Jan Kilian by Trudla Malinkowa

This article about Jan Kilian, written by Trudla Malinkowa (Gertrud Mahling) and translated by Rachel Hildebrandt is a synopis of his life on the 200th anniversary of his birth. It first appeared in the January 2011 Newsletter of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society, Serbin, Texas.

Pastor – Poet – Emigrant

In Honor of the 200th Anniversary of Jan Kilian’s Birth

As the firstborn child of the farmer and landowner Peter Kilian and his wife Maria (née Mättig) of Hochkirch, Jan Kilian was born on March 22, 1811, in Döhlen, a village located near the city of Bautzen in Saxon Upper Lusatia.  When Jan was two years old, his sister Anna, only a few weeks of age, died, and soon after, his mother also died at the age of 26.  Consequently, his father married a widow from the neighboring town of Meschwitz.  He too died in 1821.  At this point, Jan’s care was taken up by his maternal family, to which belonged respected and wealthy mill owners in the Hochkirch region.  Thus, Jan’s education at the Gymnasium in Bautzen and his theological studies at the University of Leipzig were made possible.  After the conclusion of his studies in 1834, he worked as an assistant pastor for Rev. Möhn in his home congregation in Hochkirch.

            Already as a young man, it was clear that Jan Kilian placed great value on his Wendish ethnicity and his Lutheran faith.  At the Bautzen Gymnasium, he gathered around him other Wendish students.  This group dedicated itself to the study of their mother tongue.  However, in Leipzig, Kilian did not attach himself to the Wendish Preaching Society, which had been founded in 1716.  Affiliation with this society was a common practice among the Wendish students in Leipzig.  Instead, Kilian attached himself to a group of devout and fervent German students.  During his youth, Kilian had made a vow that he would dedicate his life to foreign mission work.  In order to fulfill this vow, he enrolled in the St. Chrischona Mission School in Basel (Switzerland) in 1837.  However, soon after his arrival, Kilian’s uncle, Rev. Michael Kilian of Kotitz near Weißenberg, died, and Kilian returned to Lusatia to take up his uncle’s pastoral position.

            The small size of the church parish, to which only Kotitz and the neighboring village of Särka belonged, made it possible for the young pastor to cultivate his personal interests once he was done fulfilling his pastoral duties.  To further the Lutheran faith among the Wends, Kilian turned to pen and paper.  Within only a few years’ time, he published a series of Wendish books, primarily translations of German religious writings.  Some of these sold out so quickly that additional printings were needed.  In Kotitz, Kilian also developed into a masterful and prolific chorale lyricist. In 1846, a collection of his church songs was published.  He even composed the melodies to accompany some of the verses.  The small book went through multiple printings and was used for decades as a textbook in some Wendish schools.  With his over 100 chorales, Kilian is considered one of the most outstanding poets among the Lutheran Wends.  In his publications, he appealed urgently to his Wendish fellow-countrymen to preserve the language and faith of their fathers.

            While at Kotitz, Kilian’s reputation as a preacher spread far.  His powerful sermons attracted churchgoers from across the entire region and even from neighboring Prussia.  Faithful Prussians asked him for advice on the religious issues they were then facing.  The Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III had ordered the unification of the Lutheran and Reformed confessions into one church body.  The pious Wendish subjects were uncertain if they should take part in this union or if they should separate from the state church, a development that had already occurred in other parts of Prussia.  Kilian recommended the course of separation.  He established contact with the so-called Old Lutherans in Silesia, who had already split from the state church, and then translated the writings of this group into Wendish.  Subsequently in 1843, the Old Lutheran parish of Weigersdorf and Klitten was established.  No one among the Wendish pastors was willing to take on the responsibilities of the separatist congregation.  Ultimately, Kilian felt obligated to leave Saxon Kotitz to become pastor in Prussian Weigersdorf in 1848.  That same year he married Maria Gröschel from Särka, a Wendish farmer’s daughter from his congregation in Kotitz.  For over 32 years, she remained a true helpmeet and companion.  During their years in Weigersdorf, the couple had four children, three of which died young, and only their son Gerhard grew to adulthood.

            The work in the Old Lutheran congregation was arduous.  Kilian was responsible for caring for over 1,200 souls, who were scattered across the entire area of Prussian Lusatia.  Every third month, he made a three-week trip into the Muskau, Spremberg, and Cottbus regions, subsequently continuing his travels over to Lübbenau in the Spree Forest.  From its inception, the congregation suffered from a lack of money.  The congregational members, who had to feed themselves meagerly from the sandy soil of the Lusatian Heath, had to personally pay for the construction of two new churches, a parsonage, and a school.  The pastor and teacher also had to be paid on a regular basis.  As a result, the congregational members assumed large loans to pay for these things.  Other problems also created difficulties in the life of the congregation.  There were ongoing conflicts between Kilian and the neighboring pastors who had joined the unified state church.  These pastors were unwilling to officially recognize the Old Lutherans as an official church body.  Kilian’s congregational members were decried as “yes-men,” viewed themselves in part as the better Christians, and were thus rejected by other villagers as religious oddities.  On at least one occasion, some of Kilian’s church members were cursed and then beaten while on their way home.  After only a short period in Weigersdorf, Kilian was exhausted.  There was no time left over to devote to writing or compositional projects.  Furthermore, his Wendish friends, among whom were counted the publisher Jan Arnošt Smoler in Bautzen, the pastor-poet Handrij Zejler in Lohsa, and other leading Wends, distanced themselves from Kilian and openly criticized his endeavors.  There seemed to be only one way out of all of these conflicts: emigration overseas.

            In 1853, the first families from the Old Lutheran congregation left for Texas.  Their laudatory letters led to several hundred Wends following them the next year.  A specially established emigrant society organized all of the details.  Kilian was asked to accompany the emigrants as their pastor.  He agreed to this proposal.

            In September 1854, 531 Wends boarded a special train to travel from Bautzen to Hamburg.  By ship and train, they eventually reached Liverpool, England, where the large sailing ship Ben Nevis already awaited them.  The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean met with tragedy.  81 emigrants died along the way from cholera and other diseases.

            In spring 1855, the group succeeded in purchasing a large piece of property in Bastrop and Lee counties and in establishing a Wendish colony.  Inspired by the ethnicity of its residents (who in their native language called themselves “Serbja”), Kilian named the community Serbin.  Under great duress and unaccustomed climactic conditions, the settlers cleared the land, plowed new fields, and gradually created a foundation for their lives in their new homeland.  Collectively the settlers constructed a church, a school, and a parsonage.  At the same time, a cemetery was laid.  It was first used when Kilian buried his newborn daughter Theresia there.

            In 1855, Kilian became the first pastor in Texas to affiliate himself with the Missouri Synod, a German Lutheran church body.  The synod had been established by devout emigrants from Saxony who had settled in the state of Missouri.  In the Serbin congregation, Kilian had extensive work on his hands.  For many years, he was not only pastor, but he was also engaged as a school teacher.  Often he rode by horse to distant settlements, where his services were needed.  He left the financial concerns and the care for his family, which included four additional children born in Texas (Theresia, Bernhard, Hermann, and Hulda), primarily to his wife.

            A quiet life eluded Kilian in his new homeland.  The most critical concerns about basic survival had hardly been solved in Serbin before new conflicts developed.  Only three years after the founding of the settlement (1858), a group of church members separated from the congregation because of differences of belief.  This division ended after several years; however, the faith issue was soon replaced by new conflict linked to issues of ethnicity.  Not far from Serbin, German families established homesteads.  These individuals, with the support of some Wends in the community, made increasingly strident demands for German-language worship services and community meetings.  Kilian and his supporters fought valiantly against this pressure, which led in 1870 to another congregational split.  After this division, two congregations came into existence: predominantly German St. Peter’s and predominantly Wendish St. Paul’s.  At the same time, other Wendish communities in the area, such as Warda and Fedor, began to agitate for separation from Serbin and for the establishment of independent congregations.  During all of these conflicts, Kilian repeatedly sought support from the synodical authorities in Missouri.  In the end and in great disappointment, he came to the conclusion that those from whom he wanted support were, instead, sympathetic to the cause of his opponents.

            In light of his many difficulties, Kilian yearned to return to Lusatia.  However, he did not want to abandon his congregation without finding for them a Wendish replacement.  He hoped that a young Wendish pastor from Lusatia would be willing to come to Serbin.  His hopes remained unfulfilled.  At the end of his life, Kilian often wondered if he had chosen the right path, the one that had begun with the establishment of the Old Lutheran congregation in Weigersdorf and had required of him and others so much sacrifice.  On September 12, 1884, Jan Kilian died.  His sons continued his work in Serbin, Gerhard as teacher and Hermann as pastor.

            Today, Kilian is thought of with great respect.  For the descendents of the Texas Wends, he is the Wendish Moses who led his people across the ocean and away from European oppression into the freedom of America.  In terms of church history, Kilian is remembered as the founder of Old Lutheran congregations in the land of the Wends, as the spiritual leader of the last large emigration of Old Lutherans from Prussia, and as the father of the Missouri Synod in Texas.  In Lusatia, he is still known among both Lutheran and Catholic Wends as a powerfully eloquent writer of spiritual songs and chorales.

            As for his goal to preserve the faith and language of the Wends, Kilian took upon himself great personal sacrifice with unflappable resolve.  His biographer Ota Wićaz described him as “one of the truest and most significant Wends who has ever been.”

  1. The former Kilian farmstead in Döhlen under Czorneboh.  In the center of the picture is Kilian’s birthplace.

Photo: Trudla Malinkowa

1. Jan Kilian (1811-1884)

Reproduced with permission of the Texas Wendish Heritage Museum, Serbin.

2. Kilian’s signature in Wendish: “Jan Kilian, Pastor”

Reproduced with permission of Sorbisches Kulturarchiv, Bautzen.

3. Church and parsonage of the Old Lutheran congregation in Weigersdorf

Reproduced with permission of Pfarrarchive Weigersdorf

4. Jan Kilian with his wife Maria, née Gröschel, from Särka, and their children Theresia, Hulda, Hermann, and Bernhard (from left) in Serbin in 1868.  Son Gerhard is not pictured, since he was already studying to be a teacher at the teacher’s college in Addison, Illinois.

Reproduced with permission of Texas Wendish Heritage Museum, Serbin

5. Jan Kilian with his daughter Theresia

Reproduced with permission of Texas Wendish Heritage Society, Serbin

6. In Kotitz, a street has been named for Jan Kilian, who worked there as a pastor from 1837 to 1848.

Photo: Trudla Malinkowa

Translated by Rachel Hildebrandt


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