Zion’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Jonestown, PA has been around for 275 years. We thank God for his faithfulness. In June of 2014, on Pentecost Sunday, we celebrated nearly three decades of ministry in this place!
The congregation begins worshipping
When did the church actually begin? This is a rather interesting question. Records indicate that German-Lutheran settlers were baptized in Jonestown as early as 1734 (and maybe even 1733!). However, consistent worship did not start until five years later in 1739. Like many churches that had German settlers, this early congregation, called the Swatara Kirche, was a joint church of Lutheran and Reformed tradition. They worshipped in a farmhome that was destroyed in Indian raids. After this they built their first church on South Broad Street in 1764. At that time, the Reverend John Stoever served as pastor of the church. He was the second Lutheran pastor to be ordained in America.
For some, the construction of the building in 1764 marks the start of the church; for others, the consistent worship on Sunday in 1739 marks the beginnings. It is worth noting that in either case, most churches in the area have a hard time pinning down exact dates because clergy were in such short supply. Most pastors traveled in circuits, serving many congregations. So even if a congregation had a building and a called pastor, they may not have had worship every Sunday. Travel in those days was hard and expensive.
Civil War Era
A new building and a new language!
On September 4, 1792, the cornerstone was laid for the Lutheran church a short distance east of the present building. Over a half a century later, on May 11, 1853, the cornerstone was laid for the present building. The cost of the new church was $4,500! This dollar figure is remarkable for such a small farming town. Throughout its history, the people of Zion’s have made sacrifices for the ministry. The beauty of the sanctuary indicates the people building it believed the church would be around for many generations to come.
After the Civil War, the congregation moved from German worship services to English worship services. It sounds easy in retrospect, but this was a significant endeavor at the time. Today we have an English as a Second Language ministry, where we continue to welcome the stranger whose native language is not English. Notice in the picture below, taken in 1914, the coverings in the sanctuary are still in German.
Growth and Continuity…and a bit of change
The congregation has a long tradition of loving music. A Mailer pipe organ was purchased in 1925. A Mueller organ replaced this one in the 1960s. We continue to worship using this organ on Sundays. We also have pictures of our junior choir going back over 70 years.
The very first Bible School was recorded in 1952. From the beginning, the Sunday School was not simply for children, but also adults. From 1960 to 1963, the educational wing was constructed. When construction plans proved more costly than originally anticipated, the members of the congregation completed the work by hand. This also meant digging up the cemetery of the congregation and moving it about 1/4 mile down the road.
Our first female acolytes were in the 1970s and this congregation called its first female pastor in 2002. This first female acoylte now serves as the secretary.
Today the church is experiencing rapid growth as Jonestown moves from a farming town to a suburb of Harrisburg and Lebanon.
We are both proud but also humbled by this great history, knowing that we reap the seed sown in faith by caring Christians generations ago. We continue to be inspired by the dedication of so many people to God’s ministry through this church during the past 275 years.
Lastly, our congregation has been a part of many different Lutheran denominations and synods over the years. We have been a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America since its inception in 1988. The ELCA organizes churches into local synods. We, along with roughly 200 other local Lutheran churches in south central PA, form the Lower Susquahanna Synod. We frequently partner with other Lutheran churches in our area for various events.