Prussian or Saxon (Part 2)

by Dr. George Nielsen, Special Features Editor


It was in 1817 that the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, decreed the creation of a single church that merged the two Protestant faiths-Lutheran and Calvinist-although participation was voluntary. Compliance was anemic, and the king did little more than make the change at the garrison church in Potsdam where he worshipped. The king, while he was unwilling to enforce his decree, became personally involved in writing a new Agenda, or a communion liturgy, that would be acceptable to both faiths. The new Agenda appeared in 1821, but it created opposition, especially from Lutherans because the wording was vague-the result of a strategy employed to avoid criticism from either faith. In 1829, a revised version appeared and the next year, 1830, the king ordered both Lutheran and Calvinist faiths to adopt the name Evangelical and to use the new liturgy. Opposition mounted, and the king backed off on the Evangelical demand, but he insisted that the Agenda would be used in all Protestant churches in Prussia.

Resistance continued, however, and was strongest in the former province of Silesia and centered in the city of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland). Congregations and pastors broke the law and in secret meetings continued using the Lutheran order of service. Police arrested and jailed pastors, and government courts fined parishioners for attending clandestine services. Those who resisted were called names such as “fanatics”, but the most common was “Old Lutheran.” Emigration to other provinces was an early response by those who would not compromise, and in 1838 a large departure of Old Lutherans from Prussia began as they boarded ships for Australia and America.

When Friedrich Wilhelm III died in 1840, opposition to the Evangelical (or Union) Church became more public, and the successor to the throne, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, adopted a more moderate policy. Even though he retained the Union church, in 1845 he permitted the Lutherans to form their own synod-the Breslau Synod. The Old Lutherans then called their own pastors and built their own churches (without steeples or bells), but they received no monetary support from the state. The easing of the restrictions did not halt emigration, and in 1854 the Ben Nevis group left Europe, thirty-seven years after the king’s initial order and nine years after Lutherans had won the concession to use their own Lutheran liturgy.

A Prussian Wend’s primary concern was the celebration of the Eucharist. It had to be administered by a clergyman and it had to be done with the specific, not vague, words of institution. A layman could not perform the sacrament and the Union church’s vague liturgy was unacceptable. That was the struggle of the Prussian Wend.

Pastor Johann Kilian served at Kotitz, a parish in Saxony that was near the Prussian border. Lutherans from Prussia visited his congregation and celebrated the Eucharist with his flock. He also crossed the border and visited those newly formed independent congregations that were associated with the Breslau Synod. When the Prussian authorities learned of these cross-border activities, their diplomats complained to the Saxony diplomats, and the Saxon authorities threatened to remove Kilian from his pulpit if he did not cease his meddling in Prussian affairs. Eventually, in 1848, he accepted a call from the Weigersdorf-Klitten parish and moved from Saxony to Prussia. He joined the Prussian Wends in their struggle and served as the pastor who administered the Lord’s Supper in the Lutheran way. When he joined the migration to Texas, he and the Prussian Wends had a common experience as a result of this struggle.


The Saxon religious setting differed significantly from that in Prussia. Even so, discontent was also present in the Saxon church. It was not over the Lord’s Supper, but over the growing influence of Rationalism in religious circles. Rationalism was the religious aspect of the Age of Reason. If the application of scientific thought was the way to improve human existence, then why not apply reason to religious life as well? Pastors toned-down such teachings as the atoning work of Christ, miracles, and the concept of original sin, and instead they preached about God’s benevolence and attempted to provide solutions to life’s problems from reason and not Scripture. While the urban middle class generally was receptive to the rationalist mindset, the peasant and laboring classes were not.

As Rationalism spread among the clergy and became the focus in seminaries, a reaction set in among those who adhered to the traditional Lutheran message. Unlike the Prussians, the Saxons continued to take the Lord’s Supper in church from a rationalist pastor because the sacrament was not changed. Rationalism targeted the head and not the heart and somehow something more was needed to meet their desire for a full spiritual life. The solution was a movement led by devout laymen. They met as families or in larger informal groups called conventicles to read the religious books, to pray, and sing traditional hymns. They also identified those pastors who continued to base their ministry on the Lutheran Confessions and then traveled long distances to hear their message.

So the Saxon Wends remained with the state church where they received the Eucharist the Lutheran way. Instead of building independent congregations and drawing around a faithful pastor and orthodox services, they focused on personal piety and private emotional reassurance.

Prussian and Saxon in the Ben Nevis-Serbin Congregation

Six persons signed the call document in May 1854 asking Johann Kilian to be their pastor. Four were Prussians and two were Saxons. Nothing in the document identifies their nationality and no details were given for the four-and-two division. At that time no one knew how many emigrants from either country would join the group.

Five months later, as the Ben Nevis was being decontaminated in the Queenstown harbor, the Wends on the Inconstant elected five persons to serve on the Church Council-three were identified as Prussians and two as Saxons. By this time, the leaders knew that roughly 300 emigrants were from Prussia and approximately 200 were from Saxony. This information indicates that the leaders were aware of nationality and suggests that they had a concept of representation.

Although some minor cases of discontent surfaced during the remainder of the voyage, none was related to nationality, and the creation of a church council proved to be an effective way of dealing with issues.

The conciliatory pattern, however, was interrupted in the autumn of 1856, a year and a half after the purchase of the Delaplain League. Two men, one a Saxon and one a Prussian, confronted Pastor Kilian after a church service for his failure to observe any days of repentance (BußtageBOOSE tah gay). The complaint surprised Kilian because there had been no previous indication of any discontent concerning this custom. The observances of the major church festivals such as Christmas and Easter were fixed, but the various German provinces set their own procedures on Bußtage. Prussians observed four days; Saxons observed two days. The congregational leaders resolved the problem and authorized Kilian to make the decision. Kilian set two services of repentance: the first Sunday in Lent and the Friday before Advent. Although the incident does not illustrate a Saxon-Prussian division in the congregation, it does show how the people tried to preserve the religious practices they held in Europe even when those practices were not always identical.

The next year, 1857, Kilian reported a controversy within the congregation over the use of conventicles, or prayer meetings. One portion of the congregation supported the practice of meetings during the week and another opposed it. Although Kilian did not identify the proponents, it was a practice that the Saxons had used in response to Rationalism. It was during this extended congregational discussion that the German Methodists at Grassyville, about four miles away, conducted a camp meeting and invited guests. The emotional elements of a camp meeting appealed to the pietism of the Saxons and some attended. One Wendish couple, Saxons, joined the Methodist congregation.

Kilian admonished the congregation about attending the Methodist meetings, and even though Kilian was not sympathetic with the conventicle movement, he tried to accommodate the pietists by setting up prayer meetings every Wednesday and Friday evening. He involved the lay people in prayers, but the enthusiasm generated by the Methodists could not be duplicated. Six months later, after Easter, 1858, Kilian ended his meetings. No other Wends joined the Methodists but some fraternization continued. Kilian waited for another five weeks and then preached a sermon in which he presented three options for resolving the issue. Either everyone would agree on a solution, or there would be a separation of the two groups, or Kilian would leave the congregation.

The pietists responded with a letter in which they stated their decision to separate from the congregation because they did not believe they could compromise their beliefs, nor did they desire the departure of Kilian. Thirteen persons signed the letter-nine Saxons and four Prussians. In response, the leaders of the main congregation sent a letter supporting Kilian and signed by five officers-four Prussians and one Saxon. So while the European experience as Prussian or Saxon may have been significant, other factors such as personal friendships and family ties prevented a clean-cut division along national lines.

The new congregation named itself St. Peter and built a church about a mile away from the mother church. Kilian offered to baptize their children and invited them to bury their dead in the cemetery, but he refused to welcome them to the Lord’s Supper. St. Peter instead turned to clergymen from the Lutheran Texas Synod for the Lord’s Supper. The language in church was German, although Wendish could have been used in reading services or in family settings. The church did not grow and in 1865 there were only forty-five communicant members. Two years later, in 1867, the congregation closed its doors and deeded its property to the mother church. The members of St. Peter returned to the mother church and remained there until 1870 when two new churches were founded-one at Fedor and another one in Serbin. Some Saxon Wends had moved to Fedor, originally called the West Yegua, already in 1855 and traveled the twenty miles to Serbin for church. Then in 1870, twenty families founded a new church and a Saxon, Johann Proft, became their pastor in 1871. The other church in Serbin was also named St. Peter, but it was located on the other side of the cemetery from the newly named St. Paul’s church and not at the location of the original St. Peter’s church. (The reason for the second division in the Serbin church was not pietism but the use of the Wendish or German language.)

The irony is that the pietist Saxons in Texas faced the same issue the Prussians faced in Europe-the Lord’s Supper. Methodists were also Calvinists, and the Lutheran Saxons in Texas had to choose between the Lutheran Lord’s Supper and the emotional fulfillment of the Methodists. Rather than becoming Calvinists, the Saxons adopted the Prussian response-they created a new congregation. The first St. Peter failed, but Fedor flourished and became the haven for the vestiges of Saxon pietism. Time healed wounds and St. Paul, the second St. Peter, and Fedor all became members of the Missouri Synod. In Texas Saxons and Prussians needed each other to make the church work, and piety became a personal decision rather than a congregational one.

In 1876, Rev. G. Birkmann replaced Proft as the Fedor pastor. He did not refer to his parishioners as Saxons, but he did notice their piety:

“Mr. Jacob Moerbe and his brothers-in-law, the Wuensches and the Dubes, have been leading members for years in the Fedor church being very well informed and pious people, who had daily prayers in their homes, attended every service, brought up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, gave liberally from their goods for the support of church and school, and led an exemplary Christian life.” Ray Martens, Worthy of Double Honor: The Rev. G. Birkmann, DD (Austin: Concordia University Press, 2011), 333.

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.

1 Response

  1. Norman M. Kneschk says:

    I always wondered why the two Lutheran Churches never merged.
    I have researched the Eber Nezer church at Manheim and learned that the Kneschk’s and the Meissner’s belonged to the church at the same time, and the Kneschk’s moved to Haskell Co. and the Meissner’s moved to Hamilton Co.