"Elder John H. Umstad was a fisherman, and a man I should like to have known. He was an eccentric and entirely lovable man.
He was born on New Year's day, 1802, in Philadelphia. His parents moved to Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, when he was nine, and he lived there for the rest of his life. They were not members of a church, so he never received much religious instruction. It is said in later years that he was naturally religious, but if so, that quality did not show itself for some years. He was a very lively young man. The following story is told:
John Umstad in his early days possessed a vivacity bordering on wildness......His father owned another farm beyond the Perkiomen Creek. The barn was old and did not appeal at all favorably to John. One day it took fire and was well up in flames when John arrived on horseback. Putting the spurs to his horse he galloped at high speed round and round the barn swinging his cap in the air, and shouting "Now, we'll have a new barn, now, we'll have a new barn!"
In the 1830s there was a religious awakening in the community, and in 1831 John's sister, Isabella Fitzwater, joined the Brethren. John made fun of her until later that year the revival touched him and the scoffer joined the scoffed. He apparently entered into his religion as heartily as his fun, gave up his fashionable clothes, and helped convert others. By 1834 they were ready to found a church in that neighborhood, and Brother Umstad and Isaac Price were elected to the ministry. The church was called Green Tree, and they each served it until death.
He retained his lively disposition throughout his life and was known everywhere to be very cheerful, a good talker, and an enjoyable companion. He was thoroughly uninhibited and said whatever came into his head. When he met young people, he would say unceremoniously, 'Well, does thee love Jesus?'.
I saw Bro. Umsted (sic) hasting toward me, and he surprised me by his sudden unexpected approach. He greeted me with his countenance gleaming with the sunshine of heavenly love, and poured out the effusions of his heart in these memorable words. 'Hold fast that which thou hast, let no man take thy crown.' Then in a whisper he added: 'It's a noble calling,' meaning the ministry.
This most unorthodox greeting only endeared him more to Brother Zollers.
Elder Umstad was a good preacher. The Brethren always enjoyed his lively oratory. One writer notes with a touch of dry humor: Bro. Umstad developed into a speaker of excellent ability, noted more however, for his earnestness, cheerfulness, and winning ways than for his depth of thought and logic.
This same remarks: His preaching did not cover a broad field. He preferred to limit his lines of thought and do good work. This led to his having a number of favorite texts and themes that he used quite frequently.
His brethren must have fondly indulged his peculiar ways and enjoyed his sermons the way one looks forward to a good story that an old uncle tells repeatedly yet always to the satisfaction of his nephew and nieces.
Elder Umstad was a good businessman and farmer and active in his community. He was well enough off to be free to do considerable church work and often traveled among the churches. His preaching had marked effect.
He believed God to be a loving Father, and he presented him as such to his hearers. His appeals to the sinner were almost irresistible. He told them what the Gospel demanded of them, pointed out the danger of rejecting the easy terms of pardon, then presented his earnest appeals in such a pleasing manner as to almost captivate those who listened to his discourses.
He was an untiring fisher of men.
But he also liked to take fish from the water. There is a story about that: He was appointed to preach at the Green Tree church on a week day. Early that morning he went to the river to fish. He so loved fishing that he took no notice of the passing time and fished well into the evening. Then he remembered his appointment to preach. He hurried to the meetinghouse, where the congregation was waiting for their preacher, walked quickly down the aisle rubbing his hand, and entirely nonplussed announced his text, 'I go a-fishing' (John 21:3). He preached, it is said, one of his finest sermons.
When Elder Umstad did something, he never did it half way. He was thoroughgoing to a fault, and was particularly known for unlimited liberality. He took the New Testament instructions and did exactly as they directed.
On one occasion a poor woman came to his home begging. He gave her five dollars whereupon she went to the house. His wife then came to him and asked what she should give. Not saying anything about what he had done, he replied, 'Mother, just give her what you think is right.' He carried out to the letter the Savior's command that when one makes a feast he should not invite his rich friends but the poor who could not recompense him again. On a certain Thanksgiving Day, he invited all the poor of the neighborhood to his festive board. He became so liberal that interference was deemed necessary. Unprincipled people would take advantage of his goodness of heart by borrowing money and never repaying. One such one told him that he would never pay till he was sued. 'Very well,' replied Brother Umstad, 'then you will never pay.' The man was afterward converted and paid the money.
He served on Standing Committee three times during the 1840s and was loved and respected everywhere. H. R. Holsinger said of him: 'He was blunt and outspoken even to eccentricity, but these qualities were but a spice to his exuberant honesty and kindness of heart.'
He was a memorable character. The Brethren Almanac said of him in 1909:
Many of his apt remarks have come down to the present generation, and in the community where he lived he will be quoted for generations to come. He so impressed others with his originality, peculiarity, aptness, agreeableness and love for his Master that he will not soon be forgotten.
He died April 27, 1873. He is, I should like to think, now seated in heaven regaling God and his angels with his pithy sayings and glad heart."