The first church in modern Perkasie was demolished about 100 years ago, but parts of the historic South Perkasie building could still be with us today.
If you drive up Main Street in South Perkasie just north of the The Perk, you’ll see a cemetery at the corner of East Market Street and Main. The cemetery is still used and it contains the some of the older gravesites in the Borough. That’s because a small church sat on the property from 1866 until 1917. The Bridgetown Evangelical Church predated Saint Andrew’s Union Church in South Perkasie by about a year.
Two decades later, bigger churches were built in the center of Perkasie in the 1880s. But the Evangelical Church played an important role in community life until its owner, the Evangelical Association, closed its doors and sold it for $106 at a public auction in April 1916.
How could the original meeting house for an important local religious group be closed and scrapped within 40 years? Part of the answer is related to church politics, and another has to do with economics.
Today, the Evangelical Church is a long-forgotten religious group that had its foundations in the teachings of Jacob Albright. The group’s remnants are part of today’s larger United Methodist Church. Locally, the two prominent reminders of the church’s influence are the Perkasie Park and Highland Park camp meeting grounds – both of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Albright had about 300 followers in his congregation when he died at the age of 49 in 1808. A former Revolutionary War soldier, Albright wanted to bring Methodism to his fellow German speakers. The Methodist Church, however, only allowed preaching in English, and Albright established his own following – with the Methodist Church’s blessing. Albright’s first meeting of his “itinerant preachers” in 1800 was “on the Ridge, three miles east of Quakertown, Bucks county, and consisted of Charles Bissey and wife, and Peter Walter with his wife and family,” according to church records.
By the 1850s, most of the Evangelical Association’s members were in the Reading, Lehigh Valley and central Pennsylvania regions until the Civil War. There was a renewed interest in the group in the Perkasie area after the war when a meeting was held at Three Mile Run in 1865, and the church members picked Bridgetown (today known as South Perkasie) as the site of its first local meeting house.
In 1866, the meeting house was built on the South Perkasie cemetery’s current location. The church’s front was parallel to the current Main Street. (A wooden-framed annex was added in 1894.) At the same time, the Evangelical Association’s popularity was fueled by a popular interest in religious camp meetings. The first big meetings were held in 1869 on Tunnel Hill (the current Pennridge Airport location) and then permanently at Perkasie Park and Highland Park.
The Evangelical Church and Saint Andrew’s Union Church were social centers in Bridgetown, with some pastors preaching at both sites in English and German.
By 1886, the Evangelical Association became so popular that it built a second church in the center of Perkasie, Bethel Evangelical. The two churches shared pastors at that point, and a division within the church resulted in the creation of a breakaway group, the United Evangelical church, in 1891, which drew members away from the Bridgetown church.
By 1916, the South Perkasie meeting house was underused. In March 1916, its trustees gave permission for the church building to be sold at auction on Easter Monday. Lyman Werst, a local plumber and contractor (and congregation member), paid $106 for the building. A few months later, the church’s last pastor, the Rev. N.L. Bechtel, wrote a brief history of “Perkasie’s First Church” for the Perkasie News Herald. “It was the first church in the community. Others followed. It was the first church to have evening preaching,” he said. The newspaper also said the church building was to be torn down, and not moved.
So what happened to the church? It’s possible that parts of the church are still in Perkasie, in a house and business that Werst built a year later. The newspaper records show that Werst demolished the church in March 1917, a month after he announced plans to erect a house and business for his plumbing company at the corner of Fifth Street and Walnut Street in the center of Perkasie. On August 1, the new L.W. Werst Plumbing business opened at 416 Walnut Street.
Most likely, Werst used the building materials from the church for his home and business. In 2018 dollars, Werst paid about $2,400 for the church building, which undoubtedly had higher-quality wooden interiors. Lyman Werst was also interred at the South Perkasie Evangelical Cemetery after his passing in 1965.