The Journal: News of the Churches of God at

Sabbatarian pioneer John Kiesz spent life in music ministry

By Linda Moll Smith

This article is based on the last known interview of Church of God (Seventh Day) elder John Kiesz, which took place Feb. 22. In Transition learned April 23 from CG7 officials that Mr. Kiesz had died the day before. They eulogized him as "an evangelist, editor, educator, musician, pastor and itinerant preacher" who was a "beloved friend of Sabbath-keepers everywhere."

CANON CITY, Colo.--We had driven more than 1,000 miles to find this semi-arid slice of valley sandwiched between two verges of the Southern Rockies and its accompanying town, which bled thinly to its edges like a condiment spread by the knife-edged winter wind.

We--my husband, David, our three sons and I--had come here to interview 92-year-old John Kiesz, patriarch of the Church of God (Seventh Day) and fellow laborer in the gospel with Worldwide Church of God founder Herbert W. Armstrong in Oregon from the mid-1930s until 1945.

What we had hoped would be a straightforward interview was turning into an eventful odyssey as our phone calls to his home went unanswered and our attempts to follow the vague directions to his street address offered to us by well-meaning strangers were repeatedly fruitless.

Hunger, if not fate, drove us to Kentucky Fried Chicken, where a friendly counter clerk gave us yet another set of directions. Refueled, we thought we'd try one more time and almost immediately found John Kiesz's house.

Modest, unprepossessing, of white clapboard with green trim, the house did not stand out from others in its quiet neighborhood until we glimpsed a decal on the front door. It was unusual, an interwoven insignia of a cross, the star of David, a Jewish menorah and the figure 7.

Thinking we had the right place, we knocked. But no one answered. Thirty minutes, conversations with three neighbors and a short drive later, we found Canon (pronounced "canyon") City's Hildebrand Care Center, where Mr. Kiesz had been living for the past two months after his health began declining in the wake of the death of his wife, Katherine, in 1993.

"You can try," said the nurse in response to our request for an interview with Mr. Kiesz. "But I don't think he's feeling very well today."

The good old days

When we entered the room she pointed out to us, we found an elderly gentleman lying stretched out on the bed. He was perfectly groomed, from his gray beard, trimmed in a square-cut style reminiscent of czarist Russia, to his old-fashioned, high-top, lace-up boots. The mail beside his bed was from the Church of God (Seventh Day), and he seemed to have fallen asleep, glasses still on, while reading.

"Mr. Kiesz?"

When we spoke his name, he awoke, immediately lucid.

"Mr. Kiesz, we'd like to talk to you about the old days."

He smiled. "The good old days or the bad old days?"

We said we hoped the good old days and first asked him about the unusual symbol we'd seen on his front door.

"Oh, I found that while ministering to a Sabbath-keeping group in Tennessee. I thought it very appropriate as a symbol of the seventh-day Sabbath."

We asked him when he first became acquainted with seventh-day-Sabbath-keeping.

Sabbath-keepers in Russia

"Now, that's a long story that goes back to imperial Russia. I'd have to brush up on my history to give you the exact details, but Peter the Great invited some German people to Russia to teach Russian peasants how to farm and to teach them trades. When presented the opportunity, those people in western Germany, many of whom were Mennonites, took the czar up on his offer.

"About 1870, Russia broke their promise to these people never to require them to serve in the army and began drafting them. They left Russia by the hundreds of thousands for Canada and the Dakotas. My parents were part of that wave of immigration, moving to South Dakota."

Were his parents Mennonites?

"No, interestingly enough, there were Sabbath-keepers in Russia before the Mennonites, most of whom were not Sabbath-keepers, were organized. My parents were independent Sabbath-keepers, and so were my wife's parents, who settled in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan."

Meeting his mate

How did Mr. Kiesz meet his wife?

"Katherine?" His intense brown eyes, rimmed with the white corona of advanced age, softened. "My wife's parents heard about a Church of God (Seventh Day) camp meeting with other Germanic brethren in our area, and they came down to investigate. She, being about four years younger than me and in her early 20s at the time, came with her parents.

"I saw her at church for the first time. When I came in, I noticed there were several new young people seated at the front, near what we called the altar. One young lady was wearing a broad-brimmed hat, and, when she turned, what I saw under that hat gave young John Kiesz a thrill. We got married some months later, in 1929, Oct. 3."

How did he and his wife earn a living?

Musical family

"We had a traveling music ministry. We played instruments, the guitar, organ and piano, and sang, my wife especially. And I preached."

Did they have children, and were the children involved in their music ministry?

"I have two surviving daughters, Pearl and Martha. They sang with us. We lost two children, our son Harley and our daughter Sarah Katherine, when they were young."

During the six decades of their ministry, were they always part of the Church of God (Seventh Day)?

"No. For 12 years in there I considered myself independent. We earned a living in different ways. There were times we received a salary, and there were times we didn't. Sometimes there were offerings that were given to us. God always provided."

Did he raise up churches during his ministry?

"Yes, we raised up a number of different churches; I can't really tell you specifically right now the details. We preached in four Canadian provinces, including my wife's native Saskatchewan, where we spent some time, and we crisscrossed the United States."

With Mr. Armstrong in Oregon

How did he end up in Oregon helping Mr. Armstrong with the Feast of Tabernacles in Belknap Springs from 1935 to 1945?

"I was keeping the Feast of Tabernacles even before I met Brother Armstrong. I guess I came up with the idea about the same time as he did. We had been working together in evangelism--he had held services for me at times--and the Feast was an outgrowth of our relationship."

Didn't that relationship spring from an affiliation with the Church of God (Seventh Day)?

"Yes, at the time we were both affiliated with the Church of God (Seventh Day) and went with the Salem, W.Va., faction when there was a split in 1933. I was chosen by lot as one of the 12 apostles of the church, and Brother Armstrong was chosen as one of the 70 elders. I was editor of the church's magazine, The Bible Advocate, around that time, and I published some of Mr. Armstrong's articles in the magazine."

Why did Mr. Kiesz and Mr. Armstrong part ways?

Different calling

"Well, at the Feast in 1945 Brother Armstrong had to leave part way during the Feast--some kind of family emergency--and I took over services for him.

"We had a disagreement over our approaches to the ministry, and so we didn't work together after that."

Could the disagreement have been over an altar call?

"That was probably part of it." Mr. Kiesz smiled. "You must know that Herbert Armstrong always had a reason for something."

Did Mr. Armstrong just say, "I don't believe in altar calls, and that's that"?

Mr. Kiesz smiled again. "It wasn't quite that hard, but almost. After that, we went our separate ways. As you know, the church he founded grew quite large. I had a different calling to pursue.

How did Mr. Kiesz end up in Canon City?

"I was working in Texas in 1940, and I took sick, so I consulted a doctor. He told me to see another doctor for X rays. That doctor told me I had problems that looked like tuberculosis.

"I underwent treatment for six weeks, and then he suggested I move to the West, preferably California or Arizona, for my health's sake. Instead, we ended up here in 1940. Although we went here and there after that, we considered this home from then on."

Did he continue to keep the Feast, even though it was not a belief of the CG7?

The Kieszes kept the other Holy Days

"The church always kept Passover, so that was not an issue. But, yes, Sister Katherine and I continued to keep the other feast days. Sometimes there were others to keep the feasts with; otherwise we kept them by ourselves."

Is the Church of God (Seventh Day) headed toward a more Protestant view, toward acceptance of the Trinity?

Mr. Kiesz looked momentarily pained at the question but answered simply, "I don't know. You never know what might happen to the church these days."

Did he know about the split in the Worldwide Church of God? Or did it catch him by surprise?

"I was not surprised at all. I saw it coming. I had some conversations with Mr. [Joseph] Tkach [Sr.] a few years ago when he first began making changes. I told him I thought some changes were necessary, but I told him to be careful, that he was going too fast.

"Doctrinal changes of that nature need to come from the ground up, not from the top down. Timing is important. The people must come to an understanding first.

"We've seen over and over that it doesn't work for the leadership to force their own ideas on people."

Did he hold Sabbath services in his home in recent years?

"Sometimes, as people would come by and there was a need, I did."

We asked Mr. Kiesz if we could take a picture of him, and he laughed, as if genuinely amused by the thought. "Oh, no. That would be too ugly."

By then we had visited with Mr. Kiesz for an hour and could tell he was tiring. His soft-spoken voice had grown almost inaudible.

So, we bade farewell to a man whose calm, thoughtful and gently humorous responses to our questions told us this was someone who had come to profound peace with all that had transpired in his over nine decades of life.

Outside, as we left Mr. Kiesz's home, the sunset was glorious.

Church Links  -  Addresses  -  Church Logos  -  Finances  -  Photos  -   Memorial

The Study Library  -  In Transition  -  Messages Online  -  Live Services

Back Issues  -  Subscribe  -  Email List  -  Ad Rates  -  Site Map

© The Journal: News of the Churches of God