The charming little town of Madison, Virginia lies on U.S. Route 29 about 10 miles south of Culpeper and 25 miles north of Charlottesville. A few miles north of Madison there is a small church that is significant for several reasons. The Hebron Lutheran Church is the oldest Lutheran Church in continuous use in the United States. Built in 1740, it is one of the few wooden churches surviving Virginia's colonial times. The first pastor of the congregation was my 6th great-grandfather, Johann Kasper Stöver aka John Caspar Stoever, in my father's lineage, on his mother's side.
Baptized January 18, 1685 in the Lutheran church at Frankenberg, Hessen (in present day Germany), Johann Kasper Stöver was the son of Dietrich and Magdalena (Eberwein) Stöver. Along with his son of the same name, he arrived in Philadelphia on September 11, 1728 aboard the ship James Goodwill with David Crockett as the ships Master.
Several years earlier, after fulfilling their obligations at the Germanna Colony, a group of German Lutheran colonists purchased land near what would later become the town of Madison. They settled there and carved out lives for themselves and their families. And in 1726, they built a small log chapel along the Robinson River. It wasn't until the spring of 1733 that they were finally able to secure the services of a minister - the Rev. John Caspar Stoever (Senior).
His time as pastor of Hebron, was short - only about a year and a half. But in that time he laid the foundation for the future growth and prosperity of the church. A new house of worship was badly needed. The chapel in which he preached had become too small for the growing congregation and unsuitable for church purposes. The means of his people were limited. After paying their pastor's salary and taxes for the support of the established church, they felt that the burden of building was too great for them to bear alone. It was finally decided to ask for help from their brethren across the seas. Thus it was that in the fall of 1734, Pastor Stoever, Michael Smith (an elder), and Michael Holt (a member of the congregation) were sent to Europe to solicit funds to aid in building a church, establishing a school, and supporting an assistant pastor.
The fund-raising trip was quite successful. Sadly though, on the return voyage to Virginia, in the spring of 1739, Pastor Stoever became critically ill and died at sea. Though constructed in 1740, after his death, the church building is part of the legacy of John Caspar Stoever as is a school built in 1748 - the first school for German speaking colonists in the South – that was used for 100 years.
This historical marker is on the right side of the road when traveling north on the Blue Ridge Turnpike (Virginia Route 231) and is a little south of Hebron Church Road (County Route 638).
The inscription reads “Nearby stands Hebron Lutheran Church. This cruciform church was built in 1740 and is America’s oldest church in continuous use by Lutherans. The congregation was formed by 1725 by German families, some of whom arrived to Virginia in 1717 to work at Germanna, Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood’s frontier mining community. The church was enlarged about 1800 and a pipe organ crafted by David Tannenburg of Lititz, Pennsylvania, was installed. The interior of the church has elaborate frescoed ceilings painted by the Italian born artist Joseph Oddenino. It was listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.”
It was on Sunday morning (October 25th) that I was given a tour of the church by its historian, Mrs. Judy Ann Fray. Due to poor timing, I arrived after services were over but was extremely fortunate that Mrs. Fray was still there. And even more fortunate that she was gracious and willing to take the time to show me around.
Hebron Lutheran Church, Madison, Virginia. The parish house is to the right (east) of the church. The cemetery and stone fences date from the early 1900s.
The south side (front) of the church was added between 1790 and 1802. The small platform in front of the church was used for mounting and dismounting from horses and carriages. There are three of them, the one in front and one on each of the east and west sides.
The north side of the church (now the back) was built in 1740.
The pews and balcony on the east side, part of the original church building.
Installed in 1802 and restored in 1970, the Tannenberg organ is still in use today.
The southern side, added between 1790 and 1802. In the balcony area, where the organ was installed, you can see that the church originally had a high barrel-shaped ceiling.
The ceiling was lowered and plastered during renovations in 1850. In 1884, the ceiling was painted by Joseph Oddenino of Turin, Italy. Additional renovations were made in 1961.
History of the Hebron Lutheran Church, Madison County, Virginia from 1717-1907 by Rev. W. P. Huddle, Pastor. New Market, Virginia, 1908. Pages 23-30.
Stover-Stoever-Staver-Stiver, An Account of The Ancestry and Descendants of Johann Caspar Stoever of Pennsylvania by Vernon Stiver & Patricia R. Donaldson. Saline, Michigan, 1992. Pages 11-49 provide an interesting and detailed accounting of the life of John Caspar Stoever, Sr.
Pamphlet published by the Hebron Lutheran Church, Madison, Virginia. No Date.