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Our Rich History: Elias Roser, Newport’s German Methodist pastor and author

By Don Heinrich Tolzmann
Special to NKyTribune

Part 75 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

The Salem Methodist Episcopal Church at Eighth and York Streets in Newport was the home of a German Methodist congregation in Newport that was formed in 1848. Noted for its Gothic Revival architecture, it was designed by the well-known architect Samuel Hannaford. The congregation belonged to the Central German Conference of the Methodist church whose origins go back to the missionary efforts in the 1830s of Rev. Wilhelm Nast (1807-99), the founding father of German Methodism in America.

Rev. Elias Roser

The church was dedicated in 1883, and a little more than a century later, the congregation merged with Grace Methodist Church. The building was sold, and it now houses the Stained-Glass Theater. However, its historical and architectural importance were recognized by its placement on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Another interesting aspect of the church’s history regards one of its pastors, Rev. Elias Roser (1859-1940).

German-American members of the clergy were often the best educated persons in their communities, and frequently authors of theological, historical, and literary works. Such was the case with Roser. His father, Rev. Johann J. Roser (1828-83) was born in Hausen, Baden, and had moved with his wife to Switzerland in the 1850s. His son Elias was born in Hemishofen.

In 1864, Roser heard Rev. Ludwig Nippert (1825-94) preach in Schaffhausen, and was converted to Methodism.

In 1873, when Elias Roser was fourteen, the family moved to Cincinnati and joined the Methodist church on Race Street in Over-the-Rhine. His father was then accepted into the Methodist church as a minister, and served at various congregations in Ohio and Indiana, finally at West Unity, Ohio. He also published articles and poems in the German Methodist journal published in Cincinnati: Der Christliche Apologete (The Christian Apologist).

Salem Methodist Episcopal Church

His son Elias studied at German Wallace College (later Baldwin-Wallace College, and now Baldwin-Wallace University), and after the death of his father, became pastor of his father’s congregation in West Unity at age twenty-four. He served at various churches, including Salem Methodist in Newport from 1899 to 1905. This of course brought him close to Cincinnati where the German Methodist church had been formed, and where he first lived after arriving in America with his family.

Elias Roser’s first book appeared in Cincinnati: Der Knabenbund von Waldorf, eine Erzählung für die Jugend und ihre Freunde (The Waldorf Boys Association, a Story for Young People and their Friends), published in 1894 by Cranston & Curts. In 1907, he contributed to a German Methodist hymnal published by Jennings and Graham in Cincinnati: Pilgerklänge, eine Liedersammlung (Pilgrim Sounds, a Hymn Collection), edited by Friedrich Munz. He followed up with an autobiographical work, published by Jennings and Graham in 1913, titled: Allerlei Leute (All Kinds of People).

Allerlei Leute consists of conversations between a worldly-wise Swiss shoemaker and a young and inexperienced German Methodist minister. No names or places are mentioned, but in a concluding poem Roser explains that the stories are drawn from his life and that he was once the “greenhorn” minister in the book. The young minister is the narrator and chapters begin with his visits at the shoemaker’s shop. The conversation begins with the minister asking a question, followed by the shoemaker telling a story to answer the question. Each of the fourteen chapters is preceded by one of Roser’s poems, which sets the tone for the following conversation.

Cover of Roser’s book Allerlei Leute

The shoemaker’s stories are often in the Swiss-German dialect, which is not surprising, as this is where Roser grew up. Stories are often amusing, but serious as well, and opinions are strongly expressed. For example, the young minister brings up the question of evolution, and the shoemaker responds that only a fool would believe that life could emerge from a glop of mud, and that those who think that way have a muddied mind. He called such people free-thinkers, as they were free of any serious thought.

The shoemaker is not only worldly-wise, but also knows the Bible well, and frequently cites chapter and verse. For example, when he discusses the question of whether humor can be found in the Bible, he answers in the affirmative, citing verses in support thereof. Questions often revolve around the experiences of a German Methodist minister such as pastoral visits (Hausbesuche), and what kind of parishioners a minister can encounter, from the friendly to the unfriendly. Such topics are sprinkled with Roser’s humor.

One humorous story the shoemaker tells is about a church member who bought a pair of pants, but when he came home found them four inches too long. At dinner time, he mentioned this to his wife, aunt, and daughter, but that he would have them tailored. Wanting to surprise him, his wife shortened his pants the next day, but said nothing. Then his daughter and aunt did the same in the next few days. Finally, at the end of the week, the church member brought his pants to the tailor to get them shortened four inches also. After breakfast on Sunday, he tried the pants on and found them sixteen inches too short. Everyone explained what had happened, and the moral of the story was that it is beneficial to communicate with one another.

Title-page of a Christmas cantata, with text by Roser

The German language certainly played an important role in the life and work of Roser. In 1904, at a meeting of the Cincinnati District of the Central German Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the language question came up for discussion. Not surprisingly, Roser supported the continuation of German church services, as did the majority of those at the meeting. However, World War I caused many churches to either cancel German services, or introduce an additional service in English. The sign of the church Roser had served at in Newport, proclaiming it the “Salem Kirche,” was removed and replaced with a sign in English: “Salem Methodist Episcopal Church.” German services were also dropped.

In 1925, Roser was sixty-five, but still preaching, then at Zion Methodist Episcopal Church in Toledo, and while there introduced an evening service in English. The war had taken a heavy toll on German Methodism, and in 1933 the Central German Conference was dissolved and merged into the Methodist Episcopal Church. 1941, the German Methodist journal, the Apologete, ceased publication. A year before that, Roser, who retired in 1927, passed away and was laid to rest at the Mount Hope Cemetery in Lansing, Michigan.

Although Roser can make no claim at great literature, his writings have genuine value for illuminating German Methodist life. His autobiographical book demonstrates what a wealth of information can be gleaned from German-language sources and how much they can enrich our knowledge of the German heritage of the Greater Cincinnati area. German-language works like Roser’s are definitely in need of exploration for what they reveal about German Methodist family and community life, a fascinating but often overlooked chapter in German-American religious history.

Don Heinrich Tolzmann is a nationally and regionally noted historian of German Americana. He has written and edited dozens of books, and contributed to many others, including The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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