Jacob Glessner and The Murderous Minister

Grave of Jacob Glessner, Berlin

I had never been in Berlin, Pennsylvania before. Entering town, I turned onto Main Street and soon turned onto Fifth Avenue. A short drive along the roadway allowed me to see the plot of old stones on the right side of the road at the corner of Fifth Avenue and North Street.

It was immediately obvious that parking was non-existent, so I pulled to the edge of the Reformed Church Cemetery and put on the hazard lights. Stepping out of the vehicle I scanned the old stones that marked the graves of early settlers on this sacred plot of land. Though I did not know the exact spot where the gentleman I was looking for was buried, the cemetery was small enough that I could easily walk it.

I knew his grave was most likely marked with a flag. With this in mind, I carefully wandered from stone to stone pausing to read the information chiseled into the ancient memorials.

I found the small stone I was searching for and noted a plaque set into the ground in front of it. The memorial marked the grave of Jacob Glessner, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, who served with the Bedford Militia. Glessner was a respected member of the community and was one of the founding members of the German Reformed Church in Berlin.

The congregation was initially a part of a series of churches that was ministered to by circuit riding preachers. The Berlin congregation was organized in 1777.  That same year it was decided to erect a building that would serve both the German Reformed and Lutheran congregations. It would not be until 1782 that the congregation was appointed a regular pastor, Reverend John William Weber.

It would be the second pastor, Reverend Cyriacus Spangenberg, that almost destroyed the congregation and the German Reformed Church on the Pennsylvania frontier.

Spangenberg’s early history is murky. He was born in Prussia and came the American colonies to fight in the Revolution as a Hessian soldier. At the end of the war he decided that he should preach to those on the frontier. This desire was approved and promoted by his uncle, Reverend Samuel Dubendorf, who was a pastor for the German Reformed Church. Spangenberg had applied to be a pastor for the German Reformed Church and had been denied by the council during the 1783 and 1784 meetings in Philadelphia.

Despite being denied, Spangenberg found a pastor who was willing to ordain him. The preacher who ordained him was Philip J. Michael, whose own status within the Grtman Reformed Church had been questioned by many of his fellow ministers. After his questionable ordination, Spangenberg began ministering in the Selinsgrove region. Here he preached at Row’s, Mahantango, and Middle Creek, among other churches in the region. Note: From everything I can gather, Spangenberg was not the lead pastor of this circuit. It is listed in a couple sources that he was helping his uncle Reverend Samuel Dubendorf with the charges on his circuit.

Spangenberg presented himself to the Selinsgrove congregations as being a single man and soon was engaged to a local lady. A date was set, but mere days before the wedding, a servant cleaning his house found a letter written to him by his wife, who was living in Prussia.

The shock of this revelation angered the congregations and Spangenberg fled the region.

Exactly where he pastored the next couple years is not known, but by 1793, he was preaching in the Berlin region.

Note: There are some major discrepancies about how Spangenberg came to be in Berlin. Some places state he had briefly preached in the McConnellsburg region, but I cannot find mention of this in the available records of the German Reformed Church. If – and where – he pastored between Selinsgrove and Berlin is not known.

Most versions of the story state Spangenberg had first arrived in Berlin as a circuit riding minister who stayed to replace the former minister. However, there are a couple places that mention the possibility that Spangenberg was appointed to the congregation by the German Reformed Church to replace the previous minister.

Many state that Spangenberg had only pastored in Berlin a short time before the confrontation with Jacob Glessner. Records of the German Reformed Church state Spangenberg had been appointed to the congregation in 1788.

Spangenberg was noted as an excellent orator, but was very controversial. In the time at Berlin, he managed to divide the congregation – either they liked him or – like the majority of the congregation – hated him. Note: I have not found the reason that seperated the congregation and Spangenberg. The most common belief was the congregation was aware of the situation that caused Spangenberg to flee Selinsgrove.

Finally, a meeting was called to decide the future of the congregation and the fate of Spangenberg. From the start of the meeting, tempers flared between those who wanted Spangenberg gone and the handful of people who defended him. Finally Jacob Glessner, an elder in the church, stood up to speak against Spagenberg. By the time he had finished speaking, he had persuaded the congregation that Spagenberg should not – and would not – continue preaching at their church.

As Glessner spoke, Spangenberg’s temper took control. When Glessner finished speaking, Spangenberg drew a knife and lunged at the Elder, plunging it into Glessner’s chest. Glessner staggered forward and collapsed at the altar. In the chaos, Spangenberg managed to slip out of the building, but would soon be captured.

Spagenberg was taken to the jail in Bedford and on April 27, 1795 was tried for the murder of Jacob Glessner. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. On October 10, 1795, Spangenberg took his final wagon ride to the gallows – sitting in the back of the wagon on which he rode was the coffin that would soon hold his body.

My mind was brought back to the present with the distant sound of thunder. I finished paying my respects to the veteran and early community leader who lost his life to Spangenberg’s anger before making my way back to the vehicle so I could continue my day’s journey.

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