2 churches divided by language reunite

Celebration: English Lutheran congregation in Baltimore holds 175th anniversary service at its parent church

January 24, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

After 175 years, members of First English Lutheran Church went home yesterday.

The congregation of the church, on North Charles Street in Guilford, traveled downtown to celebrate its anniversary during Sunday morning services at Zion Church of the City of Baltimore -- the German-speaking Lutheran church on City Hall Plaza from which it broke away in 1825.

Yesterday's service was a reunion for Zion and First English Lutheran. The two divided over whether to begin worshiping in English as well as German.

"It's a homecoming," said the Rev. Eric Gritsch, an interim pastor of Zion. "The present leadership [at First Lutheran] felt it was a good way to celebrate their past."

"Before our church began, Zion Lutheran was the only Lutheran church in Baltimore," said the Rev. Donald Burggraf, pastor of First Lutheran. "Our church was the first church to split away. So if you will, we're beginning our yearlong celebration by going home to mother."

The clock was turned back for the service at Zion, which continues to hold a service in German each week and sponsors numerous German cultural activities. Burggraf walked into the church in the typical clerical dress of the early 19th century: a black morning coat, knickers, a black shirtwith a wide-lapeled white collar and a black cravat.

Nods to tradition

There were other nods to tradition. The hymns in the program included no music, just words. That was because in the Lutheran church of 1825, hymn books provided only the words, and the music leader might choose one particular tune for a hymn one week, a completely different melody the next.

Burggraf noted that he was departing from one tradition of 1825.

First Lutheran's first regular pastor, the Rev. John Gottlieb Morris, complained in a commentary on worship published in the 1830s about pastors who rattled on in their sermons. Anything that needed saying could be said in about 45 minutes, he wrote.

"Preachers were more orators in those days," Burggraf said, "and would just be warming up to their first point by the time I usually finish."

The beginning of the split

The history of First English Lutheran begins with a dispute between immigrant Germans over whether to assimilate into American culture or to retain the language and culture of the old country. Baltimore, next to New York and Philadelphia, was a major port of entry for European immigrants, and by the early 1800s, a sizable German community had settled here. A Zion church history counted 313 communicants in 1807.

As early as 1800, the Church Council at Zion was approached by some of its members about the possibility of including English language services, but they were soundly rebuffed.

In May 1816, a renewed request was made by a group concerned that people were leaving the denomination. They wrote a pamphlet to support their demands that they be allowed to worship in English.

"Shall we, as descendants of Lutheran parents, give up our faith, disavow their teachings after many of them came to this continent to enjoy this very faith free from fear and coercion? Shall we become Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists?" the pamphleteers wrote. "If we should not succeed, we shall be forced to leave the congregation against our will, for the sake of the bread and water of life for our children. Your children and children's children will follow us."

Making the break

In 1823, a group began meeting at the home of Zion member David Bixlar to form plans for a new congregation. Two years later, the break was made. First English Lutheran Church was formed.

"There are many towns and cities on the East Coast that have First English Lutheran churches for exactly the same reason that we became First English Lutheran Church," Burggraf said. He noted that the issue led Lutherans to form two separate seminaries in fairly close proximity, one in Gettysburg that advocated the use of English in liturgy and another in Philadelphia, which clung to German traditions.

Hard feelings

The move in Baltimore apparently caused some hard feelings.

"There were some people who felt it would be watering down our beliefs in order to adopt the so-called American ways," Burggraf said.

But yesterday, the two congregations worshiped in harmony.

Renewed ties

"That was 175 years ago. That's a long time," said Hannelies Penner, a Zion congregant, of the split. "Not to my knowledge is there any kind of resentment. This was more like a family gathering. And we are extremely happy to help them celebrate their anniversary."

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