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Henry Ritz Holsinger
Rocking the Old Ship

Eld. Henry R. Holsinger, in 1883 [Click for larger image]In a former chapter mention was made of an ambitious young man, Henry, in the spring house office of the Gospel Visitor.  No series of articles like the one we are writing or history of the Brotherhood would be considered anything like complete without something being said about Henry, for the story of Henry naturally leads up to the saddest period ever known in the history of the Church of the Brethren.  Elder H. R. Holsinger, or Henry Ritz Holsinger, with whom we are now to deal, was born in Morrison's Cove, Blair County, Pa., May 26, 1833.  His father as well as his his grandfather was a Brethren preacher, and his grandmother was a granddaughter of Alexander Mack.  In ancestry he was well related.  His education, which seems to have been fairly good, was secured in the common schools.  In 1855, at the age of twenty-two, he united with the church and the next spring went to Poland, Ohio, to work in the Gospel Visitor office and learn the printer's trade.  Being able to speak, read and write both German and English he easily learned to set type in the two languages.  At this early age he had some editorial aspirations, and observing a strong sentiment in the Brotherhood for a weekly paper he suggested to Eld. Henry Kurtz that he convert the monthly Visitor into a weekly and take him in as a partner.  This did not appeal to Eld. Kurtz who had already decided on Bro. James Quinter as his associate on the editorial staff.

So after the expiration of his year in the Visitor office he returned to his Pennsylvania home, where he taught school during the winter months and worked for the farmers in the summer.  At Tyrone he purchased a secular paper and its printer's outfit and ran a local paper for a short time.  A secular paper was not to his liking but paved the way for something else.  In 1864, when thirty-one years old, he had married Susanna Shoup, and the next year started the Christian Family Companion, a weekly published in the interest of the Church of the Brethren.  The year following, when thirty-three, he was called to the ministry.  His paper was well received and proved a success from the start.  Within a year after he started the Companion I came near finding a place in the office.  In answer to his advertisement for a boy or young man to help in the work and learn the trade, I made application for the place and from him received a very nice letter saying that he would hold the place open for me.  On account of the great distance from him, I then lived in Cass County, Ill., I was led to change my plans and so advised him.  Soon after this, April 1, 1866, James A. Sell, a promising young minister, twenty-one years old, entered the office and remained one year.  Sometime later J. W. Beer became associated with Bro. Holsinger on the editorial staff.

In his make-up Bro. Holsinger was decidedly aggressive, extremely so.  He was mentally alert, quick, keen witted and outspoken.  What he thought he wrote or spoke regardless of results.  In a general way he was in accord with the outstanding doctrines and fundamentals of the church, but differed sharply with the most of the leaders on policy and methods.  He was a born editor, and our people probably never had in their ranks a man of finer educational ability.  But he was no diplomat.  He compromised on nothing.  In a sense he was a clear-cut agitator.  And still, getting on the right side of him, he was found to be one of the most pleasant of men.  He made many friends, fast friends too, but he made twice as many enemies.

The Brethren's Almanac — 1872 [Click for larger image]In starting his paper he had before him a marvelous opportunity.  Our people were almost impatiently longing for a weekly church publication, and welcomed the Christian Family Companion on first sight, but he declared the policy of the paper to be that of a free rostrum with the privilege of writers to say what they pleased, in the way they wanted to say things within the limits of what he considered propriety.  The free rostrum idea was probably not so fatal as the abuse of it, and he himself abused it badly.  At the time the church needed some reform along several lines, likely a good deal of it.  This was recognized all over the Brotherhood, but instead of adopting an educational policy for his paper, a policy that would create sentiment as fast as it could be assimilated, he and a number of his writers severely criticised the church, many of her leaders and her Conferences as well.  Some hard things were said and they were not all on one side.  At the first Annual Meeting in which he ever took an active part he was made the storm center of an intense excitement.  Speaking of it himself, in his History of the Tunkers, page 477, he says: "By this time the audience was excited to the highest pitch.  I never before or since witnessed such intensity of feeling in an assembly.  The council was held in a dense grove, and men and women wept aloud, and several voices shrieked so as to awaken the echo."  While he was induced to make an apology for arousing such a state of feeling, still the news of the excitement spread and as the years passed the feeling cropped out more or less in the Annual Meetings following.

There was one man in our Conferences in those days who knew how to handle him.  That man was Henry D. Davy, the Moderator.  He did not like Davy or his church methods, but he respected him.  In a moment of excitement a word or two from Eld. Davy would render him as submissive as a child heeding the voice of its mother.  Speaking of those times, in his history he says of Davy: "He was the most dignified and efficient chairman that ever swayed the scepter over a Tunker Conference.  Being of a pleasant countenance he could order a brother to take his seat, or inform him that he was out of order, without any danger of giving offense.  He was a natural diplomat and peacemaker. . .  With a liberal education Henry D. Davy would have been the peer of the best men in any denomination in the country."  With such a moderator swaying the scepter, Conference proceedings could be kept moving pretty steadily even if he did have to say now and then: "Henry, be careful."  But the excitement went on, because of the reforms and activities of Bro. Holsinger was urging, but because of the way and the spirit in which it was done.

Instead of unifying our people his policy arrayed the different elements against each other.  He certainly did put the Brethren to thinking, but it was not always the most helpful sort of thinking.  This went on until the opposing sentiment in opposition to his course reached Conference from nearly every section of the Brotherhood.  He had carried matters too far, almost to the breaking point, saw the tide was going strong against him, so in order to avoid a division, as he says, he asked Bro. Quinter to purchase his paper and take charge of the situation.  This Bro. Quinter did in the summer of 1873.

After this matters quieted down somewhat.  Later we find Bro. Holsinger in Chicago running a job printing office.  I visited him in his office.  In a room adjoining and facing the street his wife was serving oysters.  I called for a stew and as I ate she sat at the table and we talked.  I had never met her before.  She impressed me as one of the noblest of women, willing to share any hardship with her husband.  Finally she said, and her pathetic words still cling to my memory: "Bro. Moore, I never thought it would come to this."  Mentally speaking Bro. Holsinger was then in his prime, always brilliant, and undaunted by his unfortunate experience he was soon back in Pennsylvania, at Berlin, planning to start another paper.  Five years before he sold the Christian Family Companion to Bro. Quinter, with the aid of Bro. Beer, a real aggressive writer and others was giving the Brotherhood a good wide-awake paper.  The Brethren at Work, another live wire weekly, was serving the west in a most aggressive manner.  Both of these papers were thoroughly interested in everything relating to the development and expansion of the church and especially along educational and mission lines.  In fact Bro. Quinter was then president of one of our colleges, while the western paper was intensely missionary.  Sunday-schools were springing up in every part of the Brotherhood.  Two other colleges, one in Ohio and another in Illinois, were on the eve of being launched.  The churches were thoroughly alive in evangelistic work, our efficient evangelists going everywhere holding revival meetings.  The church was simply bubbling over with intensity, and in some places with enthusiasm.  Writers in our papers and some of the editors, were talking about opening up city missions, entering foreign fields more fully, a better educated ministry especially along biblical lines, more aggressive Sunday-school work, and even in behalf of the supported ministry.  Of course there was some opposition.  There always is in the process of development, for it takes time to educate people up to a desired standard.  In a healthy way our people were headed in the right direction.

As we now view the situation, after a period of more than fifty years, conditions were exceedingly favorable for a steady and even an aggressive advance onward and upward.  As a matter of historic record that was the very thing that the church was doing.  She was forging ahead, and endeavoring to reach higher ground.  Matters were in a fine shape for Bro. Holsinger to fall in line and help the church in her onward and upwards efforts.  He believed in her general doctrines as thoroughly as any man we had among us.  He had ability; he was a good preacher and a good writer.  Besides he had a lot of friends, and as he would move they would follow.  In spite of the fact that he came near breaking with the Brotherhood, there was a splendid opportunity for him, as a leader and a worker, to do a marvelous amount of good in the interest of unity, harmony and aggressiveness.  Instead of doing this he, in the fall of 1878, decided to help start another paper, the Progressive Christian.  With this paper he was possibly more outspoken than before and a number of others fully as outspoken soon lined up with him.  Feelings grew more intense than in former years.  The situation grew more and more ominous.

At this time there were three elements in the Brotherhood, the Old Order, Progressives and Conservatives.  The two former were practically antipodes and so far apart in their methods of service and thinking that there was no possibility of holding them together on any common grounds.  In 1881 and 1882 the Old Order group, a fine body of people, about 3,000 of them, became separated from the mother church.  They stood opposed to colleges, Sunday-schools, missions and some other things.  The opposition against Bro. Holsinger, and the course he was pursuing, grew so strong as to call for a Conference committee, 1881, to go to Berlin, Pa., and wait on him in the congregation where he held his membership.  The coming of this committee was vigorously advertised in his paper, a shorthand reporter employed, the trial was announced to be a wide open affair for everybody, members or no members, and the readers of the paper promised a full report of the trial proceedings from start to finish.  The thing thus advertised caused no small stir all over the Brotherhood for it was evident that something was rocking the old ship Zion.

Breaking with the Brotherhood

At the appointed date, August 9, 1881, the committee came, but refused to conduct the trial on the plan that had been decided upon by Bro. Holsinger and his church.  As the committee had never been consulted regarding this arrangement, and as it was contrary to our general church usage, those composing the committee did not see their way clear to proceed.  The next day the committee decided, and so announced to the members assembled, that since Bro. Holsinger refused to have his trial conducted in harmony with the general Brotherhood, he could not be held in fellowship.  Of course, the decision would stand subject to the approval of next Annual Meeting.

The Brethren's Almanac — 1873 [Click for larger image]While hundreds of good people thought that Bro. Holsinger had gone too far in criticizing the Conference and the church leaders, they also felt that possibly the committee in its rather severe decision, under the excitement of the occasion, had overstepped the bounds of wisdom and discretion, and there came a day of more mature deliberation when some of the committee also felt the same way.  Some thought that it might have been better if the committee had withheld its decision until Conference could be advised of the situation.  However, what was done simply added fuel to the fire, and our people never approached an Annual Meeting with more fearful apprehensions than the one of that year, 1882, held near Milford, Ind.  They were there by the thousands, probably the largest Conference seen up to that date.  For nine months the committee's report had been criticized in the Progressive Christian and  Gospel Preacher, and even by widely distributed tracts.  Some very hard things were said, and feelings worked up to a pretty high pitch on both sides.  Not much was said in the other papers, Primitive Christian and the Brethren at Work.  In the meantime, public sentiment began to crystallize and every well informed member could observe that in the open Conference the report of the committee would likely be approved.  Even Bro. Holsinger and his friends realized this and were much discouraged.  They, along with everybody else, could see that the agitation had reached a critical point.

The meeting was opened in the usual way.  Enoch Eby was moderator, John Wise reading clerk, and James Quinter writing clerk, with D. E. Price in the chair pro tem on account of Bro. Eby being a member of the committee.  The report was read and then explained.  Several talks followed and then a motion to adopt the report of the committee.  At this stage of the meeting friends of Bro. Holsinger presented a compromise paper which Bro. Holsinger had agreed to sign if acceptable to the meeting.  The paper was as follows.

I, H. R. Holsinger, herein set forth the following declaration of purpose and conduct which shall be my guide and standard in my future relation with the church.  First, I humbly ask the pardon of the brethren for all my offenses, general and particular, committed in the past either through the  Progressive Christian or otherwise.  Second, I promise hereafter to administer the discipline of the church in harmony with the practices of the church, and will cease to practice or teach any system of church government not in harmony with that prevailing in the church as set forth by A. M.  Third, I promise to cease to speak or write in antagonism to the general order and union of its practices as now prevailing in the church.  Fourth, I promise to cease the publishing of the  Progressive Christian or any other paper or anything in fact in opposition to A. M.  Fifth, I promise to publish these declarations in the  Progressive Christian, and to harmonize action with the church.  I ask that they be placed upon the minutes of this meeting.

A number of us felt that signing and accepting of this paper should render all necessary satisfaction.  The best part of the day was spent over the question in most solemn and prayerful deliberation.  But public sentiment seemed fixed.  The motion to accept the committee's report was pressed, and when the vote was taken, every member present being allowed to vote, that vast congregation, possibly 7,000 members arose to it feet in solid mass, only about one hundred standing in the opposing vote.  I was present at that meeting, forty-seven years ago, took an active part in the proceedings, and representing the editorial staff of the  Brethren at Work, wrote up a long account of the meeting, two articles, for our paper.   In my time I have attended a good many Annual Meetings, forty-three of them, but I never before or since witnessed such an impressive moment.  And while there were many sad hearts, still there seemed to be a feeling of relief.

But we did not at that time see the end from the beginning.  Bro. Holsinger carried his attempts at what he looked upon as reform too far.  He had broken with his clientage, the best clientage he ever knew in his active and vigorous history, the mother church.  At the time he felt it keenly and seemed depressed.  He complained of not feeling well.  He may have meant it well, was doubtless honest and even sincere, but reckoned wrongly with the force he was attempting to influence.  By moral force a sturdy body of people like the Brethren might be educated up to desired standards but they can not be driven.  On account of a seeming lack of interest in favor of higher education, there was no occasion whatever for severe criticism, for at that very moment the church had three colleges in operation and these were paving the way for a better educated ministry.  Revival meetings for more than a half dozen years had been sweeping people, young and middle aged, into the church by the thousands.  Our people were taking up work in towns and cities.  In the way of intelligence, culture and efficiency our ministers were broadening out, and we had among us some men of decided ability as speakers and writers.  The church may have been a bit slow in coming to the financial support of her ministers, and yet these ministers in planting,, building up and maintaining churches found it possible to cope with the best in their respective communities.  These were, all told, about three points on which he held views different from the practice of the church.  He denied the authority of the Annual Meeting to discipline individuals or churches.  He had little use for the prayer veil, and also thought that the church was making too much of the dress question.  Maybe she was, but if he could now visit most of our congregations he would say that she, as well as all other churches, was making too little of it.  Had he been half as patient and one-third as diplomatic as were thousands of aggressive members who stayed by the mother church, he might have seen the day when most of the changes for which he contended were accepted by the church without any noticeable opposition.  And this not because he was contending for them, but because the church in a normal way was naturally moving out in that direction.

Arnold's Grove Meeting-house, Ind., where Eld. Holsinger was Disfellowshipped in 1882 [Click for larger image]Arnold's Grove Meeting-house, Ind., where Eld. Holsinger was Disfellowshipped in 1882.It was unfortunate, very unfortunate we think, that the Milford Conference did not instruct Bro. Holsinger to sign his declaration, and then have the committee incorporate it in their report, and then let the past be past.  He would doubtless have lived up to the pledge thus made and that would have put an end to all further division sentiment.  While some others were exceedingly radical none of them would have headed a movement for separation.  But there were mistakes on both sides.  There was too much excitement and too little diplomacy—too much zeal and not enough charity.  The Dunkard Church has always been sensitive and on this occasion this sensitiveness many have gotten the better of good judgement.  Still, when one carries matters so far as to break with the Conference of his church, it is hard telling what may happen.  But the worst came to pass.  Bro. Holsinger drifted from the church and many of his friends, some of them men of ability, went with him.  They gathered around him, organized, and now we have two churches where John 17th Chapter would indicate there should be but one.  Yea, we have three, possibly four, where one should answer every purpose, having one Lord, one faith and one baptism.  With him went a few thousand, in the course of a few years, possibly 5,000.  Some said that he left more friends in the church than he took out, and some of them remained lifelong friends.  They like the man, admired his splendid ability, believed he was honest and held sound views regarding our generally accepted New Testament fundamentals, but felt quite sure that he had made the mistake of his life in permitting himself to break with the church of his fathers.

As to how much good he accomplished, or how much harm he did, it is not proper that I should venture an opinion, but there are a few things certain.  He made quite a stir and commotion in the church while he was with us.  He put our people up to some most vigorous thinking and wakened them up all along the line.  There can be no question about but that he paved the way for the division, not intentionally, but as the natural results of his undiplomatic methods.  Speaking of him in the memorial issue of the  Brethren Evangelist for March 29, 1905, Bro. Howard Miller, editor of the Inglenook, a personal friend, and one who knew him at close range has this to say of Bro. Holsinger:  "It would be hard to find another person, or to name one, who has so marked the Brethren Church at large.  He was about forty years ahead of his surroundings.  He was not a scholarly man in the sense of schools.  He was a fighter.  If he thought a thing ought to be done his plan was to do it, and like all such people he generally got the worse of it.  He was nearly always in hot water in the church, and if he had his dues, as the world construes such things, he would have a monument for what he did. . .  Nor was Henry a good waiter.  He was too impulsive a Peter for that."

Six of the founding ministers of the Brethren Church. a.k.a. Ashland or Progressive Brethren [Click for larger image]Six of the founding ministers of the Brethren Church. a.k.a. Ashland or Progressive Brethren. (l-r back) Jonathan H. Swihart (1840-1923), Henry Ritz Holsinger (1833-1905), Edward Mason (1845-1888), Eli Lorenzo Yoder (1842-1913); (l-r front) Philip J. Brown (1827-1909), Stephen H. Bashor (1852-1922).
The photographer was Willis L. Edwards (1843-1885), a renowned photographer of Ashland County, Ohio.

After the organization of his church, the Brethren Church, he was held in high esteem, served in different capacities, sometimes as editor, and then as pastor.  Seeing the comparatively small number that left the mother church, he was doubtless a disappointed man.  On this point a year or two before I retired from the Messenger, I had quite a talk with one of his most enthusiastic comrades in the early movement of the division, S. H. Bashor.  Bro. Bashor now and then visited me in my office at Elgin, and during our last talk he said something like this: "On leaving the old church I was never so badly disappointed in my life on noticing how few went with us.  On throwing the gate wide open so that each one could dress as he or she pleased, we thought they would come by the thousands.  But they would not come, showing that dress did not cut much of a figure."  However, matters moved on and Bro. Holsinger's health grew worse.  He had not been a well man for years.  So in 1897 he went to California, where he with the help of Bro. J. W. Beer, his old time friend, wrote his History of the Tunkers and the Brethren Church, a well illustrated book of 826 pages.

After his separation from the church I met him several times during a period when age and ill health were telling on him.  On such occasions we talked of the past and about how things might have gone different.  He complimented me on the splendid progress the Church of the Brethren was making.  He spoke of our fine publishing house at Elgin.  He had been anxious that our house should print his book, and in the early part of 1902 wrote me a very nice letter, asking us to advertise it at any rate.  This letter I turned over to the General Mission Board for decision and reply.  In the last letter he wrote, a long one, he had much to say about the Messenger, how he enjoyed the first page, and then made several suggestions regarding the general make-up of the paper.  When he sent me a copy of his book I did not give it as full notice as might have been done.  The book contained some valuable information, but in it were some things decidedly overstressed and others that should have been forgotten.  He was naturally impulsive and did some writing while thus affected.

By and by, when growing weaker, he had a longing for his Pennsylvania environment and decided to go east.  On this trip I met him in the home of Dr. Peter Fahrney, Chicago.  Here we had our last talk.  We had known each other for nearly forty years and while we had in the years gone by differed, even sharply, in our paper policies, still we had both lived long enough to get far away from any feelings growing out of the incidents of church separation.  On Sunday, March 12, 1905, at Johnstown, Pa., he laid aside his earthly mantle, not quite seventy-two years old, and now over his grave there stands a suitable memorial block, and by his side rest the remains of Susanna, as devoted a wife as ever stood by the hymneal altar.

I have waited long, nearly fifty years, before writing this story.  I wanted to get as far away as possible from the exciting scenes of the division so that I could write with charity for all and malice towards none.  As is well known I, as an active editor, in charge of leading church papers, passed through the whole period of the exciting years.  I knew all the leaders on both sides, talked with many of them as the years went by and have seen practically all of them pass from the stage of activity.  And so far as I can recall this is the first time that the story of the divide, from the Conservative side, has been written up by one who went through it all.

Practically all the leaders of those unfortunate years have passed over, but the churches they left still stand apart.  Are they ever to get together again?  If so, how and when?  On this point I would like to write a whole chapter.  But this part of our story is already long, too long.  We can only pause to say that putting two churches together, and making one out of them, is no child's play.  People can drift apart much easier than they can be won back to their former love for each other.  Only wise and level heads can be entrusted with this reunion affair, and it may require years to bring about results.  What we are here saying ought to serve as more than a hint to those who are so anxious to pull away from the mother church and establish something just a little different.  However, we have this unfortunate situation.  The door of each church is standing wide open for the members of the other one to enter.  It may be only a question as to which door we should all enter and become one in Christ Jesus.


Source:John Henry Moore (Elder), Some Brethren Pathfinders, (Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Publishing House, 1929), pp. 324-341.
Image Credits:© 2009, A. Wayne Webb
Copyright:© 2009, A. Wayne Webb