Jan Kilian and the Emigration of the Sorbian Lutherans

Jan Kilian und die Auswanderung der sorbischen Lutheraner / Jan Kilian and the Emigration of the Sorbian Lutherans, written by Trudla Malinkowa (Gertrud Mahling) and translated by Jay Cram first appeared in: Eduard Ludwig Nollau Mission und Migration im 19. Jahrhundert. Eine Spurensuche / Eduard Ludwig Nollau: Searching for Traces of Migration and Mission in the 19th Century. Published by Thomas Koppehl in cooperation with Hans-Wilhelm Pietz, Jill Vogt und Christoph Wiesener. Studien zur Schlesischen und Oberlausitzer Kirchengeschichte Band 11, Verein für Schlesische Kirchengeschichte 2011, pps. 196, 206, 207, 216.


Even the first fleeting glance at the biographies of Jan Kilian (left) and Ludwig Eduard Nollau (right) shows remarkable similarities. Both are sons of Upper Lusatia. Nollau was born on July 1, 1810, and Kilian only a few months later, on March 22, 1811. Kilian’s birthplace, Döhlen, is located not even 30 Kilometers from Nollau’s home town, Reichenbach. At three years old, Nollau lost his mother and as a 16-year old, his father. Kilian’s mother died when he was two years old, and at ten years old he was completely orphaned. Nollau, like Kilian, attended secondary school, and both became Protestant clergy. Influenced by the Moravian Brethren, both desired to dedicate their lives to being missionaries to the heathen; Nollau graduated from the seminary of the Rhenish Mission Society in Barmen in 1837, and in the same year, Kilian decided to attend the mission institute St. Chrischona in Basel following his theological studies in Leipzig. Both ultimately went to the USA, but did not work there as missionaries, but rather as pastors in congregations of immigrants from Germany. Nollau and Kilian became prominent personalities in their church federations, whose work is not forgotten, even today.

Besides these similarities, we also find dramatic differences between these two outstanding personalities of Lusatian emigration history. The theme of this presentation is an examination of the life of Jan Kilian while paying special attention to his place in the history of Sorbian emigration abroad. In contrast to Nollau, we will run across a different theological orientation. It will also become clear that a meeting between the two could not have generated any special rapprochement between the two or sympathies for one another.


Jan Kilian was born on March 22, 1811 in Döhlen, a small Sorbian village in the parish of Hochkirch. He was the first child of the farmer Peter Kilian and his wife, Maria, née Mättig, of Hochkirch. When he was two years old, his sister, only a few months old, died, and soon thereafter so did his mother. Consequently his father married a widow from Meschwitz, but died already in 1821. The orphaned boy was embraced especially by his mother’s family, who belonged to the respected and wealthy mill owner in the area of Hochkirch. He was allowed to attend secondary school in Bautzen and to study theology in Leipzig. Afterwards he became an associate pastor under Pastor Möhn in his home congregation in Hochkirch.

Already in his early years one could see that he set a high value on his Sorbian nationality and the Lutheran faith. At the Bautzen secondary school he congregated with other Sorbian students, to spend some time studying their mother tongue. In Leipzig he did not join, as was generally commonplace for Sorbian students, the Wendish Preachers’ Society Sorabia, which had been active since 1716, but rather affiliated himself with a group of religiously awakened German students. In his younger years, he had given a pledge to devote his life to missionizing to the heathen. To honor this pledge, he made his way to Basel in 1837 to study at the Mission Institute of St. Chrischona. But when his uncle, Pastor Michael Kilian, died soon after in Kotitz near Weißenberg, he returned to Lusatia and became his successor in the Kotitz congregation.

The small size of the congregation – of which the only members were from Kotitz and the neighboring village of Särka totaling about 90 households in the parish – allowed the young cleric to spend time on personal interests outside of his official duties. Kilian took up the pen in service of Lutheran teachings amongst the Sorbs. In the course of only a few years, he published a series of Sorbian books, especially translations of religious German writings. The supplies of some were exhausted so quickly, that soon reprints became necessary. Amongst his translations one can also find “symbolic Books,” the confessional writings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, whose full details were edited over several years and were finally presented as a comprehensive book of more than 700 pages. Kilian also published some of his own writings. Additionally he worked tirelessly on the publication of a monthly religious journal in the Sorbian language. In the forties he repeatedly applied for a press license, for which he was always refused, much to his regret. The reasons for the rejection were never named to him by the Saxon Cultural Ministry, and so Kilian speculated that either “his person, his Lutheranism, or his Wendishness” were too dislikable for the Ministry.

In Kotitz, Kilian developed himself into a masterly and fruitful hymnist. Already in 1838, at that time Kilian was 27 years old – his works were being incorporated into a new edition of the Sorbian hymnal. In 1846, a collection of his hymns was published, for which he had also composed some of the melodies. The booklet was used as a textbook for decades in some Sorbian schools and was repeatedly reprinted. In one of his religious songs, he coined a phrase which would become a familiar quotation amongst Sorbs, and which today is still used and understood as an admonition: “serbja, zachowajće swěru swojich wótcow rěč a wěru.” (Wend, stay faithful to your fathers, language, and belief.) Alongside his own creations, he also translated a multitude of hymns into Sorbian, amongst them such well known works as “Geh aus, mein Herz, und suche Freud” by Paul Gerhardt and “Jerusalem, du hochgebaute Stadt” by Johann Matthäus Meyfart. Altogether, there are more than 50 distinct sacred songs from Kilian, of which nine have melodies that he composed himself, and about 70 translations which are known. With this number, but above all with the quality of his works, his turn of phrase, and his strength of expression, Jan Kilian is amongst the most outstanding poets of the Protestant Sorbs. He became the bard of the Lutheran awakening of the 19th century in the Sorbian community. As such, he was frowned upon during the Socialist times, but recently his works have experienced a renaissance. A selection of his compositions was published in 1999, in a series of Sorbian poetry. His Hymns can also be found in the Catholic Sorbian Hymnal and especially in the new Protestant Upper Sorbian Hymnal, which was published in 2010 and contains 19 of his hymns.

Starting in 1841, Jan Kilian belonged to the Upper Lusatian Scientific Society in Görlitz. In 1847 he joined the newly founded Sorbian Education and Science Association Maćica Serbska. In spite of his work as a Sorbian cleric, publicist, and poet, Kilian remained an outsider in the ranks of the Sorbian intelligentsia. The reason was his vehement advocacy of the Lutheran faith. While Kilian uncompromisingly regarded the Sorbian nationality and the Lutheran faith as belonging together, for the majority of the Sorbian intelligentsia questions of faith took a back seat to nationalist concerns, in order to represent common Sorbian interests across confessional boundaries. The blooming of Sorbian cultural and intellectual life around the middle of the 19th century, which went down in history as a national rebirth, was described by Kilian as a false, unbelieving Wendishness. He strove not for the national, but rather the religious, awakening of his people.

Amongst the Protestant Sorbs, decades of influence of Hallean pietism and the Moravian Brethren had prepared fertile soil for an awakening stamped with Lutheranism. The conventicle apparatus – the meeting of laymen for devotions in private homes – was a fixed tradition in many villages. On this breeding ground, a Lutheran movement developed, which reached its climax in the 1840s. In Saxon Upper Lusatia, four Sorbian Evangelical Lutheran societies were established in 1849 under an umbrella organization in response to the societal changes caused by the revolutionary turbulence. In Prussian Upper Lusatia, the Sorbian Old Lutheran congregation in Weigersdorf/Klitten had already been established a few years earlier. The intellectual leader of this ecclesial separation in Prussia was Jan Kilian, who was at that time still pastor in Saxon Kotitz. Through the introduction of the Unified Church, uneasy believers from Weigersdorf sought council from him in religious matters. As a strict Lutheran, he advised them to break away from the State Church. He established a connection with the Old Lutherans in Silesia, and translated their texts into Sorbian. As a result, the Old Lutheran congregations of Weigersdorf and Klitten were established in 1843. None of the Sorbian clergymen was willing to take over the separatist congregation. Eventually Jan Kilian felt compelled to leave Saxon Kotitz and become pastor in Prussian Weigersdorf in 1848. In the same year, he married Maria Gröschel from Särka, a Sorbian farmer’s daughter from the congregation in Kotitz. She was a loyal companion to him for more than 32 years. Four children were born to the pair during their time in Weigersdorf, but three of them died very young.

Jan Kilian, who in his younger years had given a pledge to dedicate his life to becoming a missionary to the heathen, and for that reason had attended the Mission Institute in Basel as a young theologian, had already been contemplating emigration from a young age. The increasing emigration fever in Germany, especially after the large and successful emigration waves of the Prussian Old Lutherans to Australia in 1838, nourished his hope of being able to merge emigration and missionary work. In the year 1844, when he was still pastor in Kotitz, he had already discussed the advantages and disadvantages of emigration with the Old Lutheran ecclesial authorities in Breslau. Soon, Kilian took practical steps of preparation for emigration. In the year 1845, he made contact with Pastor August Ludwig Christian Kavel in South Australia, the pastor, who, in the year 1838, had led the emigration wave of Prussian Old Lutherans. It was Kilian’s intent to join Kavel’s German settlers with a large group of Sorbs, but he doubted it would be possible to maintain a pure Sorbian identity in such close proximity to Germans. Apparently he reckoned that this emigration would take place very soon, because already in 1846 he was negotiating with the emigration agent responsible for South Australia, Eduard Delius, in Bremen, about a ship for passage to Australia. From Delius, he also received printed reports about the German settlements in Australia, which he passed on to interested church members. In the conviction that he would soon follow, he also took up contact with Pastor Philipp Jakob Oster, of Posen, before he set sail for Adelaide with his congregation in 1847.

In 1848, the same year that Jan Kilian moved from Saxon Kotitz to the separatists in Prussia, the first Sorbian group immigrated to Australia. Enabled by the expansion of the rail network in the 1840s, year after year more Sorbian groups left their homes to move to Australia; 92 people belonged to the largest one. Most emigrants came from the area East of Bautzen, especially from the parishes of Hochkirch, Kotitz, and Gröditz, where the Lutheran movement had its home. Amongst them were the leaders and many members of the Sorbian Evangelical Lutheran societies in Saxony, as well as a few individual members of the Old Lutheran congregation in Weigersdorf. In 1848, Pastor Andreas Kappler of Weissenberg emigrated and in 1849, Pastor Andreas Pentzig, who was ordained in Krischa, today called Buchholz, just before his departure. Some of the groups were pursuing the expressed goal of establishing a Sorbian Lutheran congregation in Australia. This intention, however, failed. In spite of their efforts, they did not manage to establish a central Sorbian colony in Australia or to install a Sorbian cleric as the leader of a Lutheran congregation.

For Jan Kilian, thoughts about emigration fell into the background after taking over his new responsibilities as Pastor for the Old Lutherans in Prussia. The work was arduous. In addition to Weigersdorf and Klitten, he also ministered to small daughter congregations scattered through the Sorbian area in Prussian Lusatia – all together more than 1,200 souls. Every third month he went on a three week trip to the areas around Muskau, Spremberg, and Cottbus, all the way to Lübbenau in the Spreewald region. From the beginning, a dire financial situation was prevalent. The congregants, who could scarcely feed themselves off the sandy soil of Lusatian moor, had to erect two new churches, a parsonage, and a school with their own resources, as well as pay the salaries of the pastor and the teacher. In order to do so, they took large debts onto themselves. Furthermore, two more problems made their lives even harder. Jan Kilian had a running argument with the neighboring congregations who were not disposed to recognizing the Old Lutherans. His congregants were denounced as “Muckers” (or “false saints”) were regarded as odd in their villages, and were rejected by other villagers. There were even incidences in which they were verbally harassed and beaten on their way home from church

After only a short time in Weigersdorf, Jan Kilian was exhausted. There seemed to be only one way to get out of all the conflicts: emigration abroad. Depressed by the conditions, he came to the conclusion, in a 1851 letter to Adolf von Harless, the courtpreacher of the saxonian king in Dresden, that “the consequences of even the smallest churchly separation appear to be ominous, if we stay in the country.” Kilian discussed his wish, to be a chaplain of the Sorbs in Australia and to missionize the Aborigines at the same time, extensively with his Old Lutheran pastoral colleague Ehlers in Liegnitz in 1853. Ehlers was of the opinion that the two could not be combined with each other, and that Kilian would thus have to choose only one of them.

Unfortunate news about the circumstances in Australia and the ecclesiastical disputes amongst the immigrant German Lutherans soon resulted in Sorbs who were interested in emigration looking for a new destination. In the year 1853, the first families of the Old Lutheran congregation in Weigersdorf and Klitten headed out for Texas. Their praise-filled letters had the result that one year later, several hundred Sorbs started out to follow them. They founded an emigration society just for this trip, and it managed the practical concerns. Jan Kilian was asked to move with them as pastor of the immigrants. He assented. The move under Jan Kilian went down in history as the largest emigration of Sorbs, and at the same time as the last great emigration of Old Lutherans out of Prussia.

In September of 1854, 531 Sorbs began their journey with a chartered train from Bautzen to Hamburg. By ship and rail they continued on to Liverpool, in England, where the three-master ship, “Ben Nevis” was ready for them. The passage across the Atlantic to Galveston, on the Gulf of Mexico, went tragically; 81 emigrants died en route from a cholera epidemic and other illnesses.

In early 1855, they managed to buy about 1,720 hectares of undeveloped land in Bastrop County and to found a Sorbian colony there. Derived from the nationality of its inhabitants, Kilian conferred upon it the name Serbin. With great sacrifice and in unfamiliar climatic conditions, the settlers cleared forest, plowed virgin soil, and managed, by and by, to carve out a rudimentary life for themselves. Together they raised a church, school, and parsonage. At the same time, a cemetery was laid out, in which Kilian was to perform the first burial for his own newborn daughter, Maria Theresia, in March of 1855. Serbin became the main destination for Sorbs from Upper Lusatia in the following decades, and as a result, the most important Sorbian colony abroad.

As the first one in Texas, Kilian joined the Missouri Synod – whose full name was the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and other States – in 1855. This German Lutheran Church had been founded by awakened immigrants from Saxony, the so called Stephanianer – so named for their leader, pastor Martin Stephan from Dresden – in 1848 in St. Louis, Missouri – in the same place where only eight years earlier Nollau, together with German and Swiss clergy brethren, founded the German Evangelical Church Society of the West, in 1840. Kilian knew the president of the Missouri Synod, Dr. Ferdinand Walther, who is also described as the “Lutheran Pope of the West,” and other leading clergymen of the Synod personally. In Leipzig they had studied together, and strengthened each other’s faith within their pious circles. As it had been in Lusatia, Kilian also took a position of isolation for the sake of his personal beliefs. He suffered from the fact that he did not find any like-minded people amongst his colleagues in Texas, because they all belonged to the Texas Synod, a synod which, according to Kilian’s view, represented the liberal, watered-down teachings of the Unified Church. Furthermore, Kilian was not even in agreement with all of the teachings of the Missouri Synod, and as a result ended up getting into some arguments with his ecclesial authorities in St. Louis. Amongst other things, he regretted that they could muster up no sympathy for his efforts to maintain the Sorbian language and nationality in their colony in Texas. In spite of all the conflicts, they never came to a breaking point, and that is how Jan Kilian became the father of the Missouri Synod in Texas.

In his congregation in Serbin, Kilian had to tackle an extensive workload. For many years he was not only busy as a Pastor, but also as a school teacher. He was often on horseback, en route to distant settlements where his services were needed. For the most part, economic responsibilities, and the care for his family, he left up to his wife, to whom four more children were born in Texas.

He was not granted a restful life in his new home either. Just when the most important issues were settled in Serbin, the arguments began. Only three years after the settlement was established, in 1858, one group split from the congregation because of religious differences. Although this split would be overcome after a few years, the religious conflict was followed shortly by one of nationality. In the area around Serbin, some Germans had settled, who, with the support of some Sorbs, requested more and more German-language church services and community events. Jan Kilian and his followers fought against this, which eventually lead to a split between a predominantly German St. Peter’s congregation and a predominantly Sorbian St. Paul’s congregation. Besides that, several daughter settlements in the area sought the dissociation from the mother congregation in Serbin, and the establishment of their own congregations. In all of these related conflicts, Kilian sought support from his authorities in Missouri, which, however, he failed to receive.

In light of the many difficulties in Texas, Jan Kilian yearned to be back in Lusatia. It was not to the Old Lutheran Weigersdorf in Prussia to which he longed to return home, but rather to quiet Kotitz in the Evangelical Lutheran state church in Saxony. However he did not want to leave his congregation in Texas without having found a Sorbian successor. He hoped that a young Sorbian pastor from Lusatia would come to Serbin so he could return to his old home. His hopes, however, were never realized.

At the end of his life, he often asked himself if the path he had taken with the founding of the Old Lutheran congregation in Weigersdorf and Klitten which had required so much sacrifice from himself and others had been the right one. On September 12, 1884, Jan Kilian died. His sons carried on the work in Serbin, Gerhard Kilian as a teacher, and Hermann Kilian as pastor.

Jan Kilian is still remembered with reverence today. For the descendents of the Sorbs in Texas, he is the Sorbian Moses, who led his people out of European oppression over the sea to America’s freedom. He went down in Church history as the founder of Old Lutheran congregations in Lusatia, as the spiritual leader of the last great migration of the Old Lutherans out of Prussia, and as the father of the Missouri Synod in Texas. In Lusatia he is treasured by Protestants as well as Catholics as a powerfully elegant poet of sacred songs and hymns.

An overview of the life and works of Jan Kilian shows that there are similarities with the career of Nollau. However what is truly impressive are the differences in personal beliefs and the spiritual home of both pastors. Nollau was sent as a missionary to America, Kilian went as the spiritual leader of a large immigrant society. While Nollau was a deliberate representative of the Unified Church, Kilian, as an avowed Lutheran, strongly rejected the Union, and finally fled from it with his brethren abroad. One further substantial difference between Kilian and Nollau consists of their differing national and social origins: Through his rural heritage, his sense of belonging to the Sorbian people, and his deep-rootedness in the national and sacred traditions of his people, Kilian remained estranged from the quickly developing modern world with its liberal and civil Zeitgeist in both Germany and America. With unshakable consistency and with great sacrifice, he followed the goal he formed early in life, to preserve the Sorbian language and the Lutheran faith as an indivisible entity. His biographer Otto Lehmann described Jan Kilian as “one of the most faithful and important Sorbs that ever lived.”


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Malinkowa, Trudla. Ufer der Hoffnung – Sorbische Auswanderer nach Übersee. 2. Ed., Bautzen 1999.

Malinkowa, Trudla. Shores of Hope – Wends Go Overseas. Concordia University Press Austin, Texas 2009.

Nielsen, George. In Search of a Home. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1989.

Nielsen, George. Johann Kilian, Pastor. Bloomington: 1st Books Library, 2003.

Wićaz, Ota. Jan Kilian. Předźenak 1927.

Wićaz, Ota. Jan Kilian – japoštoł a rewolucionar, Pomhaj Bóh (1951) 4–5.

Wilson, Joseph. Pastor John Kilian’s Shipboard Diary. Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly 4 (1985).


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