Zion Lutheran Church
Library of Congress, c. 1855
Contemplating a split from the nearby Old Salem Church on Chestnut Street, the Lutheran congregation secured a property on S. Fourth Street (present location) in 1813. The first church building, named Zion was completed in 1815, but on October 21, 1838, it was consumed by a fire. In November 1839 the second structure was consecrated on the same site. The following month Zion hosted the presidential nominating convention of the Whig Party when William Henry Harrison was nominated for U.S. President.
He won the election of 1840.
In 1867, the church was enlarged and the cupola was removed from the front and center of the building and a bell tower with steeple was erected.
During the Civil War the church served as a rest station for soldiers. Church members volunteered in the building of fortifications around the city.
Mrs. Margaretta Brua Cameron and Mrs. Clara Dock were elected to represent Zion Lutheran Church on the Board of Managers of the Home for the Friendless.
Further Historical Retrospection
The congregation of Zion Lutheran Church first worshiped with the members of the German Reformed Church (now the Salem United Church of Christ) at S. Third and Chestnut Streets. Zion’s congregation split from the German Reformed in 1814 when its first church was erected on S. Fourth Street, the site of today’s church. The first Zion, constructed in 1815, was designed by Stephen Hills who also designed the first PA State Capitol Building built in 1822. In 1816, the Zion congregation sold its interest in the Chestnut Street church to the existing German Reformed congregation thereby consummating the split.
Photo courtesy of Jeb Stuart
In 1828, noting that Zion church’s architecture needed to be improved, a central cupola was added. While its services were spoken in both English and German, another congressional split occurred in 1843 when the German members left and founded the German Lutheran St. Michael’s Church, now situated on State Street. In 1838, the Zion Church burned to the ground, an event that was not uncommon to mid-19th Century Harrisburg buildings. The church was then rebuilt in 1839, just in time for the U.S. Presidential Convention of December 1839
“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was the familiar political slogan of the 1839 U.S. Presidential campaign. The campaign began when William Henry Harrison and John Tyler were nominated as the Whig candidates for President and Vice President. The event was held at the new Zion Church because it had the largest interior space at the time in Harrisburg for this major accommodation. The Whig Convention made Harrisburg the smallest city to ever host a U.S. Presidential convention. Both men won and both eventually became President. The Church was altered in the late 1860’s from its 1839 appearance to that which essentially is seen today.
During the Civil War, Zion played a significant role on the home front. It served as a rest station for soldiers; and anticipating a potential attack by the Confederates, Pastor Charles Hay organized the members to volunteer in the building of fortifications around the city.
In 1867, the building was expanded and altered. The cupola was removed from the front and center of the building and a bell tower with steeple was erected. The front narthex was added along with the choir loft. The windows of Zion’s sanctuary are the third type to be placed there. The original clear panes of 1839 were replaced in 1867 by green stained glass (still present in the narthex). The other stained-glass windows were installed between 1902 and 1927.
During the 1990’s, Zion joined other downtown churches in hosting an overnight shelter during the winter months. The congregation also contributed to the building of Susquehanna Harbor Safe Haven, just off of North Cameron Street, where the winter overnight shelter is currently housed.
Currently, in addition to its own congregation, Zion’s building is home to three Christian congregations of varying denominations and a men’s mentoring ministry. Zion members hold worship services on Sundays and Wednesdays, and a monthly communion service at a local men’s shelter. The members also directly support global missions via contributions to missionaries and by participating in Operation Christmas Child.