Prussian or Saxon by George Nielsen

This article appeared in the April and July 2015 editions of the Newsletter of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society, Serbin, Texas.

Because some of the Texas Wends originated from Prussia and some from Saxony a question could be asked if origins made a difference. Does political geography influence the way people think and act?

If you were asked about your origins, would it make a difference if you said “United States” or if you said “Texas”? You would probably say “United States” if you were talking to someone in Singapore and “Texas” if you were in Denver. A “United States” answer glosses over traits that would be meaningless to someone in Singapore while the person in Denver would be aware that a Texan is not a New Yorker.

There was no nation of Germany before 1871 and German-speaking people lived in various German-speaking provinces. People, including Johann Kilian, saw correlations between origins and behavior and on one occasion he explained away his differences with Pastor Caspar Braun because “he is a Wuerttemberger and I am a Saxon.”

The Wends were concentrated in three provinces: Brandenburg to the north with Cottbus as its center; the western tip of Silesia, with Hoyerswerda; and Saxony on the south with Bautzen as its center. Brandenburg joined Prussia in 1618 and in 1745 Prussia conquered Silesia. More borders changed after the Napoleonic wars so that at the time of Wendish migration the Wends were either in the kingdom of Prussia or the kingdom of Saxony.

Because the Prussia king was Calvinist and his wife was Lutheran they did not participate in the same celebration of the Lord’s Supper. And in Potsdam, the residence of the royal dynasty, there were two garrison churches—one Calvinist and one Lutheran. In 1799, the year after he became king, Frederick William III called for a common liturgy for both Lutheran and Calvinist churches. The primary motivation for denominational change was not primarily religious, but it was part of the centralization of power needed to survive in the struggle with other European nations. Following the defeat of the Battle of Jena in 1806 the king assigned the administration of religious bodies to an agency of the royal government.

In Saxony, even though the Saxon population was primarily Lutheran, the rulers of Saxony were Catholic, and had been since 1697. The king did not interfere with the Saxon State church, and instead a council, or a consistory, of clergymen administered church affairs. Theologians and not state officials made the decisions concerning the Saxon church.

So while residents of Prussia and Saxony had much in common and shared the same denominations, their religious life was not identical and that in turn set the stage for two different experiences. Now, would those different experiences translate into thought and action? To understand the two different experiences it is necessary to review the Lutheran sacraments and then fit them into the two provinces.

Lutheran Sacraments

The Lutheran church subscribes to two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. Both meet the three requirements for a sacrament: instituted by God, visible elements, and means of grace.

While the two sacraments have so much in common, there are differences in the implementation. In the case of baptism the recipient can be anyone—from infant to aged. The visible element, water, may be applied through sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. The administration of baptism, although generally done by a pastor, can also be done by any layperson especially if the infant might not survive. Few theological debates have focused on baptism and a single baptism lasts a lifetime. Baptism was rarely an issue of debate so we will focus instead on the second sacrament.

The Lord’s Supper follows a different protocol. Only an ordained clergyman administers the sacrament, the recipients must understand the teachings of the sacrament, and the participation is repeated throughout the believer’s life. And there are dire warnings about improper participation at its celebration. First there must be acknowledgement of sins committed, remorse for such acts, and gratitude for the forgiveness God grants. And while there may be no controversy concerning the visible element in Baptism there are conflicting views concerning the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. Luther taught what is called the Real Presence. The bread and wine are visible, but at the same time, in keeping with Christ’s assertion when he instituted the sacrament, so are his body and blood. Calvin, on the other hand taught that only the bread and wine were present, and that they symbolized Christ’s body and blood. Doing the Lord’s Supper right was important to a believer because—instead of forgiveness—a person who takes the sacrament improperly does not receive God’s grace, but God’s condemnation. Serious business. It was the Sacrament of Holy Communion that became an issue of contention for many Prussian citizens, Wend and German alike.

In order to understand the religious response of the Wends, two points must be kept in mind: (1) only an ordained clergyman can administer the sacrament and (2) if the observance of the Eucharist does not follow the pattern set up by Christ, then the recipient endangers his sou


It was in 1817 that the Prussian king, Frederick Wilhelm III decreed the creation of a single church that merged the two Protestant faiths—although participation was voluntary. Compliance was anemic and the king did little more than make the change at the garrison church in Potsdam where he worshipped. The king, while he was unwilling to force his decree, became personally involved in writing a new Agenda, or a communion liturgy, that would be acceptable to both faiths. The new Agenda appeared in 1821 but it created opposition, especially from Lutherans because the wording was vague so that neither side would find fault. In 1829 a revised version appeared and the next year, 1830, the king ordered both Lutheran and Calvinist faiths to adopt the name Evangelical and to use the new liturgy. Opposition mounted and the king backed off of on the Evangelical demand, but insisted that the Agenda would be used in all Protestant churches in Prussia.

Resistance continued, however, and was strongest in the former province of Silesia and centered in the city of Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland). Congregations and pastors broke the law and in secret meetings continued using the Lutheran order of service. Police arrested and jailed pastors and officials fined parishioners for attending clandestine services. Those who resisted were called names such as fanatics but the most common was “Old Lutheran.” Emigration to other provinces was an early response for those who would not compromise and in 1838 the large migration of Old Lutherans from Prussia boarded ships for Australia and America.

When Frederick William III died in 1840 opposition to the Evangelical (or United) Church became more public and the successor to the throne Frederick William IV adopted a more moderate policy. Even though he retained the Union church he permitted the Lutherans to form their own synod—the Breslau Synod. (1845) The Old Lutherans had their own pastors, their own churches (without steeples or bells) but they received no monetary support from the state. The easing of the restrictions did not halt emigration and in 1854 the Ben Nevis group left Europe, thirty-seven years after the king’s initial order and after Lutherans won the concession to use their own Lutheran liturgy.

A Prussian Wend’s primary concern was the celebration of the Eucharist. It had to be administered by a clergyman and it had to be done with the specific, not vague, words of institution. A layman could not perform the sacrament and the Calvinist liturgy was unacceptable. That was the struggle of the Prussian Wend.

Pastor Johann Kilian, even though he was a pastor in Saxony, served at Kotitz, a congregation that was near the Prussian border. Lutherans from Prussia visited his congregation and celebrated the Eucharist with his flock. He also crossed the border and visited those newly formed independent congregations that were associated with the Breslau Synod. The Prussian authorities learned of these activities and their diplomats complained to the Saxony diplomats and the Saxon authorities threatened to remove Kilian from his pulpit if he did not cease his meddling in Prussian affairs. Eventually, in 1848 he accepted a call from the Weigersdorf-Klitten parish and moved from Saxony to Prussia. He joined the Prussian Wends in their struggle and served as the pastor who administered the Lord’s Supper in the Lutheran way. When he joined the migration to Texas he and the Prussians Wends had a common experience as a result of this struggle.


The Saxon religious setting differed significantly from that in Prussia. Even so, discontent was present in the Saxon church. It was not over the Lord’s Supper but over the growing influence of Rationalism in religious circles. Rationalism was the religious aspect of the Age of Reason. If the application of scientific thought was the way to improve human existence, then why not apply reason to religious life as well? Pastors toned down such teachings as the atoning work of Christ, miracles, or the concept of original sin, and instead preached about God’s benevolence and attempted to apply reasonable solutions to life’s problems. While the urban middle class generally accepted the rationalist mindset the peasant and laboring classes did not.

As rationalism spread among the clergy and became the focus in seminaries, a reaction set in among those adhered to the traditional Lutheran message. Unlike the Prussians, the Saxons continued to take the Lord’s Supper in church from a rationalist pastor because the sacrament was not changed. But rationalism touched the head and not the heart and somehow something more was needed to meet their desire for a full spiritual life. The solution was a movement led by devout laymen. They met as families or in larger informal groups called conventicles to read the religious books, to pray, and sing traditional hymns. They also identified those pastors who continued to base their ministry on the Lutheran Confessions and then traveled long distances to hear their message

So the Saxon Wends remained with the state church where they received the Eucharist the Lutheran way. Instead of building independent churches and drawing around a faithful pastor and orthodox services, they focused on personal piety and private emotional reassurance.

Prussian and Saxon in the Ben Nevis-Serbin Congregation

Six persons signed the call document in May 1854 asking Johann Kilian to be their pastor. Four were Prussians and two were Saxons. Nothing in the document identifies their nationality and no details were given for the four-and-two division. At that time no one knew how many emigrants from either country would join the group.

Five months later while the Ben Nevis was being decontaminated in Queenstown the Wends on the Inconstant elected five persons to serve on the Church Council—three were identified as Prussians and two as Saxons. By this time the leaders knew that roughly 300 emigrants were from Prussia and approximately 200 were from Saxony. This information indicates that the leaders were aware of nationality and suggests that they had a concept of representation.

Although some minor cases of discontent surfaced on the remainder of the voyage, none was related to nationality and the creation of a church council proved to be an effective way of dealing with issues. The conciliatory pattern, however, was interrupted in the autumn of 1856, a year and a half after the purchase of the Delaplain League. Two men, one a Saxon and one a Prussian confronted Pastor Kilian after a church service for his failure to observe any days of repentance (Bußtage – BOOSE tah gay). The complaint surprised Kilian and there been had no previous indication of any discontent concerning this custom. The observances of the major church observances such as Christmas and Easter were fixed, but the various German provinces set their own procedures on the Bußtage. Prussians observed four days; Saxons observed two days. The congregational leaders resolved the problem and authorized Kilian to make the decision. Kilian set two services of repentance: the first Sunday in Lent and the Friday before Advent. Although the incident does not illustrate a Saxon-Prussian division in the congregation, it does show how the people tried to preserve the religious practices they held in Europe and those practices were not always identical.

The next year, 1857, Kilian reported a controversy within the congregation over the use of conventicles or prayer meetings. One portion of the congregation supported the practice of meetings during the week and another opposed it. Although Kilian did not identify the proponents, it was a practice that the Saxons had used in response to rationalism. It was during this extended congregational discussion that the German Methodists at Grassyville, about four miles away, conducted a camp meeting and invited guests. The emotional elements of a camp meeting appealed to the pietism of the Saxons and some attended. One Wendish couple joined the Methodist congregation.

Kilian admonished the congregation about attending the Methodist meetings and tried to accommodate the pietists by setting up prayer meetings every Wednesday and Friday evenings. He involved the lay people in prayers, but the enthusiasm generated by the Methodists could not be duplicated. Six months later, after Easter, 1858, Kilian ended his meetings. No other Wends joined the Methodists but some fraternization continued. Kilian called for a resolution of the issue and about five weeks later Kilian preached a sermon in which he called for an agreement, or separation, or his departure.

The pietists responded with a letter in which they stated their decision to separate from the congregation because they did not believe they could compromise their views nor did they desire the departure of Kilian. Thirteen persons signed the letter—nine Saxons and four Prussians. In response the leaders of the main congregation sent a letter signed by five officers—four Prussians and one Saxon. So while the European experience may have been significant, other factors such as personal friendships and family ties prevented a clean-cut division along national lines.

The new congregation named itself St. Peter and built a church about a mile away from the mother church. Kilian offered to baptize their children and invited them to bury their dead in the cemetery, but he refused to welcome them at the Lord’s Supper. St. Peter instead turned to clergymen from the Lutheran Texas Synod for the Lord’s Supper. The language in church was German although Wendish could be used in reading services or in family settings. The church did not grow and the congregation closed its doors in 1867.

Although some St. Peter members returned to the mother church others moved to the West Yegua area that eventually became Fedor. Some Saxon Wends had moved to the West Yegua already in 1855 and traveled the twenty miles to Serbin for church. Then in 1870 twenty families formed a church and a Saxon Johann Proft became their pastor in 1871 and remained there until 1875. Although some Germans affiliated with the Fedor church, most were Saxon Wends.

The irony is that the pietist Saxons in Texas faced the same issue the Prussians faced in Europe—the Lord’s Supper. Methodists were also Calvinists and the Lutheran Saxons in Texas had to choose between the Lutheran Lord’s Supper and the emotional fulfillment of the Methodists. Rather than becoming Calvinists the old Prussian response became the new Saxon one: the creation of new congregations. St. Peter failed, but Fedor survived. Time healed wounds and so did marriages, relocations, and other problems in proclaiming the Gospel. In Texas Saxon and Prussian needed each other to make the church work and piety became a personal decision rather than a congregational one.

In 1876 Rev Birkmann was installed at Fedor as the pastor. He did not refer to his parishioners as Saxons, but he did notice their piety:

“Mr. Jacob Moerbe and his brothers-in-law, the Wuensches and the Dubes, have been leading members for years in the Fedor church being very well informed and pious people, who had daily prayers in their homes, attended every service, brought up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, gave liberally from their goods for the support of church and school, and led an exemplary Christian life.” Ray Martens, Worthy of Double Honor: The Rev. G. Birkmann, DD (Austin: Concordia University Press, 2011), 333.


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