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Sunday 7:45 & 10:15 am Worship
Communion is first and third Sundays

Sunday School is 9 am Sundays

Bible Class: Sundays at 9 am
and 1st and 3rd Wednesdays of the month at 7 am

St. John Ev. Lutheran Church
437 Turner St.
Wrightstown, WI 54180

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920-532-4865

History


LIVING IN GOD’S GRACE: A HISTORY OF ST. JOHN EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH

 

 

The Beginnings

The First Church

A New Church is Built

A Mature Congregation

The Christian Day School

A New Era




The Beginnings

 

The beginnings of St. John Evangelical Lutheran congregation can be traced to 1869.  In that year the Reverend E.G. Reim of Green Bay came to Wrightstown to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments to Christians of the evangelical Lutheran faith.  Pastor Reim encouraged the local Lutherans to organize and found a congregation, and his mission found a quick response.

The first constitution of the Evangelich-Lutherischen St. Johannes Gemeinde was prepared and signed on May 4, 1869.  Unfortunately the list of the original signers is missing from the church records. In a short history published in 1944 to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the congregation the “older members” of the church remembered eighteen men who had signed the 1869 constitution:

 

  • John Gabler
  • August Kuehn
  • Wilhelm Krueger
  • Ferdinand Maass
  • Carl Mueller
  • Rudolph Pflueger
  • Ferdinand Reschke
  • Wilhelm Ristow
  • Nicolas Schmidt
  • August Schroeder
  • Carl Schroeder
  • August Tetzlaff
  • John Tetzlaff
  • Fredrick Werner
  • William Zimmerman
  • Christian Zittlow
  • Franz Zittlow
  • Gottfried Zittlow

 

Who were these founders of St. John congregation?  Why did the preaching of Pastor Reim find such an immediate response?  Early church records and census data give some clues as to the origins and motivations of these people.

Already in colonial times Germans constituted the largest non-English speaking group of settlers in America.  In the nineteenth century the migration became a floodtide with most of the newcomers settling in the North Central states, including Wisconsin.  As early as the 1840s Germans from the southwestern German states chose Wisconsin as their destination.

In the 1850s and 1860s Germans from northwestern Germany joined the migration.  These people, by and large, settled in the southeastern and south central parts of the state.

Beginning in the 1860s but reaching a peak after 1880, German emigrants came from northeastern Germany, an area along the Baltic Sea, presently part of eastern Germany and Poland.  With land in the southern and south central parts of Wisconsin already occupied, they found their way to the northeastern part of the state and, in the case of the founders, to that part of the Fox River Valley that would become the village of Wrightstown.  They were undoubtedly attracted by the timbered areas and the climate which so closely resembled that of their former homeland.

Most of the founders were Baltic Germans who came from the Kingdom of Prussia. The world the founders were born into was changing, and for many residents of Prussia not for the better. The life of the average Prussian depended upon the dictates of the noble lords and ruling class who were in power during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much of the land was under the control of the Junkers, the landed gentry of Prussia’s eastern provinces.  The Junkers exercised nearly absolute power on their lands. Moreover, they were a powerful political force who dominated both state and society.

The plight of the peasants remained basically unchanged for hundreds of years.  Peasants were provided housing, small garden plots, a few animals, and a share of the surrounding fields in return for their labors. They fell into one of three economic categories: those who occupied enough land for their personal needs and supplied both horses and laborers to the landlord, those whose land was insufficient to sustain them and were compelled to provide manual service, and those without any land who served the manor lords directly and lived on his premises. Life was difficult for the peasants as they had no say in their destiny and were exploited by the nobles. Workers were required to work six days a week, basically from sunup to sundown.

Following the Napoleonic wars agrarian reforms were instituted in Prussia that provided greater freedoms to the peasants. Serfdom was abolished in 1811 and the peasants who had been under hereditary bondage to the estates were now free to move from village to village, choose their own trade, and marry a spouse of their choice.  However, tenants were still responsible for rent or labor services to the estates. To become free owners of their land, they had to cede part of the land to their masters – one-third in the case of hereditary holdings and one-half if they had no hereditary rights to the land. Many peasants were unable to survive after relinquishing part of their land and often were forced to sell the remaining land and become day laborers. Furthermore, landlords were not obligated to support peasants who were no longer in their servitude and could evict them at will.

In the rural countryside, everyone lived in small villages. These communities generally consisted of a large manor house, several barns and stables and often a flour mill or distillery.  A majority of the villages had one church with an adjoining cemetery.  Most had less than a hundred inhabitants living in a few dozen houses or households.  In some villages, homes simply lined both sides of the road. These communal villages not only provided protection for the residents but facilitated easy access to the fields that radiated outward from the village.  Villages were within walking distance of each other, no more than three or four miles apart.

Social activities centered around family, church, and community.  Prussian citizens worked, played, celebrated, and worshiped together. There is little evidence that they ever ventured very far from their villages.  Their daily activities were consumed by long hours of hard work.  Even children were required to work at an early age and after confirmation boys usually left their homesteads to work elsewhere. Houses were generally constructed of a framework of posts and beams that were filled in and plastered with a mixture of clay and straw.  Roofs were thatched with a thick layer of reeds and floors were packed clay.  Usually the house and barn were connected, with only a wall between them. Peasants’ homes were quite barren with few furnishings.

In the 1860s farmers encountered bad weather, crop failures, and falling commodity prices. Grain prices fell and potato blight caused widespread famine. Steep declines in grain prices, caused by imports of cheap cereals from America and Russia, and an accompanying drop in wool prices severely reduced farm revenue.  In short, life in Prussia during the 1860s was difficult, with little prospect that it would improve for the majority of inhabitants.  It was almost certainly this reality that caused St. John’s founders to consider immigrating to America.

Historians of immigration speak of “push” and “pull” factors—what pushed the immigrant from his or her native land, and what pulled them to America?  The declining economy and the increasing plight of farmers and farm workers tended to push Prussians out of Prussia.  Pulling them to America, and particularly to Wisconsin, were a variety of factors.  The climate and soil of Wisconsin resembled that of Prussia, and the principal crops grown—wheat, rye, and oats—were the same as grown in the old country.  Wisconsin was also attractive from an economic perspective: the state had no income tax, and land was sold at $1.25 per acre.  Furthermore, Wisconsin electoral law was very liberal toward immigrants—all that was required to vote were a six-month residency in the state and a declaration of intent to acquire citizenship.

Another reason for Prussian immigration to Wisconsin was that the state actively encouraged Pomeranians to come to the state.  In 1852, only four years after statehood, the legislature created a Board of Immigration.  The state printed pamphlets extolling the virtues of Wisconsin and distributed them throughout the German provinces and other European countries; an 1867 publication, Statistics, Exhibiting the History, Climate, and Productions of the State of Wisconsin, was translated into German, Norwegian, French, Dutch, Swedish, and Welsh.  In 1873 10,000 pamphlets were published each in German and Norwegian.  The Commissioner of Immigration, O.C. Johnson, procured “40,000 lithographic views of our beautiful State University” so that prospective immigrants would know “that the people of America have an appreciating sense of that higher life and development of the mind which is only reached through the refining influences of education.”

An especially effective “pull” factor were letters sent from earlier immigrants to friends and family back home. A passenger who mingled with immigrant travellers would ask one after the other why he had left the fatherland. Without exception each took from his pocket a letter from a brother, cousin, son, daughter, friend or acquaintance, and handing it to him said, “Read this.” Universally the writers declared they had no desire to give up the new for the sake of returning to the old.

So extensive was emigration from Germany to the United States in the 1860s that a regular “business” of immigration was created.  The port through which most Prussians passed was Bremen. On the days preceding the departure of a ship to America the streets of Bremen bustled with confusion. The town was not large and there were few inns. The merchants therefore erected a special lodging house for the emigrants. As a further assistance the municipal authorities maintained booths at the railroad station, the river dock and the market place, where lists of rooming houses were posted and peasants were given advice. Often 5,000 passengers arrived and disappeared in forty-eight hours. Their coming and going were handled with a dispatch that illustrates how businesslike the arrangements had become.

Not all of the founders of St. John congregation were Baltic Germans.  Two brothers, Gottfried and Joseph Schaeuble, came from the small town of St. Blasien, Baden, in southwestern Germany.  The brothers emigrated from Germany, sailing from Hamburg to New York City, where they landed on May 10, 1868.  They then hitchhiked across the country to Wisconsin, ultimately coming to Wrightstown to farm on property on what is now Fair Street.  The German dialect they spoke was somewhat different from that of their Baltic neighbors.  They probably had been raised Catholic but found only a handful of German Catholic families in the village.  Thus when they sought brides they looked at the daughters of the German Lutherans.  Gottfried married a widow with a young son, Marie Koehler Moehrke and Joseph married Caroline Zimmerman, the daughter of William Zimmerman, a prominent Wrightstown farmer.  As with many of the original founders, descendants of these two families continue to be active in St. John congregation yet today.

Much like other ethnic groups, Germans concentrated in settlements according to their home provinces and religious backgrounds.  The Baltic Germans who settled in the Fox River Valley were Lutheran and wanted to duplicate the religious and community life which they had left behind.  This meant the founding of churches, schools, and social organizations.

In organizing St. John congregation, the founders were mindful to create a specifically evangelical Lutheran church.  The first constitution called upon the members to adhere to all the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, to Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, and to the Smalcald Articles.  While no direct evidence exists, it is likely that the founders were part of a movement of “Old Lutherans” who refused to bow to the will of the Prussian Kaiser who united various Protestant churches under the Reformed banner.  The St. John congregation was and remains an evangelical Lutheran church body.


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The First Church

 

 

The founders immediately decided to build a church on land donated by Carl G. Mueller, and the church was dedicated on December 25, 1869.  Though relatively small, the white frame building surely represented one of the more stately buildings in the settlement.  It was located on the site of the present church on Turner Street.  The street itself takes its name from the presence of a

Turnverein that was built in 1874 by those same German immigrants at the corner of Turner and Clay Streets.  The Turnvereins were social and athletic clubs common to all German-American communities in the nineteenth century.

Until the new church was built the Lutherans of Wrightstown were served by pastors from Green Bay.  Now in 1870 the congregation sent its first call to the Reverend H.L. Haack, who had been serving the congregation, and built the first parsonage adjacent to the church.  Pastor Haack accepted the call and became the first Lutheran minister to live in Wrightstown.  He also had charge of Lutheran churches in De Pere and Woodville; he served these three congregations until 1873.

Other early pastors included Friedrich Schuh, 1873-1875; Karl Huebner, 1875-1876; Reinhold Pieper, 1876-1878; William Bergholz, 1878-1880; Christian Popp, 1881-1900; Frederick Schumann, 1900-1904; and Charles Auerswald, 1904-1910.

During the 1870s emigrants from Germany continued to swell the ranks of the fledgling congregation.  Letters to family and friends back home stimulated migration to the area.  Most of the immigrants were farmers who, through hard work by men and women alike, cleared the land, acquired livestock, and built homes and barns, often with the help of members of the congregation.

The church was not only a spiritual source of comfort for those German immigrants but also a social and cultural center.  Members traveled to church by horse and buggy in good weather or by bobsled during the winter months.  Hitching posts in front of the church can be seen in photographs of the first church.  All services were held in the German language.  Men sat on the left-hand side of the church with women and children seated on the right.  Church records indicate that church members were faithful in taking advantage of the Lord’s Supper, although the sacrament was held much less frequently than is currently the case, from two to four times per year.  The first recorded wedding in the new church took place on February 12, 1870 when August Wierschke married Louise Michael.

While members of the church prospered in the new land, they were not immune to hardships and suffering.  Before the advent of modern medicine, childbirth was very hazardous.  Church records indicate many deaths resulting from childbirth, and many husbands took second wives to care for their children.  Families were large because many hands were needed on the family farm and because infant mortality was high.  In 1879 and 1880 church records note that 34 children from the congregation died as the result of a diphtheria epidemic.  Franz and Pauline Zittlow lost six of their children to this epidemic, and the gravestones of these children can be seen in the church cemetery.  The only solace to be found by these families was the sure and certain hope in the resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come.

The congregation continued to grow.  In 1881 the Wrightstown church joined the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Wisconsin.  In 1882 the church purchased a lot adjoining the church from Franz Zittlow to add to church property.  In 1884 church members, with funds from the young people, purchased a church bell which was placed in the belfry and is still in use today.  A list of church members dated March 1, 1885 includes the names of 101 adult male members.


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A New Church is Built

 

 

At the turn of the twentieth century the congregation had outgrown the original frame church.  In 1906 a number of church members decided to establish a new congregation in Greenleaf, and Pastor Auerswald served both churches until the St. Paul congregation could call its own pastor.  During Pastor Auerswald’s ministry the congregation hired its first fulltime teacher for the parish school, permitting the pastor to spend more time on his ministerial duties.  The Ladies’ Aid Society also organized under Pastor Auerswald’s watch.

Despite the departure of members to St. Paul congregation, it became obvious to church members that a new and larger house of worship was needed.  On March 1, 1910 members decided to build a new church as soon as possible.  Before this work could be done, however, Pastor Auerswald left the congregation and Pastor F.C. Uetzmann was called to assume the pastorate.  Pastor Uetzmann would faithfully serve the congregation for almost thirty-five years.

With pastor Uetzmann’s arrival work on the new church began in earnest.  During the winter of 1910-1911 the old church was moved to the back of the church property to make room for the new building.  The congregation continued to hold services in the old church while the new church was being built.

Members of the congregation dug the basement for the new church.  John Rosin organized the project and used horses to assist in the digging.  The members then hauled stones

and sand for the foundation.  Plans for the new church were drawn up by the architect W. DeLong of Appleton and a contract of labor awarded to Gustav Fleck of De Pere, with the congregation providing the material.

The cornerstone for the new church was laid on May 28, 1911.  It was estimated that over 1,000 people attended the ceremony including Lutherans from Kaukauna, Greenleaf, Green Bay, Morrison, and Appleton.  Among the articles placed in a box contained in the cornerstone were a copy of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, a congregational song book, a history of the church

from it’s founding to the present, coins of different denominations, and copies of the Brown County Democrat and the Appleton Volksfreund (People’s Friend).

The new church was dedicated on February 11, 1912.  The congregation and many visitors from surrounding communities first met in the old church, then marched in procession to the new church “which was soon crowded to the doors.”  Collections taken during the three church services that day netted $250.60.  The new church was judged “one of the finest structures of any Lutheran congregation in this part of the state.”  Seating capacity of the new church was 450 persons.  The new house of worship cost approximately $18,000; $10,000 of this had already been paid when the church was dedicated, with the remainder paid for within three years.

Photographs showing the new church in relation to adjacent buildings in the area show that the Lutherans of Wrightstown had erected a handsome edifice dedicated to the worship of the Triune God who had helped them to prosper in the new land.

Not content with simply building a new church, members of the congregation then decided to build a new parsonage.  The contract was awarded to Charles Kussow, and the old parsonage was moved to a location across the highway from the new church.  The new parsonage was dedicated on November 22, 1914 and was completely paid for in two years.

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A Mature Congregation

 

 

In 1919 the congregation celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its founding.  To commemorate the event the members ordered a new pipe organ and planned to dedicate it at the anniversary service.  The organ did not arrive in time for the special anniversary service on December 28, 1919, but it was finally installed in the fall of 1920.  The total cost of the pipe organ was $3,320, paid for in two years time with the assistance of the Ladies’ Aid and Young People’s Societies.

To celebrate the golden jubilee the congregation published a history of St. John congregation.  The booklet was written in both German and English, demonstrating how the Baltic Germans were assimilating into the American culture.  In 1919 there were 120 voting members, each representing a family unit, and twenty women members consisting of widows and one single woman.  The Ladies’ Aid had fifty-six members, the Needle Work Club twelve members, and the Young People’s Society forty-one members.  The choir had twelve members.  Further data showed that between the years 1876 (the first year church records were kept) and 1919, pastors of St. John had baptized 932 souls, confirmed 679, married 213 couples, and buried 306.  Communion registrations numbered 19,105.

In the years between the two world wars, members of the congregation worked to maintain the property of the church with the Ladies’ Aid Society and Needle Work Club often taking the lead.  In 1923 the Ladies’ Aid purchased electric candelabras for the altar.  In 1924 the Needle Work Club had a tool shed built on cemetery property and the Ladies’ Aid saw to needed painting in the parsonage.

To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the congregation in 1929 the Ladies’ Aid donated $250 for an ornamental fence to be erected in front of the church cemetery and established a fund for upkeep of the cemetery.

In addition to these anniversaries the congregation enjoyed celebrating the festivals that mark the church year.  Mission Festival, first celebrated in September 1892, continued to be held each fall.  The occasion featured three services: a morning service, followed by a dinner and social prior to the afternoon service, and then an evening service.

The Christmas Eve service was the high point of the church year.  The church was beautifully decorated with a live tree donated by one of the members.  Lighted wax candles graced the tree, with water buckets strategically placed nearby to protect against fire.  Sunday School children marched in behind Pastor Uetzmann and sang a number of hymns.  Then the pastor asked each child to come up to the altar to say a piece or sing a song.  If the child forgot the lines, Pastor Uetzmann would act as a prompter.  Children were rewarded with bags of candy.

Many changes in custom occurred during these years.  By the early 1940s families began sitting together rather than being separated by gender.  Church services held in German became less frequent.  People continued to wear their best clothes for services with men wearing dark suits and ties and women wearing hats and gloves.  The casual attire of today would have been unthinkable to earlier generations of churchgoers.

On September 3, 1944 the congregation celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary with three services.  In recognition of its ethnic heritage the afternoon service was celebrated in German.  The congregation had 141 male voting members, twenty-nine women members and a total of 397 communicant members.  From 1869 to 1944, 1,220 baptisms were administered, 975 people confirmed, 302 couples married, and 460 burials held from the church.

The early 1940s were stress-filled years for members of St. John.  Many young men either volunteered or were drafted into the Armed Forces.  Although German services were still held, minutes of the voters’ meetings switched from German to English in 1933 and minutes of the Ladies’ Aid meetings switched in 1943.  The members had fully assimilated to the American culture and wholeheartedly supported the war effort.  There is no record of the number of members who served in the Armed Forces during World War Two.  Church records note that three sons of the congregation were killed in action in France in 1944: Pfc. Samuel E. Davis, 1st Lt. Carl L. Kottke, and Pvt. Clarence Vande Voort.

In 1944 Pastor Uetzmann, after thirty-four years as pastor at St. John, accepted a call to a small congregation near Ixonia, Wisconsin.  During Pastor Uetzmann’s pastorate he baptized 441 persons, confirmed 391, performed 118 marriages, and conducted 218 funerals.  He soon retired to spend his remaining days in Watertown, Wisconsin.

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The Christian Day School

 

 

Notified of Pastor Uetzmann’s departure the congregation issued a call to Pastor Gerhardt Struck who came to Wrightstown from Maribel, Wisconsin.  It was Pastor Struck who spearheaded the drive to re-establish a Christian Day School.

The first St. John school had been established in 1877.  This early school had the dual purpose of teaching spiritual values in accordance with Lutheran doctrine as well as preserving German language and culture.  As the immigrants and their children became more Americanized and the German heritage dimmed, however, the burden of providing secular education proved too great and children were sent to the public school.  This first Christian Day School closed in 1919.

Members of the congregation, however, regretted the demise of their parish school and recognized the need to provide more spiritual guidance for their children.  Pastor Struck made the case for a Christian Day School in two sermons entitled “The Case for a Christian Day School, What is It?” and “The Case against a Christian Day School, What is It?”  In response to his preaching a committee organized to determine support for a school.  A survey indicated that forty-eight children would attend the school, and the committee recommended that a Christian Day School be established.

On May 13, 1945 the congregation accepted the committee’s report and voted thirty-six to twelve to establish a Christian Day School.  The old German school re-opened on September 4, 1945 and was used until the new school opened in 1948.  The cornerstone for the new school on Clay Street was laid on August 4, 1947.  The new school was completed and dedicated on August 29, 1948.

In November 1950 Pastor Struck left to serve a congregation in Dowagiac, Michigan.  The next year Henry E. Pussehl accepted a call to serve as the new pastor.

As the centennial of St. John in 1969 approached, members began to discuss needed improvements and appointed an anniversary committee to suggest projects for the celebration of the congregation’s 100th anniversary.  The committee decided to add new carpeting, install new church pews, and redecorate the church.  The organ, purchased in 1919, was remodeled and rebuilt with the Ladies’ Aid Society providing chimes.  On June 7 and 14, 1970 the congregation celebrated its 100th

anniversary, praising God for the many blessings bestowed.

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A New Era

 

 

In 1975 Pastor Pussehl retired after twenty-four years of service to St. John.  A call was placed to Pastor Carl Klein who came to Wrightstown after serving congregations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Under Pastor Klein’s leadership the Sunday School was re-established.  Church activities increased dramatically and can be traced through changes in the church’s governance structure.  New committees—Evangelism, Stewardship, and Endowment—were formed, and the elders and trustees began to meet separately to oversee the direction of the congregation.

By the early 1980s the church structure had begun to show its age.  The roof leaked, the furnace often malfunctioned, and the basement had problems with moisture.  Furthermore the church lacked space for meetings and a proper office for the pastor.  On September 14, 1983 the voters met to decide whether to build a new church or renovate the existing structure.  After much discussion the members voted to renovate the historic landmark.

Between 1984 and 1986 new additions to the front and rear of the church were constructed.  On September 21, 1986 the church was rededicated to the worship of God. Members of the congregation could take pride in having preserved a community landmark while providing modern facilities for constantly expanding church activities.

In 1994 St. John celebrated its 125th anniversary.  Two new garages for the parsonage and teacherage were constructed.  The occasion was marked by two church services with two sons of the congregation, Pastor Paul Zittlow and Pastor Richard Schiebe, officiated.

In 1997 Pastor Klein retired after twenty-two years of service to St. John.  The congregation called Pastor Philip Wilde who came from serving a congregation in Florida.  Pastor Wilde resigned in 2000, and the church then called Pastor Ronald Zindler, who began his pastorate in 2001.  In 2008 Pastor Zindler accepted a call to serve two small WELS congregations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  The congregation then called Pastor Matthew Vik, who served from August of 2009 to August of 2015.  Pastor Vik accepted a call to serve a WELS congregation in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.  Later in 2015, St. John called Pastor Gehl, St. John’s current pastor.

In 2019 St. John will mark 150 years as an evangelical Lutheran congregation.  As the congregation looks forward to this milestone, members might wonder what the immigrant founders would think about the congregation they organized in 1869.  They would surely be surprised to learn that the German language and culture had almost died out among current members.  They would be pleased to see how the congregation has grown and prospered over the years with a handsome church edifice and a Christian Day School.

Just as the founders of St. John congregation faced many hardships in pioneering a new land, so today current members are faced with many challenges. One can hope that the members will keep the faith of their founders and continue to sustain their congregation in the years to come.

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