St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s Lutheran Churches, Serbin, Texas, 1855-1905

By Arthur C. Repp, San Antonio, Texas. Article originally published by Concordia Historical Institute Quaterly, Vol. XV, No. 4, January, 1943

(Part Two, Continued from the July, 1942, issue)

Before their synodical membership was established however, they built a frame church on the outskirts of Serbin before the end of 1858. It was evident that many still had the Methodist spirit, and some Methodists attended services in the new St. Peter’s Church.43 On June 5, 1859, the church was dedicated.44

To investigate the status of the new congregation, President Roehm of the Texas Synod wrote to President C. Schaller of the Western District of the Missouri Synod. He stated that Rev. Lieb was serving a group of people who in part had left and in part had been excommunicated from Kilian’s church and would continue to serve them until the Missouri Synod could prove that the action of the Texas Synod was incorrect.45 To obtain further information on the matter, President Schaller naturally wrote to Kilian, who in turn reviewed the entire question in a long letter. It is from this letter that much of the information on the separation has been obtained. In his reply Kilian insisted that there was no expulsion, but that the faction had left of its own accord. In summing up the situation, Kilian pointed to a deeper cause for separation, namely, Lutheranism as opposed to the pietism of Arndt.46 He suggested, however, that President Schaller allow Roehm’s request, because he felt that the Texas Synod was leaning toward the Missouri Synod and that the group would be lost to the Methodists if not salvaged by the Texas Synod.47 On the strength of this letter we find that St. Peter’s was accepted into membership of the Texas Synod in the meeting of April 27, 1860.48 Thus we now have two churches in this colony of the Wends, one still without official affiliation but whose pastor was a member of the Missouri Synod;49 the other an opposition church, a member of the Texas Synod. A few years later Kilian wrote that he considered this a good sifting process for his own group.50 A brief history of this “separatist” congregation will be given below.51

Though the congregation had split, still the need of a larger place of worship was felt. Some of the colonists who had settled in various places along the way from Houston were beginning to come to Serbin, and this taxed the small church to capacity. Perhaps the new frame church of St. Peter’s was also an inducement to have a better edifice. At any rate, a subscription list was written up and passed around on August 7, 1859. The plans called for a frame church, 50x25x14 feet, plus an addition for the parsonage. The work was to be done by the members. Those subscribing promised to pay five dollars before August 29; the remainder of the debt was to be divided among them and was to be paid by December 25, 1860. Thirty-five names appeared on the first list, and this seemed sufficient to start.52 The cornerstone was laid on November 11, 1859, with a simple ceremony.53 When the roof was finished and the building was under cover, a celebration was in order. A special poem was written for the occasion by Kilian.54 But the happiest event of all was the dedication on Christmas Day of that year. The young men had collected one hundred and seventy dollars for an organ, and the girls had made vestments at a cost of forty dollars. All had contributed of their means and talents. On Christmas morning the processional line left the parsonage, which up to this time had served as church. The pastor led, wearing the alb, as was customary among the Wends. The church council followed with the sacred vessels, then the young people, and finally the congregation, singing joyful hymns in their native Wendish tongue. The dedication service called for three sermons, one in Wendish, another in English, and a third in German.55 It was Rev. Kilian’s first attempt to preach in English; it was crude English, true enough, but it praised the religious liberty and the principles of the separation of Church and State, which these Wends had learned to appreciate. There followed a simple statement of the Christian principles as confessed by the Lutheran Church.56

The dedication of this church was naturally an important milestone in the life of the congregation. When in 1860 the Government established a post office and officially gave the settlement the name of Serbin, the colony had passed another milestone in its history.57 It was now joined with the outside world.58

Thus far, though a member of the Missouri Synod, Kilian had not attended any of its synodical meetings. The distance and the cost were prohibitive, but non-intercourse was good neither for the congregation nor for its pastor. What few Lutheran pastors there were in Texas at the time were members of the unionistic Texas Synod. An exception was the Rev. C. Braun of Houston, who was independent, but inclining toward the Missouri Synod. Even though there might have been contacts with other pastors, they would not have been conducive to a healthy situation. For this reason President Schaller of the Western District urged Kilian to make the long trip, stating also that President Wyneken, head of the Missouri Synod, had assured him that the cost of the trip would be paid if Kilian could borrow the money for the trip.59 Finally Rev. Kilian left for Synod, meeting at St. Louis in 1860. It was a long trip. He had to go by horse and wagon to Houston; from there to Galveston by boat, where he transferred to a ship bound for New Orleans. A river boat completed the journey to St. Louis.

From this period there has come an interesting letter by Kilian, his first in the English language. It is included not so much for its historic value as for its human interest:

Colony Serbin, Cunningham’s P. O.
Bastrop Co.
on the 5th day of July 1860

Reverend Dear Sir! Rev. Passavant, Pittsburg, Pa.

It is already a long while ago as the 217th number of Your Missionary came at my hand. I was somewhat stricken with surprise to find therein in your composition of notices about our Serbian Colony and Church, superscribed, A Serbian Church. Your public kindness induced you to do too much honor to our littleness. However I cannot longer delay to notify you the receipt of Your favor.

We are again heavily visitated by the hand of God. We are afflicted by an extreme drought, water begins to be deficient, nearly all pasture is burnt out by the hot sun, the corn crop fails. I might send You some money for Your orphans. But silver and gold is wanting here in such hard times. Therefore I send you for thanksgiving here-with, my first attempt in the English language to a discretionary use thereof.

Respectfully Yours


We smile as the smell of the dictionary meets us, but remembering that only six years had passed since Kilian came into this country, with little or no association with Americans during that time, it was a brave attempt. His sermon at the dedication in 1859 is very similar. The much corrected draft in the possession of the congregation at Serbin gives an idea of the labor that went into this simple letter.

The contact that Kilian had in 1860 with the officials and the clergy of the Missouri Synod was most fortunate, for soon thereafter the Civil War broke out in all its fury and isolated the congregation in Texas. Texas did not feel the effects of the War as did some of its neighbors, but to a man of the type of Kilian and the congregation he served, this isolation was not good. The effects are apparent a number of years later. The molding of a common spirit with the rest of the membership was not completed. For this reason Kilian could not for some time get along with several of the ministers who came in during the decade of the eighteen seventies. He had drifted too much on his own and had become inclined to act independently.

No criticism of the congregation nor of its pastor is intended; it was natural under the circumstances. Rev. Kilian was not only the pastor and leader, he was also the squire, legal adviser, doctor, consultant, and teacher of this colony in almost all its problems.

The drought referred to in the letter above helped make them a poor people. When in 1861 a certain Mr. John Moncure offered to make Kilian a land agent for the neighborhood, he turned down the offer because he feared it would secularize the ministry. In his reply he told Mr. Moncure the people were barely making a living during the war period. While they had money when they came to Texas, he writes of them now, “Our people is a poor people. Courage is almost gone, especially now in these war times.61

That simple statement tells us much of the congregation’s struggle. Add to this the Texas Army draft, and the people were almost ready to give up hope. They had come to this country to be left alone, to seek liberty. Like their German neighbors, they did not sympathize with the Confederacy and had strong leanings to the North. This together with the need of young men on the farms during the hard times provoked the colony. Several of the young unmarried men were drafted into the war, where most of them died. However, no married men were lost. Most of them tried to dodge military service by all kinds of subterfuge. Several made affidavits, for an excuse going to Mexico to haul freight to help run the blockade. A few also made much money during this time hauling cotton to Houston and obtaining a good price.62 The story is told that some of the men tried to dodge the military service by dressing as women and going behind the plow.63 Still others who were willing to go to war, but not for the Confederacy, went down to Tampico, Mexico, and from there went north, serving in the Union Armies.

From the letter to Mr. John Moncure we see that efforts were being made at this time to sell the land adjoining the colony. Germans were beginning to settle the vicinity in greater numbers, though most of them came in after the war. At any rate, the first note of a German confirmation class is for Good Friday, April 18, 1862. The Wend class was confirmed on Palm Sunday as a separate group. Thus it continued down to 1881.64 The German element, not being interested in the language of the Wends, quite naturally had to be served in their own tongue as their numbers grew. Before this, German had been a supplementary language.

Under such pioneer circumstances it was natural that only the most pressing ministerial tasks were taken up. Consequently the care of the young people was often overlooked under similar circumstances. Kilian, however, was alert to the needs of his young people even in this frontier settlement. He organized a young people’s society as early as 1864. The minutes of this organization are written in Wendish and were translated for the writer by the Rev. Hermann Schmidt. The first meeting was held on the day after Easter, March 28, 1864. Forty-five persons were present, twenty-four young men and twenty-one young women. The object was to organize, and the pastor gave an address explaining the aims of such an organization. The young people asked Kilian to draw up a constitution, and they resolved to come back the next day. As it was Easter time, observed with a three-day celebration, they readily came. On this day the constitution was read, debated, and finally accepted. The boys elected their own leader, as did also the girls. John Teinert was chosen by the former and Rosina Domaschk by the latter. Years later this organization was still active, for when the stone church was finished, the minutes of November 12, 1871, state that the young people painted the benches of the old church; those of the December 26th meeting that new benches were to be built for the school during the Christmas recess.65

With the end of the war more correspondence of the time is available, and there can be seen very plainly the results of being cut off from synodical relationship for five years. Kilian’s letters breathe discouragement. The work in the school, the growing congregation with the added burdens, and the isolation were beginning to tell. By nature Kilian was energetic, original, entertaining, and witty,66 but the work was having its effects. Perhaps, too, he was also a little temperamental, as anyone might be under the stress. He sincerely began to desire a change of pastorate. His school of thirty to forty children took much of his valuable time and energy. But teachers were scarce, and there seemed slight chances for relief.67 He did not wish to leave his flock without a pastor, however; so he looked to Synod to help him to obtain a man. Meanwhile he wrote to Germany, hoping to obtain a Wendish church there.68 It was understood that if the conditions were still the same as formerly, he would not return. He wrote a letter to the church council at Wildenhahn, Bautzen, asking the cause of the church strife there.69 The answers must have convinced him that it would be fruitless to return. As internal conditions grew worse in his congregation, he wrote to Dr. Walther of St. Louis, asking if he might not be called to St. Louis to some Bohemian congregation. He also offered himself for a place on the theological faculty of Concordia Seminary, for he could teach Hebrew and practical homiletics.70

There were several reasons for Kilian’s desire to leave. One was his growing fear for the future of his own children. Himself an educated man, he wanted them to receive a better education than the wilds of Texas could afford. Though he might educate them himself, his present duties in the schoolhouse took every available opportunity. It is this plea that he makes both to the officials in Germany and to Walther. He did not want his daughters to become the wives of farmers, nor did he want his sons to take up farm work.

Kilian had not been able to throw off all the forms of Episcopal government of Germany. He had written Walther saying that he would be willing to submit to a “Kirchenordnung” and wondered about it for the Missouri Synod. Walther had explained to him that each congregation was supreme. Kilian could not quite agree with the congregational form of church government.71 Considering his attitude a few years later, increased no doubt by his isolation, this tendency became evident in his later dealings.

Because he was concerned about the future of his congregation, too, he urged them to join the Missouri Synod, now that communications with the North had been re-established, On December 17, 1865, the congregation decided on this move. The difficulty that they had with the separatists at their very door convinced them of the orthodoxy of the Missouri Synod.72 Kilian also felt that he had the assurance that his flock would be able to get an orthodox pastor should he leave.73

Some of the internal difficulties referred to above were caused by the disagreements between the German and the Wendish elements. To appease the former, separate congregational meetings were begun in 1866.74 But there was more to it than this. Not all the pietistic elements had been kept out with the influx of the German element. The split of 1858 had been a sifting process for those in the colony at the time, but new members were often affected with the same spirit. Hence added difficulties arose, and Kilian wrote to Walther that the war against him had again been renewed.75

To keep the congregation from brooding over the internal troubles, the matter of a new church was brought up. The frame church had become too small, and a new structure was desirable. At first the proposition was introduced as a school building program and was actually adopted as such with $645.00 subscribed.76 However, the congregation reconsidered whether to build a new school or a stone church, with the existing church converted into a school.77 The resolution to build a stone church was passed in the meeting of April 22, 1866. A subscription by forty persons assured $2,450.00 to begin the work.78 Financial conditions, as an aftermath of the war, were very good. Cotton brought a good price, and the colony actually prospered.79 But the church was to be built with much difficulty, and from the very outset it was delayed when an epidemic of fever laid low most of the congregation. Meanwhile the trouble, especially with the pietists, grew worse, and nothing was done toward starting a new church.80

To make matters worse, a strange situation arose, partly due perhaps to Kilian’s desire to leave. He had been anxious to get a successor and was referred to a certain Rev. Gottfried Lehnigk of Missouri, who, because of illness, was not active in the ministry. Lehnigk might be induced to come to Texas, and if his health would permit, he could take charge. Meanwhile he might assist in teaching the school.81 Lehnigk came down in 1866, and the hopes of Kilian seemed about to be realized. However, as time went on and Lehnigk recovered his strength, he became more interested in the factionalism in the congregation. He became sympathetic with the pietistic group and in the course of several months actually became their leader. This group hoped that if Kilian left, they would gain the upper hand.82 During the first quarter of 1867 Lehnigk had taught school for Kilian, and this relieved the pastor somewhat.83

(To be continued)

  1. Traces of this church can be seen in the pasture of Mr. August Hohle, Serbin, Texas. The church was torn down, but the cistern of the parsonage and the stones of the parsonage foundation are still there. Also a number of unmarked graves are there. (1940.)
  2. President Roehm’s report, April 27, 1860, to the Texas Synod in session. Seguin archives.
  3. Letter of Schaller to Kilian, Aug. 23, 1859. A. M. C.
  4. Draft of letter by Kilian to President Schaller, Oct. 20, 1859. A. M. C. John Arndt was a pietist in Germany in 1600.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Minutes of Texas Synod, session of April 27, 1860. Seguin archives.
  7. Kilian had joined the Missouri Synod in 1855, although he had not been present at the meeting.
  8. Draft of letter by Kilian to Carl Buchholz, Nov. 8, 1865. A. M. C.
  9. See next installment.
  10. Subscription list in Serbin archives.
  11. Der Lutheraner, Vol. XVI, March 6, 1860.
  12. Original in the Serbin archives.
  13. Der Lutheraner, Vol. XVI, March 6, 1860.
  14. Original in the Serbin archives.
  15. Verzeichniss der von Pastor Johann Kilian confirmierten Kinder. Serbin archives.
  16. Before this it was simply designated as the Pin Oak Settlement, or the Wend Colony of Rabbs Creek, or as Rabbsville.
  17. Letter of Schaller to Kilian, dated August 17, 1860. A. M. C.
  18. A much corrected draft of this letter is found in the Serbin archives, Also A. M. C. The Rev. W. A. Passavant was pastor in Pittsburgh, noted for his zeal in hospital and orphanage work. He was also intensely interested in mission work and thus published The Missionary, beginning in 1848. Being pastor of the First English Ev. Lutheran Church, he was also one of the organizers of the Pittsburgh Synod. In his church the first missionary to Texas was commissioned. This missionary was the Rev. C. Braun. Perhaps through him Kilian had gotten in touch with Passavant.
  19. Draft of letter by Kilian to John Moncure, Aug. 2, 1861. A. M. C.
  20. Draft of letter by Kilian to Carl Buchholz, Nov. 8, 1865. A. M. C.
  21. Interview. with Rev. Hermann Schmidt, Serbin, Texas.
  22. Verzeichniss der von Pastor Johann Kilian confirmierten Kinder, Serbin archives.
  23. Minutes in Wendish in the Serbin archives.
  24. Der Lutheraner, Vol. XI, Dec. 1, 1884.
  25. Draft of letter by Kilian to Carl Buchholz, Spremberg. Germany, Nov. 8, 1865. A. M. C.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Draft of letter by Kilian, Dec.22, 1865. A. M. C.
  28. Draft of letter by Kilian, Jan. 13, 1867. A. M. C.
  29. Draft of letter by Kilian to Carl Buchholz, Spremberg, Nov. 8, 1865. A. M. C.
  30. Draft of letter by Kilian to Rev. Buenger, President of the Western District, Dec. 24, 1865, signed by Kilian and the church council. A. M. C. Since he stated his views in this letter, it seems that his church council also knew of his desire for a change of patorate.
  31. The congregation was accepted into synodical membership in 1866.
  32. Draft of letter by Kilian to Buenger, Nov.2, 1869. A. M. C.
  33. Draft of letter by Kilian, March 12, 1866. A. M, C.
  34. Minutes of the congregational meeting, Jan. 4, 1866, Serbin archives, Hereafter referred to as “Serbin minutes.”
  35. Serbin minutes, April 8, 1866.
  36. Serbin minutes.
  37. Draft of letter by Kilian to Kirchenrath, Wildenhahn, Bautzen, Dec. 22, 1865. A. M. C.
  38. Draft of letter by Kilian to Walther, Jan. 13, 1867. A. M, C.
  39. Draft of letter by Kilian to Kirchenrath, Wildenhahn, Bautzen, Dec. 22, 1865. A. M. C.
  40. Draft of letter by Kilian to Professor Lindemann, April 11, 1867. A.M.C.
  41. Kilian’s explanation to the congregation, Jan. 10, 1870. A. M, C.