Hebron Lutheran Church, near Madison, VA, was established in 1717 and has met in the same structure since 1740. About 300 members, former congregationalists, and supporters, from all over the country, gathered today to celebrate Hebron Lutheran’s 300 years of service.
The Culpeper Minutemen Color Guard, augmented by the Colonel William Grayson Chapter, joined the celebration by setting up a display of Revolutionary War flags, wearing various different Revolutionary War uniforms, and explaining them all to those in attendance.
Many members of the Hebron Lutheran Church were patriots during our Revolution. Five of them are believed to be buried in the church cemetery, though only one such grave is marked with a tombstone.
Lucky attendees crowded into the church, while a huge overflow crowd watched a video of the service from a tent in the parking lot.
Some of the Sons of the American Revolution participants, left to right: Paul Chase, Bill Schwetke, Lon Lacey, and Don Jennings
Tombstone of Ephraim Fray 1762-1846, patriot, buried in the Hebron Lutheran Church Cemetery.
NBC29 TV covered the 300th anniversary celebration:
MADISON COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) – Hundreds came to Hebron Lutheran Church Sunday to help the church celebrate 300 years of worship. The church is said to be the oldest Lutheran church still in use in the U.S.
MADISON—Set amid the farmland of rural Madison, Hebron Lutheran Church’s roots go back to the early 1700s, when 20 German families seeking a new life sailed across the Atlantic, headed for Pennsylvania.
But they never got there.
Two theories exist as to why the ship landed in Virginia. One is that a storm pushed the boat south. The other, and more accepted theory, is the captain deliberately took them to Virginia so he could make money by selling the Germans to the state governor.
The 80 Germans began a church group in Germanna, 20 miles north of Fredericksburg, in 1717. After eight miserable years, they moved west to present-day Madison County. There, they built a temporary log church in the Hebron Valley. In 1740, the current church building was erected. It was called the German Chapel or Old Dutch Church until the Hebron name was adopted around 1850.
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Now, 300 years after the congregation formed in 1717, Hebron is still moving forward. On Sunday, April 30, the small church will celebrate its history with an anniversary service at 11 a.m., followed by lunch and several history presentations.
More than 300 people are expected to attend, including Virginia synod officers and the president of Roanoke College, a Lutheran school, according to Bill Price, chairman of Hebron’s 300th anniversary committee. With the church only holding about 200 people, the overflow will be outside under a tent watching on a projector screen.
With local residents making space, coupled with carpooling and buses, parking should be manageable, according to Price. “We’re going to solicit the help of a lot of folks,” he said. “We don’t think parking is going to be an issue.”
Significantly, Hebron possesses a rare 1560 edition of a Martin Luther Bible, written in German. A conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington restored the Bible in 2010, and it’s now kept in a vault. The Bible, which is about 9 by 12 by 5 inches, will be on display for the April 30 service.
Hebron’s communion ware is among the oldest of any Lutheran congregation and is still in use.
Those wishing to attend the anniversary service should print the registration form from the church’s website, hebronlutheranva.com, fill it out and return it with payment, which covers all activities and lunch.
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By its status in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Hebron is permitted to have female pastors. Institutions in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod have only male pastors.
The Rev. Patricia Covington has been the pastor of Hebron Lutheran Church since 2011. The Rev. Karen Taylor was the first woman to lead Hebron, from 2005 to 2009.
“Our sanctuary has been in continuous use as a Lutheran worship site since its construction in 1740,” Taylor stated during her tenure. “We are humbled to minister in the shadow of generations of saints who came before us.”
In his book “History of the Hebron Lutheran Church from 1717-1990,” William Peter Huddle, a former Hebron pastor, stated: “For sixteen years (1717 to 1732), they had been without the services of a Lutheran pastor. They were scattered and like sheep without a shepherd.”
Hebron’s first pastor was John Caspar Stoever, who served a 300-member congregation from 1733 to 1739, until he died at sea sailing back home from Europe.
The Rev. William Carpenter served from 1787 to 1813, the longest tenure of all Hebron’s pastors.
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In January 1789, James Madison and James Monroe—the future fourth and fifth presidents, respectively—attended a service at Hebron Lutheran, then debated outside in the snow for two hours. They talked about the new Constitution and fate of the new federal government. Both men were campaigning to be the first elected member from the 5th Congressional District to the U.S. House of Representatives.
After the debate, Madison rode a horse 12 miles home in the cold. “His nose was frostbitten by the time he got back to Montpelier,” current Hebron member Jane Volchansky said.
Madison won the election on Feb. 2.
In 1790, Carpenter began conducting services in English; they were only done in German before then.
In 1802, a Tannenberg pipe organ was installed after being transported by an ox cart from Pennsylvania. Hebron purchased it for 200 pounds. It was only one of nine remaining Tannenberg organs—and it still exists today, restored in 2015 for excellent service. One of the history presentations on April 30 will be about the organ.
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Hebron suffered a discouraging era from 1820 to 1850. By 1847, the membership had declined to about 70.
The Revs. Alonzo Ludden, with his efficient leadership, and William Bowman, with his pre-eminent pulpit presence, resuscitated Hebron in the 1850s. More than 100 people joined the church. And a new roof and pulpit improved the church’s look.
Some of Hebron’s pastors in the late 1800s also preached at Mount Nebo Lutheran Church, a few miles south in Rochelle.
During Huddle’s tenure, from 1897 to 1921, the membership grew, the Sunday school was prosperous and the current cemetery was established by 1904.
In 1968, when Bernard Troutman was the pastor, a tornado tore apart the Hebron Valley, destroying four 200-year-old oak trees surrounding the church. The church building sustained only minor damage.
Under Troutman, Hebron invested $22,000 to make numerous repairs, including a new altar, communion rail, goblet-shaped pulpit and carpet. The flooring was completely rebuilt to repair damage done by termites. The building also was insulated and painted.
In 1990, Hebron had a 250-year rededication service of the 1740 building. At that time, there were 350 baptized members, a much higher total than the current figure of 100.
On April 30, Hebron members—plus many more—will pass cornfields, cows and the stone wall-surrounded church cemetery on their way to 899 Blankenbaker Road to celebrate 300 years of faith.
The Richmond-Times Dispatch recently published an article about the Hebron Lutheran Church and its anniversary. The article is written by Bill Lohmann.
When you arrive at Hebron Lutheran Church, you are immediately struck by the notion that it would be difficult to find a prettier setting for a church. Or anything, for that matter.
The gleaming house of worship sits in the foothills of Madison County, surrounded by patchwork fields, stands of trees, and mountains in the distances. Country roads meander through the scene. Even a river — the Robinson and assorted streams — runs through it.
“Isn’t it awesome?” said Hebron’s pastor, the Rev. Patricia Covington.
At Hebron, the beauty is accompanied by a healthy measure of history.
The church is celebrating its 300th anniversary this spring, a milestone that neatly coincides with this year’s commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther hanging his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, launching the Protestant Reformation.
“I think they planned that very well,” Covington with a laugh.
The church believes it is the oldest Lutheran worshipping community in the South — the congregation organized in 1717, and the church building was constructed in 1740 — and that its building is the oldest in continuous use as a Lutheran church in the United States. It also is said to be one of four surviving wooden churches from Virginia’s Colonial heritage.
Just so visitors are aware Hebron has a seriously old tale to tell, three stiles remain outside the church. Stiles are wooden structures that enabled worshippers to dismount from horseback or horse-drawn carriage, then step over the fence that once surrounded the church and into the churchyard. The fence is long gone, but the story remains.
Hebron will officially celebrate its 300th on April 30 with a special service and festivities, though it seems to appreciate its notable heritage all days.
Photographer Bob Brown and I arrived last week for a visit and were greeted in the churchyard by Bill Price and Dave Allen, members of the church’s leadership council. Price, 71, grew up in the church, and Allen described himself as a “new member.” He came in 1990.
Price has the added distinction of being chairman of the 300th anniversary committee.
What he didn’t have, though, as it turned out, was the key to the church.
So he quickly telephoned Judy Ann Fray, also a member of council, who lives nearby. In a few minutes, she drove up.
“Hi there, I’m Judy Ann Fray. I’m chairman of the historical committee,” she introduced herself. “That doesn’t mean I know everything.”
“But you have the key?” I asked.
“I have the key,” she replied.
She led us into the church, a lovely though elegantly plain structure. It’s a white frame building — constructed no doubt with wood harvested from the forest the settlers found when they arrived in the 1700s — with no steeple and no stained-glass windows, niceties that might have seemed extravagant to a community of German immigrants.
Price said with a smile that you might say the Germans who founded the church were “prudent and frugal.”
Fray said there’s another way to look at the lack of fancy colored glass. “It’s so wonderful to have the outside in,” she said.
However, the church is hardly austere. An itinerant Italian artist painted the plastered ceiling, which looks like a richly textured carpet from the floor. The loft at the back of the church is home to a Tannenberg pipe organ, installed in 1802 and restored in recent years.
The organ, built by Pennsylvanian David Tannenberg and delivered by ox cart, is one of only nine Tannenberg organs still in existence, according to church officials, and the only one that remains in its original location.
By the time the church founders reached the splendor of the Robinson River valley, they must have been grateful not just for the beauty but simply to have arrived at a destination they had sought for so long.
They had left Germany, headed for what would become America, but were waylaid in London. Fray said the story goes that once in England, their travel plans changed — the voyage they thought they were destined for didn’t happen and they had to find a new way to the New World. They remained in London for an extended period, becoming a community and establishing their faith community there.
Sailing from England in 1717, they wound up coming to Virginia as indentured servants of royal Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood, arriving as the second wave of German immigrants brought here to work in iron mining in what is now Spotsylvania County, according to the Germanna Foundation, which preserves the heritage of the earliest organized settlements of Germans in Colonial Virginia.
Beginning in 1725, according to the foundation, the Germans moved to what was then the Western frontier: the Robinson River valley, where land was divided among the families. After church leaders returned to Europe to raise money, the church was eventually constructed in 1740. Later, the first school for German-speaking colonists started at Hebron.
Church members are proud that on a snowy day in January 1789, a political debate featuring two future presidents, James Madison and James Monroe, was held at the church. The men discussed the newly adopted U.S. Constitution as they competed for a seat in Congress. Madison won the election the following month.
The church has a membership in the range of 150, Covington said, though many do not live in the area any longer but still consider it their “home” church. The typical weekly attendance is between 40 and 75, she said, with more at Christmas and Easter.
The 300th anniversary, Covington said, is “a very big deal.”
“It’s a historical thing, but it has religious significance,” said Covington, who has served as pastor at Hebron for five years and is retiring in June. “What we’re really celebrating is the faithfulness of God, that God has been with this congregation for 300 years. It’s been operating for 300 years, and God hasn’t gone anywhere. People have come and people have gone, and it goes on.
“It has to be a God thing because if it was a human thing,” she said with a laugh, “it wouldn’t have worked.”
Hebron lives in the hearts of its congregation, many of whom descend from the original families that founded the place, Covington said.
The attachment is natural and obvious: “Their forefathers came here and worshipped here, and lived and died here,” she said.
But the deep feelings run through others, too.
Fray, 71, came to Madison as a recent college graduate almost 50 years ago, a trainee in the Virginia Cooperative Extension. She married a church member and never left.
“I cannot leave,” Fray said of the church. “It’s just part of my life.”
She took us to the organ loft where she sat and played “Abide With Me” and then “Kumbaya,” so we could hear the Tannenberg fill the sanctuary.
“The people mean a lot, but this building means a lot,” she said. “It binds the people together … in their faith in God.
“One of the responsibilities that we as members of this congregation have is to keep it going and to keep it in good condition. That was in the thank-you letters that were written to the people in Europe who gave contributions to this congregation back in the 1700s.”
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These photos are by photography Bob Brown for the newspaper (click to enlarge):