February 15, 2017

Poor Peter Peters' Plight

(This post originally appeared on my blog, A Face to the Sun, on May 7, 2012.)

 In a previous post, I showed my dad's beautiful baptismal certificate from 1923.  I had to show it in parts because it was so large and I wanted you to see the details.  In the bottom section, shown below, is the seal of St. John's (Johannes) Church (near West Hope and Deshler, Henry County, Ohio) and the signature, "P. Peters."

As I read Michael McMaster's book, Henry County in the Great War: German-Americans, Patriots, and Loyalty 1914-1918, I saw that the Reverend Peter Peters was a man whose loyalty to America was questioned greatly.  According to McMaster, Rev. P. Peters was a first generation German immigrant who had done missionary work in India before being called to St. John's Lutheran Church in Henry County.  St. John's had both a church and a school and Rev. Peters was both pastor and teacher, with all services and teaching being conducted in German. (I don't believe the Elling family was attending there yet in 1918 as they lived near Liberty Center at the time, according to Grandpa Albert's draft registration.  If they had been parishioners, they would have witnessed quite a scene in July 1918.)

The Henry County League of American Patriots had been regularly questioning the loyalty of various German-American citizens and trying them in "their" courts.  The League was also demanding strongly that the Lutheran churches in the county quit preaching and teaching in German.  They made several requests and declarations and called meetings of the pastors, yet all of the staunch Lutheran pastors turned a deaf ear to them.  As part of one last declaration, the League stated, in part:
"...any pastor or church officer allowing German to be used in any church school in this county, after July 1st, will be regarded by the organized patriotic public opinion of this county as un-patriotic, un-American, and by such action, they will be regarded as caring more for German institutions than American. 
That in further defiant action on your part, you assume full responsibility for results."
(McMaster, p. 148)

On July 9, 1918, Rev. Peter Peters drove his buggy into West Hope to visit the blacksmith and while there, several boys put an American flag on his buggy.  He kept taking it off and they kept putting it back on.  Accounts vary, some saying that he put it in his wagon and said he would take it home and others stating that he threw it in the road.  Either way, this was apparently seen as a traitorous act by the League.
Reverend Peter Peters

Late that evening a large group of League members from all over the county stormed the parsonage .  Whether it was a spontaneous gathering or well planned depends on the newspaper account one reads, which are all reported in McMaster's book. The Henry County Signal stated that a crowd of 500 people supporting the League, including carloads from Liberty Center, McClure, Napoleon, Deshler, Holgate and Malinta, swarmed to the church parsonage.  The parishioners, hoping to defend their pastor, also came by the carload.  Some church members were in the dark house with the pastor and when they tried to escape to hide, gunshots were fired.  It was quite an event until the Napoleon officers arrived and broke it up.  The patriots left a large American flag nailed to Rev. Peters' door.

No one was ever arrested, but the "West Hope Incident" gives us insight into the climate of the times.  Our German ancestors, with their thick accents and their customs, were daily at risk of being under suspicion. 

I tried to go a little further into the life of Rev. Peters, using the 1920 census.  Pastor Peters was living in Bartlow Township still, 41 and single, born in Friesland (German) and naturalized in 1914. 
He married at age 44 to Margereth who was quite a bit younger.  In the 1930 census, he was 52 and she was 33, and they had a young son, Frederick, age 5. 
According to Mr. McMaster, Rev. Peters continued to minister at St. John's until 1939.  If you enjoy reading about local history, as I do, I think you would enjoy this book which has a much more detailed account of this and other incidents during WW I in Henry County.

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