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Looking back at Laurel Hill Lutheran Church

POSTED: October 25, 2012 8:12 p.m.
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For more than 125 years, this cast iron bell has been tolling the faithful to worship. Cast in 1886 by the C.S. Bell and Company of Ohio, the bell most likely was placed in the steeple around 1887 according to a church history written by Mrs. Ruth B. Exley.

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Mr. William W. Metzger, a well known land owner in Clyo, a longtime member and lifetime trustee of the Laurel Hill Lutheran Church congregation, had in mind to make a Christmas gift to the community.  He summoned Allen Newton Kieffer, surveyor for the county of Effingham, to survey a piece of property on which to build a church.


In 1860 he donated, “Two acres and one rod of land laid out…. for the Lutheran Church.” This seems to be the earliest church record. Mr. Metzger was the father of George Alexander (“Alec”) Metzger.


Worship thus far had been at Ebenezer, and other churches were developing in the outlying areas, including Bethel and Zion. In those days, a journey of eight to 10 miles to and from worship was hazardous on crude roads with swollen creeks. The round trip took three or four hours.


In December 1862, a reference to Laurel Hill appears in the council minutes at Ebenezer, which agreed to preaching at Laurel Hill one Sunday a month.


Thus we know within the two years the congregation had been formed, named and a place of worship erected. At first we expect a bush arbor served for shelter. The origin of the church name came with John Israel Reiser who said, “Name the church Laurel Hill and I will set out the laurel trees.” Today these laurels he propagated or those planted to replace them stand in testimony as living memorials to a man who loved his church.


The first worship place, having undergone remodeling several times, is still in use today.  It was a simple hulled-in structure with board shutters for windows and homemade pews.  Construction was supervised by Christopher Louis Gnann. A man named Porter, a skilled carpenter, helped as did others who donated their work.


“Alec” Metzger, interviewed by Ruth Exley, shared interesting information.  Work on the church building began in 1860. Although no cornerstone was laid, the date was found on the rafters when the church was ceiled and steeple added in 1887.


The first sermon was preached by the Rev. Jacob Austin while the building was in progress. The church was dedicated the first Sunday of May 1861 with about 75 present and Rev. George Haltiwanger preaching. Rev. Austin and Rev. Jacob Hawkins were in attendance.  “Alec” Metzger, son of W.W. Metzger who donated the land, spoke of C.L. Gnann as the “father of the church.”


Although there are no written records of the early years, Dr. H.S. Wingard, one of the pastors of the church, wrote the following: “The congregation known as Laurel Hill German Evangelical Lutheran Church was organized November 30, 1862, by pastors Austin and Haltiwanger.” (Austin was Ebenezer’s pastor and Haltiwanger his assistant).


The two charter members listed were: Moses Metzger and C. L. Gnann (September 1861 by letter from Ebenezer).


Laurel Hill came into being during the Civil War and many of its members served in this battle as well as all the wars since. After Sherman burned old Antioch Methodist Church at Bethany and likely the Lutheran church too, a good many Exley members came to Laurel Hill.


On July 14, 1864, the minutes of the fourth annual Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of the State of Georgia received the Ebenezer Charge pastors, including Laurel Hill, into the organization.


In 1871, two charges were officially formed from Ebenezer. Bethel and Laurel Hill came to be known as Bethel Parish, sharing a pastor. Zion and Ebenezer made up the other.  Two members henceforward from these congregations (except Ebenezer which had three) made up the Ebenezer Trustees, and this organization still operates today with this representation looking after the monetary funds left by the founding fathers at Ebenezer in support of worship in the Lutheran churches of the county.


We find records discussing one half an acre given by David E. Reiser in 1879 for a cemetery. The church also purchased one-half acre and one fifth an acre from the Seckinger families rounding out the church property.


Many repairs were made over the years. In 1894, a recess was added and the building recovered. The building was ceiled and weather boarded and new pews and pulpit were added.


Later pews donated from the Lutheran Church of the Ascension were installed and served until 1952.The church had two side aisles with short pews along the outside walls and long benches in the center which were divided in the center. The men sat on the right and women on the left for many years, as was the custom in early churches.


Laurel Hill has always had an organ. David Emanuel Reiser instigated the purchase of the first. He expected his only child, Annie V. to play this organ.  After finishing school she had gone away to teach. According to Lena Exley Gnann, she contracted typhoid fever and died. Everyone in the area was at the boat landing as her body was brought back.


When the whistle blew as the boat arrived, the ground shook. The great earthquake of Charleston on Aug. 31, 1886, had occurred. It apparently did some soul shaking too, because 24 were added to the rolls at Laurel Hill shortly thereafter.


The first congregational officers in 1893 were: C.L. Gnann – chairman, S.T. Metzger and A.M. Morgan – trustees, Robert H. Exley – secretary, D.E. Reiser – Sunday school superintendent, and J.J. Morgan – secretary and treasurer. Deacons were: C.R. Metzger, R.P. Mallory and J.A. Exley.  C.L. Gnann was an elder as long as he was able to actively serve and was named an honorary member of the board of elders.


First established as a Sunday school in Clyo, Wingard Memorial Lutheran Church became a daughter of Laurel Hill. It was dedicated Nov. 16, 1913.


In 1918, the word “German” was no longer used in the church name in records. With World War I in progress, nothing with the name German was very popular. The German descendants had come to be Americans since the 150 years after their arrival.


Early on, the church was enclosed by a picket fence. Each man had his own spot where he hitched his horse and no man dared encroach upon the territory staked out by another.


In 1926, the wooden fence was replaced by a wire fence. During those days, livestock roamed freely, as there was no fence law.


In 1945, the present chancel was built. The wooden porch and steps were replaced by brick ones and the first two Sunday school rooms built. In 1946, the church was wired for electricity and the altar was installed. Linens for the altar were secured by the women with wife of the Rev. Thomas Weeks hand stitching these items.The brass for the altar was also acquired at this time.


Many gifts, too numerous to list, have been given to furnish the church in memory of faithful members.


In 1952, Newton Kieffer was contracted to level the tower, ceil the interior with celotex, put sheetrock on the walls, install gas heat, put asbestos siding on the exterior, replace the hardwood floors and build a choir loft.


In 1957, a new well was drilled and an educational building consisting of four Sunday school rooms and restrooms was added. About a year later, the women furnished one room as a kitchen and in 1961 a piano was purchased for this building.


The women of the church have organized and been active in the life of the church.  In 1925, a Ladies Aid Society was established at a meeting in the home of Mrs. A.N. Exley, existing until 1929. They raised money with oyster suppers, barbeques, selling quilt patches, and the donation of the proceeds of all eggs laid on Sunday for carpeting for the church installed in 1928. The organization ceased to exist but some 25 years later in 1938, the first Missionary Society, later known as Women of the Church, LCW and later WELCA was established. The group organized with 20 charter members.


The last charter member to pass away was May Exley in August 2012. This group is known for hospitality and projects for local and foreign aid. They prepare the church for worship and keep fellowship alive. The church women established an altar guild. In 1976, the group divided into two circles. The younger ladies were known as the “Edna Allen Cirlcle” and the older as the “Hazel Groover Circle.”


This was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society with information from “Laurel Hill Lutheran Church’s History.” If you have photos, comments or information to share, contact Susan Exley at 754-6681 or email her at: hesexleyherald@aol.com.

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