Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we tell the story of Justus Helmuth, a Lutheran pastor in Revolutionary-era America.

It is the 16th of May 2023 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


We wade back into the sometimes tricky world of early American Lutheranism today- a sometimes difficult egg to crack on account of divisions back in the German lands and in the colonies and early states. This is sometimes also dogged by the language issue of many Germans continuing to speak, write and correspond in German in the U.S. and thus be further separated from their non-german speaking neighbors. 

Today we remember the fascinating character: Justus Christian Henry Helmuth, born on the 16th of May in 1745 in Helmstedt, Germany. He would attend school at the University of Halle- then the center of Lutheran pietism and Helmuth would serve as the preceptor of the famous Orphanage in Halle set up by August Herman Francke. When the early Lutherans went to the colonies in the 1700s, they called for help from back home- and it was these mission-minded Lutheran pietists who often heeded the call. This would give early American Lutheranism on the east coast a theological flavor that would be at odds with some coming later, during the Prussian union of churches into the Midwest. But I digress.

Helmuth took the call from Halle to Pennsylvania in 1769 and took a pastorate in Lancaster. He served there from 1769 to 1779 and became a pastor at St. Michael’s and Zion in Philadelphia. This was one of the motherships of early American Lutheranism led by Heinrich Muhlenberg. The church under Muhlenberg and then also under Helmuth conducted its services in German. Helmuth was a linguist and quite capable in English but believed Lutheran worship should be celebrated in its native German tongue. Interestingly, this has remained the case, and the church still stands today, called  “Old Zion” in Philadelphia, and still retains a service done “auf Deutsch” (in German).  

During the time Helmuth was minister, Philadelphia was the capital of the United States. We have correspondence between both Helmuth and George Washington, and John Adams. Helmuth and the congregation were pro-Revolution. Helmuth would be a member of the American Philosophical Society, where he would rub shoulders with the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, and others.

He would start a seminary for training ministers, but it eventually dissolved on account of his work expanding. Among his writings were hymns, works of local history, theology, and perhaps most interesting, “A Short Account of the Yellow Fever in Philadelphia for the Reflecting Christian.” It was in 1763 that disaster struck Philadelphia in the form of yellow fever.

In the second half of the year, 10 percent of the population of Philadelphia died from this unknown disease wherein the patient would develop trouble breathing, have general soreness, turn jaundice and throw up blood. Helmuth, writing just as it was abating, wrote this curious tract that was both semi-scientific, part theological treatise, and part defense of his own work and the work of his church during this time of death and distress. 

While we do know that it came through mosquitos and abated with cold weather at the end of the year, Helmuth suggested that it came from a ship that sailed in with damaged coffee (and do you know, friends, where you can get non-damaged coffee? Coffee by Gillespie- probably the great-great something of Helmuth himself).

People began to complain of shortness of breath and could be dead in between 2 and 4 days. Helmuth also suggested that the wickedness of the people of Philadelphia was to blame for their theatres and taverns- language paralleling that of the local Puritans and dissenters. But, along with the jeremiad against Philadelphia’s high society, he recounts that he has seen many dug in this time turn to Jesus. While his congregation continued to meet against the wishes of health officials, he claimed that they took all precautions, met in the larger building with open windows, and sat far apart from each other. He claimed that the 645 deaths in his congregation had more to do with them being poor and more likely to get the disease than their meetings (which they also switched to have only in the mornings to avoid the cold air at night). He would also bury not only his own congregants but anyone who needed a plot and service free of charge. One record has him burying bodies as fast as grave diggers could dig.

Helmuth would go on to find the Evangelische Magazin (German for Evangelical magazine), the first Lutheran periodical in America. Justus Christian Henry Helmuth would die shortly after retiring from the church in 1825. Born on this day in 1745, he was 79 years old.


The last word for today comes from Psalm 93:

The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty;
    the Lord is robed in majesty and armed with strength;
    indeed, the world is established, firm and secure.

Your throne was established long ago;
    you are from all eternity.

The seas have lifted up, Lord,
    the seas have lifted up their voice;
    the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.

Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
    mightier than the breakers of the sea—
    the Lord on high is mighty.

Your statutes, Lord, stand firm;
    holiness adorns your house
    for endless days.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of May 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man whose favorite Helmuths include Justus, poker player Phil, and architect George Helmuth- the man behind what was formerly called the Trans World Dome and is today “the Dome At America’s Center” in St. Louis- home to the XFL Battlehawks. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who believes that Dome is cursed- because they stole a football team, but God intervened, and the Rams came home. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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