John Frederick Handschuh: A Biographical Sketch

Some idea of the high estimation in which Mr. Handschuh was held by the Christian community of different denominations, may be gathered from the account given in the papers of that day of the funeral services. It is said, that out of regard for the memory of the deceased, at one o’clock, P. M., eight bells of the Episcopal church were rung, in addition to the three of our own schoolhouse, which produced considerable sensation in the city [of Philadelphia].

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Muhlenberg Calls For Lutheran Ministers

Mr. Handschuh was the fifth of our earlier ministers, sent from Halle to this country to labor among the German population, and to build up the Redeemer’s kingdom in this western hemisphere. Muhlenberg, facile princeps, who is properly regarded as the founder of the American Lutheran church, came in 1742. Brunholtz, accompanied by Kurtz and Schaum, arrived in 1745. In the spring of 1748, the subject of the present sketch reached Philadelphia, commissioned by the royal court chaplain, Ziegenhagen, at London, and Dr. Pranke, Professor at Halle, in compliance with the urgent and repeated supplications of ministers and destitute congregations in this country.

Our people were becoming numerous by the tide of immigration, which was constantly flowing in from the fatherland, but little had been done to supply their spiritual wants. Immense field were spread out before the eye, white for the harvest, but few were the laborers to enter in and reap. Many were perishing for lack of knowledge. The children were crying for bread. In their pathetic appeals to their brethren of the same faith in Europe, said they, “We also have never-dying souls, and Christ suffered and died also for us.” Writes the pious and devoted Muhlenberg to his friends at Halle:

“Here are thousands who by birth, education and confirmation, ought to belong to our church, but they are scattered to the four winds of heaven. The spiritual state of our people is so wretched as to cause us to shed tears in abundance. The young people have grown up without instruction and without any knowledge of religion, and are fast turning into heathenism.”

They did not, however, stretch out their hearts, or utter the imploring cry in vain. The hearts of their transatlantic countrymen were moved by the sad condition of things. To the calls for help they nobly responded. Professor Franke and other Christians became warmly enlisted in the cause of their brethren, who had forsaken their native land, and were inadequately furnished with the means of grace. They considered it their duty to care for the souls of those for whom Christ died, and to diffuse the tidings of that salvation in which they were permitted to rejoice. They did seek out, and send over to this missionary field, many able ministers of the word, whose labors were greatly blessed, and whose memories we love gratefully to cherish.

John Frederick Handschuh (1714-1764)

Mr. Handschuh was born of honorable and pious parentage;, in the renowned city of Halle, in Saxony, January 14th, 1714, and was in infancy given to God by his Christian parents, in the solemn ordinance of baptism. During the period of childhood, his constitution was very frail. He was a great sufferer, and often seemed on the borders of the grave. His fond parents repeatedly thought that they were gazing upon the lifeless remains of their loved one. The hope of raising him was abandoned, and they were prepared to consign to the tomb the object to which their affections so tenderly clung. But God, in the dispensation of his Providence, saw fit to spare the life of the child for usefulness, an ornament to the church, and the guide of many to glory. To his early education the greatest attention was given. His religious training particularly engaged their most active efforts. How many refreshing illustrations are furnished us, in the history of the good, of the influence of parental fidelity! The efforts of pious parents cannot be lost upon their children. Even if they should fall into the snares of the world, and for a time disappoint the pleasing hopes that were entertained of them; in their wanderings from the path of rectitude, they will hear the voice of reproof, and the long treasured memory of a father’s counsels and a mother’s tears, will awaken better feelings in their breast and lead to sincere penitence.

The child, when quite young, was placed under the care of a private preceptor, a French protestant, a man who feared God, and who was instructed to “teach the child to be modest and virtuous, and to love the Lord.” From this teacher he also gained a knowledge of the pure French, which he found very useful to him in after life. Some years afterwards his parents procured for him the services of a pious German tutor, by whom he was instructed in many of the elementary branches, and in the Latin language. When he had reached the twelfth year of his age, he was sent to the city Gymnasium, and was thence soon transferred to the Orphan House at Halle, through the friendly interest and kind intercessions of Doctor Franke, who had officiated at his baptism, and who ever afterwards evinced an affectionate interest in his welfare. Under the salutary influence of this institution, young Handschuh not only rapidly advanced in knowledge, but became thoroughly indoctrinated in the principles of Christianity. The pious instructions he received made a deep impression upon his youthful heart and awakened within his breast an ardent desire to live in obedience to the requirements of the gospel, to walk righteously before God and man. We are told that, “aided by divine grace, he acquired a fondness for the word of life, a love for souls, and a tender conscience.”

University

In the year 1733, he became a member of the University, and for four years attended the instructions of this celebrated seat of learning. Here his religious impressions were strengthened, and his mind was deeply exercised on the subject of the Christian ministry. Such were his views of divine things, that he earnestly desired to be qualified to preach the gospel to those who were perishing. This desire never forsook him in the midst of all the discouragements in his path. In the spring of 1737 he was sent to the University at Leipzig, for the purpose of becoming tutor to a young nobleman. In this place he remained three years, making himself useful, and engaged in the further prosecution of his studies, enlarging his store of knowledge, and qualifying himself more fully for the work to which he was aspiring. In those days no labor was regarded as too great, no toil too severe in preparation for the important and responsible duties of the sacred office. During his connection with the University, he received repeated solicitations to superintend schools, and to engage permanently in the business of teaching, but he rejected these offers, and turned a deaf ear to all inducements, designed to divert his attention from the object, to which he had consecrated himself; he felt that he was called to labor in a different sphere, and that, in importance and usefulness, the ministry of reconciliation transcended every other vocation. He was examined as a candidate in the year 1744, and was solemnly set apart to the work of preaching the gospel by the Consistorium of Coburg. He at once commenced his ministerial duties in the large and laborious parish of Graba and its five associate churches.

Stirred by Cries from America

Mr. Handschuh was successfully engaged in this field of labor, when the condition of his brethren in the western country was brought to his notice. His heart was stirred by their touching appeals; their destitution awakened his sympathy, and he felt a strong desire to go to their relief, and minister to their spiritual wants. Professor Franke, who was invested by the congregations in Pennsylvania with discretionary power in the selection of individuals for them, thought that he found in young Handschuh, the very man he wanted, adapted in every respect to the important work — a man of ardent piety and thorough education, with some ministerial experience, and a heart longing for the salvation of souls, possessed of various qualifications, which could not fail to render him eminently useful in the missionary field. The Doctor, therefore, had no hesitation in offering him the position which, after a serious and prayerful consideration of the subject, was cheerfully accepted. His departure was, however, delayed several months, in the hope that some one else might be induced to go with him to the United States. The winter Mr. Handschuh spent at Halle, preparing himself more fully for the duties that awaited him in his new scene of labor. In the month of June, 1747, he left his native land alone, to assist in planting the standard of Emanuel in this then inhospitable region, no one having proposed to accompany him in his mission.

Perilous Voyage

During the voyage, which was protracted and irksome, his life was placed in great jeopardy; he seemed on the verge of eternity, yet he was tranquil and serene. When all were despairing and disposed to think that destruction was inevitable, his trust in God was unlimited, his faith unshaken.

The Captain entered his cabin and said: “Do you not know, sir, how dreadful the storm is we are experiencing? It could not be more so! May God only be merciful to our souls!”

He calmly replied, “The Lord is yet able to help us! Do you go and perform your part well!”

Contrary to the expectations of all on board, the vessel was saved. Their rescue from a watery grave appeared almost miraculous. The praise of their deliverance they ascribed to the goodness of Him who “ruleth the raging of the sea, and stilleth the waves.” “When the storm subsided,” says this pious man, “we rejoiced and thanked God, that he had preserved us from the fearful death we expected to find in the mighty deep.”

At Lancaster

Mr. Handschuh landed in Philadelphia, April 5th, 1745, and on the 10th was welcomed at the Trappe, by Dr. Muhlenberg, with the words, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” It was agreed that he should at once take charge of the vacant congregation in Lancaster, and accordingly the following month he entered upon his duties. Here he labored several years, and although the position was regarded as a difficult one, in consequence of the distraction and disunion in the church, occasioned by the course of his predecessor, “his ministrations,” says Dr. Muhlenberg, “were successful, and resulted in much good. God blessed the faithful efforts of his servant to the profit of many souls.” The congregation increased, and harmony among the members was, in a great measure, restored. Under his direction, a flourishing school was established and sustained. In reference to which he says, in a communication in the Hallische Nachrichten:

“Our school consists of English, Irish and Germans, Lutherans and Reformed, and so anxious are the people to have their children instructed, that it is impossible to receive all who apply for admission.”

He took a deep interest in the youth of the congregation, and to their spiritual improvement he devoted much of his time. He often remarked that more could be done with the children than with the parents. He laid great stress upon catechization, and in the performance of this pail of his duties he was most faithful. There were frequently in attendance upon these exercises, as many as seventy catechumens. They came to him twice a week to be instructed, and “many blessings,” says he, “attended these services. My heart is filled with hope and joy.”

Marriage and Trouble In The Church

Mr. Handschuh had been in Lancaster upwards of two years, when he was united in marriage to Susan B. Belzner, the daughter of one of the deacons in the church. The ceremony was performed in the church, in the presence of our ministers and other friends. The choice the preacher had made, as is often the case at the present day, gave considerable dissatisfaction, and proved the occasion of great disturbances in the congregation. His situation became uncomfortable, and his mind unhappy. As his usefulness appeared very much impaired, he expressed a desire to serve God in some other station. Accordingly, Dr. Muhlenberg invited him to take charge of his two congregations in Providence and Hanover, as he had just received a call to labor in New York, for the purpose of resuscitating the declining interests of our church in that city. But it was soon ascertained that Mr. Handschuh’s physical abilities were not adequate to a charge in the country. He had not the strength to perform the duties it necessarily imposed. As there was no opening in the city of Philadelphia, it was therefore proposed that he should assume the pastoral care of the congregation in Germantown, Pa.

First Lutheran Minister In Germantown, Pa.

He took up his abode there on the 29th of May, 1751, and was the first Lutheran minister who resided in that place. During his connection with this charge, the old church was reconstructed and renewed. It was again dedicated to the service of the Triune God, on the occasion of a synodical meeting, held in Germantown in 1752; in an account of the services furnished for the Hallische Nachrichten1 Mr. Handschuh says:

“After the act of consecration was performed by Provost Acrelius, we ministers knelt around the altar, and each offered up a prayer, suited to the occasion, in the following order: Muhlenberg, Kurtz, Schaum, Weygand, Heintzelman, Shulze, Shrenk, Raus and myself.”

He also here occasionally officiated in the English language.2 In his journal we find six or eight entries detailing his faithful labors in instructing a colored man of genuine piety, whom he afterwards admitted to church membership. His efforts to do good were indefatigable. He labored with great fidelity and zeal. He regularly held a meeting for prayer and recitation on Sabbath afternoon, in which the sermon of the morning was catechetically reviewed. During the week also, meetings were held for prayer and edification. Whilst pastor here he thus describes a confirmation season, which will, no doubt, be read with interest:3

“The hour having arrived,” he says, “for the commencement of the services, I caused the catechumens to walk in procession to the church, from my house, the elders conducting the males, and their wives the females. At the conclusion of the sermon, I invited them (twenty-one in number) to approach the altar. After prayer I examined them on the five fundamental articles, required the scripture proofs, and applied the truths more closely to the hearts of all present. Then I directed them to renew on their knees, their baptismal covenant, after which I asked God’s benediction to rest upon them. The services were solemn and excited a deep interest, although they were continued from 10 o’clock A. M., till 2 P. M. The catechumens were very much affected, and others, who were present, were bathed in tears, and, I afterwards ascertained, were under pungent convictions.”

The first two years of his ministry here, he labored pleasantly and successfully, but as the church gained strength, and accessions were made to the number, unworthy members were introduced who created disturbances in the congregation, and caused a division. Many emigrants had arrived from Europe, who were disorderly, and cared not for spiritual instruction. They were fond of spirituous liquors, and very soon became dissatisfied with Mr. Handschuh’s preaching. Although they had contributed nothing towards the erection of the church, as they were in the majority, they took possession of the building, and called another pastor.

The most of the elders and deacons, together with those who had mainly sustained the church, peaceably withdrew and organized a new congregation, with seventy communicants. This was in the year 1753. They rented a room for religious exercises, and begged Mr. Handschuh not to forsake them in their time of difficulty. He therefore consented to serve them, preaching on the Lord’s day, and during (he week teaching a school. The congregation met with much sympathy from other Christians in the place, and the German Reformed church kindly offered them the use of their edifice. Here they worshipped until they were restored to their own church, some years afterwards.

The disorderly party, who retained possession of the church, had given a call to Rev. Conrad Andreae, an irregular minister — and in our early history the church suffered very much from ministers destitute of piety, who having been dismissed at home on account of immorality, frequently came to this country and imposed upon the people—but they soon commenced to quarrel among themselves, and in a suit instituted by the one side, the decision of the court was, that the properly belonged to the friends of Mr. Handschuh, who had been ejected from the church. Mr. Handschuh, however, in the meantime was compelled to struggle with poverty, the congregation being too feeble to give an adequate support, and after having served them for two years, he felt that it was his duty to resign, and to labor elsewhere.

Move to Philadelphia.

He removed to Philadelphia in the summer of 1755, and assisted in the services of St. Michael’s church.4 Through Dr. Muhlenberg’s influence he was appointed teacher of French in the Academy, and he was also, for a season, connected with the press, as corrector and translator of the German. Duty to his family made it necessary for him to resort to some employment for their maintenance. On the death of Mr. Brunholtz, in 1758, he was chosen to fill his place, and was for some time the only preacher in connection with our German church in Philadelphia.

He now devotes his whole strength to the work of the ministry. His congregation engages his undivided attention. He labors for the glory of God and the good of his fellow-men. He remained in this charge until his death. Although his health was delicate, he was permitted to discharge the duties of his office for several years. After a painful and protracted illness, he closed his life, October 9th, 1764, in the fifty-first year of his age, and the seventeenth of his residence in this country, leaving behind him a pious widow and four small children. His death was peaceful and triumphant. His sole dependence for salvation was on the mercy of God, through Jesus Christ.

“His last thoughts were God’s, his last words prayer.”

Whilst Dr. Muhlenberg was praying by his side, his spirit passed into the mansions prepared for him on high.

 “Sure the last end
Of the good man is peace. How calm his exit!
Night dews fall not more calmly on the ground,
Nor weary, worn-out winds expire so soft.”

Rev. Handschuh Held in High Esteem.

Some idea of the high estimation in which Mr. Handschuh was held by the Christian community of different denominations, may be gathered from the account given in the papers of that day of the funeral services. It is said, that out of regard for the memory of the deceased, at one o’clock, P. M., eight bells of the Episcopal church were rung, in addition to the three of our own schoolhouse, which produced considerable sensation in the city. At two o’clock the teachers and ministers assembled in the conference room, connected with the church. There were in attendance the young and the aged, the learned and the honored, two Doctors of Divinity and two Professors in the English Academy, three Episcopal clergymen, two Presbyterian, two German Reformed and one Baptist, together with a Swedish missionary and Messrs. Muhlenberg, Hartwig and Voigt, of our own church. Whitfield, by whom the deceased was highly esteemed, being unable to walk in the procession, had himself conveyed along side of it in his carriage. The clerical attendants walked before the corpse, except Dr. Muhlenberg and Rev. J. L. Voigt, who, together with the widow and children, followed the coffin as mourners. Then came the English physician and the church council, and afterwards the citizens of different denominations.5 When the procession reached the church, it was found that a large number of persons had already entered through the windows, for the doors were yet locked. The church was soon so crowded, that many feared the galleries would break down. The services at the church were conducted by Rev. J. L. Voigt and Dr. Muhlenberg, the former preaching an affecting discourse in German, from the text: “Surely the bitterness of death is past,” and the latter delivering a pertinent address in English. The corpse was then interred in the church. On the following Lord’s day, the occasion was still further improved, by a discourse which Dr. Muhlenberg delivered at the request of Mr. Handschuh, from the words:

“Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.

Mr. Handschuh was a good man, faithful and useful. There was that in his deportment, which secured the respect and confidence of the Christian community, and furnished sure evidence of his sincerity and devotion to the cause of Christ. His unaffected piety won the hearts of all. He was on terms of intimate and cordial intercourse with Whitfield, Tennant, Davies, and other leading men, connected with different churches. Of Mr. Tennant he thus expresses himself in the Hallische Nachrichten, in a communication dated September 17, 1748:6

“This afternoon Rev. Mr. Tennant, a Presbyterian minister, visited us, whom we love very much. Our conversations were profitable, agreeable, and affectionate. To our great gratification, he tarried with us late at night.”

Rev. Samuel Davies, in his journal of September 17th, 1753, uses the following language: “Waited on three Lutheran ministers, and was not a little pleased with their candor and simplicity. How pleasing it is to see the religion of Jesus appear undisguised in foreigners! I am so charmed with it, that I forget all national and religious differences, and my very heart is intimately united with them.”7 Such is the tendency of Christianity, and such the spirit of those who are truly the children of God. The final prayer of the Savior on earth, had reference to this blessed union:

“Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word: that they may all be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”

How interesting it is, to find the representatives of different creeds and different nations, thus testifying to the power of the Christian religion in the lives of those who have been the subjects of a saving change! “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

“Oh sweet it is, through life’s dark way,
 In Christian fellowship to move,
Illumed by one unclouded ray,
 And one in faith, in hope, in love.”

All who have been truly brought under the sanctifying influence of divine truth, will reflect the image and the spirit of their divine Master. How delightful it is, to see Christians lay aside their minor differences, and labor together in the work of the Lord, contemplating only those essential parts of doctrine in which they agree with each other and the oracles of God, and engage in combined and harmonious efforts to advance the interests of our common Zion, and to diffuse the principles of the gospel to the ends of the earth! So soon as that blissful period shall arrive, when the world will be compelled to say:

“See how these Christians love one another,” may we confidently expect the happiest results!

Then will the church stand forth in her glory and power, and the word spoken by inspiration be realized: “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

“As flowers, which night, when day is o’er, perfume,
Breathes the sweet memory from a good man’s tomb.”

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

To request a printable copy [PDF] send an email to: editor@lutheranlibrary.org with the title of this post.

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. 285, ^
  2. Hallische Nachrichten, p. 536. ^
  3. Ib. p. 557. ^
  4. Messrs. Heintzelman and Brunholtz were at the time the collegiate pastors of the church; the former died soon after (1756)—the latter was in feeble health. ^
  5. The population of Philadelphia at this time was fifteen thousand. There were seven churches, Swedish Lutheran, German Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Moravian, Roman Catholic, together with the meethouse of the society of Friends. ^
  6. Hallische Nachrichten, p. 104. ^
  7. Foote’s Sketches of Virginia, p. 233. ^

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