HENRY MELCHIOR MUHLENBERG'S
THE WEBERITE CULT (1759-1761)
SAXE GOTHA, SOUTH CAROLINA
"Medium tenere beati.
Blessed are they who hold to the middle course."
Henry (Heinrich) Melchior Muhlenberg (1711-1787) was a German born, American Lutheran clergyman who became known as the patriarch of Lutheranism in America. He was born in Einbeck in the Electorate of Hannover, Germany, to Nicolaus Melchior Muhlenberg, a craftsman and councilor, and Anna Maria Kleinschmid. He studied at Goettinger and Halle. He came to Pennsylvania as a bachelor and minister in 1742 through the port at Charlestown on Captain McClellan's brigantine the "Georgia Packet" from London, staying in the home of Jeremiah Theus (Christian Theus' brother) at Charlestown, visiting the Ebenezers in Georgia, then taking a sloop to Philadelphia. "Muhlenberg was a contemporary of the Great Awakening and a participant in a religious movement that was the first great and spontaneous movement in the history of the American people, deeper and more pervading than the colonial wars." He laid the cornerstone of the Old Trappe Church in Trappe, Pennsylvania, on 2 May 1743. He soon became the leader of all Lutheran groups in the colonies. In 1748 he organized the first Lutheran synod in America. 1774 he returned to South Carolina for a visit.
After traveling by sea for many days from Philadelphia, on Thursday, September 8th, 1774 Muhlenberg and his wife safely passed the sand banks off South Carolina and arrived at about 10 A.M. at Charlestown. During this stay he met with Rev. John Nicholas Martin (pastor of a church at Cedar Creek that became the Appii Forum) and Rev. Christian Theus, a pious minister from the Congarees. (The church at Cedar Creek was founded by Peter Schmidt -- not to be confused with Captain John George Schmidtpeter or Smithpeter, who was murdered 23 or 24 February 1761 -- and a man named Repsimann or Turnipseed.) He recorded in his journal information about the Weberite heresy and Jacob Weber.
The events described by Muhlenberg in his journal from his separate conversations with Reverend Martin and Rev. Theus are viewed from a distance of thirteen and one half years from the time of the Weberites (1759-1761). Muhlenberg was sixty-three years old at the time and had found his trip to Charlestown difficult due to the heat, his own suffering from fever and diarrhea, and his elderly wife's complaints of illness and hysteria. He described Christian Theus as old.
The following is cited from Volume II of The Journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, regarding the Weberite sect (1759-1761) at the German & Switzer settlements of the Dutch Fork & Saxe Gotha, South Carolina, along the Saluda & Broad Rivers.
Entry: Wednesday, 5 October 1774 at Charlestown, SC
"Visit from Messrs. Martin [Rev. John Nicholas Martin] and Mr. Strobel, Pastor Martin's son-in-law, a well-to do tanner, sent for me in his chaise to take me out of town to dine with him. At my request he gave me an account of a pernicious cult which arose among the Germans at Fork Saluda in the country about a hundred miles from Charles Town in the years 1759 to 1761, and which had some similarity with the old sect of Jan van Leiden and Knipperdolling [Anabaptis uprising in Munster, Germany, led by "fanatic" Bernhard Knipperdolling] and the more recent Butler sect [founded by Eva von Buttlar 1670-1717].
"A well-to-do inhabitant, Jacob Waber [Weber] a native of Switzerland, began at first to have his neighbors come together on Sundays to sing a few hymns, and he read them a sermon from a book of sermons. This was, of course, a good and profitable thing; but gradually the hearers began to admire and honor and praise the reader, which in turn caused him to begin to admire himself. And the more he thought of it the more highly did he esteem his own talents; so he began to put aside the book and preach out of his own spit. This astonished his hearers even more and they began to deify him, which, unfortunately, is not a new phenomenon among either educated or ignorant people. The thing degenerated further and further into the irrational and absurd. Jacob Waber [Weber] acquired or won over two co-workers who had no wish to be anything less than he. They, too, professed most extraordinary revelations and helped to hatch out a sect. Meanwhile the three leaders adjusted their differences by agreeing that Jacob Waber [Weber] should represent and act as God the Father, Schmidt Peter, the son, and the third person Dauber, a godless, colored preacher, the Spirit. Peter Schmid is said to have been a co-founder.
"Observation: Our forethers used to say that Satan is like an ape, an imitator. however, several very smart Englishmen long ago very sagaciously declared amid the fumes of their coal gas [possibly an allusion to alchemist naturalism] interpretations of English Deists and French Skeptics gained a later footing in Germany where the Aufklarung, the Englightenment, came to flower in the eighteenth century], that to say that men were possessed of the oil in the time of Christ was to saddle something on the prince of darkness of which he was innocent. Those people, it was said in England, were rather suffering from natural maladies and ills, and thus the Englishmen acted as apologists for their unknown Maecenas. Since such stale allegories are now being warmed up again in Germany, where people are taking delight in dressuping up in French and English plumes, I, of course, cannot very well think that Satan had any influence in connection with this sect or, in particular, upon its three leaders.
"The sect grew stronger and stronger and practiced the most atrocious blasphemies. The sect gained such ascendancy that neighboring families joined it because they feared for the safety of their lives. Groups of both sexes went about unclothed and naked, and practiced the most abominable wantoness.
"An old, upright Reformed preacher, Mr. Christian Theus, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking here in Charlestown, told me that he had once come by chance into one of their meetings where the three leaders were sitting on a raised platform while the group sat at their feet. Schmidt Peter addressed him, saying, 'Little parson, do you believe that I am the redeemer and savior of the world and that no man can be saved without me?' And the other leaders confronted him with the same kind of blasphemous questions. When he replied to these questions with a stern rebuke, the leaders declared him guilty of death and asked their band whether he ought not to be hanged from the nearest tree. The reply was: No, he had blasphemed God and offended the holy assembly and must be drowned in the deepest depths. So when the crowd began to grow excited and was about to seize him, he got up and fled to the nearby Broad river where, fortunately he came upon a Negro with a boat on the water just about to push off. The Negro hurriedly took him in and set out, so those who were chasing him arrived too late.
"Finally, the three leaders fells to quarreling among themselves, that is, Jacob Waber [Weber] and Schmidt Peter fell out with the third man. They decided that he was not properly exercising the office of Spirit, that he was neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. The band assembled and dug a pit in the forest. They then placed a mattress on the bottom of the pit, threw the man upon it, filled the pit with more mattresses and trampled upon them until the man was suffocated and dead. Soon afterwards Waber [Weber] quarreled with so-called Schmidt Peter. He declared him to be the dragon (Satan) and had him chained to a tree. The members of the band surrounded him, struck him with their fists, and beat him until he fell to the ground, and finally they danced around him and trampled upon his throat until he had enough, until he was dead.
"When the report of the murders reached the authorities in Charlestown, Jacob Waber, and several other members of the sect [John Geiger, Hannah Weber, Jacob Bourghart and three others at least] were taken down to Charlestown by the militia, placed in prison, and tried. Waber [Weber] was condemned and hanged at the gallows and the others were sent home. The ignorant English indulged in mockery over the affair and said the Germans now had nothing to fear, their devil having been killed and their God hanged. The sect spread from South to North Carolina and thence to Maryland and Virginia among both Germans and English and has left some seed behind in various places. This gross satanical play is usually succeeded by a more subtle temptation and exhibition, for the Anabaptists, Quakers, etc. are spreading widely in the country regions and seem to be better suited to country conditions. The poor people grow up in the country without schools and instructions, and even if the self-appointed preachers do wanter in occasionally, it does no good, for the people are wild and growing wilder. What does it profit to hear a sermon every four, six, or twelve weeks? If the divine truths are not implanted in the youth, it is all lost.
"Mr. [John Christian] Martin gave me a letter which Jacob Weber had written to his children while he was in prison. It reads as follows:"
"After the curtain fell upon this tragedy, the old harlequin came forth in a different disguise, with more subtle, and refined comedies of sectarianism, which do even more harm."
Entry of Monday, 10 October 1774:
"This afternoon I had a pleasant visit from the Rev. Mr. [Christian] Theus, the Reformed minister of Congeries [Congarees], as it is called in South Carolina, one hundred twenty miles from Charlestown, a brother of the recently deceased painter, Mr. [Jeremiah] Theus, who took me into his house thirty two years ago when I traveled through here on my journey from Savanna to Philadelphia and afforded me an opportunity to preach the Word of God to the few German families that were here at that time [Tuesday, 31 October 1742]. May the Lord requite his charity in eternity. The aforesaid Pastor Theus came to this country with his late parents from Switzerland as a candidatus theologiae. he was examined and ordained by the Reverend English Presbyterian Ministerium and since 1739 has been performing the duties of the ministerial office among the German Reformed and Lutheran inhabitants of this broad territory. According to testimony of competent witnesses, he has conducted himself with the propriety and fidelity due his office.
"We had a pleasant conversation and he promised some time to give me a written account of church matters in these country districts, which, withal, he is best fitted to furnish since he has lived in this country the longest and is a literatus. He was also able to give me a more detailed account of the Waber sect, for he is the preacher who denounced its members, as is mentioned in the entry for October 5, page 76 (see entry 5 October 1774].."
Perhaps much was forgotten, exaggerated, or simply confused by Theus and Muhlenberg from a distance of thirteen and a half years before Muhlenberg wrote in his journal the above account of the story of Jacob Weber and the Weberite sect and recorded his conversation with then aging Reverend Christian Theus. Muhlenberg names one "Peter Schmid" [Peter Schmidt or Smith] as a founder of the Weberites. Documents record that after the Weberites murdered Captain John George Schmidtpeter (Smithpeter) on 23 or 24 February 1761 that one "Peter Schmidt" and a man named Repseman founded a church on Cedar Creek that came to be known as Appii Forum Church. Is it possible that the well-meaning Theus and Muhlenberg confused the names and personage of these two men. Neither Theus or Muhlenberg mention the third man, Michael Hentz, who was also murdered by the Weberites in 1761. Nor do they mention that the seven Weberites (Jacob & Hannah Weber, John Geiger, Jacob Bourghardt, and three others whose names are presently unknown to this writer) were not tried at Charlestown in 1761 for the murder of the "godless black preacher", Frederick Dauber.
Who was Michael Hentz?
Did Reverends Christian Theus or John Nicholas Martin keep journals? Are those journals available to researchers in the 21st century?
An individual (claiming direct descent from Jacob and Hannah Weber) who would like to curtail further interest in the Weberites has suggested that Theus's journals may be in some obscure library in Utah. Does anyone have any knowledge about this?
If anyone has any information about the journals, letters, or other manuscripts of Christian Theus or John Nicholas Martin, this writer and other researchers would be most grateful if you would share that information with us. Such an account could shed new light on the Weberites and help us to better understand these tragic events.
Source The Journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg in Three Volumes, Volume II; translated by Theodore G. Tappert and John W. Doberstein; 1942; The Evangelical Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania and Adjacent States and The Muhlenberg Press, Philadelphia; pp577-580, 584, & 592. Call Number BX8080M9A4, Main Library, University of California, Berkeley, California.
Copyright 2000, All Rights Reserved, Brenda Helen Keck Reed.
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