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. 2, July, 1942
When more than five hundred immigrants stepped ashore at Galveston, Texas, on December 16, 1854, it was perhaps for many a person merely another boatload of settlers arriving in the New World in search of a home and security. In reality the story of these immigrants was unique, if for no other reason than that they constituted the first large colony of Wends to come into this country. More important is the fact that these Wends had come to Texas for the sole purpose of enjoying the religious freedom guaranteed there. During the middle of the nineteenth century Germans usually migrated for economic or for political improvement, sometimes for both. The search for religious freedom on the part of German-Wends was therefore unique. Dr. Biesele states that the religious motive was “never considered by these Germans who came to Texas in the nineteenth century.”1 Though the Wends were Germans by nationality, they were Slavic in language and culture and are not included in the above-quoted statement.

To understand the emigration of the Wends from Germany, we might briefly restate the conditions prevalent in Germany at this time and introduce the leader who brought these pioneers into Texas.

The Wends, popularly so called, are also referred to as Slave-Lusatians or Serbo-Lusatians. They are one of the many Slavic minorities still existing in Germany and trace their history back beyond the Christian era. For the most part they lived in the present region of Brandenburg and Silesia (Prussia), and in Saxony, north and south along the Spree River.2 The great majority were Lutherans, though Wends of the Catholic faith are found in the western part of the Saxonian sections of Upper Lusatia.3

Though accustomed to political oppression on the part of the Germans, the pious and conservative Wends resented the decree of 1817 by the Prussian government which attempted to unite the Lutheran and the Reformed churches. No open opposition was made, though deep resentment was felt in their hearts and smoldered for years. In a few more energetic souls there grew a strong desire to migrate; but a leader was needed.4

Johan Kilian 1876The man who was destined to lead the exodus of 1854 to 1855 was the Rev. Johann Kilian. Only such necessary details of his life will be related as will give a clearer understanding of the movement as it affected the founding of the churches in Texas. Johann Kilian was born March 22, 1811, at Dehlen, in Saxon Oberlausitz, of Wend parents; he attended the “gymnasium” at Bautzen after his confirmation and later the University of Leipzig. He was ordained in 1834 as an assistant pastor at Hochkirch. Because of the conditions of the times he could not get a pastorate. He thought of doing mission-work in East India, but when his uncle died in 1837, he became the pastor in Kotitz, Saxony. During his pastorate of eleven years he proved a popular preacher, using both the Wendish and the German in his services. Hoping to serve his people to every advantage, he used his scholarly talents to translate into the language of the Wends the great Augsburg Confession, a Communion book, and a number of sermons and tracts.5 In 1848 Kilian accepted a call to Weigersdorf and Klitten, Prussia, neither church being in the Prussian union. From these two charges he traveled as a sort of circuit rider to eighteen places to serve people who found the church union unacceptable.

Finally, in 1853, thirty Prussian Wends left the homeland for Texas. Whether they left for religious reasons is not certain but highly probable. During the winter of 1854 they wrote such glowing letters to their friends in the homeland that the latter also decided to migrate to the New World.6 On May 23, 1854, Pastor Kilian received a call, signed by six laymen, asking him to be their pastor and leader in a migration to Texas.7 This call was accepted, and eventually a party of more than five hundred left Hamburg in September, 1854. The events of the trip with its plague of cholera have received much notice, but since they do not bear directly on our story, they will not be repeated here.8 On December 14, the ship sighted Galveston,9 and two days later the party set foot on Texas soil. Seventy-three persons had lost their lives on the long journey.10

Landing at Galveston, they walked in the very jaws of death. Yellow fever was at its height, and, weakened already by disease, the immigrants fell by scores before the plague. As quickly as possible they went to Houston to escape the ravages of the disease.11 Christmas was spent in this city, where the Rev. Caspar Braun, pastor of the Lutheran Church, did much to take care of the immigrants. Because there was not enough shelter and in some cases no funds, some were obliged to camp in the open even when it was cold.12

Finally, during the first weeks of January, 1855, those who had the means left for the trek across the Houston prairie. Those without funds-remained behind.13 John Teinert, who was a lad of thirteen at the time, has left us an account of the trip:

“Having arrived there [Houston], we were not obliged to go by boat again but by oxcarts, though we had to wait for those to arrive, which could carry our things. All of us that were able went on foot because the oxcarts did not go very quickly. At that time there were no railroads to take us where we wanted to go. A number of families did not get farther than New Ulm, Frelsburg, and Industry because means and money did not reach farther.”14

The party might have settled on the prairie, but the lack of funds for lumber and fencing prevented this. Thus they sought the post-oak territory, where wood was plentiful.15 At first they camped near the present Warda in Fayette County till land and title could be procured.16 Kilian temporarily lived in the home of an immigrant of 1853, remaining there until a log house could be built for him.17 Land was plentiful, but to obtain a clear title was another thing. A section of good land near the present Winchester, Fayette County, was considered, but the price was too high.18 Finally a league of land (4,400 acres) in Bastrop County, the present Serbin of Lee County, was bought from Captain A. C. Delaplaine, who had received a land grant for services in the Texas-Mexican War.19 The purchase was made February 11, 1855,20 and John Dube and C. Lehmann got a title bond May 25. However, the bond proved faulty, and a new one was issued after settlement was actually made.21

The land was distributed among the various colonists, ninety-five acres being set aside for the church and school. As soon as possible, work was begun erecting a church, but severe illness during the heat of the summer hindered immediate completion. Teinert writes:

“In those days the people cooked their meals and baked bread in the open, for they had no ovens yet. When it rained very much, many made a fire in the middle of the room, for they did not have to worry about burning the floor because there were no wooden floors. The earth served the purpose of the floor. The smoke could easily get out through the cracks in the roof.” 22

In view of such conditions we can well understand that fever raged through the colony, especially since the water supply was limited and of uncertain origin. A few died, the first being the new-born daughter of Kilian, Maria Theresa. She had been born on February 13 and died on March 14. Since no parcel of land had been set aside for a cemetery, this was quickly done. The dedication of the cemetery and the first funeral took place on March 17, 1855.23

Texas State Historical Marker - Serbin

Texas State Historical Marker – Serbin

On October 17 Kilian was able to move into his new log cabin; it was to serve as a combination school, church, and parsonage for a number of years.24 Actually it consisted of two large rooms with a hall between them. In one the pastor and his family lived, and in the other the divine services were held. Later, when school was begun, the latter also served that purpose.25

As already mentioned, not all the immigrants had come to the chief settlement of Serbin, as it was later called. While the surveying and building was going on here, Rev. Kilian did not forget those who had been left behind, especially those who had stopped at New Ulm. It was at New Ulm that Rev. Kilian had his first confirmation class of four girls and four boys.26 Even after he was kept busy in the school at Serbin, Kilian made the trip of forty miles to New Ulm once every five weeks on horseback, returning the same day.27

By the time the colonists had become fairly well established at Serbin in 1855, it was too late to plant. To add to their other troubles, a terrible drought afflicted the land for the next two years, searing the grass and drying the creeks, causing untold hardship to the new settlers. Nevertheless, in the midst of those difficulties the fathers realized the need of a school for their young and were solicitous about their future education. During 1856 school was begun in the “church-wing” of the parsonage. Kilian had been called as pastor and leader of the flock, but this included also the duty of teaching the children the rudiments of secular education as well as religion. Public schools were begun in Texas the same year, but it took many years before they could penetrate into the post-oak country. Even had they been there, the system would not have been used, as it is not to this day. These people could not divorce religion and’ education. Besides, the language they wanted was the Wendish, not the English nor even the German. Under the circumstances it was quite natural therefore that Wendish was the only language used in the early years.

Typical of frontier days, the first school in the log house would be unique to our eyes. Two long counters served as tables, and planks as seats. On Sundays the counters were taken out, and the planks served as pews for the congregation. The red stone flooring was perhaps a luxury to the children who used good old Mother Earth at home. There was about one book for each child, and a number of catechisms were distributed for the religious instruction. As soon as one of the older children learned the lesson, he assisted the busy teacher by instructing the younger ones.28

In time some of those who had remained along the way joined the colonists. This necessitated adding a wing to the parsonage.29 But the log cabin parsonage itself was used by Kilian as a home till he died in 1884.30

The times were hard indeed for the settlers. In a strange land, meeting unaccustomed hardships, and cut off from the rest of the population by the barrier of language, these pioneers had a severe lot. However, from all accounts they were happy days because there was unanimity of spirit. And when Pastor Kilian and Karl Teinert, the patriarch of the community, set off on their oxsled to Industy and Cat Springs for services, there was unanimity of purpose; Kilian led the singing, and Teinert played the violin. The hardship of the years had humbled them, Kilian wrote to Dr. Walther.31

This unanimity of spirit was soon to be disturbed by an outside element, namely the German Methodists who, already in 1856, had begun preaching at the near-by Pin Oak and Rabbs Creek. To understand the influence of the Methodists on the German element, one must go back to the condition of Lutheranism in Germany. For some time the Lutheran Church in Germany had been influenced by a pietism which opposed much that was sterile in the church life of the day. It represented an element which was often given to an overemphasis ‘of Christian experience and enthusiasm. In Germany the movement did not separate itself from the Lutheran Church, and when those with a pietistic tendency came to this country, they found Methodism more to their liking than Lutheranism. Thus a strong German Methodist element arose during the first half of the nineteenth century, and wherever German was the language of the Lutherans, that Church had fierce contentions with the Methodists, who sought to make deep inroads into established Lutheran centers. Kilian and his colony were to have a similar experience. A number of Germans were scattered in the Pin Oak and Rabbs Creek region before the Wends came into the territory. A certain Mrs. Ch. Eisenbach and her young son, John Rabe, by a previous marriage, had formerly attended the Methodist church in La Grange during a short stay there. This family eventually joined the church of Kilian. John Rabe has left a personal record of the time, though written many years later:

“A large number of Serb or Wend families had settled in our vicinity. These had their own preacher, who also preached in the German language. Since there was an absence of any other church group, my mother joined this congregation. When I was 14, she also sent me there for confirmation instruction. Mr. Kilian made every imaginable effort to show me that the Lutheran religion was the only true and correct one, that it was the only correct middle between the extreme of the Roman superstition and the pietistic enthusiasm [Schwaermerei]. He had me learn many passages and funneled into me [trichterte] with great zeal the dogmatics of his Church. Of the living, saving faith; of the sincere confession and the complete change of heart; of the assurance of the forgiveness of sins and the testimony of the Holy Spirit; of all these great and elevating things of the Christian religion, not one dying word. Of course, I did not know anything else, as though there were no more to religion, and these proffered powerless hulls seemed a comfort [Labsal] to me. I looked with wonder and awe to my Gamaliel and marveled at his comprehensive Bible knowledge. Naturally I felt at this time a strange emptiness in my heart. A need did make itself known temporarily, which satisfaction, were I to follow the lead of my spiritual leader, I would have to look for in the foggy distance.

The day of my confirmation arrived [1857]. I felt the importance of the same, and during the act tears streamed down my cheeks. Not with a careless heart but with earnestness and humility I went to the Table of the Lord for the first time. Yet I found in all this no satisfaction, no rest for my soul.”32

Since this was written years after its author became a German Methodist preacher, we realize that much of it is subjective. Nevertheless it gives an interesting view of a difficulty which was already beginning in the latter part of 1856. During this year a certain Rev. E. Schneider preached on the Pin Oak and Rabbs Creek, later organizing the present Grassyville congregation.33

There is also a report of the work of the Methodists dated February 9, 1857, by Rev. J. W. De Vilbiss, who wrote, “On Rabbs Creek we had also a blessed time. I saw one of the clearest conversions here. Brother Kopp and Brother Munson were with me, and their sermons accomplished much good.” Rev. De Vilbiss preached in English at Rabbs Creek while the others preached in German.34 Very likely it is this revival that started the trouble for Kilian and his flock, for Kilian writes later that in 1857 the Methodists came in.35

St. Paul's Lutheran Church (1939)

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (1939)

Not only were the conditions favorable for the Methodists because of pietism, but another factor also operated. There is a natural tendency of the Wends to disintegrate into small groups. Some of the settlers had been coming together for prayer meetings, and though efforts had been made to discourage these “hora’s” as they were called, it seems that the church council had little or no success. When the Methodists came, therefore, with their revival and converted a family, those who maintained these “hora’s” found the Methodists much to their liking. Preaching actually was begun, and prayer meetings were also suggested. To prevent trouble, Kilian himself conducted such meetings for about six months, twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays. At first they were well attended, but soon, without any apparent reason, they dropped off, and by Easter of 1858 they were discontinued.36

As already stated, the drought of 1857 did much harm. Trouble increased when a ginner, who was a member of the congregation, had the misfortune of having his gin burn down, destroying the little cotton stored there. He refused to pay the farmers until forced thereto. The owner’s wife in anger went over to the Methodists. Shortly before Pentecost of 1858 the Methodists preached in the home of the apostate Wend, and others of the congregation attended. Kilian naturally protested, especially in a sermon on the Sunday before Pentecost. He told the congregation that the disturbing members would have to straighten out their affairs or leave the church, or he, Kilian, himself would leave.37

From the information on hand, names are not mentioned, except that a certain Methodist, S. Fehr, first preached in the home of Chr. Eisenbach (Rabe’s stepfather, whose account was given above), who was not a member of Kilian’s church, though his wife was. Prayer meetings were held later in the same home and also in the home of a certain Mr. Hempel. The first preacher who organized a Methodist church at Grassyville was Rev. E. Schneider.38

Since Pastor Kilian had brought the issue to a head, most of the people who were in disagreement did not care to go over to the Methodists, although a few did. Instead, they turned to the Texas Synod for pastoral care.39 They wrote to Rev. John C. Roehm, at that time president of the synod, stating their reason for leaving, some even claiming to have been excommunicated.40 They also sent a delegation to Rev. J. George Lieb of Round Top, Texas, who likewise was a member of the Texas Synod. On October 9, 1858, Rev. Lieb visited Kilian with one of the separatists and asked the cause of the dissension. Kilian, not wanting them to go over to the Methodists, did everything in his power to direct them to the Texas Synod, if he could not hold them for his own church. The next day another attempt was made to reconcile the group to his church, but the faction cut off every attempt. On October 16, 1858, they took Communion from Rev. Lieb, and thus the matter came to a definite schism.41

Having broken away from Kilian, they applied for membership in the Texas Synod as the St. Peter’s Church of Rabbsville. Their application came up in the synodical meeting of May 13, 1859, but before accepting the congregation, President John C. Roehm was instructed to investigate the matter further. Meanwhile Rev. Lieb was to serve as pastor.42

(To be continued)

  1. Rudolph L. Biesele, The History of the German Settlements in Texas, p. 1.
  2. George C. Engerrand, The So-Called Wends of Germany, p. 13.
  3. Ibid., p. 89.
  4. Der Lutheraner, Vol. XI, Nov. 15, 1884.
  5. He translated the Formula of Concord and published it in 1854 just before he left for Texas. It was based on the Leipzig edition of 1766 and called Svmbolske knihi. Later, in 1865, he translated the Large Catechism called Wulki katechismus, published in Weigersdorf (Wukrancsisy). A copy of both of these is in the possession of the Rev. Hermann Schmidt, Serbin, Texas.
  6. Der Lutheraner, Vol. XI, Nov. 15, 1885.
  7. Hermann T. Kilian, Kurzgefasster Auszug, p. 1.
  8. Kilian, op. cit., p. 1 f., Engerrand, op. cit., p. 99 f., Dr. Paul Kretzmann, “The Early History of the Wendic Lutheran Colony,” CONCORDIA HISTORICAL INSTITUTE QUARTERLY, Vol. III, July, 1930, 49 f.
  9. Kilian, op. cit., p. 2.
  10. Ibid.
  11. “A ‘Serbian’ Church” in The Missionary, March 22, 1860, Vol. V, No.9. According to this account three orphans of this immigrant party had been sent by Rev. Braun to the Home and Farm School at Pittsburgh in the care of a widow woman from whom these details came. The parents of these orphans were victims of the yellow fever at Galveston. This yellow fever scourge may also account for the fact that no Galveston or Houston papers of the time can be found in any known collection in Texas.
  12. G. Birkmann, Giddings News, June 2, 1932. Braun was one of the organizers of the Texas Synod (Erste Deutsche Evangelisch-Lutherische Synode in Texas) in 1851 and its president the first two years. However, in 1853 he left this organization because of its membership in the General Synod (General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States of America), and so was now without synodical affiliation. Cp. Mgebroff, Geschichte der Ersten Deutschen Evangelisch-Lutherischen Synode in Texas, p.346.
  13. Der Lutheraner, Vol. XI, Mar. 13, 1855.
  14. “Ein Brief Vater John Teinerts” in Der Texas-Distristsbote, Vol. XIV, August, 1929.
  15. Ibid.
  16. G. Birkmann, Giddings News, June 3, 1932.
  17. Der Lutheraner, Vol. XI, Mar. 13, 1855.
  18. Engerrand, The So-Called Wends, p. 102.
  19. A. E. Moebus, Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt, Oct. 3, 1929. Hereafter abbreviated as G. D. V.
  20. Der Lutheraner, Vol. XI, Mar. 13, 1855.
  21. A. E. Moebus, loc. cit.
  22. Teinert, loc. cit.
  23. Sterbe·Nachrichten von der Kirche zu Serbin, Serbin archives.
  24. Kilian, op. cit., p.3.
  25. Teinert, loc. cit. One of these two rooms is still standing, though on a different site. It is now used as a barn by one of the teachers of the Serbin school.
  26. Teinert, loc. cit.
  27. Der Lutheraner, Vol. XI, Dec. 1, 1884.
  28. Interview with Mrs. A. Peter, nee Kilian, of Winchester.
  29. Der Lutheraner, Vol. XI, Dec. 1, 1884.
  30. Teinert, loc. cit.
  31. Kilian, op. cit., p.2. Dr. Walther had been a fellow-student of Kilian at the University of Leipzig and now was president of the theological seminary at St. Louis (Concordia Seminary), the chief institution of the Missouri Synod.
  32. J. A. G. Rabe, Kurzer Abriss meiner Lebensgeschichte.
  33. Kirchliches Jahrbuch der Deutschen-Missions Konferenz der Suedlichen Bisch. Methodisten Kirche. 1912.
  34. Der Evangelische Apologete, Vol. II, Feb. 26, 1857.
  35. Draft of letter by Kilian to Rev. Schaller, Oct. 20, 1859. Photo of original in microfilm in author’s collection. Hereafter referred to as (author’s microfilm collection).
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Rabe, Kurzer Abriss meiner Lebensgeschichte.
  39. The Lutheran Church in America is divided into synods which are confederations of congregations. The heads of these synods are given the title of president. Some synods, especially the larger ones, are for organic reasons divided into districts. In some cases synods have united into larger groups called conferences, councils, or even retaining the name synod. In such cases there are usually no subdivisions into districts. Thus the General Synod consisted of a number of autonomous synods, of which the Texas Synod was a member for a number of years. The head of this synod also had the title of president. The Missouri Synod (The Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States) was an entirely separate synod, representing a very conservative Lutheranism and thus differing greatly in practice from the’ majority of other synods. For geographic reasons it was divided into districts. The State of Texas was a part of the Western District until 1882. Because of its phenomenal growth and extensive territory, the Western District was divided, and the State of Texas became part of the Southern District. In 1906 Texas became a separate District. The heads of the Districts are also called presidents. To distinguish these titles, the latter is often referred to as the District President, and the national head is referred to as the President of General Synod (not to be confused with the synod which actually bore that name).
  40. Letter received June 5, 1859, by Rev. Roehm and mentioned in his report to the synod in session, as recorded in the minutes of April 27, 1860. Archives at Seguin, Texas, of the American Lutheran Church, Texas District.
  41. Draft of letter by Kilian to Rev. Schaller, Oct. 20, 1859. A. M. C.
  42. Minutes of the Texas Synod, session of May 13, 1859. Seguin archives.