Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church, also known as the Old Salem Lutheran Church, will be commemorated as an important site in the history of Mid-Atlantic Lutheranism on October 12.
Though the church at 8th and Willow Streets was added to the National Register of Historic Places in June 2010, it wasn’t until 2016 that the church sought out recognition from the Lutheran Historical Society of the Mid-Atlantic. Following an application process spurred by Society and Lebanon Lutheran Cooperative member Kitty Schaeffer, the Society added Old Salem to its historic site list in 2017, and is now presenting the church with an official plaque and $750 grant.
The grant money will go towards archive digitization efforts, especially important for a church with as much history as Salem. In an email to LebTown, the archives committee said, “Salem’s church records are vital to the history of Lebanon and paint a historical picture of the founding families of Lebanon.” The records include baptism, confirmation, marriage, and death records, and date back as far as 1730, some in handwritten, German-language journals.
The ultimate goal for these records is to make them available on Salem’s website for research use. The archives committee noted that the records are often consulted for genealogical research by researchers hoping to trace family history in the area.
At 9am on Saturday, October 12, half an hour after the plaque commemoration at 8:30am, the Society will also hold a workshop titled “Congregational Archives and History: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” which will review the systems through which congregational archives are kept, preserved, and processed.
The church’s long presence in Lebanon made it an important site within the region. Although immigrant German Lutherans in the area had constructed a log church and schoolhouse on the property in the 1760s, it wasn’t until 1798 that the limestone building was erected, and later remodeled in 1848.
The church’s original bell, which had hung in the log church before being placed in the tower, was rung to signal church services, but it was also sounded for a number of other events, including the marching of Hessian troops into Lebanon and the news of the Declaration of Independence. A second bell was added in 1854. The church boasted the first church pipe organ in the Lebanon Valley and that organ’s replacement, built by Lebanon’s Miller Organ Company, is still functional and played on special occasions, including Christmas Eve.
Adjacent to the Old Salem building is the Salem Memorial Chapel, an 1898 construction in a Gothic style. Initially, the chapel was built to house additional activities and the Sunday school hosted by the church, which boomed in the midst of a broader 19th-century Lutheran trend to integrate social organizations and education into church life.
Over the course of its history, Salem acted as a “mother church” to six congregations, and its pastors and preachers often achieved notoriety beyond the church itself. Theodore Schmauk, who oversaw the construction of the Memorial Chapel, went on to help organize the Pennsylvania Chautauqua, and Frederick Muhlenburg, son of Henry Muhlenburg, who is the namesake of Muhlenburg College and the man credited as the principal organizer of American Lutheranism, became the first Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.
You can read the entire report on the church for the National Register of Historic Places here (PDF).