When the record books of the St. John's Lutheran Church of Champaign were microfilmed by the Champaign County Historical Archives several years ago (Roll #20), an unexpected bonus was the discovery that among the St. John's books were also the record books of the old Bethlehem Lutheran Church of Hensley Township.
This small country church, which ministered to nearby German Lutheran farm families from 1874 to 1955, was located in Section 11 of Hensley Township about one-half mile east of the Fischer Road and five miles north of the Champaign Airport on five acres of land donated by a local farmer Franz Heinrich (Franc H.) Lange (1833-1904 ). He came to Champaign County in 1859 after spending eight years in Ohio.
Now only the small Bethlehem Lutheran Cemetery remains. A clipping of unknown date from the Champaign News-Gazette reports that the church, which also once had a school and parsonage, was being torn down, that the school had been sold years ago, and that the parsonage had been bought by William Pilgrim in 1944 and moved to another site.
My own special interest in the church, besides the fact that some of my own Wascher and Schnuecke family were members, is that the first wife of Franz Heinrich Lange, Anna Maria Elizabeth Leidendecker (1838 - 1874), was the daughter of an elder sister of my great grandfather Jurgen Heinrich (Henry) Schnuecke (1825 - 1882) who immigrated from Northern Westphalia in Germany to Champaign County in 1861. She was also the sister of Johann Heinrich (Henry J.) Leidendecker (1840-1915), another prominent early farmer in Hensley Township who came to Champaign County in 1858.
The church was founded on September 6, 1874 with its first minister being Pastor Theodor Siek. The initial founders of the church were reported to be Johann Demien, Franz H. Lange, Jobst Lange, Wilhelm Wilze, Heinrich F. Lange, Ernst Lange, Friedrich Schreiber and August Schablon.
In part because the membership of the church remained small, it suffered problems over the years with finding pastors to serve the congregation. Thus, it is noted that the records contain a number of blocks of time with no marriages, baptisms or burials recorded. During these periods the members must have gone to Champaign to attend St. John's Lutheran Church when they could. At other times the records note that a St. John's pastor served Bethlehem Church during a vacancy.
Because of this, any person doing research on a Hensley Township family should also consult the St. John's records for completeness. Also, it is noted that a number of the names found in the Bethlehem Records are also found in the Champaign St. Peter's German Evangelical Church (now St. Peter's United Church of Christ) records. In the first 50 years of the church there were 150 baptisms, 104 confirmations, 33 marriages and 47 burials performed.
Even though Roll 20 of the Champaign County Historical Archives is entitled, "Church Books of St. John's Lutheran Church of Champaign," the first two books on the microfilm are of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church of Hensley Township.
Book I, which is written in German in the old style script up to 1893, and which contains the vital records of the church from 1874 to 1927, must have come unbound. Thus, the book has been microfilmed by record category rather than in order of page numbers. It starts with a membership list (Seelenregister) from pages 129-131. Next is an incorrect index to the book, followed by Birth and Baptism (Geburts und Taufe) records on pages 1-24, 125-126 and 135. Pages 25-37 include Confirmation records, and pages 46-91, 127-128 and 134 give Communion Attendance records. The Confirmation records give not only names but also birthdates, and the Communion records are valuable in that in places they group family members together.
Wedding (Trauen) records are then given on pages 100-107, and Death and Burial ( Todesfall und Begraben) records are listed on pages 114-121. Page 122 gives a short chronicle of activities of the church for 1883 by Student of Theology Wilhelm Walter, and inserted between pages 122 and 123 is a typewritten draft in German of the sermon given 13July1924 on the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the church, probably by Pastor William Hartman, which gives an excellent summary of the founding and history of the church for its first 50 years.
Book 2 of the Bethlehem Church records does not have any page numbers and is entirely written in German using the old style script, except in places where English words or place names are used. The book starts with the minutes of the first church council meeting on September 6, 1874. This is followed by the church constitution and its signers.
Minutes of the church council meetings from 1875 through 11April 1926 are then given, with a list of the pastors who served the church at the end. It is interesting to note that as part of the minutes for 1889 is the abstract of a deed dated 21 October 1889 written in English using the English script granting a 12' x 32' burial plot in the church cemetery to Henry J. Leidendecker for $10.