A Brief History: In 1918 several local Lutheran families banded together with pastors from Zion Lutheran Church of Augsburg serving them in local homes. In 1923 five families formally organized as First Lutheran Church of Russellville. On December 9, 1923 the First Evangelical Lutheran Church on the corner of Second Street and EI Paso was dedicated to the service of the Triune God.
In 1940 the congregation outgrew and sold their church property. Services were held in the American Legion Hut. During the week meetings were held in homes.
In 1947 the congregation purchased property at the corner or Third Street and Boulder Avenue with ground breaking in 1948.
Growth relocation again occurred in 1973 to North Yuma Avenue [renamed North Cumberland for 911 purposes]. This is the current location of St. John's Lutheran Church for our service to the Triune God.
Following is a history summary which may be of interest to those who want more specific details.
As the city of Russellville began to prosper in the early part of the 20th century, several Lutheran families located here and established places of business. Some of these families attended services at Zion Lutheran Church at Augsburg, fifteen miles east and north of Russellville. Others sought their spiritual nourishment in other churches of the area. These families sought to form their own congregation in order to not only worship in their own tradition, but also to pass along the Lutheran Faith to the next generation.
In 1918 these families banded together and began to hold services in the homes of Otto Steuber and Frank Speaker. Pastors from Zion Lutheran Church of Augsburg served the young parish: Revs. B. F. Noak, H. F. Meyer, and Alexander Wagner. Early in 1923 a group of five families formally organized as First Lutheran Church of Russellville. With the financial help ($500) of Lutheran congregations in Fort Smith, Little Rock, and Lutherville they purchased property and a building, a small brick Episcopal Church on the corner of Second Street and El Paso, in Russellville. As their first resident pastor the newly formed congregation called the Rev. Allen H. Moore. On December 9, 1923, the First Evangelical Lutheran Church was dedicated to the service of the Triune God.
Pastor Moore served the congregation until his death in 1925. In 1930 they called Pastor Albert A. Behnke, under whose leadership the communicant membership of the church rose to a high of 57 in 1937. Pastor Behnke had an evangelistic spirit that developed into holding “revival meetings” every August starting in 1934. Pastor Behnke also was a strong advocate of Christian education. During his pastorate, the congregation built a parochial school on South Detroit (between Fifth and Sixth Streets). The school, which offered instruction in grades one through eight, operated for five years. It closed the end of the 1940 school term.
After Pastor Behnke left in 1937 to accept another call, the congregation was served by three ministerial candidates: Walter J. Hoffman, Alfred Freund, and Paul G. Strickert. Not only did these men teach in the parochial school, but they also conducted preaching services, instructed the confirmands, and prepared individuals for membership.
In the spring of 1940 the congregation decided to call the Rev. Adolph Kollmorgen of St. Louis. He accepted the call and was installed on August 25, 1940, at a 2 p.m. service. A few months after his arrival the church decided to sell the church property on El Paso to the First Baptist Church for the sum of $1,000. The parish had outgrown the building and began discussions with the District’s Mission Board about building a new church in Russellville. The congregation in a sense had become “displaced” (without a regular church building to meet in). Beginning in August, 1941, First Lutheran Church met on Sundays for Sunday School and preaching services at the American Legion Hut. Meetings during the week were held at the school property or in members’ homes.
In 1945 Pastor Kollmorgen began a ministry to German prisoners of war located at a nearby camp 43 miles from Russellville. Early in 1947 the congregation decided to purchase property at the corner of Third Street and Boulder Avenue in Russellville for $6,500. In April of the same year the congregation sold the school property for $1,400. In 1948 the green light was given for the construction of a new church home for First Lutheran Church. On Sunday, July 11, 1948, the ground breaking for the new church was held on the property. In September the congregation in a special meeting resolved “that the name of our church will be changed from First Lutheran Church to St. John’s Lutheran Church.”
There was a delay in the construction of the new building, but it was finally dedicated on September 25, 1949. It had been a little over eight years since they had shut the doors on their first church home on El Paso. They had survived eight years of gathering in the temporary quarters at the Legion Hut, the loss of their school, and the reduction of their numbers due to the war and lack of employment at home. However, more than 300 people attended the dedicatory afternoon service, and hundreds of others inspected the new church building at the open house that followed.
Shortly after the dedication of the new church Pastor Kollmorgen became very ill and died on October 13, 1949, at St. Mary’s Hospital. The Rev. M. A. Gassner of Alexander, Arkansas, took the vacancy after Pastor Kollmorgen’s sudden passing. On March 4, 1951, Pastor Julius Dahms was installed as the congregation’s new pastor. He was a recent graduate of the seminary. In the fall of 1953 the voting assembly was working with Pastor Dahms to see the realization of a Christian Day School. Before that dream could become reality, Pastor Dahms received and accepted a call to another congregation.
Darrell D. Schiebinger of Fort Smith served St. John’s as a vicar (ministerial intern) from 1953 to 1955. During his tenure the congregation began a thirty-minute recording and broadcast of their regular Sunday morning service on the local radio station KXRJ. Although Vicar Schiebinger had to return to the St. Louis seminary in 1954 to complete his final year of study, he agreed to continue to serve the congregation by returning to Russellville two Sundays each month to conduct services. After graduation from the seminary, Pastor Schiebinger was called and installed as pastor of St. John’s on Sunday, June 5, 1955.
In 1956 construction of a new educational building / parish hall began. The new building was dedicated on January 27, 1957. In March of 1958 Pastor Schiebinger left to accept a call in another congregation. A graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary in Springfield, Illinois, Jack T. Robinson was ordained at his home congregation in Chattanooga, Tennessee, then installed as pastor of St. John’s on Sunday, July 20. He and his wife Tennie and two children, Diane and Chip, moved into the newly completed parsonage on South Cleveland. The following year daughter Sharon-Gayle was born.
In 1960 Pastor Robinson started the tradition of holding the congregation’s Easter Sunrise Service at the 64 Drive-In Theater. This service gave the church visibility in the community and served as a new evangelistic outreach. The choir sang and the pastor delivered the sermon from the roof of the concession stand! The congregation sat in their cars and tuned in the service on the speakers hung inside their car windows. In 1963 Pastor Robinson became the vacancy pastor for Zion Lutheran Church of Augsburg in addition to his duties at St. John’s. Even though there were discussions to begin another Christian Day School, the church decided to establish its first kindergarten in the fall of 1965. For several years while he was pastor, Pastor Robinson served St. John’s, Zion at Augsburg, Grace at Clarksville, Trinity on Petit Jean Mountain, and the Perryville Nursing Home each Sunday. It was about a 250-mile circuit. In the fall of 1966 he accepted a call to begin a new congregation in Nashville, Tennessee.
Because there had been a vacancy at Zion Lutheran church in Augsburg since 1960 and Pastor Robinson had served that congregation as vacancy pastor from 1963 to 1966, the voters of both congregations met together in October of 1966 and decided to extend a joint call for a pastor to serve both congregations. In January of 1967 the two congregations called the Rev. W. H. Ringhardt of Harriman, Tennessee. He was installed the following month on February 5, 1967. During the Ringhardt years the church grew. Average church attendance in July of that year was 144 (cf. 99 in July, 1966). In the summer of 1968 a new organ was purchased with Emil Drittler “at the helm.” Emil served the congregation as organist for 33 years.
Because of the growing church attendance, two worship services were begun each Sunday, one at 8:00 a.m. and another at 10:45 a.m. The kindergarten program also grew under the leadership of Pastor Ringhardt’s wife, Delores. It was at the December 14, 1969, meeting of the congregational assembly that the women of the congregation were able to vote on all issues equally with the men. The need for relocation was acknowledged by the assembly in 1970. The decision to purchase five acres at the end of North Cumberland Avenue (then North Yuma) for $12,500 was made with the funds left to the congregation from the will of Mrs. Martha Lueker.
In 1973 the congregation accepted an offer of $50,000 from the Russellville Christian Church for their facilities on Third and Boulder. At a following congregational assembly they agreed to a building proposal of $173, 400 on the new church building at North Yuma Avenue. St. John’s also celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1973. From its beginnings in 1923 with only 12 communicants, it had grown to a communicant membership of 253 with a total membership of 327 souls. On December 2, 1973, the new church was dedicated and opened for worship. The sermon was given by former pastor the Rev. Dr. Darrell C. Schiebinger.
In May of 1975 the congregations involved agreed to a realignment. A pastorate was created to serve Zion Lutheran Church of Augsburg and Grace Lutheran Church of Clarksville, leaving St. John’s in Russellville as an independent parish. Pastor Ringhardt accepted the call to serve the newly formed dual parish at Augsburg and Clarksville.
Pastor Leslie R. Weiser succeeded Pastor Ringhardt at St. John’s, installed on August 22, 1976. During Pastor Weiser’s tenure some changes were introduced at St. John’s, namely, the whole family was invited to come to the communion rail during communion services, elders assisted in the distribution of the Lord’s Supper, the establishment of official greeters in the narthex, and girls as acolytes. Pastor Weiser left St. John’s in 1981 to begin a ministry in Memphis, Tennessee.
Pastor David R. McIntyre accepted the call and was installed as pastor on November 8, 1981. Pastor McIntyre’s gift was in evangelistic outreach. While at St. John’s he established an active evangelism program, training teams of members to go out into homes carrying the Gospel beyond the confines of the church. Many families were brought into the congregation as a result of this effort. In 1982 the congregation began the King’s Kampus, a Christ-centered pre-kindergarten for three and four-year-olds. And beginning in 1984 the congregation was introduced to the new hymnal, Lutheran Worship. In December of 1983 the church called a vicar to assist the pastor in all areas of the ministry. Eric Vance Kaelberer was inducted on March 11, 1984. His concentration was working with the youth and with Lutheran students at Arkansas Tech University. Vicar Kaelberer served the parish until February, 1985. In January of 1986 Pastor McIntyre left the congregation, after which a nine-month vacancy ensued filled by Pastor Ringhardt. That summer the church completed a new kitchen with materials paid for by the LWML and the labor done primarily by members of the congregation.
In 1986 a call was extended to the Rev. Roland E. Pillack of Hampton, Iowa, and he was installed on October 19, 1986. In 1988 the congregation celebrated its 65th anniversary with Pastors Les Weiser and Jack Robinson leading the Bible study and worship service. In 1989 the outside of the church building was bricked, and in 1990 the bell stand was built on the west side of the church. In March of 1990 Pastor Pillack received a call to begin ministry to a new congregation in Iowa. A ten-month vacancy followed.
Pastor Darrell C. Kobs accepted the congregation’s call and was installed on Sunday, June 9, 1991. He was accompanied by his wife Terri and children Matthew, Megan, and Laura. Beginning with Christmas 1991, St. John’s entry in the Christmas parade or the church division of the Russellville Chamber of Commerce’s lighting and decorating contest won first place for four consecutive years.
In the spring of 1992 the congregation felt the need to expand the church’s Christian education programs, music and youth ministries. Prayers were answered in the person of David G. Everson, St. John’s first Director of Christian Education intern, who was installed on May 31, 1992. The youth group was developed to meet twice monthly and a choir sang regularly in worship services. In the fall of 1992 the church began Saturday night services for those unable to attend on Sunday and as an outreach to the unchurched. On August 8, 1993 Deanne Gosse became St. John’s second Director of Christian Education intern. Her areas of responsibility were education, youth and music. In 1994 the voting members decided to call a full-time DCE. Deanne was their choice, and she accepted the call. Also in 1994 an addition to the church that would provide storage for the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League’s bazaar workshop materials was made possible by a gift from Martin and Hilda Drittler. In the summer of 1995 Deanne Gosse married Steven Fletcher of Hot Springs and so resigned her call as DCE to join her husband in ministry at First Lutheran, Hot Springs.
On November 14, 1993, St. John’s celebrated its 70th anniversary in a 2:30 p.m. service with the theme: “70 Years of Grace, and Still Going and Growing.” Guest speaker was the Rev. David Callies, President of the LC-MS Mid-South District. After some goal setting the congregation in 1997 approved the creation of two Sunday morning worship services offering a traditional style of worship service (“Heritage”) at 9:00 a.m. and a contemporary style of worship service (“Hosanna”) at 11:15 a.m. beginning September 14, 1997. As a result of this arrangement, worship attendance grew significantly.
In October 1995 St. John’s began a tradition that still stands to this day. It was called “Germanfest” and featured a variety of German foods and music for the whole community to enjoy. It also gave the congregation an opportunity to get some name recognition in the community. The event was mainly the brainstorm of one of St. John’s Elders, Martin Schmietendorf. Later the festival’s name was changed to “Octoberfest” to reflect a wider appeal in the public eye.
On October 18, 1998, the congregation celebrated its 75th anniversary with special services in the morning and afternoon. In the morning services the featured speaker was former pastor, the Rev. Wes Ringhardt. In the afternoon anniversary service the guest speaker was the Rev. Dr. Jack Robinson, former pastor from 1958 to 1966. Also, at the Voting Member Assembly Meeting in November a new constitution and by-laws was approved.
In 1999 St. John’s continued the search for a Director of Christian Education to work primarily with youth and their families. In 2000 the congregation called Concordia University, Seward graduate Jerome Wachter as Director of Christian Education, Youth and Family Ministry. He was commissioned and installed on June 11, 2000. During Jerome’s tenure at St. John’s the “Servants of the Savior” youth group as well as the Sunday School grew in number. In August of 2002 Jerome accepted a call to St. Mark Lutheran Church of Lake Jackson, Texas. The following year an active member of St. John’s, Lauren Drittler, was hired as part-time youth director at St. John’s.
In September of 2000 the Board of Elders established a new Sunday morning worship schedule: 8:00 a.m. Hosanna Service (contemporary style); 9:10 a.m. Sunday School and Bible Classes; 10:05 a.m. Friendship Time; and 10:15 a.m. Heritage Service (traditional style). With some adjustments, this service schedule continues today. At this juncture, however, the Board of Elders are considering another worship schedule for Sunday mornings that would encourage greater attendance by young adults and the unchurched.
In February of 2004 the renovation of the church sanctuary and narthex began. The “acolyte” room in the sanctuary was removed to make space for the Hosanna Worship Team, the sanctuary and narthex areas were given a new coat of paint, new carpeting was laid in the same areas, new lighting added, and new spaces created in the narthex area. On Easter Sunday, April 11, 2004, the renovation areas were rededicated for the Lord’s use.
In March of 2005 the DCE Call Committee presented to the congregation a proposal to contract with Concordia University of Seward, Nebraska for a DCE internship to begin sometime that summer. The congregation in assembly gave the go-ahead and Pastor Kobs attended a meeting in April to meet the assigned candidate Jarryn Wiley. Jarryn began her internship at St. John’s on August 1, 2005. Both of the youth groups (Junior High (6th – 8th grade) and Senior High (9th – 12th grade) became more active, meeting twice a month for various activities. Jarryn also assumed responsibility for the children’s messages on Sunday mornings and led the Senior High Sunday School class. At the June 25, 2006, Voting Membership Meeting the congregation gave the divine call to Jarryn as Director of Christian Education (with Youth Emphasis). She accepted and was commissioned and installed at a special afternoon service on August 13, 2006. Mid-South District Vice President, the Rev. Robert Herring, officiated and proclaimed the message. Jarryn faithfully continued to serve her Lord and the members of St. John's through January of 2010, at which time she was released from her call by an action taken by the Voting Membership in November 2009 due to a decline in church finances.
St. John’s Lutheran Church continues to seek to fulfill its mission: “to actively seek and empower ambassadors of the Word in the service of our Lord Jesus Christ!” By the grace of God it can and will do that very thing.