Jakob Erzberger: The forgotten pioneer
By Daniel Heinz
Certain names have found a prominent place in the history of the beginnings of Adventism in Europe: Michael Czechowski, the polish ex-priest and independent missionary adventurer, who was the first to venture onto European soil with the Advent message; J. N. Andrews, who built on Czechowski’s earlier work and was instrumental in the establishment of the printing work in Europe. And then, of course, no history could ignore Ludwig R. Conradi, the great evangelist and mission strategist who, beginning in 1886, oversaw the phenomenal growth and establishment of the Adventist faith in Europe.
Pioneer of the Second Generation
There is another name that is often overlooked—Jakob Erzberger—who in 1870 became the first ordained European Seventh-day Adventist pastor.* In reality, he was a type of circuit preacher for all of Switzerland and Germany. A humble man, Erzberger was happy to stand in the shadow of Czechowski, Andrews, and Conradi, who came to be seen as the founding fathers of European Adventism. In a sense, Erzberger was the “first fruit” of Czechowski’s mission work in Europe. He often followed up on the evangelistic efforts of the other pioneers as a faithful pastor to the newly established churches and was the one to provide pastoral care and establish new believers in the faith after the other pioneers moved on to new challenging areas.
A good example of Erzberger’s work was the Vohwinkel/Wuppertal area, where he was pivotal in estab-lishing the first Adventist church on German soil in 1875/1876. J. N. Andrews, who at the time was leading the mission work in Europe, was not fluent in German and so spent only a few weeks in the Vohwinkel/Wuppertal area before going back to Switzerland. Erzberger stayed in the area and nurtured the small group of believers into further Adventist truths. This led to a baptism of eight people in a lake near Vohwinkel in January of 1876, making this the first official Adventist church in Germany. Erzberger, however, did not only preach and baptize. He also produced the first German Adventist tracts, which the young church distributed.
Calling and Education
Jakob Erzberger was born in 1843 in Seltisberg near Liestal in Switzerland. As a result of the death of his father, the young Jakob grew up in poverty. His mother tried her best to provide for her four young sons through fabric weaving. Because of the godly influence of his mother, Jakob decided to work for God at a young age. In 1864 he was able to attend a mission seminary near Basel. This would be a period of spiritual growth and maturity for the young man, in spite of doubts and private struggles.
On his arrival one of the seminary students remarked that the devil did not dare to enter the seminary gate. Young Erzberger replied that the devil had managed to make it into the hallowed seminary grounds as Erzberger often confronted him “in his own heart.” After completing the first year, the students were required to do a practical component to their studies that was intended to be character developing—they were sent out as missionary preachers. Erzberger served part of this time as a prison chaplain at the prison in Pruntrut.
An unexpected turn in his life came in 1867 when Erzberger came across a group of Adventist believers in Tramelan. This group had been established by Czechowski in 1867. Erzberger happened to be on a preaching tour for his seminary. Near the little town of Tramelan he tore his only pair of pants. He found a tailor who not only repaired his pants but gave him a Bible study on the end of the world, the soon coming of Jesus, and the validity of the Sabbath commandment. Erzberger, the seminary student and “theologian,” was deeply impressed by the Bible knowledge of the simple tailor. After reporting back to his seminary on his new biblical insights, Erzberger was forced to leave the seminary. “My friends all turned their backs on me,” he later wrote. “In their eyes I was nothing but a heretic.”
Are We the Only Ones?
Deciding in 1868 to pastor the small group in Tramelan, so instrumental in his spiritual growth, Erzberger did not take on an easy task. The group was under the impression that they were the only ones in the entire world holding to these beliefs. When church members discovered some months later that there was already an established Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America (which Czechowski had not mentioned at all), they sent Erzberger to Battle Creek, Michigan, to establish contact with the church. And so Erzberger, who could not speak a word of English, journeyed to an unknown land without a single contact or friend. Fortunately, he was warmly received into the home of James and Ellen White. Young John H. Kellogg tutored Erzberger in English while James White gave him Bible studies.
While in the White’s home Erzberger discovered a Bible text that he could not understand. This troubled him. He did not share his problem with anyone. One evening around the fire, Ellen White suddenly asked him if he had found clarity on this particular question. Erzberger was astounded and could only attribute the insight to her prophetic gift.
After further studies and instruction Erzberger was ordained in 1870 by James White and J. N. Andrews at a camp meeting in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, and was commissioned at the same time to do mission work in Europe. When Andrews took up the work in Switzerland in 1874, he already had a dependable coworker and guide in place.
Bridge Builder and Companion
Erzberger’s work was not always easy. For a time he even gave up his missionary work because he was discouraged by church members. These members—as can be deduced from a letter written to Ellen White in 1878—accused Erzberger of becoming “proud” of his new “American knowledge” that he was preaching about. Somehow he found the courage to take up his work again and remained a driving force for mission, especially after the untimely death of J. N. Andrews in 1883.
When Ludwig Conradi was sent back to Europe in 1886, Erzberger was again on hand as faithful guide and helper. Inspired by Conradi’s evangelistic drive, he began very successful prophecy seminars in various big cities in Switzerland (Lausanne, Basel, Zürich, Bern), which led to the establishment of churches in these cities. The Methodist preacher (and later Adventist pioneer) E. E. Frauchiger heard Erzberger in Lausanne for the first time and exclaimed that “the whole city will be taken by storm.”
The topics presented and the way that they were presented held the attention of the masses. Every day Erzberger presented a topic in either German or French. The close association he had with Conradi strengthened and developed his own evangelistic emphasis. Too soon, however, Conradi moved to Germany and concentrated his efforts there, and Erzberger was left as the only Adventist preacher to care for all the German-speaking churches in Switzerland for many years. In 1903 his wife, Marie, died at the age of 53. Erzberger had been married since 1882 and had two sons: Heinrich (born 1884) and Jakob (born 1886).
The Final Years
From 1904 on, Erzberger worked mainly as a traveling evangelist throughout Germany. In just one month (April) of 1906, he preached 49 times and held 28 Bible studies. Full of evangelistic fervor he wrote to his son Heinrich in 1910 from Munich: “Time is flying by, Jesus is coming soon, and still so many are so unprepared.”
Worn out by illness and the sacrificial lifestyle of a pioneer missionary, Erzberger spent his final years in Sissach, Switzerland, and died in 1920. Ludwig R. Conradi wrote in a tribute for his hardworking colleague and friend: “Without seeking his own honor he gave his utmost in seeking souls in the typical ‘Swiss way’—direct and to the point. Even as a senior worker, he was always willing to work under a younger man. He did not seek his own, he was no position seeker … leading people to Jesus was for him the most important holy work.”
*In some English and French sources the spelling “Erzenberger” or “Ertzenberger” are used. This is especially notable in the letters and documents from Ellen White. The pronunciation of his name was obviously difficult for English and French speakers. Jakob (or James) Erzberger himself often used a “modification” of his last name after his visit to North America in 1870, highlighting his humility and flexibility as a missionary.
Daniel Heinz is the director of the European Historical Archives of Seventh-day Adventists, located at Theologische Hochschule Friedensau, Germany. The present article appeared in a longer version in Advent-Echo, October 2009.