Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Man on a Mission

“Religion, religion as part of the life of an ancestor, sources about an ancestor that are connected to their religion, basically anything to do with religion would be accepted.”

I often forget how big a role religion must have played in my ancestors lives, though only a little digging usually reveals their spiritual leanings (which I think says a lot for how important it must have been to them).  If I were to pick the "most religious" ancestor I have, it would have to be my great-great-grandfather, John Berger.

John was a first generation American, the youngest in a large family and I'm sure he was a surprise to his parents (he was born roughly seven years after his next oldest sibling when his mother was 47) and he was also the only child in the family to be born in Indiana.  His parents were from Rinnthal, a small village on Germany's side of the Rhine and came to America in the early 1830s, settling first in Ohio before permanently putting down roots in Indiana a few years later.  When he was born, he was John W. Barger and he grew up in a German speaking household of farmers. 

At some point the family joined up with an off-shoot of the Methodist Church, the Albright Brethren (also known as the German Evangelical Association).  The church filled a unique need for its time because of its appeal to America's influx of German immigrants in the 1800s.  It must have also been a comfort to those immigrants because it represented a little piece of home in a new world that worked in a strange new language.  What set "the Brethren" apart was the fact that it was run by German-Americans for other German-Americans with services run completely in German. 

John joined up with the Union soon after the start of the Civil War.  He was a fresh faced, twenty year-old who had probably never been off the family farm in his life and was probably eager to do his part in a war that wasn't supposed to last more than a few months.  A short time later, John was at Shiloh and then fell ill.  Once he was well again he rejoined his outfit which was protecting Louisville and the Ohio River from the Confederates and what wound up being General Don Carlos Buell's downfall.  John fell ill again and spent many months in a Union hospital in Nashville before being deemed too unwell for service. 

Though his time in the war was short, I think it changed him forever.  Exactly a year after being discharged John shows up again in records, only this time, he is John Berger and he is a minister with the Albright Brethren.  He rides the circuit going from one German community to another throughout the Midwest.  In Evansville he married a sixteen year-old Swiss girl, Susanna vonAllmen and children started coming, all the while the family is living the semi-nomadic life of a preacher and his family, putting down roots and then pulling up stakes a few years (sometimes months) later and going wherever he was ordered.

Then in 1874, things changed for John.  For whatever reason, he and his family packed up and left the only country they'd ever known to go back to the country of John's ancestors, Germany, to do missionary work.  John and Susanna had two little boys who were going with them also.  While in Germany they'd add another two boys to the family, but also lose one (their eldest).  I'm afraid I don't know much about this period in John's (and his family's) life.  I'd love to know where they lived, what it was like for them, whether they were welcomed or met with hostility, what they did there and most importantly (to me) whether their going there had anything to do with John's roots.  This period in John's life eventually came to an end and they returned to Indiana in 1878 or 1879 and settled in South Bend.  Around 1882 they moved to Wabash Co. which would be one of their longest stays as they lived there a whopping five years!

Then John's church called on him to move again, and this time it wasn't to another small Indiana farming community but Los Angeles, California where he would run and help establish the new church.  So they packed up again, said good-bye to all their relatives and friends and went west.  They arrived around 1888 and stayed for two years, working and living in what is now the heart of the city.  Then they were off again, this time to Oakland, California where John would once again establish and run a new church for the Albright Brethren.  Unfortunately, this would be John's last post.  Soon after arriving John's health, which had never been the same after the war, worsened and he died in December of 1891 aged 50.  He left behind his widow, Susanna, and nine children (the eldest 18, the youngest 1) and is buried in the Berger plot at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

I have many letters that John wrote to Susanna from the road as he traveled, spreading the word of his church.  From them, I get that he was very passionate about his faith and the work he was doing.  He was also frequently ill but never seems to have let it stop him from doing what he believed in (his work with his church).  His tremendous faith also seems to have given him and his family courage.  Courage to go all the way to Germany and then start a new life (later in his life) on the other side of the country in California, far from everything they knew.  It must have also helped them as they experienced grief over lost children and the frequent good-byes they must have had to say.

Many of John's parishes are gone now but his legacy lived on.  Two of his sons went on to become Methodist ministers (including my great-grandfather) and another was heavily involved in the YMCA in Oakland.  John's gandson (my grandmother's brother) also became a minister and naval Chaplain and currently can be found giving services (in English) as Chaplain of the historic USS Hornet.

John in 1866, age 25.  Image taken from his marriage certificate. 
I have no idea why he is pretending to be Napoleon...

This post was written for the 29th edition of the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy.

Copyright © 2010 by shbwgen.blogspot.com


  1. What an interesting story about John Berger. As I began to read it and saw the Albright chuch name I began to read more closely. I have relatives who attended Albright United Methodist Church here in South Bend. Then I saw you mention South Bend and thought what a small world we live in!

  2. It was good to read this- well done. Part of my family immigrated from Germany and ended up in Evansville, Indiana where they were part of a German speaking church. Sometimes we forget how important the church was to our ancestors.

    http://ancestors iclaim.blogspot.com

  3. Fabulous story Leah! My 2nd great grandfather was a Methodist minister in North Carolina. He started out like your John, traveling a circuit. It was no life for sissies!


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