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     We are able to trace the history of St. John United Church of Christ back to the year 1853 when two German families came from the Fatherland to settle in the wilderness that was to become the Billingsville community. The state of Missouri was only thirty-two years old. Sterling Price was governor. The land was covered by virgin forest and wild buffalo still roamed the hills. Deer were as plentiful as the settlers were scarce. The cabins of the settlers were few and far between. It was the era of the pioneer. Many newcomers of German birth were flocking into the state. Dr. Gottfried Druden, a German scholar, had written a book in praise of Missouri, saying that it compared very favorably with the Rhineland.

1853-1966 - As written in the 100th Anniversary Book​


He wrote of the beauty of the countryside, the fertility of the land, the wonderful system of democracy, and on the purely practical side the low cost of living. Beef was selling for less than two cents a pound and an entire turkey could be purchased for twelve cents. 

     Those sturdy men and women who left their homes in Germany came to "the land of the free' with illusions of settling in a country where they would be welcomed; where they could grow and prosper; where they could see the fulfillment of their hopes and ambitions. They found rich land, to be sure, but they also found, in addition to the backbreaking work of clearing land, building cabins, and planting crops, that they were the objects of a bitter prejudice. In the early 1850's the "Know Nothing" or "American Party" was formed for the sole purpose of depriving foreign born Americans of their civil and human rights. So it was that those first bold pioneers, to whom St. John owes its origin, faced not only the rigor of the wilderness but also the hatred and prejudice of their narrow-minded fellow Americans. But the vision; of a new land and a new life drove them onward. 


    This must have been something of the vision that led those two German families to this locality. In 1853 John Stegner, his wife, their son, August and their two daughters, Mary and Christina, endured the hardship of the ocean crossing and the rigors of the long trek to the middle of the American continent. With them carne the John Paul Stegner family. In addition to Mr. and Mrs. John Paul Stegner came their two sons, Nicholas and George, and their five daughters, Margaret, Anna Rethabar, Christina, Barbara, and Anna. Two girls, coming to this country in search of employment, completed this party. These two girls were Mary and Elizabeth Hoflander. Their glowing reports of this new land prompted the rest of their family, Mr. and Mrs. John Ernest Hoflander, and their two sons, George and Paul, and their other daughter, Barbara, to come to this country in 1854 and settle close to the Stegners. These people, making a new life in this new land, were able to bring little in the way of material goods from the Deutchland. They did, however, bring with them a devout faith in the God who had led them to this new life. In the Old Country these people had been accustomed to attending divine worship every Sabbath and we can well imagine how they missed this opportunity here in the wilderness. It was this spirit of worship in the hearts of our forefathers that led to the founding of St. John and has endured until this very day. 


    The first religious meeting of this small band of settlers took place on a Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1855 at the home of John Ernest Hoflander. Thirteen persons attended and took part in that simple worship service. Those attending were: John Ernest Hoflander and his wife, their two sons, George and Paul, and their two daughters, Mary and Barbara; John Peter Stegner and his wife and one son, August and their two daughters, Mary and Christina; and John Paul Stegner and his wife. John Ernest Hoflander led in prayer and read from the Scripture, while John Peter Stegner led in the singing. This modest beginning of public worship in this new land led to development of a congregation at Billingsville. These home services were held regularly each Sunday, with all members of the group participating. 


    The economic and social conditions in Europe led to a great increase in immigration into this locality. Few years passed before other German American families settled here, seeking, as they settled to worship the God who had delivered them to a new life. Of those arriving later we might here call attention to Lorenz Stegner, the brother of John Peter Stegner and John Paul Stegner, who arrived in this area with his family in the year 1856. He died only a few years after his arrival but he was remembered as a devout man who had a deep and vital interest in the religious life of the community. His devotion to the spiritual wellbeing of himself and his neighbors was undoubtedly a guiding force for those who carried on. An early record of the Billingsville congregation gives the following account of the events which followed. "At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 the able-bodied men were called upon to defend the honor of the country they had learned to love, and the Sunday services were then discontinued for the time being. The horrors of those four years of civil strife can never be told. Missouri being a neutral state, was overrun by bands of guerrillas, or 'bushwhackers', as they were commonly called, and these acted contrary to all laws of warfare.


    Death and destruction followed in the wake of these bands of half savage men. To the few who were left to take care of the homes and till the small farms while the men were at the front, it was, indeed, a trying time. The days were spent in labor in the fields and anxiety for loved ones at the front; the nights, however, were filled with loneliness and terror. No one knew what might happen next. On August 31, 1864, a tragedy occurred in the little community that in some measure goes to illustrate the horrors of war. Christian Krohn (who had been a part of those early worship services) was shot and killed by guerrillas at his own home. He was assisting his wife and ten month old son to dismount from a horse, when a party of horsemen hurriedly rode up. Mr. Krohn was commanded to go into the house. He turned the child over to its mother and retraced his steps to do as he was bid, when a volley was fired and he fell dead at his own threshold. With innate brutality the men then proceeded to set fire to the house, and the widow was commanded to get what articles she wished saved. 'You have killed my husband, so you may as well burn my house too,' was her reply. At this some form of pity must have touched the heart of one of the men, for he returned to the house and extinguished the fire, whereupon they rode away, leaving the cottage stand unharmed. Such is war!" 


    With the end of the war came again the desire to worship together the Lord of Hosts, who had shielded and protected the people during their time of strife. Regular Sunday worship services were instituted in the spring of 1866. The place of worship was the Oak Grove district school, about one mile northwest of the present site of Billingsville. "Father'' Greiner, pastor of the Evangelical congregation of Boonville, was called to conduct worship services twice a month. The very existence of the Billingsville congregation in its early years can be traced directly back to the dedication of Pastor Greiner, who, rain or shine, would either ride horseback or walk the seven miles from Boonville to lead the worship services.


    One of Missouri's leading citizens, Frederick T. Kemper, founder of the Kemper Military Academy, regularly conducted Sunday School each Sunday in the English language. We are told that all of the young people of the community looked forward to these services and took an active part in them. In 1868 the congregation purchased the school building for the sum of fifty dollars. The charter members were: John Zchirpe, George Hehnreich, John Hoflander, John Paul Stegner, John Peter Stegner, and George Rentschler. After the purchase of a building for a place of worship other members of the community were added to the congregation. Among these early members were: Louis Staebler, John Ritzhaupt, Edward Helmreich, Christian Oscher, and John Dumolt. This little congregation, eager to serve the religious needs of the community, continued to grow and prosper. The community received an economic boost in 1868 with the opening of the railroad through the Billingsville community. Construction of the railroad was begun a number of years prior to the Civil War, but was discontinued during the years of conflict. Billingsville now became a place of relative importance and many more people settled in the area. 


    On June 3, 1872 the first death occurred in the Oak Grove congregation, as it was then called. Henry Robien passed away and was buried in the church yard. A cemetery was thus begun, which still exists today. "Father" Greiner continued to serve the congregation until his death in February of 1877. He was succeeded by Rev. Lange, who, in 1879, was succeeded by Rev. Schneider. It had been the dream of ''Father" Greiner during his lifetime, that the Oak Grove congregation build a church at Billingsville. In 1879 this work was finally begun. George W. Hehnreich, one of the leading layman in the community and for many years the superintendent of the Sunday School, donated the plot of ground upon which the church stands today. The new church, including interior furnishings, cost a total of $1,100.00. Rev. Schneider, on the first Sunday in May, 1880, dedicated this new place of worship. Rev. Schneider continued to serve both the Boonville and Billingsville congregations until 1884, at which time he was succeeded by Rev. L. Kohhnan. 


    On January 4, 1885, the first constitution was adopted by the congregation. Rev. A. Pistor succeeded Rev. Kohhnan in 1887. Rev. B. H. Leesmann was called to this pastorate in 1891. In the year 1895 a parsonage was built and the congregation became self-supporting. Rev. W. F. Hermann was installed as the first regular pastor on January 19, 1896 and West Boonville was accepted as a filial congregation. Rev. Hermann was succeeded in 1899 by Rev. D. Behrens who served the congregation for nine years. Rev. K. Mueller was installed as the next pastor on May 1, 1907 and remained until November 1, 1912. Rev. C. A. Stadler was next installed on April 1, 1913. He served the congregation in connection with West Boonville until January 1, 1915. Rev. E. W. Berlekamp was installed as pastor on April 11, 1915. 


    It was under the leadership of Rev. E. W. Berlekamp that on January 1, 1916, the congregation decided to build the present church building. While the present building was under construction services were held at the Billingsville school house. An altar was constructed outside and, weather permitting, the services were held outdoors. A newspaper account of the period tells us that well over 500 people attended the service on May 7, 1916 for the laying of the cornerstone of the new building. Rev. E. M. Henze of Boonville and Rev. Dollfield of Clear Creek assisted Rev. Berlekamp in the ceremonies. The church was modem in every respect, with electric lights from its own plant, a central heating plant, and large Sunday School rooms. A huge sum for that period of time was raised, $7,000.00, to pay for the building. 


    We are able to see, in the church records, the impact world politics had upon even the small Billingsville community. The First World War was raging in Europe and in some areas anti-German feeling was running high. Even in our little church services in the German language was suspended for a period of fifteen months. It was not until July of 1919 that it was voted to again hold services in German, and then only on the second and fifth Sundays of the month. The congregation did not, however, wish to forget its German heritage. It was decided, in 1919, to retain the German hymnal instead of adopting the new English Hymnal. It was not until 1920 that the English language Evangelical Hymnal was finally officially adopted. In 1922 a new constitution was written and translated into English. It was not, however, until 1940 that it was voted to dispense completely with German services. 


    In January 1919 Rev. Berlekamp tendered his resignation and on March 23, 1919, Rev. R. J. Kurz was called to this pastorate. He served the Billingsville congregation until 1921 when Rev. Paul Niedermeyer began his long period of service. Rev. Niedermeyer led this congregation until1929. Rev. William Hauff served as pastor from 1930 to 1931. In 1931 Rev. Gustaff Kreuzenstein accepted a call to serve the Billingsville church. A near tragedy occurred during Rev. Kreuzenstein' s pastorate here. In 1933 his son was kidnapped by an armed desperado who broke into the parsonage, stole Rev. Kreuzenstein's car and forced Victor to drive him to Kansas City. The tragedy was averted when the Highway Patrol, after being alerted by Rev. Kreuzenstein, stopped the getaway car and arrested the escaped convict near Higginsville. We can well imagine the many prayers of came a part of the growing ecumenical movement. Rev. Kreuzenstein continued to serve what was now St. John Evangelical and Reformed Church of Billingsville until1936 when Rev. F. W. Paul was called to his ministry here. He was succeeded by Rev. R. L. Malchow, who guided the congregation through the dark days of World War II. 


    The hearts of the congregation were saddened when word was received that Sergeant John Schier, son of Mr. and Mrs. Anton Schier, was killed in Germany on November 18, 1944, as he defended his country. Rev. Malchow resigned in 1945 and Reverend F. W. Paul 19361942 Reverend P. Weltge 1955 1961 Reverend R. L. Ma Iehew 1942 1945 Reverend Ernest Eimers 1961 was succeeded in 1946 by Rev. Henry G. Rieder. In the events of 1948 we see something of the spirit of the congregation. The desire for ecumenicity that prevailed in 1934, when the Evangelical and Reformed Church was formed, showed itself again in March of 1948 when the congregation of St. John overwhelmingly voted to urge its denomination to merge with the Congregational Christian Church. This merger did not come about until nine years later. On February 15, 1948, a congregational meeting was held to discuss the possibility of purchasing a new pipe organ. By the next Sunday, February 22, nearly $3,900.00 had been raised to cover the purchase and installation of the organ. 


    In 1951 the parsonage was completely remodeled. Rev. A. E. Limper, pastor from 1951 to 1955, conducted the dedication services on December 2, 1951. Rev. P. Weltge assumed his pastorate here in 1955. In 1956 the church sanctuary was completely renovated. The dedication service was held on December 16, 1956. In 1957 the merger (which St. John had urged as early as 1948) between the Evangelical and Reformed and the Congregational Christian Churches was completed. The Billingsville congregation now officially became St. John United Church of Christ. Rev. Weltge resigned in 1961 and Ernest E. Eimers, then a student at Eden Seminary, served.  Thanksgiving that arose from the hearts of the congregation when Victor was returned safely to Billingsville.


    The early years of our present century were marked by worldwide spirit of ecumenicity as was evidenced by such meetings as the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh (1910), the Stockholm Conference on Life and W ark (1925), the Lausanne Conference on Faith and Order (1927), and the Jerusalem Missionary Conference {1928). Out of these meetings came the realization that there was a common heritage and close ties of unity between Evangelical Synod and the Reformed Church. So it was that on June 26, 1934, the Evangelical and Reformed Church came into being. The congregation of Billingsville accepted this union and be the congregation as Student Pastor for the summer. In the fall of 1961 Rev. F. C. Rueggeberg was called to supply the pulpit of St. Johns. He served in this capacity until 1964. In the fall of 1964 Dr. Paul Ross Lynn, Professor of Church and Community at the Missouri School of Religion, and J. Richard Schnatmeier, a student in the Seminary of the Missouri School of Religion, began to jointly serve the St. John congregation. In February of 1965 the congregation voted to extend a call to Student Pastor Schnatmeier to serve as their resident pastor. On April 4, 1965, the congregation, heeding the admonition of Jesus Christ that all men are children of the same Father, voted to sign the "Open Membership'' statement, affirming that all men, regardless of race or ethnic background, are welcomed and encouraged to become members of St. Johns U.C.C. 


    In February of 1966 a vigorous program was undertaken for the renovation of the church basement. The walls were redecorated, the floor tiled and new restrooms were installed. This work was completed in April 1966. 


    The history of St. John United Church of Christ would not be complete without the mention of Rev. N. C. Schultz, now pastor of the United Church of Christ in Arrow Rock. For many years Rev. Schultz, then pastor of Immanuel U.C.C. in New Franklin, faithfully supplied St. John when we were without a resident pastor.  


    Five sons of the St. John congregation have entered the ministry. Rev. E. J. Becker, now deceased, was ordained in 1908. Rev. Carl H. Grathwohl, ordained in 1934, is presently administrator of Deaconess Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. Rev. Irvin B. Stegner was ordained in 1936 and is now serving Immanuel United Church of Christ in Belvue, Kansas. Rev. George Schier, now serving The United Church of Christ of Westminster, Colorado, was ordained in 1944. Rev. Daniel J. Schier, ordained in 1955, is presently completing his studies for a Ph.D. degree at the University of Missouri and is an instructor in the department of Community Development.  


    St. Johns United Church of Christ is at present composed of 133 members and 42 children. We are a church rich in the traditions of the past but alive with hope for the future. We have dwelled, in this history, on the past; but we see that the past is only a springboard into the future. We pray that God will bestow upon us his Holy Spirit that we may move forward in a firm faith, serving God by serving our fellowmen. May we heed the charge:  "Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast to that which is good; render to no man evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honor all men; love and serve God; rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit."

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