A History of the “Free Thinkers” in Franklin

Many people are curious about the quaint old building that sits nestled in a grove of spruce trees off the corner of Ryan Rd. and 27th Street. The community surrounding that crossroad was known years ago as Painesville. It was on the border of Franklin and Oak Creek and settled by predominately German families.

To the south on Oakwood Rd. and 27th Street is St. John’s Ev. Lutheran Church. It was organized in 1843 and Pastor Gustav Rausch from Germany was sent to the church as its first leader. It became evident that Pastor Rausch was too radical for the congregation so after 2 years the congregation split on doctrinal issues.

In 1851 half of the congregation followed Pastor Rausch to the First Christian Free Church of the Town of Franklin and Oak Creek. It was easy to understand this move. Many people of the time had come to America to escape religious and political persecution bringing with them principles of independence and freedom of thought for the individual. Because of these feelings, The Free Thinkers of Painesville formed the first established “Frei Gemeinde” in the United States.

planesville chapel
Painesville Chapel, originally a meeting hall for German Free Thinkers

Members of this religious group had no specific creed or beliefs that had to be accepted and no one book was used as the authority regarding any beliefs. Individuals could interpret God as they desired and could develop their own concepts of immortality. Nature was to be appreciated and it was taught that a walk in the forest was as good as going to church!

In February of 1851 the First Free Christian Congregation bought an acre of land for $60.00 from the owners of the Buckhorn Tavern, which was located on the same property. The congregation then hired a carpenter from New York to build the meeting hall. With the help of the group’s trustees, he built a one-story Greek revival style meeting hall with a gable roof. The hall was completed by 1852.

It was decided to name the meeting hall after Thomas Paine because the group admired his teachings. He was a patriot who believed in God but disagreed with many of the accepted church teachings of the day. Although Pastor Rausch led this group in breaking away from the Lutheran Church, it soon became apparent to them that Rausch was a man of narrow vision, and he was dismissed. After he left, and as the years passed, different leaders served as spiritual guides for the congregation. They included a former Catholic priest and the son of a Lutheran pastor from Germany.

Today the inside of the meeting hall looks very much as it did years ago. Quaint hand made pews, oil lamps, an old wood stove and hangings on the walls of old time photos and steel engravings adorn the building. The meeting hall, which seated 100 people, was built for $370 — complete with a raised front platform and pews!

During the Civil War, it was rumored that because of the group’s feelings on freedom, the meeting hall was a station of the underground railroad and helped slaves escape to Canada. It is even said to have been a first aid station and mail distribution center for wounded soldiers fighting in the war.

Over the years that the group was active it only attained a membership of 37 families. Painesville withdrew from the band of Free Thinkers in 1899 saying they would prefer to be alone and not be associated with a specific group. Occasional meetings were held in the meeting hall until 1905. The Constitution of 1910 allowed the hall to be rented for any kind of political or social meeting, but not for any religious meetings. Every member or its descendants had the right to be buried in the adjoining Painesville Cemetery. This is still true to this day, with a burial of a descendant occurring just this past year.

In 1935 it was decided to raze the meeting hall, but historic preservationists thought it should be saved. The descendants of the original owners then formed the Painesville Memorial Association. Restoration began in 1937 and by 1942 it was rededicated. In 1977 the meeting hall was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and it continues to be cared for by descendants of the early settlers, some of whom still reside in Franklin and Oak Creek.

– Judeen Scherrer