John Christopher Hartwig: A Biographical Sketch

“He was an original man, and said and did things differently from other persons… A very good man, he suffered persecution for his zeal for the truth.”

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John Christopher Hartwig (1716-1796)

Of the early history of this individual we have no information. He came to this country when quite a young man, in the capacity of Chaplain to a German regiment in the service of England, during the first French war, as it is called. He was intimate with our Lutheran ministers in Pennsylvania, and sympathized with them in their difficulties. He aided them in their efforts to build up the Lutheran church in this country, and seemed interested in the extension of Christ’s kingdom. He was a member of the first Lutheran Synod held in this country, in 1748, and preached the sermon on the occasion of Mr. Kurtz’s ordination, from the words, “His blood will I require at thy hands.”

Language Conflicts in New York City

His first regular charge embraced several congregations in the county of Hunterdon, New Jersey. This field of labor he relinquished in 1748, and accepted the call as minister of the congregation in the city of New York. It was supposed that he might succeed in adjusting the difficulties which had long existed among the people, and restore harmony and good feeling. The congregation, at the time, consisted of Hollanders, Germans and French, and the representatives of these respective countries desired that the services of the sanctuary should be performed in their own vernacular tongue. Each party was too weak to establish a separate organization, and it was not an easy task to obtain a clergyman, qualified to do justice to himself and the people in three different languages. Mr. Hartwig’s efforts to unite the discordant elements proved unsuccessful. The congregation continued distracted, and there was no prospect of a reconciliation. The various interests were unwilling to make any compromise, and a church so much divided, could not prosper.

Attacked for His Orthodoxy at Rhinebeck, New York

Finding his position uncomfortable, and his effort to establish peace unavailing, Mr. Hartwig soon resigned the charge, and removed to Rhinebeck, N. Y., having been invited to minister to several congregations in Duchess and Ulster counties. Here, however, he also encountered difficulties, and was called to pass through various trials, as we learn from a communication in the Hallische Nachrichten by Rev. Dr. Muhlenberg. This apostle of Lutheranism in the United States, whose active and self-denying labors in the early history of our church, are highly appreciated, and whose memory is held in great veneration, visited Rhinebeck in the autumn of 1750, for the purpose of settling the difficulties and establishing a better understanding. “I found,” he writes,

“the affairs of the congregation were in considerable confusion. For Mr. Hartwig, in consequence of his friendship for us, i. e., the Lutheran clergymen in Pennsylvania, and also on account of his zealous labors on behalf of the gospel, had become an object of hatred to some of the neighboring clergymen, who charged him with being a Moravian in disguise. These charges were printed and made public, and in consequence, a considerable degree of opposition was excited against him in his congregation. It was an easy matter for those opposed to him to make distorted representations of facts, and to magnify into serious charges, personal peculiarities or infirmities. Papers containing these charges had been sent by a certain clergyman of that neighborhood to Dr. Krauter, pastor of a German congregation in London, through whom Mr. Hartwig had, in the first instance, been called, but he was too sensible a man to pass a judgment upon so one-sided complaints; he therefore forwarded a copy of them to Mr. H. for a reply. The clergyman who had preferred the accusation was not satisfied, but continued publicly to circulate his charge, and had gone so far as to visit, in conjunction with several of the other neighboring ministers, Mr. Hartwig’s congregations, and after reading a statement of the alleged facts, attempted to remove pastor Hartwig. This effort, however, in consequence of an inability to establish the charge, proved unsuccessful, and Mr. Hartwig continued to preach in all his congregations, with the exception of one, in which Carl Rudolph, a well known impostor, was invited to officiate.”

A conference was held at Rhinebeck, with the view of investigating the charges. Mr. Hartwig invited the elders and the deacons of the four congregations to be present, as well as the members. Dr. Muhlenberg was likewise in attendance. On an examination of the case, the charges against the accused were not sustained. He had been guilty of no act, which affected his moral or ministerial character. Whatever may have been his indiscretions, his Christian integrity was not implicated. The propriety of Mr. Hartwig’s permanent removal to Pennsylvania, was also discussed at this conference, and a negative decision given. It was, however, deemed expedient for him to withdraw, for a season, from the charge, until the feeling against him would, in some degree, subside. Dr. Muhlenberg says that he labored in private to remove the opposition, but the effort was ineffectual; the hostility was too deeply seated. It was proposed that Rev. Jacob Raus, should supply Mr. Hartwig’s place at Rhinebeck for six months, and he should, during this time, serve the congregation at Providence, Pa., as assistant minister.1

Dr. Muhlenberg, during this visit to the North, spent several weeks in looking after the interests of our church, in whose progress he took the most lively interest. Our people in different sections of the country, had suffered greatly in consequence of the character of those who ministered at the altar. Often individuals, under censure at home, or who had been deposed from the sacred office, came to this country and thrust themselves into vacant congregations. Some too were received, whose heart was never in the work, and whose services did not prove efficient. The influence of Dr. Muhlenberg was most valuable. He had the confidence of our people. His presence inspired hope and excited encouragement.

When difficulties occurred in the most distant parts of the church, his aid was invoked, his counsels were salutary. On this occasion, Dr. Muhlenberg also extended his trip to Flushing, and became acquainted with a Mr. Melchior Joachim Magens, who resided there. He speaks of him as a genuine Lutheran, well educated in Latin and Greek, and acquainted with many of the languages of Europe. He having heard that Mr. Hartwig had suffered persecution on account of his zeal for the truth, had twice invited him to become his domestic chaplain, but Mr. Hartwig declined the offer, from a sense of duty. He was unwilling to leave his congregations without some pressing necessity.

Hiatus in Pennsylvania

Mr. Hartwig immediately repaired to Pennsylvania, and for six months, as it had been agreed upon, served the congregation at the Trappe, being an inmate, during the time, of Dr. Muhlenberg’s family. He also officiated at the different preaching points, connected with this charge. When his engagement was completed, he still continued in Philadelphia, although for a long time he was unemployed. We infer from various accounts of him, that his labors could not have been very acceptable. His constitutional peculiarities and numerous eccentricities, interfered much with his usefulness. Although his intentions were undoubtedly well meant, his movements were not the most judicious. In an article in the Hallische Nachrichten, dated March 19th, 1764, Dr. Muhlenberg makes the following statements:

“A few discontented persons at the commencement of last July, had connected themselves with pastor Hartwig, who for a long time had been unemployed, and they had commenced holding Lutheran religious services in the German Reformed church, without, however, having said a word to us about it. Mr. Hartwig did remark in his first discourse, that he only invited those to attend who were standing idle in the marketplace, and for whom there was no room in St. Michael’s. All kinds of characters collected to hear something new. Pastor Handschuh and myself had a conversation upon the subject, but we determined to take no public notice of Mr. Hartwig’s course. The services, however, continued only three Sundays, when the Reformed informed Mr. Hartwig that they could not allow the arrangement to continue. An effort was then made to obtain the Academy, but it failed; Dr. Smith said that he was unwilling to give the building to disorganizers.”

Return to New York

Mr. Hartwig subsequently returned to the State of New York, where he continued to reside for the residue of his life. Of his labors and success in the ministry, we have not been able to gather any definite information. All the reports we have received of him, make reference to the idiosyncrasies of his character. Both in New York and in Pennsylvania there are traditions, preserved in families he visited, of his marked peculiarities. He was an original man, and said and did things differently from other persons.

The subject of our sketch lived to green old age, yet his faculties remained unimpaired, “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.” He was venerable in years, and like a shock of corn fully ripe for the sickle. He awaited with composure the summons which would call him to receive the crown of his reward. His departure took place in 1796, on the day he completed the eightieth year of his age. The manner of his death was singular, and furnishes a remarkable instance of the power of the imagination over the mind. Forty years before his death, the impression from a dream on his birthday that he would live just forty years longer, had become so strong, that he felt persuaded the dream would be fulfilled, and his life protracted to the close of his eightieth year. As the period fixed upon in his mind approached, all doubt respecting the certainty of the time was dispelled. On the day preceding the completion of his eightieth year, he came to the residence of the Hon. J. R. Livingston, his intimate friend, and with whose family he had ever enjoyed the most friendly intercourse, and announced that he had come to die at his house. He appeared to be in the full possession of health, entered freely into religious conversation with the family, and in the evening conducted the devotional exercises of the house. The next morning he left his bed in apparent health, breakfasted and engaged in conversation with the family, until the approach of the hour which his imagination had fixed upon as the moment of his departure. This was 11 o’clock in the morning. A few minutes before the time, he requested permission to retire to rest. Mr. Livingston unobserved followed him to the room, and noticed that he was undressing. Just as the clock tolled the hour, he was in the act of removing the stock from his neck; at that moment he fell back on his bed and expired. “Kind nature thus softly disengaged the vital cord,” and without a sigh or groan he closed his eyes on earth and opened them in heaven.

A Very Good and Most Eccentric Man

Mr. Hartwig was, on all sides, regarded as a very good man. With his numerous eccentricities, he possessed many noble qualities. He seemed desirous of doing good, and evinced a deep interest in the welfare of the church. His name will ever be associated with the institution, which bears his name, and of which he may be said to be the founder. The tract of land, six miles square, located in what is now called Otsego county, which he received as a remuneration for the services he rendered as chaplain to a regiment in the province during the French war, he devoted, as he was without family, with the exception of a few legacies, to the support of schools, and more particularly to the establishment of a Theological and Missionary institution, for the education of pious young men for the ministry in the evangelical Lutheran church, and also for the education of Indians in the Christian religion, as missionaries among their own tribes. But in consequence of the unfaithfulness of the agents, whom he had engaged during his life to prepare the way for the intended seminary, as also of some of the executors of his will after his death, the greater portion of his patent was alienated and misapplied before the generous design of the donor could be accomplished. Previously to the establishment of the seminary, several promising young men were assisted in (he prosecution of their studies, under the direction of Rev. Dr. Kunze, who had been appointed Professor of Theology in the contemplated institution, by Hon. Jeremiah Van Renssalaer, one of the executors of the will. In the year 1814, Dr. Knauf, successor to Mr. Van Renssalaer, as executor of Mr. Hartwig’s estate, applied to the officers of the New York Ministerium to devise a plan, by which the benevolent intentions of Hartwig might be secured, so far as the remaining resources of the estate would permit. The testator bad directed, that the institution should be located on his land in Otsego county. In the Spring of 1815 buildings were accordingly erected, in Hartwick township, in the beautiful valley of the Susquehannah, four miles Southwest of Cooperstown. Rev. Dr. Hazelius was appointed by the vice-executor of Mr. Hartwig’s will, Professor of Christian Theology, and Principal of the Classical department. The appointment was confirmed by the Synod, and the Professor immediately entered upon the duties assigned him. Dr. Hazelius continued in office for fifteen years, until his removal to Gettysburg, in the fall of 1830. Rev. Drs. Miller, Schmidt, Strobel, Professors Thuemmel and Sternberg, have also filled appointments in the seminary. The institution has from the beginning, been in successful operation, and many young men have been trained here for the gospel ministry. It has been useful to the church, and has subserved the object for which it was established. The name of its benefactor is perpetuated, and “being dead he yet speaketh,” in the good that is accomplished through the instrumentality of this institution.

Reminiscences of Lutheran Ministers Series

"Among our earlier ministers, the fathers of the American Lutheran Church… we can point to many bright names, which Christians of any denomination might be proud to recognize as their own…

“Men distinguished for high talent, great learning, devoted piety, ardent zeal and noble spirit, who were appreciated by their contemporaries, and labored assiduously for the elevation of the race, and the extension of the Redeemer’s kingdom.” – Charles Krauth

Lutheran Biographical Sketch

Publication Information

  • Author: “Krauth, Charles P.”, Editor.
  • Journal: “The Evangelical Review.”
  • Originally Published: 1854.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0

  1. Hallische Nachrichten, p. 300. ↩︎