Brethren Historical Library and Archives

Hidden gems: Henry Kurtz

Sketch of Henry Kurtz, drawn by Kermon Thomasson, 300 x 379
Drawn by Kermon Thomasson

194 years ago (in 2011), a young man from Germany made his way to the United States. He was small of stature (indeed, his surname means “short” in German), and reportedly had a hump in his back. He was not a callus-handed farmer or a broad-shouldered laborer, but a classically educated school teacher. Like many of his fellow German settlers, he found a home in the state of Pennsylvania, where he began to study to become a Lutheran minister, following the teachings of the church that had originated in his homeland 300 years before. Ultimately, however, Kurtz would find his calling as a member of a different religious group with strong German roots: the Brethren. Kurtz would serve in many leadership positions in the church, but none left its mark more clearly than his role as publisher and editor of the first Brethren periodical. His work with The Gospel Visitor would make him one of the most influential Brethren of the 19th century, and begin a legacy that continues to this day.

Title page of the first Gospel Visitor, 300 x 531
Courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives

Title page of 1st Gospel Visitor

Kurtz had run into trouble with the Lutherans when he challenged his parishioners to lead more disciplined, simplistic lives. His ideas were controversial enough to cause a fractious division within his congregation and ultimately led to his resignation. Despite this experience, Kurtz would be stirring the pot again in the 1850s, with a little publication called The Gospel Visiter (later Visitor). Hesitant at first, the Annual Conference allowed The Gospel Visiter a one-year trial period. In 1853, they agreed the project could continue, without interference from the Annual Conference. That first periodical has undergone many transformations in the last 160 years, but today you know it as Messenger.

Membership letter signed by Kurtz and Quinter, 500 x 329
Courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives

When Henry Kurtz was baptized into the Brethren, tradition has it that he let his Lutheran minister’s robe slip into water and be swept down the river, a sign that he had resigned his office. However, Kurtz soon found himself involved in the ministry again, this time among the Brethren. He was eventually ordained as an elder in the Mill Creek church in Ohio. Part of his responsibility as a leader in his congregation was to write letters recommending members who were moving to a new area. This letter, which came from the collection of William Eberly, is signed not only by Kurtz, but also by James Quinter, who would succeed Kurtz as editor of The Gospel Visitor.

Kurtz organ and chest, 500 x 375
Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

While most Brethren in the 19th century frowned upon instrumental music, Henry Kurtz had been a student of it since his youth. He was the owner of a German organ that had been built in 1698. Kurtz brought this organ with him when he came to America, and today it resides here at the Brethren Historical Library and Archives in Elgin, IL. It is still playable, thanks to the careful restoration efforts of Andy Dupres and John Brombaugh. Beside it sits a large wooden chest, recently donated by Edward and Mary Jane Todd, of Columbiana, OH, that also belonged to Kurtz.