Zion in the Early 20th Century

With the death of Pastor Scheib, Zion Church entered upon the long road back into the communion of the entire Lutheran Church. The tempests of the 18th century, which shook Zion and caused the radical changes from the conservatism of Kurtz through the extreme orthodoxy of Haesbert to the rationalism of Scheib, were outlived. But with the death of the man with whose name the church had come to be identified in the outside world, little remained that promised to be the foundation for a new start. The essence of Pastor Scheib’s life and work had been a humanistic open-mindedness, an idealistic readiness to serve and live by faith. This attitude enabled the three pastors who have since held the pulpit of Zion Church to close the ring of the historical progression on which the life of every congregation travels around its center, Jesus Christ.

The difficulties confronting Zion were not only of a spiritual nature. The question of reorganization had been delayed from year to year. The clearance of the lot on Lexington Street had imposed a heavy debt on the treasury of the church. The original deeds, containing clauses regarding the property of the church which prohibited the sale of ground and allowed its use only for purposes of worship, again presented a problem. A congregational meeting on the question of disposing of property brought no results. 

Although the young assistant pastor had the support of John Boring, the president of the Church Council, no action could be taken. All who were concerned with the reorganization faced the difficulties of this transitional period, when the old ideas were still deep-rooted and the new had not yet been sufficiently formed.

With the election of Wilhelm T. Schultze as president of the Church Council, a movement for a new constitution got under way. Both Pastor Hofmann and Mr. Schultze prepared the text of the constitution, which was accepted by the congregation in May 1892. Without any radical changes, for which the time was not yet ripe, it introduced the following new provisions:

For the first time in Zion’s history the women of the congregation were allowed to participate in the election of the preacher. The amount of the regular contributions was left to the discretion of the members, a minimum of five dollars a year enabling them to vote.  The Church Council, which so far had consisted of elders and vestrymen, was reorganized. Only one type of councilman was created. The office of the trustees was abolished and their duties transferred to the Church Council.

The enactment of the new constitution during the lifetime of old Pastor Scheib made it the more valuable an instrument for Pastor Hofmann when he became the sole leader of the church. Also during the decade between 1890 and 1900, the question of the deeds was solved through the untiring efforts of Adolf Simon. The minutes of the Church Council of these years bespeak the labor of this man in disentangling the church’s disadvantageous legal position. The president of the Church Council, Wilhelm Schultze, finally succeeded in having the restricting clauses of the original deeds annulled by the Maryland Legislature.

Now Pastor Hofmann could concentrate on the spiritual life of the congregation. Beginning in March 1891, he had edited the Kirchenblatt, in which he explained his stand. Ever since, the Kirchenblatt (later Gemeindeblatt, now Monatsblatt), has proved a valuable instrument by means of which the pastor, the Church Council, and the various church organizations have remained in close contact with all the members of the church.

The worship service received the form which still survives today; and, although it deviates considerably from the Lutheran liturgy, it constituted an important step forward when we consider the formless style of Pastor Scheib’s “lecture services.”

Young Hofmann found it difficult in the beginning to convince the congregation that the singing during the service was not aimed at achieving top musical quality, but should be an expression of common praise and prayer. For many decades congregational singing had been neglected altogether. Many of the well-known Protestant hymns were unfamiliar to the congregation.  The old hymn book Neuestes Gemeinschaftliches Gesangbuch, printed in New York in 1850, which contained over 650 hymns, many of them antiquated, proved entirely inadequate.

In March 1893, Pastor Hofmann began the compilation of a new hymnal. Shortly after the death of Scheib the work was ready to go to the printer. The hymn book committee, under George Bunnecke, John Hinrichs and Robert M. Rother, advised the pastor during the six years’ work of preparation, and Zion’s own hymnal was introduced on the occasion of the Christmas service in 1899. It was largely based on the Gesangbuch for Alsace and Lorraine and contained about 200 hymns. In 1902, a second edition was published, which to the present day has remained in use in the German services.

The Kirchenmusikverein, founded by Hofmann in 1894, furthered choral and folk music and helped greatly to embellish special services. It found most of its members among the youth of the congregation. Also in 1894, the Deutsches Liederbuch was published by the Sunday School, truly a pioneer work, as the publication of non-religious songbooks was just in its initial stage in this country at that time.

The Sunday School, of which we have spoken in the preceding chapter, widened its influence upon the youth of Zion Church, and now the first adult class was founded. Many families who had left Zion Church or simply lost interest in their membership were approached by the pastor and a group of members in an evangelization program. By 1908, Zion Church had 650 members on its roll, many of them young people who took part in the manifold activities which the renewed congregation provided. With the creation of the Gemeindeabend, a monthly fellowship meeting of the families, the pastor successfully countered the tendency of a great number of people to limit their social life to one of the many German societies in the city, instead of participating in church endeavors.

The holidays of the church year were observed by beautiful special services. Communion was no longer offered to the men and women separately, as had been the tradition for so long, but the family now went together to the altar of the Lord. Reformation Day was observed annually. To honor the memory of Pastor Scheib, the annual Kirchtag was celebrated on October 18. From 1904 on, outdoor services were held once a year, the well-known Zion Waldandacht, an observance which was extremely popular in Germany at that time.

Zion Church Library was founded and developed into a remarkable collection of valuable works on the history of the church, on the German element in the United States, and on German and English literature.

Under Pastor Scheib, Zion Church had been viewed by the other German Protestant Churches of Baltimore with indifference, suspicion, even hostility. A gradual change of the church’s position was brought about with much patience and in the spirit of neighborliness. Pastor Hofmann sought the fellowship of his colleagues and soon won their respect. When Zion Church celebrated its 150th anniversary in October 1905, for the first time in several generations the ministers of its sister churches took part in the memorial service.

Amidst this revival of Zion Church, one question became more acute from year to year: most of the families had moved away from the old part of the city into the outlying districts. New churches were founded in those sections, a circumstance which made it tempting for many German families to join them instead of going downtown every Sunday morning for the services at Zion. Time and again the floor was open for debate on the question of whether the church should be located in some other part of the city. Even Pastor Hofmann, for a while, was in favor of choosing a new, permanent location for Zion.

The Great Fire of February 7, 1904, threatened to spread to the church. The roof of the school house caught fire during the Sunday morning service, and the congregation had to be dismissed. In the evening the roof of the church itself caught fire and burned in two spots, but the precautions which had been taken prevented any considerable damage. The Church of the Messiah on Fayette and Gay Streets was completely destroyed, as were many other edifices in the neighborhood. When the Messiah congregation began to rebuild their church on the same location, Pastor Hofmann wrote in the Gemeindeblatt in March 1905 : “Not a few of our members are now wavering in their conviction that we should move, since Messiah Church is being rebuilt on the same spot where it was destroyed by the fire of February 1904. Well, but the fact that they are building there does not mean they are not committing a mistake. If they make a mistake it is not necessary for us to make one.”

The congregation was divided on the issue. Although many favored the removal of the church into another section, most of them feared that the financial burden would be too great. The sentimental attachment to the venerable old building, whose walls had endured almost a century, also played a role in the discussions. “Then the downtown church is doomed” was a common slogan, and more than once Pastor Hofmann was told: “Just wait, it won’t be long and there will be a sign on the door of Zion Church: For Sale.” But those who wanted to keep Zion on the old location finally prevailed. Pastor Hofmann himself was won for the idea.

In February 1903, he had submitted suggestions for fundamental changes in the interior of the church, but when the question of a possible removal came up, he withdrew them, hoping for an entirely new building. Five years later his original plans were taken up again and realized within a few months.

The redecoration of the interior was carried out according to the pastor’s plans. It is a testimony to his artistic taste and conception. Every section of the walls, every touch of color had its meaning. “It is one of the unforgettable experiences of my life that my congregation feels like me about our church. May I say what I endeavored to create? Without making essential changes I wanted to create a space in which the old simple gaslight and the stoves with their long black pipes would be bearable. Now, they don’t hurt any more, they belong there. Secondly, everything should be genuine: no imitations of marble. It is simple, painted wood. The color was demanded by the shade of the wall, which should reflect a friendly quiet light in the morning hours. The iron pillars which bear the emporen (galleries) were covered up, for the naked iron was cold and sober.”

Three designs from his own hand were the only decorations: the rose of Christmas as the symbol of joy, vines and ears of grain representing the Last Supper, and olive and oak branches, symbolizing “Evangelic” and “German.”  In the center above the altar he placed the man who brought evangelic faith back to men: Martin Luther. The painting of the reformer is a copy of the Luther portrait by Lukas Cranach. It was painted by William C. Rost, a member of Zion Church.

All this work was completed in time for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the erection of Zion Church.  But Pastor Hofmann’s plans went further.  After it became certain that Zion was to remain in the heart of the city despite all temptation to move the church, he conceived the idea of adding a Gemeindehaus (parish house).  There was much opposition at first…But through the foresight, zeal and genius of the pastor, even the most critical men and women were finally convinced of the importance of the project.

For Pastor Hofmann, the congregational life apart from the Sunday services was of utmost significance.  Many new members, immigrants like all the generations before, needed a focal point for their social and spiritual life.  If Zion Church could provide a home for this life, they were won.  Their children would be won, too.  With a rare vision he recognized the advantages which the location of Zion offered for such an undertaking.

He was often seen pacing back and forth, making sketches, taking notes…He made a small-scale model of the parish house as he head conceived it.  Theodore Pietsch, his architect, presented the estimate:  a staggering amount.  In 1909 the pastor submitted plans and estimates to the Church Council.  After some deliberation, the Council approved the project unanimously…however, made one condition:  the amount of $25,000 had to be in hand before the construction could be undertaken.

With much ingenuity pastor and congregation went to work.  From 1910 to 1912, an annual sale and exhibit was held, designated as Leipziger Messe, which turned out to be a popular fair.  By 1912…the cornerstone of the Parish House of Zion Church was laid.  In 1913, it was completed.

Built of red brick in the Hanseatic style, its tower inspired a well-known writer to exclaim:  “This is the German cathedral of Baltimore.”  With its arcades and the low-walled garden at the northeast corner of Holliday and Lexington streets, it was the first part of the beautiful Baltimore Civic Center of today.  For Zion, the Parish House has become the tangible evidence of the inherent strength, ambition and right to existence of the Lutheran congregation which located here 200 years ago, along the marshy meadows of Jones’ Falls.  In the years past, during two World Wars and during peace the Gemeindehaus has been a thing of incalculable value to the very life of the church.

Pastor Hofmann sent to Germany for the three-bell chime that hangs in the tower.  He commissioned his friend Hans Schuler to carve an eagle for the parish hall entrance:  the American eagle with a shield on its heart depicting the German eagle—a symbol of the German immigrant at the heart of America.  The pastor himself took a hand in interior decoration and painted the walls of the room designated for the smallest children.

When the Parish House was opened, a mortgage of $35,000 was still to be paid…but on November 9, 1924, the debt was finally paid, and Zion rejoiced with its pastor on the memorable day.  But the decade between the opening of the Gemeindehaus and the liquidation of the final debt was the most trying period in the history of Zion Church: World War I.