It is surprising that the lovely brick church in suburban St. Louis has such a story to tell. Its past, however, lends a powerful narrative to the history of St. Louis. Long ago, Salem United Methodist Church’s congregants’ loyalties to church doctrine isolated them from the greater population. Theirs is a story of belief, and, surely, resorting to plenty of prayer.
Pierre Laclede sailed up the Mississippi River from New Orleans in 1763. He established his fur trading post on a bluff on the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. By the time Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803, St. Louis was a thriving little French village. By 1818, the village had two thousand inhabitants, two-thirds of them French. Legendary St. Louis French families like Chouteau, Soulard and Page lived near Carondelet Road. They were a tightly-knit, enterprising French community.
Slowly, German immigrants began to trickle into St. Louis. By 1835, there were enough Germans to found the first German newspaper, Anzeiger des Westens. In 1837, a German school opened in St. Louis, even before the city established its first public school.
Ludwig Jacoby, the founder of what is now Salem United Methodist Church, was born in Germany in 1813. He was raised by devoutly Jewish parents in the Alt-Strelitz area of Mecklenburg, Germany. In 1835, Jacoby was baptized into Christianity by a Lutheran pastor, and he ultimately immigrated to the United States around 1838. After becoming a Methodist in Cincinnati, Jacoby married a fellow German immigrant, Amalie, a Catholic-turned-Methodist.
The Methodist Church of Cincinnati sent Jacoby to St. Louis as a circuit rider in 1841. Upon arrival, he rented an “old, abandoned Presbyterian mission church” on Seventh and Biddle Streets and began holding worship services. With twenty-two members, Jacoby’s church became one of the first German Methodist churches west of the Mississippi. In 1842, the little congregation purchased property on Wash Street, near Eleventh Street, and built their new 32’x50’ church. Five years later, the congregation built themselves a new, larger church building on that same location. There, Jacoby also began a German school for children, operated by the church.
In the meantime, Jacoby’s home country of Germany was in turmoil; its people faced the crisis of overpopulation, poverty, and economic and political upheaval. Following the failed Revolution of 1848, Germans came to America in droves. The Germans, called the ‘Damned Dutch’ by many St. Louis natives, invaded St. Louis’ Frenchtown, bringing with them their oom-pah bands and their beer brewing skills.
Between 1847 and 1850, the population of St. Louis increased by 30,000 people. “After 1850, the German atmosphere was such that a person wandering through some of the streets could believe that he had been transported to Germany, since he heard only German spoken.” By 1853, St. Louis was home to six German newspapers and seven German societies purposed for easing the transition for newly arrived immigrants. By 1860, the population of St. Louis had grown to 77,860 people. There were 38 private German schools in St. Louis, and the public schools began adding German studies into their curriculums.
In his book on the history of Salem, Robert Appel writes about the struggles of Jacoby and his early congregation in St. Louis. “Roughnecks first heckled, then threw rocks at the doors of the church during services.” One evening during a prayer meeting at the church, those roughnecks threw rocks at the Jacoby home. The rocks broke windows and even landed in their baby’s crib – thankfully, the baby was at the meeting with her parents. Writes Appel, “Shotgun and pistol fire rattled the windows. One Sunday the banisters were smeared with cow dung, and on another Sunday the stairways were covered with tar and pitch.” On yet another occasion, Jacoby dared preach in the marketplace. A riot ensued, and he was saved only by a fellow minister.
This attitude toward Jacoby, the German minister who preached in the German language to his German congregation, paralleled the general feeling toward German immigrants in St. Louis. Many of this fresh wave of German immigrants were impoverished and unskilled. They lived anywhere they could in St. Louis’ Frenchtown, filling tenement houses and living in squalor. Others, however, opened successful shops along Carondelet Road and Lafayette Avenue, displacing the former, often French, business owners. Through the 1850s, the Germans were forced to defend themselves against French St. Louis natives and the Irish.
In April 1852, the municipal elections produced riots between German and non-German citizens around Soulard Market, Seventh Street, and Park Avenue. On that day, a fire was set to a German home and burned down. The violence was finally curbed by the military, which kept the angry mob from storming the office of Anzeiger des Westens. In another incident, the Know-Nothings, a political movement comprised of anti-immigrant, “native” Americans, attacked homes and stores for two days. The Know-Nothings were eventually suppressed by military units and an armed citizens’ posse.
Native St. Louisans also found fault with German political practices. Given their European backgrounds, they were familiar with hierarchy of authority rather than independent political participation, and they placed personal loyalties over abstract regulation. Immigrants therefore directly contributed to St. Louis’ corrupt political system by voting for ward bosses and city officials who not only understood the immigrants’ issues but assured them their loyalty. The German immigrants aligned themselves with Democrats, who preferred laissez faire and opposed governmental interference.
But mostly, it was the beer. Beer brewing and beer drinking was a staple of German culture. Yet for “native” Americans, drinking was viewed as an ethnic and inferior practice. At first glance, the violence toward Jacoby and his little German congregation was simply a microcosm of the greater unrest. But consider this: the “roughnecks” who threw rocks at Jacoby’s home and mobbed him as he preached in the marketplace were German immigrants.
How could this be?Jacoby was a Methodist, and Methodists opposed drinking. Jacoby was saved from the marketplace mob by a fellow minister. A fellow Methodist minister. And the mob was instigated by German bartenders. Writes Appel of Jacoby, “The German press had warned him about preaching in the slums and that the people would find ways to stop him if he persisted.”
Methodists’ aversion to drinking harkened back to the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. In a mid-18th century sermon, Wesley called alcohol “liquid fire” and brewers “poisoners general.” He wrote, “God made you human, but you have converted yourself into an animal.” John Wesley condemned brewers, saying they drove drinking customers “to hell.” He said, “...there is a God in heaven. Therefore, thy name shall soon be rooted out. Like those whom thou has destroyed, body and soul, thy memorial shall perish with thee!”
In essence, Wesley preached that God will punish the brewers in the afterlife as they punished their drinking customers while on earth. Is this the type of rhetoric Ludwig Jacoby used in 19th century St. Louis? No wonder he angered fellow German immigrants. Beer drinking was a fundamental element of German culture, and St. Louis brewers Adolphus Busch and William J. Lemp were icons.
Considering the violence directed at Jacoby by the St. Louis Germans, it seems likely he had been channeling Wesley, who raged against brewers: “And what is their gain? Is it not the blood of these men [who drink it]?” The founder of Methodism even cursed the brewers’ homes:
“Who then would envy their large estates and sumptuous palaces? A curse is in the midst of them: the curse of God cleaves to the stones, the timber, the furniture of them. The curse of God is in their gardens, their walks, their groves; a fire that burns to the nethermost hell!”
Cursed or not, the Busch and Lemp mansions in South St. Louis were as grandiose as the men themselves. Yet, Jacoby preached on. In his history of Salem, Robert Appel writes, “It can thus be said that the early Salem Methodists were very busy in the work of conversion.”
In spite of the challenges, Salem’s early church thrived. In 1873, the congregation built a new church at the corner of Fifteenth and Wash Streets which became known as the “Cathedral of German Methodism.” To provide for other neighborhoods, the church began other branches of Methodist Episcopal churches throughout St. Louis during the last half of the 19th century. The home church on Wash and Fifteenth served as the “mother church” for its branch churches as well as its outreaching missions. The church, re-decorated in 1894, was so beautiful it became a tourist-draw during the 1904 World’s Fair. The congregation was still primarily made up of German-Americans. And, the majority of sermons were still conducted in German. Within the walls of the church, members probably discussed one of the biggest political issues of the day.
The Temperance Movement was in full swing by the latter half of the 19th century. Proponents of temperance viewed drinking as a leading contributor to the ills of urban society. Domestic conflict plagued over-crowded St. Louis, teeming with working-class, beer-drinking German immigrants. They sought camaraderie among their native countrymen over their steins in saloons. German families gathered in beer gardens, a tradition brought with them from the Fatherland, to picnic and visit on Sundays. Naturally, German saloon owners and brewers employed a great many German-Americans.
The Anti-Saloon League was one of the biggest temperance organizations of the late 19th century. The league raised money and entered the political arena. In fact, “the Anti-Saloon League’s board of directors was made of Methodist and Baptist ministers.” It is likely that Salem’s minister and parishioners were members of the Anti-Saloon League.
In 1883, a new state law (Jefferson City was controlled by Republicans) required non-essential revenue-producing businesses to close their doors on Sundays. This so-called Sunday Law targeted breweries and saloons, infuriating brewers and saloon keepers. St. Louis brewer and German immigrant William J. Lemp said, “Every man has some rights which others must respect, and I consider this desire [to drink] one of those rights.” St. Louis saloon keeper and German immigrant Tony Faust said, “I feel that my business is a legitimate one, and I do not propose to be regarded as a criminal.”
A fellow German saloon keeper also noted,
I have a great respect for a sincere, high moral churchman, but he has no right to force his opinions on me, nor has he the right to legislate against my business, which is a lawful one.
Another St. Louis saloon keeper, Pat Carmody, said most eloquently,
I am thoroughly in sympathy with all truly religious people and will aid them in any way that I can to uphold the law, but I have no use for hypocrites who use religion as a cloak. The Liquor Dealers’ Association is willing to meet the Sabbatarians half way. They should have their part of the day and we ours.
In response, Reverend Werlein, president of the Sabbath Association of St. Louis, railed,
It is the aim… of violators of law to endeavor to debauch the minds…of the people down to their level. We are engaged in a warfare against the oppressor in the interests of the oppressed. …we must do something practical for poor, suffering humanity.
Keep in mind, the temperance movement made for strange bedfellows. Salem’s early congregations sided with reformers such as Jane Addams, who saw “the devastating effect that drunkenness had on the urban poor.” The Industrial Workers of the World, who believed that “liquor was a capitalist weapon used to keep the working classes in a stupor” bedded with the Ku Klux Klan, whose anti-liquor sentiment stemmed from their hatred of immigrants.
In 1905, Salem’s congregation again relocated. They built themselves a new church at Page Boulevard and Pendleton Avenue in St. Louis, named Salem Methodist Episcopal Church. The congregation held three services; only one in German. By this time, most of Salem’s marriage, baptism, and death records were no longer written in German, but in English. That the congregation dropped the word “German” from their title is indicative of the assimilation of German-Americans into St. Louis society. Salem’s population was still primarily made up of German immigrants, but many were second generation. Like other children of immigrants in St. Louis, their first language was English.
The English language newspapers in St. Louis encouraged public schools to omit the German language from their curriculum. The German newspapers, Anzeiger des Westens and the Westliche Post, put up a fight. The St. Louis German-American community differed from other cities with large German-American populations, such as Cincinnati and Milwaukee. Those in St. Louis lacked unity, largely due to geography. The St. Louis German-American community spread its population north and, especially, south, along the Mississippi River, making unified German neighborhoods nearly impossible. The issue of language was put to a vote by the public school board and, as an indicator of the lack of cohesion of St. Louis’ German population, the Germans did not turn out to vote. The school board passed the issue in 1887.
Collectively, the St. Louis German-American community was cohesive on only a few occasions. The first was during the Civil War. St. Louis Germans were nearly unanimously opposed to slavery. This included Salem’s congregation:
Although the church records reveal little about the issue of slavery or the sympathies of the membership during the Civil War, we can conclude that the Salem Methodist congregation remained true to the union…”
Despite the many ways St. Louis German-Americans showed a lack of cohesion, they found common ground in celebrating their heritage. In a rare show of unity, they observed German Day in 1885. This four-day celebration of German veterans included fireworks, concerts and a beer garden (discriminating Methodists aside). An equally rare instance of cohesion occurred at German Day at the 1904 World’s Fair, an event that included parades, music, and speeches celebrating German-Americans’ dual ethnicities and patriotism for both countries. Said one dignitary,
We German-Americans are the hyphen between Germany and America. We present the living demonstration that we may be devoted to the new fatherland and yet preserve a revered love for the old.”
During the years leading up to the United States’ entrance into World War I, many German-Americans found themselves in a difficult position. The Fatherland was at war with France and England. France was the “historic enemy of Germany” while German-Americans associated England with Puritans – those who fueled the temperance movement in America.
Though the United States claimed neutrality, it seemed to favor the Allies. With family and friends still in Germany, many German-Americans in St. Louis joined the Neutrality League to protest the U.S. shipments of arms the Allies. The women of Salem sent toys and children’s clothing on “Mercy ships” bound for war-torn Europe.
Such acts were soon viewed as displays of pro-German sympathies. There were a few incidents which marred the psyche of St. Louisans; the “Black Tom” incident in 1916 was particularly damaging. A pier laden with munitions destined for the Allies exploded in New York harbor, detonated by German saboteurs. The shrapnel scarred the Statue of Liberty, shattered windows in Times Square and rocked the Brooklyn Bridge.
Such high-profile incidents were relatively rare, but they were frequent enough to poison public opinion against German-Americans. By the time the United States entered the war in 1917, allegiance toward anything German was considered disloyal.
To sanitize itself of the enemy, St. Louis schools pulled German language classes as an elective from their curriculum, removed books written in German from the public library shelves, and changed street names: Berlin Avenue became Pershing Avenue. German language newspapers were required to submit their articles to the postmaster for censorship. Ordinary German-Americans citizens dared not risk being overheard discussing war news in the streets, lest they find themselves facing charges of espionage which would land them in the state penitentiary.
Additionally, the war years coincided with the march toward Prohibition. “The great enemy was Germany – and the brewers were seen by the Prohibitionists as tools of the Kaiser.”
Nearly 80 years after Jacoby’s arrival in St. Louis, members of Salem found themselves in a similar juxtaposition as Salem’s founders: on account of the war they were discriminated against because they were German-Americans, and due to Prohibition they were discriminated against by German-Americans.
Tensions eased after the war, and once again Salem’s congregation built a new church in 1925, located at Kingshighway Boulevard and Cote Brilliante Avenue in St. Louis. That same year marked the “end of German Methodism.” The St. Louis German Conference merged into the St. Louis Conference. Quotes Appel, “German Methodism was an important agency of Americanization. It was something more. It was part of America.”
In 1941, the last German issue of the Methodist Church magazine was printed. Abstinence from alcohol was part of Methodist doctrine as late as the 1950s. In 1958, Salem moved to its current location in St. Louis County, on Lindbergh Boulevard and Daniel Boone Expressway (now Highway 40). The congregation built its chapel first, followed by many additions to its house of worship.
Today’s thriving, mission-oriented Salem United Methodist Church, where all are welcome, was built upon the backbone of a complex and often controversial German history. A legacy of perseverance strengthens its membership still today.
For the complete story with bibliography, go to www.moumethodist.org/salemgermanhistory.