Roman philosopher Marcus Cicero said, “To be ignorant of the past is to remain a child.” Similarly, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard observed, “Life must be lived forward but it can only be understood backward.” And Ellen White stated, “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.” Sometimes as Adventists, we don’t look back often or deeply enough. But it's the stories of our past that can give us strength to face the future, and among the great stories of danger, courage, determination and faithfulness is the story of the early Adventists of South Australia’s beautiful Barossa Valley.
In 1835 an advertisement was sent out from Sydney asking for people to come and settle in South Australia. In 1838 Erdmann Jaensch, the grandfather of my grandmother Antonie Roennfeldt, arrived at Port Misery (now Port Adelaide). This first shipload of Prussians, led by Pastor Kavel and sponsored by George Fife Angas, were the first of many Germans to come to South Australia. These people had suffered religious persecution. Can you imagine being willing to sell up everything you had to raise money to sail for at least three months to a land thousands of kilometres away where things were very primitive and undeveloped? That was how seriously these Lutherans desired to live in freedom.
Around 1844 the interpretation of the 1000 years mentioned in Revelation chapter 20 caused theological division among the Lutheran community. The highest hill in the Barossa Ranges—The Kaiser Stuhl (Emperor’s Seat)—is said to have been the spot where Pastor Kavel and his flock gathered on a certain day to await the second coming of Jesus.
It was into this community that L.D.A. Lemke came as a literature evangelist about 1906. Lemke was born in Hanover, Germany in 1871. He trained as a teacher but gave up this career to sail the seas—rounding Cape Horn nine times. The Lutheran ministers welcomed Lemke and his books, which of course were in German. He was highly recommended to various congregations so there was an early contact with Adventist literature. Brother Lemke realised that there was an urgent need for a German-speaking evangelist to be placed in the Barossa and he was instrumental in bringing Daniel Nathan Wall from America to the region.
Gustav (George) Backhaus was employed as a literature evangelist to assist Pastor Wall. Gustav’s first contact with Adventists was in German West Samoa when he was an officer with the German Imperial Navy. He met Pastor Joseph Steed who was a missionary in that area and became interested in the Advent message and also Pastor Steed’s daughter Dora. Gustav returned to Germany where he was baptised by Pastor L.R. Conradi, and after his discharge from the navy he came to South Australia and married Dora. The couple was well-qualified to work with the Germans of the Barossa.
The first mission Pastor Wall conducted was at Freeling just outside the western boundary of the Barossa. There were no converts from this mission and so it was decided to move to Greenock. A brother and sister of Erhardt Roennfeldt attended some of these meetings and recommended that my grandfather should go and hear this powerful preacher. Finally Grandfather gave in and went along. He and Grandmother were amazed by the things that Pastor Wall was teaching—all from the Bible. Grandmother was especially enlightened about the Sabbath commandment.
Grandfather’s siblings never became Adventists and in fact there was significant persecution for many years and families were alienated.
On the last night of the Greenock mission, Pastor Wall invited Antonie Roennfeldt and her two younger girls, Irene and Lorna, to ride in his buggy along with Mrs Wall, Mrs Fallseher, Gustav Backhaus and Bert Schwartzkopf. The rest of the Roennfeldt family set off across the fields to walk home. Some of the people who were opposed to Pastor Wall’s preaching met up with the buggy at the Greenock bridge and let fly with a massive barrage of eggs and other items. Gustav Backhaus’s new suit was ruined. But he said, “All for Jesus sake.” Apparently Grandmother Roennfeldt fared fairly well because, as my mother used to say, “Grandmother was quite rotund and the eggs just rolled off of her.”
Pastor Wall and Gustav Backhaus visited the Roennfeldt farm soon after the Greenock incident and asked Grandfather how he felt about the things he and his family had learned at the mission. Grandfather replied, “It is the truth and we are all going to keep the Sabbath.” After praying with the family the two men rode their bicycles to Seppeltsfield to see the Zeunert family who had also been attending the meetings. August Zeunert was a little more cautious in his response to Pastor Wall. He asked what Erhardt Roennfeldt had decided to do, then said that he and his family would do the same thing. What if Erhardt had not decided to become an Adventist—what would have happened to August Zeunert and his family? We can never underestimate the impact of our decisions on other people.
Daniel Wall’s brother Frank wrote Uncertain Journey, a book that tells the Wall family history and includes mention of Daniel’s work in the Barossa. He said: “The step taken by these two families was to have an impact far beyond the confines of that one valley. Erwin Roenfelt became an outstanding evangelist in Australia; he served for many years as a secretary of the General Conference, during which time he travelled to many places around the world. He retired after a long term as president of the Northern European Division (or Trans-European Division as it is now known).”
Erwin, Clarence and Vera Roennfeldt studied at Avondale College and the Sydney Sanitarium (now Sydney Adventist Hospital). Clarence served as a missionary to Burma (Myanmar) during the 1920s. All of Clarence’s children either attended Avondale College or the Sydney Adventist Hospital. Lynette and Julia trained as nurses. Ray trained as a nurse and then did theology at Avondale. He is now president of Avondale. Peter has been a very successful pastor and is heavily involved in church planting programs in Australia and across the world.
Members of the Zeunert family have been involved in serving the Church for many years. Brother August Zeunert was a member of the Conference Executive committee for a long period of time. His sons Bill and Eric were involved with accountancy for Sanitarium and the Division and as farm manager at Carmel College, respectively. The Zeunert girls were also faithful members of the Church.
The Maywald family gave us Pastor George who spent many years in India at Spicer College while his brother David was a faithful worker at Sanitarium in Adelaide.
The Standish, Wegener and Klix families joined in the early days of the Barossa Adventist Church. Although the Standish family had an English name, their ancestors were primarily German. Darcy Standish spent his career working for Sanitarium. His twin sons Russell and Colin Standish went on to serve the Church in a number of environments. Russell became a missionary physician, modernising both Bangkok and Penang Adventist hospitals. Colin first lectured at Avondale, then served in administration at West Indies College, Columbia Union College, Weimar College and Hartland College. Both became prominent voices on a range of issues in the Church.
Grandfather Roennfeldt was a seal holder, and elder and layreader in St Petri Lutheran Church—the church that his grandfather Christian Heinrich and father Franz Ludwig helped to establish and build. When he announced to the congregation that he would no longer be attending the church all hell broke loose. On the last Sunday he attended, the women lined both sides of the footpath outside the church and spat on him as he left. A couple of the Lutheran ministers visited with him and Grandmother to try to persuade them to stay with the Lutheran church. Grandfather stood firm and as a consequence received some harsh words from one of the ministers: "May the curse of God rest on you and your family forever."
Grandfather Roennfeldt was described as being mad and his son Erwin, who had been highly praised by the Lutheran ministers and was to be sent to Germany to study in the Lutheran seminaries, suddenly became "unwissend und ein dummkopf"—ignorant and a fool. These Lutheran ministers even suggested that Grandfather should give Erwin a good box on the ear.
The first Adventist congregation in the Barossa was formed at Greenock on April 10, 1915. There was no formal building and the first meeting was held in Mrs Fallseher’s home. After that people moved between homes. Baptisms were mostly conducted in Erhardt Roennfeldt’s dam up until the early 1950s. Those first members included the Parker family from Seppeltsfield who had 14 children. Mr Parker was English and followed the sermons as best he could from his English Bible.
Albert Bartsch, who was also a member of St Petri Church, visited Grandfather one afternoon when Grandfather was dredging the large dam on the farm. Apparently not too much work was done that day because they sat down on a mud bank in the dam and spent much time discussing the Bible. Albert then decided after attending Pastor Wall’s meetings at Stockwell that he too would join the Church. He was also a layreader at St Petri Church. Another man followed in their footsteps. It was said that the St Petri congregation decided to burn the layreader’s chair because after three of their layreaders became Adventists, the chair surely was cursed!
The Barossa church family and friends celebrate the church's 100-year anniversary.
Adventist membership was gradually increasing and so it was decided to build a church. But where to find land in a suitable location? The Lutherans had vowed to keep the Adventists out of the area. A member owned the land where our church is now located (which happens to be a prime location). There was an old workshop on the property at 1 Old Kapunda Road, Nuriootpa, which the members could have if they renovated it. Everyone worked hard and the dedication date was set for later in 1915.
Just two weeks before the dedication day an interesting but alarming situation arose. By this time the Backhaus family were living in Tanunda and the Walls had moved to Nuriootpa. Gustav Backhaus had managed to purchase a motorbike—an NSU (Dora said it meant "Never Stuck Up"). Gustav set out on the NSU to go to Kapunda but just out of Greenock it did get stuck up. Gustav couldn’t get it to go any further. He pushed it back to Greenock (there were no bitumen roads in those days!), walked to the Zeunerts' property in Seppeltsfield, borrowed a horse and buggy and returned to Tanunda. Dora, who usually paid the rent, asked Gustav to go and see the agent to fix up the finances. So off he went. While he was paying the rent, the agent said to him, “Did you know that your new church and the house next to it are to be sold tomorrow?" The man who gave the house and land had so deeply mortgaged the property that he couldn’t keep up the payments. It was up for sale. PANIC! Gustav rushed to Nuriootpa to see Pastor Wall and together they went to Seppeltsfield to visit the Zeunerts. Brother Zeunert was a builder and quite well-off financially. As well as having horses and a buggy he had a T-model Ford. The three men jumped into the Ford and went back to Tanunda to the agent. Brother Zeunert was able to pay off the mortgage and the church was saved. Over time the church members paid the money back to Brother Zeunert.
I can imagine that Gustav Backhaus was a very weary man at the end of such a hectic and stressful day.
The Maywald family joined from Pastor Wall’s Stockwell mission, as did A.W. Raethel who was a layreader at Light Pass Immanuel Lutheran Church.
Dora Backhaus said, “This church was not born in comfort” and she was quite right from two points of view. Firstly, World War I had started. People of German background were under suspicion in Australia—were they loyal to the King of England or the Kaiser of Germany? Some German people were interned—7000 across Australia. These were people who had been born in Australia but had German names—people who were strongly supportive of Australia, even though they had different customs and traditions and were more comfortable with speaking German than English.
Secondly, it was as though a localised war was happening in the Barossa—a religious war. Pastor Wall had set up a tent in Nuriootpa for meetings. Gustav Backhaus would sleep at the tent overnight to try to prevent vandalism. Eggs were thrown at the tent—sometimes there were even enough unbroken eggs for Gustav to take home in the morning. One evening when Pastor and Mrs Wall and Gustav were at the meetings in Nuriootpa, Dora Backhaus was at the Walls' home looking after the children. For some reason she moved the baby’s cradle away from a window and it wasn’t a moment too soon because a brick smashed through the window, landing where the baby had been just moments before. A death or serious injury could have occurred. A policeman was called but Pastor Wall decided not to press charges.
When Dora Backhaus and Margaret Wall walked down the street in Nuriootpa, they were verbally abused and even had stones thrown at them.
But through it all the Adventists of the Barossa were faithful and their legacy has greatly blessed the Seventh-day Adventist Church around the world. On Sabbath, April 11, the Adventists of the Barossa celebrated their 100th anniversary; 100 years of faithful service and global influence.
 Erwin simplified the spelling of his family name to Roenfelt.
Monica Nash attended Barossa church for many years. She now lives in Cooranbong, NSW.