The Freie Gemeinden upon which this one was modeled were part of a scattered movement that followed in the path of the many reform movements that swept Europe in the early 1800s. Among these were calls within the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faith communities for greater tolerance of non-orthodox views and practices. A galvanizing event of the religious reform movement was the excommunication, in December of 1844, of Johannes Ronge (1813-1887) from the Catholic Church. Ronge, an inconspicuous priest from a Catholic parish in a small town in Silesia, had burst onto the German religious scene as a result of his widely circulated letter protesting the carnival-like public exhibition of what was purported to be Christ’s Holy Cloak by Bishop Arnoldi of Trier - and protesting, in particular, the Bishop’s promise to the populace that their sins would be forgiven and their ailments healed if only they were to touch the cloak… and deposit a cash offering in the church’s collection box! Shortly after his excommunication, Ronge issued a call throughout the German states for those “determined to break the coercion of belief, to purify religion, and to lead the church to its true calling, to the calling which the needs of our people and the spirit of these times lay upon her, namely: to reconcile the nations and the peoples of the earth through the cultivation and advancement of love and freedom for all…. We must declare ourselves free from the Roman church and from the pope and build a German Catholic church.” The call was answered from across Germany, and especially from Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), which was known for its Enlightenment spirit and devotion to rational belief. Thus was born the Free Christian or German-Catholic (DeutschkatholischeKirche) movement. Its slogan was “Investigation and Progress.” The movement’s first congregation - the Universal Christian Congregation - was established in Breslau in February, 1845, under Ronge. By Easter Sunday, March 23, the church had 7,000 members.
The Free German Catholic movement began not as anti-religious but as anti-clerical and, especially, anti-Roman. Many of the participants, like Ronge, did not question the doctrine or dogma of the church as much as the institution. At that time in the German states, little if any separation between church and state existed, and you could be jailed or banished by the government for questioning the authority of the church. (“Germany” as a united nation did not exist until the 1870s when the German Empire under Bismarck confederated the various states, kingdoms, duchies, “free cities”, etc.) Even today in Germany there are remnants of those close ties. For example, Germans today can choose to have the government take their church pledges (“Kirchensteuer”) directly from their paychecks.
In 1845 Eduard Schroeter (1811-1888) joined this movement. He began to speak out against the Catholic and Lutheran clergy in the city of Worms, the city made famous by the trials of Martin Luther 300 years earlier. Schroeter formed his own Freie Gemeinde, which eventually severed all ties with recognized churches.
Ronge and Schroeter were not alone in speaking out against the injustices of the established churches. Many religious liberals joined a Free German-Catholic movement; others joined non-denominational humanist groups. Most were well-educated, culturally active people. Many were persecuted. Some of those who suffered persecution fled the country, with many of them immigrating to the United States. This wave of immigration grew following the failed Revolution of 1848, which was not so much a single uprising as a pervasive unrest that simmered and occasionally broke out into violence in many different states of Germany throughout the 1840s. The suppression of these pockets of protest, more or less accomplished by 1848, resulted in a mass migration to the U.S. over the next few years - hence the name “48ers” for those immigrants who fled their homeland.
Freie Gemeinden in America - keeping their German names and never referring to themselves as “churches” - spread throughout the U.S. after the first one was established in St. Louis in 1850. Gemeinden formed in Pennsylvania, California, Washington, D.C., New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Texas, among other states. By 1852 there were twenty-six discrete groups in Wisconsin alone.
Carl Duerr was a key figure in the earliest days of the Freie Gemeinde von Sauk County, the group that came to be better known, especially among its non-member neighbors, as the Sauk City Freethinkers. Duerr had been working on a large farm near Merrimac, where he was part of a small humanist group, before he moved to the southern part of Prairie du Sac in 1852. (This part of Prairie du Sac was separately incorporated as Sauk City in 1853.) There he began to gather a congregation of like-minded people, in which he took the role of temporary Speaker. The formal organization of this congregation, the Freie Gemeinde von Sauk County, would not occur until the arrival, later that year, of Eduard Schroeter.
Schroeter arrived in America on July 11, 1850, after having been forced into exile by the Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt. He soon formed a number of Free Congregations in cities throughout New England and New York. In the summer of 1851 Schroeter came to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where, within a few months, he began to publish a weekly German language paper called the Humanist, the first religious periodical to be published in Wisconsin.
Eduard Schroeter best articulated the Free Thought philosophy in his Fundamental Principles, first published in the Milwaukee Banner (August, 1851):
We call our society the United Free German Congregation. Its purpose is to unite the foes of clericalism, official dishonesty, and hypocrisy, and to unite the friends of truth, uprightness, and honesty - all those holding the same views, but now found scattered among all religions, churches, and sects. By such a union of our strength we intend to erect a firm bulwark against the pernicious system of church, sect, and clerical domination. While making our first appeal to the Germans we do not wish to be understood as excluding other nationalities; rather we shall make it our business to enter into fraternal relations with others who are aiming at reforms similar to our own.
All authority rests in the congregation, and in it all its members, men and women alike, shall have equal rights. The foundation for the congregation shall be Reason, and the great teachings of Nature and History. The purpose of the congregation shall not be the subjection of human beings to an external authority, the respect for a person or a book, in order to secure their bliss by such unconditional obedience, but the exact opposite of this, their mental and moral freedom, their independence and individuality in thought, will, decision, and action. The means to this end, consequently, are not “supernatural and incomprehensible means of grace,” but the natural and comprehensible means by which a human being influences and inspires the mind and heart of his fellows - through speech, song, and the mutual exchange of opinions.
We do not exclude certain rites and ceremonies, so long as they are not compulsory and are sensible and beautiful (i.e. in connection with birth, death, marriage etc.). We have no dogmas or decrees, fixed for all time, but only fundamental principles and general views of the world which are subject to continual clarification. We seek to attain for ourselves an independent view of life and in accordance with it to shape our individual lives. For us there are atheists only in a practical sense: those, namely, who act as if there were no supreme law of the world to which they are subject, and no world order to which they are obliged to conform. We decree neither a belief nor a disbelief in God and immortality. We know of no priestly office as the sole bearer of the spirit and the truth, nor of a laity as mere empty vessels to be filled by it, as the Catholic and Protestant churches do, to a greater or lesser extent. But we do recognize a speaker or teacher, whom the congregation is free to select and appoint after it has satisfied itself of his vocation, qualification, and moral character.
These remarkable affirmations emphasize the anticlerical zest of the movement, for even though the governments of the German states, not the church, forced Schroeter and his contemporaries to flee their homeland, they considered church and state as co-conspirators in suppression. Moreover, the church played a much greater role in everyday lives, and the people believed that the church should be a refuge from and buffer against governmental tyranny, not an instrument of it.
After a year of publishing the Humanist, Schroeter decided to take a personal tour of Free Congregations in Wisconsin in the summer of 1852. He visited Sauk City’s Free Congregation in October, where he formally organized the group that had been started by Carl Duerr. It’s possible this was not Schroeter’s only trip to Sauk City that month, as we know that in late October he married Elise Cunradi Graepel, a widow. (Schroeter’s first wife died on New Year’s Day, 1851, less than six months after their arrival in New York.) A Robert Cunradi is listed as one of the 80 original founders of the Freie Gemeinde von Sauk County.
In January of 1853, the Freie Gemeinde von Sauk County invited Schroeter to take the role of Speaker. January of 1853 also marked the congregation’s first celebration of the birth of Thomas Paine (b. January 29, 1737), an American revolutionary whose writings on liberty, democracy, and the separation of church and state were especially influential among German Free Thought groups. In June of 1853, Schroeter was formally installed as Speaker - delivering an address entitled “My Task as Speaker” - and the Freie Gemeinde von Sauk County was officially incorporated. In honor of the occasion, the congregation celebrated the first Frühlingsfest (Spring Festival); this was followed, in October of 1853, by the first Stiftungsfest (Founders Day). These three annual events - Painefest, Frühlingsfest, and Stiftungsfest - are still celebrated today.
The congregation used “Sauk County” rather than “Sauk City” in its name because it drew its membership from a number of villages and the surrounding countryside. Weekly Sunday morning meetings alternated among four locations: Sauk City, Honey Creek (the location of the Free Congregation cemetery), Merrimac, and the village of Dane. Of these, Sauk City and Honey Creek had the largest membership.
In 1857 the congregation constructed a new hall in Sauk City and, a year later, started a school with instruction in both German and English. Although classes were taught by hired teachers, Schroeter participated in the instruction, particularly in the subjects of religion, philosophy, and ethics. Music became an important part of the Sunday meetings and festive gatherings; it remains so to this day. Literary, poetical, and musical performances were offered for the community as a whole, particularly in the winter months.
Honey Creek Hall at the Andrew Roll Cemetery