John Winebrenner was born in Glade Valley near Frederick, Maryland on March 25, 1797, the third son of prosperous farmer Philip Winebrenner and his wife Eve Barrick Winebrenner. He was educated first at a country school near his home and then at Frederick before he matriculated at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania with the class of 1818. With the closure of the College in the fall of 1816, he travelled to Philadelphia to study theology under Reverend Dr. Samuel Helfenstein and was ordained in the German Reformed Church in September 1820.
Winebrenner began his ministry soon after, being appointed pastor of four churches in the Harrisburg area. His enthusiastic style, which included favor of revivals and outdoor services, tolerance for neighboring Methodist pastors, and vigorous preaching against theatres, balls, lotteries, gambling, horse racing and, above all, slavery, soon caused dissention within his congregation. By March 1823 he had been locked out of his church - the Stone Church in Shiremanstown - by his own flock and had become estranged from his Synod. In September 1828 he was removed from the Reformed Church.
He continued to preach, however, and by October 1830 had founded his own conservative evangelical denomination he called the "Church of God." Around six feet tall and an impressive orator, his sect grew in the Harrisburg area. He also became very active in the anti-slavery movement and aided in forming the first Anti-Slavery Society of Harrisburg in January 1836, represented it at the State Convention, and later served as its Corresponding Secretary. Meanwhile, the first "Eldership" of his new sect - known at the time as Winebrennarians - had been joined by others in Ohio and western Pennsylvania and these were combined in a "General Eldership of the Chuches of God" in 1844.
Before his death, Winebrenner saw the denomination grow to fourteen elderships and in 1880, it numbered four hundred pastors working in sixteen states. Later, the chuch moved its headquarters to Findlay, Ohio, where it sponsors Findlay University and since 1947, the Winebrenner Theological Seminary. In 1975 the General Eldership became known as the Churches of God, General Conference. The Conference supports mission ministries in the United States and abroad and numbered around 31,000 members in 2000.
John Winebrenner married twice. He and Charlotte M. Reutter of Harrisburg married in 1820 and had one surviving daughter. Charlotte died in 1832, and in 1837 Winebrenner married Mary H. Mitchell, also of Harrisburg. They had three sons and another daughter. In 1859, Winebrenner suffered from cholera and never fully recovered. John Winebrenner died at home in Harrisburg on September 11, 1860.