Usually it’s a good thing when we open up our mailbox and find a letter inside (I mean of the personal variety, not the prequalified credit card offers and other junk that make up the bulk of correspondence we receive these days). In the last few years I’ve gotten into the habit of regularly sending letters and postcards to my friends, family (particularly my children – I usually send them at least one letter a week), and recently I’ve started to correspond with my friend Leonard in that manner as well. It’s always a treat when I get something back from them. In fact, most recently I was pleasantly surprised when I received n letter from Leonard that included a handmade baptismal purificator (or baptismal napkin) that he’d made for the baptism of the child that Margie and I are expecting in September! How cool!
Of course, not all unexpected letters are welcome surprises. The letter that Pastor Kilian and his congregation received on the 25th of May in 1858 certainly wasn’t.
For some time a dispute had been brewing in Kilian’s congregation. Of the approximately six hundred Wends who had left Europe for Texas almost four years earlier, about two-thirds of them had been from Prussia, and the remaining one-third had been from Saxony. While in a general sense both the Saxon and Prussian Wends were “Old Lutherans,” the situation in the Lutheran churches in Prussia and Saxony differed, as did the manner in which the Old Lutherans in each kingdom dealt with challenges to their faith and practice.
In Prussia, the primary concern of the Old Lutherans was the move by Friedrich Wilhelm III (a Reformed Christian who was married to a Lutheran) to merge the Reformed and Lutheran churches into a united church that papered over the theological differences of the two. There the Old Lutherans resisted, and they eventually won a concession from the Prussian government: they could form Lutheran congregations independent of the state church.
In Saxony, the situation was different. The rulers there were Catholic, and were thus not terribly concerned with matters in the state Lutheran church. While it was nice that the government was not interfering with things as they were in Prussia, the overall theological orientation of that church was drifting ever leftward. However, the Old Lutherans in Saxony did not yet see a need to separate. Instead, they met outside of church in home groups called “conventicles” for the purpose of prayer and study of the Scriptures.
Once the Wends arrived in Texas, they found that they had a little more in common with their German-speaking neighbors than they did with their English-speaking neighbors. You can see this in action in Frank Wissel’s book, “A Voyage of Hopes and Dreams” (https://amzn.to/2IdMIvV), when the passengers of the Reform receive aid from German Societies during their journey.
Some of those German-speaking neighbors happened to be Methodists. And some of those Methodists had set up shop just down the road from Serbin, where they were conducting tent meetings.
The theology of those Methodists was in some senses just as conservative as that of the Old Lutherans. Yet in other ways, their theology and practice differed markedly from that of the Lutherans. Kilian judged many of these differences to be just as objectionable as some of the Reformed practices that the Prussian government had attempted to force the Lutherans there to accept.
Not everyone in Kilian’s congregation saw things that way, though. The practice of holding conventicles was not unique to the Old Lutherans in Saxony; it actually originated with Rev. Philipp Jakob Spener, a 17th century Lutheran pastor who wished to further reform orthodox Lutheranism. Spener’s theology and practice came to be known as Pietism, and when the Pietist Moravians exported their theology from continental Europe to Britain in the 18th century, it in turn influenced the Methodist movement within the Anglican church there. Since the conventicles were primarily a Pietist practice, there was naturally a tendency to further adopt other Pietist practices that were more or less alien to the orthodox Lutheran theology of the Old Lutherans.
Regardless of the intent, the conventicles represented something of an end run around the authority of the pastor, since those attending them were seeking spiritual edification outside of the services that he conducted. And, here in Texas, it would seem that there was some lack of confidence in Kilian’s leadership, as evidenced by the Wendish couples who sought out a Methodist pastor to conduct their weddings without Kilian’s knowledge.
In Serbin, some among Kilian’s* congregation soon began clamoring for conventicles, and for a time Kilian at least outwardly supported them by organizing prayer meetings beginning in late 1857. They were, however, directed to some degree by Kilian himself. Within about six months few were attending the meetings and they were discontinued.
It was not long after this that those who had demanded the conventicles were asked to appear at a church council meeting. Instead of appearing as requested, they responded with the aforementioned letter, in which they positioned themselves as “the little flock,” and Kilian and his congregation as their “spiritual enem[ies].” Because of this, they concluded, they had no choice but to ” leave the fellowship if [they wanted] to be true Lutherans.”
Initially, the separatists sought a pastor from the Missouri Synod, but after waiting a few months without a response**, they turned to the Texas Synod instead. By that October, the Rev. George Lieb of Round Top, after failing to reconcile them with Kilian, finally communed them.
Thus began the first St. Peter’s Lutheran Church of Serbin, Texas.
* While many of the Wends who supported conventicles were Saxon, a few Prussians supported them as well. And, while many of those who sided with Kilian were Prussian, some Saxons supported him.
** Eventually, the separatists did receive a negative response from the Missouri Synod; Pr. Schaller’s letters to Kilian (linked below) indicate that they synod took a dim view of the actions of the separatists.
Letter to the Church Council from the Separatists:
Response to the Separatists from the Church Council:
Kilian’s Account of the Events, Written to Rev. Gumlich of Weigersdorf:
Two Letters from Rev. Schaller (President of the Western District) to Kilian: