One handshake with Jeremiah Backhaus raises some intrigue. Calloused hands are atypical of a pastor.
The response is more typical when parishioners of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Grafton learn Backhaus can sword fight.
“Then they say, ‘I don’t want to make you mad,’” Backhaus said with a laugh.
Beyond preaching and wielding swords, Backhaus knows the process to make the weapons. He works as a part-time blacksmith while juggling sword fighting teaching and serving as a stay-at-home dad.
“Interesting and unique are words I hear a lot,” Backhaus said.
“I love Renaissance men. I’ve wanted to be one, and God willing, that’s what I am.”
The Alaska native grew up using broken hockey sticks as swords to fight his older brother. After losing too many bouts, Backhaus had an idea.
“I said, ‘I’ll make them and you use them,’” he said.
Backhaus had no training and didn’t know anyone teaching blacksmithing, so he did research at the library. He built his first forge when he was 11 years old.
“My dad encouraged me and let me do things a normal 11-year-old shouldn’t do,” he said.
When he was 14, Backhaus made the tough decision to move away from his family and transfer to Luther Preparatory School in Watertown as he prepared to become a pastor. He earned his seminary degree from Wisconsin Lutheran in Mequon and joined Our Savior as a pastoral assistant in 2014. He teaches Bible studies, preaches six times per year and is the number one substitute when a pastor is out of town.
Backhaus kept developing his other passions as well. In college, he trained with medieval weapons expert Hank Reinhardt and later taught historical European martial arts in Germany, Mexico, Greece and even during his honeymoon in Sweden. He speaks Latin, German, Greek and Hebrew, and he knows some Russian and Swedish.
Backhaus won a state title in high school wrestling and in martial arts has earned the rank of provost, the second-highest attainable. The test to reach provost included fighting 130 bouts in 45 minutes. Backhaus had to win 70% of his matches, and he won 103 for 79%.
Backhaus, a self-described history buff, said he doesn’t fight to win tournaments; he wants to connect to his past.
“To do a martial art that one of my ancestors probably did is just wonderful,” he said.
Just how much is he into martial arts? In addition to his wife letting him sword fight on their honeymoon, Backhaus cut his wedding cake with a Liechtenauer sword, a blunt-training sword named after German fencing master Johannes Liechtenauer.
Backhaus owns other swords as well. One of his sharp ones he purchased after a motorcycle accident three months before his wedding. His then fiancee made him sell his cycle, and Backhaus bought the high-end sword with the money. So far in sword fighting, the worst injury he sustained has been a cut on his thumb.
Fighting, like forging, offers an escape yet requires full focus.
“I have to be there. If my mind wanders, that’s when I get hit and that’s when I get hurt,” he said.
“At the same time, I lose myself. It’s a paradox.”
Backhaus said he likes that fencing materials were written in the time of Martin Luther, and Luther himself would have known the authors and how to handle a sword.
Backhaus is featured in the “Makers and Masters” portion of the Blu-ray of “Conan the Barbarian” with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Today, Backhaus offers lessons to students interested in the art.
To hone his blacksmith skills, he apprenticed with Dan Nauman at Bighorn Forge in Cedarburg.
“As I like to say, I annoyed my way into his heart,” he said.
Now, Backhaus mostly makes tools and religious pieces such as decorations for alter and baptismal fonts. He made his own rake and tongs for his forge.
“I like tools. I like learning about them, how they were used. I’m more concerned about what comes from the tools than the tools themselves,” he said.
Some of his favorite pieces are working axes.
“To be the guy who makes something for somebody else to make something is a pretty good honor,” he said.
“I saw my dad work with his hands and make things. To me, the most important connection if life is number one to God, and right behind that is to create something.”
Many of his pieces are custom requests.
“I’m really bad at guessing what people want to buy. ‘Hey can you ...’ — that’s one of my favorite questions,” he said.
The largest piece Backhaus has ever made is a cross 52 inches high and 38 inches wide. It’s part of one of Backhaus’ friend’s graves in Valdez, Ala.
He made a war hammer given as a prize in the Wisconsin Historical Fencing Association’s Krump-Pow tournament last weekend in Appleton.
“It’s a lot of sanding,” he said of forge work. “Forging is maybe 20 minutes. The rest is finish work.”
He is still studying how to make a sword. He doesn’t want to try making one until he’s sure he can get it right.
“If you make a mistake in making it, it could be catastrophic,” he said.
Backhaus enjoys his work, but standing over a 3,000-degree forge in Wisconsin summers is much warmer than Alaska.
“Hotter is how I say it,” he said. “Those are the days I question my life’s choices.”
On Friday through Sunday, Backhaus will be exhibiting at the Covered Bridge Art Studio Tour at 1514 N. Green Bay Road, Grafton. The tour includes more than 50 artists across Southeast Wisconsin. Maps are available at the Destination Station of the Cedarburg Cultural Center. The tour runs Friday from 4 to 8 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, go to www.cedarburgartsweekend.com.
Backhaus’ business is called Umbrella Forge and has a Facebook page.
Once Backhaus’ 2 and 4-year-old children reach school age, he will have more time to focus on his forging and teaching.
“Forging, fighting and spreading the Gospel. If I could just keep doing what I’m doing for the rest of my life, I’d be a happy man,” he said.
Image Information: Blacksmith, European martial arts teacher and pastoral assistant Jeremiah Backhaus creates religious and other pieces of art. The above piece will be sent to a church out of state.Photo by Sam Arendt