By Joann M. Ringelstetter
When I first moved to Middleton, Wisconsin, which is now over 40 years ago, I had friends who lived west of Madison on Old Sauk Road. Whenever I went to visit them, I passed an old white country church that sat on a hill at the corner of Old Sauk and Pleasant View Roads.
I remember heading home from my friends’ house one evening in a storm, and as I passed the church, the wind blew so hard that I thought the car would lift off the ground. I was scared out of my wits, so I pulled over to the side of the road. As I sat there by the little country church, I asked God to spare me from harm and the storm finally waned.
The history of the First Lutheran Church began with German immigrants who came to the United States in large numbers between 1840 and 1850. After crossing the Atlantic Ocean and then taking trains to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, they discovered that there was neither a place to stay nor a job to be had there. So they procured wagons and teams of oxen, and then bounced their way across the rough terrain to Madison, which was only a small village of around 600 people in 1846.
For the first few years, these early settlers took turns holding worship meetings in their one-room log cabins. In 1854, they decided to join together to contribute materials and labor to build a simple log church. The foundation of this first church still exists in the old original cemetery down the hill from the current church.
As new families joined the congregation, the log church became too small, so they decided to build a new church up on the hill, which was completed in 1866. In 1884, an additional 40 feet was added to the church, along with a new tall and majestic steeple.
In 1907, the congregation purchased a beautiful pipe organ that was built by the William Schuelke firm of Milwaukee. Schuelke organs were known for their high quality, distinctly Germanic sound. Unfortunately, the organ no longer works and it would take an exorbitant amount of money to restore. It does, however, hold a special place in the history of this beautiful church.
In 1947, due to dwindling membership, services were discontinued and the church sat empty and in danger of vandalism and eventual demolition. Fortunately, in the 1980s, a group of community members decided that the church was worth saving and they began to work tirelessly on the restoration and preservation of this historical church.
Rev. Ken Michaelis, twice great grandson of church founder Johann (John) Voss, presided over the service. When it was time to give the sermon, he said that he usually likes to stand close to the congregation when he speaks. On that day, however, he felt it was important to preach from the beautiful historical pulpit.
Music was provided by the Madison Maennerchor, the oldest German singing organization in Wisconsin, and the second oldest in the United States. It was founded in 1852, which is the same year that the congregation of the First Lutheran Church was founded. And one of the hymns sung by those attending the service was “Little White Church on the Hill” (with the same melody as “The Little Brown Church in the Vale”).
This historic service was attended by over 250 people, many of whom were descendants of the original founders and ministers of the church.
At the closing of the service, the children attending were allowed to help ring the church bell. As you can see by their faces, this was a wonderful experience for them.
I wish I had taken a picture of the First Lutheran Church in the 1970s, during a time when it seemed beautiful in its abandonment out in the rolling countryside. As the city of Madison expanded its boundaries over the years, the church became surrounded by development and a great increase in traffic. Still, it remains one of the most stunning “country” churches and is now undergoing some much-needed repairs due to the efforts of the dedicated board of trustees and the generosity of many donors.
Although the First Lutheran Church is no longer an active church, it is open to the public for weddings, baptisms, renewal of wedding vows, memorial services, concerts, and other community events. If you’d like more information, visit the First Lutheran Church website.