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Erie County (PA) Genealogy

City of Erie - St John's Lutheran Church History - Chapter 1

Contributed by Bill Klauk

The information below has been scanned and edited from a book titled "...History of... St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church ---at--- Erie, Pa. A.D. 1808 -- A.D. 1908 --- In remembrance of its Centennial August 16--21st, 1908" by the pastor Rev. Gustave A. Benze, A. M.

The scanning, editing, and any digital photography is being done by Bill Klauk; however, Bill Klauk has no association with this church, or with this religion, so he would not be able to answer any questions concerning this work.

Click here to return to Table of Contents. Chapter 1 is presented below.


First Beginnings -- A. D. 1808 to A. D. 1835.

The beginning of the Lutheran Church of Erie, and therefore of St. John's Church, which is the mother-church of the Lutheran congregations of this city, dates back nearly to the founding of the town itself. The first settlement in Erie County was made in the year 1795. Among the settlers of the next five years we find the Pennsylvania-Germans; but it was not until 1801-1805 that these came in greater numbers. About this time some of the well-known Pennsylvania-German families settled on the present site of Erie and its vicinity. Among them we find the Riblets; the Wageners; Ebersoles; Browns; Stoughs; Langs; Zimmermans; Kreiders; names that are all intimately connected with the history of St. John's Church. Most of these settlers came from the eastern counties in this state. Pennsylvania-Germans came in still greater numbers about 1825 - 1835, while the German immigration from the old country did not find its way to Erie in any considerable numbers until the thirties and forties.

The first Pennsylvania-German settlers of Erie County, who in all probability originally came from the Palatinate, Germany, had settled in eastern Pennsylvania for a century or more, and had been closely connected with the first beginnings of the Lutheran Church in America under Muehlenberg. They came from congregations which were already well organized and provided with pastors, and which belonged to the old Ministerium of Pennsylvania. They brought with them to their new home their Lutheran faith, their German Bible, their Hymn Books, copies of which can occasionally still be found. It was therefore quite natural for them, as soon as they were settled, to long for the Lutheran service, such as they were accustomed to in the old home.

It would take us utterly beyond the scope of this modest little congregational history if we would attempt to describe the conditions which they found in Erie County, which had barely been opened for settlement. Everything was yet in its primitive state, scarcely a road blazed through the primeval forest, and only here and there was there a sign of human habitation. The more credit is due to these first settlers, that in their arduous struggle for bare existence they did not lose sight of the higher, spiritual interests. Although we read in a later sectarian history that these first German settlers were little concerned about their soul's salvation, it is not in accordance with the facts. On the contrary, hardly settled in Crawford County (to which the present Erie County then belonged) they sent a most beseeching letter to the Lutheran synod in Eastern Pennsylvania, graphically describing how deplorable it was "to do without sermon, baptism, catechetical instruction and the Lord's Supper, and earnestly begged for a pastor to visit them at least from time to time."

Who the first travelling missionary was, the first in the line of noble self-sacrificing men who helped to shape and mould the history of Lutheranism in northwestern Pennsylvania, who forged their way through .the wilderness of Erie County, is not fully established at the present time, but a certain Rev. Muckenhaupt, whose grave is to be found in the Meadville cemetery, seems to have been one of the first.

The first record-book of St. John's Church begun Sept. 1st, 1811, clearly shows that there was a congregation then in existence. (The fact, that in connection with the corner stone-laying of the first brick church, it is recorded that a history of the congregation from 1808 to 1861 was placed in the corner-stone, also helps to establish this contention.) It records as the first ministerial acts 24 baptisms which took place August 18, 19, A. D. 1808. Ministerial acts are recorded at regular intervals from this time on until the present day, and clearly prove the continuous existence of a congregation from that date. The assertion made in the "Erie County Illustrated", that the first Lutheran congregation ceased to exist after a short time and was not revived until 1835 is therefore erroneous and not in accordance with the historical facts. St. John's can without dispute lay claim to the proud title of "the oldest congregation in the city of Erie."

This first church record, referred to above, fails to give the name of the first missionary; but he probably came from Meadville, Crawford County, of which Erie County was then a part, as already mentioned. For many years to follow, Meadville remained the center of operation in the prosecution of Lutheran work in Erie County, as well as the residence place of the pastor.

In the same year (1808) a petition is presented from Crawford County (Erie included) to the Lutheran Synod in session at Lebanon, Pa.. Aug. 14-15, praying for a spiritual guide. As no pastor, willing to reside among them could be obtained at the time, the Synod decreed that one of the travelling missionaries should look after them. But who this travelling missionary was, is not a matter of record. But that Muckenhaupt was already then in that section of the state, is gleaned from the fact, that a certain Matthew Flach from Crawford County asked in 1811 for information concerning one Muckenhaupt who was than preaching in Crawford County and claimed to be an Evangelical Lutheran pastor.

At the same convention at Philadelphia, Pa. (June 11-12, 1811), Mr. Scriba, a travelling missionary was commissioned to labor in northwestern Pennsylvania for a period of three months. He received $30.00 as aid from the synod.

Again in the year 1812 a petition came from Crawford Co. to the Lutheran Ministerium in session at Carlyle, Pa. A resolution was passed, giving permission to anyone of its travelling missionaries to visit this field. But it seems that no one was able, or willing, to go, for another urgent petition for a pastor was presented to synod in the year 1813 from the congregation at "Meadville and Vicinity.'' Synod "deplored their sad condition and resolved to send a travelling missionary." Rev. Sackman from Loudon, Va., was chosen for the arduous task. He was to labor among them for a period of two months.

At the synodical meeting held at Easton, Pa., June 5-8, 1814, it was resolved to commission Candidate Rupert (provided he passed his examination) to visit the regions west of the Alleghenies, "as far as Erie." He was to receive aid from Synod to the amount of $40.00! He seems to have passed his examinations and to have undertaken the arduous task. His work must have been satisfactory, for in the following year these congregations petitioned Synod to send him as their resident pastor. But it was impossible for him to return at that time.

Front the reports sent to the Ministerium by Rev. Rupert, we learn that he travelled about among these congregations for four months, preached 38 times; baptized 197 children; confirmed 27 persons; gave communion to 117 persons and travelled 1,142 miles. He received $112.00 from the congregations, while his travelling expenses were only $11.03.

At the synodical meeting at Frederickstown, Maryland (1815), Rev. Carl W. Colsen, a very cultured man for his times, was sent to Crawford County, as far as Erie. He became a resident pastor (residing at Meadville, Pa.). and is the first to record his name as an officiating clergyman in the church records of St. John's. He did faithful work as a pastor among these scattered congregations. He is the first pastor to record the administration of the Lord's Supper (18th Sunday after Trinity, 1815). Eight persons, all told, received communion at this first communion-service, entered in the church records of St. John's. What a mighty tree has developed from this tiny mustard seed!

There was an increase noticed at the next communion (Oct. 27th, 1816), as he then records 12 as receiving communion. But this chosen vessel of the Lord succumbed after a short illness Dec. 28th, 1826 [sic]. His earthly remains were tenderly laid to rest in the beautiful Greendale Cemetery, of Meadville, Pa. The stone slab, covered with moss, bears the following inscription: "To the memory of Rev. Carl Wilhelm Colsen, Pastor of 4 German Lutheran congregations, born at Buchberg, in the province of Westphalia, who came 1810 with his family to America, and departed this life in the 46th year of his life, Dec. 29, 1816. Lovable in his relations with his fellow men, faithful in the service of his Lord and Saviour, he is mourned by many! Honored by strangers, mourned by strangers. "Des Gerechten wird nimmermehr vergessen." (The last in German.) He left a wife in such destitute circumstances that Rev. Timothy Alden, President of Allegheny College, appealed to the Ministerium for aid while also requesting another pastor for the Lutheran congregations.

This wish was fulfilled, and this time the call came to Father C. F. Heyer, then a young candidate of theology, who is so closely connected with the missionary history of our Lutheran Church in this country and our mission work in India. He was commissioned by the Lutheran Synod at session in York, Pa. (1817), to go to northwestern Pennsylvania, and he labored here until 1818.

Rev. C.F. Heyer (click on image for larger picture - use back button to return)

Pastor Rupert now (1819) returned to the scene of his former labors and looked after this field. He reports 44 baptisms; 32 confirmations; 153 communicants to Synod in 1821. How long he remained this time is not yet fully settled. The history of the congregation is again shrouded in darkness. Ministerial acts are recorded from time to time, but no mention is made of the officiating clergyman.

Rev. Heilig, who is supposed to have labored in Erie about 1832, is believed to have been the first resident Lutheran pastor in the city of Erie. The record shows that at Pentecost, 1829, 33 persons received communion and in 1832 we find the first record of confirmations. 13 persons were confirmed at Pentecost of that year. On Easter Sunday, 1833, 26 persons communed. It is significant for these years that the records are in English.

This now concludes the times of the first beginnings in the congregational history of St. John's. It shows, how difficult these first beginnings must have been, and yet how the good Lord cared for His own, and through the kindly efforts of the old Ministerium of Pennsylvania provided for these scattered Lutherans of northwestern Pennsylvania. May we never forget that we owe this debt of gratitude to the old Mother Synod.

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Change History: March 25, 2002. Original page posted, Chapter 1 only, with Rev. Heyer photo.

10/24/02 - This page became just Chapter 1 and is linked to the Table of Contents


This page was last updated on  Thursday, October 24, 2002 .

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