Sharing the history of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, 1765-2015
A few Shepherdstown residents still remember Gladys Hartzell, local teacher and active, committed church leader in the 1960’s. Others may be familiar with her book, On This Rock, The Story of St. Peter’s Church, Shepherdstown, 1765-1965. (Published by the Shepherdstown Register, 1970). The book’s opening grabs the reader’s attention with a description and a photo of the brass escutcheon — a decorative lock plate surrounding the church’s door knob. It is engraved in German “Bewahre deinen Fuss wan du in das Haus des Herrn gehest”. Miss Hartzell provides a figurative interpretation: Guard your feet when you go into the house of the Lord.”
Most historians agree that German Lutheran settlers from Maryland and Pennsylvania began crossing the Potomac in the 1730’s, with the main influx coming after the founding of Mecklenburg (Shepherdstown) in 1762. In Miss Hartzell words, “it was in 1765, according to local church records, in neat German script, that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Shepherdstown was officially established” by petition to the Ministerium of Pennsylvania. She names six men as founders, one of whom was Martin Endler, “progenitor of a long line of Lutheran Entlers”, several of whom are buried in the old Lutheran graveyard on East German Street.
In those days pastors were in short supply to serve struggling young congregations. Therefore St. Peter’s early pastors usually served many churches throughout the northern Virginia and southern Maryland area sometimes many miles apart. It took a long time to travel a 50-mile radius in those days, so pastors performed “emergency” baptisms and other ceremonies whenever they were in town.
The church procured its first pastor, the Reverend Mr. Bauer, in 1766. He was a Reformed Church pastor, and he preached for both the Lutherans and the Reformed on opposite sides of East German Street. Today’s Christ Reformed Church stands at its original location, but the Lutherans moved to their current King Street location in 1908.
The second Lutheran pastor, Carl Wilbahn, born in Germany, was called by the German inhabitants because they “were unwilling to join the English Church, although . they had to pay annual tribute to the English preacher of the Established Church”. (From the Journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, vol. 2) Note that Freedom of Religion had not yet been widely established in these American colonies; therefore an “established church” prevailed, and a tax, or tribute, was collected to support it!
St. Peter’s church has displayed its anniversary banner on King Street. It contains the church’s guiding motto, Caring through Faith, Life and Service. The church is named for the Apostle Peter, and the Symbol at the top of the banner depicts the keys in Jesus’ words to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16: 19)