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The privations visited upon the armies of the North and South during the American Civil War are well chronicled, but we often forget the heavy toll that this fratricidal conflict laid upon the general populace. Chief among the forgotten victims, as in so many wars before and since, was the desperate state of the children orphaned by the carnage wrought upon the battlefield. This is the story of how one minister slipped north of the skirmish lines to embark upon a life’s mission to relieve the terrible suffering of the lost and forgotten.
His name was Emanuel Boehringer, a missionary laboring in the war-torn Virginia cities of Richmond and Norfolk. For 19 months, Boehringer had received not so much as a single communication from his overseers in the ministry. Already the number of orphans had reached alarming proportions, and so Boehringer ventured forth through the lines to seek out a fellow German Reformed pastor in Baltimore, Rev. J. Kruelling. Sharing his burden for these abandoned children, Boehringer proceeded to Philadelphia where he took charge of a German-language Sunday School publication called the Laemmerhirte, the Shepherd of the Lambs.
It was in this paper, in February 1863, that Boehringer issued his clarion call to begin an orphan’s work for the many young boys and girls left homeless and orphaned by the deprivations of war.
“We announce ourselves ready,” wrote Boehringer, “to receive small contributions from children, small and large contributions from adults, and to hand them over to the authorities of the church in order that establishing of an orphan’s home may be speedily advanced.”
It appears that Boehringer put feet to his prayers and journeyed throughout the region to promote the cause of the orphan mission. He received the first contribution in March of that year from a young man in Buffalo, N.Y. The amount was $1.50. The young man’s name was Jacob Planz, who himself had been orphaned as a child and reflected upon the many hardships that befell him.
“Now a beginning is made,” said Boehringher.
When we reflect upon how modern denominations often hand over the work of missions and diaconal aid to committees and boards, it is encouraging to note how those of previous generations did not merely wait upon such bureaucracies to act, but took action to address the pressing needs set before them. While Boehringer sought out leaders in the church to form a board of oversight, he nevertheless gave them something to work with, not only a vision or an idea, but a concrete plan and hands ready to build and labor.
The Laemmerhirte also provided the name for the new work. In August, the decision was made to call the new mission work the “Orphan’s Home of the Shepherd of the Lambs.”
“The inmates of the home shall constitute a family,” stated the “Plan for Establishing an Orphan’s Home.”
The children would be thoroughly instructed in the principles of the Christian faith using the German and English languages, and using the Heidelberg Catechism and hymns as part of the curriculum. The children would attend worship services at a local church in Philadelphia until such time as a chapel might be constructed on the grounds.
“A school shall be conducted in connection with the Home, in which all the elementary branches shall be taught,” the Plan continued, “provision shall also be made for those who show special aptitude in study that they may receive special instruction in the higher branches.”
The boys did farm work, while the girls were taught to sew, knit, crochet, etc. Half of the proceeds of their labors would be set aside to the accounts of the children, who would receive it as a lump sum when they completed their instruction in the faith and publicly confirmed their profession of faith.
While the order of preference to admission to the orphanage was included, particularly those who were orphans of the church, provision was explicitly added that the guiding principle would be that aid would be extended foremost to those with the greatest need. It was at this point that the board of advisers assembled began to doubt the wisdom of beginning the work until a much larger endowment was raised, $25-$50,000.
Though mindful of the counsel of his advisers, Boehringer chose not to await the accumulation of such a large sum, and so he began to take orphans into his own home. Some advised Boehringer to abandon his goal of working within the structure of denomination, yet the faithful minister proposed to do as much as circumstances would allow without breaking ties to the church of his youth.
His submission and his godly labors bore fruit when the synod of his denomination in October 1863 commended the work to the “prayers and benevolence of the people.”
When the first orphan was received under care on Sept. 21, 1863, there was $21.50 in the treasury. It was at the point that Boehringer instructed the church to send his entire salary to the orphan’s home, and he and his family would live under whatever conditions the home might provide to the orphans and his own family.
By fall of 1864, 12 orphans lived in the Boehringer home, seven the children of soldiers killed in the war. Boehringer proclaimed that God would provide all things necessary for body and soul, even as the number of orphans continued to swell.
It was at this crucial juncture that Rev. Boehringer’s wife Christina suddenly died. The heartrending obituary that appeared in the Laemmerhirte reported that: “The death of Mrs. Boehringer [at the tender age of 32] occurred just one year after the opening of the home. On Sept. 21, 1863, Carolina Engel, a little girl six years of age was admitted into the private home over which Mrs. Boehringer presided, and Sept. 21, 1864, she died, leaving her own family, and a family of 47 orphans, to mourn her departure.”
Barely five weeks later, Rev. Boehringer would also be called home, leaving behind six newly orphaned children of his own. Yet, since the work was of the Lord, it did not depend upon the labors of any one man or woman.
The records reveal that “the right merchant and manufacturer, the well-to-do farmer, opened their treasures and gave of their substance. The widow contributed her might. The soldier in the camp and on the battlefield remembered the orphan of his fallen comrade. The doctors of theology and philosophy, and the ministers of the gospel, in private and in public, bore on their hearts the Orphan’s Home. The boys, after the regular duties of the day were done, worked at making brooms and shoes, in order that they might earn a dollar to send to this institution.”
In the coming years, the home was named the “Bethany Orphan’s Home,” and hundreds of young men and women would find there a stable and loving home.
The records of the original Shepherd of the Lambs chronicle the tremendous labors of many who gave their time, energies and love in this bittersweet story of love and grace. The hundred of children rescued by their labors became a living testimony to their labors, as dozens of other such institutions sprang up, supported by Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and other denominational bodies. In a world filled with needs that sometime seem overwhelming, may the courage and vision of Emanuel Boehringer encourage a new generation of “Shepherds of the Lambs” to simply embrace the needs that the Lord sets before us.