The preacher's homecoming


Ninety years after rural congregations first envisioned it, the statue of an itinerant preacher who founded the Methodist Church in America came home to Carroll County yesterday.

The 1 1/2 -ton granite replica shows Robert Strawbridge preaching, with a Bible clasped in one hand and the other raised toward the heavens. The life-size monument was placed atop a pedestal in front of the restored 18th- century log cabin where Strawbridge lived and led congregations in prayer more than 200 years ago.

"His face is so lifelike, and he is almost smiling," said the Rev. Charles Acker, curator of the Strawbridge Shrine near New Windsor, which draws about 2,000 visitors annually. "Now he will always be standing up there on a pedestal."

A plaque set into the granite pedestal says that Strawbridge "so ignited the flames of American Methodism that by 1773 half of the 1,160 members resided on his circuit," a route of meeting houses in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Robert and his wife, Elizabeth Piper Strawbridge, emigrated from Ireland about 1760 and settled into a two-story log cabin in Wakefield Valley near New Windsor.

Neighbors frequently helped Elizabeth Strawbridge with farming while her husband was off spreading the gospel. She is credited with converting the couple's landlord, John Evans, to Methodism. Evans' log cabin later became a meetinghouse and was recently moved to the shrine site and refurbished.

"Robert is going up today, but Elizabeth actually made the first convert, so we are hoping to add a statue of her, too," said Dorothy Shindle, treasurer of Strawbridge Shrine.

Strawbridge, who died in 1781, kept no journals and wrote nothing about himself. Although his sermons were reportedly powerful and life-changing, none survive.

Methodist congregations throughout the area started the memorial project in 1914, when they dedicated a pedestal at the original site of Evans' meetinghouse, about a mile from the shrine. That limestone block, engraved with a description of the Strawbridge family, still sits alone in a farm field and will be rededicated along with the Strawbridge homestead, a log cabin, the log meetinghouse and the statue June 6.

A donor recently contributed $20,000 to commission the statue.

"It has taken us a while," said Daniel D. Hartzler, president of the shrine.

Acker, Hartzler and Ken Steward, an actor who frequently portrays Strawbridge and whose chiseled features were the model for the statue, dressed in Colonial garb for the event yesterday.

While Acker and Hartzler donned the tricorn hats of prosperous farmers, Steward, who has made Robert Strawbridge a "history alive" character for 20 years, went for the tattered look. His scuffed and resoled black buckled shoes, stockings with runs and holes, white vest with a missing button and a ragged, faded charcoal coat with patches at the elbows would befit a poor preacher, he said.

The three men assisted three employees of Babylon Vault Co., who were more experienced and more adept in erecting monuments. It took a crane from the vault company and all six men to lift the 8-foot-high statue, which had been lying on the ground since it was delivered a few weeks ago. With a sturdy belt wrapped several times around its middle, the statue was hooked to the crane. Maneuvering the hefty monument onto a pin embedded in the pedestal proved an arduous task.

"I think Robert wants to stay on the ground," said Acker as the crew struggled to lift the statue. "Or maybe it's because the Babylon people are more used to lowering people than they are to raising them up."

While Hartzler, atop the pedestal, hugged the statue and Acker stretched his own frame from ground level to hold its base, Steward helped steady it. The Babylon workers shifted and repositioned the monument several times.

Steward gave a few directions and mouthed silent prayers that there would be no mishaps. An accident during shipping broke off the fingers of the right hand.

"We have them all together and we will get them back on," said Hartzler.

After several attempts, the crew finally lowered the statue onto the pin protruding from the pedestal.

"That pin is enough to hold it in place for good," said Steve Koontz, crane operator. "It is like a monument on a gravestone."

With the image of the Irish evangelist in place, Hartzler asked Steward "to give us a prayer in Robert's brogue."

Steward climbed a ladder to the statue, stood next to it and gave his best rendition. With his long white hair blowing in a gentle breeze, the actor wrapped his right arm around Strawbridge's stone shoulders and exclaimed his gratitude.

"Thank you for our brother here and for his dear wife," Steward prayed. "We are not stone. We are living. Send us forth to share. Amen and amen."

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