Jan Kilian, 1811 – 1884, Kěrluše – Choräle – Hymns

On the occasion of Jan Kilian’s 200th birthday, we created a CD that presents his chorals to the broad public for the first time. We have selected 22 of his songs, with 17 being his own creations among them and nine containing Kilian’s original melody (Numbers 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 17, 19, 20, and 22). Additionally, you can find five translations of German chorals into Wendish.

The songs on this CD are grouped by their theme as follows:

Jan Kilian’s credo (No. 1)

Religious fundamental event (Nos. 2-4)

The Church (Nos. 5-9)

Everyday: God’s gifts, summer delights, charity, marriage, birth, death of the son, longing (Nos. 10-17)

Death and eternal life (Nos. 18-22).

This CD can be purchased from the Texas Wendish Heritage Society, 1011 CR 212, Giddings, TX 78942 through its Executive Director, wendish@bluebon.net, or online at www.texaswendish.org.

As son of a free land owner, Jan Kilian was born on March 22, 1811 in Döhlen near Hochkirch. Losing his parents at the age of 10, he grew up with his grandfather in Hochkirch, where he also completed elementary school. After that he attended secondary school in Bautzen from 1826 to 1831 and studied theology in Leipzig from 1831 to 1835. Later he worked as assistant pastor in his hometown of Hochkirch and, starting in 1837, as pastor in Kotitz. Besides his official duties, he engaged in Wendish literature and fully devoted himself to Lutheran teaching among the Wends.

Within only a few years, he published a series of Wendish books, mainly translations of German religious literature. He repeatedly applied for the permission to publish a Wendish religious magazine, which he was denied. In 1841 he became a member of the Upper Lusatian Society of Sciences in Görlitz and since 1847 he was part of the Wendish scientific society Maćica Serbska. He spoke out against liberalization movements by initiating the Kotitz petition in 1845. This petition, supported by 10,000 people, was then handed out to the Saxon government in Dresden. From Kotitz he also led the religious separation in the Wendish area of Prussia, which resulted in the foundation of the Old Lutheran congregation of Weigersdorf/Klitten in 1843. From 1848 to 1854 he worked as Old Lutheran pastor in Prussia, his area of responsibility extending up to Lübben in the Spreewald. In 1848 he also married Maria Gröschel from Särka, a Wendish peasant’s daughter from the parish of Kotitz. The couple was gifted with nine children, of which five grew to adulthood.

Together with almost 600 Wends, the family immigrated to Texas in 1854. There, the township of Serbin was founded in 1855, the most significant Wendish colony across the ocean. In the following decades, Serbin became the primary emigration destination of Wends from Upper Lusatia. Kilian was the first in Texas to join the German Lutheran church of the Missouri Synod in 1855 and lead his congregation to join it as well in 1866. He worked as a pastor up to the year 1883 and also as a teacher in Serbin till 1872. Serbin was troubled with religious conflicts in 1858 and national disputes in 1870, which lead to its division. When Jan Kilian tried to return to Lusatia, he did not succeed. He died on September 12, 1884 in Serbin.

Even today, Jan Kilian is remembered with awe. For some Wendish descendants in Texas he is considered to be the Wendish Moses, who led his people over the sea from European suppression into America’s liberty. In church history, he went down as founder of Old Lutheran parishes in Wendish areas, as spiritual leader of the last great emigration of Old Lutherans from Prussia, and as Father of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in Texas. His biographer Ota Wicaz called him “one of the most faithful and significant Wends to have ever existed.”

In the years in Kotitz from 1837 to 1848, Jan Kilian displayed much talent as a choral poet. He became singer of the 19th century’s Lutheran awakening among the Wends. Already in 1838, songs from his pen were added to the new issue of the Wendish hymnbook. In 1846, he published a collection of his hymns titled “Spewarske wjesele” (“Joyful Singing“) and followed it up in 1847 with a little book containing the corresponding melodies. As he writes in the preamble, nine of those melodies “just came to him, (…) who hardly understands a thing of music.” In creating the musical notation, he was supported by the Kotitz cantor and church school teacher Johann Traugott Michalk. Kilian’s song book was used for decades in some Wendish schools and has been reissued repeatedly. More than with other Wendish choral poets, in Kilian’s works one can note a national accent besides the religious one. For example, in “Zbudźenje za Serbow” (“Wendish Anthem“) he urges his people: “Serbjo, zachowajće swěru / swojich wótcow rěć a wěru!” (“Wendish people, keep the witness of our parents’ hope and language.”) This call became Jan Kilian’s personal credo and a winged word among the Wends. Besides writing original works, Kilian also undertook choral translations into the Wendish language, among them such popular ones like “Go forth, my heart, and seek delight” from Paul Gerhardt and “Jerusalem, thou city fair and high” from Johann Matthäus Meyfart.

Altogether, Jan Kilian is known for more than 50 original religious songs and 70 translations. Not just by the sheer number, but also by the eloquence and expressiveness of his works, Jan Kilian is one of the most outstanding poets among the Wends. Bjarnat Krawc considered him a significant hymnist and made in the 1920s edits of his chorals. During the decades of Socialism, Kilian and his life work fell into oblivion. Only in recent times, they are experiencing a renaissance. A selection of his poetry was published in the series “Serbska poezija” (“Sorbian Poetry”) in 1999 and again, translated into English, in the USA in 2010. His chorals are popular among Wends of both denominations. The Protestant song book contains 19 and the Catholic counterpart three of his hymns.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *