Columns, Faithful and Reforming

“Father” Adam Keffer and early Canadian Lutheranism

How far would you go to get a pastor? Would you walk 500 miles (round trip) in blustery spring weather, and do it not only once, but twice?

This sounds like an impossible undertaking, but it really happened in 1849 and 1850, when Adam Keffer, a lay leader of some Lutherans near Toronto, Ontario, Canada, walked twice to Pennsylvania in order to find a Lutheran pastor for his congregation. On top of it all, “Father” Keffer was over 60 years old!

German Lutherans started coming to Canada in the 18th century. There were Lutheran congregations started in Nova Scotia in the 1750s, which were reinforced by “Loyalist” American Lutherans who went north during the Revolutionary War. In 1793, a group of 350 German Lutherans, who had originally settled in New York, crossed the Great Lakes and founded settlements in Ontario, outside of Toronto. They had been unable to find land in New York, and accepted a generous offer from the Governor in Ontario for 64,000 acres.

Mark Granquist

Mark Granquist

This area was wilderness; the group had great trouble reaching it, and further trouble in settling there. But they persevered, and founded a number of small Lutheran congregations. These Lutherans had brought a pastor along with them, but he remained for only a few years, then returned to Germany. After this, the fledgling congregations were occasionally served by regular Lutheran pastors, but there were long periods of vacancy in between.

In early North America, there were never enough pastors to go around, and this was especially true on the frontier.

In early North America, there were never enough pastors to go around, and this was especially true on the frontier. In desperation, congregations often had to resort to whatever kinds of pastors they could find, and there were many imposters running around claiming to be pastors when they really were not. Carl Cronmiller, an historian of Canadian Lutheranism, wrote, “These men may be described as clerical tramps, some of whom were discharged Army officers or schoolteachers, imposters who pretended to be ordained clergymen.”

These early Canadian Lutherans suffered from abuse at the hands of several such irregular pastors, who almost destroyed these congregations. In desperation, some Lutheran congregations were lured away and joined the Anglican church.

One more try

In 1849, some of the remaining members of Zion Lutheran Church, Maple, Ontario, sent one of their elders, Adam Keffer, to the United States to find them a pastor. Keffer, the son of one of the original founders of the congregation, set out walking to Pennsylvania and, tradition has it, carried his shoes most of the way (to save them from getting worn out).

Eventually Keffer was directed to a meeting of a new Lutheran organization, the Pittsburgh Synod, which was meeting the spring of 1849 in Klecknerville, Pennsylvania. One of the members of the synod, Rev. William Passavant, discovered Father Keffer walking barefoot in a garden at the edge of the village, and invited him to the synodical meeting. At the meeting, Keffer gave an impassioned appeal to the group for a pastor and for financial assistance.

The young Pittsburgh Synod (only four years old) sent one of its pastors to Ontario that summer to survey the field, but there was no immediate aid for the Canadian Lutherans beyond this. The next year, in the spring of 1850, the Pittsburgh Synod met in Pittsburgh and, to the astonishment of all, Adam Keffer showed up again, having walked more than 250 miles to reach the meeting. He delivered the same impassioned pleas as the year before, and this time got results.

As the synodical newspaper, The Missionary, records it: “The interviews of this aged patriarch with the Synod, and his agonizing entreaties for someone to come over and help them, went to the heart of everyone, and awakened an interest for the mission cause never before felt.”

This time Father Keffer’s prayers were answered, and a series of Lutheran pastors from the Pittsburgh Synod began long and successful ministries in Ontario. In the next decade, several dozen congregations were reactivated or formed.

By 1853 these congregations in Ontario were organized into the Canada Conference of the Pittsburgh Synod, an event that marks the first Lutheran synodical organization in Canada itself, and the oldest forerunner of the current Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

All this was possible because one old man would not stand by and see his congregation die for lack of a good pastor. In current parlance you could say that he “walked the walk,” as well as “talked the talk.”

Mark Granquist is professor of church history at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, The American Society of Church History, and the Norwegian American Historical Association.

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