From Wendish to German to English

This document was written by David Goeke in response to a question posed by Dr Charles Wukasch in his Blog, titled “Question on German Orthography.” It is presented here because it merits its own place in Dave’s blog.

I’m jumping into this conversation in a rather unorthodox manner (what else is new), but, I wanted to just add a bit of info regarding the question that Charles posed regarding the use of German in worship here in Texas, and when it ultimately died out altogether.

In the first place, I cannot speak with complete authority on when the language was no longer used in the various congregations in Texas. I can say with some authority, that German continued go be used in worship services where those congregations were located in Lee County, specifically, well into the 1950s and in some cases into the 1960s. There was such a heavy concentration of German/Wends in that area that German still remained the major tongue spoken in the home and in worship despite political and social pressures. Gradually, because it became so necessary that folk learn to speak English (from the perspective of business, etc.), that German gradually died out. I speak especially from the perspective of one Lee County congregation in particular, namely, Ebenezer, Manheim. I vividly recall attending German worship services in Manheim well into the 1950s. Gradually, the frequency of German services changed from every Sunday to twice a month…to once a month…to a total transition to English. It made sense because fewer children were speaking German, thus there were fewer “hearers” in the congregation who could understand German, and, finally, there were fewer pastors to be found who could speak/understand German…much less preach in the language.

I was blessed in a number of ways as I grew up. Having had German speaking parents (who, by the way were married in 1936…in Manheim…in the German language…and whose wedding certificate is in German), I was blessed to have had my German speaking, Wendish grandmother from Manheim, come to live with us on a “farm” (we lived a farm life, but with precious little land) on the edge of Austin. Being of an impressionable age (maybe six or seven), I was blessed to have German spoken to me on a regular basis. My responses were largely in English, because I had to use English in virtually every area of my life (school, church, stores, etc.). But, I was spoken to in German until adolescence.

But, I was blessed, too, to have had close relatives who were pastors who preached in German. Most notably was my uncle, August Horn, who pastored the Ebenezer, Manheim, congregation on two separate occasions…and who was the second to last pastor at Manheim who regularly preached in German. He did so up until the early 1960s. Another relative who regularly preached in German was my great uncle, Rev. Dr. J. A. Birnbaum. His story is somewhat different, however. He, too, grew up in the Manheim community. As a result of a “Mission Festival” sermon by Rev. G. Fischer, he became convinced that the Lord was calling him to ministry. This was well before Concordia, Austin, had been founded. He first attended a pre-seminary program at Clifton. Ultimately, he attended Concordia Seminary, Louis. In 1916, he received his first call to serve as a missionary in South America. The fact that he was considering this call greatly distressed his mother, Bertha née Kieschnick Birnbaum. J. A. Birnbaum declined the South America call and, instead, accepted a call to serve a newly organized congregation in Vernon, Texas, called St. Paul. This small congregation was made up of some Lee County Wends, with names like Teinert and Graf.

Dr. Birnbaum would be the first full time pastor of this congregation and would remain there for the duration of his ministry, 50 years hence. Dr. Birnbaum preached and taught school the German language…until.

I have been blessed and honored in many ways in my life. Among these are two occasions when I was asked to play an integral part in the celebrations of anniversaries of the Texas District of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, namely the 75th and 100th anniversaries. One of these occasions is germane to this email. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary, there were yet living a number of the “old timers”…teachers and pastors, who had wonderful oral histories and tales to tell of the early days of the district. I was tasked with the pleasant opportunity of interviewing a number of these old teachers and pastors. Why? Well, in the first place, I had a proclivity for that sort of thing. Secondly, I personally knew a number of these folks through their relationships and friendships with my family. Finally, I could converse in German, and some of these folks, in their old age, would revert to German instead of English. So, armed with a portable cassette tape recorder, I was sent around the state to interview some of the wonderful folks. Among them, was my great uncle, Rev. Dr. J. A. Birnbaum. It is from that perspective that I even mention all of this. One of the questions I asked him was regarding his preaching and teaching in the German language. The following is a transcript of a portion of that conversation:

Birnbaum: We had some excitement here in, you know, in 1918….war in Germany. One morning I stayed with Mr. Teinert, he lived only about ½ mile from the church. So, when I got there [to the church/school] I noticed that the windows had been knocked out…and a “ticket” attached to the front door of the school. [It stated] if you are wise you will leave Vernon. And, it was winter and I made a fire, to warm the school. I took that ticket and went to the Sheriff. And he looked it over and he said, ‘You just stay where you are.’ So, I went back and told the children to go home, it won’t be no school today. And, the sheriff told me, “Let’s go the editor, Mr. Nickleson, and see what he will say about this.” Mr. Nickleson, the Vernon Record editor, he told me, “Well, I’m going to put something, don’t know what it will be, but something has to be done”. He says, “This won’t happen. Nobody’s going to attack you.” And the next day the paper came out and the headline said (and I lost that piece of paper…I’ve looked high and low for it and I can’t find it). After that paper was printed, I got I don’t know how many calls…high officials of Vernon, preachers, editor of the newspaper, doctors, bankers…that I should stay right where I am. Nickleson made the statement in the paper, “The act of yesterday, destroying church property and giving threats, is in the highest degree un-American” and so forth and so on. I had no trouble ever since.

Goeke: “Was this because you were German?”

Birnbaum: “Ya, sure. Because I taught German school…taught German, preached German. But, that was the beginning. We had English services from that day on.”

Goeke: “And there was no more German?”

Birnbaum: “No.”

Birnbaum’s wife, Rosa, interjects: “Well, let’s see, did it break off entirely…right away, or for a while you had….

Birnbaum: “Well, we had a meeting. That’s when the editor of the Vernon Times suggested that we should pass a resolution to cease preaching German. We did.”

Goeke: “Simply because of outside pressure?”

Birnbaum: “Uh, huuh” [Then noticeable silence]

Birnbaum’s wife, Rosa, interjects: “It was quite bad during that time. People hated the Germans.”

Goeke: “Were you married at that time”

Birnbaum: “Ya.”

Birnbaum’s wife, Rosa, interjects: “No, not at the time when this happened we probably weren’t married.”

Goeke: “Do you remember your first Texas District Convention? Can you share anything about that?”

Birnbaum: “Let me see. I believe that first convention that I attended was held in Giddings. Rev. Moerbe was pastor in Giddings. You know that. I think that was my first.”

Birnbaum’s wife, Rosa interjects: “I thought that was in Serbin. We were just married.”

Birnbaum: “It could have been Serbin. I just don’t remember.” [There is some very short discourse between Birnbaum and his wife which is in quiet tones so that not everything discussed is not altogether intelligible.]

Birnbaum: “It was either Serbin or Giddings.”

Goeke: “Anything that stands out in your mind about that conference? Any memories that come to your mind when you think of that conference?

Birnbaum: [Birnbaum starts to laugh]. “Yeah,” and laughs even harder. “I maybe shouldn’t answer this.”

Goeke: “Aw, that’s fine. You go right ahead.”

Birnbaum (still chuckling): “Everything was in German, you know. That was, that was, uhh, understood. The Lord doesn’t understand English. (Continues to chuckle). We had a Rev. Allmann, a missionary at La Mesa. He was there. He had a delegate. The delegate had forgotten his credentials. And they wanted to join the Synod. But, they had to give credentials that they have the permission of the home congregation to become members of the Texas District. Everything went alright. And Allmann [next couple of words not intelligible.]. The delegate had forgotten his credentials…left them at home. And the committee decided that they will not take them in as members since they had forgotten, had no credentials. And they asked, the President asked (I guess Behnken must have been…no…was either Kramer or Studtmann). The president, the chairman, asked the pastor, Allmann, to give a little information about this matter. He [Allmann] got up and said in German (he answered in German…and he didn’t know any German).

Goeke: [ All those present at the interview, began to laugh] “He didn’t know any German? What did he say?”

Birnbaum: “Der Delegate hat vergessen sein Credentials mitgebringt.” [ Birnbaum, his wife and myself are now bursting out with laughter.]

Birnbaum: “And everybody laughed! And Allmann didn’t know why in the world they laughed. ‘Er hat sie nicht mitgebringt.”” [Birnbaum is laughing almost uncontrollably at this point in the interview.]

(End of this portion of an almost two- hour interview)

So, in the case of Uncle August Birnbaum, German preaching and teaching ended earlier than it did in Lee County. Again, I maintain that because of the large population of German/Wends in Lee County, the resistance against Germans was not as intense as it may have been in other parts of the state and/or country.

One other thing that I find of interest where the Wendish language is concerned is that it (the Wendish language in Texas) did not find its only home in Serbin. This is, of course, common knowledge. Chronologically speaking, the first “offshoot” congregation from St. Paul, Serbin (aside from St. Peter….which is, effectively, Serbin), was “Die Evangelische Dreieinigskeit Gemeinde zu Fedor.” I think that I am correct in stating that this was the name given to the congregation. I may be wrong about that, and, if so, I’d be happy if someone would correct me…but, I’m pretty sure that I’m correct. As said, it is common knowledge this congregation was made up of a goodly number of Wends.

In a history of the Fedor congregation, Rev. Michalk, in conjunction with the assistance of Rev. Gotthilf Birkman states the following: “Mittlerweile heilt John A. Proft, warscheinlich ein Kandidat des heiligen Predigtamstes, ein Wende, mit einigen Kindern Schule vom Herbst 1870 an. Er wurde dann der erste Seelsorger deer Gemeinde. Die Gottesdienst waren deutsch, aber vielmal des Jahres heilt er noch Abendmahlsgottesdienst in der wendischen Sprache.” Now, it is also common knowledge that due to health (and other) reasons, Proft would move to the San Antonio Prairie…and that a number of congregants from Fedor followed him and there organized the Eben Ezer congregation. Michalk, in his history of Fedor makes reference to this as follows: “Mancherlei kam in den nächsten Jahren in der Gemeinde vor, was Pastor Proft bewegte im Oktober, 1875 zu resignieren. Er hatte sich ein Pfarrhaus gebaut an der Lincoln Prairie [known later as the San Antonio Prairie], 5 Milen südöstlich von Fedor. Dort gründeten einige Glieder, die von Fedor mir Pastor Proft abgingen, die Eben-Ezer Gemeinde, die später sich auflöste.” Again, all of this is common knowledge.

Allow me to interject a bit of information here. Forty plus years ago, when I became intensely interested in not only Wendish history in Texas, but, also in the history of Serbin’s daughter churches, I made it a quest to learn about the daughter church that most interested me, namely, Ebenezer, because my forefathers were founders of this congregation. Way back then, I asked if I could see the old church records. Well, no one knew exactly where they were. After seeking these with the help of the then pastor and church leaders, the records were found…bedraggled, rat-eaten, etc. Back then, Rev. Reinhardt Wuensche was the voluntary archivist of the Texas District archives. I asked the congregation for permission to take those records to the Texas District in order to make copies, one copy for the District and one copy for me…and that I would then return the originals to the congregation. Permission was granted. This, then, became the catalyst for Rev. Wuensche to seek out other congregational records from early congregations and make copies of them. But, I digress.

Of particular interest in the Ebenezer congregation is the fact that the first congregation, located on the San Antonio Prairie, would ultimately go defunct and a “new Ebenezer” would be constructed in what is now Manheim (originally known as Schulzberg…though short-lived). Finally, I am coming to the point which I have been intending to make all along. In the original records of that earliest Ebenezer congregation, one reads the following: “Unsere Gemeinde soll den Namen führen: Deutsch-wendische Eben Ezer Gemeinde in Lee County, Texas“. Now, you ask, “So what?” Insofar as I know, this congregation was the only congregation, aside from St.Paul, Serbin, to have in her title the term “Wendish“…or “Deutsch-Wendische“. I find this significant in that both the Fedor and the original Ebenezer held to their Wendish form of worship…at least for a period of time. Ebenezer San Antonio Prairie was founded on April 2, 1876, and went defunct a few years later. But her name attests to the fact that Wendish was still practiced in places other than Serbin. I maintain, too, that it was because of this that the large number of Wendish immigrants from Germany in the late 1800’s, made the area around Fedor, Manheim and Lincoln their choice of settling. That’s my take, at least. Again, this may be common knowledge to all of you…and, if so, my apologies for taking up your time.

I’ll end this lengthy tome now. Seien Sie mir bitte nicht allzu wütend für meine Ausführlichkeit. (Please don’t be all too angry with my verbosity).


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