1853-1991 - As written in the 100th Anniversary Book
The attraction of a fruitful new land where unlimited opportunity and true freedom existed brought many German immigrants to America. Newcomers of German heritage were especially attracted to the mid-Missouri region by a book written by Dr. Gottfried Duden, a German scholar, praising Missouri and comparing it favorably with the Rhineland. In it he wrote of the beauty of the countryside, the fertility of the land, the wonderful system of democracy, and the low cost of living.
The trip to the "land of the free" was long and tedious. When Johann Peter Stegner and his family arrived in June 1853, they settled in an area known as Billingsville, south of the busy river port of Boonville. Missouri had been a state for more than a generation and Boonville was a thriving town of more than 2,000. Three major roads south from Boonville went through or near the Billingsville area.
Johann Peter Stegner purchased a semi improved" farm of 97 acres for $1,000.00. The Johann Paul Stegner family, who immigrated at the same time, did not move to the Billingsville area until 1857, probably because they did not have funds until then to purchase the land. Johann Ernst and Kunigunda (Stegner) Hoflander arrived in 1854, purchasing a farm immediately northwest of Johann Peter Stegner. In 1858 another brother, Lorenz Stegner and his wife Elizabeth, brought their nine children and purchased land just north of where Johann Paul Stegner had settled. All of these families had sold their homes in Germany to purchase what they thought would be cheap land in America. This family migration had also become a family settlement, a sort of American recreation of the close-knit village environment they had left.
The immigrants faced more difficulty than they had expected. The “semi-improved" farms they purchased were a far cry from the well-established agricultural area they had left. They had to struggle with a new language, with new methods of farming such as clearing the land, shaping logs with a broad-axe, and making split rail fences. They also faced a loneliness they were not prepared for. Although there were many other immigrants in America, the Germans were isolated by language, their views on slavery, and their religious preferences. They were not Catholic Germans, nor were they interested in the area's Baptist assemblies as they were accustomed to a long-established religious body administered by educated and formally ordained clergy. The more formal bodies, Methodist and Presbyterian, had class connections or pretensions into which the immigrants did not fit.
It was then rather natural that this group would form a religious fellowship. In their weekly meetings they drew in upon themselves, escaping for a few hours to live again as Germans among Germans, speak the old language without misunderstanding or being misunderstood, sing the old hymns, pray the old prayers, and to reinforce their Christian faith as they understood it. On Sunday afternoon in the Spring of 1855, the families of Johann Peter and Johann Paul Stegner met in the home of Johann Ernst and Kunigunda Hoflander for an informal worship and religious service, a prayer, scripture reading, and hymn singing. Thirteen years later in 1868, these families and three immigrant neighbors, the George Helmreich family, the Johann Zschirpe family, and the Johann Rentscheler family, paid $50.00 to purchase the recently abandoned Oak Grove schoolhouse which was about a quarter of a mile cast of the new village site of Billingsville. The building had been used by the group since 1866 as a temporary sanctuary because they had outgrown the informal family gatherings in the homes. Services, which had been suspended during the Civil War, were held semimonthly and were led by Rev. C.L. "Father" Greiner of the Boonville Evangelical congregation. "Father" Greiner rode or walked the seven miles to the Oak Grove schoolhouse in rain or sunshine to lead the worship. F.T. Kemper, proprietor of the Kemper Family School in Boonville, taught weekly Sunday School exercises. He owned a sizable piece of land adjoining the Hoflanders on the north.
Steadily the informal group was growing into a formal congregation, and by 1879 they had prospered enough to start construction of their own sanctuary. This had been the dream of "Father" Greiner who had served the congregation until his death in 1877.It was located on a site in Billingsville village alongside of the Boonville Tipton railroad. The church was the first permanent structure of the young community. Cash outlay for the building was $1,100.00. The labor was donated by the congregation, the land by George Helmreich. The plot was large enough to allow for a cemetery and a parsonage. The building was spacious and accommodating. It was dedicated on May 2, 1880, as St. Johannes Evangelische Kirche. Rev. Schneider, who had come to the church after the brief stay of Rev. Lange, led the dedication. About four hundred persons attended, among them a group from the Boonville Evangelical Church who came by special excursion train. The event was written up in the Boonville Weekly Advertiser on May 7, 1880.
Rev. L. Kohlman succeeded Rev. Scheider in 1884. On January 4, 1885, the congregation adopted its first constitution, formally becoming a full-fledged religious body. Rev. A. Pistor was next to serve in 1887 and was followed by Rev. B.H. Leesmann in 1891. In 1895 a parsonage was built and the congregation became self-supporting. Rev. W.F. Herman was installed as the first regular pastor on January 19, 1896, and West Boonville Evangelical church was accepted as a filial congregation. Rev. Hermann was succeeded in 1889 by Rev. Diedrich Behrens who served the congregation for nine years.
Rev Behrens and his family all played significant roles during his ministry at St. Johns. Well-educated, vigorous, forceful, and experienced, he was just what the congregation needed. With the exception of the Sunday school and the annual picnic, the Behrenses established all of the congregation’s subdivisions. A woman’s group, a choir, and a young people’s group all became active. The Deutsche Schule was taught by the pastor and reminded the young of their parent’s heritage. The Schule was regarded as an extension and enrichment of the public school education. The Behrens impact upon St. Johns was lasting. Both daughters were married to members of the congregation and Rev. Behrens, who died in 1919, is the only minister who served the church to be buried in its cemetery. There he rests with his wife, both daughters and their husbands.
Rev. Karl Mueller was installed on May 1, 1907. A native of Switzerland, Mueller was well educated and gave strong leadership, but he was a more congenial person than Behrens and fit well into the community life. His ministry was a time of modification and/or consolidation. Mueller's successor was installed on April 1, 1913, and remained for two years. The Rev. Edwin W. Berlkamp was installed in 1915. This was at a time when the congregation was maturing into a vigorous and self-confident group. Its members were also becoming modestly well-to-do. The quarter century after the economic depression of the 1890's was one of the longest periods of uninterrupted good times experienced by rural Americans. The war in Europe was bringing unprecedented demand for farm goods. Congregational members were taking trips, sprucing up farmsteads and barns, some even adding carbide gas lights, central heating and indoor plumbing. The first car purchased was a Model T Ford in 1910. In the next ten years all but one or two of the families had cars, some even acquiring Buicks, Willys-Knights, even a Briscoe.
Rev. Berlekamp was a man for the time and he and his wife, Martha, would preside over the opening of a new era in the congregation. Although of German descent, he was a graduate of Eden Theological Seminary. He and his wife were both young, in their twenties, and were bilingual. It would be Berlekamp who would carry the congregation over into using English as its first language with the help of the United States entry into war against Germany. Berlekamp was from the same background as the other young families of the church and understood their dilemma of breaking free from their German heritage without repudiating it or offending their parents and grandparents. But Rev. Berlekamp was also highly regarded by the older parishioners. No one knows whether it was he or his congregation who first proposed the move to construct a new and more modem sanctuary, but the members were more than ready to make a commitment to the future. The decision was made at the annual meeting on January 1, 1916, and the last services were held in the old building on March 11, 1916. Services were held in the Billingsville Schoolhouse during construction. Again much of the work was done by the congregation so the actual cost is impossible to calculate. There was a cash outlay of $7,000.00, but this was enhanced not only by the free labor but also by the many memorial gifts of stained glass windows, altar, pulpit lectern, baptismal font, communion services, etc. According to the Boonville Central Missouri Republican, reporting on the church building dedication on November 12, 1916, the new St. Johns has no equal among rural village churches in all of Cooper County: full basement, kitchen, Sunday School rooms, minister's study, choir loft and robing room, even a small room off of the sanctuary for parents with fretful children. Only a pipe organ was missing and that had even been proposed.
The year 1916 was also the fiftieth anniversary of the resumed meetings of the congregation in the Oak Grove schoolhouse. Although services actually may have begun in the Hoflander home in 1855, the congregation, whether by official choice or tradition, choose to record 1866 on the cornerstone of the new church. In January, 1919, Rev. Berlekarnp resigned and his successor was Rev. R.J. Kurz. His service lasted until 1921, when Rev. Paul Niedemeyer began his long period of service. Niedemeyer had the longest tenure of any St. Johns minister and was popular enough that he could have stayed longer if he had chosen to do so. Niedemeyer was able to balance the sense of tradition with the confidence and progress the congregation had come to expect from the ministries of Behrens, Mueller, and Berlekarnp. Perhaps his most significant contribution was to attract several new families into St. Johns. His policy was a break from the insular attitudes of a closely held congregation which would accept those of their own kind but not allow them to have much role in running things. In 1924, St. Johns began their first Vacation Bible School, opened to anyone who would come. The number who attended from the Speed Union congregation helped swell the size of the group. About twenty children attended from there, arriving every day on the back of a truck.
Rev. Niedemeyer resigned in 1928 and was succeeded by Rev. William Hauff from 1930 to 1931. In 1931 Rev. Gustaff Kreuzenstein accepted a call to the Billingsville church. The crash of 1929 did not immediately affect many in this rural congregation but it was not long before almost everyone was feeling the crunch. The 1930's were bitter, hard years. By the end of the 1920’s St. Johns was a long ways from being an immigrant church. Leadership had passed into the second and third generation descendants of the immigrants founders. Yet St. Johns was still viewed as a German church, partly because with few exceptions, the membership was of German descent or had German surnames. The congregation was still made up of genuinely rural people. In 1930 only four families were engaged in nonfarm occupations. The social world was still that of rural people who had little contact with those who lived in town. Even when the rural children began attending high school their limited expectations of themselves were accepted by the high school faculties. Of the nine who went to college from St. Johns in the 1920's five attended Elmhurst College, the Evangelical Synod’s preparatory college for ministers. Two of the nine were eventually ordained. It did not seem to occur to anyone that they could aim for medicine, law, business, or the like. From a rural background, they expected to return to farming as an occupation.
The realization that there was a common heritage and close tie of unity between the Evangelical Synod and the Reformed Church led to a union of the two. So it was that St. Johns accepted that union and on June26, 1934, became a part of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. In 1936 Rev. Kreuzenstein was succeeded by Rev. Firdel W. Paul. Then Rev. Russell L. Malchow accepted the call in 1942. It was he who guided the church through the dark days of World War II. Sgt. John Schier, son of Mr. and Mrs. Anton Schier was killed in Germany on November 18, 1944. Although many young men from the church defended their country there, Sgt. Schier was the only son that was lost. In 1946 Rev. Henry G. Rieder came to St. Johns, He stayed until 1951 and it was under his leadership that the congregation voted overwhelmingly to urge its denomination to merge with the Congregational Christian Church, although the actual merger did not come about for nine years.
ln February of 1948, a congregational meeting was held to discuss the purchase of a new pipe organ. The organ had been proposed in 1916 when the present building was erected, but the funding had never been sufficient to complete the project. What funds had been raised for that purpose had to be channeled to current expenses during the hard times. This time the dream would come true, and by the very next Sunday $3,900.00 had been raised to cover the purchase and installation of the organ. In 1951 the parsonage was completely remodeled and was dedicated by Rev. Arthur Limper who served St. Johns from 1951 to 1955. Rev.Paul Weltge assumed his pastorate here in 1955. In 1956 the congregation once again turned its thoughts to more modern times and completely renovated the sanctuary. It was dedicated on December 16, 1956. In 1957 the reality of the merger between the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Church was completed. The Billingsville congregation officially became St. Johns United Church of Christ. Rev. Weltge resigned in 1961 and Ernest Eimers, then a student at Eden Seminary, served the congregation as Student Pastor for the summer.
In the fall of 1961, Rev. F.C. Rueggeberg was called to the pulpit of St. Johns where he served until 1964. Dr. Paul Ross Lynn, professor of Church and Community at the Missouri School of Religion, and J. Richard Schnatmeier, a student of the Missouri School of Religion, began to jointly serve St. Johns. In February of 1965, a call was issued to student Pastor Schnatmeier to serve as resident pastor. On April 4, 1965, the congregation which had started in the home of a German immigrant voted to heed the admonition of Jesus Christ that all persons are children of the same Father and signed the "Open Membership" statement, affirming that all persons, regardless of race or ethnic background, are welcome and encouraged to become members at St. Johns.
In 1966, during the service of Student Pastor Schnatmeier, the church at Billingsville observed its One Hundredth Anniversary, (Note: Dated from the time services resumed at Oak Grove schoolhouse after the Civil War.) A two day celebration was held and was attended by persons from all over the United States who had family members at St. Johns or who had grown up under the influence of this small, rural church. Student Pastor Schnatmeier left St. Johns in 1967 and was succeeded by Rev. Edwin Berger. In January of that same year, the congregation voted to cease having the Lord's Acre Sale for at least one year. The event, which had been a popular time of fellowship and fund raising, would not be resumed under that name.
In 1971, Rev. Otto Schroedel and his sister, Hedwig Schroedel, came to Billingsville. Schroedel was retired, but had decided to spend some time serving a small church. He was a widower and his sister, a retired nurse, filled in as a wife would in church activities. Rev Schroedel and Hedwig were popular with the congregation. He was truly a gentleman, well-educated and kindly, and he left his mark on the people of St. Johns. In 1978, "Otto" as he was fondly called by most adults, was forced to actually retire because of his health. Rev. William Smart and his family moved into the parsonage in October, 1978. Rev. Smart was an active pastor who was able to regain interest in many of the subdivisions of the church that had fallen by the wayside. During his pastorate the Vacation Bible School was started again. As before the doors were opened to the surrounding community and children from many denominations attended. The Sunday School Board was organized with bylaws of its own. From that board came the first monthly newsletter to be published since the 1950's. It was named the "Voice of Billingsville" in honor of Hedwig Schroedel who used that name on a popular, local, call-in radio show.
By 1980 the congregation was reflecting the changing attitude of society. The rights of women had become an important issue, and at the annual meeting in January the constitution was changed to expand the consistory membership to seven with a minimum of two women members. In May of 1980 a check was received from Harold and Francis Gerhardt, as a memorial to Chris Fredric and Minnie Gerhardt. They requested that it be the beginning of a memorial fund for chimes for the pipe organ. Many other memorials were received in a short time and the chimes were in place for the Christmas season that year.
In September of 1980 the first "Harvest Festival “was held. It was the result of a vote by the congregation in April of that year to return to having some sort of fall sale similar to the old Lord's Acre Sale with the funds to be used for repairs and improvements on the church and parsonage. The festival was such a success that it has continued every fall. In time it became not only a fund raising project but also a time of homecoming for old friends and former members. The funds were used primarily for building improvements but a large amount of the money was used to help make another of the congregation's dreams a reality.
Rev. Walter Price came to St. Johns in 1984. He was a retired minister from Jefferson City who came with the intentions of filling the pulpit as needed and stayed on for three years. During his tenure, in April of 1985, the congregation voted by a two thirds majority to build an addition to the south side of the existing building. The ground breaking ceremony was held in June, 1985, for the addition which included three Sunday School rooms, a pastor's study, and a restroom on the main level. The walkout basement included a new kitchen and restrooms plus an expanded fellowship hall and an entrance on the west side. Reflecting the national awareness for the needs of the handicapped, both levels were made accessible to wheelchairs. As with the fund for the chimes, the fund for the addition was started by a donation by Mr. and Mrs. Ed Helmreich in memory of their son Glenn. Many other generous memorial gifts were given and are listed on a plaque in the hall of the building. Funds from the Harvest Festival were also used to complete this new portion of the church. In November, 1986, the Glenn E. Helmreich Memorial Addition was dedicated.
In July, 1987, Rev. Harold Reisch of Columbia, Mo., agreed to fill the pulpit as an interim. He was a retired pastor and had served seven terms in the Missouri House of Representatives. With his background in democracy, Rev. Reisch encouraged the adoption of the Functional Committee Plan. With this plan, each member of the congregation would serve on one of five committees and therefore had direct input on recommendations to the consistory. A Search Committee was formed but the congregation had to accept the fact that by the 1980’s there were many changes in the clergy. There were not as many candidates for the ministry as in earlier years, many of those being ordained were choosing administrative services over pastoral duties, and now many of the graduates were women. The church sponsored two student pastor's summer internships at St. Johns: Connie Lunn in 1988 and James Glaubitz in 1990. In January of 1991 the sanctuary was redecorated completely including new carpeting and refinishing the oak pews which had been put in place in 1916. Rev. Reisch and his wife Bess had served many years in the ministry, and although officially retired, he was willing to continue to commute to St. Johns until a pastor could be hired. In April, 1991, the congregation installed Rev. Alan Ballentine as pastor. This was Rev. Ballentine's first pastorate; once again St. Johns had a full time pastor with a family in the parsonage.
When telling of those who pastored St. Johns, mention must also be made of Rev. N.C. Schultz. Rev. Schultz, as pastor of Immanuel United Church of Christ in New Franklin, faithfully supplied St. Johns at times when there was not a resident pastor. Also St. Johns produced five persons who served in the ministry. Rev E.J. Becker, ordained in 1908, is deceased. Also deceased arc Rev. Carl H. Grathwohl, ordained in 1934, and Rev. Irvin B. Stegner, ordained in 1936. Rev. George Schier, who was ordained in 1944, is retired and living in Claremont, California, and will speak at the 125th celebration. Ordained in 1955, Rev. Daniel J. Schler now resides in Arvada, Colorado, where he is semi-retired from the faculty of the University of Colorado.
This little country church has changed dramatically. By the 1970’s and 80’s a large part of the congregation no longer had German surnames. In fact, many members have come into the church as "new blood" and are not related to the founding families. The heads of the households were not necessarily farmers as a number are engaged in business or a profession. Many of the wives who had stayed at home in earlier years are now employed, in fact many are professionals themselves. The country schools are gone and the young people all attend school and many go on to college, entering the academic or business world as confidently as their urban friends. Many of those who still farm may live in town and commute to the farm, while business people may have their home in the country where they tend a few acres on the weekends.
In spite of the changes time has brought, this church has remained surprisingly rural in its nature, especially the social and fellowship aspects. As in very early times, the church picnics and socials are still an important part of St. Johns. The Harvest Festival mentioned earlier is successful because of its "country" atmosphere. The congregation still has annual soup suppers and ice cream socials, bake sales and carry in dinners. The membership still rallies to help individuals in time of sorrow or hardship. Even though many member families have no agricultural ties, the basic rural society still exists beside the changes to more modern ways. In the natural course of events, especially in the United States with its highly mobile population, many family names that were once prominent in St. Johns Church no longer appear on the roles. But it is impressive that, in spite of the changes that have occurred in the past 125 to 136 years, an element of continuity does remain. Direct descendants of the three families who first gathered to worship and were among the charter members Johann Paul Stegner, Johann Peter Stegner, and Johann Ernst Hoflander are still active at St. Johns today. In fact, the original farms of Johann Peter Stegner and Johann Ernst Hoflander, bought in 1853 and 1854 respectively, remain in the hands of descendants of the same surname. Relatives of a fourth charter member, Georg Helmreich, are likewise active in the congregation. Oscar Friedrich, the oldest living member of St. Johns, was baptized in 1899 by the Rev. Dietrich Behrens, his grandmother and uncle having come to St. Johns in the late 1890's. Other present members descend from the Christian Osten family, the William Torbeck family, and the Joseph Gerhardt family, all of whom became a part of the church in the later part of the 1800's or very early 1900's.
The rural population fell sharply between 1930 and 1991 with many rural churches across the nation closing their doors. St. Johns owes its survival in part to the ecumenicism that had merged the Evangelical Synod and the Reformed Church in 1934 and then the Congregational Christian Churches in 1957. St. Johns has come to its 125th year as an organized congregation. In ways that are numerous and obvious it is very different from the small German band of immigrants who farmed it. But in many ways it remains the same and continues the same strong traditions. It is still a "family" church even though all of its members are not joined by blood relationships. They are instead joined as a family of God; to this end they give to each other the same care and support of a family or small group who banded together for a common reason. Early members of St. Johns had to combat many hardships together in the formative years in order to get the church established. Now the members work together against hardships. Of a different nature to see that the church continues. It is a strong church. It does indeed have its roots in the past but it has great faith in the future and in the fact that the people who join together here to worship God will continue to be people of strong character and strong beliefs.
Geiger, Louis G.,
ST. JOHANNES DEUTCHHE EVANGELISCHE KIRCHE, 1991
Schnattmeier, J. Richard,
ST. JOHN 100 YEAR HISTORY, 1966
Thanks to both of these people for allowing us to use the history they have worked so hard to compile.