December 22, 1938 – My Christmas Vacation as a Student, 1874

This article was written in German by Gotthilf Birkmann for the 22 December 1938 edition of the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt. It also appeared on page 287 in Worthy of Double Honor, the Rev. G. Birkmann, D. D. where it was translated by the author Ray Martens.


My Christmas Vacation as a Student, 1874

Rev. J. Nachtigall invited me to spend Christmas with him in Waterloo, Illinois, and to bring another student with me so that we could help him with his preaching in the two congregations which he served. I was happy to grant his wish, both so that I could spend Christmas back home and because I had a good friend in my class who was happy to accompany me. He was Karl Hafner, who later became a pastor in Kansas and served as president of the Kansas District from 1891 to 1906. We two, Hafner and I, because we were in our second year at the seminary, had already preached a number of times, I in my home congregation in Waterloo and he, probably, in or near Fort Wayne, where his father was a teacher. Yet, neither of us had much practice in preaching, and now we were expected to preach a Christmas sermon, a first for both of us. Professor Walther had already provided our class with a list of Christmas texts, allowing us to select from among the many beautiful Old or New Testament choices. After the choice of text came the task of preparing an outline, to present the theme and parts under which we intended to preach the text. We would read this outline (or “sermon skeleton”) to a professor, and only after he approved it would one proceed to working out the sermon itself. What difficulties Hafner may have experienced I do not know, but about my situation I know very well that I encountered much trouble in preparing my first Christmas sermon. One has an unspeakably glorious message to deliver, and you cannot fall short of the expectation of the congregation to hear a good sermon. The apostle Paul (II Corinthians 3) answers any question about our competence by saying, “Not that we are competent to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.” After many sighs and after much toil, finally the sermon was written and was read to Prof. Walther, who, after the work underwent several deletions and additions, permitted it to be preached. This was the usual procedure during my time of study at St. Louis.

Classes were halted a few days before Christmas, and students either went home or spent their vacation time at the institution. Hafner and I traveled first to Waterloo on a narrow-gauge railroad which, at the time, went from St. Louis down toward Cairo. The rails were barely more than four feet apart, and the locomotive and cars were correspondingly narrow and small. (These are probably not anywhere to be seen anymore. But at the time sixty-five years ago, many such narrow-gauge railroads were built.) Rev. Nachtigall picked us up in Waterloo and took us to the parsonage, about four miles distant. He was Rev. Kleppisch’s successor, there for about three years by then. He was one of the “Brunn students” [Brunn’sche Zöglinge, that is, students -ultimately 235 in all – who had studied at the preparatory institution opened in 1861 by Friedrich August Brunn in Steeden, Germany; cf. Loehe’sche Zöglinge, Loehe students, from Bavaria (Franconia), a few years earlier], who came from Allendorf an der Lumda in the grand duchy of Hesse Darmstedt. He completed his studies in 1871 at our practical seminary, then in St. Louis. Nachtigall’s wife was from the same home community in Germany. She had her mother with her at the time that Hafner and I visited. This family was dear and interesting to me, one with which I often spent time on other occasions.

Earlier, in the first half of 1874, I conducted the parochial school for him for three months, while the pastor, whose duty this work otherwise was, was sickly and went away with his wife to a spa [i.e., a place at which one sat in hot mineral water, thought to be therapeutic]. During this time I gained worthwhile practice and experience, useful to me when later here in Texas I had to conduct school, as did all the other pastors of our Synod if the congregation had no teacher. I also preached a couple of times during that stay, but mostly a sermon was simply read because I had the school to take care of and as yet had no training in preaching. The Nachtigalls have repaid me richly for this modest service. Repeatedly during my student years at St. Louis, I spent weeks and even months with them. They told me so much about their fatherland that, even though I was born and raised here in America, I liked to consider myself a friend of Germany and of the German way of doing things. The Nachtigalls at the time also continued to wear clothes which they had brought from Germany, and their menu as well was very German, not American.

The church building, built already in 1863, was the congregation’s third – the first two built of wood, but this one of stone, which was brought in from several miles away. That stone church is still in use, as solid as it was seventy-five years ago. Twenty [actually fifty] years later a stone tower replaced the earlier wooden tower.

The Christmas celebration began at night with a children’s service and sermon, which I preached. On the first festival day [Christmas was a two-day festival then and for many more years beyond then.] Rev. Nachtigall preached, a preacher to whom one liked to listen, fluent, along with solid and edifying.

On the second festival day it was Hafner’s turn to preach in the sister congregation. We two, Hafner and I, made our way the six or seven miles to the south on Nachtigall’s horse-drawn cart. Along the way, I was able to make my comrade aware of many things which seemed important to me. We soon came to the place where many persimmons grew wild, and then where we children had gathered hickory nuts. Along Fountain Creek, which we had to cross, were the high banks and the hill from which the stones for the church were taken. We passed the home places of the Erftmeier and Johanning families, both exemplary members of the congregation and diligent readers of Der Lutheraner, who, in addition, had purchased Luther’s Works in the Erlangen edition. We drove through Burksville where there was a mill, the proprietor of which, a Mr. Landgraf, had sent his daughters to our school while I attended there. Later came a thick forest, with its great oaks and other trees darkening the floor, where for miles one could hear the call and knocking of the woodpeckers and where as a boy I observed passenger pigeons. These landed in the thick underbrush, and I can still see how they flew from one bush to another, about the size of a tame pigeon, but a little lighter in color.

Hafner then preached his sermon in this congregation, assured in his delivery and clear in his presentation. We stayed with Rev. Nachtigall for several more days, and he took the time to chat with us, something that he enjoyed. All the while, he smoked his long pipe, the stem of which, he said, was cherry wood and the bowl porcelain, filled with any of a variety of tobaccos (Killickinnick, Puerto Rico, or Puerto Carrero). (Students knew all about this kind of thing because many of us also smoked long pipes at the time, some with stems as long as walking sticks. The professors did the same.)

I wish to point out further that, already in the early days of our seminary, a number of students from my home area had gone to St. Louis to study, notably Jacob Horn and Philipp Studt and then also Gotthilf Horn, Jacob’s brother. I also remember times in which seminary students came to us, the Moll brothers, Herzer, and Stellhorn (1865, in his case, the year he finished his studies), all of them self-evidently to preach. But they also otherwise spent time with the people, especially the young people. They gave lectures and declamations and presented short comedy sketches. In short, everyone was happy to hear that the students from St. Louis were back again.

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