part in the beginning and development of representative government. It hailed the Declaration of Independence, helped ratify the Constitution, and welcomed George Washington as the first President. It witnessed the rise of political parties, abolition of slavery, and the coming of the New Deal. Then came the nuclear age, the establishment of the U.N., and the election of John F. Kennedy as President. Our church watched as a man first walked on the moon. Witnessed also was the tragedy of the Challenger, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. We have accepted the modern conveniences brought to us by the age of technology. We stood strong with our nation through the tragic events of 9/11. Yes, 300 years from our founding, much has changed in the church and the world. But, through it all, during good times and bad, Chestnut Level has maintained a Christian witness in that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been preached faithfully for three centuries.
As we continue to consider the physical aspect of our heritage, we must admit that Thomas Clark, Patrick Harra and Moses Irwin, the committee in charge of building this sanctuary, were farsighted men. While many physical changes have taken place, the massive stone walls, great girders and giant oak beams supporting the roof, remain the same. The builders built well, using stones carried and hauled in from the fields. The huge beams had to be brought here from great trees cut somewhere. How interesting it would have been if the construction of this church had been carefully recorded for posterity!
The original building had an arched ceiling and box pews with the pulpit on the west and the entrance in the east. Later that east door became a window accounting for 5 windows in the east and 4 in the west. This change took place when the pulpit was moved to the north end and 2 doors placed in the south wall. Still later the pulpit was placed where it is today and the 2 south doors were sealed off. A large door was placed in the north end; a vestibule with a gallery over it was added.
During the early pastorate of Lindley Rutter, which began in 1835, the pews and pulpit were placed in their present position. Not until 1882 was the tower added. The gallery and vestibule were removed at the same time and the entrance was enlarged. Ruling Elder Alexander Scott Clark hauled the stone for the tower in a one horse wagon. He was the grandson of John Clark who came to this community in 1705.
In the session minutes of September 1892, it states, "Great repairing of the church has been undertaken this summer and is now being carried on...church will be closed during August on account of repairs and pastor has been granted a vacation, otherwise, Gospel preached regularly from Sabbath to Sabbath." During the summer of this "great repairing" new stained glass windows replaced old windows and a memorial window was placed in the west for Lindley Rutter, who served the church for 40 years. Walls were furred and frescoed, roof was reslated and new chandlers were hung all at a cost of $3,300.
In 1893 the bell was placed in the tower. The church was painted again and refrescoed. Mrs. Janet McCullough largely paid for new steam heat installed by a Philadelphia company.
In February 1914, Al Eckman of Mechanic Grove, put in new wainscot; and, the present solid oak pews and pulpit furniture were put in by a Williamsport firm. Again, there was painting, new carpet laid and new chandeliers hung. These chandeliers were replaced with electric lights in 1922 and present fixtures hung in 1941.
During the years 1959-60, a Baldwin organ replaced the Hammond of 1941. At the same time a larger parking area was provided and a new manse of native stone was constructed. Many men spent countless hours in old fence rows and building foundations, digging out the stones and hauling them to the parsonage site. Slate was removed meticulously from old buildings and carefully hauled here too. This same year a bulletin board of native stone was erected beside the church. At this same time, Charles Gochnauer was busy on the interior of the church--redecorating. The velvet drape was hung behind the pulpit.
The Holtwood Presbyterian Church merged with us in 1969. From their sanctuary came the lovely stained glass windows used in our annex which was dedicated on October 6, 1974. Once more the people of our congregation had to call upon their resources and energies and gather field stone from local fence rows and fields.
While our church has undergone many physical changes, we must be grateful to our forefathers for their great insight in erecting these huge sturdy walls. Changes have been made to meet the needs of the people in each generation. A living church must not stand still and may this congregation continue to be a Christian witness in the centuries to come.
Ministers Serving Chestnut Level Presbyterian Church
So far as has been ascertained, this was the first pastor of the congregation. He began his work here the same year Donegal Presbytery was organized. In 1736, Rev. Alexander Craighead supplied the Chestnut Level Church while Rev. JohnThompson supplied Canada Summit, Virginia. Emigration to Virginia attracted the attention of Thompson and he proposed to Donegal Presbytery to employ an itinerant preacher. Apparently he was delegated to do missionary work. This pastor served in the South intermittently while also serving Chestnut Level. The Presbyterians of Augusta continued their "supplications" to Donegal Presbytery for a pastor to reside among them. They applied for Rev. Thompson and he "preached for a time." In 1743, he was sent to "back parts of Virginia" and in 1744 was dismissed from Chestnut Level.
Of his work there seems to be no existing record. His body lies in the old cemetery and a slab marks his grave, but the dates were so worn they're not legible.
1752-1769 Rev. Samson Smith. He was the pastor when the present building was erected. John Thompson, a former pastor, proposed to Donegal Presbytery the erection of a seminary of learning. The Synod of PA took this up and in 1755, a seminary was built here and Samson Smith was in charge. For a while, Chestnut Level was the center of learning for the Presbyterian Church until the Synod withdrew its support for the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. In August, 1781, while shaving himself at his home on a farm near Drumore Center, he was struck by lightning and instantly killed.
His 30-year ministry was colorful and eventful. He was moderator of the General Assembly in one of its earliest years--1793. I'll write at greater length concerning this man later.
This man was called to serve both the Chestnut Level and Little Britain congregations. this seems to be the beginning of the relationship between the two churches where the pastor spent one-third time at Little Britain and two-thirds time at Chestnut Level.
After Dr. James Latta retired, his son, Francis, took his place and continued operating the famous Latin School.
For six years the church seems to have depended mainly on supply ministers, although in 1828, Chestnut Level and Little Britain asked Presbytery for permission to employ Licentiate William Annan, of the Presbytery of Baltimore. Permission was granted, but we have no further record concerning this man except that he was ordained in 1829. It is likely that when the six months for which he was engaged had expired, he ceased to supply the pulpit.
He served both Chestnut Level and Little Britain as had Rev. Cummings.
This pastor, too, was called to both congregations. However, in October 1856, the Chestnut Level congregation presented a petition to Presbytery, meeting at Chestnut Level, asking if they might have services every Lord's Day. This matter was referred to a committee and the congregations. Results of these negotiations are not known but in 1859, Mr. Rutter offered his resignation of the charge of Little Britain so as to devote full time to Chestnut Level. His request was granted. He served this church 40 years and was largely instrumental in establishing the academy which stood to the west of this sanctuary. It was erected in 1852, and flourished for half century. This academy was founded and supervised by Presbyterians but was non-sectarian in nature and was attended by students of many denominations from a large area. Rev. Rutter was an eloquent preacher and a tireless worker, preaching at several out-stations on the Sabbath afternoon. For a number of years he preached at Mt. Nebo once a month, going directly there from the service at Chestnut Level and eating his lunch on the way. During his ministry the new cemetery was opened and three young men from the congregation entered the ministry. A beautiful memorial window can be seen in the west wall of this church as a tribute to this fine man. He was released from this
church in 1875, and made Pastor Emeritus with a salary. He, too, is buried at Chestnut Level.
Like Father Rutter, he did a great deal of preaching at outposts on Sabbath afternoons and the Cherry Hill Chapel was built during his ministry in 1899. It's been recorded that there was a great outpouring of the Spirit of the church during his ministry, notably that of 1900 when 146 members were received. Largely by his efforts the Westminster Bible Conference was founded. After leaving Chestnut Level, he taught at Lincoln University. In 1919 he died in New Jersey and was buried here.
He continued the work of his predecessors at the outposts and made them feeders to the church.
He too kept up the work of the outposts often preaching three times on the Sabbath.
The academy was razed in 1923 and materials used in the erection of the annex to the old academy dormitory. We call this our Sunday School auditorium.
Was serving as Administrator of the Quarryville Presbyterian Home. He had 4 daughters and 1 son.
He is no longer a minister served in Racial Relations in Madison, Wisconsin. He had 2 sons and 1 daughter.
Pastored in Amarillo, Texas. Two sons and 1 daughter.
Pastored in Beaver Falls, PA and had 2 sons and 1 daughter.
The years between ministers not accounted for, the church depended largely on supply ministers.
James Latta D.D., 1771-1801
The Colonial Presbyterians believed that the clergy had a duty to teach as well as preach. Only through the knowledge of the Word could you live a proper life, thus when there was a church there was a school house by its side. Many pastors of this church were preacher-teachers, Dr. Latta being one.
The pastorate of Dr. Latta spans 30 years. While serving this church, the people in the community urgently requested him to open a school where they could educate their sons. He did, acquired celebrity, and soon needed an assistant. It is said that when news reached the school that the British had been defeated at Concord, many of the scholars and the assistant left the school and joined the Revolutionary Army. A number of them became distinguished officers. Dr. Latta went with men of the community on one campaign and was also a chaplain during a part of the war. This resulted in the closing of the school. However, after the death of Sampson Smith in 1781, and the closing of his school, Latta again yielded to may requests and reopened the Latta school. It regained its prosperity and was continued by Francis Latta, a son, after his father's retirement. The income from this school enabled Latta to purchase a farm, erect a fine house upon it and support his large family of ten children in comfort. The school was carried on in this home about three miles west of Chestnut Level and still stands bearing a date stone with the initials JML and date 1785. It is said he had in the house a "dark room" which he used as a seclusion for disobedient scholars.
Latta introduced the Psalms and Hymns of Dr. Watts into the church, but the new Psalmody met with too much opposition from important members of the church. However, in answer to a challenge from one who reprobated the use of Watts' Psalmody, he wrote a treatise of 108 pages on the new Psalmody which reached four editions. It was centuries later the subject in controversy was brought into the church. We are still using today what he hoped for in his time.
In 1785, he defended the church incorporation acts, while many of his parishioners were strongly opposed to mixing church and state affairs. In 1791, the church was incorporated and while many of Latta's sheep were displeased with his innovations, time has shown the wisdom of his views.
Latta was a pastor, preacher, Presbyter and preceptor. He was a pioneer in thought. Latin and English were taught in his school and from it scores of young men went into learned professions to achieve great honors and recognition in many walks of life. He taught well, for his students were accepted at the university without examination. It was sufficient to know he had taught them.
Concerning his salary while serving here, Ruling Elder David Scott said, "It was never increased and rarely all paid." Records tell us he was to receive 100 pounds ($280) annually in Pennsylvania currency.
He was in the first graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania in 1757. His diploma so far as is knows, is the only one in existence, therefore, the oldest diploma representing the university. Interesting data concerning this class can be found in the showcase in the church annex, along with the diploma.
Of his ten children, four were sons and all became ministers.
Mr. Latta received his D.D. from his alma mater in 1799. It should be noted also that he was Moderator of the General Assembly in 1793.
One Sunday morning as Mr. Latta and his daughter, Mary, were riding to church he fell from his carriage on his head and was somewhat stunned. He said to his daughter, "I am killed, but do not tell your mother." He conducted the church service and returned home. Soon he fell into a condition which alarmed his daughter and she relayed the episode to Mother. In a few days he died.
His tombstone in the old cemetery bears this inscription: "By his death society has lost an invaluable member, religion one of its brightest ornaments and most amiable examples. His genius was masterly and his literature extensive. As a classical scholar he was equaled by few. His judgment was strong and penetrating, his taste correct, his style nervous and elegant. In the pulpit, he was a model, in the judiciaries of the church distinguished by his accuracy and precision. After a life devoted to his Master's service he rested from his labors lamented most by those who best knew his worth."
In 1832, Mr. Philip W. Housekeeper donated a plot of ground for the Chestnut Level Academy. In 1852, largely through the efforts of Lindley Rutter, 40 year pastor of this congregation, the academy was built with the community paying for its erection.
Rev. Ross Ramsey was the first teacher. He was succeeded by Mr. James Doran, during whose administration the Church house was built as a dormitory. This involved a debt which necessitated the property being sold at sheriffs' sale in 1859. It was purchased by Mr. Sanders McCullough, who in 1863, gave the property to the Chestnut Level Presbyterian Church. I am not certain of the exact closing date, but I know there was a 50 year celebration. Drumore High School graduated its first class in 1906 and at the same time, state appropriated Normal Schools came into being. We must assume, then, this private institution could survive no longer than the early part of the twentieth century. I was told that it was closed for a while and Rev. Galbreath sought its reopening for the education of his children. Thomas Nichalson was the last teacher serving the Academy.
The Academy was attended by such notable men of public renown as the late Hon. J. Hay Brown, late Judge of the Supreme Court, Hon. W. U. Hensel, former Attorney General, Drs. John and Harry Durn, Robert Risk, Dr Agnew and many other notable men and women came out of this institution.
In 1872 James Menaul, a divinity student from Princeton, became principal of the Academy. After serving one year, he took up work under Presbyterian Home Missions in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and established what so many of us are familiar with as the Menaul Mission School.
The Academy was a two story brick structure with a wide porch across the front and stood between our present Sunday School building and the Robert Powl home. Classes were held on the second floor, while the first floor was used for meetings and Sunday School classes.
In 1923, during the pastorate of Rev. W. J. G. Carruthers, the academy was razed and the material used for the erection of an annex to the old dormitory thus giving us the auditorium of our Sunday School building. The total cost of the annex was $4,000 and the slate has since been replaced.
In the will of the late Mr. Thomas R. Ankrum $1,506.43 was given to the Chestnut Level Presbyterian Church for the purpose of fitting up a room in the Church House in memory of his wife, to be known as the Zella Wentz Ankrum Memorial Room. The church felt no better room could be selected for this purpose than the present Sunday School Auditorium, which Mr. Ankrum was so actively interested in seeing erected. This gift has made possible the bronze memorial tablet, 160 permanent seats, 50 folding chairs, linoleum covering for the floor, carpet covering for the platform, new lighting fixtures, stained window glass, screens for the windows, refinishing of wainscoting and refinishing of platform furniture.
The Church House was used during 1900-1951 for the housing of delegates attending Westminister Bible Conference. This Conference began as a three-day retreat for ministers of Presbytery but through time became a conference for young people, lasting one week. Our Conference had its beginning at the Northfield Schools, Massachusetts. There in 1899 the seventeenth annual session of the General Conference for Christian Workers was held. Dwight L. Moody headed this enterprise and our own Dr. John Galbreath, along with three other spiritual leaders from our Presbytery came home from that Conference all enthused over the idea of organizing one such Conference within their own Presbytery. These consecrated men so inspired their co-presbyters that the Westminister Bible Conference was immediately organized, with Chestnut Level extending a cordial invitation to the Presbytery to have the Conference on their grounds. "The accommodations will not be luxurious," warned the Committee, "but we hope comfortable and without risk to persons in ordinary health." The Church House was offered to accommodate all who attended, thus minimizing the inconvenience of their having to commute from places at a distance. Records tell us that "trains arriving at Peach Bottom and Quarryville were met morning and evening." The Committee earnestly hoped that members of Presbytery "would give up these three days, and spend them in this quiet place, for rest, prayer, Bible study and Christian fellowship. Those who drove (and this is a commentary on the enthusiasm of these men) "will have their horses cared for during the time of the Conference."
The first Conference, with seventeen ministers registered, was quite successful. It was held Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, May 29, 30 and 31, 1900. At times the church was crowded to capacity. Many people were present from neighboring congregations as well as from Chestnut Level. Several people from York County attended the entire Conference. This first year only ministers had been invited, but on the final evening the ministers, in evaluating the Conference, decided to enlarge its scope. In the future, it was thought, elders and young people should be encouraged to attend. Records seem to show that since its inception, this Bible Conference was designed to attract and train the youth of the Church as much as any Conference of the present day.
The preparations made by the Chestnut Level Congregation for that first Conference were most complete and highly praised by Presbytery's Committee. Comfortable quarters were furnished in the Church House for the lodging, the parlors for morning prayers, the spacious dining rooms had excellent and admirable entertainment free of charge. The entire expense of the Conference was met by offerings or by subscriptions of those who attended. The Church, Church House and grounds were used free of charge and the congregation offered the same for future Conferences. Accommodations were made to house one hundred people in the Church House. Ample space was also provided on the Church grounds where delegates could pitch their tents. However, the Chestnut Level congregation would not be responsible for furnishing the apartments in the Church House, or tents, or providing meals in the future. Rather, it was decided to obtain the services of someone who would furnish meals in the "spacious dining rooms" at a moderate cost. At that time these dining rooms were on the main floor of the Church House and the kitchen below and all meals and dishes had to be carried up and down the stairs. In the records of 1910, it states that Leander Waters was to be employed for 3-1/2 days services for Conference at $1.00 per day and would arrive Monday evening and four colored women would arrive Tuesday by 7:00 a.m. or earlier. Also in 1910, $10.00 was given to Miss Alice Ankrum for "inconveniences she suffered in the Church House during Conference and other times." I was told she and her brother were the sextons and lived in the Church House. Ladies of the church in early years took up carpets and cleaned, took linens and counterpanes home for laundering. Colored help did the scrubbing, whitewashing, dishes, cleaned and filled lamps. Later still, colored help was paid to launder sheets and counterpanes.
In later years the women of the church were well organized and delegates, ranging in ages from 14-23 years, attended the Bible Conference. Women of the church cleaned, furnished rooms and served meals for the young people. Delegates attending paid in more recent years $16.00 for the week and provided their own bed linens. Girls were housed in the Church House while boys slept in the barn by the old manse, now occupied by Alvin Wenger.
In more recent years the Church House has been used for community functions. The basement has served as the polling place for many years. As we enter the Church and Church House each week, we pray that our own lives may be spiritually enriched as were the lives of those persons of past years who attended the activities held at Chestnut Level.
Certainly one of the loveliest and finest old cemeteries in Lancaster County is the one at the foot of the hill south of our church. One of the concrete posts supporting the iron gate dates its founding in 1725. It contains ancient stones with legible inscriptions, especially those of slate.
In the summer of 1926, two men from the Lancaster Historical Society visited the cemetery and found it in a "deplorable, pathetic, state--an almost impenetrable mass of weeds and briars and obviously neglected."
It was reported that the cemetery was a haven for hunters who shot rabbits within the walls, which accounted for the sad and unsightly condition of many tombstones. Grave markers were also broken and scattered over the ground.
Thanks to the wisdom of some church members, about the year 1931, a committee was appointed to employ a surveyor and follow up with improvements to this yard. He had the stones removed and the ground plowed. The ground remained like this for a while, was then cultivated, leveling all humps and uneven places and grass seed finally sown. About 1933, the stones were replaced--but not as meticulously as they should have been. Concrete foundations were poured for the stones to be placed on, but in so doing there are traces where the liquid cement splashed on the stones. Instead of removing this at once, it hardened leaving inscriptions almost impossible to read.
These same men who were here in 1926, returned to visit the cemetery and were forced to use hammer and chisel to remove the defacement in order to record inscriptions.
In 1935, these men visited the cemetery several times and completed their recording of all inscriptions found in that old cemetery. They counted 287 stones. Of these, 98 were slate and 172 were marble and sandstone. Seventeen of the sandstone were the large, flat kind and they claimed there were more slate markers in this cemetery than in any they had ever visited. The slate inscriptions were cut centuries ago, but they claimed they were nearly as legible as they must have been the day they were cut. However, the sandstone did not withstand the elements as did the slate and they were nearly impossible to decipher.
Truly, this graveyard, as these men have said, in its present condition is one of the most attractive in Lancaster County and furnishes a fine example for other churches to follow in caring for the graves of their dead.Oldest stone 1732 -Izabela Mo.....