‘A place of safety and healing’

The Civil War laid waste to all the churches in Harpers Ferry, except St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is celebrating 160 years of continuous service to the community.

A part of the West Virginia Civil War Trails, the church holds a lively history relating to the Civil War.

St. John Evangelical Luthran Church is raising money to restore the bell and bell tower on the church. The original bell that signaled the start of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry is still hanging in the belfry.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph P. Smeltzer laid the cornerstone on April 30, 1850. The building took two years to complete and a dedication ceremony was held on Aug. 1, 1852. For the next seven years, the church held regular services.

On Oct. 17, 1859, the role of the church in the community changed.

As the sun rose on the morning of Oct. 17, John Brown’s raid was under way. Local physician John D. Starry rushed to the church and ordered the church bell to be rung, alerting residents to the impending danger. Most residents fled to the church, seeking safety from the fighting. Smeltzer wrote in his diary, “I never witnessed such a fright in any community as when the news fled that the abolitionists of the north had taken the armory and were killing our people.”

This church bell still stands in the belfry.

Two years later, the Civil War was under way. Services were suspended as Federal forces used the church as a hospital. The original pews, still in use today, served as hospital beds for wounded soldiers. According to folklore, the church was divided into two infirmaries: Union troops were treated upstairs, Confederate troops downstairs.

The war did take a toll on the structure of the building. An errant Confederate cannonball fired during the Battle of Harpers Ferry on Sept. 15, 1862 struck part of an outside wall. The damage is still visible today.

Vicar John Unger has led the church for over three years. “I want to build disciples, not just a congregation,” he said.

Unger holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and liberal arts from West Virginia University. He is a Harry S. Truman scholar and a Rhodes scholar, graduating from Oxford University with master’s degrees in philosophy, politics and economics. He spent two years at Georgetown Law School before switching to Wesley Theological Seminary. He is presently studying for his master’s degree in divinity.

Unger has also served as a West Virginia senator since 1998. He presently serves as majority leader.

“The church is open, family-centered and very hospitable,” Unger said. “We are small enough to know each other’s names and large enough to have activities.”

The church supports Jefferson County Community Ministries and holds a fellowship dinner for seniors twice a week.

Special events during the year include a Christmas bazaar in November, a special Sept. 11 service recognizing first responders and law enforcement, an ecumenical Thanksgiving service and an Easter sunrise service. An old-time Christmas service, similar to a Civil War service, is held complete with Civil War re-enactors.

Sunday worship starts at 10 a.m. The church is open to the public and offers an option of grape juice or wine for communion.

In honor of the 160th anniversary of the church, funds are being raised to restore the original bell and tower.

For questions about the church or bell restoration efforts, contact St. John at 304-535-3105 or email info@stjohnlutheranwv.org.

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