A Short History of St. John’s
2021-03-13 (1)
The year was 1877. The Compromise of 1877 made Northerner Rutherford B. Hayes president and allowed former Confederates to govern the South, marking the transition from Reconstruction to the Redeeming and Jim Crow segregation. Levi Coffin, often referred to as the President of the Underground Railroad, died. Sitting Bull surrendered to the US Army, and the Nez Perce fought for freedom that summer in Idaho and Montana. And the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. John was organized in Jacksonville.


St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church is the first Lutheran church in Jacksonville and the second oldest in Florida. According to an early handwritten account, the Reverend Charles F. Bansemer, D.D. of South Carolina, was approached by one of the town's early Lutherans, Mr. Claus Meyer. There was a small nucleus of Germans in the area who, for some fifteen years, had been meeting in private homes, in St. Stephen's Episcopal Chapel in La Villa, and in St. John's Episcopal Church.  They had been ministered to by traveling Lutheran ministers, and on a few occasions, by an ex-Catholic priest. A group of Germans, who originated primarily from an area between Hamburg and Bremen, called Pastor Bansemer and by 1878 had built a small 25 by 50 foot frame building on the comer of Laura and Ashley Streets. At that time Jacksonville's population was around 7600. Some names from those founders may sound familiar still today: Witchen, Hildebrandt, Itjen, Arpen, Kornahrens, Brickwedel, Lilienthal, Krue. The church grew and thrived, offering services in both English and German, a practice which continued well into the 20th century. Pastor Bansemer continued to serve until 1889 when he fell victim to a yellow fever epidemic.


The Big Fire on May 3, 1901 was the next event that shaped the congregation. The original church building was destroyed, and perhaps even more devastating, all the church records were lost. The pastor, the Reverend Sheppard S. Rahn, was commissioned by the church council to write a history of the church. Plans were immediately made to rebuild.  The building, designed by H.J. Klutho, was constructed of red brick in the German Gothic style and consisted of a church sanctuary on the upper level, a Sunday school area in the basement level, and an eight-room parsonage attached at the rear. The congregation continued to prosper. In 1911, a Felgemacher pipe organ was installed which is still in use today. The years following World War I were a boom time m Jacksonville. As commercial growth expanded in the downtown area, the congregation decided to sell the church property to make way for an office building. The church was demolished. Inside the building a painting of the Ascension had been executed on the wall above the altar. It is told that when the workman who were demolishing the building came upon this painting, they refused to touch the wall. The foreman eventually had to complete the demolition.


With the proceeds, $100,000, from the sale of the property in 1926, the congregation divided into two parishes. One group organized Trinity Lutheran Church in Riverside, and the other group moved to the present location in Springfield. The Sunday school building of St. John's was constructed first on 10th and Silver Streets, and the auditorium of this structure was used for worship services from 1926 until 1949 when the present Tudor Gothic sanctuary was dedicated.  The altar, a lectern, chancel chairs, offering plates, a hymn board, and alms boxes were brought from the original church building on Laura and Ashley Streets.  Members of the congregation, Mr. and Mrs. Albert and Ardell Smith, were the architects.  They are still living in Jacksonville today. For the better part of the 20th century, two pastors are remembered for their long and faithful service: The Reverend C.F.H. Krueger served from 1928-1959, and the Reverend William R. Morgan served from 1967-1994.


Throughout the 20th century, the church membership remained remarkably homogeneous even as the Springfield neighborhood went through periods of socio-economic transition. The membership of the once vibrant congregation continued to decline. In the latter years of the 1990's, the members of St. John's began a dialogue with the Division for Outreach of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Florida-Bahamas Synod. The conversations centered around how to fulfill the mission of spreading the good news of Christ and serving all of God's creation. There were discussions that ran the gambit from possible mergers between congregations to the possibility of closing the doors of St. John' s.


In 2000 the congregation took a courageous step and became a mission outreach of the Florida- Bahamas Synod. This allowed the ELCA to assist in the "Fresh Start" of St. John's Congregation. This program helps the congregation by providing financial support and trained "Mission Developers" to lead the congregation through a period of revitalization.


In late January 2000 Pastors William and Victoria Hamilton were called to St. John's as the Pastors and Mission Developers. St. John's began to reflect the diversity of the community in which it serves. Soon Sunday mornings found young and old, a broad mixture of family units, and a blend of ethnic communities represented. God has seen fit to keep the doors of St. John's open, as this faith community took seriously the command to love one another and share the love of Christ. The Hamiltons retired from ministry in 2019 an overflow attendance of the congregation and Springfield community, celebrating their love of all people for the sake of the Gospel. Now St. John’s is emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 with both great expectations, building on what has gone before to meet the variety of needs that the people of Springfield face as the neighborhood undergoes renewal and re-development.