The History of First German Congregational Church

Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; All the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest. Isaiah 62:6

Blessed are those who dwell in thy house, ever singing thy praise! As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. Psalm 84:4,6

 

Building Committee

G. L. Henklemann, Pastor

Pastor A. Suffa

Lucas George

John Worster

Henry Schmall

Jacob Berkheim

George Stoehr

John Blum

Conrad Ernst

Henry Worster

David Strackbein

History

(As generally told at the 1920 Dedication)

The beginning of the church was like that of a mustard seed. In July, 1849, the work began in the United States at Sherville, Iowa.

The First German Evangelical Congregational Church of Lincoln dates back to 1888. The first immigrants who came to the city in March, 1888, from the German colonies on the selves into a religious association. Accordingly, a number of heads of families met on June 10,1888, in a room of the old Park School, where they had been accustomed to assemble for worship, and organized the First Free Evangelical Church upon a Congregational constitution. Dr. M. E. Everez, Supt. Of the German work of the churches of that fellowship, was present to advise in the work, together with Adam Traudt, a student of the Chicago Theological Seminary. Sixteen members joined in the organization.

The new Church purchased a lot, 234 West J Street, and erected a building 28.48 ft. with a Sunday School room 18.26 ft. The dedication took place the Sunday before Christmas of the same year.

During its existence, the church has had four pastors, not including the student who sacrificed a year of his theological study to serve the church: Rev. John Lich (1889-1898 and 1902-1906), Rev. E. R. Osthoff (1895-1900), Rev. G. L. Henklemann (1900-1902 and 1910-1920), and Rev. B. R. Baumann (1907-1910). In 32 years there were 1250 baptisms, 407 marriages, 272 funerals, 336 confirmations. Eight churches grew out of the first church. Four went to north Lincoln and four remained on the south side.

During recent years it became more and more evident that a new building must be erected. The old structure had become unsafe and inadequate to the needs of the congregation and the near-by railroads proved to be an increasingly disturbing factor. In 1917 the church voted to purchase a lot at the corner of First & F Streets, but on account of the war, building was postponed until later.

In November, 1919, the building project was again taken up and 25 members gave initial pledges of $2,500. In April, 1920, at a session at which Dr. Eversz was present, it was voted to proceed with the erection of the building, and Mr. Gottfried Schumacher was chosen as building contractor. The cornerstone was laid on May 30. The new building is 42×72 feet. Two harmonizing bells have been hung in the tower to call to worship.

The members of the congregation have made great sacrifices in labor contributed, valued at many hundreds of dollars, as well as in money. The Congregational building society has aided the project by a loan and a grant of generous proportions, and many friends of the church and sister churches came to its aid.

 

First German Congregation

In 1763 Catherine the Great invited German colonists to stimulate agriculture in Russia. She offered them land, religious freedom, exemption from military service, and the right to use German in their own schools. These Germans held firmly to their German culture, forbade marriage with Russians, and discouraged learning the Russian language.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century the Czar reneged on the promises and many immigrated to the United States. Young families with children came, as well as individual teenagers. They arrived penniless; people and churches helped them get to Lincoln and other places where there were relatives. In Nebraska farming near Sutton attracted the earliest settlers in 1874. The Nebraska Act of 1854 had opened this land.

By 1888 the German Congregational Supt. Became aware of 40 men and families in the “bottoms” in Lincoln from Balzar, Russia, and helped them organize a congregation which first worshiped on May 1, 1888, at Park School. The industrious settlers built a 28×48 ft. sanctuary at 234 West J St. Supt. Eversz describes the occasion of dedicating the new building in the Conference newsletter as follows:

“March 24, 1889, was a happy day for the little German congregation in Lincoln, when their very nest and complete house of worship was dedicated free of debt, and the church was recognized by council. The building with lot cost $1,800 and had a seating capacity of 150. The church had 60 members and a regular morning and evening congregation of no less than 100. It had a Sunday school of 80, and a prayer meeting attended by 30-50 persons. Brown were the happy faces, and hard the hands that greeted us on that day of dedication. We looked in vain for evidence of wealth, but not in vain for those of hard work and thrift. They were all common, hard-working people, devoid of sealskin and satin, but not of devotion and love to God. Without the very generous cooperation and aid of Rev. L. Gregory and his people of the First English Congregational Church, all this could not have been done; for $550 out of $675 raised during dedication week were contributed by them.”

The foreign ethic group was treated as all such people have been in United States history. They began on the bottom of the economic ladder as migrant workers in the beet fields where a large family would live in one room and work from May to November. Others found jobs on the railroad, often as section hands, and as firemen at the power plant.

Living in the bottoms was sensible. The railroad yards and town were close at hand when one had to walk to work. The industry and neatness of the people is evident in the community they built and in the solid established citizens they became in Lincoln. Settlers continued to come until World War 1, and the little church finally did not accommodate all the people. While the number of members was never large by modern church standards, the families were large and the church as a community center proved too small.

On December 5, 1920, the congregation dedicated a new church at First & F Streets, at the cost $30,000. Members had skills to do much of their own work. The basement, for example, was dug by members with their shovels. The builder was Gottfried Schumacher; a member of the congregation until his death at over 100 years of age in 1978. The chancel of this church is a replica of the chancel of the church in Balzar, Russia, which the original founders had left 32 years earlier.

The German Russians could be a stubborn lot, and the size of their families made it easy to form splinter congregations. On the other hand, the ecumenical openness of the congregation is reflected in the fact that it gathered Protestants of both the Lutheran and Reformed heritage, and the celebration of the communion today is done in both traditions.

The congregation reached a numerical membership in the middle 300’s early in the 1950’s. By the early 1940’s confirmation was in the English language. Occasional services in English were conducted by the Rev. Chris Maedche after 1945. The services, under the pastorate of Rev. Ben Rieger, included German and English, with the sermon beginning in German and ending in English. Finally,, the services were entirely in English. After the service, those who wanted German remained for 5-10 minute exposition of the text in their language. This practice was finally dropped in 1975.

The bottoms were susceptible to flooding, especially in the early years, and the flood of 1950 is particularly memorable. The church basement was filled with water. The heroic effort of the members restored and remodeled the parish hall. Numerous congregations and persons sent gifts of money in that time of calamity.

With the coming of the Rev. Earl Schuff in 1978 the congregation actively began the step of reaching toward the young residents in the Salk Creek Community. Because housing is reasonable here the community is basically well-maintained, many new young families have moved into the area. The congregation, having begun the difficult transition to reach new residents, now looks for a pastor who can value and draw upon the pilgrim heritage of the congregation and make that resource of faithfulness available to the new families in the area. There are several great allies in this process: 1) There is a rich heritage and widespread recognition in Lincoln; 2) There are some excellent leaders; 3) The Salt Creek Community Assn. is maintaining and improving the community; 4) The five congregations of the United Church of Christ in west Lincoln that share parts of this story are banded together in a cooperative ministry; 5) While still not wealthy, the congregation has solid citizens as its members: 6) The first small step in this new direction has been taken.