German Reformed (Old Salem) Church
Presently Salem United Church of Christ
Library of Congress, c. 1855
German Reformed (Old Salem) Church, now the Salem United Church of Christ, located at S. Third and Chestnut Streets is the oldest standing and continuously operating church building in Harrisburg.
Erected in 1822, it represents the second building on this lot granted by John Harris Jr. for religious purposes. Initially, the German Lutheran and German Reformed worshipped together. In 1814, the Lutherans split and founded Zion Lutheran Church on Fourth Street. Old Salem Church served as a hospital for wounded troops during the Civil War.
Mrs. Mary Ann Reily Kelker and Miss Emily L. Reily were elected representatives for the establishment of the Home for the Friendless.
Further Historical Retrospection
Completed in 1822, the church that stands at S. Third and Chestnut Streets is the oldest church building in Harrisburg in continuous use. However, it was the second building on this lot granted by John Harris, Jr. for religious purposes when the Borough of Harrisburg was laid out in 1785. The first church was a log-constructed meetinghouse erected in 1787 on the rear portion of the property at S. Third and Cherry Alley (the latter now vacated) and was shared by two congregation, those of the Lutheran and the German Reformed Churches. For several years, the congregations worshiped together, first under a Lutheran pastor and then for six years under a German Reformed pastor. While they shared pastors, they preserved their own creeds and organizational structures.
The congregation split in 1814 when the Lutherans decided to go their separate ways by purchasing land on S. Fourth Street where they erected the original Zion Lutheran Church. The German Reformed group continued to use and improve the log meetinghouse which was weather boarded on the exterior by 1804. In 1818, the congregation became formalized as “The German Reformed Salem Church of Harrisburg.”
In 1820, pastor John Winebrenner came to Salem. During his time in seminary, the revivalist movement within the German Reformed Church had made a profound impact upon Winebrenner. His resulting convictions and practices, especially of conversion meetings, soon put him at odds with the Salem membership. Winebrenner left Salem in 1823 to start the Church of God on N. Fourth Street.
In 1821 ground was broken on the front portion of the lot facing Chestnut Street for the present building. Upon its dedication on June 21, 1822, the church’s bell was brought from London England and was installed in the tower cupola. The congregation commissioned the bell from the Whitechapel Bell Company in London, the same foundry that cast the Liberty Bell, as well as bells for churches and cathedrals around the world. The bell, which sounded as President Lincoln’s funeral train traveled through Harrisburg, still rings daily at 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. On Sundays, it also rings at 10:15 a.m. to assemble the congregation and tolls five times at 10:30 a.m. to begin the service.
In 1791, Salem formed a Sunday School which met in the log church. The school later expanded to offer broader instruction, becoming an academy for boys in 1835. Some years later, in 1851, an African American school leased space for their educational purposes.
The congregation built a lecture hall in 1854. Located behind the church, this space offered a school for both sexes, including religion and music classes. It also hosted concerts and mission events. During the Civil War, the church responded to the need for soldier’s housing by making the hall available. It then converted the space to a hospital for wounded soldiers.
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the church building, which later became the Salem United Church of Christ, escaped demolition from the surrounding urban renewal activities of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It survives beautifully and importantly as a major Harrisburg landmark.
Banner photo courtesy Jeb Stuart.