Editor’s note: This story continues “A rich and varied history” (January 2019).

Lutherans have been known to go to great lengths to find a pastor for their congregations, but few of them have gone personally as far as “Father” Adam Keefer. The 19th-century Canadian lay leader walked more than 500 miles (round trip) twice to find a pastor for his congregation.

Lutherans began settling in Canada in the 18th century, first in the area around Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then, by the time of the American Revolution, in Ontario. Seeking farmland, scattered groups of German Lutherans settled in that province and began to organize congregations.

Unfortunately, few Lutheran pastors were available—especially on the frontier—and many of those who were available weren’t often very good. In A History of the Lutheran Church in Canada, historian Carl Cronmiller wrote: “These men may be described as clerical tramps … imposters who pretended to be ordained clergyman.” Often, a frontier congregation might go years, or even decades, without a resident pastor.

In 1849, one such congregation in Vaughn, Ontario, commissioned one of their lay elders, Adam Keefer (then 60 years old), to find them a pastor. Keefer set out on foot—carrying his shoes to keep them from wearing out—and walked 250 miles to Pittsburgh. There he hoped to secure a pastor from the newly formed Pittsburgh Synod of the General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Arriving in the Pittsburgh area, Keefer met pioneer pastor William Passavant, who promised to help him. Keefer gave an impassioned speech to a meeting of synodical delegates, who promised to do what they could to find him a pastor and some financial assistance. Keefer then walked back home.

The 19th-century Canadian lay leader walked more than 500 miles (round trip) twice to find a pastor for his congregation.

But the Pittsburgh Synod didn’t have enough pastors for its own congregations, so they couldn’t immediately help Keefer. The following spring, the synod met again near Pittsburgh. Imagine their surprise when Keefer showed up at their meeting, once again having walked there from Ontario.

Keefer’s appearance created quite a stir among the delegates. The synodical newspaper, The Missionary, recorded: “The interviews of this aged patriarch with the Synod, and his agonizing entreaties for someone to come over and help them, went to the heart of everyone.” The synod was soon able to find some funding and a new pastor for this congregation, answering the prayers and efforts of “Father” Keefer.

This was the beginning of the Pittsburgh Synod’s work in Canada. In the succeeding years, pastors from this synod developed or revitalized several congregations in this area, forming the Canada Conference of the Pittsburgh Synod in 1853. This, in turn, was one of the foundation pieces of the present Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Each of these developments have their roots in the efforts of one man, Keefer, who was determined to see that his Lutheran congregation would not die for lack of a pastor.

Next: In February, this series will highlight Rosa Young, who organized dozens of Lutheran congregations and schools for African Americans in Alabama in the early 20th century. 

Mark Granquist
Mark Granquist, an ELCA pastor, is professor of the history of Christianity at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

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