A Brief History
The Early Days
Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saddle River sits upon ground that was part of a tract of land that was given to Albert Zabriskie (Zaborowsky) by the Native American Chief Manshier, of Weeronmmensa, in exchange for debts contracted in 1675. The original deed provided to Mr. Zabriskie was signed by four Native Americans. Soon afterward, One Thousand acres was signed over to Thomas Van Buskirk, who was a Lutheran. In 1820, Thomas Van Burskirk’s great grandson gave a parcel of this land along with David I. Ackerman for the current church and cemetery. The ground upon which Zion stands has been owned by Lutherans since it was transferred from Native Americans in 1675.
A number of the area’s earliest families were Lutherans, notably the Van Buskirk family. At first these Lutherans attended church in Hackensack, River Edge and Mahwah, then known as Ramapough. The increased settlements in the Saddle River area of Lutherans lead to organizing a local congregation. In 1818, Reverend Frederick C. Schaeffer began preaching to area Lutherans every fourth Sunday using the building of New North Reformed Low Dutch Church in Upper Saddle River (listed on National Register of Historic Places). This arrangement was short-lived as soon the local Lutherans were refused use of the building. They then held summer services in Thomas Van Buskirk’s barn and winter services in the attic of his house, located at 164 East Saddle River Road, Saddle River (listed on National Register of Historic Places). In December 1819, these Lutherans decided to build their own church. Subscribers to the building fund included Reynard and Thomas Achenbach; Thomas, Lawrence and Stephen Van Buskirk; Andrew Esler; Daniel Berdan; David I. Ackerman; and, Andrew and John Van Buskirk. These men were members of the Saddle River’s earliest families. In 1820, Thomas Van Buskirk and David I. Ackerman each gave half of the land for the church and cemetery. The site chosen was and is located at the areas major cross roads, the point where East Saddle River Road and East Allendale Road cross together. Andrew Esler was chairman of the building committee and he is credited with being the designer of the church building.
Church records reveal that the building was dedicated on October 14, 1821. The Reverend Schaeffer preached the sermon, taking his text from 1 Corthinans 3-11. The building’s cornerstone was laid October 20, 1820, and the original name of the congregation was “The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saddle River and Ramapough”. A bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, a bible and a hymn book were placed within the stone. The first communion was held in the new church on December 23, 1821.
The Church building is one of only ten Federal style churches remaining in Bergen County, NJ, and the second oldest of two that are of frame construction. The church building as it stands today is essentially the same as it was at the one hundredth anniversary in 1921 although there have been some changes with the passing years. The exterior has had no major alterations except for the addition of a chancel and a porch on the east front. For the 175th anniversary, major alterations were completed to restore the interior to the turn of the century design, which included moving the choir to the rear gallery and including earlier style railings (now protected with tempered glass). In 1940, the present Hammond electric organ was installed, replacing the pipe organ which had then served approximately forthy-five years. New stained glass windows and the carillon attached to the organ were also installed. The church building has been continually used by its congregation since 1821 with periodic remodeling efforts to preserve the building’s historical façade while ensuring its functional use for the changing times.
The present parish house was greatly enlarged from the original building. On this site, the original building was known as the “Ladies Hall,” so named as it was the property of the Ladies Social Union, which was the Ladies Aid Society in those days. That building consisted of one room and stage on the main floor, with the basement used for church suppers. Both were much smaller than the present main floor and basement, and here all the Sunday School activities, church suppers, fairs and entertainments were held. In 1930, due to the growth of the Sunday School, and the need in the community of an adquate place for meetings, church suppers, etc., it was decided to remodel and enlarge the building. Since this was done as an activity of the church as a whole, title to the property was transferred to the church and the name adopted for the building was “Parish House”. This was completed at the beginning of the depression, but in spite of the economic upheaval, there was no delay in raising the necessary funds. This was done partly by contributions from individuals and the two church societies of the time and partly by means of loans without interest from individuals. In a relatively few years, all loans were repaid, and the property has since been entirely free of debt. For many years the building was not actively used, but in 2016 after a flood due to freezing pipes, the building was remodeled for rental purposes, and is currently rented to “The Body Image Boutique”, a wellness organization.
The old parsonage was sold March 16, 1922, eighty years after it was built in 1842. The contract was awarded for building the new parsonage June 5, 1922. In 1925, the garage in the rear of the parsonage was built. This building was occupied by pastors through approximately 1999, when the pastor at the time decided not to live in this facility. Consequently, since then, the building has been rented to families, with a major upgrade completed in 2015.
The Fellowship Hall, otherwise known as Korn Hall after one of our dedicated congregational members, was erected in 1960. Rev William Fredericks Behrens lead the effort during the late 1950’s to purchas land to expand the footprint of Zion in order to build Korn Hall. This building contains a stage, a commercial kitchen and offices. The original plan was to extend this building to be a facility for congregational members to live in during their older years, but this plan was never executed. Today, Fellowship Hall is used in a variety of ways: most of Zion’s celebrations and events, many organizations in the area such as Girl Scouts and Girls on the Run, and the field in the back of the building is used by the Crush Soccer group.
In approximately 200 years, Zion has had 32 Pastors. Zion’s first pastor as mentioned above was Rev. H. N. Pohlman, who was quickly followed by Rev. D. Hendricks. Overall, in the early days, the pastors were on a general rotation of 2-4 year assignments as was the custom in those days. Rev. Martin Snyder broke this tradition, and stayed with Zion from 1900 to 1911. During the depression, Rev Emanuel Dreibelbis stayed with Zion for 17 years, and managed to make significant changes to our Parish House and Parsonage home during this time period. The Rev. William Frederick Behrens, who stayed with Zion for 21 years, is known for his active involvement with the New Jersey Synod, expansion of Zion for erecting Fellowship Hall, amending Zion’s constitution to enable women to serve on the church council, and an enlarged benevolence program. Rev. Roy George Almqist may be Zion’s most famous pastor, as after 11 years with Zion, he became a member of the New Jersey Synod Council. In 1984, Pastor Almquist accepted a call to be Pastor at Calvary Lutheran in West Chester, PA. In 1994, he was elected Bishop of the Southeast Pennsylvania Synod, serving two terms, a total of 12 years.
Below is a summary of our long lineage of Pastors, who we honor for their years of service and dedication to Zion:
Count Years Served Pastor
1 1818 – 1821 Rev. Frederick Christian Schaeffer
2 1821 – 1822 Rev. H. N. Pohlman
3 1822 – 1830 Rev. D. Hendricks
4 1830 – 1833 Rev. H. J. Smith
5 1833 – 1835 Rev. W. L. Gibson
6 1835 – 1838 Rev. J. Eisenlord
7 1838 – 1847 Rev. Jacob Christian Duy
8 1847 – 1850 Rev. George Neff
9 1850 – 1853 Rev. Matthew Waldenmeyer
10 1853 – 1856 Rev. N. Wert
11 1858 – 1867 Rev. Ephraim De Yoe
12 1868 – 1870 Rev. Laurent D. Wells
13 1870 – 1873 Rev. William A. Julian
14 1874 – 1881 Rev. John Switzer
15 1881 – 1882 Rev. P. M. Rightmeyer
16 1882 – 1886 Rev. D. A. Shelter
17 1886 – 1889 Rev. J. V. Bodine
18 1889 – 1897 Rev. E. Hughes
19 1897 – 1900 Rev. Charles A. Hutton
20 1900 – 1911 Rev. M. L. Snyder
21 1912 – 1914 Rev. J. K. Efird
22 1914 – 1915 Rev. W. H. Minicke
23 1915 – 1917 Rev. Carl H. Yettru
24 1917 – 1922 Rev G. D. Strail
25 1922 – 1925 Rev. Albert Massey
26 1925 – 1942 Rev. Emanuel Dreibelbis
26 1942 – 1944 Rev. John H. Sardeson
27 1944 – 1951 Rev. George W. De Lawter
28 1951 – 1972 Rev. William Frederick Behrens
29 1973 – 1984 Rev. Roy George Almquist
30 1985 – 1997 Rev. Jack R. Behlendorf
31 1998 – 2001 Rev. Albert H. Heusmann
32 2004 – 2018 Rev. Wesley W. Smith II
Our Ancillary Mission Services
A few highlights of the ancillary mission services at Zion include the following:
Women Organizations 1. The Ladies Social Union was assembled in 1878. This group of ladies promoted sociability in the congregation and assumed part of the financial responsibilities of the church. This group was dissembled after 50 years, and the functions were combined with the Loyal League.
2. The Loyal League was assembled in 1913. This group of ladies purpose was to cultivate a missionary of spirit in its members and the church, and to aid in the local work of the church and community. This group was disbanded in 1958.
3. In 1958, the United Lutheran Church Women group was organized, bringing together the Loyal League and the Evening Guild, a group of younger women. This merger led to enabling the church to buy 150 copies of the newly published Service Book and Hymnal.
4. In 1970, this United Lutheran Church Woman group was disbanded, but women support continued in various forms.
5. Today, there are three main groups of women who support the mission of the church.
a. The WELCA organization supports numerous organizations through their quilting and clothing drive functions. This includes supporting the teenagers in attending the Youth Gatherings, providing their quilts to the needy in foreign counties, and donating funds to the church for necessary improvements.
b. The Altar Guild group ensures that the church services are managed with care necessary to honor the sacraments.
c. Fundraising activities each year are led by numerous women at Zion, leading to financial support for the church while also providing an opportunity for fellowship with Zion members and providing an opportunity for outreach to our local community.
Sunday School The church has always regarded the field of youth activity as part of its ministry. For example, during the pastorate of Rev. Yettru (1915 – 1917), an active athletic program was maintained. The Sunday School grew at such a rate from 1946 – 1955 that in the latter year the congregation began to show interest in expansion of the facilities, which ultimately lead to the erection of the Fellowship Hall. In subsequent years, the enrollment of Sunday School students began to decline, and has been an ongoing concern over the past many years. However, Zion ensures through its dedicated group on teachers that our youth learn a strong Christian education.
Youth Ministry The first Luther League at Zion was organized during Pastor Hughes ministry, in the late 1890’s. Expansion happened significantly in the late 1960’s due to the commitment of Mrs. Hallie Confer. In 1970, fourteen young people served on the Sunday School staff and five served on the Vacation Church School. Zion continues to be dedicated and committed to sending our high school students to the Lutheran Youth Gathering.
Music Program Early knowledge of the history of music at Zion is limited as the early records contain no mention of music. The first entry in the church records was in October 1866 when it was noted that the congregation held a festival for the purpose of collecting money for an organ, which was purchased from Beal and Sherwood in Monsey, New York. The first organist was Mrs. Jennie Ackerman, serving from 1866 to 1894. When the pipe organ was installed in 1894, Mrs. Ackerman’s son (William H. Ackerman) became the organist for approximately 3 years. Mrs. Berdan who became the organist in 1906 became the longest consecutive term organist serving 38 years. The belief is that Mrs. Berdan resigned from her position when the new Hammond Electric Organ was purchased in 1940 as she did not like the concept of an electric organ. In 1969, a new Allen “Classic” organ was installed. Over the years, Zion has been blessed with a strong and active choir, and has introduced new programs such as the Chicago Folk Service.
Over the last 200 years, Zion has witnessed many changes in its membership, its pastors, and its vision of ministry. In the early years, we focused on ministering to those in the immediate need of Saddle River, but as time passed and distances shortened, we also realized our responsibility to others far beyond the limits of our town. Yet, certain things that have never changed at Zion. The Gospel remains constant with the sacraments still administered in their purity and truth. The basic doctrines of our faith remain the same and we continue to welcome all people to our congregation.