July 6, 1939 – Your Sons Will Come From Afar, Part 1

This article by Rev Gotthilf Birkmann first appeared in the German language in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt, Giddings, Texas, July 6, 1939 – Your Sons Will Come From Afar [early congregations in Texas]. (Comments and translation by Ray F. Martens, grandson).

Rev. Gotthilf Birkmann wrote an article in two installments to appear in successive weeks in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt in order to identify the families who had been members of Trinity, Fedor, in the 1870’s and 1880’s. The first installment, which appeared on July 6, 1939 (and thus when he was eighty-five years old, totally blind, and living in retirement in Giddings), explains the rationale for the title he chose and some general information about the places from which and the circumstances under which his members arrived in Fedor. For both installments of his article, he used the title, “Your Sons Will Come From Afar,” a quotation from Isaiah 60:4. He acknowledged that the passage was intended to be a prophecy of how the Gospel would reach out into the entire world and of how men and women from everywhere would be gathered into the people of God. But he found the statement to be applicable also to the phenomenon by which Lutherans from Germany, whether newly arrived or second generation, had come in significant numbers to be a part of the church in central Texas. These people became his flock because they “came from afar.” After some comments about the growth of the vast Western District of the Synod and then of the Southern District beginning in 1888, he shared information about the people newly arrived in Fedor, reporting that, whether they had come from Serbin, another Texas location, or directly from the old country, they were almost all in search of land. Typically, they were required to rent property at first until they gathered the funds to buy inexpensive land wooded with post oaks and then to expend the labor to clear and prepare it for farming. The reason for such explanations was to provide background for the numerous families whom he came to know and love as members of his congregation, those he proceeded to identify (by the father’s name) in the second installment of that article.


“Your Sons Will Come From Afar”

            The words above are a prophecy of the prophet Isaiah about the spread of the Gospel into all the world and about the entry of the heathen into Christ’s kingdom. But, if I think about the earlier massive immigration of Germans, and among them so many Lutherans, into this land, I must also think about the words above, “Your sons will come from afar, and you daughters will be drawn (actually “carried”) along. Then you will see your desire . . . . “ [Isaiah 60:4-5] Virtually everywhere in the west and northwest of our country, also in Texas, Lutherans have settled, bought land, improved it, and have called pastors and teachers. More calls came to our seminaries than could be filled—we never had enough candidates. In the 1870’s and 80’s, therefore, the growth in the number of districts in our Synod was quite noteworthy. Just to recall the Western District, for example—in 1876 I attended the gathering of this district in St. Louis. At that time the district encompassed the entire territory west of Indiana, namely, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and the entire west as far as California, along with all the states of the south and southwest. Such a gathering from all these states would number thousands today. At that time, in 1876, only several hundred turned up in the school room on Barry Street for the sessions of the Western District.

            In rapid succession the Illinois District branched off, in 1881 the Nebraska District and the Southern District, and in 1878, several years earlier, the Iowa District.

            In 1871, when Hilgendorf came to Omaha, Nebraska, there were about five or six of our pastors, and already 11 years later the first gathering of the Nebraska District took place, and how quickly the number of congregations there grew. The favorable climate also strengthened the workers in church and school in Nebraska. President [of the Synod] Schwann, who repeatedly attended the conventions there, once said, “I am always happy to go there to see the lively and robust Nebraskans.”

            When we held the first convention of the Southern District at Zion (congregation) in New Orleans in 1882, we Texans were represented by eleven pastors and two or three teachers and not more than nine lay delegates. The number of representatives from the other southern states was just as small, with congregations only in New Orleans and Mobile represented. But there were three congregations in New Orleans and two others nearby, and in these were eight teachers and five pastors at the time.

            Beyond them, also present were Prof. Hoppe and Rev. N. J. Bakke, the missionary to the blacks, and his teacher. The count of all who gathered at the time may have reached 45.

            In the following years certainly this number rose considerably, if not in the states east of Texas, then certainly here in Texas. I would like to point out additionally that here in Texas we too received our share of the German stream of immigrants into our country in the seventies and eighties.

            When I came to Fedor in 1876, I found about thirty families who belonged to the congregation, a number of them from the old Serbin congregation, and two who had lived in Colorado County, C. A. Patschke and Andreas Symmank. Yet, not a small part of the group had come from Germany only recently, namely, Peter Urban, J. Zschech, M. Domann, Andr. Falke, Christ. Jakob, J. Krautschick, and the Kunzes, the father and his two sons and one daughter. Doubtlessly, there were more whose names I cannot cite. It was surely interesting to associate with such people who had lived in such varied ways and had come from such different conditions.

            In the three years from 1879 to 1882 I was pastor of the small Zion Lutheran (congregation) in Dallas; I preached and taught school. The time available for searching out people was not much, and ordinarily only a few came of their own accord; they had to be visited again and again if you hoped to gain them.

            German missions of the Methodists and of the Presbyterians had begun at my time in Dallas, and they held their services on Sunday, but they had no weekday Christian school like the Lutherans.

            After three years my first congregation in Fedor called by back again. There I found to my great joy that the congregation had grown significantly in membership during my time in Dallas; probably more than a dozen families had come from Germany and some also from Moravia and Austria, for example, Franz Nitsche, Joh. Faltus, and Paul Schubert. The latter three came from the Catholic Church but were instructed by me in the Lutheran Catechism—actually, Rev. Maisch, my predecessor, taught the first one named. Afterward, they remained faithful to us and have now long since (the parents, that is) gone into eternal rest. The others who came from Germany were Lutheran by background and soon became willing and welcome members of our congregation. Then in the first half of the 1880’s the immigration went along continuously; we always received new growth, with the result that in almost every meeting new members were taken in. I would like to add a list, one that will be somewhat long, because in these years from 1880 to 1885 probably we received more than thirty new names on our congregational roster.

            This was now something altogether different from what I had in Dallas. There one had to after the people to win them; here the people came running to us in abundance and asked us to take them in. I thought about the word of the prophet, “Your sons will come from afar, and your daughters . . . . Then you will see your desire and break out, and your heart will be surprised and unfold . . . .”

            Also in other places here in Lee County and adjoining regions such an influx of people from the old homeland made itself apparent. On the San Antonio Prairie in 1886, St. John’s congregation (in Lincoln) was founded, the older Ebenezer was moved to Manheim in 1890 and gained new members, and in the same year the congregation in Thorndale came into existence, followed the next year by the one in Lexington and the one in Hochkirch, near Taylor.

            The congregation in Giddings (Immanuel) had its beginning already in 1883, St. Michael’s in Winchester was consecrated in 1887, and our congregation in Walburg was gathered by Rev. Maisch already in 1882, and then soon he was called there from Fedor.

            Surely it was not new immigrants from Germany in every case through whom new congregations came into being or the already existing congregations increased in size; often it was through earlier members at Serbin or from our other previously existing congregations. These people saw to it that in these new places where they now lived the Word of God would be promoted in church and school, as they were accustomed. But the circumstance which made it possible for them to move away to a new area was also the fact that new immigrants always came. For when new immigrants kept coming, for the most part also not well-to-do, an earlier owner could sell his property to those arriving and then move away.

            Among the new people in Fedor, many lived on rental properties the first years until they had saved enough that they could acquire their own place—wooded land (post oak) was cheap—which they then certainly had to first prepare through trouble and work.

Continuation will follow.

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