Heinrich Wehrs – Iowa City’s Frontier Pastor.

In Our Iowa Heritage series, we’ve rarely written multiple stories when pulling together a piece on a specific person. But when it comes to Pastor Josias Ritter, the man God used to plant the first German Lutheran church in Iowa City, we simply couldn’t walk away from the intriguing stories of the two men who came after Josias.

Hats off to the trio of Ritter, Doescher, and Wehrs: three German-born pastors who all came to Iowa City for a short time, establishing in one decade (1856-1866) the solid foundation of Zion’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church, which later became Zion Lutheran in Iowa City.
Click here to read more about Josias Ritter
Click here to read more about Johann Friederich Doescher
Iowa City in the mid-1850’s.

In the mid-1850’s, many of the pioneers who had relocated to Johnson County since statehood was declared (1846) were clamoring for church communities they could call their own. In the memoirs of Pastor Henrich Wehrs, a Lutheran pastor who ministered in Iowa City from 1862-1866, we find that starting a new church from scratch in those days was difficult, at best.

As it turned out, by the winter of 1856, two groups of Lutherans – English-speaking and German-speaking – who had tried to work together in starting a church decided to go their own way, with the German-Lutherans calling Pastor Josias Ritter, a German-born man (see letter above) who was pastoring in central Illinois (Hollowayville), to pull together a new congregation in Iowa City.

As it is with all church planting, things progressed slowly, but under the leadership of Pastor Ritter, there was progress. One church historian, writing in the late 19th century, records this ministry activity in Iowa City between 1856-1858…

In 1858, Josias and his family moved back to central Illinois, leaving the church without a pastor. Wehrs states in his writings that Josias just couldn’t make it financially, as so many church planters experience in their early years of building a new ministry…

According to Wehrs, Pastor Johann did a bang-up job. You can read more about Johann Doescher here.

Under the leadership of Pastor Doescher, the German-Lutherans built a church building (see arrow on this 1868 ‘Birds-Eye” map of Iowa City) at the corner of Bloomington and Johnson Streets.

Which now brings us to the subject of our story, Pastor Heinrich W. Wehrs. Allow me to share, from his own perspective, how Heinrich became affiliated with Pastor Doescher and the Iowa City German Lutheran church; the congregation that is known today as Zion Lutheran…

The Black Hawk on the upper Mississippi. Riverboats provided the most reliable mode of north/south transportation throughout most of the 19th century. But getting to Iowa City via riverboats was nearly impossible. Click here for that story.

My guess is that there were more Norwegians in Iowa City than just Olsen, but I digress. In his full biographical material, Heinrich Wehrs tells a colorful story about Olsen, the Norwegian. (You can read that here – pp 126-127)

Apparently, Pastor Doescher had built quite a circle of influence around Iowa City. Methodist pastors were known during this time as circuit riders, traveling from parish to parish to care for souls. Doescher had obviously set up a similar network of German Lutherans with a circumference of 200 miles!

Hooray for one of my Amish Mennonite brethern! This part of Heinrich’s “circuit-riding” story must have taken place near Kalona, my Boller family’s stomping grounds (approx 20 miles south of Iowa City).

Heinrich, in his colorful biographical material, talks in detail about his pastoral journeys “on the road” for Jesus. His 200-mile circuit, which he did once a month, included Homestead, South Amana, and Marengo in Iowa County, Grinnell and Montezuma in Poweshiek County, Oskaloosa in Mahaska County, Sigourney in Keokuk County, finishing up, back in Iowa County, in Millersburg, on his way back to Iowa City…

Heinrich took over for Pastor Doescher (Doscher) in 1863, overseeing the Iowa City church for three years before moving on to his next assignment in Dubuque (1866)…

Family records indicate that Heinrich was born in Hanover, Germany on June 6, 1842 to Johann Wilhelm Wehrs and Sophia Kaiser, married Anna Maria Hemner (born in 1840) in Peoria, IL in 1864, being blessed with seven children (1866-1882) along the way.

He went on to serve in the Lutheran church for many more years, with much of his pastoral career located in the Chicago area; his last assignment being in Glenview, IL from 1879 to 1915. In a short obituary appearing in The Chicago Tribune, dated April 30, 1940…

The Rev. H. W. Wehrs Dies; Retired Glenview Pastor.
Milwaukee, Wis., April 29 [Special]. — The Rev. Henry W. Wehrs, 98 years old, pioneer Lutheran minister died last night in the home of his son, the Rev. Herman Wehrs in Freistadt, Wis. He was born in Germany, and was pastor of Glenview, Ill. Lutheran church from 1879 until he retired in 1915. He is survived by three other sons, William, Chicago; Charles, Aurora, Ill., and Albert of Michigan. Funeral services will be held in the Lutheran church, Freistadt, Wisc at 9:30 Wednesday morning.

Both Heinrich (Henry) and his dear wife, Anna, are buried in Immanuel Lutheran Church Cemetery in Glenview, Illinois.

As Heinrich concluded his biographical material in 1926, he closed with this…

Thanks, Heinrich, for the Iowa City memories! Godspeed!

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Some Early History of the Lutheran Church in Iowa City, Iowa – Notes from one of the Pioneers in the State of Iowa, Pastor Emeritus H.W. Wehrs, Shawano, Wisconsin, August 1926, pp. 123-134

Zion Lutheran Church – Iowa City: Our History

Rev. Henry W. Wehrs, Find-A-Grave

Anna Henmer Wehrs, Find-A-Grave

Henry W. Wehrs, Ancestry.com

Henry W. Wehrs, 1870 U.S, Census Records, Ancestry.com

Henry W. Wehrs, 1880 U.S, Census Records, Ancestry.com

Henry W. Wehrs, 1900 U.S, Census Records, Ancestry.com

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