The Historian - The story of the Rev. Doctor Benjamin Schneider: Part II

I recall a theory that the British Empire was able to straddle the world in the Victorian era because the ruling class pulled their young boys from the bosom of the family at a very tender age and sent them, weeping, to Draconian boarding schools. Because of this early break from the family, they never became very attached to home and so were free to colonize the world.

True or not, Benjamin Schneider, the missionary from Swamp (New Hanover) Reformed Church, whose story we began last week, was sent away to school at the age of “four or five.” He never returned, but became deeply pious, an ordained Presbyterian Minister, and devoted his life to missionary work in Turkey, Asia Minor and Syria where he became the Bishop of a community of protestant churches, which he founded.

Henry S. Dotterer (in Historical Notes Relating to the Pennsylvania Reformed Church V.1 Number 6. Oct. 10, 1899) relates an anecdote about Schneider’s conversion while he was a teenager at the Academy in Norristown. In later life, writing to Rev. James C. How, the principal of the Academy, Schneider relates: “Permit me to allude to a slight circumstance which, I believe I never mentioned to you before. Perhaps you will remember that, while at Norristown on a Sabbath afternoon, after the close of Sunday School, you had a religious conversation with me in Mr. Hamill’s piazza. My mind was then exercised on the subject of religion. But there was no definiteness about my feelings. I had no full, determined purpose to seek the salvation of my soul. That interview was blessed to me. In reflecting upon it I have often thought that half hour was the awful crisis — the turning point — the pivot upon which hung my everlasting destiny... It has often seemed to me that if nothing had been said to me at that time, I might have been lost forever... I delight to reflect on the time I spent in Norristown. It formed a new and most important era in my life. There, I hope, I found an interest in the Savior.”

“Mr. Schneider was ordained in 1833, and united with the Presbyterian church. He was sent as a missionary by the American Board of Foreign Missions. In 1842 he was transferred to the German Reformed Church, and for some years was supported by it in the foreign field.”

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There exist five letters, which Schneider wrote to his father, Henry, in Swamp, New Hanover. One was sent after his wife Eliza (Eliza Cheney Abbott from Framingham, Massachusetts) had returned to Turkey from visiting Swamp (perhaps for the first time) with their five children, and she must have brought stories and information about Falkner Swamp home to Benjamin.

The minister at Falkner Swamp Reformed at this time was Nicholas Hoffman. It was a dark time for that church. He was brought under censure from the synod (the church governing body); under his leadership, the congregation were persuaded to leave the church organization and become independent.

What exactly his offenses were we have yet to learn, but they must have been significant as Benjamin writes to his father: “Killis, Sept. 16, 1853: My dear Father, I am very glad you have a Sabbath School, at last [which answers the question of when Sunday School started at Falkner Swamp Reformed]. I rejoice too that the eyes of you all have been opened to see the character of your minister Hoffman. I have long since felt persuaded that he was not a good man, and I mourned that you and my brother should defend him. I do not believe that he knows anything of a change of head, and I regard him as altogether unfit to be a preacher. How can a man of his character labor for the good of his people? I do hope that you and William will use all of your influence, whatever it may be, to have him removed and to get a good, truly pious man into his place as soon as possible. He ought not to preach a day longer, unless he become a changed man. I cannot but hope and believe, that Providence will soon give you a preacher, who will faithfully break with you the bread of life. As soon as you do get a good preacher I hope you will let me know it. I am deeply interested in anything pertaining to the spiritual and religious condition of your congregation. I am rejoiced to find that the Lutheran Minister, Mr. Yeager, is so good of a man as he seems to be. I hope you will all profit from his preaching, and thus you will never fail of attending it, all of you...”

“I was glad to learn from my wife that you seem to enjoy so much good health in your old age. But, dear father, you cannot expect to remain much longer in thy world. The time of your departure must soon come. A few more years at most and you will have done with the --?-- of time. O! how important that you be ready, and ready every hour. I do hope that you are thinking daily, and preparing daily for this eternal world to which you are hastening.”

His father, Henry Schneider, lived for another 20 years and died in 1872 at age 90.

The next minister at Falkner Swamp after Hoffman was Robert VanCourt. After a few years, he ignored his pastoral duties and started a cigar retailing company. His product was touted as “health cigars.” His pastoral duties were soon terminated.

Next week: the trials of a missionary

The Historian is produced by the New Hanover Historical Society. Call Robert Wood at 610-326-4165 with comments.