Erzberger: Beginnings and Belongings

It all began when he tore his favorite and only pair of pants. Young Jakob Erzberger was doing his compulsory practicum as a student missionary evangelist. It was part of his seminary course and he needed to complete it to graduate. He was traveling and preaching near the little town of Tramelan in Switzerland when the disaster took place. He looked around for a tailor and got more than what he bargained for. Not only did the man mend his pants, but while he waited the tailor also gave him a detailed Bible study on the second coming, the end of the world and the validity of the Sabbath. Erzberger was a captive and captivated audience.

He was blown away by what he heard, especially because the message came out of the mouth of a humble tailor to educate an almost-graduated Seminarian. Erzberger went back to his seminary in Basel and shared what he had learned with his lecturer and fellow students. The result was far from promising. “My friends all turned their back on me” he later wrote, recounting the incident “to them I was nothing more than a heretic”

But Erzberger had the gumption to bounce back. Perhaps it was his poverty-stricken childhood that helped or the fact that he had weathered the storm of losing his father as a young man or perhaps it was the deep piety of his mother. Maybe it was a combination of all three but whatever the case may have been Jakob Erzberger decided to cast in his lot with the small, doctrinally peculiar group he had found in Tramelan.

He decided to pastor them a short while later when Czechowski had left Switzerland to work in other parts of Europe. It wasn’t an easy undertaking to pastor a small group that believed, among other things, that they were the only group on earth that held the doctrines they did. It wasn’t long however before Albert Vuilleumier, one of the members of the church, discovered a copy of the review and herald among some of the belongings Czechowski had left behind.

The church at Tramelan was overjoyed to find that they were not alone but were, in fact, part of the established Seventh-Day Adventist church in North America. Correspondence flowed between the brethren at Battle Creek and the church in Tramelan and before long it was decided that Erzberger should go to America and make first contact with the church there.

Erzberger was game to go but he was extremely brave to do so. He didn’t speak a word of English and had no contacts or friends in America. He was warmly welcomed into the home of James and Ellen White and soon surrounded by a gaggle of eager Adventist brethren willing to help him.

John Kellogg tutored him in English while James White gave him Bible studies. He was then ordained by White and John Andrews at a camp meeting in  South Lancaster, Massachusetts. He returned to Europe shortly after that having been commissioned to continue to serve in Europe as an Adventist missionary.

Having Put My Hand To The Plough

He was the right-hand man to Andrews when he arrived in Switzerland. When Andrews went to Germany for a few weeks in 1875 Erzberger went with him and when Andrews returned to Switzerland, Erzberger remained to strengthen the little group of believers they had produced. After the first round of Baptisms Erzberger organized the first Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Germany in the town of Vohwinkle in January 1876.

He was a driving force behind the work in Switzerland especially after the death of Andrews in 1883 and when Ludwig Conradi was sent back to Europe in 1886, Erzberger worked with him and was greatly inspired by his evangelistic spirit. Erzberger conducted several prophecy seminars in major cities across Switzerland like Lausanne, Zurich, and Bern. These prophecy seminars culminated in new churches being planted in each of those cities. When Conradi moved back to Germany, Erzberger was left to care for the German-speaking churches in Switzerland on his own.

In 1903 his wife, Marie died, leaving behind Erzberger and their two grown sons, Heinrich, who had been born in 1884 and Jakob born in 1886. After 1904 Erzberger mainly served as a traveling missionary in Germany. Records of his service show that in April of 1906 he preached 49 times and held 28 Bible studies. He spent his last years in the town of Sissach, Switzerland where he passed to his rest in 1920, worn out by illness and the exhaustion of his labors.

During his years of ministry, Erzberger stood in the shadow of other men he served alongside; men like Michael Czechowski, Ludwig Conradi, and John Andrews, but Erzberger was a trailblazer and pioneer in his own right and left an indelible mark on the work of Adventist Mission in Europe.

Further Reading

  • Conradi, L. R. (1920) – “Nachruf für Bruder Erzberger.” Zions-Wächter. (No.21/22. November 1920: 217-218.)
  • Maxwell, C.M. (1976) – Tell It To The World – The Story of Seventh-Day Adventists
  • Schawrz, R.W. and Greenleaf, F. (1979) – Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (Revised Edition)
  • Heinz, D. (2010) – Jakob Erzberger: The Forgotten Pioneer. Adventist World (May 2010)