Fourth Street Bethel
The Church of God denomination was founded in Harrisburg in 1825 by the Rev. John Winebrenner (1797- 1860), Winebrenner had earlier been the pastor at the Old Salem Church on Chestnut Street. A split in the congregation resulted in the founding of the Union Bethel church in 1927 on Mulberry Steet. This later led to the erection in 1854 of the Bethel Church, present during the Civil War, on N. Fourth Street. It consequently became known as the “Mother Church” of the Church of God denomination. The church building still stands and is now the home of Gamut Theater.
The ladies who were appointed to the original Home for the Friendless Board of Manages in 1866 from the Church included Mrs. John Winebrenner and Mrs. Barbara McFadden.
Further Historical Retrospection
The Church of God denomination was founded in Harrisburg in 1825 by the Rev. John Winebrenner (1797-1860). Winebrenner had been pastor of the nearby Salem German Reformed Church on Chestnut Street beginning in 1820 and oversaw the erection of that building in 1822. Winebrenner’s embrace of the evangelistic movement in the early 19th Century resulted in a conflict in the traditions of the German Reformed Church. A congregational split ensued with Winebrenner founding in 1825 a new church known as “Bethel”, or sacred place. Winebrenner named his mission the “ Church of God,” a heretofore nonexistent name. He and his followers built the first church on Mulberry Street, between Front and Second Streets, near the site of the main entrance to today’s Harrisburg Hospital. Other churches under Winebrenner’s leadership would shortly emerge in communities surrounding Harrisburg and elsewhere throughout Pennsylvania and the United States. In 1854, the need for a new church was fulfilled through the construction of the present building on N. Fourth Street, which at that time was the largest in the Church of God denomination and was historically referred to as the “Mother Church.” From the beginning, Winebrenner saw the need to disseminate church papers to further the faith. Consequently, the Church of God in Harrisburg was one of the first congregations in the United States to engage in publishing. Throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the printing operation was located at several downtown sites until 1920 when the Church constructed the Central Publishing House which was housed in a building that still stands at N. 13th and Walnut Streets on Allision Hill. Due to a dwindling congregation, the Church closed its doors in 2015 and consequently sold its building to Gamut Theater resulting in an interesting and creative conversion of the Church’s interior for stage productions while respecting the former sanctuary’s stained-glass windows and interior spaces. The Church’s bell through the sale was relocated to the Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Scotland PA. While the domination’s “Mother Church” had to close, The Church of God continues to flourish with approximately 340 churches across North America.
The Gamut Theater began a $3 million capital campaign to renovate the space into a permanent home that would meet the demand for Gamut’s growing programs. On November 6, 2015, the Theater unveiled the beautiful Select Medical Mainstage and Capital Blue Cross Lobby. 170 volunteers donated 7,800 hours to make Phase I of the project possible. In August, 2018, Phase II of the project was completed: a renovation of the back half of the building into the Gamut Theatre Education Center, including the Alexander Grass Second Stage, which hosts Popcorn Hat Players Children’s Theatre, Gamut’s Stage Door Ensemble, and numerous student and community performances.
The conversion of the former Church to a performing stage venue joins with other downtown Harrisburg theaters and performing arts destinations, such as the Whitaker Center., Open Stage and the Forum Concert Hall to distinguish downtown Harrisburg’s arts and theater district.
Banner photo courtesy Jeb Stuart.