The Lutherans who arrived in the earliest days of the colony were united under Pastor Kavel; however, when Pastor Fritzsche arrived in October 1841 the congregations split over minor doctrinal questions. Eventually the United Evangelical Lutheran Church was formed, with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the opposing faction, following Pastor Fritzsche’s views. The schisms deepened and by the turn of the century Australian Lutherans were a maze of separations and amalgamations (some for purely geographical reasons). In 1921 all but two synods united.
Finally in 1965 the congregations of the Australian Lutheran Church were formally united.
The congregation of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church was part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and, with St Stephen’s Lutheran Church in Wakefield Street, continues to provide for the Lutheran congregations in the city of Adelaide, both having been long connected with prominent members of the German-speaking community.
Until the opening of the Bethlehem Church the Evangelical Lutherans were served in Adelaide by lay preachers and pastors from elsewhere in the colony. In 1868 the congregation decided that it should have its own permanent minister and sent instructions to Germany for his selection. At the same time, as the South Australian Register reported on August 12, 1871, money was raised to build a church suitable for the new minister and “commensurate with the position of the German Lutheran Church, which we understand to occupy a similar position among the Germans to that of the Anglican Church in England”.
The new church was designed by James Cumming “in the early Gothic style”, using dark rubble stone, with rusticated quoins and dressings”, and a tower with a bellchamber. The contractors were Brown and Thompson and the building committee comprised Messrs J.W.A. Sudholz, J. Weil and J. Reiger.
The building was opened for public worship on June 23, 1872, the reverends Oster, Strempel and Teichelmann officiating. The South Australian Register of July 15, 1872, noted that the bell-chamber would hold three bells, which were being cast in Germany from cannons captured from the French and presented by Prince Bismarck on behalf of the Emperor. The bells never arrived as the vessel in which they were being shipped was lost. Gasoliers were presented by H.L. Vosz and the communion plate was donated by the renowned craftsman and jeweller Henry Steiner.
Externally the building is still remarkably original. The plan of the church, with the exception of the vestries to the north-east, is virtually identical with that depicted in the Smith Survey of the city in 1880. The two-storey block at the rear dates from 1883, while the vestries bear a foundation stone dated 1961.