A Brief History and Chronology of First English Evangelical Lutheran Church
A BRIEF HISTORY OF FIRST LUTHERAN CHURCH
First Lutheran Church, founded in a store room on Main Street in July 1839, is Dayton’s oldest Lutheran church. Over the years it has occupied four sites within a four-square-block area of downtown Dayton. The founders of First Lutheran came from Pennsylvania and regarded themselves as “American Lutherans” who had little in common with German-speaking Lutherans. Consequently, First Lutheran was founded as an English-speaking congregation, affiliated with the General synod, the progressive branch of the Lutheran Church in the United States. The congregation grew rapidly, moving to a large building on South Main Street in 1858 and adding 238 new members in one month during the great Dayton Revival (1870). First Lutheran became one of the leading Lutheran congregations in Ohio and nationally.
In the later 19th century the congregation generously supported home, foreign and inner missions and other benevolent causes. It was especially noted for supporting Wittenberg College, with which it had close ties dating from 1845. The congregation and its members helped to found such local institutions as the YMCA and Deaconess Hospital (now Miami Valley). At the turn of the century First Lutheran helped establish mission congregations in outlying sections of the city, including Second, Trinity, Grace, and North Riverdale. One of its pastors, Frank Garland, became Dayton’s first Welfare Director in 1913.
The congregation retained the ways of its founders, officially remaining a non-liturgical church until 1984. Increasingly out of step with the Lutheran church at large, First Lutheran only gradually adopted in the 1940s and 1950s such prevailing Lutheran practices as vestments for pastors and choir, a traditional “Lutheran” chancel with an altar, and traditional liturgical forms of worship.
Church membership peaked in 1948 with 2,500 baptized members. For half a century beginning in the 1920s the congregation supported missionaries in India, Japan, and Africa. During this same era nine members of the congregation entered the ministry. In the 1920s First Lutheran received international attention for its pioneering Summer School of Religious Education, the forerunner of daily vacation Bible school. Christmas concerts begun in 1908 by Henry Ditzel and continued by Paul Ray Jones, were a Dayton institution for eighty years.
Like all downtown churches, First Lutheran felt the impact of suburbanization following World War II. As a way to utilize its large building, the congregation opened its doors to support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and musical organizations like the Dayton Opera and the Dayton Rotary Boys Choir. For some years it housed a daycare center operate jointly with the Dayco Corporation, and more recently it served as the headquarters of the Miami Valley Literacy Council.
1800 The first Lutherans settled in rural south central and southwestern Montgomery County. The oldest congregation dates from 1803.
1839 First English Lutheran Church was organized on July 10 in Frederick Gebhart’s store. Services were conducted in the Academy building on St. Clair opposite Cooper Park.
1842 The first church building stood on the southwest corner of 4th and Jefferson (Dave Hall Plaza), seated 750 and became a Dayton landmark famous for the bells in its 154-foot tower. (The bells still hang in First Lutheran’s tower). It was the largest church building in the state and was the first Lutheran church in Ohio to have a pipe organ. It was sold to the Masons and remodeled and used as the Masonic Temple until 1928.
1864 The Republican church leaders fired Pastor Daniel Steck over political differences. Pastor Steck subsequently founded St. John’s Lutheran Church, now at 5th and Ludlow.
1870 The Great Dayton Revival brought 238 new members into First Lutheran in one month.
1890-1910 For two decades First Lutheran actively promoted the founding of four new Dayton congregations.
1893 Pastor E. E. Baker and two church members played a central role in the “heresy trial” of former pastor Luther A. Gotwald, a professor at Hamma Divinity School in Springfield.
1906 The third (and current) church building was erected at 1st and Wilkinson on the site of Daniel Cooper’s family home. It seated 675 and was placed on the Register of Historic Places in the 1980s.
1914 Pastor D. Frank Garland resigned to become Dayton’s first Director of Public Welfare. In 1921 he became welfare director of NCR.
1920-1929 The Summer School of Religious Education, precursor of Daily Vacation Bible School, was pioneered by Pastor Krumbine to international acclaim.
1927 The second expansion of the building (a basement under the auditorium) was completed and redecoration of the auditorium established its present character.
1946 Church membership peaked with 2, 500 baptized members.
1957 After years of opposition, a traditional “Lutheran “ chancel with an altar replaced the American Protestant center pulpit characteristic of old General Synod Lutheran churches.
1984 The congregation officially adopted the Lutheran liturgy as its standard form of worship.
2007 Suburbanization continues to take its toll, but First Lutheran is still experimenting with new models for ministering to the needs of center city Dayton.