March 28, 1935 – My Visit to the Synodical Conference in 1888

This article by Rev. G. Birkmann appeared in three parts in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt, 28 March, 4 April and 11 April 1935. It is here translated by Ray Martens.


My Visit to the Synodical Conference in 1888

By G. Birkmann, pastor emeritus

            In August of 1888 I was to visit the named conference in Milwaukee. I was elected as one of two or three representatives of the Southern District—at the time Texas belonged to the Southern District.

            Before my departure I had asked my congregation for a somewhat longer leave because I was not entirely well and sought recovery by way of this trip. I set out from Giddings two weeks before the beginning of the conference and had to go first of all by way of Hempstead. There I had a long wait before the train to north Texas and first sought out Rabbi Schwarz, whom I had looked up already earlier when I was full of enthusiasm for the study of Hebrew in 1882, and with him at that time had read some of the prophet Isaiah.

            Mr. Schwarz was very kind about taking me in, and, as was his custom, immediately went to get me some fruit (grapes) for my refreshment. When he had disappeared behind a door, I soon heard the voice of his wife, who called out, “Is that old man here again?” But Mr. Schwarz brought me the grapes and in a friendly way invited me to stay. But my desire to stay had left me. I did eat the grapes and took my leave and since then have not sought out this nor any other rabbi.

            Then I went to the house of a Kennicke family in Hempstead, a family which was very helpfully involved in a mission being pursued at the time in Hempstead and who also liked to entertain fellow believers passing through. They conducted themselves in a friendly way and insisted that I have dinner with them.

            The next day I arrived in Denison. I got off the train and stayed for a day in Denison because I believed that I would recover better if I did not make the long trip all at once. I stayed in a hotel near the station and there ordered something to eat. Biscuits fresh out of the oven were brought to me. I was my opinion at the time that such hot biscuits were not wholesome, and I wanted ordinary bread. Had I said that they should bring me bread, they would have said that I already had bread, for hot biscuits at the time everywhere were simply called “bread.” So I had to come to a quick decision and said that I wanted “cold bread.” Then they had a little fun at my expense (I could hear it from a little distance), “He wants cold bread, he wants it on ice.” Perhaps I should have put it this way, “Bring me stale bread.”

            But this did not upset me, for the sun shone clear and bright over Denison, and the shops were open with their proprietors waiting for clientele as they stood or sat in the doors of the open shops and examined the passers-by.

            I preached a number of times in Denison nine years earlier (1879), as three of four families attended the services. And after me Pastors Kohn and Ruhland and others gave it a try now and then, but finally the mission there came to a complete standstill.

            Then I traveled to St. Louis on the M. K. & T. Railway. Arriving at St. Louis late at night, I looked for a hotel, but the room I was given was frightfully hot. It had a door, but, even if it would have had a window, one would not have noticed any fresh air. The walls were as hot as those of an oven, and I, who had been shoved in here, was thoroughly roasted. Even though this was like a sweat bath for me, I left there without damage, except that I could not forget it. The next day I looked at a number of things in the city, notably also the renowned botanical garden, ordinarily called Shaw’s Garden, named for the man who established it and gave it to the city, Henry Shaw. It is said that one might encounter there every plant in the world, certainly, however, those of the United States. Among others, I saw there a collection of every tree and shrub and flower mentioned in the Bible.

            At the time St. Louis had what were called cable cars, that is, the carriages of the railways in the streets ran on top of a thick underground wire cable which stretched below the surface for miles and was kept in motion by a huge steam engine. The carriages were attached to this huge cable and were then pulled along quickly. If they wished to stop, they had to release the attachment to the cable. Later, electric conveyances were introduced, and I have seen no more cable cars since 1888.

Some Experiences in Chicago

            I had not seen the city for about eighteen years. At the time I was in college, we students from St. Louis and its surroundings traveled by way of Chicago when we wanted to go to Fort Wayne or also when we went back home. But that was before the great fire of 1871. Since then, the city has become tremendously large and has surpassed St. Louis, a city which sixty years ago had a population similar in size to that of Chicago, by about a couple of million.

            Since my visit to Chicago in 1888, about fifty years have passed. Back then, one heard German, not only in family homes, but also in hotels and public places. German, for the most part, was the language spoken at the table at the hotel at which I stayed in Chicago. Of course, the proprietor was a German, but not only native Germans came and went in his place.

            At the larger churches who were members of the Missouri Synod were pastors who preached only in German, and some of them had a great many members indeed, and there may have been in this city already at that time a dozen congregations which were members of the Missouri Synod. Milwaukee was quite similar, as was St. Louis, Detroit, etc. How is it now, and how will it become if the world is still here fifty years from now?

            On the following Sunday, I was in the church of the Rev. H. Wunder. I had heard much about him but had never met him. He was a capable preacher and a faithful pastor. Earlier he had preached and founded congregations not only in Chicago, but also at many places in northern Illinois. His name was spoken and known everywhere. His church was called Wunder’s church (Wunderkirche) and its cemetery Wunder’s cemetery (Wunderkirchhof.) [The play on words is not apparent in English. As a common noun, Wunder means “wonder” or “miracle.”] He had been at his congregation for thirty-eight years when I was there with him (1888), but he continued there for another twenty-five years, sixty-three in all, when he died in 1913.

            One example among many. Wunder was called to the home of a sick man, and, as he arrived, he found that the wife was lying next to him, also sick. It was cold and there was no fire in the stove, so Wunder went into the yard and chopped some wood, built a fire, and then took care of the required medicines, food, and care for the sick couple. When the man recovered and could go back to work, he told his fellow workers what his pastor had done for him and his wife. The workers, surprised, said, “We want to be in the church of this pastor too.” And they came and came again and became members of the congregation.

Milwaukee

            Beautiful Milwaukee on Lake Michigan lights up my heart wherever I go.” So begins a poem which [Friedrich] Bodenstedt composed after a visit to that city [1880].

            That is all I remember from the song, otherwise I would quote more of it, for I think it is true. No one who has seen it would forget Milwaukee, and I had the chance to stay there for several weeks that summer and twice more later.

            My first visit involved my college friend John Strasen, who was pastor of Holy Cross congregation. He, like me, finished the seminary in St. Louis in 1876, and his first placement was to a congregation in Omaha, Nebraska. After a number of years, he came to this congregation in Milwaukee, which he then served for many years—now he is retired. Twice as vice-president of the Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States he was in our district conventions in Texas, in 1910, then again in 1912 in Thorndale, and many readers of these lines will remember Vice-President Strasen. So I looked him up first—we had not seen each other for twelve years. His first wife, Esther Roemer, from St. Louis, had already died in Omaha, and he had married the daughter of a Rev. Doermann, and there were a number of small children in his family. Limited accommodations forced the father to seek other arrangements for my lodging. He soon told me that he would take me to a pastor who lived almost out in the country, a Rev. Osterhaus, who served Holy Ghost congregation in Milwaukee. I was taken there and found welcome lodging with the dear Rev. Osterhaus and his hospitable wife for a week until the gathering of the conference that I had to attend. With Osterhaus it was like being out in the country, large forests nearby, with a garden and a milk cow. There was a large swing for the children, and the father also often sat in that swing and sang a song out of the hymnal. He sang with a loud voice and often, with the result that I had to wonder in surprise. He was of a happy disposition in general, lively in everything he said and did. I felt very much at home there. On the following Sunday he preached with great emotion about the destruction of Jerusalem with deeply moving effect on any who had not often heard him before.

            My week with Osterhaus went by fast enough, and on Tuesday I occupied the lodging which had been arranged for my time at the conference. It was with a Mr. Albert Kurth, a member of Trinity congregation, that of Rev. Sprengeler. Kurth’s wife had the maiden name Lindenschmidt, and her father lived with them in the same house. Previously he had had a business in the city or nearby, but was now in retirement. He spoke with me often, and the subject typically revolved around the Word of God or some church matters.

Memories of the Synodical Conference in Milwaukee in 1888 

            Members of this conference at the time were the Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Synod, and the synods of Minnesota and of Michigan. The latter two have joined the Wisconsin Synod, that is, together they now constitute that synod. When the Synodical Conference met for the first time, the Ohio Synod and the Norwegian Synod also belonged to it. These last two withdrew after about eight years on account of the controversy over the pure doctrine of election which was being pursued by the Missouri Synod in partnership with the Wisconsin Synod and the other synods (Michigan and Minnesota).

            The crisis had passed by 1888, and the Missouri Synod could say, “The Lord has done great things for us, for which we are glad.”

             But it was worthwhile also to be watchful about pure doctrine and to defend oneself from all error and to spread the true Gospel, all of these the very matters with which the conference was to deal. Dr. Walther had died, and Dr. Pieper had been elected in his place as president of the seminary in St. Louis and, subsequently, not only had presented lectures each time for the conventions of the Synod of Missouri, Ohio and Other States and had instructed thousands of preachers in pure doctrine at the seminary and had witnessed to the truth in writing, but also had lectured before the gatherings of the Synodical Conference a number of times.

            He, among others, did that also in Milwaukee in 1888, and, if I remember correctly, dealt with the theme that nothing defines the unity of the church other than pure preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments in accord with Christ’s institution, not uniformity in ceremonial matters. He talked about the use of Law and Gospel, and at one point a leader in the Wisconsin Synod, also a capable theologian and leader of the seminary of the Wisconsin Synod, spoke in opposition, and this argument went on for hours, and even was taken up again in the next session. Understand that both sides spoke with a spirit of gentleness and love, but yet a difference of opinion was apparent, and each side hoped to hold its own. Pieper was supported by Prof. A. L. Graebner, and Hoenecke certainly also had some who joined in for his opinion. Pieper, the younger man, stood as solid, firm, and proper, as one was accustomed to seeing in him also on other occasions. Hoenecke, on the other hand, made a rather strong negative impression on me with his somewhat limp posture as he spoke, and, when he had finished speaking, he settled into his seat as though totally exhausted and laid his head back with his arms extended on the bench on both sides. Clearly he was physically weary, even though his speech did not display weariness.

            The chairman of the conference was the Rev. Boding of the Wisconsin Synod, who held the position already since 1872 and for twenty more years thereafter [1908], when I took part in the Synodical Conference in New Ulm, Minnesota. There it was Boding again, by now old and gray, although he still preached at the opening service and served as chairman. Prof. E. Ernst from Watertown, however, preached at the opening service in Milwaukee in 1888, by that time director of the Gymnasium there for almost fifty years. Beyond that, Prof. Graebner preached on the text, “If you humble me, you make me great,” and the Rev. August Ross, still at that time in Minnesota, had to preach and therefore did not wish to be elected secretary.

            On Sunday morning, the Rev. Engelbrecht preached on the Gospel about the Pharisee and the publican in an entirely simple, yet very clear and constructive, way. The sound of the organ and the singing of the choir and congregation were excellent, deeply moving, at least for me, who in Texas had not experienced hearing singing and organ accompaniment.

            The Synodical Conference had begun the work of Negro missions a number of years earlier. The Rev. Sapper, chairman of the committee in question, gave a report on the matter. I have the impression that Negro missions at the time were carried out only in Arkansas and in New Orleans. I do remember distinctly that this important business, which was later expanded so widely, was brought up only in one session, maybe two. Outlay was minimal, and at the time, like with other tasks of the Synod which claimed only modest sums, efforts were not expanded to obtain the necessary funds.

            At this conference I also saw for the first time the Rev. Professor L. Fuerbringer, who then (1888) was in ministry in Frankenmuth, Michigan, as assistant to his father. Almost fifty years later, I can still see him standing in front of me, youthful in appearance and tall, though at the time still a rather slender man with a friendly face. As a result, I immediately dared to speak to him, and he talked with me then for several minutes.

            It is a fine and useful thing to attend a Synodical Conference as a I did at that time. The number in attendance is not as large as that at a convention of the Synod, and among them one almost always finds professors and other men in leadership in the different synods, and one becomes better acquainted with the other synods and so can be freed from possible prejudices.

            There I also met a Rev. Stroebel, formerly in Texas and a member of the Texas Synod, later in Iowa as a pastor in the Missouri Synod. He looked me up and told me this. And to me it was interesting that I should meet an old pioneer in Texas way up north. Rev. Stroebel had been a pastor in Texas already in the 1850’s. Perhaps at the time the Texas Synod numbered no more than a dozen congregations.

            I visited the former teacher Heinrich Nehrling in Milwaukee. He was a teacher in Texas for about three years, first in Houston with Rev. Stiemke, then in Fedor with Rev. Maisch. [Birkmann had come to know Nehrling at conferences in Texas while Birkmann was pastor in Dallas and Nehrling teacher in Fedor. Upon his return to Fedor in the spring of 1882, Birkmann took up residence in the teacher’s home, built for Nehrling in 1881.] Then he was a teacher in Freistatt, Missouri, for about two years. Then he came to Milwaukee, where he was an employee at the customs house [tax office?], then keeper of the city museum. I was in the museum a number of times and had a look there at the big dinosaur and also smaller things, like collections of insects and the like. I first learned to know the well-known Professor William M. Wheeling, now at Harvard University, there in the museum. At that time, certainly, he was neither famous nor a professor, but a youth still attending high school. He came from Milwaukee and had first gained an interest in entomology because of a beetle collection of a postman, then prepared himself further. At the beginning of this century, he was a professor of entomology in Austin, Texas [The University of Texas], and later came to Harvard University in Cambridge, near Boston. [This acquaintance served Birkmann well. Wheeling answered many of his questions about the identification of insects and ultimately purchased entire collections which Birkmann had gathered.]

            I spent a night with Nehrling, and he told me about a work of his which at the time he had in production, The North American World of Birds.  The colored panels, of which the book contained no fewer than thirty-six, he had ordered from Gehring in Leipzig, but those he liked the most were provided by the American bird expert Ridgeway. Nehrling portrayed very true to nature in his work the life and activities of birds he had observed. Sections are found in the work about birds which were seen also in Lee County and in Harris County, especially Cypress (Big Cypress) and also Spring Creek (the blue heron).

            Nehrling also presents in the bird book a good knowledge of the world of Texas plants. Shortly after I came to Fedor in 1882 and lived in the house in which had been for two years, I found at the place several lists of plants with their Latin (botanical) names, which he evidently had written down in order better to impress them on his memory.

            Later, when he lived in Florida, Nehrling devoted himself entirely to the investigation and cultivation of plants. But already in Milwaukee he wrote for George Brumder’s paper and calendars about flowers and their cultivation, for example about orchids and cacti.

            Nehrling told me and others that Professor Dr. Adolf Hoenecke, whom I named above, visited him now and then and that he enjoyed very much talking with him about what was dear to both of them, the observation of nature.

            “Lord, how large and many are your works…”

            I also visited Concordia College in Milwaukee. This institution was founded already in 1882 as the second Gymnasium (preparatory school) for the theological seminary in St. Louis. At first, Professor Hurth was its only teacher and the student count, naturally, small [apparently only one class at first], but the results showed the need for its founding. The college had a large increase in enrollment during the course of the years and still is one of the important colleges in our synod. As I directed my steps there in 1888, already in existence was a large building in which about as many students would have fit as do fit in our college in Austin, Texas, today, maybe fifty. (Austin has had that many at one time, though the count since has gone down.)

There were four or five teachers in the institution, two of whom had studied with me, Hamann and Mueller. I had often been together with these two and have pleasant memories of that. On his work table, Hamann had a new, valuable microscope, though not yet very well trained in its use. He was very fraternal and open toward me, and Mueller said that he was very happy in his calling, and he did also last and perform ably in it for more than fifty years. Hamann died long ago, but he too worked faithfully until deafness forced him to resign.

Then I also sought out the director of the institution, Christ. Loeber, and both he and his wife received me graciously, but da director has many claims upon him when a school year is about to open, the time at which my visit fell, so I did not stay long with these dear people.

My Visit with Teacher Fr. Rix

One day as I was participating in the Synodical Conference, I was addressed by someone who introduced himself as Teacher Rix. Why, it was one under whom I had gone to school back home as a child of nine or ten! That was twenty-five years earlier.

            Rix, who lived in Milwaukee and was teacher at the Rev. Gotthold Loeber’s St. Stephan’s congregation, invited me to visit him. My memories of Rix and his dear wife were quite clear. I had seen them both shortly after they had arrived from Germany. He wore a long, heavy top-coat with a large collar, and she had a dress of heavy fabric, quite different from the light cotton clothing otherwise worn by the women at the time in my home in Illinois, for those were the years of the Civil War, when one tried to be frugal in every way.

            I was taken in very warmly by these worthy people. We, on both sides, were happy to be reunited. He escorted me on a trip out of the city to a soldiers’ home, where I saw that Uncle Sam is not sparing when it comes to caring for the old veterans. Such institutions offer qualities and conveniences which people in private homes cannot have.

            Also we (Rix and I) looked at everything in a large Lutheran cemetery, giving thought to how one gets to such places. Rix was quite communicative and gave me partially useful instructions, although one such I would rather not follow. Among other things, he said that I should wear woolen undershirts year-in year-out in order to remain well. I did try it, but soon had to recognize that one had to dress lightly in the warm Texas climate.

            Through my visit with Teacher Rix, I learned to know him fully for the first time as a kind, friendly man, the earlier impression of austerity completely washed away. I have often experienced that as one remembers his teacher he remembers mostly the punishments that he received rather than the various blessings, the effort and work of the teacher. In other areas one is reminded of what is good and agreeable in life more than of the difficult and dismal days. Why does one do it differently when the subject is our teacher?

Rev. Rennicke Extends an Invitation

Rennicke and others were with my father at the practical seminary in Fort Wayne in 1846, all candidates sent over by Loehe during that year and instructed by Sihler and Walter. Then in the early 1850’s, Rennicke became a neighboring pastor to my father in Monroe County, Illinois.

            When he became aware that I was at this Synodical Conference, he approached me and greeted me. At that time he was pastor in Town Jackson, Washington County, Wisconsin. That was not far away, and he wished for me to visit him after the conference. I did that gladly because I had permission from my congregation to stay longer. He was already rather old. He lived on the lower floor of not a very large house, where on the second floor the congregation held its services.

            Rennicke originated from a Baltic province, which is to say, from Russia, and probably it was through Sihler, who served as pastor for a time in Rennicke’s homeland, and also through Wyneken, who made him aware of the urgent need for pastors for the scattered Lutherans in America, that he came.

            That was an entirely tolerable accommodation with Rennicke in Jackson, Wisconsin, and I would have stayed there longer, had it not been for being afraid that under the existing family conditions I might become a burden. They certainly were very friendly and hospitable, although one resident of the property treated me in a decidedly hostile way. That was a big rooster, surely almost two feet tall, and, when he saw me in the yard, he came at me post-haste and grabbed me with his beak and claws. Never in my life had such a creature attacked me in that way and chased me into the house.

            A few miles from Rennicke stood that old and familiar church house that for Wisconsin has a meaning similar to Altenburg for the Missouri Synod and Serbin for us in Texas. Kirchhayn was a colony of Lutherans which fifty years earlier had emigrated with Grabau. What I mean is, when I visited there, the congregation had existed already for fifty years. For a long time, it belonged to the Buffalo Synod, but not any longer at the time of my visit. It was served by a pastor of the Wisconsin Synod. His name was Zacharias Stiemke, a brother of my friend Tim. Stiemke, previously in Texas, then in New Orleans, and last, since 1888, in Baltimore, where he died twenty years ago. Zacharias has also gone home long ago. He died just a few years after my visit in Kirchhayn. If I remember correctly, his church had no organ, but a choir of instruments accompanied the singing, as had always been the case there.

            The path from Rennicke’s house went through a beautiful forest, and the shade was refreshing on a hot summer day. What tall trees those were, with large trunks, beech and birch along with linden trees and others which I have sought in vain in Texas, at least in Fedor, and in isolated places Radelhoelzer [?], fir, and hemlock. In open areas at one place, I found ferns in the damp ground, with the result that I could hand over to the woman showing me around not less than ten different varieties as a bouquet.

            Since than I have often thought about my walk to Kirchhayn.

Homeward to Texas

After my visit with Rennicke, I stayed another week in Milwaukee, where I had a bout with a recurring fever. It is said that if one comes to Milwaukee and has malaria in his body, he will have an outbreak in Milwaukee. I used medicine and prevented further outbreaks.

On Sunday I went on an excursion from Chicago to St. Joseph, Michigan. At the time you could travel cheaply, for maybe a dollar or two. There were rather few passengers on the ship, and the voyage lasted not more than three or four hours. At about noon we came to St. Joseph and inspected the city and its surroundings. I went to Rev. Zlomke’s [?] church. It was after the service, but he was reading aloud from a little book about the life of President Garfield to young people gathered in the church. Fruit trees are planted almost everywhere in the area of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor (both quite near each other).

Late in the afternoon, our boat went back to Chicago. It was a beautiful, starry night, and the air very refreshing after a hot day. I stayed, as did most, on the well-lit forward deck. But one could observe that a number of passengers got up and slowly left, not feeling well because of an outbreak of seasickness. A man had said that, should I feel this coming on, I should fix my eye on a fixed point, a star in the sky, and watch it steadily, and the unwelcome feeling would go away. I did that, and it helped me. I did not get seasick on that evening, but, on a later trip from Milwaukee to Grand Haven, Michigan, I experienced what it means to be really seasick. At that time, it was a dark night on the ship, you could fix your eye on no star, and no amount of willpower could set up opposition to the misery setting in.

From Chicago then I traveled to St. Louis, where I visited relatives and remained with them over a Sunday. I went to church and in the afternoon to a Mission Festival which was held in Baden (north St. Louis), one which involved jointly a number of congregations. The next day I bought for myself a ticket to Giddings, Texas, and arrived there safely after an absence of about eight weeks. Self-evidently, I was happy to be back with my family and among the members of my beloved congregation.

North, south, east, west,

At home is best.

Hufsmith, Texas

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