The first Lutheran Church in Woodstock predated the arrival of the town’s founder Jacob Mueller. Local German residents had felt the need for a place to practice their Lutheran faith and had therefore constructed a modest wooden structure in the center of their community. Mueller would be forced to design his town around this building and the cemetery which surrounded it.
This early church served both the town’s Lutheran and Anglican congregations. During that period, the only church authorized to practice their faith was the Anglican. So, despite the fact that almost all locals were Lutheran at the time, they officially had to operate as Anglicans. After the Revolution and Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom the Lutheran Congregation was able to operate freely.
In 1772 John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg became the first minister to service the town of Woodstock on a regular basis. While technically a Lutheran, Muhlenberg had to become an ordained Anglican to legally perform marriages, baptisms, and communion in the town. Muhlenberg became a leader in the area’s growing pro-independence movement soon after arrived. He served on the county’s Committee of Safety and as a member of the House of Burgesses. On January 23, 1776 Muhlenberg delivered a fiery sermon designed to recruit community members into the Continental Army. His now famous words that there was “a time for war, and a time for peace, and this is the time for war” helped recruit over 300 men for the 8th Virginia regiment of which Muhlenberg was Colonel. Soon after this Muhlenberg left town with his unit, never to return.
In 1803 the Lutherans decided to leave the wooden church and build a new structure on Church Street near the current church building. Though this structure was not dedicated until 1822, it was in use as a church and public meeting house long before. When it was completed, the services that marked its opening also celebrated the birth of the Virginia Lutheran Synod which did, and continues to, represent all Lutheran Churches in the state of Virginia.
A new Lutheran Cemetery had also begun on the property. This graveyard would be the town’s major burial site for almost 75 years. During the Civil War, many soldiers from both sides who perished at one of the local war-time hospitals was buried here until they could be disinterred and taken to their homes. Though the cemetery is no long an active burial grounds, it does contain graves of many of the town’s citizens from the mid-19th to mid-20th century.
This meeting house would serve the Lutheran community until 1884 when it was demolished after several years of poor maintenance had left it in disrepair. That same year a new church was completed just to the west of the old structure. The building was designed in the popular Gothic Style that was used in several other church buildings built in the area at the time. It also contains several intricately designed stained glass windows. These feature geometric designs instead of figures and images because of the Lutheran aversion to items they considered iconoclastic.
By 1904 the church, and the town, had grown and a new addition was constructed to house a social hall and Sunday school rooms. This space, complete with a basement dug by the men of the church, allowed the congregation to be more involved with community. In 1954 this portion of the church was replaced with a new educational wing whose design, complete with porch, is unique to churches in the area and is designed to create a more welcoming atmosphere.
Recently, Emanuel Lutheran Church celebrated its 250th anniversary and the 300th anniversary of the Muhlenberg family’s connection with Lutheranism in the United States. The congregation continues to be active in the community and is a regular partner in social and charity events.