The Reverend Johannes Heinrich Kehler (1797-1879), better known as John Henry Kehler, was born in Frederick, Maryland, He spent his early adult years serving as a minister to Lutheran congregations struggling in the transition from German- to English-speaking services. His pastorate of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Shepherdstown (1817-1819) came at such a time, when the congregation, “racked and dilapidated”, struggled with the emotional transition. In spite of the language controversy, Pastor Kehler performed 36 baptisms in his short time at St. Peter’s. While serving there, he married a Shepherdstown girl, Anne Talbot Towner, and he and his wife retained close ties to Shepherdstown after he left the St. Peter’s pastorate.
In the three decades after he left Shepherdstown, Kehler served congregations in Virginia and Maryland, often starting new churches and helping those congregations that were struggling with the German-to-English transition. According to a Kehler descendent, Kehler switched denominations around 1841, becoming an ordained Episcopal minister. He founded St. George’s Episcopal in Mt. Savage, Maryland, holding its first services in an ironworks machineshop. In Episcopal Synod records there is mention of Kehler in Harpers Ferry, Hagerstown, Antietam, Boonsboro, and Harmony Hill. During these years, the Kehler raised a large family of seven daughters and three sons. After 33 years, in 1852, Kehler returned to Shepherdstown where Episcopal rector, Charles Andrews, asked him to become assistant rector.
About 1853 St. Paul’s Episcopal Chuirch of Sharpsburg also called upon Kehler to serve the Sharpsburg congregation. Though it is difficult to document, the Kehlers during this time seem to have lived in Shepherdstown, where Mrs. Kehler’s relatives, the Towners, were prominent in town affairs.
On October 1, 1859, Kehler’s wife, Ann, died and may be buried in the Methodist cemetery in Shepherdstown. Only two weeks after Mrs. Kehler’s death, the John Brown raid on Harpers Ferry threw the nation into a state of crisis. One account says Kehler’s Unionist leanings made him uncomfortable with the strong Southern sentiment of his Shepherdstown neighbors. Kehler by now had served a long career in many churches, was a widower at age 63, and most of his 10 children were adults. It would have made sense for him to retire or cut back on his busy career, but with the death of his wife and the emerging national crisis, Kehler decided to make a radical change in his life and go West. Two of his sons had already made the move. His oldest, Talbot, had gone in the Gold Rush to California and had flourished. Jack (John Henry) had prospered in Kansas Territory, becoming the first sheriff of Arapahoe County, the county that Denver would be a part of, and founding a town, Mountain City, and a freight company.
It was likely that a letter from Jack to his father that convinced Kehler to look for a new beginning in the West. Jack had built the first brick house in Denver and offered it to his father if he would come to Denver. Two days after his last sermon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Sharpsburg on Christmas 1859 and, undeterred by winter and the rigors of travelling west, Kehler turned his back on his old life and set out for Colorado, then part of the Kansas Territory.
Kehler arrived in Denver by stagecoach in January 1860. The next Sunday he held the first service of the Episcopal Church ever conducted in the Rocky Mountains and founded the Church of St. John’s in the Wilderness. It was the predecessor of St. John’s Cathedral in Denver, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. One account says that early services were held in a saloon. The town of Denver donated residential lots to help build the church.
In 1861 Kehler accepted an appointment as chaplain of the First Regiment of Colorado Volunteers and, in 1863, he was with the troops in the field in New Mexico.
Seven of the Kehlers’ 10 children went West. In addition to Talbot in California and Jack in Colorado, three daughters, a son, and a granddaughter accompanied Kehler on his journey. Also in 1860 daughter Frances Kehler Clodfelter and son-in-law Augustus C. Clodfelter and their three daughters arrived in Denver by wagon, carrying much of the Kehler family furniture.
Kehler became a well-known and respected figure in Colorado, but the family suffered tragedies, Son Talbot Boydston Kehler died in an accident in California just two months after his father arrived in Colorado. Jack, the town builder, entrepreneur, and sheriff died in a fight in 1861. The youngest son, William Whittingham Kehler went to Yale, became a lawyer in Denver, and died of an illness in 1868 at age 25.
When daughter Elizabeth died in 1876, Kehler moved to Washington, D.C., to live with daughter Mrs. C.H. Quin. At Kehler’s death in 1879, Shepherdstown seems to have become is final resting place. A District of Columbia document lists his death on February 21 and burial on February 22 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. However, there are no identifying headstones for the Kehlers in the Methodist part of Elmwood Cemetery.
The author, Jerry Bruce Thomas, is professor emeritus of history at Shepherd University and former member of the Board of Directors of Historic Shepherdstown Commission.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 edition of the Good News Paper.