In Indiana on Thanksgiving Day 1859, the Reverend John Fohl (grandfather of Lizzie Fohl) was delighted to perform the wedding ceremony of his good friend and colleague Reverend Milton Wright and bride Susan Koerner. Reverends Fohl and Wright were both ministers in the United Brethren Church, and Wright would go on to become a Bishop in the church and the leader of a breakaway faction seeking to stay true to the denomination’s founding ideals. Milton and Susan Wright were the parents of 7 children, two of whom were named Orville and Wilbur.
John Fohl had become a traveling minister for the United Brethren 23 years earlier at the age of 21 – the youngest of his colleagues. He was apparently very good at his work, as he quickly gained increasing levels of responsibility. His name pops up with some regularity in local histories. For example, in John Gibson’s History of York County, Pennsylvania, a mention of Fohl is made in the section on Fairview Township:
The old time fairs were held here, and according to the stories of old people, they were days of great hilarity. The love of gambling became a mania, especially at the “big hotel,” but Rev. John Fohl, an earnest evangelist of the United Brethren Church, quelled it in part by starting an enthusiastic revival in the ball room of the hotel. The whole community was aroused.
His itinerant work resulted in the founding of many congregations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. There are church buildings still standing that were constructed under his care, and where he preached.
The United Brethren Church was organized in 1800, and became the first Protestant denomination founded in the United States. The church split in 1889 during the aforementioned schism. The majority faction eventually merged with other denominations and ultimately became the “United” in the United Methodist Church. The minority faction led by Bishop Wright (and supported by John Fohl) maintained its independence and still exists today, primarily in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania although there are more churches scattered throughout the country and the world.
There is a booklet that advertises itself as an “autobiography” of John Fohl, but appears to be an edited work constructed from various of his writings. It takes as its premise that John is writing his memoirs in the year 1900, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the United Brethren Church. Amidst some pedantic details about his appointments to various circuits and ministries, Fohl’s autobiography relates some fascinating stories from his time as a 19th century traveling preacher. In one early encounter, he takes shelter for the night with an African-American couple only to have the woman’s father threaten his life, fearing that Fohl is actually a slave hunter looking for escapees from the South (like them). In another vignette, Fohl spends two years with a frontier community in Indiana. As he prepares to return to Pennsylvania, an inspired but impoverished grandmother desperately wants to give him something for the religious care he has provided for two years, but can think of nothing she has to offer except her cat. “She is very good cat,” the old woman proclaims, “of four colors.” Fohl rides off with the colorful cat in a sack.
One of the most entertaining stories is Fohl’s account of his marriage to Mary Radebaugh. Mary was among several people who in 1838 converted to the United Brethren at a revival meeting in Chambersburg, PA. John proposed marriage to her, but Mary’s Lutheran parents were horrified because of John’s religious affiliation. They forbade the match and sent Mary to another town to get her away from John. As fate would have it, John soon passed through this town on his travels in the company of another reverend, and he simply had his traveling companion perform the wedding, shrugging off the absent parents’ objections with the thought, “what God decrees it is hard for man to counteract.” The parents later sued the minister who performed the marriage, claiming in court that Mary was 2 months too young to legally commit herself to matrimony. The court levied a fine which Fohl paid to the parents. Meanwhile, of course, Mary reached the age of consent. Gossips initially spread the word that John Fohl had “stolen a wife,” afterward amended to “Mr. Radebaugh sold his daughter for $133, and he had better dispose of them all while the price is so high!”
John Fohl’s autobiography dated to 1900, 3 years before the Wright brothers made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk. He died a year later in 1901. However, the booklet does devote two sentences to the famous duo:
His [Milton Wright’s] sons Orville and Wilbur engage in the printing business and other mechanical interests. Their printing of conservative United Brethren pamphlets for their father and others continues to earn them recognition in heaven and on earth.
Yes, that is how we remember Orville and Wilbur Wright, as printers of religious materials. It is good they spent a little time on “other mechanical interests!”
Read the entire 33-page autobiography at this link: The Autobiography of John Fohl