The Impact Of Environment On Artistic Expression: Understanding Mato Kosyk’s Poetry From The Perspective Of The New World

This is the English version of a manuscript, written in English and translated into German by David Zersen, PhD. that was subsequently published as a chapter in a German language book as Der Einfluss der Umgebung auf den kuenstlerischen Ausdruck: Einblicke in die Poesie von Mato Kosyk aus der Sicht der neuen Welt by Peter Lang, Leyden, 2013.

            Artists do not create in a vacuum. Geographical, chronological, and cultural contexts impact their output. Interactions with a place, its time in history and the people who lived, worked and worshipped there, are formative for creative expression. It was no different for young Mato Kosyk, journalist and poet, budding man of letters, who in 1883 left Lusatia, in Brandenburg, Germany, the only world he knew, to seek his fortune in the unexpected cultural climate of America. It would forever alter his perspective in life. His relocation also provides challenges for contemporary literary analysts who seek to understand his recently published five volumes of poetry. They will find it important to remember that he spent the fifty-five years of his professional career and retirement in virgin territories which reached statehood at times not far removed from his presence there: Iowa (1846), Nebraska (1847) and Oklahoma (1907). Now in the 150th anniversary year of his birth, all have an appropriate occasion to analyze Kosyk’s historical context and reflect on the forces with which environment shapes an artist.

            This is not a lecture about poetry. Others with greater expertise in literary analysis may use this study to analyze Kosyk’s writing. However, this is a study about those currents which both pushed Kosyk out of Europe as well as drew him to America. It is an analysis of those cultural, personal, economic, religious and geographic factors that hammer at the doors of a person’s psyche in a given time and place, forever altering him/her through their impact. In Kosyk’s case, all of these factors were important, but because he became a Lutheran pastor, the spiritual and ecclesial characteristics of the communities in which he lived were of paramount importance. Essential in this study, therefore, is an understanding of religious movements in America, the characteristics marking denominations and the social and sociological issues at work in congregations. It will, in some sense, be a study of the larger Church and the churches that claimed Kosyk’s loyalty and to which he gave fifty-seven years of his life in America.

            To some degree, this is not new research. Although only four articles have been written in American journals about Kosyk, all by the present writer, one cannot develop this presentation without mentioning the seminal research by Dalitz and Stone, published in 1977 in English, although in a European journal.[1] This research from twenty-five years ago has a section entitled “The Church Career of Mato Kosyk,” which this study, at first blush, may seem to replicate. However, although there is great indebtedness to Dalitz and Stone, this current work, while focusing on those issues that impacted Kosyk the pastor, hopes to move beyond their original presentation in order to provide a broader cultural context for understanding his creative output. Specifically, it will seek to understand

the impact of unresolved issues left behind as Kosyk embarked for the New


the impact of choices made for professional preparation, and

the impact of living and working in unfamiliar settings.

Hopefully, these three reviews of experiences encountered over the years will provide new insights for those seeking to interpret the poetry of Mato Kosyk within the context of his environment.


            Whenever one leaves the Heimat, there are unresolved issues that later come back to haunt. In reflection, there are questions about whether people left behind are being properly cared for or were properly respected by leaving. There are friendships that can never be taken up again in the same way. There are questions about one’s real motives in leaving. There are fears about one’s adequacy in the new environment. All of these were real to Kosyk and there are hints about each of them in letters he wrote to family and friends back home.

            Some of the reasons for making the journey had an inevitability about them. Kosyk did not inherit the homestead, so he was not entitled to property. Even if he could have farmed, his health was not robust and his fantasies predestined him for intellectual pursuits. For reasons attributed to health, money, and lack of educational drive he dropped out of the Gymnasium in Cottbus, extinguishing forever the prospect of taking a university route to the pastorate.[2] What to do now?! Students of Kosyk’s life know that his next step, after saying farewell to his family and friends, was to leave on October 31 (Was there a reason for the choice of Reformation day?), 1883, his beloved Blotka/Spreewald to enroll in a theological seminary in Springfield, Illinois, in the United States of America.

            It is not possible to know all the questions that lingered for him, that remain unanswered even to this day. Did he really want to be a pastor more than anything else, or was he seeking a work/life in which he could continue his writing? (It was not an unknown practice in Europe to consider such an option!) Were there other educational options to the pastorate in Europe he might have considered instead of immigrating to the United States? Or were there other countries he might have considered if being a missionary was his interest. (From the European Church’s standpoint, America was a mission field.) There were a number of theological colleges in Europe (Hochschulen) which prepared German-speaking young men for foreign ministries. Many of these had been established in the wake of missionary movements tied to colonization by the new maritime powers. In 1883, there were 21 mission institutes and societies in Germany that prepared and sent Lutheran missionaries to America, as well as to other parts of the world.[3] Why did Kosyk not choose to attend any of these? Did he hope to get an education abroad and return to serve in Lusatia? These and other questions surely plagued Kosyk before he left and remained unresolved for him for years to come.[4]

            What is probable is that Kosyk left for America because like many young men of his time (he was 30) he was influenced by all the positive publicity about and from the New World. The year before he left (1882) was the peak year for immigration from Germany. In that year, 250,000 (685 a day) Germans left for the United States. It is known that Kosyk learned about educational possibilities in the U.S. through the Lutherische Mission which represented the interests of the American church in Germany.[5] When he left from the Vetschau Bahnhof to head for the unknown on that October day, he was joined by many others from his home town of Werben who were caught up in the same excitement to test one’s luck in America.[6]

There were good reasons for these crowds gathering on railroad stations and in harbors bringing the German immigration count in America to five million by 1900. Often referred to as the “push” of immigration, there were a number of negative pressures causing stress for Germans between the 1830s and the 1880s. In the early period, Germans left Southern Germany and Baden/Wuertemberg for a variety of reasons including the new laws permitting subdividing inheritance (providing for the possibility of receiving property too small to farm), unimproved farming techniques in other countries (making Germany poor competition), an opportune time to sell land because of increased values (and thus have capital to take to the new world) as well as religious objections (for example, the Prussian Union of 1817 requiring Lutherans and Reformed to have common worship). In later years, Germans left other provinces (Hesse-Kassel, Hannover, Oldenburg, Saxony, Schleswig, Pomerania, Mecklenburg) because of crop failure ending work opportunity for day laborers or giving landowners no money to buy goods (dismissing the need for apprentices). Additionally, by the 1860s there was a swell of opposition to military conscription.[7]

On the other hand, there was the lure or the “pull” enticing immigrants to seek their fortunes in America. Land, for Germans, was preeminent in this quest. The Homstead Act of 1861 provided free land for the taking. Additionally, taxes were low. This good news reached Germans through advertising from railroad companies (which wanted towns along their tracks) and religious denominations (which encouraged clustering of people in like-minded communities). Perhaps the primary influence was personal letters, millions of them, reaching German friends and relatives and convincing them of the better way of life in the new world.[8]

German-speaking Catholics and Lutherans tried harder to recruit fellow-religionists to come to America because they had unique problems and interests. Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists evangelized among the English-speaking and their churches grew on American soil. German Catholics and Lutherans from the Continent who sought to grow a church community had to claim their recruits from abroad, however. Many immigrants were very interested in such recruitment because it was difficult enough to move to a strange country, but to find yourself among people who couldn’t understand you and didn’t share your values would be even more stressful. Churches therefore often met immigrants at the docks when they disembarked, telling them about opportunities to settle with Glaubensbrüder. They also advertised in newspapers in Germany. When the huge flow of immigrants swelled in the early 1880s, large numbers of like-minded Lutherans found themselves without pastors.[9] Great efforts were made to contact churches, mission societies and theological institutions in Germany pleading that young men be encouraged to consider ministry in the proverbial “far country.” Such pleas brought surprisingly positive responses.[10]

It was such a call that Mato Kosyk, unsure of his future, with numerous unresolved quandaries, answered. He was part of the groundswell of response to American opportunity and need. Within a few years, however, the huge numbers dwindled. There was no more virgin land available in America. The economic situation in Germany improved. By 1890, only 30,000 Germans came. Kosyk, however, was already in the United States, a student at Concordia-Seminar in Springfield, Illinois. The dynamic forces which had swept him from the known to the unknown were themselves partially known and unknown to him. He would spend a good deal of time asking himself in his poetry what this new world was all about and whether it was right that he had come at all. He would struggle with the same uncertainties and doubt which trouble all artists who take risks. How boldly he responded to this risk-taking in the poetry or lack of it written in this transitional period is a judgment to be brought by the literary analyst. One thing is clear from Kosyk’s own hand: The biggest challenges, with their respective impacts, were yet to come.


            Making the right educational choices to prepare for professional service can have long-range impacts upon an artist’s life and creative output. Many artists come to their unique forms of expression through a series of back doors and alleyways. In Kosyk’s case, choosing not to finish the gymnasium in Cottbus would place permanent constraints on his ambition. Having made the decision to pursue pastoral training in the United States, he now had limited educational venues from which to choose.

            Although universities in the United States had theological departments, they were typically used to prepare one for academic careers and were certainly not designed for a young man who wanted to be a Lutheran pastor and spoke only German. Additionally, there was an American denominational tradition which provided theological faculties in the respective church bodies to prepare its own clergy. In 1883, there were seventeen Lutheran theological seminaries in America, six of which offered instruction in the German language. The fact that he chose Concordia-Seminar in Springfield, Illinois, may simply have been due to the fact that it was the second largest Lutheran seminary in America at that time (with 90 students) and perhaps the only one of which he had been made aware.[11]

            Concordia’s history went back to 1843 when Wilhelm Loehe of Neuendettelsau established a seminary to train pastors for immigrant Germans in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Loehe who was a remarkably entrepreneurial pastor in the Lutheran Church of Bavaria (establishing huge institutions for orphans, mentally and physically handicapped, the sick, training of deaconesses and pastors) accepted some responsibility for theological preparation for Germans in America, sending out a Plea for Workers in 1841. When a new church body organized itself in 1847 as the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States,” it negotiated with Loehe to relocate the seminary in Springfield, Illinois. There it remained, except for a 14-year hiatus during the Civil War when it was temporarily moved to St. Louis, Missouri (1861-1875), until Kosyk arrived in 1883.[12]

            Little is known about Kosyk’s brief experience at this school, but it did not suit him. It had 90 students in 1883, discipline was fairly rigorous, and instruction made him study very hard, but the practical approach that sought to send candidates into the field as quickly as possible did not call for the same classical emphasis that he had experienced in Cottbus where he studied Sorbian, Greek and Latin.[13] He was very homesick, concerned that most students spoke English among one another although lectures were in German, was afraid to go out at night because of thieves, and had troubles with some of the theology. He shared with friends that in America everything was completely different (völlig anders) than in Europe and that one had to have a tough spirit (harte Seele) to live there.[14] Clearly Kosyk was having culture shock in his first months in America and he must have questioned many times whether he had made a wise decision.

            Somehow Kosyk heard about the German Theological Seminary in Chicago and by the end of January he was enrolled in it. This seminary was organizationally fragile, always on the edge of collapsing financially, but Kosyk felt at home. It was established in 1880 by Prof. F. E. Giese from Carthage College in Illinois where he had been a professor of Greek and German at the college. Giese apparently felt that the Wartburg Synod, largely a German immigrant denomination, needed a theological seminary with studies conducted in German in a major city. In the five years of the seminary’s life under Giese, it never had more than eight students. They met in various locations until they acquired a house in Chicago Lawn, about eight miles from the center of Chicago. Giese functioned much like a tutor. Students spoke German in and out of class, Hebrew was used along with Greek and Latin. Kosyk felt affirmed because Giese was interested in his Sorbian background and helped publish some materials about Sorbian needs. He spent just a little over a year in this seminary (although it had a three-year program) because, he explained in his previously mentioned letter to Muka, his linguistic preparation at the Cottbus gymnasium had given him advanced placement. Although the German Theological Seminary collapsed shortly after Kosyk left because Giese took a position with a congregation in Baltimore, it had given him some confidence and training to begin his ministry in 1885.[15]

            Koysk’s brief stay at the Chicago seminary not only had a strong positive impact on his life as a developing professional, but also as an artist. Surely more “dangerous” than Springfield, Illinois in 1884, Chicago made him comfortable roaming its streets, walking the shores of Lake Michigan and exploring its railroad stations. Wide-eyed, he saw large buildings and people from all over the world. For the first time, he saw a Native American. He made notes about clannish Polish neighborhoods and poor Bohemians. All of this fascination and excitement with his new world experiences expressed itself in the poems of that period. Among them are Winter on the Shore of Lake Michigan, The First Rose in Illinois, The Indian Maiden, The Dreams Remain, In Polish Chicago and A Pious Slav.

Metsk reflects that the poems of this period, 1883-1886, unlike much of his other work, have a personal character to them and are among the loveliest he ever wrote.[16]

            Kosyk’s educational preparation was clearly “alternative” in terms of what was traditional even for that time period. Both in Germany and in the United States, it was typical for Lutheran pastors to experience a gymnasium (preparatory education) and a subsequent university or seminary (professional education). The fact that Kosyk chose to piece together his educational program using what was available to German speaking students in America forever restricted his potential. Although his time in Chicago was apparently memorable, when he later returned to Germany in the hopes of using this education to claim a ministerial post in Lusatia, he was turned down.[17] When some years later, he described his situation as that of a caged bird,[18] he was surely reflecting not only on his nostalgia and sense of displacement, but also on the sense in which he was trapped in his situation, unable to fly home from this cage because there were no doors open to him. The pain an artist feels may be personal, but the nature of one’s calling as an artist requires that such feelings be shared. As the pressures in Kosyk’s world became more intense, his poetry becomes more spiritual and internalized. To appreciate this it is now necessary to visit those communities and congregations in Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma in which he served for the next 28 years.


            The impact of the new world was evident in Kosyk’s encounters in Springfield (where he was heard to say “everything is anders here”) and in Chicago (where he was seen looking wide-eyed at a sprawling multi-ethnic metropolis). Yet nothing challenged him as dramatically as did the experiences in the communities in which he served as pastor. The artist in him must have struggled for words and images to attempt to grasp what he was encountering. Artists cannot simply ignore impressions that overwhelm. Somehow they have to assimilate and organize their stimuli and represent them visually or verbally or musically both to themselves and their wider worlds. Kosyk was in for an enormous challenge. He had to understand the church body and all its synods, the opposition between one group of immigrants and another, the absence of government involvement in the church, the impact of chain immigration, the differences between first and second generation immigrants, the roots of conservative politics among Germans, and, as WWI approached, an increasingly hostile attitude toward anything German. A harte Seele, as he himself named it, might survive and come out a leader. Kosyk was ultimately overwhelmed by it all and analysts of his poetry will have to determine how to describe his way of coping with the wolf at the door.

            American Lutheran polity seemed functional, yet chaotic.

Perhaps, most challenging of all, Kosyk had to grasp the nature of the Lutheran Church on American soil. Fortunately, he did not have to choose a church body, for they were numerous. Those certified for ordination by German Theological Seminary were sent to congregations seeking pastors in the synods which had a relationship with the Seminary. A word with Greek etymology (the Latin counterpart being council), synod was a term used already in the earliest Christian era to refer to ecclesiastical gatherings in which representatives from local churches made decisions for the whole church. Lutherans made greater use of this term in America than any other Christian group had previously done. The synod, because of Lutheran polity, was a gathering of clergy and laity that met periodically to make decisions for the denomination. Entire religious communities then came to be known by the name of their periodically gathered authority. Since there was no hierarchy in Lutheranism (like a pope or patriarch) to which synods needed to submit, they could be formed whenever and wherever a gathered community of believers chose to incorporate. At one point in the United States there were over one-hundred of these designations employing ethnic, linguistic and geographical names, not to mention some named after cities, individuals or confessional documents. The oldest were the Pennsylvania Ministerium (1748) and the New York Ministerium (1786) which didn’t use the word synod. Other early ones were the Joint Synod of Ohio and Other States (1818), the General Synod (1820), and the Maryland Synod (1820). There were Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic and German synods. There were Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Wisconsin synods. There were Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Chicago synods. There were Wartburg and Wittenberg synods. There were Hauge, Francke, Steimle and Melanchthon synods. When Kosyk was ordained in 1885, many of these had already merged or worked cooperatively together under umbrella titles, but there were still 59 of them, loosely grouped into General Synod, General Council, Southern General Synod (because of the Civil War), the Synodical Conference and Independent Synods. All of this must have been extremely bewildering to Kosyk, given the simplicity of the German Landeskirchen, and he would struggle throughout his career to understand the differences and the issue that distinguished the various groups. Fortunately, German Theological Seminary had a relationship with the Wartburg, Iowa and Nebraska Synods. It served as a channel through which young men came from German preparatory institutions and, after some further training, were placed in congregations. Kosyk’s first assignment would be to a congregation of the Wartburg Synod (with headquarters in Princeton, Illinois), Wellsburg, Iowa.[19]

            Indigenous issues created new tensions.

Kosyk had to learn to understand the issues which divided people because such issues created friction in his congregations. English-speaking Americans tended to group all German-speaking people together: Hungarians, Austrians, Swiss, Luxemburgers and Germans. Of course, there were significant differences between such groups, not to mention the differences between East Friesians, Saxons and Mecklenburgers.

Furthermore, as immigrants who were often targeted and isolated by English-speaking Americans, they had their own religious scruples about the English. They felt such religious groups were overly moralistic (extracted from Puritanism), with their emphases on Sabbatarianism and temperance (Beer drinking Germans could not understand a state like Nebraska half of which was dry by 1890). As Kirchdeutsch, they opposed the lodges of the Vereindeutsch and other ethnic groups and struggled to provide the services and benefits to members that these secular organizations were providing. As people who had come from state-supported churches, they did not understand why it was necessary to give of their own free-will to support their religious communities and some therefore considered the clergy money-hungry thieves.[20] The problems arising in congregations where people struggled to make sense of their new world and its impact on their lives must have been overwhelming to a pastor who simply wanted to share the Good News. Kosyk declined to write his biography in later years, but there might have been interesting cameo appearances in it of the characters in conflict in rural congregations.

            Chain immigrations patterns fostered explosive situations

Kosyk was used to a small town where everyone knew everyone’s business, but there is a difference between living in such a town and being the pastor in one. American small towns (and 2/3 of the Germans in America lived in towns of less than 250 people) were formed largely through the letter-writing campaigns of friends and relatives who gave glowing reports about life in America. The chain reaction which resulted from such publicity produced remarkable concentrations of like-minded people who were all related.[21] The results of such clannishness in a small congregation can seem sentimentally charming to the outsider, but to the pastor it is often a disaster. If there are moral problems in the character of one parishioner that the pastor feels compelled to address, entire family groups related to the “wronged” relative can become hostile and set out to form a new independent congregation. Congregation meetings in such environments can become volatile and negative attitudes can reduce contributions affecting the pastor’s salary. Small congregations on the frontier were fragile organizations because of the humanness of the membership. Kosyk regularly had his hands full.

            Absence of hierarchy enabled bewildering diversity.

Kosyk was familiar with government intervention in the church. In 1830, the Prussian government had declared that the word evangelical would be the replacement for the words Lutheran and Reformed. Some Sorbs ultimately left Germany for this and other reasons in 1854. Such control was not possible in the United States where the Constitution disallowed an established religion. Often mistakenly understood as a policy of separation of church and state, the concept means something quite different. It asserts that government may not favor one religious group over another, allowing all to practice their faith without government regulation. This generous notion led to many conflicts, however, as dissimilar faiths confronted one another, not in a spirit of harmony, but with contention. The particularity of their competition became extreme as they stressed their uniqueness, their disagreements, and their ultimate claims on truth.[22] This led to one dogmatic dispute after another which tended to fragment the Christian community ad infinitum. The number of denominations resulting from this process in America is legion and depending on one’s perspective it can be considered a triumph for freedom or a travesty for Christendom. In any case, Kosyk himself became a part of this very confusing process when he elected to help establish the German Nebraska Synod because he felt with others that the needs of a linguistic group were not being meaningfully addressed.

            Changing needs and interests developed stress.

Kosyk was used to living and working with people of different generations, but the American setting was different. People in Werben, Germany, had lived together with different generations all their lives. In Kosyk’s congregations, however, there were people who just got off the boat and there were people who had been in America for several generations. These people had different interests, and, specifically, for the topic at hand, different attitudes toward the church. Although many leaving Germany may have had luke-warm or antagonistic attitudes toward the church (e.g., the Deutsche Freidenker immigrating between 1845-1860) the majority of first-generation Germans felt that the church provided a nucleus for community life which combined the essentials of common language, culture and faith. In difficult times especially, in a frontier society, the church was the only organization to which one could turn for spiritual or material support. In many cases, Germans became far more religious in America than they had been in Europe. On the other hand, second generation Germans in the same community often wanted to be perceived as fully-American so they reacted against their heritage, sometimes anglicized their names (Schmidt to Smith, Kosyk to Kossick) and turned their backs on their churches which represented (often because the language of worship was still German) a vestigial appendage from a world that they felt should be left behind.[23] The pastor’s job was to reach out to these backsliders and bring them back into the fold. Very often, the parents and grandparents expected him to do it, even though the children wanted nothing to do with the pastor. The changing character of communities based on these generational differences surely troubled Kosyk.

            Conservative mindset evolves reactionary spirit.

Kosyk himself was probably a fairly conservative (read restrained, solid, unchanging) personality. He was certainly committed to upholding his ethnic heritage. However, he gives evidence of openness to changing farming practices in retirement (letter to Werben)[24] and to discomfort with the conservative theology at the Concordia-Seminar in Springfield.[25] What he experienced with his members in the communities in which he served probably made him feel like a liberal, however. The Bauer, day-laborers, apprentices and craftsmen became American farmers because of the freedom to be a landowner in the U.S.A. The confusion in their new roles challenged them to recreate what they knew of stability in Europe. They had been cut loose from the old Europe with its established churches, old buildings, time-honored rituals, and hierarchy and they were uncertain how to understand their new identities. They were very dissatisfied with the religious expression they found in America even among fellow Lutherans who had already been there for two centuries on the eastern seaboard. They were too American for the new Americans. Therefore, they began to reconstruct what they knew from experience with such a vengeance that the commitment to preserving culture, language and theology acquired a dedication they had not known in Europe. This sometimes led to intolerance to outsiders, new political movements and anything representing change.[26] The Germans, with some exceptions in America, were typically Republicans. In the countryside, where they clung to the land in a way the English-speaking, entrepreneurial Americans never did, this might be self-understood. In the larger cities, more progressive Germans, especially those who came after 1848, embraced more liberal causes and more progressive political parties. Kosyk had to swim through the wakes of these controversies and one has the impression, from his poetry and his letters that he tended to avoid the changing realities of the time and focus on matters inward, nostalgic or spiritual.

            There were other issues that made Kosyk’s new environment an overwhelming cultural shock, capable of disorienting any artist who feels compelled to make sense of the current moment. One of them which will be discussed later was the growing hostility toward Germans in general as the United States in 1917 approached its entrance to World War I. However, with the background already provided it is probably now expedient to visit the communities to which Kosyk was sent or called during the next 28 years of his career.

            IOWA St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wellsburg, Shiloh Township

            Kosyk was assigned by the seminary to his first parish in Wellsburg, Iowa, in Grundy County, which even today has the largest settlement of people of East Frisian descent in the United States. The congregation had been founded fifteen years before. Typical in country parishes, as in this one, was a plot of land for the church building, the parsonage (Kosyk entered a new one built in 1883) and land called God’s Acre because the produce from its soil was used to support the church and its mission. Kosyk arrived on March 1,1883 and was officially licensed by the Wartburg Synod as the congregation’s pastor on March 10, 1885. However, ordination did not take place until the Synod’s annual conference in June in Mt. Pulaski, Illinois.

            It must have been a difficult first year for Kosyk, given all the reasons mentioned above, his status as a single man and his uncertainty about his future plans and destiny. The fact that his younger brother, Kito, died one year later (June 1, 1886), leaving a wife and young son as well as aging parents for whom he was sole support, brought Kosyk to the decision to resign on August 29, 1886, and return to Germany. Clearly there were looming issues (a Sorbian wife for a lonely man and his father’s concern to have him back in Werben), but pre-eminent was his preference, now that he had been ordained, to find a ministerial post in Lusatia rather than serve “German colonists in the Western world.”[27] It was a traumatic decision and Kosyk was surely self-absorbed. The burdens

brought to an end his first period of poetic work in America (1883-1886). He had to go back and answer serious questions. However, as stated above, the answers were not what he hoped, so he returned to the United States single and without prospect of employment in Germany early in 1887.[28]


            Given the fact that Kosyk spent 20 years in Nebraska in three different congregations, it’s worth exploring the setting in the State to which he came when he returned from Germany. Little is known as to his reason for approaching the Nebraska Synod upon his return, but he may have learned some things about German presence in Nebraska during his year in Iowa. Nebraska “out-Germaned” Iowa! Throughout the State’s history, Germans always constituted the largest non-English speaking language group. In 1880, one-third of Nebraska was German-born, in 1900, thirty-eight percent. The 1880 census limited “Germans” to those born within the boundaries of the German empire. Since this doesn’t count second-generation people, one could add another twenty percent. And that doesn’t include those who spoke German and were regarded as Germans by English-speakers. In the 1880 census, 14% of French, 19% of Hungarian, 8% of Romanian and 8% of Russians claimed German as their first language.[29] The German population in Nebraska actually more than doubled (131% between 1880 and 1890) as Kosyk entered the State.

            This must have seemed ideal to Germans who responded to the agents in Germany of the Union Pacific and Burlington railroads. Free land offered by the Homestead Act of 1862 gave “status” to those who had never been landowners before. It was almost too good to be true– a German “country” in the “far country.” In reality, Germans had not thought of themselves as Germans for that long. They were

Schwabians, Saxons, Hannoverians. However, in the United States, they discovered that such appellations meant nothing. From the standpoint of the English-speaking, they were simply Germans. And they discovered there was an advantage (although disadvantages as well) in being thought of as such. They rallied around their German-ness. The Lutherans founded 57 German language parochial elementary schools in Nebraska by 1885. They rallied against the Methodists with their emphasis on temperance, Sabbatarianism and emotionalism. They joined in opposition to women suffrage and prohibition. They developed a style of otherness which protected them from assimilation. All those who were not German they considered Yankees, “grasping rootless, materialistic snobs, always ready to take advantage of an unsuspecting foreigner.”[30] It was a mindset of conservatism and cultural isolation. Kosyk himself may have been stultified by some of this, but there is good evidence that Kosyk rallied more around preserving heritage than he did around the progressive mien of entrepreneurial damned Yankees. He chose to ally himself with those who were serving the immigrant population without asking the larger questions about where such an entrenchment might finally lead in a nation that was moving in the direction of Anglicization and assimilation.

            St. John’s Lutheran Church, Ridgely, Dodge County

Through some negotiation with the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Nebraska which was always looking for German-speaking pastors to serve its sixty-five (in 1887) congregations, Kosyk received a congregation on June 1st, 1887, although he didn’t make application for membership in the Synod until Sept. 10.[31] St. John’s was a typical small rural parish. Only 2 of the sixty-five congregations in the Nebraska Synod at that time had memberships over 200. St. John’s had 35 communicants when Kosyk came and 15 children were baptized in that first year. The next year (1888) he reported 85 communicants with 54 infant baptisms! Kosyk typically made no reports of benevolences (which was expected of pastors), a practice which when exercised too frequently might suggest indolence or anti-institutional bias. After two years, he received a Call to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Princeton, Nebraska, and he submitted his resignation from St. John’s ministry on June 1, 1889.[32]

            St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Princeton, Lancaster County

Moving from a location north of the capital at Lincoln to a small community 15 miles south of the city, Kosyk came to a parish slightly smaller in numbers than the statistics he had reported before he left Ridgely.[33]   It was an independent Lutheran congregation, unaffiliated with any Synod. This was a important setting for Kosyk because here he was married (Nov. 19, 1890), their first son, Juro, was born (Sept. 7, 1891), a visit to a conference produced his only known contact with Sorbs in America (July 24, 1890), on that same day he became a founding father of the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Nebraska, and during his term there he became a U.S. citizen (1894). It was perhaps the most exuberant period in his life! It was also the second period of literary activity for Kosyk (1892-1898), extending into the first two years of his next term of service at Stamford.

            Although Kosyk was still a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Nebraska in 1890 and attended their annual conference on Sept. 18, he had already voted to leave it and form the new German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Nebraska in July.

Kosyk believed, along with others, that it was more important to meet the needs of immigrants and their descendents in German rather than help them transition to a new culture. Although it may have seemed an appropriate stand to take, time would show that Kosyk’s position was reactionary and regressive rather than positive and progressive. Kosyk’s participation in this founding and his role in the new synod needs, therefore, to be set in context. Dalitz and Stone mention that this founding was his “main claim to fame in America.” This is probably true, but paper and data is patient when it comes to fame. There were only five pastors, three students and three laity at the conference in Sterling[34] petitioning for recognition (which did come in July of 1891) of the new synod. He only spent a half day at the founding conference (visiting rather with Sorbs all afternoon), did help draft a constitution, and did subsequently serve in congregations affiliated with it. He also attended their conferences sporadically (distances were always a problem), and seldom filed benevolence reports (raising some questions about his administrative skills or attitude). From 1926 until the Synod dissolved in 1937, he was indeed the sole surviving founder, but it would be interesting to know more about his gifts or skills as a preacher, Seelsorger or community leader, and compare them to this peculiar fame.

            In 1893, this new Synod had thirty congregations and Kosyk provided statistical reports to them showing that St. Paul’s had 70 communicant members and 18 infant baptisms. In 1895, there were 60 communicant members and 16 infant baptisms.[35] In general the benevolence reports either showed that the congregation was the 5th lowest of the 30 congregations in such contributions (in 1890) or there were no such reports submitted at all.[36] Kosyk left St. Paul’s under unknown circumstances on Sept. 30, 1895. Dalitz and Stone propose that the Panic of 1883 and crop failure in 1895 made it impossible for the congregation to support him as well as for any others to extend him a Call. For a year, therefore, he was without support and had to borrow money to provide a rental home in nearby Roca for his family.[37]

Trinity Lutheran Church, Stamford, Harlan County

Almost a year passed before Kosyk received a Call to serve as pastor in the small farming community of Stamford, a position which he accepted on July 4, 1896. Not much is known of his stay there. After two years he filed a statistical report in 1898 showing 45 communicants. No report of benevolences was filed.[38] After three years, he accepted a Call to St. John’s in Ohiowa (named that because its residents came from Ohio and Iowa), arriving in April of 1899.

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Ohiowa, Fillmore County

Kosyk spent a little over eight years at his new charge, St. John’s, recording a gradual growth in congregation size from 70 to 85 members between 1900 and 1906. The number of baptisms averaged about 14 a year with one year having 36. Dalitz and Stone reported that during these years he attended most annual conferences of the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Nebraska.[39] This was Kosyk’s longest term in all his congregations, but all too little is known of his work there.[40] On December 8, 1907, he received from and accepted a Call to Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, El Reno, Oklahoma.


Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, El Reno, Canadian County

El Reno was a former fort and a railroad town, close to the frontier, Oklahoma having first become a state only months before (Nov. 16, 1907) Kosyk’s arrival in early 1908. It had a large Indian population since it was previously the Indian Territory into which the U.S. government relocated native Americans, primarily the Cherokee nation. The small congregation of the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Nebraska with fifty communicant members dwindled in size during Kosyk’s stay to 25. Infant baptisms were seldom held. He also provided services for a small church in Union City, about 11 miles away, which had been formed in 1901.[41] Kosyk retired from this congregation somewhat prematurely in the spring of 1913, citing growing deafness on his ministerial report as the reason.[42]

As Kosyk entered retirement in 1913 at age 60, his wife was either 62 or 67 (depending on which age at their marriage is accepted), they had been married for 23 years and their son, Juro, who lived at home, was 22. Settling in Albion, a rugged but beautiful terrain in western Oklahoma, Kosyk may have been able to avoid the challenges to church and society that were convulsing around him. WWI was to begin one year later (July 16, 1914). Although the United States did not enter the war until 1917, a growing anti-German mood swept the country, confronting Germans (and anyone who sounded foreign) in general and German-speaking Lutherans or Catholics in particular. Between 1914 and 1917, Lutherans tended to side with Germany. The editors of most German-language newspapers took strong pro-German positions.[43] The president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod said, responding to critiques that the church had no business speaking out on the war, “anything that touches on moral issues is the sphere of the church,”[44] implying that ethics were involved in challenging the Germans rather than the British. Pressures mounted against the Lutheran stance and churches and schools were considered hotbeds of treason harboring enemy agents who were loyal to the Kaiser. The governors of fifteen states (including Iowa and Nebraska) proposed legislation to stop the teaching of German in schools and to allow religious use of German only in the privacy of the home. Thousands of Lutherans left German-speaking churches to join “American” churches. The anti-German hysteria swelled, making it difficult for pastors to preach, teach or minister in any way in German. By 1917, the pressure to “Americanize” was so great that most of the Lutheran Synods (including other ethnic ones as well) had English language periodicals and published English liturgies, hymnals and catechisms. This, then, led to the growing concern as to whether synods, all of whom used some English, had any reason to maintain ecclesiastical separateness. Lutheran unity, cooperation and ecumenical participation seemed close at hand.[45]

One must wonder what Kosyk, not all that comfortable with English, off in retirement on a farm in the mountains in Albion, knew about this or cared about it. Perhaps he saw it coming and couldn’t face another major linguistic and cultural change in his life.[46] He seems to have invested money, some of which Anna inherited, in lands that required some proximity for the manager. Why, however, he chose a beautiful setting with 380 acres of land that was not tillable on which he would live for 27 years in retirement is an interesting question[47] Perhaps it was a haven, where he, having enough financial resources to retire, looked forward to an opportunity to retreat from burdens too overwhelming. It was, however, not to be anything close to heaven on earth. Within two years, Juro died tragically in a drowning. Kosyk may now have assumed some of the farming responsibilities. His wife cared for the chickens and the pigs. From 1908 on he never again attended a meeting of the German Nebraska Synod. (Distances were too great.) Presumably, he also never attended a church service again because there were/are none in the counties surrounding Albion. As ten years into retirement come to a close, Mato Kosyk had not written poetry for 24 years. What must have filled the mind of an artist who had not expressed himself in his medium for so many years.         

In the last years of his life about which we know so little, Kosyk is pictured by Metsk sitting with green visor, surrounded by books, writing with a shaky hand. He had married again, donated large portions of his land to the church, in order to receive an annuity and avoid the tax. He had considered returning to Lusatia, but the land that provided an income for him could not easily be sold.

At the end of World War I, encouraged by letters from Lusatia, after a quarter century of silence, the muse began to summon him. For the next 14 years he would write descriptions of his life in Oklahoma set over against melancholy remembrances of the past, didactic religious poetry which might have had a use in a church setting had he been involved in one, and reflections on the home to come, the final resting place.[48]


            There is both a moving and upsetting dilemma involved in concluding this study on the impact of environment on an artist. The author writes as an American who has read only those few poems of Kosyk’s that have been translated into English. He finds it fascinating to consider what a literary analyst might be able to do with this background research as well as other additional information yet to be discovered. However, until the poetry itself is translated into German or English, the nightingale will sing only for those who know his tongue.

            It is, at least, a comfortable conviction for this author that Kosyk and all artists need to be appreciated within the contexts which shape their thinking and feeling. Although a literary analyst must do the hard work of understanding what Kosyk intended in his writing, such analysis cannot be made without taking this American ecclesial and cultural context into account. This study has attempted to show that Kosyk seems to have been a risk-taker, even if he could never have fully prepared himself for what he was to experience in the new world. He seems to have made premature choices that locked him into a cage for the rest of his life. He seems to have looked wide-eyed into the strange wonders of the new world while maintaining an enormous commitment to his heritage and early formation. It is certain that some artists take bold and aggressive stands over against the new world’s they encounter. That may not have been Kosyk’s gift. Perhaps he was merely attuned to descriptions and comparisons and pious reflections. Perhaps he was a consummate realist. It is, however, worth suggesting that the confusion of the new world with its religious diversity, its indigenous squabbles, its family-oriented power bases, its absence of structure, its generational tensions, its changing linguistic needs and its growing negativism toward Germans overwhelmed Kosyk’s sensitive spirit so dramatically that he retreated prematurely to a remote location where after the loss of wife and son he finally could nurse his wounds and prepare to meet God. Perhaps it is true that his charming descriptions and careful comparisons are profound flights of fancy from an overly real world which cannot be embraced into a surreal world which can still be imagined. The dramatic German exodus from Europe and the groundswell on American soil came and went and Kosyk’s finest hour rode upon their high tide. When the ten years of incipient Deutschtum in America had passed, however, he may have retrenched to Albion’s hills to nurture the past and contemplate the final home. Artistic temperaments make choices. Readers and analysts cannot regret what might have resulted from a poet who confronted his odds more aggressively. After the fact, it is best to appreciate even the wild rose, which may have little scent, but more subtlety in hue than one might be able to handle.[49]

[1] R.H.Dalitz and G. Stone, “Mato Kosyk in America,” LETOPIS 24/1 (1977), 57.

[2] David Zersen, “Local Lutheran Boy finally Makes Good, Fifty Years Late,” Currents in Theology and Mission 30/2 (2003), 134.

[3] J.N.Lenker, Lutherans in All Lands (Milwaukee: Lutherans in All Lands Company, 1896), p. 180.

4The fact that Kosyk returned to Lusatia one year after his ordination in the hopes of securing a pastorate among the Sorbs (although there were family reasons for his return) suggests this possibility—a possibility that was fairly typical among German young men after 1860 when steamships made the return trip easier—to work a year and then to return to the homeland or bring a bride back. Frederick C. Luebke, Germans in the New World (University of Illinois Press, 1990), 163.

[5] Frido Metsk, “Biographische Bilder,” Mato Kosyk (Bautzen: Domowina), p. 92.

[6] Metsk, “Biographische Bilder, p. 93.

[7] Frederick C. Luebke, Immigrants and Politics (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969), p. 23-24.

[8] Luebke, Immigrants and Politics, pp. 21-29.

[9] Luebke, Immigrants and Politics, p. 28.

[10] By 1896, 1547 Germans had been sent to the United States by German mission societies and institutes. J. N. Lenker, Lutherans in All Lands, p. 180.

[11] Seminaries with instruction in German in 1883 included the Theological Department of Martin Luther College in Buffalo, N.Y. (9 students), Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (103), Wartburg College, Mendota, Illinois (40), Concordia-Seminar, Springfield, Illinois (90), Theological Seminary, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (23), German Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois (6).The Lutheran Almanac (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1883), p. 26. Kosyk would not have been qualified to enter the largest seminary in St. Louis which held its instruction in Latin because he had not finished his preparatory education. M. Noland,

Director, Concordia Historical Institute, Interview, April 16, 2003.

[12] Because of the huge influx of German immigrants, Concordia-Seminar solicited students from Germany to produce more pastors than the American Church was capable of producing on its own. In Germany, both in the Landeskirchen and in Freikirchen, there were more applicants to study to be pastors than there were parishes in which they might serve. Therefore, many were willing to consider mission fields like America. Between 1841 and 1896, Loehe had sent 230 students to Springfield and a Pastor Brun who founded a theological preparatory school in Steeden sent 215 between 1861 and 1896. M. Noland, Director, Concordia Historical Institute, Interview, April 16, 2003; J.N. Lenker, Lutherans in All Lands, p. 180.

[13]Metsk, Biographische Bilder, 87.

[14] Letters to H. Jordan and A. Muka, Metsk, Biographische Bilder, p. 93-94; Dr. Roland Marti, email communication, Oct. 10, 2001.

[15] In the same year the seminary closed, a former bishop of the Wartburg Synod, J. D. Severinghaus, re-opened it in another location in Chicago and operated it successfully for 13 years. His success was due to his fund-raising ability as well as to an agreement reached with the Breklum Missionary Society, founded 1876, in Schleswig, to send fully-prepared students to Chicago. After instruction in English and American parish life, these candidates were sent to congregations of the Wartburg, Iowa and Nebraska synods. For a time the Wartburg Synod owned the Breklum institution and in 1891 gave its founder, Christian Jensen, an honorary doctor’s degree through its own Carthage College. Through a series of mergers with other institutions, Kosyk’s seminary survives today as The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Joel Thoreson, archivist, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Interview, April 5, 2003.

[16] Metsk, “Biographische Bilder, p. 95.

[17] One can only assume that it had to do not with the value of an American ordination, but with quality of the educational route he had undertaken. No research exists to demonstrate whether the Landeskirchen would reject an American Lutheran ordination. (A query with the Landeskirche in Brandenburg resulted in the response that they were unable to answer the question.) The fact that graduates of theological institutions in Germany were sometimes ordained before being sent to America does raise questions about this. (J.N. Lenker, Lutherans in All Lands, p. 183). Also, a search of records between mid-1850s and early 1900s in six synods on the east coast and in the mid-west does not show any Germans returning after being ordained in America. (J. Thoreson, archivist, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Correspondence, April 17, 2003.) As an argument from silence, one could either conclude that they felt trapped (unable to return) or that they were happy in their new settings. From a theological standpoint, it would be difficult to understand the rationale in questioning the validity of Lutheran ordination in America from a Landeskirche which had no commitment to apostolic succession. Therefore, until further research demonstrates it, logic seems to dictate that the Church’s refusal in Kosyk’s case had to do either with his educational level or internal politics.

[18] Mato Kosyk, “The Imprisoned Songbird,” A Collection of Lower Sorbian Poems (Domowina: Bautzen, 1893), p. 5.

                1.A bird was caught in nature free, Put in a cage, locked up to see,

                 Forced he was to sing to all, From his new den, so dark, so small.

       4 I am just like this lonely bird, Away in foreign lands unheard.

                 Oh yes, I lost Lusatia dear, Heaven’s charm is no more here.

[19] E. Clifford Nelson, Lutheranism in North America (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972), p. 3.

[20] Marcus Lee Hansen, The Immigrant in American History (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964), p. 114.

[21] F. C. Luebke, Germans in the New World, p. 165.

[22] Richard Niehbuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Meridian Books, 1957), 221.

[23] F. C. Luebke, Immigrants and Politics, pp. 45-46.

[24] F. Metsk, “Biographische Bilder,” 101.

[25] R.Marti, email, 1

[26] Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People

(New York: Grosset and Dunlop, 1951), 117-143.

[27] Metsk, “Biographische Bilder,” 96.

[28] Dalitz and Stone (p. 60) posit the notion that Kosyk may have left because of language difficulties with the East Frisians. The current archivist in the Wellsburg congregation doubts that prospect because all congregational affairs were always conducted by all pastors up until 1940 in Hochdeutsch. The baptismal bowl used by Kosyk is still in use by the congregation. Members from Kosyk’s day with names like Finke, Olthoft, Asche, Koch, Peters are still members. An example of a family which anglicized its name to identify more with the Americans is Nightingale (formerly Nachtigal). A group of 25 still meets socially and monthly to chat in Friesischplatt. The archivist recalls Kosyk’s handwriting in the official records most vividly because it was the most difficult script to read (“atrocious handwriting”). Mary Peters Zimmerman recalls collecting arrowheads from the spring near the church as a child, reminiscent of the presence of Indians in the area in Kosyk’s day. Burdette Walters, Church Archivist, Interview, April 14, 2003.

[29] F. C. Luebke, Immigrants and Politics, 9-12.

[30] F. C. Luebke, 49, 47-51.

[31] R. H. Dalitz and G. Stone, “Mato Kosyk in America,” 60.

[32] St. John’s, Ridgeley, 6 1/2 miles SW of Scribner, is a lone church and parsonage in the middle of corn, wheat, oats and alpha far country (today more soybeans). Kosyk’s humble 1879 white frame building was replaced by a white-frame steeple church in 1893. That burned in 1992 and was again replaced in 1993. The church cemetery contains stones with names buried during the Kosyk era. Families from Kosyk’s era with names like Schomshor, Roemer, Oeltjen, Wolf and Stuehmer still have descendents in the congregation. Kosyk was the first full-time pastor, but the congregation which currently has 150 members hasn’t had a full-time pastor in twenty years. The greatest tragedy in the congregation’s 129 year history took place in Jan. 12, 1888 when Kosyk presided at the funeral of Catherina (12) and Mathilda (8) Westphalen who perished on their way home in a freak Nebraska blizzard. Today’s membership is extremely hardy, self-sufficient and ultra-conservative, so much so that the current pastor, raised in urban settings, left within a week of this interview. (Rev. Susan Butler, Interview, April 15, 2003 and Stanley and Ethel Stuehmer, Interview, May 6, 2003).

[33]Contra R.H.Dalitz and G. Stone, “Mato Kosyk in America,” 61 (“a rather larger congregation than he had had at Ridgely.”)

[34] Sterling still has the largest cluster of people of Sorbian descent in Nebraska. F. C. Luebke, Interview, April 15, 2003.

[35] Infant baptism statistics are sometimes useful to show the health of a congregation. If a congregation has only older members and no infant baptism growth, it has no future.

[36] St. Paul’s no longer exists as a congregation, having disbanded in 1932. The area still raises corn and, now also, soybeans. It has not had its own post office for 10 years. The local Evangelical Alliance pastor is unaware of any building or cemetery in the area which could have been St. Paul’s. Interview, April 15, 2003.

[37] R. H. Dalitz and G. Stone, “Mato Kosyk in America,” 62. In 1893 15,000 companies failed, 500 banks went into foreclosure and 30% of the railroads became insolvent. This led to a three-year, deep depression.

[38] current status of Stamford

[39] R.H.Dalitz and G. Stone, “Mato Kosyk in America,” 63.

[40] Current status of Ohiowa

[41] The Union City congregation had been formed in 1901 and merged with Trinity Lutheran Church, a congregation of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, in 1939. Its cemetery in Union City still exists with people buried during the Kosyk era and families with names like Wiedemann and others from the time still are members at Trinity. Rev. H. Kamman, Interview, April 15, 2003.

[42] Autobiography of Ministers, Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

[43] F. C. Luebke, Germans in the New World, 2-3.

[44] Note

[45] E. Clifford Nelson, Lutherans in North America, 2-9.

[46] Apparently his English was grammatically correct, but heavily accented, and used only as necessary. R.H.Dalitz and G. Stone, “Mato Kosyk in America,

[47] Minutes of the Nebraska Synod Convention, p. 42, quoted in R. Dalitz and G. Stone, Mato Kosyk in America, p. 53.

[48] R. Marti, “Poetry: The American Periods,” Mato Kosyk website. 2002.

[49] Kosyk to Bogumil Swjela as explanation for his failure to complete an autobiography: “Wilde Rosen bluehen denn auch, aber sie duften nicht.” F. Metsk, “Biographische Bilder, p. 106.

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