Why Wendish Lutherans Moved to Sam Houston’s Texas

[Note: I wrote this after reading in a source that Kilian’s call was on May 25, 1854. However since then I’ve found the actual call document (you can see it online here https://forum.wendishresearch.org/viewthread.php?tid=2644) which is dated May 23. It could be that the original source was just incorrect, or it may be that Kilian officially accepted the call on May 25. Either way, my statement below that the group called Kilian on May 25 is incorrect.]

One hundred and sixty-five years ago, on this day in 1854, a group of just under six hundred Wends in Saxony and Prussia who were planning to immigrate to Texas called the Rev. Jan Kilian as their pastor. I’ve posted quite a bit over the last few weeks about the history of that group here in Texas, but why did they want to leave their homes in what is today Eastern Germany, cross the Atlantic, and come to Texas, particularly when BBQ joints like the City Meat Market in Giddings, Thorndale Meat Market, or Snow’s in Lexington didn’t exist yet?

To answer that question we have to go back even further in history, to the year 1613. That’s the year that John Sigismund, the Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, publicly converted from Lutheranism to Calvinism. That was a little less than one hundred years after Luther used a hammer and nail to post a rather long note on the door of the castle church in Wittenburg in 1517. Sigismund thought all the other Lutherans should join him in being Calvinist, and tried to forcibly convert them. Naturally, that didn’t go over well, and in the ensuing controversy, his wife backed the Lutherans. I’m sure y’all have already guessed how his plan worked out.

Yep, he backed down and allowed his subjects to either be Lutheran or Calvinist. A few years later, in 1619, he died. His idea did not, though it almost two centuries passed before it gained a foothold.

In 1797, Friedrich Wilhelm III ascended to the throne in Prussia. Like Sigismund before him, he was in a mixed marriage; he was Calvinist and his wife was Lutheran. He was also bound and determined to decomplexify (isn’t that a great word?) things and consolidate the Lutheran and Reformed churches in his realm.

His first move was to decree that the government create a new liturgical agenda for worship that merged both traditions and would be acceptable to both Lutherans and the Reformed. Or so he thought. However, it would be a while before he found out how wrong he was, because even though work on the new agenda began in 1798, it wasn’t completed until 1821. Gotta love government efficiency!

In the mean time, in 1817, he thought that perhaps the 300th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation would be a great time to begin the process of consolidating the two churches, and he announced that on Reformation Day that year that the Lutheran and Reformed garrison churches in Potsdam would be merged into a single Evangelical congregation. Over the next few years, he increased the pressure for Lutheran and Reformed congregations to use the new agenda, drop their theological distinctions, and play along nicely with his plan.

Although quite a few churches did as they were told, there were elements in the Lutheran and Reformed tradition that found the idea of adopting a hybrid theology that dropped or minimized aspects that they found important to be repulsive, and they refused to comply. The folks on the Reformed side found the new agenda and practice to be too Catholic for their tastes, and the Lutherans weren’t at all pleased either.

Now if you’re not familiar with the differences between Calvinist (or Reformed) and Lutheran theology, you might be wondering what all the hubbub was about. So I’m going to risk starting a fight here and ask you to think about your political party. Now imagine that the government comes along and says “Hey, there are too many political parties in our nation, so we’re going to smash them together and create a new political party with a compromise platform that incorporates aspects of every party’s platform so that it is agreeable to everyone.” Yes, including compromising on positions that you find very important.

Would you like that? Probably not.

Eventually, Friedrich Wilhelm III had to walk back his attempts to unite the two churches and allowed the Lutherans to form independent congregations. After his death in 1840, his son Friedrich Wilhelm IV, dialed things back even further. However, even though things were definitely better for the independent Lutherans, it was hard to forget how the government had attempted to force them to adopt a theology they weren’t in agreement with.

Meanwhile, in Saxony, things weren’t going well for Lutherans either. Saxony was mainly Catholic, and there the government wasn’t too concerned with the Lutherans and generally left them alone. However, the Lutheran church in Saxony was veering ever leftward theologically, which concerned folks on the conservative end of the Lutheran spectrum. Their answer to this problem was to begin meeting in homes to study Scripture rather than leaving the state church outright.

Here’s where Pastor Jan Kilian enters the picture. Kilian, a Wend, had been born in Saxony, and initially was a pastor in the state church. However, he eventually left the state church and began serving a number of the independent Wendish “Old Lutheran” congregations in Prussia. Kilian was also very interested in preserving the Wendish language and culture in a time where the Wends were slowly being absorbed into German culture.

In a general sense, we can say that the group of Lutheran Wends from Saxony and Prussia that issued the call to Pastor Kilian on May 25, 1854 wanted to go somewhere where the government wouldn’t meddle with their “Old Lutheran” faith and practice. The desire to preserve their culture and language also played a part in their plans. And, of course, it’s almost certain that some folks in the group, particularly those of limited financial means, were hoping to improve their lot economically.

In the end, though, generalization doesn’t work. In a group of almost six hundred people, not everybody is going to be on the same page. While these folks were united in a common goal– immigrating to Texas– once they settled down, those differences in purpose, as well as the differences in the way the Saxon and Prussian Wends approached the challenges to their Lutheran faith, would soon lead to conflict in the new world.

Oh, and the cabin in the photo? That’s half of the dogtrot cabin that served as the church, school, and parsonage in Serbin, where most of the 1854 group settled. Pastor Kilian lived there until his death on September 12, 1884.

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