The Lutheran Church was at the forefront when it came to missionary work among the Aborigines. In South Australia it pioneered several missions including the Bethesda Mission at Killalpaninna on the Birdsville Track.
On 9 October 1866 Missionaries J.F. Gossling and E. Homann, Brother Johann Ernst Jacob and lay-helper Hermann Heinrich Vogelsang set out from Langmeil, in two large German wagons, on their trip north to the Lake Hope area. Up to Port Augusta the trip was rather uneventful as a large part of that area was already settled to some extent. Once past that port the country was only very thinly populated. There were a few pastoral properties and some mines but no real towns.
Their first stop was at Hookina to repair a broken axle from one of the wagons. After repairs had been made they travelled via Edeowie, Parachilna, Beltana, Leigh's Creek, Patsy's Spring and Owieandana arriving at Umberatana on 19 November. Here they rested their horses, which had eaten very little since leaving Port Augusta. At Umberatana they were looked after by Samuel Stuckey and the Sub-Protector of Aborigines, John Parker Buttfield.
After leaving that station they travelled via Yaralina to Mount Freeling Police Station where George Curnow was in charge. Here they stayed for more than a week as it had a good supply of food and water for the horses. They arrived at Blanchewater on 15 December and a week later at Manuwalkaninna and Lake Hope. They were persuaded by Police Trooper Samuel Gason, stationed there for some time with two other men, and J.P. Buttfield, to start their mission at Lake Killalpaninna which was much safer from Aboriginal attacks. They finally arrived at their destination on 31 January 1867 and were given a friendly welcome by the Aborigines.
During the last three months they had overcome many difficulties such as steep hills, deep gullies, broken wagon wheels, poles and axles, shortages of food and water, intense heat, thunderstorms, strayed and lost horses, isolation and loneliness. Although friendly at first, the Aborigines soon changed their attitude when they were made to work. A little later one of the missionaries wrote, 'The situation is becoming more serious every day. We have further proof that the natives intend murdering us at an opportune time in the near future'. Buttfield visited the mission several times in his capacity as Sub-Protector of Aborigines but could do very little. The Aborigines became hostile and the missionaries were forced to abandon their plans after only three months.
After the closure of the Lake Hope Police depot and its establishment at Kopperamanna the missionaries were able to renew their efforts to establish a mission. This time the Aborigines showed a more friendly attitude and after the arrival of a teacher, W. Koch in 1868, several native children attended his classes. Koch died within a year from typhoid. When the Bethesda Mission was firmly established at Lake Killalpaninna it was extended to include two out-stations, Kopperamanna, on the shore of Lake Kopperamanna, and Etadunna nearly twenty kilometres to the east of Bethesda.
Work among the Aborigines was difficult at the best of times. They continued to roam the Cooper area and very few showed any interest in the Lutheran religion. Climatic conditions also were a major problem. Although Trooper Gason had recorded the flooding of the Cooper in 1864, drought conditions were so severe that the missionaries were forced to move back to Mundowdna Station for some time during 1872.
In 1873 Missionary Homann and his wife were replaced by C. Schoknecht. Other helpers who made a major contribution to the mission were F. Wotzke and his wife. More missionaries arrived in 1874, 1875 and 1878 and a year later the first twelve Aborigines were baptised. During 1879, a Post Office was opened at Kopperamanna and John Neaylon called in delivering the mail on his way from Marree to Birdsville. A major building program was also started in 1879 when a Church, school, four houses, two store rooms, a dormitory for boys and another for girls were completed. The Church, made from mudbricks, was opened on 31 October 1880. When fully completed twenty-one buildings had been erected on the sandhills near the Lake.
To supply the mission with its necessities Brother Ernest Jacob walked his bullock team four times a year to Port Augusta, a round trip of more than 1,000 kilometres. This meant that he was on the road almost every day of the year. After 1883 life became a little easier for him when the railway reached Farina and Marree. Life at the mission was not always easy. Heat, drought or floods and sickness took their toll. During drought goat meat was the only food available.
In 1885 a shearing shed was built at Etadunna and five years later an artesian bore was sunk at Kopperamanna and the mission was able to collect fees from passing drovers, adding to the missionaries' income which came mainly from donations and the sale of wool. During the 1897 season more than 28,000 sheep were shorn at the Etadunna shed which had sixteen stands, eight for native shearers and eight for the whites. More than 22.000 sheep died soon after because of a severe drought.
Later the mail would call in at the official post office and the wives of the mission staff would supply them with a meal. Some other well known callers were (Sir) Sydney Kidman, John Flynn the Crombies of Mungerannie, Robert Mitchell and George Aiston.
The Mission was greatly helped by the arrival in 1888 of Johannes Reuther and in 1892 Carl Strehlow. These two missionaries showed outstanding talent and dedication and ensured that the missionary enterprise reached its peak. They succeeded in completing the work, initially begun in the late 1860s, by Wilhelm Koch of the translation of both the New and Old Testaments in the Dieri language. Carl Strehlow helped J.C. Reuter with the translation of the New Testament until his transfer to the Hermannsburg mission on the Finke River in the Northern Territory. It was completed and published in 1896. Reuther died in 1913. Travelling to Tanunda, he stopped at a creek to admire some flowers he had never seen before and was drowned in a freak flood.