The Evangelical Lutheran Wends (Sorbs) in Germany

This article by Trudla Malinkowa (Gertrud Mahling) and translated by Gerald Stone was written for an information booklet, that was published in Bautzen, Germany, five times in the German language and one time, 2009, in English.

The Wends (Sorbs)

are the smallest Slavonic nation. They are descendants of the Slavonic tribes who around 600 A.D. during the migration of peoples settled in the territory between the Rivers Oder/Neiße and Elbe/Saale, and between the Baltic Sea and the east German secondary mountain chains. These tribes were not able to establish state structures of their own. Their territories became part of the Holy Roman Empire during the High Middle Ages. For hundreds of years the Wends have lived under German statehood. There is no “Mother State” beyond the German borders.

Wendish territory

has been shrinking for about 1000 years. The remains of it in Lusatia began to break up when industrialization began. The growing domination of the German language and culture in all spheres of life, sometimes aided by the suppression of Wendish activities in the church, the schools, and in public life, led to the loss of the language and culture of the Wends. They became a minority in their own country. Only a small area populated by Catholic Wends has managed to survive as a result of being a kind of “religious island” and because of its distinct agricultural structure. Here the Wendish language and culture have been preserved until the twenty-first century. At the end of the nineteenth century there were approximately 160 000 Wends. Today there are about 40–60 000.

The terms “Wends” or “Sorbs”

are, generally speaking, interchangeable. For centuries the term “Wends” was widely used. The term “Sorbs” is derived from the Wendish word “Serbja” (German: Sorben) and became the official term after World War II. In Lower Lusatia the term “Lower Sorbs/Wends” is now preferred.

The Lower Wendish and Upper Wendish languages

are of Slavonic origin and in them quite a number of Old Slavonic characteristics are to be found. In Lower Lusatia, in the southern parts of Brandenburg, the people speak Lower Wendish, which is quite close to Polish. In Saxony, in Upper Lusatia, the people speak Upper Wendish, a language quite similar to Czech. There are some transitional dialects in the Hoyerswerda and Weißwasser areas in Central Lusatia.

With the Reformation

the Wendish people became Evangelical Lutheran, though some communities near Kamenz and Bautzen remained Roman Catholic. Luther’s mother-tongue principle led to the development of the Lower Wendish and Upper Wendish literary languages. As early as 1548 his version of the New Testament was translated into Lower Wendish, but this remained in manuscript. It was followed by Luther’s catechism, which was printed first in Lower Wendish in 1574 and later in 1595 in Upper Wendish. By educating and training pastors as well as teachers the Wendish people for the first time acquired an intellectual leadership.

Wendish churches

following the Reformation were established in the towns of Lusatia for the spiritual care of the Wendish population. They were sometimes church buildings which were no longer needed for their original purpose, such as monastery churches (Cottbus, Guben, Kamenz, and Löbau) or suburban churches (Bautzen, Forst). Sometimes leading town churches were designated as Wendish churches (Hoyerswerda, Muskau, Vetschau) or new churches were built (Senftenberg, Spremberg). In this way, for the first time, public institutions were created which were devoted exclusively to the use of the Wendish language. Most Wendish churches today no longer serve their original purpose, though preaching in Wendish still takes place, regularly or occasionally, in Bautzen, Cottbus, Hoyerswerda, and Vetschau.

The Church history

of the Evangelical Lutheran Wends has been influenced by two movements of more than regional significance: In the mid eighteenth century by the development of the “Brüdergemeine” (“Moravian Brethren”) of Baron Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf at Herrnhut and in the mid nineteenth century by the separatist movement of Old Lutherans in Prussia. Today’s “Brüdergemeine” at Kleinwelka, founded in 1751 as a Wendish colony, and certain parishes in Upper and Lower Lusatia belonging to the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany are evidence of this process. These independent Lutheran parishes left the “united state church” in Prussia in the 1840s.


affected the Evangelical Lutheran Wends from the 1850s till the end of the nineteenth century. The USA and Australia were the main destinations, followed by Canada, South Africa, and South America. The largest group of emigrants founded in 1855 the colony Serbin in Texas. Here the settlers most clearly showed their intention to preserve Evangelical Lutheran Wendish traditions. In Texas and in Australia societies and parishes can still be found today which keep alive the cultural and religious heritage of their Wendish ancestors.

The cultural development

of the Wendish people was, until the end of the nineteenth century, mainly in the hands of the Evangelical Lutheran educated class. The birth of Wendish middle-class culture was more or less the result of their work. The achievements of the Wendish people in the arts, in culture, and in the sciences can scarcely be paralleled among other nations of comparable size. Owing to the intensified assimilation process among the Evangelical Lutheran Wends, however, the intellectual leadership of the Wendish people was taken over in the twentieth century by the Roman Catholics.

The Bible and hymn-books

have existed in both Wendish languages since the eighteenth century. The New Testament was first published in Lower Wendish in 1709, the Old Testament in 1796, and the complete Bible in 1824 and 1868. The first Lower Wendish hymn-book appeared in 1574, the latest in 2007. An Upper Wendish version of the New Testament came out in 1706, followed by the whole bible in 1728. The latest of its eleven editions appeared in 1905. The Upper Wendish hymn-book of 1710 appeared in its most recent edition in 2010. Since 1854 there has also been an Upper Wendish edition of the Lutheran confessions.

Pomhaj Bóh” and “Pomogaj Bog

are journals published for the Wendish Evangelical Lutherans and named after the Evangelical Lutheran greeting (in German: “Gott helfe dir;” English equivalent: “God speed”). Founded in 1891 the Upper Wendish “Pomhaj Bóh” is an independent monthly, whereas “Pomogaj Bog,” first published in 1988, is a part of the Lower Wendish weekly newspaper.

The national costumes

of the Wendish people are of an astonishing variety and beauty. They are still worn today in the regions of Hoyerswerda, Weißwasser (Central Lusatia) and Cottbus (Lower Lusatia) by women of the older generation. The younger generation put them on for special occasions and festivals. More and more “Costume Societies” have been founded in recent years.

Wendish customs

are widely followed in all regions of Lusatia. Among them are the winter and spring customs “Birds’ Wedding,” the “Wendish Carnival,” “Witch Burning,” “Felling the May Pole,” and “Mid-Summer Day’s Riding.” Around harvest-time there are “Plucking the Cock,” “Beating the Cock,” “Stubble Riding,” and “Moving the Frog on a Wheelbarrow.” Important church festivals too are sometimes combined with special customs. At Christmas there is the Źiśetko (Child of God) and at Easter there are Easter Fires, girls fetch “Easter water,” eggs are decorated, and Easter hymns are sung in the night. Often the colourful national costumes are also to be seen.

Evangelical Lutheran parishes

with a Wendish majority are a thing of the past. Almost all the pastors now are German. But there are still many Wendish-speaking parishioners, most of whom are senior citizens. Wendish-speaking families are a rarity. For a few years there have been attempts in kindergartens and schools to give the Wendish language a new chance and to revive it in the younger generation.

The two districts of the Evangelical Lutheran church

where Wends live today are:

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saxony: It includes some parishes of the Upper Lusatian region. Wendish religious life here continues well-tried traditions and, to a certain extent, develops in autonomous structures. Church life here is regulated by a canon law which was passed in 1949 and rewritten in 2003. It prescribes the existence of such bodies as the “Wendish Parishes Association” as the leading organ, the appointment of a Wendish superintendent, and the membership of one Wend representative in the Saxon synod. In about ten Saxon parishes, at irregular intervals, Wendish and Wendish-German services or similar meetings are held. The high-point of the year is the Wendish Church Day (Kirchentag). Since 1988 services have been broadcast on the radio. Sometimes there are groups of children and young people who receive religious instruction in preparation for confirmation in the Wendish language.

The Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia: In this large church, founded in 2004 by the unification of two district churches, there has been a “Wendish Law” since 2005. Lower Lusatia and part of Upper Lusatia are included. In the Lower Lusatian region around Cottbus after World War II the development of active Wendish parish life became impossible. Attempts to start it were either turned down or stopped. After decades and thanks to private initiative it again became possible in 1987 to hold services in the Lower Wendish language. The foundation of “Serbska namša” (“Wendish Church Service”), an activity group of the church, took place in 1988. Since then they have been able to hold between six and eight services a year in approximately fifteen parishes. Services or devotional items on the radio in the Lower Wendish language started in 1989. Since 2002 there has been a pastor responsible for Wendish affairs in all Lower Lusatian parishes. In the Upper Lusatian region around Weißwasser, Hoyerswerda, and Niesky there were for many years no Wendish-speaking pastors. Every now and then bilingual services and meetings took place in some parishes, organized mostly by the Wendish superintendent from Saxony. Since 2014 an ordained young Wendish woman serves there as Wendish pastor in the congregation of Schleife.

Wendish Evangelical Lutheran social life

flourished in the nineteenth century. Under National-Socialist rule it came to a complete standstill. A real new beginning became possible only after the reunification of Germany in 1990. In Lower Lusatia the “Spěchowańske towaristwo za serbsku rěc w cerkwi z.t.” (“Society for the Promotion of the Wendish Language in the Church”) was founded in 1994, corresponding to the “Serbske ewangelske towarstwo z.t.” (“Wendish Evangelical Society”) in Upper Lusatia. The aim of both is to promote and continue the 500-years-old tradition of Evangelical Lutheran services, ecclesiastical events, and church publications in the mother tongues of the Wendish people.

Trudla Malinkowa

Translated by Gerald Stone

The Lord’s Prayer in Upper Wendish

Wótče naš, kiž sy w njebjesach.

Swjećene budź twoje mjeno.

Přińdź k nam twoje kralestwo.

Twoja wola so stań

kaž na njebju tak tež na zemi.

Naš wšědny chlěb daj nam dźensa.

A wodaj nam naše winy,

kaž my wodawamy našim winikam.

A njewjedź nas do spytowanja,

ale wumóž nas wot złeho.

Přetož twoje je kralestwo a móc a česć

hač do wěčnosće.


The Lord’s Prayer in Lower Wendish

Wóśce naš na njebju.

Wuswěśone buź twójo mě.

Pśiź k nam twójo kralejstwo.

Twója wóla se stań

ako na njebju tak teke na zemi.

Naš wšedny klěb daj nam źinsa.

A wódaj nam naše winy,

ako my wódawamy našym winikam.

A njewjeź nas do spytowanja,

ale wumóž nas wót wšogo złego.

Pśeto twójo jo to kralejstwo a ta móc a ta cesć

do nimjernosći.



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