Prussian or Saxon (Part 1)

by Dr. George Nielsen, Special Features Editor

Because some of the Texas Wends originated from Prussia and some from Saxony a question could be asked if origins made a difference. Does political geography influence the way people think and act?

If you were asked about your origins, would it make a difference if you said “United States” or if you said “Texas”? You would probably say “United States” if you were talking to someone in Singapore and “Texas” if you were in Denver. A “United States” answer glosses over traits that would be meaningless to someone in Singapore while the person in Denver would be aware that a Texan is not a New Yorker.

There was no nation of Germany before 1871 and German-speaking people lived in various German-speaking provinces.

People, including Johann Kilian, saw correlations between origins and behavior and on one occasion he explained away his differences with Pastor Caspar Braun because “he is a Wuerttemberger and I am a Saxon.”

Nielsen-Map-of-LusatiaThe Wends were concentrated in three provinces: Brandenburg to the north with Cottbus as its center; the western tip of Silesia, with Hoyerswerda; and Saxony on the south with Bautzen as its center. Brandenburg joined Prussia in 1618 and in 1745 Prussia conquered Silesia. More borders changed after the Napoleonic wars so that at the time of Wendish migration the Wends were either in the kingdom of Prussia or the kingdom of Saxony.

Because the Prussia king was Calvinist and his wife was Lutheran they did not participate in the same celebration of the Lord’s Supper. And in Potsdam, the residence of the royal dynasty, there were two garrison churches—one Calvinist and one Protestant. In 1799, the year after he became king, Frederick William III called for a common liturgy for both Lutheran and Calvinist churches. The primary motivation for denominational change was not primarily religious, but it was part of the centralization of power needed to survive in the struggle with other European nations. Following the defeat of the Battle of Jena in 1806 the king assigned the administration of religious bodies to an agency of the royal government.

In Saxony, even though the Saxon population was primarily Lutheran, the rulers of Saxony were Catholic, and had been since 1697. The king did not interfere with the Saxon State church, and instead a council, or a consistory, of clergymen administered church affairs. Theologians and not state officials made the decisions concerning the Saxon church.

So while residents of Prussia and Saxony had much in common and shared the same denominations, their religious life was not identical, and that in turn set the stage for two different experiences. Now, would those different experiences translate into thought and action? To understand the two different experiences, it is necessary to review the Lutheran sacraments and
then fit them into the two provinces.

Lutheran Sacraments

The Lutheran church subscribes to two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. Both meet the three requirements for a sacrament: instituted by God, visible elements, and means of grace.

While the two sacraments have so much in common, there are differences in the implementation. In the case of baptism, the recipient can be anyone—from infant to aged. The visible element, water, may be applied through sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. The administration of baptism, although generally done by a pastor, can also be done by any layperson, especially if the infant might not survive. Few theological debates have focused on baptism, and a single baptism lasts a lifetime. Baptism was rarely an issue of debate, so we will focus instead on the second sacrament.

The Lord’s Supper follows a different protocol. Only an ordained clergyman administers the sacrament, the recipients must
understand the teachings of the sacrament, and the participation is repeated throughout the believer’s life. And there are dire warnings about improper participation at its celebration. First, there must be acknowledgement of sins committed, remorse for such acts, and gratitude for the forgiveness God grants. And while there may be no controversy concerning the visible element in Baptism there are conflicting views concerning the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. Luther taught what is called the Real Presence. The bread and wine are visible, but at the same time, in keeping with Christ’s assertion when he instituted the sacrament, so are his body and blood. Calvin, on the other hand taught that only the bread and wine were present, and that they symbolized Christ’s body and blood. Doing the Lord’s Supper right was important to a believer because—instead of forgiveness—a person who takes the sacrament improperly does not receive God’s grace, but God’s condemnation. Serious business. It was the Sacrament of Holy Communion that became an issue of contention for many Prussian citizens, Wend and German alike.

In order to understand the religious response of the Wends, two points must be kept in mind: (1) only an ordained clergyman can administer the sacrament and (2) if the observance of the Eucharist does not follow the pattern set up by Christ, then the recipient endangers his soul.

George Nielsen

George Nielsen is a professor emeritus at Concordia University, River Forest, Illinois; noted Wendish historian; author of In Search of a Home, Nineteenth-Century Wendish Immigration; special features editor of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society Newsletter; and author of a biography of Jan Kilian.

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1 Response

  1. Betty Saenz says:

    My “Germans” were from Prussia. This is so interesting. I love geneology!