Columns, Faithful and Reforming

From Salzburg to Georgia

Being Lutheran was not easy in the region around Salzburg in Austria in the early 18th century. By the end of 1731, it was not even permissible. On November 11 of that year, the Archbishop of Salzburg issued a decree giving Lutherans in the territory two choices — convert to Catholicism or leave.

The order kept the arrangement made following the religious wars stemming from the Protestant Reformation. Under the treaty that ended the Thirty Years War in 1648, the ruler of a territory determined which religion — Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist — would be permitted in that territory. For practical reasons, rulers did not always enforce the decree. But by the end of the 1720s, Salzburg’s Catholic Archbishop, who also held the political authority for his territory, decided the time had come.

Within a year, about 20,000 Lutherans left. Most journeyed north to settle in Prussia in eastern Germany or in the Netherlands. But for 41 religious exiles, another destination awaited. England needed settlers for a new colony. The colony’s organizers, aware through their German connections that these Salzburgers needed a home, offered to settle the emigrants in the land soon to called Georgia, named after England’s King George II.

By the end of 1733, the rag-tag group of exiles had made their way to Rotterdam. Joining them there were the two pastors appointed to lead them across the Atlantic and into their new life in America. Johann Martin Boltzius and Israel Christian Gronau had been educated in Halle, Germany, the center of German Pietism, a brand of Lutheranism that stressed the practice of Christian faith in a life of inward spiritual experience and outward service. From Rotterdam the group sailed to England, and from England to America, arriving in Savannah on March 12, 1734.

The colony’s British organizers offered to settle the Salzburg emigrants in the land soon to called Georgia, named after England’s King George II.

Russell C. Kleckley

James Oglethorpe, the governor of the colony, assigned to the Salzburgers a plot of land along the Savannah River, about four hours’ boat ride, or 25 miles, from the town of Savannah. The exiles named their settlement Ebenezer — “thus far has God helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).

When the land proved unsuitable, the fledging community relocated a few miles to New Ebenezer. Here, the people and their pastors resumed building their town and their lives. In time, houses replaced huts, and the community expanded beyond the confines of their small town to larger farms in the surrounding area. Their numbers grew as children were born as well as by the addition of more “transports” of emigrants who made the voyage across the Atlantic. Not all of these newcomers were “Salzburgers” but natives of the German territory of Swabia. By the early 1740s, the population of Ebenezer grew to almost 250 adults and children.

Sweet Georgia

But adjusting to the new land provided major challenges. Illness, especially in the form of malaria, became a constant companion. Pastor Boltzius himself battled malaria off and on for the better part of 20 years. Tragedy struck when Israel Gronau, the junior of the two pastors, died in 1745. The community also struggled to develop a healthy economic life through agriculture, milling, silk-making, and lumber.

Circumstances in Georgia brought their share of surprises — Boltzius reports his first encounter with a new root called a “potato” — and also disappointments. Missionary work among the native populations did not yield the results Boltzius had hoped for and, despite the pastor’s best efforts, slavery eventually made its way into the colony and into Ebenezer.

From Ebenezer, Boltzius gained a vantage point for observing the religious life of the American colonies. He became acquainted with John Wesley while the future Methodist leader served as an Anglican priest in Savannah. And he followed the situations of Lutherans in neighboring South Carolina and as far away as Pennsylvania. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the future leader of Lutheranism there, made Ebenezer his first stop to meet with Boltzius before undertaking his own ministry to the north.

By the time Boltzius died in 1765, the town of Ebenezer already was in decline, in large measure because of the success of the surrounding farms where the colonists settled. But the legacy remains. Jerusalem Lutheran Church continues as an active Lutheran congregation on the site of the settlement. The sanctuary, envisioned by Boltzius but constructed a few years after his death, is the second to occupy the site. Visitors who look closely at the bricks of the building can still see the imprints of fingers that made them. A vibrant retreat and conference center also welcomes thousands of visitors every year at the location once planned as the settlers’ permanent home.

From 41 original exiles and their two pastors, across an ocean and more than two-and-a-half centuries, the legacy continues in the descendents of those original settlers who left Europe and made Ebenezer their home.

Russell C. Kleckley is an associate professor of religion at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

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