The Heritage of St. John's
The historic roots of St. John's began when Germans left their homeland for the new British colonies due to war and religious persecution. Initially, the majority arrived through the port of Philadelphia and settled in Pennsylvania. The influx of refugees from the Rhine River Valley quickly dried up available reasonable land in Pennsylvania. Word of unclaimed, good tillable soil in Carolina spread quickly and the landless German pioneers, along with many landowners who sold their holdings for a tidy profit, loaded up all their belongings into covered wagons and headed south, by way of the "Great Wagon Road and Old Indian Trading Path" into what was at the time Bladen County, North Carolina. The five hundred mile journey was very slow and physically taxing because the livestock had to be herded along ahead of the wagons on the primitive trail. Many of the first Lutheran and German Reformed settlers chose to establish their farmsteads on the bottomlands along the banks of Dutch Buffalo Creek and its tributaries. The area that is present day Cabarrus and Rowan counties had German settlers arriving as early as 1728. It is known that families had settled in what is now the Mt. Pleasant area by 1737.
Religious practices always accompanied German pioneers. Some of the earliest records indicate that the first church services were held in barns and farmyards of the area; but as soon as the settlers had constructed their first crude and primitive homes they looked to provide for another need. This was to provide for instruction of their children in the fundamentals of the Christian faith and to provide for a basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic, along with knowledge of the Bible. These Lutheran and German Reformed families had brought with them from their European homelands their Bibles, Catechisms, and hymnals which their Christian faith had taught to cherish as highly as the kitchen utensils and farming implements necessary for their survival.
Historic evidence indicates that St. John's Lutheran Church was established in the early 1740s, although 1745 is generally accepted as the date of the first organized activity. Around this time the community joined together to build near the creek a dual-purpose church / schoolhouse of "unhewn pine logs without floor, windows or chimney". This description probably means the floor was dirt and that there were no panes in the shuttered opening in the walls to admit light. The first log "Meeting Haus" was given the name of its location: The Dutch Buffalo Creek Meeting Haus. The word "Dutch" is an anglicized word meaning "German" and the creek was in a location that the buffalo still roamed. Although the facility housed a church and school, it could not officially be called a "church" since the official church of the British colonies was The Anglican Church; thus, the log facility was called a "Meeting Haus" or "House". There is little evidence to indicate the exact location of the original "Meeting House" other than the monument erected in 1894 to commemorate early Christians buried there. The number of souls resting there is unknown as grave markers have decayed and become lost to the ravages of time.
A community leader or the person serving as the schoolteacher probably conducted services held in this first church, as no regular pastor is indicated by histories. There were German Reformed and an occasional Lutheran pastor who would pass through, usually between Pennsylvania and Charleston, and attend to the Christian needs of the settlers. Consistent with the religious practices of the people, some old documents indicate that pastors served the people in the area even prior to 1745. This arrangement lasted for at least twenty-five years with the Lutherans sharing the spiritual ministry provided by their German Reformed pastors and neighbors.
The historic roots of St. John's Lutheran Church began with the establishment of the Dutch Buffalo Creek Church or Dutch Buffalo Meeting House around or before 1745. The early church was known by either name. Colonial Records [VIII, page 748] states, "Already in 1745-1750 all this region was peopled by the flood of immigrants from Pennsylvania, as was that on Dutch Buffalo and Second Creeks." The new "Dutch Buffalo" congregation accommodated these early pioneers. The early church was a union congregation, a co-located German Reformed and German Lutheran Church. In fact, the first pastor to consistently serve the congregation was the Rev. Samuel Suther, a Reformed minister. In the mid to late 1760s he was pastor of a number of union congregations in the area.
Although the congregation was located in the Mt. Pleasant area all of her life, the counties changed as the State of North Carolina grew. When the church was established around 1745, its location in North Carolina was in Bladen County that had been formed from New Hanover County in 1734. Anson County was taken from Bladen County in 1749. Mecklenburg County was formed in 1762 and taken from Anson County. Cabarrus County was formed from Mecklenburg County in 1792 after the American Revolutionary War.
Around 1770, The Dutch Buffalo Meeting House church decided to build a new sanctuary to better accommodate the growing congregation. They selected a site about one half-mile east of the present St. John's Church. This building was also of log construction, larger and probably more elaborate than the original. This church was also a union church served primarily by German Reformed Ministers. As was customary among the Germans, a burial ground was located adjacent to the church. The number of souls laid to rest here is also unknown as no markers remain.
In 1771, a peaceful separation of the Lutherans and German Reforms occurred. Under the leadership of Captain John Paul Barringer, a site was selected in the center of the current St. John's cemetery and a third structure was built, chiefly at the expense of Captain Barringer with David Jarrett as the chief builder. This structure was also of log construction, and as an expression of appreciation a raised and enclosed pew was placed for Captain Barringer and his family. The Lutherans selected the name St. John's for the new church to identify themselves as separate from the old union congregation, but the Dutch Buffalo Creek Church name was so beloved that it was commonly used for many more years. As late as 1810 the name, "Buffalo Creek Church - St. John's", appears in the record book of North Carolina Synod of the Lutheran Church. Eventually, the German Reformed left St. John's rolls to form Bethel Bear Creek Reformed Church located in present day Stanly County.
The congregation was in its third house of worship without having a Lutheran pastor. All efforts to secure a Lutheran minister from Pennsylvania, from where most of the settlers had emigrated, failed, so efforts were directed to Germany. In 1772 Christopher Layrle from St. John's and Christopher Rintelmann from Organ Church in Rowan County were commissioned to go at their own expense to Germany to seek a minister and schoolteacher. Gov. Tryon of North Carolina wrote a letter of recommendation to the "Society for the Spread of the Gospel in Foreign Parts" at London. With this and a petition requesting a pastor and a schoolteacher signed by sixty families, and other necessary credentials, the commissioners departed on their long journey. They rode their horses to Charleston, SC, where they sold the horses for passage to England. Upon arrival they were most graciously received and well treated. The Missionary Society endorsed their cause, the King of England and many English noblemen gave liberally of their means and St. James' Lutheran Chapel in London gave them a handsome amount of money for that day, in all amounting to more than eight hundred dollars value. Layrle and Randlemann continued on to Hanover, Germany where the Consistory of Hanover readily granted their petition for a pastor and schoolteacher. The Rev. Adolph Nussmann was officially called and commissioned as pastor and Mr. Johann Gottfried Arends as schoolteacher by the consistory.
The Rev. Nussmann and Mr. Arends arrived in North Carolina in 1773 after coming by way of London and Charleston, SC. North Carolina had its first Lutheran pastor to locate permanently within her boundaries. Pastor Nussmann's first sermon was preached on the second Sunday in August 1773 at Organ Church in Rowan County. For the first year, Pastor Nussmann gave primary attention to Organ and St. John's Salisbury, while also serving St. John's Mecklenburg (Cabarrus) and other groups as opportunity allowed.
In 1774, Adolph Nussmann moved to Mecklenburg County and became the first regular pastor of St. John's. This relationship would continue for twenty years - the remainder of Nussmann's life. During these years Pastor Nussmann ministered to other Lutherans of the area, frequently riding horseback to communities within a fifty to sixty mile radius. Under his guidance, other Lutheran congregations were founded in the area.
Three years after Pastor Nussmann arrived in North Carolina, the Revolutionary War began. The St. John's congregation was loyal to the cause of independence and so suffered many hardships. Members of St. John's fought in the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, near Wilmington, and other skirmishes in the Carolinas. Many St. John's members were wounded, killed in battle or died in British prisons. While the British armies did not conduct operations in the St. John's community, the Tories plundered, robbed and made life miserable for anyone who supported independence. In order to protect their farms a number of members remained home on Sunday morning during the war. It is said that the throat cancer that ended Pastor Nussmann's life was the result of a torture burn administered by the Tories.
On October 22, 1782 three church council members; Jacob Ferget, Marx Haus, and Jacob Thieme paid fifty shillings for approximately one hundred acres of government land and entered it "in trust for the congregation of Dutch Buffalo Meeting House." This tract included the land where the church and cemetery were already located. This property remains as a valuable St. John's asset and is known as the church farm that presently accommodates the church buildings, parsonage, cemetery, fellowship building and recreation complex.
On November 6, 1784 an effort was begun to build a new and more substantial sanctuary at St. John's. The subscription list for the building ranged from ten pounds to three shillings. This frame building, painted red, came to be known as the Red Meeting House. The dedication service led by Pastor Nussmann was held on July 4, 1785. This edifice was much larger than the three former ones and was constructed of the best materials to be had. Captain Barringer's elevated pew was transferred to this building, which was the best house of worship in Mecklenburg County when built. The "Red Meeting House" provided the physical structure for the ever-growing spiritual strengths of the people for some sixty years.
St. John's was the center of Lutheranism in the area. Her pastor not only went out on missionary visits to other counties to establish many new congregations, but also ministered to the people regularly over a fifty-mile radius. Pastor Nussmann had supervision of the entire N.C. Mission of some twenty congregations all of which were faithfully and regularly supplied with the word and sacraments by Pastor Nussmann. Pastor Nussmann is buried in St. John's church cemetery. The list of St. John's pastors who followed Rev. Nussmann is over thirty in number, but all have labored in the same love and spirit of the Lord.
In 1806, St. John's was said to be the strongest Lutheran congregation in the state. She was received into the North Carolina Lutheran Synod October 20, 1806 at Organ Church. When the Sixteenth Convention of the NC Synod met on April 25, 1819, it was the first time for St. John's to host the synodical convention.
In 1844, plans were made to build the present sanctuary. Built of bricks made on the church land, with dimensions of eighty by fifty-five feet, this structure was described as the largest and most commodious house of worship in western North Carolina. The dedication services were held August 22, 1846. In addition to the liberal support of the members, the contributions made in London in 1772 had now accumulated to fifteen hundred dollars and were used to help finance the construction. The structure has undergone several renovations and additions since 1846. In 1888, the gallery was removed from the east end, the pulpit was moved from the west end to the east, the side entrance doors were closed, and a new front entry door was opened in the west end. In 1936, the three-story addition for classroom space was added to the eastern end of the building. The church nave was remodeled in 1948 with the center support columns being removed and new furnishings installed. Further major expansions were added in 1965 including the Educational Building on the South side and the enlargement of the nave and vestibule. A fellowship building was constructed in 1976.
St. John's has had many "firsts" in her history. The first school on record of what is now Cabarrus County soil was operated at St. John's. The congregation's original constitution provided for a Christian school and schoolmaster. On May 20, 1794 St. John's hosted the first Lutheran ecclesiastical assembly, bringing together all the Lutheran ministers in the state for the purpose of ordaining the first English speaking Lutheran minister on NC soil, the Rev. R.J. Miller. This meeting was held nine years prior to the first Lutheran convention in North Carolina that organized the synod. Pastor Miller was also considered an Episcopal minister and he helped to establish the Episcopal Church in Lenoir, NC. In 1834, the Rev. Daniel Scherer, who had been pastor for ten years, moved with many other Lutherans in the area to Hillsboro, Illinois, to form as a mission the first Lutheran congregation in that state, appropriately named St. John's, and another congregation, named Zion Lutheran. The Rev. D.J. Koontz, the first black Lutheran minister in NC was ordained at St. John's in 1880. The 86th North Carolina Synod Convention was held at St. John's on May 3, 1889 at which time the "Alpha Colored Lutheran Synod of N.C." was established. Many Lutheran congregations in North Carolina, and some in the mid-West, trace their origins to the missionary work of St. John's and her ministers. Through the 1700s and 1800s, St. John's remained a strong leader and influence in the North Carolina Synod.
Many members sacrificed their lives and possessions in military conflicts for this great nation. A number of Revolutionary War patriots are buried in St. John's cemetery. At least one hundred men from St. John's gave their lives during the Civil War. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the Civil War dead are buried near the battlefield or prison camp where they fell, which was the common practice of the time. Members of St. John's who lost their lives during the Civil War are buried throughout the region of battle from Gettysburg to Charleston, Richmond to Point Lookout, Maryland, Wilmington to Petersburg. In addition to those buried away from St. John's is about one hundred Civil War veterans buried in St. John's cemetery. Veterans of many other U.S. conflicts are laid to rest in the graveyard. Also, a number of church leaders, bishops and pastors are buried in the cemetery as well.
The 250th Anniversary of St. John's was celebrated throughout 1995 by a series of special services and living history events that recalled her Christian heritage and demonstrated the labor-intensive lifestyle of the early German founders. During the more than 265 years, the congregation has steadily grown to a membership of approximately six hundred souls who cherish their heritage and seek to fulfill God's will as a church actively moving in this century for the praise of His name and the enlarging of His Kingdom.
During St. John's long history, at least eighteen from the congregation have entered the ordained ministry. The members of St. John's have helped in supporting schools, foreign and domestic missionaries of the Gospel, mission congregations, and countless other causes that the gospel has called her people to serve. Every year the congregation serves many people from throughout the United States who return to the hallowed ground of St. John's to reconnect with their family roots. Thousands have passed through her doors and have been lifted in spirit.
Article above written mostly by John A. Suther, with some editorial notes by the Rev. Dr. Mark J. Ericson.
Sources: Church records and histories available in Heritage Building at St. John's.