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Next set of letters could shed more light on early American history
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Russell Kleckley, professor of religion at Minneapolis' Augsburg College, discusses the progress on translating Johann Bergmann's letters. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

The letters of the last German-born pastor of the Ebenezer settlement may become as noteworthy as those of the first pastor.

Russell Kleckley, professor of religion at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, said at Monday’s annual Salzburger Heritage Day festival that Johann Ernst Bergmann’s papers reveal a changing populace after the Revolutionary War.

“Bergmann talks about things going on in Ebenezer’s church, and this is the building he is talking about,” Kleckley said while addressing a congregation at Jerusalem Lutheran Church. “To stand in this room really helps bring the story to life and adds even more to a very rich and powerful sense of history that just exudes from these walls.”

The previous project, the letters of Rev. Johann Martin Boltzius, are growing in impact since their publication, Kleckley said.

“Other scholars are drawing upon those letters for other areas of research,” he said. “A new biography of John Wesley has made extensive use of the Boltzius letters.”

Bergmann’s letters range from 1786, just prior to his appointment as Ebenezer pastor, to 1818. Most of the letters are in German, though a couple are in English and there is one in Latin addressed to President George Washington from 1791. The collection includes a few letters from Bergmann’s son.

There are more than 60 pieces in the collection, and that includes records. Bergmann’s letter writing was sporadic, Kleckley pointed out. There were some years in which Bergmann did not write anything back to the homeland.

So far, there is about 170 pages of text translated.

“We’re right at the halfway point in the translations,” Kleckley said.

While the handwriting in the letters is “beautiful,” Kleckley said, the content often was not.

“All of these are not happy letters,” he said. “Often at the beginning of the letter he will apologize for not having anything good to say.”

Bergmann was one of two pastors chosen to serve the Ebenezer community, but his colleague was not long for the post. Kleckley said there are conflicting stories about his departure, including the two pastors not getting along or the perception there wasn’t enough financial support for two pastors.

Also, Ebenezer still is reeling from the split that occurred during the Revolutionary War.

“When Bergmann arrives, Ebenezer is in a state of disarray, even much worse than he was led to believe,” Kleckley said. “Within a year of his arrival, he writes back to Germany that Ebenezer will not return to its previous state.”

There are other problems as well — church attendance is down and drunkenness is increasing. Kleckley pointed out that Bergmann wrote back to Germany that the young people are taken up with drinking and shooting guns to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Drinking is such a problem that Bergmann wrote of an Episcopalian minister in Savannah who was supposed to conduct a funeral but was so drunk he had to be led to the gravesite and once there he began to read not from the passages for funerals but instead began to deliver a wedding address.

Bergmann also laments the loss of the German language in the community and noted the spiritual and moral decay of the community.

Superstitions about ghosts and witches abound everywhere, Bergmann wrote, and many people had moved 10 to 15 miles away, making it difficult to get to the church for worship. Bergmann even attempted to conduct worship services in homes.

“A lot had changed since the time of Boltzius,” Kleckley said, “and Bergmann believes the change is not for the better.”

Other denominations, particularly Baptists and Methodists, are increasing in number, Bergmann wrote, and he was particularly appalled at what he called the “free thinkers.”

“There is a major theme that comes up in his letters, and it’s the freethinkers,” Kleckley said. “They have come to disparage religion altogether. They have been captivated by the Enlightenment and believe reason is the source of truth.”

There was a school teacher named George Fisher who was telling the children not to attend church, Kleckley noted.

“Bergman won’t stand for that,” he said.

But Bergman is threatened with a lawsuit, and Fisher and his pupils even try to disrupt a Christmas service by beating on the windows with sticks.

“It is not a happy time, but these problems are not just at Ebenezer,” Kleckley said.

Bergmann believed the biggest problem was freedom, Kleckley said. “There was too much of it,” he explained. “Bergmann is experiencing culture shock. And he is not quite prepared to deal with it.”

The flock was beginning to adapt to freedom of thought and expression in the New World, and Bergmann is bristling against it, according to Kleckley.

“You are on your way to becoming Americans,” he said. “What I see our some underlying themes that tie the story together for things that are happening to Ebenezer and Bergmann. It’s these things and Bergmann’s insights that will make these letters of particular interest for the history of Georgia and the history of the United States in its formative years.”