A SERIES OF BIOGRAPHIC VIGNETTES ON THE TWENTY-TWO SUBSCRIBERS, WHO ARE SOMETIMES REFERRED TO AS “THE FOUNDERS” OF THE CHURCH.
No. 1 JOHN BININGER (1757-c.1823)
The story of the Bininger family is full of romance, missionary adventure and Christian devotion.
John Bininger was the son of Rev. Abraham Bininger (1720-1811) and his wife Martha Mariner. Abraham was raised in the Reformed Church in his native Switzerland, but emigrated with his parents to the new colony of Georgia in 1735. The family arrived there a few months before another boat brought a group of Moravians and two English clergymen, John and Charles Wesley. Like the Wesleys, Abraham was brought to a spiritual awakening through the ministry of the Moravian preacher Peter Bohler, who visited their settlement. Still a teenager, he also worked with George Whitefield, helping to build his new orphanage in Savannah. Thus Abraham Bininger was touched by the “stars” of the Evangelical Awakening. His journal and autobiography (in German) are in the Moravian Church Archives in Bethlehem, Penna.
In time, Abraham was ordained in the Moravian Church, serving as a missionary at different times to blacks, Indians, and German immigrants in the Pennsylvania area. In 1756, with his wife and four children, he travelled to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, which was then a Danish colony, forty miles east of Puerto Rico. When told that “none but slaves can preach to slaves,” he petitioned the Governor of the colony, offering to become a slave in order to save the souls of the black race. The letter was forwarded to the King of Denmark who, as a mark of his appreciation of such devotion, gave permission to Abraham to preach to whom he would. The King’s letter was treasured by the Bininger family for generations. While there, their fifth child, John, was born on 23 September 1757.
By the mid-1760s, Abraham was the pastor of the Moravian Church in New York City. There he met and formed a strong friendship with the German-Irish immigrant, Philip Embury, who had formed the first Methodist Society in America in 1766. Two years later, when Embury proposed building a Methodist preaching-house there, among the subscribers was “A. Bininger … £1.” Still later, Bininger became a partner with Embury, Paul Heck, Jacob Dulmage, Edward Carscallen, Valentine Detlor and others, who leased land in the Camden valley in upper New York state near the Vermont border, intending to introduce and promote the manufacture of linen and hemp. But Philip Embury died in 1773. “Father Bininger” as he was affectionately known, preached the funeral sermon, and laid his body in a plot in the Bininger cemetery (see illustration).
This, then, was the heritage of John Bininger, our subject. He was still a teenager when the American Revolution broke out. Father Abraham had no heart for taking sides, but his family was split. His youngest son, Isaac, joined the Continental Army; John went north and served the British. The U.E. List shows that John was an “Issuer of Provisions and afterwards clerk in Commissary Dept.”, a noncombattant role. When his brother Isaac was captured and taken to Canada as a prisoner, John obtained his release to return to the family farm in Camden.
After the peace, John settled in Adolphustown. In early January, 1790, he married Phoebe Van Varus, and worked as a book-keeper in Kingston. Following his father’s example, he took on the role of teacher to the Mohawks of Tyendinaga, moving there on 13 Nov. 1791. The position was funded by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, in England. The Rev. John Stuart of Kingston, wrote: “I have engaged a Schoolmaster for them at £30 per Ann. which the Society allows me to promise. If this person does not answer the Purpose, I despair of ever finding one. He seems to have every Qualification that can be desired or expected.” (Was it from this salary that he pledged £1 to the Hay Bay Church that year?) In a letter to his father, dated 18 Sept. 1792, John stated it simply, “being at Kingston, I heard as it were accidently, that the Rev. Mr. John Stuart wanted, on behalf of the society in England, to hire a teacher for the Mohawks up this bay, accordingly, I made an offer of my services.”
Several extant letters indicate a constant communication between John and his father in Camden valley. Abraham certainly kept in touch with many people. He names David Zeisberger, the legendary missionary to the Indians, “my very dear friend Count Zinzendorf,” and Methodist preachers Freeborn Garrettson, William Losee and Darius Dunham. He also sent his son a constant flow of food such as cheese, smoked meat, apple seed, tea, a young heifer, etc. He also sent spiritual books including “my best treasure, the Daily Word and Doctrinal Texts, for the year 1792.” Indeed, Biningers farm in Camden seems to have been a stopping-off place for preachers travelling to Canada. They carried many letters back and forth, and Abraham often added, “Don forget to remember my love and regards to Mr. Dunon [Dunham] and Mr. Loese.” When Losee had his emotional breakdown and withdrew from his missionary work in the province, Abraham commented (2 Aug. 1794): “I heartily pity Mr. Losee for withdrawing his hand, he is now to be treated with patience and tenderness. I have sent last part of a discourse which I translated from the [Moravian] brethrens’ writing. I did it chiefly on account of Mr. Losee, if you think proper, send him a copy with a tender greet from me.”
John Bininger later moved to Thurlow township, near Belleville, where there was a colony of Methodists. We have little information on his latter days, nor do we know the date of his death, which was about 1823. It is believed he died on a visit back in Camden, and that he is buried there.
Sources: Lapp, Eula Carscallen: To Their Heirs Forever, Belleville, Mika, 1974. Plumpton, Mary G.: The Rambling River, A History of Thurlow Township, Belleville, 1967. Canniff, William: The Settlement of Upper Canada, with Special Reference to the Bay Quinte, Toronto, 1869. Wilson, Richard: “The Moravians of Camden Valley,” unpublished typescript, n.d., pp.19. Pine: “Abraham Bininger” in New York Genealogical & Biographical Record, XXXIII, pp. 135-137.