John Helfrich Schaum: A Biographical Sketch

John Schaum was one of the first ministers, who immigrated to this country in our early history. His heart had been touched by the state of things, which existed among his countrymen in America. He burned with an ardent desire to do them good, to minister to their spiritual wants.

John Helfrich Schaum.

“Remove not the ancient landmarks, which thy fathers have set.”

“Our fathers, where are they? and the prophets, do they live forever?” What a spectacle does our church in this country present, as the eye roams over its history from the beginning until the present time! We inquire for one and another, and the answer is, that the places, which once knew them, know them no more. Of our earlier ministers, who planted the standard of Lutheranism in this western hemisphere, not one remains! Our fathers have all passed away, and long since have gone up to render their final account. Their habitations are in the eternal world. They have finished their course on the earth. They rest from their labors, but their works do follow them. Influences, which they put in motion, will never die. They survive the dissolution of the body, and are imperishable. What they did for God lives, and will continue to live, when the memorial of the wicked has perished.

“The name of the wicked shall rot.”

“I saw the wicked buried who had come and gone from the place of the holy, and they were forgotten in the city, when they had so done.”

“The memory of the just is blessed. The righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance.”

There is a more than ordinary interest connected with the subject of our present narrative, from the fact that he was one of the first ministers, who immigrated to this country in our early history. His heart had been touched by the state of things, which existed among his countrymen in America. He burned with an ardent desire to do them good, to minister to their spiritual wants. Dr. Muhlenberg, justly regarded as the founder of the American Lutheran Church, reached these shores in 1742. He found the church in a most wretched condition. The great difficulty seemed to be the want of ministers and teachers, and in his correspondence with his brethren at Halle, he made the most earnest appeals for co-laborers in the work to which he had devoted himself. He writes:

“The spiritual slate of our people is so deplorable, 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.”

The ignorance among the youth seemed to distress him very much. Very few of them were able to read, and suitable teachers could not be procured. He himself found it necessary to give instruction in the most elementary branches. In a communication written the year after his arrival, he thus speaks:

“Necessity has compelled me to become a teacher of children. One week I keep school in Philadelphia, the next in Providence, the third in New Hanover, and I think God’s grace is visiting us. If affairs had remained a few years longer in the same state in which I found them, our poor Lutherans would have been scattered to the four winds, and suffered irretrievably. There are many persons who have never been baptized, and numerous systems of opinions fill the country. Atheists, Deists and Materialists are everywhere to be found. I think there is not a sect in the Christian world, that has not followers here. You meet with persons from almost every nation in the world. God and his word are openly blasphemed, his ordinances neglected, and his worship is despised.”

These representations were not without effect, and in answer to repeated supplications for aid, a reinforcement to the field was received from Halle in 1745. The company consisted of Rev. Peter Brunnholtz and Messrs. J. N. Kurtz and J. H. Schaum. The latter two came in the capacity of Catechets, with the expectation of devoting their attention, for some time, to the business of teaching, and of thus removing an obstacle which impeded the progress of the gospel. They were also to perform some ministerial labor under the direction of the pastors. It was a part of our earlier system to connect the teacher, who was generally well educated and selected for his piety, with the minister, in all our congregations. Wherever there was a church, it was the practice of our fathers to plant a school. This was under the control of the church, and proved a most valuable auxiliary in the advancement of its interests. It was regarded as essential to furnish the children of the church, not only with secular instruction, but to make them acquainted with the principles and doctrines of our holy religion. They thought it important to secure the heart for God in the morning of life, whilst it was yet tender and easily susceptible of impressions —

“Dum fuciles animi juvenum, dum mobilis aetas,” – Vergerius. (Whilst the mind is supple, be inured to the toil and effort of learning.)

before the mind was brought under the influence of prejudice, or was occupied with the cares of this life, and indurated by the power of sin, before the great enemy could sow the tares, and inflict an irreparable injury upon the human soul. Well had it been for us, if this practice had never been abandoned, if this system, peculiar to our own church, had never been surrendered! If a deeper concern were manifested in the youth of our church, and more earnest efforts put forth for their conversion to God, it is probable their interest in religious subjects would be greater. They would find it more difficult to wander from the fold; they would feel more disposed in their youthful days, to identify themselves with the people of God.

All that we know of Mr. Schaum’s early life, is that he was born at Geissen, in Germany, and was the son of pious parents, who instructed their children, and strove to bring them up in the fear of God. His father was a genuine, warm-hearted Christian, a teacher at Münchsholtzhausen, who, we infer from his correspondence with his son, was deeply interested in his school, and loved the work, in which he was engaged. His great concern seemed to be that God would enable him, by precept and by example, to train up properly for his kingdom, the youth entrusted to his care. The father frequently writes to his son, and evinces also a very tender regard for his welfare. He expresses for him the most affectionate interest, and seems to sympathize with him most deeply, in the trials and difficulties to which he was subject. We find among his letters, one addressed to the son at London, after his departure from the scenes of his youth, on his way to this country, in which reference is made to the deep sorrow, experienced by all his relatives and friends, on account of his separation from them, especially the incessant weeping of his mother, who appeared almost comfortless. The warm attachment manifested by his friends, and the grief felt in consequence of his removal, may be considered as strong evidences of his worth, and of the possession of those excellencies of character, which secured for him, in after life, the esteem of those with whom he was brought in contact. There is also a communication from the father still preserved, dated May 11th, 1746, in which the most interesting and judicious advice is given. He exhorts his son to be faithful, to resist the devil, not to be like Demas, to take the Scriptures as his guide, and particularly Paul’s letters to Timothy.

The subject of our sketch, after passing through the preparatory training at home, was sent to the institutions at Halle, and there enjoyed the counsels, instructions and personal intercourse of that man of God, Dr. Franke, whose name is so intimately connected with our early missionary operations in this country. Mr. Schaum was a student at the time the spiritual destitution in America excited so much attention at Halle. When the question was presented for his consideration, he found no difficulty in deciding that it was his duty to accept the call tendered him, and to engage in missionary labors among his brethren of the same faith in this distant land.

After a tedious and dangerous voyage, he reached this country in safety, January 25ih, 1745, and was, with his colleagues, most cordially welcomed. He immediately commenced his duties as schoolmaster in Philadelphia. He took up his residence with pastor Brunnholtz, and on the Lord’s day occasionally preached. We find him, soon after his arrival, also sent to Somerset, N. J., as a temporary supply, until the congregation, who had applied for a pastor to Dr. Ziegenhagen, through Messrs. Muhlenberg and Brunnholtz, could be gratified in their wishes. These brethren, in their letter to the congregation, designate Mr. Schaum as"one of their deacons," and say “that they have sent him to perform divine worship every Sabbath, and to teach the children for two months, according to their instructions.” In the spring of 1747 he was commissioned to go to the Raritan, N. J,by pastors Muhlenberg and Brunnholtz, under whose care and direction the Catechets appear to have been placed, and the instructions given him on this occasion by these gentlemen, are interesting, and serve to give us some idea of the relations which this order in the ministry, at that day sustained, and of the manner in which public worship was conducted by our fathers. It is, in these instructions, distinctly stated, that he is sent as a Diaconus. He is directed to keep an exact and regular journal of his proceedings, and exhorted to be careful in his external conduct, and in his intercourse with the people, to converse on spiritual, rather than secular topics. The most minute directions are furnished as to the order in which the services of the sanctuary are to be performed. First, our form of Confession was to be read, to which nothing was to be added, and from which nothing was to be taken; 2, singing; 3, prayer; 4, leading of the epistle; 5, singing again, and well known hymns and tunes recommended; 6, reading of the gospel with the creed; 7, singing. This constituted the altar service. Then he is directed to go into the pulpit. 8, the sermon succeeds, which he is told to have well and thoroughly committed, so that there may be no stammering or repetition of words. It is also proposed that the sermon should not occupy a longer space than a half hour; 9, after the sermon the liturgy was to be read; 10, the children were then to be called up and catechized. Every time they were to repeat something out of Luther’s Catechism, and likewise some hymns. This service also, was not to consume more than a half hour. These instructions also authorize him to baptize children and to solemnize marriages, and strictly enjoin upon him the duty of instructing the young, and of guarding against speculation in worldly matters.

In reading the instructions given to Mr. Schaum for the performance of divine worship, one might be disposed to conclude that they were intended for the service of an Episcopal congregation. There was, however, in that day, considerable similarity in the public worship of the two churches. There were also other points of resemblance and strong affinities. In our early history there were the most friendly relations existing between the two denominations, and at all times there was evinced the kindest sympathy. The patriarch of the American Lutheran church, on one occasion attended, by special invitation, a convention of the Episcopal church, and was received with marked attention. In 1763, we find Rev. Messrs. Durkee, Peters, and Ingliss of the Episcopal church, present at the Synodical meeting of our church. By some, in that day, the opinion was entertained that a union ought to be effected; that in this country it was not desirable to perpetuate an English Lutheran church. The venerable Bishop White of Pennsylvania, went so far as to propose the reception of our ministers into the Episcopal church without requiring of them re-ordination. At a meeting of the Synod of North Carolina, held in the year 1821, a committee of the Episcopal church was in attendance, for the purpose of conferring on some plan by which friendly relations might be maintained between the respective churches. The result of this interview was, that any Lutheran minister should be entitled to a seat in the Episcopal convention of North Carolina, with the privilege of voting upon all subjects that did not specially appertain to the Episcopal church, and vice versa. The committee also offered to educate and prepare for the ministry, our ministers, gratuitously, at their seminary. We also find Rev. Dr. H. A. Muhlenberg regularly, once a month, officiating for the Episcopalians, in Reading, Pa. The following sentiments by Rev. Dr. Kunze, found in the preface of a volume of sermons published in 1797, although not very closely connected with our subject, will, at this day, be read with interest, and may be useful in this permanent form. The fact that such an opinion prevailed, expressed by so high an authority, may afford some explanation of the disposition of so many of our earlier members to unite with the Episcopal church:

“With the church of England, the Lutherans have, and ever had, a closer connection, than with others, owing to a more perfect similarity in church government, festival days, ceremonies, and.even some particulars in doctrine. The Episcopal church, indeed, does not call itself after Luther’s name: but even the church, called the Lutheran, has not that name by legal and public sanctions. In public acts it is called the evangelical church. Henry VIII. who began the reformation in England, had previously himself written a book against Luther, and was not*able, after having changed his religious opinions, entirely to eradicate a deeply rooted animosity against an old antagonist, who in answering his book had only made use of the then common controversial style. But the Reformed church of England was afterwards, under Edward VI, and Queen Elizabeth, so modeled and modified, that it bore the nearest relation to the church established in Sweden, Denmark, Saxony, Prussia, Hanover, Wurtemberg, etc. The Lutherans have bishops, superintendents, seniors and inspectors. The thirty-nine articles fully agree with the Augustan confession, and every Lutheran can subscribe them. The two German chaplains at St. James’ use a German translation of the English liturgy. The king of Great Britain, as a Lutheran, is the head of the church of Hanover, and one of his princes, on this account, is entitled to the bishopric of Osnaburg. At the accession of George the L, the agreement of both churches was, by a conference of English and German divines, investigated into, and pronounced to be as perfect as possible, which removed the doubts of this king, who is said to have declared, that he would not renounce his religion for a crown. The bishops of London, therefore, have never made a difficulty to ordain Lutheran divines, when called to congregations, which on account of being connected with English Episcopalians, made this ordination requisite. Thus by bishops of London the following Lutheran ministers were ordained — Bryselius, Peter Muhlenberg, Illing, Hauseal, and Wagner. The last mentioned was called after having obtained this ordination, to an Evangelical Lutheran congregation in the Margraviate of Anspach in Germany. For reasons obvious to some of the readers of these sheets, I have only to add, that I have these twenty-four years, that is, as long as I have instructed students of divinity for my church, uniformly and constantly held out this and no other language to them, and that it was in consequence of this subsisting union, that the Evangelical Lutheran consistory, held at Rhinebeck on the first of September, 1797, entered the following resolution:

‘That on account of an intimate connection subsisting between the English Episcopal and the Lutheran churches; and the identity of their doctrine and near alliance of their church discipline, this consistory will never acknowledge a newly erected Lutheran church, merely English, in places, where the members may partake of the service of the said English Episcopal church.’”

After this digression from our subject, we return to Mr. Schaum. Among his posthumous papers there is also a letter from Dr. G. A. Francke, a brother of the one better known to fame, dated Halle, July 25th, 1748, which in our limited material, may throw some light upon the subject of our sketch. He remarks that many letters from Pennsylvania had been lost, and consequently he had not heard from him as frequently as he desired. He is, however, pleased to learn from Mr. Brunnholtz, that he was faithful in the service of his Master, and obedient to the instructions given him. He urges him to labor as an instrument in the hands of God for the salvation of souls, and bids him to think that his own power is nothing. This, however, should not discourage him or depress his spirits; he should only be animated to increased fidelity — that was all, which God required. He likewise gives him other excellent advice, and tells him to suppress all inordinate affection for his native land, and to submit himself unconditionally to the will of God, that He may bestow his blessing.

In the spring of 1748 Mr. Schaum was sent to serve the congregation at York, Pa. “Here,” the record says, “he was faithful in his public and private instructions, and God’s favor was not withheld. He enjoyed the sincere love and confidence of the congregation.” At a meeting of the Synod, held in Lancaster in 1749, he was permanently invested with the sacred office. He would have been ordained in connection with Mr. Kurtz, the year preceding, but the distance of York from Philadelphia, where the Synod convened, and the difficulty, in that day, of communication, the time was postponed. Besides, it was desired that an opportunity might be furnished the congregation to become better acquainted with him, so as to be able to unite in his call. We find from the Hallische Nachrichten, that after his examination by Synod, and the preparation of his call, it was signed by the elders and deacons from York, from which we infer that the approval of the congregation he had been serving, was considered essential to his ordination. In a communication to Halle, there is an interesting account given of the exercises connected with this occasion. In advance of the public services, the pastors and delegates of the congregation met at the parsonage, and proceeded, while the bells were ringing, in a body to the church, in the following order: 1. Rev. Mr. Handschuh, the pastor of the congregation, with his vestry. 2. Rev. Mr. Brunnholtz, Mr. Weiser,1 and the delegates from Philadelphia and Germantown. 3. Dr. Muhlenberg, and the delegates from New Hanover and Providence. 4. Rev. Mr. Kurtz, and the deputies from Tulpehocken and Pikeland. 5. Mr. Schaum, and the deputies from York. A sermon was preached by Dr. Muhlenberg, at the request of his colleagues, on the Marriage Feast, after which all those present stood in a semi circle around the altar, and were witnesses and associates in prayer whilst Mr. Schaum was ordained. The Lord’s Supper was then administered, and the morning service concluded. In the afternoon Mr. Kurtz officiated. At night Dr. Muhlenberg was obliged to preach for the English, inasmuch as they were without a pastor, and earnestly desired the exercise. He was always willing to perform services in the English language, when an opportunity of doing good was presented. The next day, the pastors and delegates went again to the church, and heard a discourse from Mr. Schaum. In the afternoon a conference was held, and the improvement of the congregations discussed.

Mr. Schaum remained in York seven years. Here he was called to encounter difficulties, and to pass through various trials; a part of his congregation left him, and employed as their minister, an individual who was not a member of the Synod,

“Assailed by scandal and the tongue of strife,
 His only armor was, a blameless life.
 And he who forged, and he who threw the dart,
 Had each a brother’s interest in his heart.”

His church was,however, well attended, and he was sustained and encouraged by the more pious part of the congregation. Dr.Muhlenberg, in a communication written in 1754, says:

“I have been confidently informed, Mr. Schaum has still his church crowded, full of hearers, and receives adequate support, though a portion of his members has separated, and taken for their pastor a young man formerly connected with the public school.”

He was likewise a physical sufferer; his health was impaired, and he could not regularly serve his congregation, yet he maintained a cheerful frame of mind, and seemed happy in the midst of his afflictions. He was not disturbed by the clouds and storms which gathered around him. He knew that his father was at the helm, and would conduct him in safety through the journey of life; that all the dispensations of God’s providences would work out for him a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. In all his difficulties he had the sympathy of kind friends. A consolatory epistle from Rev. J. N. Kurtz, written in 1753, suggests six reasons for patience under his affliction: 1. We deserve much more. 2. Suffering in the flesh tends to break the power of sin. 3. Though the outward man decays, the inner is renewed. 4. Our humility, purity, and other Christian graces are strengthened. 5. Sufferings of our Savior. 6. Trial of ourselves.

During his residence at York, Mr. Schaum carried on frequent and extensive correspondence with his brethren in the ministry. Marry letters are still in the hands of surviving friends from Muhlenberg, Brunnholtz, Handschuh, Kurtz, Gerock, Fabricius and others, breathing a most delightful spirit, and worthy of the Christian character which our earlier ministers in this country sustained. They may also be considered as proofs of the affection, with which he was cherished and the lively interest taken in his welfare. The following letter, which he received from pastor Hart wick, that good but eccentric man, whose character has recently awakened some attention, we think will be read with pleasure. To the antiquarian in the church it possesses some value:

Philadelphia 27th October, 1754.

My dearly beloved fellow-laborer and brother:

God forbid that the deprivation of personal intercourse for so long a time, should have put an end to the love and friendship which we formerly cherished for one another, or since have been under mutual obligations to entertain! That this has not been the case on my part, let the present letter and the accompanying document be the proof. Report has told me of the many and severe trials you have met with, since we saw each other the last time. I have sympathized with you in your affliction, as I have also rejoiced on account of the divine assistance granted you. I have no doubt that you have heard of my circumstances, which are, for the most part, of an unpleasant nature, and that you have sympathized with me, and remembered meat the-throne of grace. I must, however, praise the compassion of the Lord, whose hand not only smites, but also heals, who not only brings down to the grave, but also raises up. I have so corrupt and incorrigible a congregation, that I could not endure it any longer, and the Lord has been so generous as to enable me to occupy a new congregation, and with it a considerable portion of excellent land. Inasmuch, therefore, as I intend to use my exertions to remove, as far as possible, the inconveniences with which, as pastors and people, we are obliged to contend in this country, I desire to have the accompanying advertisement made public, and request you, therefore, dear brother, for the benefit of poor evangelical brethren, to make it known in as many public places as you can, which your love does not permit me to doubt you will do; and I will endeavor to return the favor at every opportunity.

I have heard that my dear brother has changed his condition as a widower, and in hope that the matter has turned out to your satisfaction, I offer you my hearty congratulations. May God pour out upon you richly, all temporal and spiritual blessings. Also be pleased to present my kindest compliments to your wife.

In conclusion, I commend myself to your fraternal affection and prayers, and you to the divine support, protection and deliverance, and request you to ascribe my illegible and confused letter to the infirmity of my mind and body, as I am still suffering from the effects of my recent sickness. For my own part, I assure you that I am, and remain, my dear fellow-laborer,

Your devoted brother,

J. C. Hartwick.

[Note: The orthography we have given of his name, is the same that he has adopted in his letter. Sometimes he wrote it Hariwig.]

In 1755, Mr. Schaum received and accepted a call to Tohickon and congregations in the vicinity. In the year 1759, we find him living at New Hanover (the Swamp) and preaching at Oley, Pikeland and Upper Dublin, and likewise assisting Dr. Muhlenberg every four weeks at Providence (the Trappe). Subsequently he preached at other points. All our ministers at that day had a large circuit, and their labors, in many respects, resembled those of an itinerant bishop. They preached in season and out of season, in churches, in private dwellings, in barns and in the open air, wholly devoted to the work to which they believed they had been called, and earnestly laboring for the spiritual improvement of their countrymen and the extension of the Redeemer’s kingdom. In this region of country he labored acceptably till the close of his life. January 26th, the anniversary of his arrival in this country, just thirty-three years before, the subject of our sketch committed his departing spirit to the sure keeping of the great Redeemer, and animated by a bright and joyful hope, peacefully fell asleep in the hope of the resurrection of the just. His remains quietly repose near the church which witnessed his labors. His memory is still cherished by the descendants of those who sat under his ministry, and traditional accounts preserved of his usefulness.

“Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations, ask thy father and he will show thee, thy elders and they will tell thee.”

From all that we have been able to gather, we infer that Mr. Schaum was a good man, exercising the faithful shepherd’s watchful care over his flock, and wholly devoted to the work of the ministry. His love for every thing good, his interest in the salvation of the soul, his industry and zeal, his intrepidity in danger, and confidence in God, his humility and submission to the Divine will, were prominent in his life, and produced the most favorable impression. He was rather retiring in his nature, and perhaps even grave, but he was friendly to all, and easily accessible. His genial spirit and inoffensive conduct inspired the confidence of the brethren. Those who knew him best, considered him a Nathaniel, in whom there was no guile. We suppose from the portrait, that he was a man of mild, equable disposition and gentle character, with a warm, benevolent heart, shedding sunshine and happiness upon all who came within the circle of his influence. He rejoiced in the companionship of the wise and good. His life was emphatically a life of severe and constant labor, as was that of all the patriarchs of our church. Yet he never complained. His trust was in God. He earnestly prayed for the divine presence, and confidently looked for the promised aid.

His last days were gladdened by the love of his people and the respect of the community. He had the satisfaction of knowing that he had not lived in vain. He could look with comfort to the past, and anticipate with confidence the rewards of the future. As the earth was receding from his sight, he had higher joys than any thing earthly could yield, the joys of a humble Christian faith, and of a triumphant hope of a blessed immortality. He knew that if his “earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved,” he had “a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

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: 1856.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0

  1. Celebrated in the Colonial annals of Pennsylvania, as confidential Indian interpreter and magistrate of the province. One of his daughters was married to Rev. Dr. Muhlenberg, the founder of our church in this country, another to Rev. Mr. Heintzelman, one of our earlier ministers, who came hither in 1751. ↩︎