The life of the frontier preacher was a series of challenges for which most could not possibly have been prepared. It was a constant struggle between sticking to the traditions and forms with which one was familiar and “going with the flow,” as it were, often with unexpected consequences. Dr. H. J. Ruetenik’s colorful account of his itinerant ministry relates such consequences of his decision to engage in mission work among the German settlers in Ohio. Having not yet found assurance of his own faith, he is no match for the saloonkeeper who would become his host and nemesis. We join der Busch Pfarrer on his westward journey.
I’ll ask the worthy reader to come with me at once to Petersburg, Ohio, where I had been directed to work as a missionary among the Germans. To explain later occurrences, I shall add here that it seemed advisable to drop the name of the denomination to which I belonged [German Reformed], as I had been told in the West the Lutherans and the Reformed lived together in the same community. It was best to drop these distinguishing names entirely, and to call one’s self Evangelical. Because I had no experience in these matters myself, it seemed best to follow the advice of brothers who had, and I called myself simply Evangelical.
Petersburg is a town of three or four thousand on the Eel River. It was in the month of June that I arrived. At this season of the year the whole surrounding country looked most charming. The river, clear blue and silver, glided along between woods and fields bright with flowers, in a narrow, fertile valley; while the town, set on hills, showed a long way off.
Everything about the town appeared favorable. The houses were airy and light, painted white, while in front of them were trim, green lawns and occasionally evergreens for ornament. There were several slender church spires, also painted white, with green blinds and tall, steep roofs. The courthouse dome shone with the tin covering. The streets were straight and wide, keeping the houses apart at a healthful, airy distance.
Naturally I knew not one of these attractive churches was to be mine, for my congregation was to be established by me. Up to this time the gospel had not been preached in German in Petersburg, although the Germans were so numerous that they formed about one third of the population. Also, I had not been invited by any one in particular. The only fact known was that very many Germans lived here without a minister.
All this seemed reason enough to follow the suggestions of an experienced minister and come as a missionary to this district. The consequences of this attempt were in no way to be anticipated. I was filled with the enthusiasm of a young preacher who has not learned that even the most faithful labor must remain unrecognized and unsuccessful, and according to the Lord’s mysterious design.
The friendly appearance of the town as it lay a mile away, set in the beauty of the day, was entirely suited to raise my happy, innocent hopes. I was considering how, among all the other churches, one would soon be having a graceful spire pointing skyward for me; how I would come forward among the people in the power of the Lord and would illuminate eternal life; how I would attract them to their gentle Savior by going about with love and kindness, and —
“Hello, driver!” a voice called out suddenly to the driver in whose carriage I was riding from the nearest railroad station.
We stopped. At the side of the road a fat man with a very red face, round as a full moon, approached and asked to be taken along to town. He spoke English brokenly, and, like the driver, was of German extraction. As he climbed in, I moved over to make room for him on the seat beside me. Then we continued on our way to town.
“Damned hot, eh?” he asked me as he settled himself.
That tore me from my pleasant dreams to crude reality, yet I controlled myself and answered, “It could not be quite that hot. Such a degree of warmth or heat, as you have just mentioned, one can expect only after death.”
“It sounds as if you were a parson,” remarked my new neighbor, good-naturedly pounding my shoulder. “May I offer you a cigar?”
“Thank you, for both,” I replied. “I am no priest, nor do I smoke.”
“Oh, now I’ve guessed it; you no doubt are what is called a Methodist minister. They all do not smoke,” he said, a sly expression on his chubby face, winking cheerfully, proud of his astuteness.
“Bravo, by G—!” returned the stranger. “Then you are the man for me, for I am Evangelical, too. Pardon me, are you stopping in Petersburg?”
“That was my intention,” I answered. “I am traveling just now to find out whether the people here wish me to preach the gospel to them.”
“You are getting to just the right place, Reverend. Yes, indeed, we want to have the gospel preached. I live in Petersburg. The true, pure gospel is what we want. You must come with me to my house. You can lodge there, for I have room enough for you above my grocery. How glad the people will be to know that an Evangelical preacher has come. We have a Methodist one here, but he preaches only conversion and being born again, temperance and repentance; and we don’t want all that, Reverend, by G—, we do not want all that. We wish to have the pure gospel preached, but no lectures against sin. If you are willing to preach the gospel, pure and simple, without meddling in our private affairs, you will certainly be well off with us, Reverend.”
To myself I wondered what the fellow meant by the pure gospel, where there was to be nothing about repentance, rebirth, temperance, etc.; and whether his swearing would be a private affair. Yet the man seemed good-natured, and I thought I should try to have him do better. And so I told him I would gladly accept his offer, but I would beg one thing of him before making any permanent arrangement.
“With the greatest pleasure, Reverend. If it is at all possible, I will gladly grant you any favor.”
“Will you be so kind as to try to refrain from swearing? It always pains me to hear it.”
“That, I think, is really none of your business, Reverend. Pardon me, but that is a personal affair, which I beg you not to meddle with. I shall be glad to have you proclaim the gospel, pure and simple. But as for private affairs, don’t be offended with me, Reverend, but those are private affairs. My G—, if it is nothing more than a little swearing, if a fellow is honest and truthful otherwise, that will do no harm, Reverend. Look, Reverend, here we are at my house. Just get down here. I see there are quite a few Germans in the tap-room. You can meet our best Germans here right away.”
For the full article on Dr. H. J. Ruetenik, please visit Leben’s website.