Piety and Freethinkers on Wisconsin's Frontier: The Life and Work of Carl Renatus Wilhelm Erbe, with an English Translation of Erbe's German Sacramental Register 1851-1886

Sheboygan Falls, WI: Sheboygan County Historical Research Center, 2018

In this book, I examine the life and work of the itinerant preacher Carl Renatus Wilhelm Erbe and the community that he served. Erbe is unique because he was not affiliated with any church. From 1851 to his death in 1887, Erbe went mostly on foot to serve several pioneering communities in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin; communities that were largely connected to the Freethinker movement.

The Freethinker (German "Freidenker") movement espoused a religious philosophy that emphasized improvement of life in this world rather than preparation for heaven. Known in some circles as the Free Church ("Freikirche"), its members were not always atheists, but deists, whose ideas of religious liberty were sown already by the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Friedrich Schiller, Jules Verne, and more radically, Thomas Paine. The movement became especially influential in Wisconsin starting in the early 1850s when the movement’s leader Eduard Schröter founded the German Free Congregation (“Deutsche Freie Gemeinde”) in Milwaukee and began preaching reformist ideas through his newspaper, Der Humanist.

In the first chapter, I provide a brief biography of Erbe, including a detailed look at what his past and service record tell us about his religious beliefs. In the second, I examine his flock more closely and discuss the beliefs and presence of the Free Church movement in early Wisconsin, with special attention to Sheboygan County. I devote the third chapter to an examination of why the early histories of Sheboygan County make no mention of the Free Church movement. The fourth chapter, the bulk of this work, is my English translation of Erbe’s German register. The register, which was microfilmed in the 1970s, was misidentified because it was jumbled out of chronological order long before it was photographed. In this book I restore the register's correct order. An index of family names concludes the work.