ZION EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH of Cleveland is the second oldest Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) in Ohio. The congregation of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church was founded on April 14, 1843. The population of the city of Cleveland was about 7500 at that time.
Zion had its first church built on York Street (now Hamilton Avenue). It was dedicated on January 20, 1848, on the plot of ground now occupied by Cleveland Public Hall. It was only a simple little church; it had a gabled roof, no steeple, and a chimney in the rear. The new church also included a day school, and classes were held in the church building. With the vast numbers of immigrants that came to America from Europe in those years, the expanding membership made it necessary for a move in 1856 to Bolivar & Erie (now East 9th street). At this time a separate school building was built for the dedication to Lutheran education, and the church on York Street was moved to the newly purchased lot. It was not until 1867 when a new church was dedicated which was built on another lot in the same area of Bolivar & Erie.
Zion made national history in America when it had a candle-lighted Christmas tree, complete with ornaments, set up inside a public house of worship. It was in 1851, and the tradition Reverend Henry C. Schwan brought from Germany soon became widely accepted throughout America.
The present Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church building located on Prospect Avenue & East 30th street was dedicated on May 3, 1903. The current sanctuary has a seating capacity of about 1200. Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church was designated an historic landmark in 1974.
Rev. David Schuh – Founder pastor
Dr. Henry. C. Schwan 1851 – 1881
Rev. Carl. Manthey – Zorn 1881 – 1911
Rev. T. T. Schurdell 1911 – 1938
Rev. Armin Schroeder
Rev. Clarence T. Schuknecht 1938 – 1980
Rev. Robewrt F. Rolf
Rev. Martin Lutz
Rev. Ralph Woehrmann
Rev. Richard Mckain
Rev. Arvid-Peter Sprung
Rev. Edward Zacharias
Rev. John Milligan
Rev. Michael Hageman
Rev. Myron Prok (Interim Pastor) 2009 -
The History of Zion’s Christmas TreeOn Christmas Eve morning 1851, young Heinrich Christian Schwan, newly installed pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Cleveland, strode out into the forest near his parsonage and chopped down a small, beautifully shaped evergreen.
It may have been a fir, it may have been a Scotch pine, it may have been a Norway spruce; no one knows anymore. But it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the 32-year-old preacher lovingly carried the tree into his church, where it met with his wife, Emma’s, approval.
The couple spent the afternoon festooning the tree with cookies, colored ribbons, fancy nuts and candles. The crowning touch would be the cherished silver star that Schwan had brought with him from his boyhood home in Hannover, Germany. The star was a powerful reminder to him of how happy his Christmases had been as a child.
He wanted to share this same happiness with his congregation, most of whom were also German-born and thus likely to have seen a Christmas tree in their pasts. The custom hadn’t caught on yet in America. In fact, to Schwan’s knowledge, this was the first time that such a tree had appeared within a church this side of the Atlantic.
Once the tree was fully trimmed, Schwan carefully placed it in a prominent spot in the chancel. All that remained now was to light the candles bedecking its boughs. Standing back, gazing admiringly at their work, Heinrich and Emma could hardly help thinking, “Won’t the congregation be surprised tonight!”
The people were surprised all right. Most were delighted. For them, seeing their handsome young pastor reading the Christmas story beside his bright, blazing tree enkindled wonderful Christmastime memories from the Old Country.
For others, however–those not familiar with the idea of a Tannenbaum, especially one in church–it was not such a blessing.
“Oh, my goodness!” one lady gasped, covering her eyes. “What in the world is this supposed to mean?”
“A tree in the chancel?” roared an indignant man. “What kind of a minister are you?”
Within a day or two, Herr Schwan’s Christmas tree was the talk of the town, and the talk was not good. A prominent local newspaper called it “a nonsensical, asinine, moronic absurdity.” It editorialized against “these Lutherans . . . worshipping a tree . . . groveling before a shrub” Worse, it recommended that the good Christian citizens of Cleveland ostracize, shun and refuse to do business with anyone “who tolerates such heathenish, idolatrous practices in his church.”
This, obviously, was bad press for the struggling immigrant members of Zion, especially those with stores and other businesses dependent on the public’s goodwill. And all fingers of blame pointed to the same man: the stunned, well-meaning Schwan.
To his credit, however, the young pastor, though sorely chastened, did not cave in at least not right away. His Christmas tree was still in the chancel the following Sunday. But then it came down. Soon thereafter, Emma discovered Heinrich’s beloved tree-topping silver star in the trash.
She cleaned it up and presented it to him. “Why did you throw this away?” she asked.
“Because,” he said disconsolately, “there never will be another Christmas tree in Cleveland.”
“Nonsense!” she replied. “This year you put up the first tree, and next Christmas there will be many trees in Cleveland.”
Emma saved the star, and her prediction came true beyond her wildest dreams.
During the following year, Schwan, perhaps inspired by his stalwart wife, carefully researched the issue of Christmas trees. He ultimately concluded that such trees were not a sacrilege but rather a solid Christian custom – a custom in which Christians could express their joy at the birth of the Christchild.
He wrote many letters and received replies assuring him that lighted and decorated Christmas trees were de rigueur in many Christian countries. Emboldened by this knowledge–the fact that Christmas trees were not of pagan origin–he actively promoted their use as symbols of the joy of Christmas.
On Christmas Eve 1852, Schwan’s church again displayed a blazing Christmas tree. But this time it was not the only one in Cleveland. In fact, decorated trees appeared in homes all over town, and within five years Christmas trees were going up in homes and churches all across the country!
Although Pastor Schwan, as we now know, was not the first person to decorate a Christmas tree in North America, he was the first to introduce one into a church. And he was almost singlehandedly responsible for this custom gaining widespread acceptance and popularity in the United States.
The location of Zion Lutheran Church has changed since the 1850s, but on its original spot, the corner of Lakeside Avenue and East Sixth Street, stands an historical marker that states:
“On this site stood the first Christmas tree in America publicly lighted and displayed in a church Christmas ceremony. [Here] stood the original Zion Lutheran Church, where in 1851, on Christmas Eve, Pastor Henry Schwan lighted the first Christmas tree in Cleveland. The tradition he brought from Germany soon became widely accepted throughout America. The present site of Zion Lutheran Church is at 2062 East 30th Street, Cleveland, Ohio.”
Pastor Schwan would later rise to great prominence in the Missouri Synod, serving as synodical President from 1878 to 1899. He was also the original author of the questions, explanations and Bible proof texts appended to Luther’s Small Catechism. Had it ever occurred to you that the pastor who wrote the questions in the back of your old blue catechism was the same fellow who popularized the Christmas tree in America?
So, as you put up your Christmas tree this year, or admire the tree (or trees) in your church’s chancel, remember the day when young Henry Schwan betook himself an ax and tramped into that snowy Ohio woods. Remember that, thanks to him, the Christmas tree in church is a unique Missouri Synod contribution to the celebration of Christmas in America!
Contributing to this story are authors of other works relating to H.C. Schwan and his tree: Del Gasche, “A Christmas Tree? In Church?,” Farmland News, 1989; Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America, Oxford University Press, 1995; and Helen Jensen, “Cleveland’s First Christmas Tree” (self-published, 1996).