St. Peter Lutheran Church at Serbin and Rev. Johann Pallmer

In the two previous issues of the TWHS Newsletter, I attempted to show how the religious environments of Prussia and Saxony contributed to the creation of the first St. Peter church in Serbin. While this first separatist group remained small and the congregation was short-lived (1858 to 1867), a second St. Peter came into existence in 1870, which lasted for forty-four years. Even though most of the members of the first St. Peter congregation were also members of the second, pietism was not the divisive issue. The issue that split the second St. Peter from the mother church was language: not Wendish vs. German, but Wendish/German vs. only German. Pastor Kilian preached in German and Wendish and conducted services in both languages, while Article VI of St. Peter’s constitution explicitly stated that the only language to be used in divine services would be German.

It is hard to imagine how language could lead to a division on something that could have been resolved through good will. The primary language of the mother church, subsequently named St. Paul, was Wendish; German was secondary. That minor inequity, for the two years prior to the split, so roiled the congregation that the language issue hardened and could not be compromised. And it is ironic that as the new St. Peter congregation took shape, it became not a purely German congregation, but a bi-lingual congregation using both German and Wendish—the same languages used by the mother church—except the primary language was reversed.

From Inner Congregation to Voters’ Assembly

In 1855, as the Wends settled the Serbin area, they founded their own congregation just as they had done in Prussia. Creating a church at their expense, without state help, was therefore not a new experience in the Texas setting. The laymen took charge and assumed responsibility. This group was called the “inner congregation” and these men looked after the physical property and took care of church matters in general. Initially, membership in that group was open only to men who held property in the Delaplain League because their land purchases paid for the church lands staked out in the center of the league. Later on, landowners outside of the league could become members if they paid an amount based on the size of their property. Eventually, membership in the inner congregation required a $2.00 payment. The “outer congregation” was composed of all the members of the congregation, including Germans, who were considered guests. The inner congregation made the decisions for resolving the problems as they arose, and that system existed for ten years—from 1855 to 1865. The meetings were conducted in Wendish, and Pastor Kilian served as both chairman and secretary.

In 1866, when the congregation filed documents to join the Missouri Synod, some officials of the Synod found fault with the system of the inner congregation because poor people were potentially excluded. Synodical leaders preferred a voters’ assembly that was open to all male parishioners. The Serbin congregation acquiesced. The voters elected a Wendish chairman and Vice-chairman, and Pastor Kilian stepped aside and served only as the authority on religious matters. Some of the new voters were German who did not understand Wendish, so the meetings were conducted in German and the secretary, Gottfried Lehnigk, recorded the minutes in German.

Most Wendish men understood German, and Kilian agreed to translate the German into Wendish for those who did not. One problem with using German exclusively was that some Wends hesitated to speak because they were not fluent in German. The Germans spoke up without hesitation, and Kilian noted that the Germans began to “tyrannize us.” Also, the pauses necessitated for translation made the proceedings awkward, so that system was abandoned in favor of translating the German minutes into Wendish. The concession settled the issue for a while, but the accommodation to the synodical requirement became the first wedge, and initiated an undercurrent of resentment in the Wendish majority over losing its language. (From January 1867 to January 1868, the voters divided into separate Wendish and German assemblies, but that system was not satisfactory.)

In addition to the practical usage of language, there was also a nationalistic factor. Wendish resentment toward German dominance, part of the age-old tension between the German and the Slav, crossed the Atlantic with the emigrants not only on the Ben Nevis but also with the Wends who migrated after the Civil War. German nationalism also crossed the Atlantic and grew more vocal as German power in Europe expanded during the 1860s and culminated with the unification of Germany in 1871. There were even some Wends who thought German was the language of the future and supported the use of the German language in Texas. If a Wend married a German, Kilian considered that family as German. In 1868, the congregation’s membership was divided between 493 Wends and 88 Germans.

Calling a Teacher

It was within this two-year framework (1868- 1870) that preferences became convictions and the second division took place. It started with the congregation’s school. Beginning with the migration, Pastor Kilian had served as the parish schoolteacher and taught in both German and Wendish. As he aged and as the school grew in size, his effectiveness as a teacher suffered. A few years earlier, in 1867, a Wend, Gottfried Lehnigk, had helped teach for a time, and the parents were pleased with having a full-time teacher. After Lehnigk returned to the North, the parents lobbied for a full-time teacher instead of being satisfied with Kilian’s service. Kilian’s feelings were hurt, but he did not oppose the voters’ decision to ask for a graduate from the synod’s teachers’ seminary in Addison, Illinois. Kilian’s son, Gerhard, attended the school, but he was a few years short of graduation and there was no other candidate who knew Wendish.

Not only would the Addison graduate be called to teach, he would become the cantor, the organist, and leader of congregational singing “according to the local [Wendish] practice.” The candidate would begin by teaching school and at the same time he would learn how to play the organ and also learn Wendish and the Wendish way of singing. Kilian would teach the Wendish-speaking children three times a week. The director of Addison had a candidate, Ernest Leubner, a recent immigrant from Germany, twenty-one years of age, who had attended Addison for one year. Although qualified to teach, Leubner did not know Wendish and had studied piano for less than a year.

Leubner was installed as the teacher on August 3, 1868 and, under the tutelage of Kilian and Carl Teinert (the current church musician), began practicing the organ, learning Wendish, and familiarizing himself with the ways the Wends sang. Although he progressed with music, learning Wendish and Wendish ways proved difficult. The stage was set for a controversy that involved the congregation and the use of German and Wendish languages in church services—not just in the Voters’ Assembly.

Should Leubner, who was called to be organist and cantor, serve in those positions even if he was not competent, or should Carl Teinert, who had served as organist and cantor for years, continue to do so even if he had not been called? The controversy became complicated and various proposals failed to find a resolution. Positions hardened, and it became clear to the Wends that Wendish ways would suffer further erosion.

Seeing no solution to the conflict, Kilian resigned his position on May 22, 1870. The Wendish group sent him a new call and he accepted, while the German group sent a call to John Pallmer in Baden, Missouri, which he accepted. In September, the Wendish Voters’ Assembly banned the group that had called Pallmer from using the church and school, but consented to return the contributions of money and labor members of the Pallmer group had made to the church property. Pastor Kilian estimated that two-thirds, approximately 444, remained with St. Paul and that one-third, approximately 220, joined St. Peter.

Founding of Second St. Peter Church

Kilian predicted that only a civil court could resolve the problem. On September 20, 1870, however, four lawyers, two from each side, drafted a document acceptable by both sides. In return for relinquishing their claims against the property of St. Paul, St. Peter members received the fifty acres held by the first St. Peter congregation as well as the congregation’s buildings (but not the house built by John Schoenig), the old St. Paul organ, $628.23, and use of the cemetery.

The documents, however, do not explain why the second St. Peter did not occupy the old church a mile away or build a new, larger church on the fifty acres. Instead the members of the second St. Peter established their new home near St. Paul, opposite the cemetery. (The precise location has not been identified with a marker.) The initial expectation of the German group had been that the two congregations would share the new stone church, but the Wendish group did not agree. Somehow the two parties arrived at an understanding and St. Peter received a portion of the St. Paul church lands. The members of the second St. Peter then dismantled the abandoned original St. Peter church and used the salvaged lumber to build a parsonage near the cemetery. A church building would be completed a few months later and was dedicated on April 26, 1871.

Pastor Pallmer arrived before the parsonage was ready, but it was quickly completed and used for his installation. St. Paul had refused permission to use their church for the occasion even though Kilian performed the installation on December 11, 1870. Both congregations were members of the Missouri Synod, and it was customary that the nearest pastor would administer the rite.

Because the two groups had so much in common, Kilian compared the division to the Biblical separation of Abraham and Lot. To avoid conflict, Lot selected the lower lands and Abraham kept his flock in the highlands—but they served the same God. The analogy was not a perfect one because Lot’s and Abraham’s lands were separated while St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s parish boundaries coincided. And even though both congregations were members of the same synod, the close proximity required on-going delicate diplomacy.

For the next forty-four years, two churches, separated only by language, existed side-by-side. St. Paul eventually lost the struggle to preserve the Wendish language and used primarily German; St. Peter, the smaller, lost its reason to exist, and finally turned over its property to St. Paul.

(Next issue: Pastor Pallmer)

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.