This small town in Georgia was once a utopian community of Lutheran pietists described by an observer as “the fortress of all refugees in Georgia. . . . a City on the Hill which shall not be hidden and a light to all others.”

A Lutheran Refuge

Engraving of Johann Martin Boltzius, c. 1754 – 1767. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-57323.

Following the expulsion of nearly 20,000 Lutherans from the Salzburg region of Austria-Germany in the early 1730s, the utopian founder of the colony of Georgia, James Oglethorpe, invited the displaced protestants to settle just outside the colonial capitol of Savannah. While only a small number of the refugee families choose to accept Oglethorpe’s offer, their story is significant for what it reveals about the trans-Atlantic world of both material and spiritual support within which many Protestant colonists moved.

The Salzburgers were an industrious lot whose commitment to the principles of Lutheran pietism made them ideally suited to the charity-driven community Oglethorpe hoped to model. Led by their newly recruited pastor Johann Martin Boltzius (1703 – 1765)—the first group of migrants arrived in the colony in 1734. Oglethorpe gave the colonists a large tract several miles inland from the Savannah River, a location he chose for its strategic position as a barrier between the native population and the English settlements in and around Savannah. When they moved into the area, the Salzburgers named their community Ebenezer, an allusion to the biblical “stone of help” raised by Samuel to mark the Israelites’ miraculous victory over the Philistine army (1 Samuel 7:12).

Unfortunately for the Salzburgers, this initial settlement proved to be unhealthful, due to the sandy soil and nearly stagnant nature of the colony’s only water supply, and almost impossible to farm. Functioning as both spiritual and temporal leader for the community, Boltzius met on several occasions with Oglethorpe, urging him to allow the Salzburgers to relocate the settlement on the fertile banks of the Savannah River. He recorded these conversations in his “secret diary,”[1] where he framed the dilemma in eternal terms:

The removal to a fertile location also concerns the glory of God and of our Redeemer Jesus Christ, for 1) the Salzburgers have often had to hear the reproach from evilly disposed people that they do nothing but eat and pray, which reproach would not decrease but rather increase if they had to fetch their provisions from the store house. 2) How tickled and pleased the Papists and other enemies would be if they heard about the Salzburgers’ unhappy settlement. On the other hand, what heartbreak, sighs, laments, and disquiet the report of their distressing circumstances would arouse in the hearts of our spiritual and physical benefactors.[2]

Although Oglethorpe claimed to be sympathetic to the Lutherans as coreligionists, he was at first unmoved by these arguments and unwilling to agree to the relocation of the settlement, citing vague concerns about breaking his treaty with the native population as well as a less than noble desire to keep the German Lutherans geographically segregated from the English part of the colony. Instead, the proprietor suggested a compromise plan in which the town of Ebenezer would remain in its original location, but the community members would be given additional land grants farther away from their town dwellings to be used for growing crops. This Boltzius rejected outright, fearing that such a dispersal would have deleterious effects upon the “spiritual welfare” of the community, which centered upon their shared spiritual life. Boltzius’s diary reveals that the Salzburgers enjoyed a vibrant and committed spiritual community, gathering together for daily evening prayers, in addition to their two more formal services on Sundays.[3]

Boltzius resented Oglethorpe’s resistance to the idea of relocation, yet remained optimistic that the proprietor would eventually come around and honor his “fatherly” obligations to the immigrant community to whom he had promised a place of refuge. In his diary, he wrote, “We still hope that the Salzburgers will enjoy the rights and liberties of Englishmen as free colonists,” but added despondently, “It appears to me and to others that the Salzburgers and the Germans in general are a thorn in the eyes of the Englishmen, who would like to assign them land that no one else wants and on which they will have to do slavish work.” Boltzius’ suspicions were confirmed when he received word that Oglethorpe had agreed to settle a group of Moravians near the Lutheran Salzburgers simply because of their shared ethnicity: “But in this way such confusion and disturbance would arise in religious affairs in this country as they have in Pennsylvania.”[4]

Urban Planning and other Utopian Dilemmas

[Plan of New Ebenezer, Ga., 1742, which was settled in 1736 by the persecuted Salzburgers of Bavaria at invitation of trustees of the Georgia colony; text in German]. , None. [Between 1741 and 1752] Engraving. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-57328.

Finally, in 1736, Oglethorpe relented and allowed the Salzburgers to move together as a community to a plot of land along the Savannah River. There, with Oglethorpe’s agents, Mssrs. Vat and Von Reck, they laid out the town on a grid pattern, with kitchen garden plots and more intensive agricultural fields arranged around the outskirts of the town (see map). The plan allowed for the creation of small neighborhoods composed of ten households, the better to facilitate the culture of common care and support so central to the pietist shared spiritual life. Despite their overall satisfaction with the new town, the Salzburgers’ trials were not yet over: when Vat and Von Reck saw the placement of the homes within the lots, they complained to Boltzius that “those huts that…were not built on the right corner of their lots would have to be torn down.” Incensed, Boltzius refused the order, whereupon Mr. Vat then went directly to the people, telling them “all their work on their huts and gardens were in vain because the houses had to be relocated, and in this he tried to give his words an appearance of reality.” Boltzius—resentful of this attempt to circumvent his authority, and grieved for his congregants who “were worried and distressed by this report”—used his pulpit to offer counsel in this instance.

I tried to encourage them both privately and publicly in the evening prayer-hour (although, as is always the case, only in more general terms and by referring to Holy Writ). On this occasion it occurred to me that the builders of the city of Jerusalem were frightened by threats and by contrary tidings. See Nehemiah 6: 5-7, 9-13.”[5]

Boltzius’ sermon with its biblical allusion to the return of the exiled Jews to their capitol and their task of rebuilding it in the face of extensive opposition seems to have bolstered the Salzburgers’ confidence in their right to arrange the community as they saw fit, for nothing more is said in the diary about the conflict. Indeed, work in the town progressed rapidly, and under Boltzius’ direction, the community undertook a variety of additional projects that illustrate the ways in which the pietistic impulse tended to result in charitable social activity.

In addition to providing both spiritual and secular leadership for the town, Boltzius served as the primary conduit connecting his congregation to their European supporters. The Lutheran pietist community in Halle, for example, sent skilled artisans and a medical doctor to join Ebenezer shortly after the relocation occurred. These men were expected to provide their services to the community out of a sense of brotherly love, but in return, they also expected that many of their own mundane needs (such as housing) would be met by the community. When it proved difficult to recruit volunteer laborers for the construction of the new doctor’s home, for example, Boltzius noted that he chose to hire several needy members of the congregation to do some construction work on community projects, and that he planned to pay them using funds collected for charitable purposes. He added wryly, “I think it is all the same whether we give it to the poor, whom we cannot let suffer anyway, as occasion arises or whether we pay them for their work and thereby put them in a position not to burden our poor box any longer.”[6] With a steady influx of new refugees from the religious persecution in Germany, there were many such opportunities for the poor to find work in the quickly growing town. By 1741, the town had more than a thousand residents engaged in a variety of innovative endeavors, including the colony’s first saw and grist mills, and a burgeoning silk industry, started with a gift of a mulberry tree to each resident, courtesy of Oglethorpe himself.

To provide for the safety and education of the most vulnerable poor–children and widows–the Salzburgers established a community poorhouse (sometimes referred to as an orphanage, although records indicate that it housed at least as many adult women as children during its tenure). The intent was to provide a space where the community might provide support for widows and orphaned children as demanded of Christians (see James 1:27). For several years, the plan succeeded and nearly fifty displaced Protestant women and children found not only safety but an opportunity for spiritual, intellectual, and practical training. Among the most significant projects of the poorhouse was the oversight of Ebenezer’s silk industry; the reeling equipment was located at the poorhouse, and its female occupants trained in the delicate work of unwinding the cocoons and spooling the fibers. 

Eventually, however, the plan was abandoned in favor of placing the children and widows directly into private households as either apprentices or servants. Yet as Boltzius had hoped, the move provided an opportunity for his congregants to demonstrate to the world their capacity to contribute productively to their new homeland while maintaining their unique religious identification. In 1743, one of his German correspondents described the way the community was seen by others in the home country:

Ebenezer is now the fortress of all refugees in Georgia. . . . Thus, the Lord has made of Ebenezer a City on the Hill which shall not be hidden and a light to all others. May He give you and all other inhabitants of Ebenezer the grace to excel . . . before all other European inhabitants of America.[7]

After the introduction of slavery to Georgia in the mid-eighteenth century, growth in Ebenezer slowed down and the majority of the community slowly dispersed, moving on to individual plantations farther from the town. Nevertheless, as indicated by this congratulatory letter to George Washington, they maintained their distinctive ethnic and religious identity well into the early national period.

The Jerusalem Lutheran Church

Judson McCranie, 2015, via Wikimedia Commons.

During Boltzius’ tenure as pastor, the community worshipped in a wooden frame building. This was replaced by the present church in 1769. Built from bricks made out of native clay from the area, the building is the oldest in Georgia and continues to welcome worshippers every Sunday.


[1] In contrast to his public diary, which he sent back to Lutheran authorities in Germany to both recruit additional colonists and maintain the chain of pastoral oversight. Return

[2] Secret Diary, 85. Return

[3] Secret Diary, 83. Return

[4] Secret Diary, 92, 95. Return

[5] Secret Diary, 100-101. Return

[6] Secret Diary, 107. Return

[7] Mission Archives of the Franke Foundations, series 5A10, fol. 117, March 27, 1743. Quoted in Wilson, “Public Works and Piety in Ebenezer,”351. Return


Boltzius’s “secret diary” is reprinted in George F. Jones, “The Secret Diary of Pastor Johann Martin Boltzius,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 53, no. 1 (1969): 78-110.

The pietistic public works projects in Ebenezer are described more fully in Renate Wilson, “Public Works and Piety in Ebenezer: The Missing Salzburger Diaries of 1744-1745.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 77, no. 2 (1993): 336-66.