The Poetry and Music of Jan Kilian

The Poetry and Music of Jan Kilian, edited by David Zersen, translated by Viera Buzgova and Milan Pohontsch, with English lyrics by Martin Doering and tune harmonics by Harold Rutz, is a product of the Concordia University Press, Austin, Texas.

We have reproduced for you here the introduction by Trudla Malinkowa, of Bautzen, Germany.

Copies of The Poetry and Music of Jan Kilian can be purchased from the Texas Wendish Heritage Society, 1011 CR 212, Giddings, TX 78942 or through the Executive Director, or online at

Jan Kilian was born on March 22, 1811, in Döhlen, a small Wendish village near the Lusatian Mountains in Upper Lusatia. He was the first child of the farmer Peter Kilian and his wife Maria, nee Mättig, from Hochkirch. At the age of ten he became an orphan, legally represented by his uncle, Johann Mättig, a miller from Niethen. The inherited farm of the parents and the contributions made by his relatives enabled him to receive a higher education. Beginning in 1826 he became a student at the Gymnasium in Bautzen, the capital of Upper Lusatia. There he gathered Wendish students mutually to study their native language.

During his study of theology at the university in Leipzig from 1831 to 1834 he did not join the Lusatian preacher’s society, Sorabia, as did other Wendish students, but rather joined a group of pious German students. From the year 1834 on, he served as an assistant preacher for the parish pastor, Michael Möhn, in his home parish in Hochkirch. To fulfill his youthful pledge to become a missionary, he went in 1837 to study at the mission seminary St. Chrischona in Basel, Switzerland. While there, he learned of the death of his uncle, Pastor Michal Kilian, in Kotitz, a village near Hochkirch. Returning to Lusatia, he became the pastor in Kotitz in September 1837.

Because of the small size of the parish, Jan Kilian had enough time to dedicate to personal interests. Employing his pen in the service of the Lutheran Wends, he published his first two booklets in 1838. More writing followed in subsequent years, most of it devotional literature, translated by him from German into Wendish. He also composed hymns and spiritual songs, publishing them in newspapers, journals, hymnals, and also in his own devotional books. Kilian published only one collection of poems, Spewarske wjesele [Joyful Singing] (Bautzen 1846, 1858, 1881). One year later he added tunes to the words, among them some he had composed himself (Bautzen 1847). The Saxon Ministry of Culture in Dresden rejected his repeated requests for a license to publish a Wendish Lutheran magazine. Beginning in the year 1841, he became a member of the Upper Lusatian Academic Society in Görlitz, and in 1847 he joined the newly founded Wendish academic society Maćica Serbska in Bautzen.

While still a pastor in Kotitz, Saxony, he led the separation of Lutheran Wends from the United Church in neighboring Prussia. In the year 1848 he became the pastor to the Old Lutheran parishes in Weigersdorf and Klitten, founded in 1843, as well as to some affiliated parishes in middle and Lower Lusatia. He moved to Dauban near Weigersdorf and married Maria Gröschel, the daughter of a Wendish farmer from Särka, a village of his former congregation in Kotitz. After the parsonage was finished in 1852, the young family lived in Weigersdorf. Because of the huge amount of work and also because of problems within the congregation, his writing activities declined. In the year 1854 he took the opportunity to emigrate, a desire he had nurtured for years. Together with almost 600 Wends from Saxony and Prussia he immigrated with his family to Texas.

Kilian named the town the immigrants founded in 1855, Serbin. There he served the parish as pastor until 1883 and as teacher until 1872. Kilian was the first Texas pastor to join the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, which had been founded by, among others, a former fellow student from Leipzig, Carl Ferdinand Walther. Continuing contentions in his parish drained his energy, and his desire to move back to Lusatia was never realized. Only occasionally did he again put his poetic pen to paper, as he did for the roofing ceremonies of St. Paul ‘s Lutheran churches in Serbin in the years 1859 and 1868.Jan Kilian died September 12, 1884, in Serbin, Texas, where he was also buried.

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lt is really not easy to place Jan Kilian in the literature of the Wendish Awakening movement in the middle of the 19th century. “He stands alone among his contemporaries, isolated and unique.” That’s how Rudolf Jenč (Stawizny serbskeho pismowstwa [Rudolf Jentsch, History of Wendish Literature], Bautzen 1954) describes Kilian’s position. Loneliness characterized his life, from his childhood as an orphan through the productive period in Lusatia to his isolation on the barren plains in Texas. All alone he voiced his appeal: “Wendish people, keep alive our parents’ faith and speech.” This admonition was not unfamiliar, but Kilian’s intent was specific. He wanted to unite the conservative Lutheran confession and the Wendish language in a structure that guarded the faith.

Some understood his words to have mere religious appeal, and today honor Kilian as a founder of parishes, as the father of the Missouri Synod in Texas, and as the Wendish Moses who led his people across the waters from bondage to freedom. Others welcomed his efforts to preserve the language, but rejected his religious perspective. The ambivalent relationship of the Wendish intelligentsia toward Kilian encouraged the view that he was a “lower middle class utopian,” with the somewhat fanciful goal to “build a social and national ‘Kingdom of Heaven”‘ (Nowy biografiski slownik [New Biographie Dictionary], Bautzen 1984). Only a few individuals accepted the spirit of Kilian’s appeal. Admiring the qualities in his life, they easily ran the risk of glorifying him. For Matej Urban (Matthäus Urban), Kilian’s successor as pastor in the Old Lutheran congregation of Weigersdorf and Klitten and a Wendish poet himself, Kilian was a “religious hero.” Ota Wicaz (Otto Lehmann) calls him “one of the most faithful and most famous Wends who ever lived” (Předźenak 1927), a man with a prophetic spirit, who “surpasses all of our hymn writers” (Pomhaj Boh 1951).

Kilian himself gives us the key to his religious songs:

Where the church of God stands in living strength, there the people are nowhere ashamed to sing spiritual hymns, be it in a city or village, at home or out-of-doors, on the mountains or in valleys, in solitude or in society. But where people are ashamed to sing spiritual hymns, there life is not worth living; there is the end of tranquil joy; there you can hear the sad sound of songs that were learned at godless spinning gatherings and baptismal feasts. This is the sound of the losers! Seductive and destructive is the singing of secular songs, but useful and constructive is the singing of spiritual hymns.

Spwarske wjesele [Joyful Singing],

Bautzen 1846

The rejection of secular songs, which is also a criticism of Jan Arnost Smoler (Johann Ernst Schmaler) and his Grosser Sammelband wendischer Volkslieder / Pesnički hornich a delnich Lužiskich Serbow [Songs of the Upper and Lower Lusatian Wends, Grimma 1841-43], is a consequence of Kilian’s uncompromising theological position. He does not foster the tradition of folk rhymes, but rather the tradition of religious poetry. Biblical psalms, hymns and odes form the root of his creations, and centuries old singing traditions from the ancient Church fathers to Martin Luther to contemporary poets are his models.

Kilian is a singer of the Lutheran Awakening movement of the 19th century, which unifies in itself the pietism and orthodoxy of the 18th century, and which using a critical perspective and sharp words argues with its own era. Masterfully, Kilian uses the poetic forms from both pious directions to create dignified church hymns for the worship service, general songs of comfort, and above all, songs of meditation and discipleship filled with biblical references. Subtly he paints the circumstances of the soul and thereby exceeds the impersonal lyrics of his contemporaries. While his friend, the pastor and well known poet Handrij Zejler (Andreas Seiler), is singing about the seasons, Kilian reflects on the individual’s setting between time and eternity. In his best hymns he convicts the hearer with the use of strong pictures and well implemented words. The power of his words set within an eloquent use of Wendish poetry would be reached again only decades later by the famous Wendish poet and Catholic priest Jakub Bart-Cisinski (Jacob Barth).

Kilian does not play with shallow thoughts, but struggles with doubts and inner conflicts, with the recognition of personal vanity and the longing for an eternal home. Additionally, he is hurt by wounds he has received.

Honestly he laments his self-imposed separation from the Wendish intelligentsia, and deeply he grieves for his first and lost son, Nathanael Martin, who died a few months old in 1850. The gradual dilution of the traditional faith’s substance and the spread of Enlightenment ideas, as well as the political rumors and the revolution of 1848/49 in his homeland, troubled him. His goal was not national rebirth, but the religious revival of his people.

Ultimately among the Wends, folk songs prevailed against pious hymns and at the large Wendish song festivals in the 1840s became the symbol of an awakening Wendish nationality. Depressed by defeat, Kilian observed the progress of what, in his opinion, were unbelieving Wends. While the pastor and poet Michal Domaska (Michael Domaschke) in his poems rejoices that the Wends are rising from the dust, Kilian complains that the best of times are passing.

Bitterly Jan Kilian recognizes that even in Texas he is fighting alone for preserving both the Wendish language and the Lutheran faith. There his hymn writing pen dried up – not in the dry winds of liberalism as in Europe, but in the destructive storms of national and religious conflict within the freedom in America.


Bautzen, Germany



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