The Early History of the Wendic Lutheran Colony in the State of Texas

By Prof. P. E. Kretzmann. Article originally published by Concordia Historical Institute Quaterly, Vol. III, No. 2, July, 1930
It was shortly before the middle of the third century that the Goths, a Germanic tribe, which had occupied a large part of what was later Eastern Germany, on the Baltic Sea, between the Oder and the Elbe, began a great movement toward the southeast, down the Danube Valley and into the eastern part of the Roman Empire, eventually occupying large parts of Thrace, Dacia, and Moesia, and subsequently moving westward through the countries along the Mediterranean countries. The land along the Baltic, which was thus left open, was soon occupied by a Slavic tribe, which completed its occupation of this country by about 600 A.D. This was the Wendic tribe, belonging to the West Slavonic branch of the Wendic class of Aryans. The parts of Germany occupied by the larger part of this tribe were Thuringia, the Lausitz, and the Mark Brandenburg. The Sorbian strain of the Wendic race was Christianized with little trouble, and most of them, far more than 100,000 accepted the Reformation before the end of the sixteenth century. There were also quite a few staunch Lutherans among them during the next centuries.

When, in 1817, the Prussian government decreed the union of the Lutheran and the Reformed churches, the situation soon became unbearable to the faithful adherents of Luther. Obedience to the order of the government in many cases meant the denial of the truth, not to mention other unfortunate consequences. One of the staunch confessors of those days, Pastor John Kilian, wrote concerning the oppression which came upon the Lutherans: “What the decrees and bulls of the Roman Pope are, namely, statutes of men intended to enslave souls, such are also the cabinet orders of the pope of Berlin, the king of Prussia, according to which the Evangelical Lutheran Church, since the year 1830, has been violated with regard to the society rights guaranteed by the Peace of Westphalia and robbed of its earthly goods. By these regal cabinet orders, by which, arbitrarily and violently, a new church or a church of confusion has been made, the faithful Lutherans in Prussia have been placed in such distress that they are seriously suffering, no matter whether they leave the Church of the king or remain in it. This is the reason for the strong desire to emigrate, which takes hold even of pious souls.”

The last words of this statement indicates that a necessity was practically laid upon those who were faithful and refused to yield to the decree violating the consciences. It is not surprising therefore that thirty Wendic Lutherans from Prussia left the home of their fathers and immigrated to America via Bremen. This was in 1853. Their boat was wrecked on the shores of Cuba, but they managed to save their lives and to reach their destination, the State of Texas, which five years before had been ceded to the United States by Mexico. So favorably were the immigrants impressed by the country where they settled that they soon wrote letters to relatives and friends in the Old Country, urging them to follow their example and to come to the land of liberty, where religious freedom was guaranteed to all. The result of these letters was that a congregation was organized at Dauban, Prussia, in March of 1854, consisting of about 200 Lutherans from various sections of Wendic Prussia and Saxony. In the course of the next months this congregation grew to 500 souls, all of them determined to immigrate to a country where they could live according to the dictates of their conscience, without the galling oppression of a Caesaropapism which did not know the real meaning of Lutheranism.

The congregation was anxious to have a pastor who would be a true and staunch leader in the great undertaking which lay before the emigrants. Their unanimous choice was Pastor John Kilian. This faithful servant of the Lord was born March 22, 1811, at Dahlen, in the Saxon Lausitz (Lusatia). Since he was the only heir of his father, he had the means to study and therefore attended the Gymnasium at Bautzen. He studied theology at Leipzig, for he had planned from early youth to become a pastor. After completing his studies, in 1834, he entered the ministry, becoming assistant pastor to Pastor Moehne, of Hochkirch. When this service came to an end, he strongly considered the possibility of going to India as missionary. He even made the trip to Basel, then the great center of missionary training. But when he arrived at Basel, he received the information that his uncle, Pastor Michael Kilian, of Kotitz, Saxony, had died and that he was expected to attend the funeral. The congregation at Kotitz called him as pastor, and he was privileged to serve from 1837 to 1848, doing work in both Wendic and German. He was also active in a literary way, for he translated Luther’s Large Catechism, the Augsburg Confession, a book for use of communicants, and other writings into the language of the Wendic people. In 1846 he issued a sermon in Wendic, which was also translated into German. It bore the title “The Care Required of Lutheran Christians in the Present State of Confessional Confusion. A serious word addressed to the Lutheran people.” Three points were emphasized by the author of this sermon (and pamphlet), namely, the Christian foundation: justification by faith alone, the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God, and the confessions of the Lutheran Church. The trumpet of true Lutheranism here gave a most certain sound.

Meanwhile the oppression spoken of above became worse from year to year. In 1848 Pastor Kilian accepted a call of two free Lutheran congregations, at Weigersdorf and Klitten, Prussia. He also took care of many smaller assemblies of faithful Lutherans as far south as Wittenberg, a total of eighteen stations. The authorities did not hinder his work outright, though they often made it as unpleasant as possible for him. But one can well imagine that the thought of leaving conditions which were so irksome came to Kilian and many faithful hearts with increasing frequency.

This preliminary history explains why the call which Pastor Kilian received on May 23, 1854, was so important in itself and so far-reaching in its consequences. We can also understand why the document closed with the words: “May the Lord grant us all His Holy Spirit that we may remain in love toward Him and our beloved pastor, until finally we shall all end this pilgrimage and enter into His heavenly kingdom, where we, with our dear pastor, shall praise and worship Him in all eternity. Amen.” The call received the following signatures: Karl Lehmann, Karl Teinert, Ernst Adolph Moerbe, Johann Hohle, Christoph Kockel, and Johann Urban.

Johan Kilian 1876

Rev. John Kilian

The call was accepted by Pastor Kilian, and the 500 souls composing the party under his spiritual direction left their old home in September, 1854, by way of Hamburg and Liverpool. We quote from an interesting account of Johann Teinert, one of the members of the congregation: “Several people have asked me how it happened that the whole congregation immigrated to America. It was not the entire congregation whose pastor Johann Kilian was. A new congregation was formed by people from various villages and stations where Pastor Kilian preached. From these places the people came together and had various meetings, most frequently at Karl Lehmann’s and at my father’s, Karl Teinert’s. It was in the year 1854 when the congregation was organized. That same year we traveled by railroad to Hamburg, where the sailors had two ships ready for us. But the people wanted to stay together on one ship. Then the sailors arranged for a big ship, called Ben Nevis, which was at Liverpool, England. We rode to England on a steamship. … Meanwhile the cholera had broken out [in Liverpool], and many had become ill. We boarded the ship and sailed away. I do not know how long we were on board this ship. Because of the many cases of sickness our boat went to the harbor of Queenstown, Ireland. Here we had to leave our ship and embark on another while our ship was washed and fumigated. It took a long time to do all this. Then we boarded our ship again and set sail for America. … One afternoon a great storm came up, which threatened to break our ship to pieces. Four men had to work the pumps while the storm continued. … There were still some people sick, and some died, too. … We continued on our course till we could see Santo Domingo. Here we were becalmed for a few days, and it grew quite warm. One night the wind arose again, and we sailed on till we could see the island of Cuba. … When we arrived at Galveston, all our boxes, trunks, cases, and baggage were opened and investigated. Since we had no articles of value, we were not obliged to pay duty. … Our boxes were once more closed, and we had to wait till our goods were again loaded on a boat, which was to bring us to Houston. Having arrived there, we were not obliged to go by boat again, but by ox-carts. … All who could walk well went afoot, for with the ox-carts the trip did not go very quickly. At that time there was no railroad to take us where we wanted to go. Some of the families did not get any farther than New Ulm, Frelsburg, and Industry, because means and money did not reach any farther. They remained there for some time. Two men went ahead in order to find the place where we wanted to go. Karl Lehmann and J. Dube selected the Delaplain-Liga, where Serbin in now located. Before all that was bought and surveyed, quite a few months of the year 1855 had passed by. As soon as everything had been put in order, the people build their first log huts. Meanwhile Pastor Kilian was not idle, but instructed and confirmed children at New Ulm, where there were several families. … The congregation built a house for Pastor Kilian, two rooms, with a hall between. In that house, in 1856, Pastor Kilian started the school. In one room he lived with his family, and in the other school was held and services were conducted on Sunday, till the frame church was built. Later, after the Civil War, the stone church was built. Pastor Kilian lived in the log hut till his death.” Thus far Mr. Teinert’s interesting report.

Pastor Kilian’s report agrees with the document given above in every essential point. He writes as follows: “I arrived with this congregation at Galveston on December 16 of last year [1854] and then made the trip with those in possession of some means, two hundred miles into the country, while the poorer ones had to look for work in Houston and elsewhere. Here, on Rabbs Creek, in Bastrop County, those who are well-to-do, who also paid the expense of the voyage for the poor, are about to buy a league of land [approximately 4,400 acres], so that also the poorer ones may be enabled to follow them into this new home. There is plenty of uninhabited land here, but on account of the difficulty of finding the real owner of a piece of land in Texas, the people were as yet not able to obtain land, so that for weeks they were obliged to live in shacks. My congregation of immigrants has surely gone through many difficulties, although we had no serious storm during the voyage. We lost more than seventy persons [seventy-three] by death, largely through cholera, by which our company was attacked on its way through England. Even in Liverpool a few persons died. Yet we left Liverpool on September 26 in the large English double-decker Ben Nevis, five hundred and eighty souls in addition to the crew, since, besides our closed company, other passengers from Germany went along. But during the quiet crossing of the Irish Channel there were again so many deaths by cholera that we were held at quarantine in the harbor of Cork, Ireland, for three weeks. Our Voyage from there to Galveston took eight and a half weeks. During this time a few more people died. But over here the people are enjoying good health, and they have also found those of their brethren who came over in 1853 enjoying good health.”

In February, 1855, the formal purchase of a league of land was consummated, which was then divided among individual families. Ninety-five acres were set aside for church and school purposes. The parsonage spoken of in the document above was now begun, to be furnished after the close of an epidemic which wrought much havoc in the ranks of the colonists. There were also other trials which tested the faith of the new-comers; for the first year of their occupation of the land it was too late to harvest a crop, and during the next years they experienced a terrible drought, which caused the grass to wither and even the rivers and creeks to dry up. Yet the immigrants testified that they had never been happier than during those first years, for the congregation was of one heart and of one soul, and the joy over the liberty that enabled them to live and believe according to the dictates of their own conscience, in keeping with the Word of God, outweighed all tribulations.

Gradually things improved, also in their material condition. In 1860 the colonists founded the post-office Serbin, meaning the Serbian place. The weather during the next few years was more favorable; the people became used to the climate, soon enjoying the best of health; they were joined by others of the same faith and language; the congregation grew and prospered. The parsonage had already been enlarged, and since even that measure proved inadequate, a special church-building was erected. The report of the dedication of this church was made in Der Lutheraner by Pastor Kilian, which in the main reads as follows: “Fifty families of the local colony, which was founded by the Serbians, called by the Germans Wends, five years ago and which is constantly growing, have, in addition to the parsonage buildings (which were built under various tribulations) in the course of the last autumn [1859] erected a new frame church with a roof of carved cedar shingles. The building is fifty feet long, twenty-feet wide, and fifteen feet to the roof. On October 10 the first material, not only for the church, but also for a cistern at the parsonage was delivered. … On November 11 the corner-stone of the church was laid, and on November 24 the building was raised. While the heads of families worked on the structure, the young men collected money for a new organ, which was installed in the church before Christmas and cost $170. The young women paid for the altar ornament by voluntary contributions, the amount collect being $40.

“The Dedication took place on the first Christmas Day. The procession, early in the morning, started from the parsonage, whose wing had till then served for church and school purposes, to the new church, while the bell was being rung and an appropriate hymn was sung, with the pastor in his vestments … and the church council at the head, then the young men and young women, and then the remaining people. Serbian [Wendic] singing and the liturgy, with the organ accompaniment, opened the celebration. Hereupon the pastor delivered a preliminary address from the altar, in which it was said that the church now to be dedicated was the first Serbian church in Texas. After a short hymn the pastor, kneeling before the altar, offered up the dedicatory prayer in the Serbian language. Another hymn was sung. Then followed the Serbian sermon, delivered from the pulpit, on the epistle of Christmas Day. But since also so many of the Americans and Germans living in the neighborhood had come, it was necessary to have them hear something in their own tongues. After a few stanzas of a German hymn with organ accompaniment had been sung, the pastor, from the altar, read an address intended for the Americans, composed by himself, his first attempt in the English language. Then followed another German hymn and thereupon a German sermon from the pulpit on the Gospel of Christmas Day. A German hymn with collect and benediction concluded the celebration. – We comfort ourselves, in spite of many obstacles of deficiency and tribulation that have not yet been overcome, with the promise of God: “In all places where I record My name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee,’ Ex. 20, 24. Johann Kilian, Pastor.”

Not only did the Serbian colony grow during the next years, but the entire neighborhood received accessions of immigrants. The church dedicated in 1859 soon became too small, so another one was begun in 1867 and dedicated in 1871. This was a stone structure. The old church was then used as a schoolhouse. Some twenty-five hundred souls came into the neighborhood during these years. Of these, about 600 were in the first congregation, others were gathered in places near and far, so that in the course of time six congregations were established in addition to the mother church. Much of the pioneer work was done by Pastor Kilian. He had one mission-station in New Ulm, Austin Co., forty miles from Serbin, where he preached every five weeks, making the round trip on horseback invariably in one day. He also preached in Louis Settlement (now Swiss Alp), located in Fayette County, twenty-five miles from Serbin. In addition, he taught school for eleven years. He certainly was not afraid of work!

Kilian-Herman-Portrait

Rev. H. Kilian

Kilian-Gerhard-Portrait

Teacher G. Kilian

Pastor Kilian’s family life was very happy. He had married Maria Groeschel in 1848, when he moved from Saxony to Prussia, and for more than thirty-two years she shared joys and sorrows with him. One son, Gerhard, became teacher in Serbin in 1872. Another son, Herman, became his father’s successor in 1883. The aged pastor died on September 12, 1884, following an apoplectic stroke.

The Lutherans of Serbin were connected with the Missouri Synod from the beginning, and Pastor Kilian joined it in the year 1855. His first attendance at a meeting of the Synod was in 1860. Since there was no railroad from Texas to St. Louis at that time, he had to make the trip to Galveston, from there by boat to New Orleans, and then up the river by steamer to St. Louis. The first official of the synod to visit the Serbian colony was Pastor Herman Fick, who went down there in 1867. Upon his return he brought along with him Pastor Kilian’s son Gerhard, who later became teacher in the school founded by his father.

Such is, in a brief sketch, the history of the Wendic Lutheran colony in Texas, a story of great tribulations and trials, but also of great blessings. As early as 1861 the first German Lutherans joined the congregation, thereby adding a second language to that used by the pastor. Last year, on August 18, 1929, the congregation celebrated its diamond jubilee. The Serbian language was discontinued in public services in 1920, but the German language is still used, and English work is being done here as elsewhere. No matter what language is used, the most import thing, according to the confession of the congregation, is to remain steadfast in the apostles’ doctrine.

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