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 Reverand John J. Wack

-by Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar, Montgomery County Historian/RMO - Oct, 2006

John Jacob Wack was born on 14 Jan 1774, the sixth child of Philadelphia residents John George and Anna Elisabeth (Schuyler) Wack. The elder Wack immigrated to Pennsylvania from his native Württemberg, Germany in 1748, so it was natural that his children grew up speaking German.

John Jacob, like his older brother Casper Wack, accepted the call to preach the word of God and received his ordination from the German Reformed Synod of Pennsylvania in 1795. Among his first charges were a couple of congregations in Amwell, Hunterdon County, New Jersey. During this time, Wack met and married on 11 October 1796 Elenore Helena Bellis. The young minister’s introduction to the Mohawk Valley occurred when he was under consideration for calls to the congregations at German Flats and Herkimer in 1797 and 1798. However, not until 1804 did Rev. Wack become a candidate for pastorship at Stone Arabia. In December of that year, he received and accepted the call to succeed Rev. Isaac Labaugh serving the Reformed Dutch congregations at both Stone Arabia and Canajoharie (at Sand Hill, west of the present village of Fort Plain).

Salaries amounted to $200 annually from each congregation with additional benefits from the Sand Hill church in the use of the parsonage and 50 loads of wood. In addition to his regular salary, Rev. Wack received $1 for each marriage or funeral service performed, as well as 50 cents for each infant baptism. Royden W. Vosburgh, in his biographical sketch of Wack, deemed this a “perpetual call, … [a bond] terminable, only by action of the Classis or death.” This would prove to be a valid interpretation given later events.

So, along came Rev. John Jacob Wack, his young wife, two children, two slaves and several head of cattle, driven all of the way from New Jersey to the Mohawk Valley.

According to Beers’ History of Montgomery & Fulton Counties (1878), Wack allegedly learned English from fellow Minden resident, John Pickard, however, Wack was the first preacher at his earlier charge, the German Reformed Church in Amwell, NJ, to preach in English and he was fluent in a number of languages. During his sermons at Stone Arabia, he preached in both German and English and often quoted passages from the Hebrew and Greek Testaments.

Wack must have had a very strong personality because it is reported that he became involved in all aspects of his parishioners lives. And from all accounts, his congregation at Sand Hill was devoted to him. In his book on the Montgomery Classis, W.N.P. Dailey provides further evidence of Wack’s commanding authority during his service in the 11th brigade: “When the soldiers of the company of which he was Chaplain (War of 1812) refused to assemble for prayers he borrowed the sword from the commanding officer and compelled them to form a hollow square, inside of which he led them in the morning devotions.”

While Wack’s popularity never waned and he managed his congregations with a firm hand, his pastoral service was, however, marked with controversy. By 1816, the Montgomery Classis, the governing body directly overseeing a number of the Reformed Churches in the Mohawk Valley, brought charges against Dominie Wack for repeated drunkenness and use of profanity. Due to his suspension Wack did give up his ministerial duties for about three weeks, but resumed them without permission from the Classis.

The Classis made repeated failed attempts to resolve the matter setting up meetings with both Rev. Wack and the consistory of the Sand Hill congregation. With no response from neither Wack nor the consistory that supported him, the issue dragged on for years. Finally, prompted by the Stone Arabia congregation’s eagerness to be relieved of his duties, the Classis deposed Wack from his ministry in 1828. Claims ranged from intoxication on several occasions including weddings, funerals, court proceedings, militia training, and in his own home to “swearing in the store of Martin Rowly” and wagering brandy on a bet about Scripture passages. The congregation at Sand Hill was also dismissed from the Classis for failure to submit to the Classis’ authority and for failure to elect a new consistory in 10 to 15 years.

In later writings, Wack’s grandnephew, Rev. Charles P. Wack, attributed his uncle’s behavior and removal from the Classis to his work as a Chaplain in the War of 1812. The insinuation was that Wack’s labors as Chaplain were so arduous that there were lasting ill effects. Interestingly enough, when perusing the records of the Sand Hill church, one will see the transcriber’s notes reflecting attempts in the original record to destroy the baptisms for all of the children, with one exception, of John R. Dygert and Maria Wack, daughter of John Jacob Wack. Since the records were in the possession of the Reverend even after his dismissal from Sand Hill, it can only be assumed that the destruction attempts were from his hands. But you may ask, why would he try to destroy the records of his grandchildren?

It appears that Wack may have had a grudge against his son-in-law, John R. Dygert, for some transactions that led to Wack losing a great deal of property. Dygert and his partner made a claim against the Sand Hill church for monies due them for materials used in repairs to the church in 1826. The congregation also owed monies to Dominie Wack for his salary. Thus, when it was put up at a Sheriff’s sale to cover Dygert’s costs, Wack, in an attempt to prevent his eviction from the parsonage, bid on and purchased the church property. In another matter, Wack endorsed a note for items that his son-in-law, Dygert, purchased from a store in New York City (similar to co-signing for a loan). When those notes went unpaid, a Sheriff’s sale sold the parsonage and Sand Hill church glebe in order to settle the judgments against Wack.

In 1819, Dominie Wack ventured into forming the “Wyckofite” church in the present village of Canajoharie. The congregation, also known as the “True Reformed Church,” consisted of Wack’s followers and those who chose to secede from the Reformed Church. There he preached for about ten years and was succeeded by Rev. John Toll. After formation of the new Reformed congregation in the present village of Fort Plain (not under Wack’s leadership), Wack preached to the United Reformed Dutch and Lutheran Church of Tillaborough in Ephratah from about 1830 to 1840. Ultimately, Wack died in Ephratah at the home of his granddaughter, Violetta (Dygert) Lighthall on May 26, 1851, the 47th anniversary of his call to the Sand Hill and Stone Arabia churches. Wack was 77 years old.

First laid to rest in the cemetery “on top of the hill, left side of the road from Stone Arabia to Ephratah,” Wack’s remains were reinterred, about twenty years later, in the Fort Plain Cemetery. The reasoning being that Wack’s wife, who died in 1855, was buried in Fort Plain and some residents there wished to erect a monument in his honor. This wish was never realized. In 1916, Royden W. Vosburgh visited the Fort Plain Cemetery only to observe that Wack’s grave went virtually unmarked with the exception of being surrounded by rough fieldstone.