Pastor Relates Tale of a New Jersey Minister’s Nazi Past
Modern history is filled with stories of religious leaders who have wandered off the straight and narrow and wound up in sordid situations. (Remember Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker?) The Rev. Carl Krepper, who had several pastorates in New Jersey, got entangled in his share of extra marital affairs. But that is small potatoes compared to his major misdeeds – serving as a Nazi spy during World War II and helping plot acts of sabotage that could have resulted in unimaginable casualties.
“Here he was, on one hand, a pastor tending to his flock,” said J. Francis Watson, who is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Manchester Township. “He was living a double life, and was behind plots which could have easily killed many people in his own church.”
Watson chronicled Krepper’s activities in his book, The Nazi Pastor: Carl Krepper and the War in America, and discussed it last week at the Stafford branch of the Ocean County Library.
Watson came across Krepper’s saga in his role as president of the Lutheran Archives Center in Philadelphia. In 2002, he was sifting through the archives of a Lutheran church that had closed in Irvington in Essex County when he came across a sealed envelope. It contained a partial newspaper piece about Carl Krepper and a bunch of church records written in German.
“When I read the newspaper piece, I realized it was about the arrest of a Lutheran pastor on charges of espionage,“ said Watson. “I thought, ‘I’ve never heard of this. We never learned this in seminary. We never learned this in history classes.’ As an archivist, I thought it was odd that I had never heard of him.”
He scoured newspaper articles and church records. Then, in 2012, the FBI granted his request and sent him thousands of pages of newly declassified files on the pastor and the plot. He found that Krepper, who had studied theology in Germany in hopes of coming to the United States, allowed Nazi ideology to pervert his sense of calling as a pastor.
“I felt I needed to uncover the truth about Krepper,” said Watson. “God and the Third Reich were closely identified in his mind.”
The German-born Krepper moved to the United States in 1909, at a time when German-speaking ministers were leading churches in the United States.
“There was an influx of Germans coming here, and as a result, there was a need for pastors to lead German-speaking congregations,” he said
He said Krepper studied at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and was ordained in 1910. His initial pastorate was at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Williamstown; he later became pastor of Friedens (German for “peace”) Lutheran Church in Philadelphia. In 1922, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Krepper later relocated to North Jersey, serving as pastor of Newark’s First German St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church until 1935, when he left the congregation to move back to Germany. While in Newark, he was following Adolph Hitler’s rise to power, which rekindled Krepper’s long-dormant feelings of German nationalism.
“He flew the swastika at his church,” Watson said. “If you look at this photo, you can see the pastor wearing the beginnings of a toothbrush Hitler mustache.”
Krepper also organized a local chapter of the German Business League, a pro-Nazi group.
“In the early 1930s, as the Nazi movement grew, Germans urged the boycott of Jewish businesses,” said Watson. “The league continued that work in the United States, and it also formed to counter the Jewish community’s boycott of German businesses.”
Back in his homeland, Krepper became embroiled in Operation Pastorius – named for Francis Daniel Pastorius, the German-born Quaker lawyer and poet who founded the settlement of Germantown, which later became a part of Philadelphia. When Krepper came back to the United States in 1941, he was setting up safe houses for the saboteurs.
“He was a deep-cover operative,” said Watson. “Had these saboteurs been successful, the damage and casualies would have been the worst prior to 9/11. There were plans to poison the New York City water supply, blow up train stations and bomb weapons factories as far west as Ohio. He was able to provide the saboteurs with not only safe houses, but money and forged documents. He advocated that the German air force would bomb New York City. He had many parishioners living there. Heck, he had girlfriends living there.”
Eight saboteurs who were leading this infiltration effort were rounded up the FBI, and six were executed. Two others served prison time and were later deported.
“The two who went to prison had disclosed the plot to federal authorities and aided in the manhunt for the other six,” said Watson. “It is very fortunate that these saboteurs were rather sloppy, leaving evidence behind. Their plot was very extensive, and it is mindbogling to think what would have happened to this country if they succeeded.”
Watson said Krepper was arrested in a sting operation in Newark in 1944 when an FBI agent posed as a Nazi spy.
“Krepper was indeed the crucial link to this potential terrorist attack on the United States mainland,” he said. “ An interesting twist in Krepper’s defense came with the former Lutheran pastor’s claim that when agents posed as Nazi spies and saboteurs, Krepper felt he had a duty to them as minister and counseled them against sabotage.”
Krepper was charged with conspiracy to commit sabotage and trading with the enemy, and convicted in March 1945. He served six years in a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa.,, before being released in 1951. He moved to the Berkshires in Massachussetts, where one of his girlfriends owned property. He died in 1972 at age 88.
— Eric Englund