Rural Hampton’s Zion Lutheran Church celebrates 150th year

HAMPTON – More than 350 people were in attendance for the 150th anniversary celebration and church service at the beautiful Zion Lutheran Church east of Hampton.

The rural setting is beautiful, to say the least, as the church, parsonage, fellowship hall and cemetery are nestled among cornfields and accessed by gravel roads.

The historic church was filled to the brim for the Sunday morning service, on Sept. 17, 2023, as past pastors, past members and current members of the congregation thanked God for the last century and a half of existence.

The rural congregation remains very active and alive, with many young families there to carry on into the future.

Following the celebration, those in attendance gathered for a noon dinner in the fellowship hall, as well as under a tent outdoors as there were so many in attendance. Children covered the playground equipment and the elders of the congregation reminisced about the many holidays, celebrations, weddings, funerals and events which have happened in this special place.

The first Lutherans to settle in the area where Zion Lutheran Church is located were Martin Werth and his sons, William and August. They came to this region of Hamilton County in October, 1869. The nearest Lutherans were some 20 miles away, according to historical accounts, but this situation soon changed. “Since more settlers came into the area, reading services began among the Lutherans. Then Rev. Theo. Gruber of Seward heard of the desire of these settlers to hear a Lutheran sermon. He came and preached to them in November, 1870. Pastor Gruber continued to visit this area every three months and was received with great joy,” says a church historical account.

Under Pastor Gruber’s leadership plans were made to organize a congregation and on October 27, 1872 a meeting was held for this purpose. The completion of the organization of the congregation did not come about until the following year. The congregation called itself the “German Evangelical Lutheran Zion Congregation of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.”

Pastor Gruber continued to serve the congregation until the year 1875 when the congregation called Rev. G.F. Burger of Stanton, Nebraska. He accepted the call and became the first resident pastor of the congregation. Soon after his arrival the congregation erected its first church building and this was formally dedicated in 1877. The building was also used as the Christian Day School and the children were for a number of years taught by the pastor. Previously, instruction had been in the hands of a Mr. Kugland who taught reading, writing and the catechism in a block house on Lincoln Creek. The congregation joined the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in 1880. In the same year a number of members were released to form Immanuel Lutheran Church, Polk.

Due to continued growth, a larger church building became a necessity and this was constructed and dedicated on July 1, 1883. Soon afterward the congregation recognized the need for a full-time teacher and a candidate was obtained. Mr. Eugen Schulz accepted the call and began to teach in 1885.

After faithfully serving Zion for some 13 years, Rev. Burger accepted a call to Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 1890. However, the congregation was blessed soon after with the arrival of a new pastor. The Rev. Theo. Moellering of Bazile Mills, Nebraska. He received a new parsonage in 1891. Teacher Schulz accepted a call in 1893 and his successor was Teacher Julius Sagehorn.

The year 1896 was a notable one for Zion. On April 22 of that year, lightning struck the church steeple and the building burned to the ground. A quote from the account of this incident in Rev. Moellering’s diary says, “About 10:30 p.m., lightning struck our church and set the steeple inside on fire. I saw it immediately, ran through the streaming rain to the teacher (Mr. Sagehorn) and to neighbor Arndt, whom I called, put the Communion ware away, and thereupon, since in the meantime neighbor Baack had also been called, we four tore loose the benches and carried them outside. Working at furious speed we had already removed most of them when help arrived. We knocked loose the altar and pulpit and brought them outside. We lugged the two large stoves outside. We saved the chandelier. We removed the benches from the balcony; yes, we even took the organ apart and saved it as well as the carpets and several windows. We worked at furious speed and just when the last parts of the organ were carried out the fire entered the interior of the church from the steeple and in a few minutes the whole building was a mass of flames. Fortunately, the storm changed directions so that the flames, as at first, were no longer blowing toward the parsonage. Within four hours after the stroke of lightning, our church had disappeared and only a few burning beams were left. We could not think of putting out the fire as the fire had started at a height of about 50 feet and there were no ladders.”

The church was only 13 years old but most of the furnishings were saved by the work of these men.

Obviously, the next problem was to rebuild. Meanwhile, the congregation worshiped in two places. The north half worshiped in the schoolhouse and the south half worshiped in town, first in the Christian church and later in the Methodist church. Christmas Eve services that year were held in the Danish Lutheran church north of Hampton. Finally, on October 31, 1897 the new church was dedicated. Its cost came to $8,000, of which the synod donated $1,000. This sum was repaid by the congregation in 1901.The altar, pulpit and pulpit canopy were donated by the confirmed youth who raised among themselves $350 for that purpose.

Several other notable events took place during Rev. Moellering’s pastorate. In 1901, a number of members were released from Zion to establish Salem Lutheran Church southwest of Hampton. Teacher Sagehorn accepted a call in 1905 and Teacher Robert Meyer assumed that position in the same year. Again in 1910, Zion released a number of members to found a new church. This time it was St. Peter’s of Hampton. Rev. Moellering accepted a call to Cincinnati in 1911.

Rev. Moellering’s successor was Rev. C.F. Brommer who came to Zion from Beatrice and was installed in December, 1911. During his pastorate the congregation saw its greatest numerical growth. A second school four miles north of the church was established and a second teacher called to teach there. This took place in 1915. Candidate Carl Firnhaber became its teacher. In 1914 the inside of the church was covered with tin and the whole building was repainted inside and out. Also in 1914 the congregation was honored to have its pastor elected president of the Southern Nebraska District.

There soon followed an event that was to be the most spiritually trying and probably the most historic event in the history of Zion congregation. A lawsuit developed between the state of Nebraska and Teacher Meyer. He was accused of teaching German which was said to be contrary to the state law. He was accordingly hauled into court and the ensuing legal battle resulted in a landmark decision by the United State Supreme Court in the case Meyer vs. Nebraska. The Supreme Court decision in this case has since become the legal precedent for the existence and maintenance of parochial schools in the country.

The congregation continued to not only grow but thrive over the years. That growth, as well as history, was demonstrated Sunday with special centerpieces which were replicates of the church building, as well as the offering of historic cookbooks, display plates and other specialty items to mark the occasion.

The church is special, architecturally, as well. The curved balcony is one of a kind and the beautiful historical pieces saved from the original church are the central focus of the altar.

Leading Sunday’s special service was Rev. Russ Sommerfeld, a former district president for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, as well as the congregation’s current pastor David Feddern. The planning committee – of which there were many members – wore special T-shirts created just for the occasion.

As hundreds mingled on the historic site, with that tall steeple reaching to the sky above, one could almost imagine what it was like for the early settlers to look out into the prairie and see that same beacon of hope and faith — a beacon which the rural Hampton Zion Lutheran congregates have maintained for 150 years.



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