The history of Old St. Paul’s congregation must be told by a piecing together of details from meager sources of information. It is about pioneer Pennsylvania German (Deustch) people who came down through the Shenandoah Valley to the wilderness of the Carolina colony in the 1740’s and 1750’s.
These farmer folk, seeking fertile land to support themselves and their families in the New World, discovered that the best land in eastern Pennsylvania was already bought. As they married and left the family farmstead they migrated south.
Encouraged by the enthusiasm of trapper/explorer Heinrich Weidner, they purchased land in this region from the agents of Lord Proprietors in England. This heavily wooded land in the Catawba Valley was obtainable for as little as fifty cents an acre!
Weidner was born a Prince in Germany but as a second son would never have ruled that principality unless his older brother had died young. He decided to face the pioneer challenges and sail for America. Having the strength of a Christian faith he was able to meet those challenges. Also since his family was wealthy he bought over 10,000 acres of land in this area. Two rivers flowed through this land; these he named for his sons, the Henry and the Jacob’s Fork!
In this migration of Germans there were two significant factors different from most other settlements in America. First, they came here without a spiritual leader. The pastors in Pennsylvania had enough work just gathering the new European immigrants into congregations. Secondly, no additional Germans came from either the old country or from their first settlements in the New World.
Probably Andreas Killian was typical of those first settlers west of the Catawba River. He sailed into the port of Philadelphia in 1732 and fifteen years thereafter brought his family to a homestead on Clark’s Creek.
Between Adam Sherrill’s ford at the Catawba River and Weidner’s place on the South Fork, the soon-after-constructed Deustch Meeting House was the center of the German settlement. This meeting house was built to serve two groups of believers, the Lutheran and the Reformed. Without a pastor, these families assembled to worship, sing, pray, and listen to a sermon read from a book. Their first log structure was erected close to the old cedar trees in the back of the cemetery. It was very narrow and probably held no more than one hundred people. It is very natural to conclude that together the two congregations did not comprise more than two hundred souls. From this small start have stemmed tens of thousands of Americans who can trace their ancestry back to these God-fearing forebears.
After several years that little log hut was struck by lightning and burned. Then they decided to build a bigger, better structure and put it up on the wagon road. The likely year was 1757, for a reliable report says a Reformed minister named Martin preached to the congregation during his travels in the year 1959.
After already using the land for burials and buildings for a goodly number of years, the church leaders went to the effort of recording the deed to the property in Rowan County in 1771. Paul and Frony Anthony conveyed the land to the Lutarin and Presbetaren Christian Churches for the payment of one pound sterling from each of the parties. The tract contained ten acres and was laid out most easily as an east-west, north-south, rectangle straight on the compass points.
John Gottried Arndt traveled west from the Lutheran settlements near Salisbury in August 1776 and gave first communions. It would not be until 1785 that he was made missionary full-time to the region west of the Catawba River. Not until Arndt arrived here did people get rid of a sad superstition of never marking gravestones with their names. For these pioneers wrongly held that the devil would harass them until Resurrection Day if he could identify their location. Immediately after Arndt’s pastorate began all graves were inscribed in German with names and personal data. Native German Arndt preached in that language and common speech among these folks remained that way until Arndt grew old and virtually blind. The assistant pastor called to accompany Arndt on his rounds of serving the eight to ten scattered flocks was young Phillip Henkel. He was born in New Market, Virginia where he grew up speaking English. The veteran circuit rider Arndt died in 1807. The immediate influence of Henkel is evidenced by the usage of the English language on the tombstones in 1808.
Many family names had been altered by British record keepers aboard ships that brought our forefathers to America. Hence when they were administered the oath of allegiance to the British crown they came out with Anglicized or even translated surnames. Those that did not get changed then did so on property deeds or marriage bonds. Hardly any Carolina Germans escaped with the original spelling of their names. Even Weidner and Wolfgang became Whitener and Wilfong.
Under the Lord’s blessing these families multiplied and occupied more land. They grew numerous enough by the 1790’s to mother some new congregations in the area such as Grace, Zion, and St. John’s Lutheran. After the turn of the nineteenth century the Deustch Meeting House became known as "South Fork Church."
Additionally as individuals they acquired more acreage and therefore began buying slaves to share in the booming cotton economy. So these people decided to tear down the one-story church and build a two-story church having a slave gallery on the second floor. The usable logs were retained from the one-story church and used in the two-story building.
Probably in 1818 Henry Cline was given the job of constructing a very plain but practical log church. This building, sealed by boards, is still standing solidly against the sky in our midst. As a carpenter, Cline was a genius, realizing a seating capacity in the small structure of 250 people. He used steep narrow stairwells and high steps to the tiers of the balcony achieving a space-saving specialty.
For a reminder of the old country a canopy, or sounding board, was placed over the head of the preacher in the pulpit. The seats downstairs were designed to have an opening for the hoop skirts or bustles which were the ladies fashion at that time. Only the pews in the center had solid backs to seat the church board.
Cline was sure that there could never be a woman on the church council, but that day has come to Old St. Paul’s congregation. Thankfully we can now rejoice that the talents of all God’s people can be recognized and utilized.
For some unexplained reason a second deed was drawn for the historic church in 1818 as the third edifice was constructed. It is signed by John Smyre and made out to trustees John Propst and John Wilfong for the two congregations.
After the civil war slaves no longer occupied the balcony so the young men and boys were shifted to that section. They were as bad to carve names in school desks and church pews as youngsters today. In the soft wood of the upstairs seating, initials and even a few names abound!
Pastor Arndt and his congregations helped form the North Carolina Synod in 1803. In 1820 the influence of the Henkels for confessional Lutheranism caused most of the western North Carolina flocks to shift to the Tennessee Synod. But in 1846 Adam Miller Jr., an uncompromising opponent of innovation in doctrine or discipline, was convinced that the Tennessee Synod had also become too liberal and formed the Tennessee Synod (Reorganized). The new grouping of Lutherans applied after the Civil War for admission into the Joint Synod of Ohio. In 1884 they were received into that church body with Ohio headquarters and in the 90’s convinced said assemblage to start a seminary in Hickory. This school, known as St. Paul Practical Seminary, served as ministerial training base for Carolina pastors until it closed in 1910.
The church building was shared by the two Lutheran and Reformed denominations until 1901 when the Reformed congregation built their own house of worship three miles south at Startown. A few years later in 1905 the Lutheran congregation split over synodical affiliation differences and one group moved several miles south and became known as St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at Startown in the Tennessee Synod. Since both St. Paul’s were on the same mailing route ours came to be distinguished as Old St. Paul’s congregation.
Perhaps the most prominent pastor in service of Old St. Paul people was George Luther Hunt. Tutored by Adam Miller Jr., he arrived here after the War Between the States. He bought a sizeable portion of land and remained for the rest of his lifetime. He stemmed from eastern Tennessee stock and often rode his little black mule, "Coaly", that far in his circuit riding ministry.
A church history book in German form 1901 says St. Paul’s Church near Newton had 100 communing members. That must have dropped substantially in 1905 when St. Paul’s at Startown was formed. Membership in 1952, when the present brick building was built across the road, was about 150 communicants.
A significant step was taken in 1956 when after a dozen years of sharing Pastor Schillinger with St. Paul Lutheran Church in Hickory, a parsonage was built and Calvert Love was called to become our first full-time pastor.
The years have taken their toll on our old church building and in 1994 a "Friends of Old St. Paul’s" committee was formed to completely restore the structure.
Pastors who have served Old St. Paul’s Lutheran Church:
J. G. Arends 1785 – 1807
Phillip Henkel 1805 – 1814
Daniel Moser 1815 – 1820
David Henkel 1820 – 1831
Adam Miller Jr. 1835 – 1846
P. C. Henkel 1849 – 1869
George L. Hunt 1868 – 1895
J. C. Moser 1896 – 1897
E. J. Sox 1897 – 1899
F. K. Roof 1900 – 1905
George L. Hunt 1905 – 1907
L. P. Propst 1907 – 1909
R. M. Carpenter 1912 – 1916
J. C. Barb 1916 – 1924
Luther M. Hunt 1925 – 1938
Royal Walther 1938 – 1943
Sylvanus Schillinger 1944 – 1956
Calvert Love 1956 – 1961
Charles Boaz 1962 – 1970
Luther Knauff 1971 – 1987
John Groth 1988 – 1993
*Elvin Bumgarner 1993 – 1994
*Richard Hefner 1994 – 1994
David Ridenhour 1994 – 2002
Richard Hefner 2002 - 2003
Ronnie L. Church, Jr. 2003 – 2008
Robert A. Sain 2009 – 2020
*Judy Drysdale 2020-Present