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First English Evangelical Lutheran Church: A Brief History

Places of Wheeling Icon

▶ First English Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wheeling

- from: Program of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church, Wheeling, West Virginia, 1960, by Nina M. Buechler.

A Brief History of the First English Ev. Lutheran Church

Wheeling, West Virginia: 1860-1960

The First English Lutheran Church of Wheeling, W. Va. finds its genesis in an action of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Virginia at its annual convention in October 1858. This body resolved to send a traveling missionary into northwestern Virginia to look after the scattered Lutherans in that region. The man selected for this work was the Rev. Thomas W. Dosh, who started early in the following November to the territory in which he was to make an effort to establish English Lutheran Churches. Following the line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, he preached wherever he could find any members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church until he came to Wheeling early in the year 1859. Reverend Mr. Dosh spent several weeks in an endeavor to learn what material could be found for organizing an English Lutheran church here. Valuable assistance was given in the work by the Reverend William Berkemeier, who, at that time, was pastor of Zion's German Evangelical Lutheran Church on Market Street. Reverend Mr. Berkemeier, with the consent of his vestry, offered the use of his church for services in the English language every Sunday afternoon.

In the year 1859, Wheeling, Virginia was established as a missionary station, on August 12, 1860, an English Lutheran congregation was formally organized with 24 charter members. It will be remembered that West Virginia came into being as a State on June 20, 1863. In the work of organization Reverend Dosh was assisted by Reverend William A. Passavant, D.D., of Pittsburgh, Pa. who had for many years been interested in the establishment of an English Lutheran congregation in the city and had sought to stir up sentiment for the same through his publication, "The Missionary."

The newly-formed congregation leased the Baptist Church on Clay (Eighteenth)Street, and services for a time were held there. Through the leadership ofReverend Dosh, some of the members, this congregation was active in the organization of Young Men's Christian Association in 1860.

With the year 1861 the conflict known as the Civil War began, and in June of that year Reverend Dosh visited Winchester, Virginia to attend to some personal business, intending to return to Wheeling when the business was finished. But as time went on, communications were entirely cut off and Reverend Dosh did not consider it desirable or advisable for him to return. When Reverend Dosh left Wheeling the congregation numbered forty-one persons.

From June 1861 to June 1862, the congregation was without a Pastor and without services, except an occasional sermon by Revered W. A. Passavant, D.D., of Pittsburgh, Pa.

In May, 1862, at the suggestion of Reverend W. M. Baum, D.D., formerly of the Synod of Virginia, but then pastor of Saint Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church at York, Pa., and Reverend W. A. Passavant, D.D. of Pittsburgh, Pa., Reverend Samuel Bacon Barnitz visited Wheeling. Reverend Barnitz, then a young man twenty-four years of age, had recently been graduated from the Theological Seminary of the General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church at Gettysburg,Pa. The result of this visit was the acceptance by Reverend Barnitz of the pastorate at Wheeling, and he entered upon his new duties on Sunday, June 15, 1862.

Reverend Barnitz was cognizant of the difficulties and discouragements which were to confront him but with the true pioneer spirit he lent himself to his arduous task of construction. On June 15, 1862 Reverend Barnitz preached in the rented Baptist church on Eighteenth Street to a congregation of fifteen people. Of the forty-one persons who constituted the membership when Reverend Dosh left, only nineteen could be found, and seventeen were willing to reorganize, but the majority of the seventeen thought it almost hopeless to attempt the work of reorganization amid the distraction of the war-torn period.

From June 15, 1862, to September 1, 1862, the attendance at the church services more than quadrupled; and the Sunday school grew from eighty to one hundred sixty-five members.

The congregation was soon confronted with a difficulty. The trustees of the Baptist church refused to permit the Lutheran congregation to use the building any longer, which necessitated a change in the place of worship. The German Lutheran Church of the Joint Synod of Ohio (St. James), located on Chapline Street, was secured for the afternoon services and Sunday school. After a time the German Lutheran church was no longer available and the congregation occupied the First Presbyterian Church for a few weeks, and then moved into a hall in the Odd Fellows' Building, which was secured at a rental of four hundred dollars per annum. This hall was equipped with pulpit, pews, etc. at a cost of nine hundred dollars, and became the place of worship until the summer of 1870.

On August 18, 1867, a lot on the northwest corner of Sixteenth and Chapline Streets was purchased for the congregation by George Fricker and George Keeline, who had been appointed by the church council to make the purchase. The price paid is said to have been three thousand nine hundred dollars. Of this sum two thousand four hundred dollars was obtained by Reverend Barnitz from collections among personal friends and churches, mostly in Pennsylvania.

On November 14, 1868, the cornerstone of the chapel was laid, Rev. F. W.Conrad, D.D., of Philadelphia, Pa., officiating, however, the chapel was not completed and dedicated until December 18, 1870, Reverend F. W. Conrad, D.D.,of Philadelphia, Pa., officiating, assisted by Reverend W. M. Baum ofPhiladelphia, Pa., and Reverend Thos. W. Dosh, (missionary Pastor, 1860) of Winchester, Virginia, a little more than two years after the laying of the cornerstone. After eight and one-half years of struggle, the little congregation had, at last, a permanent place of worship which it could call its own.

Reverend Bernitz was very successful as an organizer and Sunday school worker. His Sunday school grew until it became the largest in the State. In 1880, the enrollment was more than five hundred.

The broad sympathies of Reverend Barnitz reached out to the orphan children of the community, and though his instrumentality the Children's Home was founded.

In 1874 an addition to the church building, known as the Jewel Department, was erected. The following verses are part of a song which was written and sung in an effort to secure bricks with which to build it:


A company of builders, Not very big are we,But when a job we take in hand, We work, as here you see.We must enlarge our chapel With walls both high and thickNow won't you buy a brick, kind friend? Now won't you buy a brick?


Please buy a brick, please buy a brick, Please buy a brick, KindfriendWe'll pay the sturdy masons Who work so well and quick.Now won't you buy a brick, kind friends?Now won't you buy a brick?

In 1880 the church became self-supporting; and on November 1, 1881, Reverend Barnitz resigned. Reverend Barnitz did a great work here amid unpromising and difficult surroundings. His was a pioneer spirit which difficulties and hardships did not daunt. The name 'Barnitz' is still a household word amongLutherans and the older inhabitants of the city of Wheeling.

The successor of Revered Barnitz was Reverend E. H. Dornblaser, who became pastor on November 20, 1881. At the time a bonded debt of approximately $7000, rested upon the chapel. [ ...] standing that the Board of Church Extension had assumed this debt, but the Board denied having ever made any such promise. Some appeals were made to the Board of Church Assistance but, owing to a lack of funds, the Board was unable to render any financial aid. The new pastor and the church found that they were unable to pay the pastor's salary, incidental expenses, interest on the debt and raise the apportionment for benevolence. These were dark days for the church, and the situation caused deep concern on the part of pastor and people.

Brighter days were ahead. After a time, the Board of Church Extension was able to give some help, and unexpected friends furnished financial assistance, and the church started upon an era of prosperity.

During his pastorate of a little more than twelve years, Reverend Dornblaser baptized three hundred fifty-two children, married one hundred sixty-five couples, and received four hundred forty-eight persons into church membership. At the time of his resignation the church membership totaled three hundred sixty-eight, and there were five hundred persons enrolled in the Sunday school. The indebtedness on the church had been reduced from a sum near seven thousand dollars to eight hundred dollars.

Reverend Dornblaser resigned on December 14, 1893. His genial personality and sympathetic nature had endeared him to the congregation, and it was with genuine regret that the membership of the First English Lutheran Church said farewell to their pastor and friend.

Reverend Samual Schwarm, D.D., Ph.D., was the successor of Reverend Dornblaser, and the church's fourth pastor. In response to a 'call' from this congregation, he took charge on February 1, 1894.

In the spring of 1897, the congregation determined to remodel the church building. The cornerstone was laid on the afternoon of June 20, 1897, in the presence of a vast number of people, among whom was a large number of the older citizens of the community. The exercises took place on a stand located north of the old building. The address was made by Reverend Samuel B. Barnitz, D.D., and the stone was laid by Dr. Schwarm.

In January 1898, the church was ready for occupancy. The feast of the dedication of the rebuilt house of worship commenced on Wednesday, January 12, 1898, with an appropriate sermon by the pastor. Thursday evening was devoted to an organ recital on the newly installed two-manual Moller pipe organ; the recital was interspersed with vocal selections. On Friday night Reverend E. H. Dornblaser, Dr. Schwarm's immediate predecessor preached to a large audience.

The dedication exercises took place on Sunday, January 16, 1898. At the morning service Reverend Samuel A. Ort, D.D., LL.D., President of Wittenberg College, preached the sermon. The keys of the building were then presented by the president of the board of trustees and all the ministers, with hands uplifted, set apart the house for purposes sacred and divine. At night the church was crowded to its utmost capacity, the audience being the largest of the day. Reverend E. H. Dornblaser was the speaker.

The rebuilding and refurnishing of the church cost nearly fifteen thousand dollars.

In the fall of 1899, a new congregation came into existence through the instrumentality of the First Church — known as Trinity Lutheran Church of South Wheeling.

Dr. Schwarm's Sunday school, like that of his predecessors, was large and flourishing, and many persons will gratefully recall the long and faithful service of the school's superintendent, Mr. J. M. Bruhn, who is now a member of the Church Triumphant.

Dr. Schwarm's pastorate came to a close on April 30, 1910. He served the congregation for sixteen years and three months.

On September 15, 1910 the Reverend W. S. Dysinger became pastor, coming to this city from Vandergrift, Pa. During this pastorate, many new members were added to the church, and extensive improvements were made to the church building, involving an expenditure of fifteen thousand dollars. Two new congregations, Edgwood and Warwood, came into existence through the instrumentality of the First Church, which contributed largely in both members and financial aid. Reverend Dysinger's heart was in missionary work, especially in the African field, and while pastor here he publicly stated that he would have taken up work in Africa if his constitution had been sufficiently robust.Reverend Dysinger's ambition was in a measure realized when his daughter, MissMabel, devoted her life to missionary work in the Lutheran Mission in Liberia on the west coast of Africa. Miss Dysinger has labored in this field for many years, and the old First Church in Wheeling is proud to number her among its daughters. This pastorate was a comparatively short one, continuing for about five years. Reverend Dysinger left Wheeling to become a pastor to a congregation in the State of California.

The Reverend E. G. Howard, D.D., accepted a call to this church, and entered upon the duties of the pastorate on May 1, 1916. He resigned the pastorate to accept a call to the Fourth Lutheran Church of Springfield, Ohio laying down the work on January 31, 1922. Dr. Howard was pastor here during the time the United States was engaged in the World War, and he saw many young men of the congregation leave to give their services for the defense of our Country in that great strife. During this pastorate, the building indebtedness of ten thousand dollars was all subscribed and paid with the exception of about one thousand dollars, which was pledged. Parish deaconess work was introduced. TheSunday school was more thoroughly graded, and more efficiently organized. Dr.Howard served the First Church in Wheeling as pastor for nearly six years.

As has been stated, the church purchased a lot at the corner of Sixteenth and Chapline Streets in 1867. On this lot the church building now stands, and part of the lot, east of the church building, has, for many years, brought in a revenue in the form of rentals. While the congregation had owned property all those years, it was not until May 1922 that a parsonage was provided for the pastor. This parsonage, located at 124 Sixteenth Street, was purchased for the sum of $18,000 and was ready for occupancy by the Reverend Charles G. Aurand, who became pastor on October 1, 1922. Reverend Aurand, like Reverend Barnitz and Reverend Dosh, prepared for the ministry in the Theological Seminary atGettysburg, Pa. He was the church's seventh pastor.

Numerous gifts and memorials, such as complete new chancel furnishings, lights, altar accessories, etc., were installed at this time.

In the year 1930, the Church Council decided to replace the paid quartet choir with a volunteer chorus choir. Mr. Wayne Farley was engaged as organist and choirmaster and entered upon his duties in September of that year. Under Mr. Farley's able direction, the chorus choir has been trained and developed into a singing organization that is now capable of rendering music of a difficult and classical nature.

This congregation, for a time after its organization, was a member of theSynod of Virginia. Later it became a member of the Pittsburgh Synod; and since April 17, 1912, the date on which the Synod of West Virginia was organized, it has been a member of that body.

The First Church, throughout its existence, has been noted for its liberality; and for many years, with only one exception, has regularly met, and frequently overpaid its benevolence apportionment. The following figures, taken from the minutes of the Synod of West Virginia, from 1912 to 1934, both dates inclusive, show approximately the various amounts contributed during the 22-year period: for current expenses, $184,709; for benevolence, $82,507; for the expenditures of an unusual nature for specific objects, $64,961.00. It has been particularly generous in its contributions to special objectives such asWittenberg College, Oesterlen Home, and Ministerial Pensions and Relief,Tressler's Children's Home, National Lutheran Home, and Morgantown StudentBuilding Fund.

During the pastorates of Dr. Howard and Rev. Aurand, the services of three deaconesses were utilized. The deaconesses were: Sister Clara Smyre, Sister Kathryn Merkh, and Sister Sarah Shuey.

In December 1950, a new position was established in our Church, that of a ParishWorker. To this position, the Church Council appointed Mrs. Robert Fugate. This Church has given ten men to the ministry: Rev. Frederick C. Knapp, Rev. John W.Zimmer, Rev. F. W. E. Paschau, D. D., Rev. Charles A. Britt, Rev. Austin, Rev. Frannk S. Delo, Rev. Charles Wm. Aurand, Rev. Frank W. Klos, Jr., Rev. John M. Aurand, Rev. Russell W. Seabright, Jr., and one man in the GettysburgTheological Seminary, Mr. Paull E. Spring, Jr. The last five men entered the ministry due to efforts and influence of Dr. Charles G. Aurand. At present the following organizations are embraced in the activities of the Church: The Church School, United Lutheran Church Women, United Lutheran Church Men, The King's Daughters, Children of the Church, and a Luther League is being organized. The United Lutheran Church Women, (formally the Women's Missionary Society has been in existence for 79 years. An important undertaking of the Church School is the support of Paswemula Congregation in India.

In 1943, Dr. Aurand, Rev. Nesper of St. James Lutheran Church and Rev. Webster of Second Presbyterian Church organized the Tri-Church Week Day Bible School. These classes are held ever Wednesday during the School term.

In 1957, Dr. Aurand presented the idea of a Prayer Room for the Ohio ValleyGeneral Hospital to the Council of the Greater Wheeling Council of Churches. The project was accepted and completed with the dedication in January 1960. In 1959, the Church School under the direction of Mrs. Fugate held the Vacation Bible School for two weeks, which proved very successful and was held again this summer with an average attendance of 49 pupils.

In 1957, a remodeling program was launched and was completed in the early part of 1960. This cost of this program was approximately $125,000.00. In the past thirteen years this church has been especially blessed with a number ofEndowment Funds from the following: Mrs. J. C. Lynch, A Current Fund Endowment,also one for Deaconess or Parish Work, Misses Julia and May Kraft, an Endowment for Maintenance of the Church, Mrs. Ben Roth Funds (use of funds not specified). It is our earnest prayer that with the rich endowment of earthly possessions, we may carry on the work of our Lord in a much larger field than our predecessors.

Dr. Charles G. Aurand resigned, January 31, 1959, to retire and take up residence in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, after serving this congregation 36 years and 4 months.

Rev. Roy Meyer, (retired Minister) has been our Supply Pastor for the past eighteen months and will continue until we have a Pastor.

Many changes have taken place since the organization of the church,one-hundred years ago. The original members have passed away: but as of now we have thirty-one members who have been members for fifty years or over, ranging from 50 years to 74 years membership, of these thirty-one members there are twenty-five active ones. Old methods have been replaced by newer ones, but the unchanging Gospel is still preached in its purity and entirety.

The Church's one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is His new creation
By water and the Word;
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy Bride,
With His own blood He bought her,
And for her life he died.

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