1884/1929 – About the Life and Work of the Sainted Johann Kilian, Formerly Pastor in Serbin, Texas

An unexplained oddity is that this article appeared in Der Lutheraner on 15 November and December 1884 without a byline and reprinted in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt on 15 August 1929. That does not make it anonymous, for Birkmann himself claimed authorship in a letter to his son, Paul, when he provided him a copy in 1929, forty-five years after its publication.

[PART l]

The following lines are intended to contribute to honoring the memory of a man who served in the pastoral ministry for half a century (1834-84) and whose life’s journey is of unusual interest because its first part moves us into the difficult times when he identified with the Prussian Lutherans who separated themselves from the “Union,” but the other part allows an insight into the life of a pioneer among pastors in the Texas bush country.

Rev. John Kilian was born of pious parents on March 22, 1811, in Döhlen in Saxon Upper Lusatia. Soon death snatched his parents away from him. Yet, he kept busy in church and school, and he was surely raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Since he showed an enthusiasm for studies early and had available the means for it (he was his father’s only heir), after his confirmation he entered the Gymnasium, which he completed in a short time. What accounts for this is that he had already enjoyed some private instruction in Latin before his enrollment in the Gymnasium. Afterward, he entered the University of Leipzig to study theology, for it had been his intention from childhood to serve the Lord in his church. Rev. Kilian’s time at the university fell during the early 1830s, the very time at which an entire number of pastors who have served our Synod were studying in Leipzig. After completion of his studies, Kilian entered the holy ministry in 1834, at first as assistant pastor for Rev. Moehne in Hochkirch. Fifty years ago the lack of Wendish pastors in Upper Lusatia was not yet as severe as it is now, and it could happen to a theological candidate or an assistant pastor that he would have to wait a long time for a parish of his own, especially if he did not promote himself. Rev. Kilian, whose services became superfluous in Hochkirch, could not decide whether to apply for a parish position or even to preach a trial sermon. So, since he could count on no position in Saxony, he considered going as a missionary to East India. Yet, what happened? He had hardly arrived in Basel, to where he had traveled, when his uncle, Rev. Michael Kilian in Kotitz, Saxony, had died and he was summoned to come to the funeral without delay. The congregation in Kotitz kept him as their pastor. His efforts there from 1837 to 1848 were richly blessed. Because he was one of the few faithful witnesses at that time, he always gathered a large crowd. People from Prussia came to his church from seven or eight hours away.

His literary activity also falls into this time. Already stated at the beginning is that he was born a Wend. He always served Wendish congregations, in which the rule was that the preaching be done first in Wendish and immediately afterward in German (owing to some Germans present). One would think that with all of this a pastor would have no free days, especially if a number of church holidays fall one after the other. However, the deceased not only took on this labor with joy, but he also produced something of great benefit to his beloved fellow Wends by translating several different writings, the Augsburg Confession and a Communion book, for example, and also by publishing in their language several smaller things, sermons and tracts, for example. In 1846 Rev. Kilian preached a sermon in Wendish, followed by its German translation, and also subsequently appearing as a widely distributed tract, which appeared under the title, “Necessary Caution for Lutheran Christians during the Present Confusion of the Faith; A Serious Message to Lutheran People.” A review of this short piece appeared in the Rudelbach-Guericke journal, among others, as follows:

Starting with I Thessalonians 5:2 I, the preface shows what “the good” is to which we must hold on and by which we must test everything, namely: I) the fundamental article of the Christian faith, justification by faith alone; 2) the Word of God, the holy Scriptures; 3) the evangelical Lutheran Confessions left to us by our ancestors so that we might have a pattern for correct unity of the church and, in this faith which our fathers confessed so strongly, stand united against all papistic, reformed, and rationalistic heresies.

The sermon included the following, remarkable in the light of what has occurred:

One of two things, it appears, will probably happen. Either this national church, now Lutheran, will fall away from Lutheran belief and we shall have to leave it, or the Lutheran Church will remain the national church and the false brothers will leave us…. God knows what awaits us. Just be sober and watch, Lutheran Christians!

The reviewer added:

The sermon is in every respect a solid work, of a kind that appears very rarely in our times, a fundamental, fruitful, life nurturing treatment of his text (Colossians 2:6-9), full of evangelical spirit, full of pithy thoughts and pertinent opinions, and, besides, firmly based throughout on passages of Scripture and well-illustrated with quotations from Luther, so that one could wish for almost nothing more.

With several thousand pastors like Kilian, evangelical Christendom would soon look better! The late Director Lindemann once wrote to Rev. Kilian that he gained considerably in his discernment precisely through this sermon.

Six years of moving about followed this comparatively quiet time of Rev. Kilian’s ministry in Kotitz. Already during his last year at Kotitz, he was summoned repeatedly by independent Prussian Lutherans to come to them to preach and to baptize babies. In the troubled year of 1848, he took a call to the separated Lutheran congregations in Weigersdorf and Klitten, near Niesky, Prussia. He served these congregations by preaching one Sunday in Weigersdorf, the next in Klitten. From time to time, about four times a year, he visited small scattered Lutheran groups in Prussian Upper and Lower Lusatia. That is to say, faithful Lutherans were to be found at numerous places in Prussia, people who wanted nothing to do with the union but were not in a position to call their own preacher. People such as these were sought out by several traveling preachers. As he rode his circuit with eighteen preaching stations to serve, Rev. Kilian came as far as the area of Wittenberg. It probably took more than three weeks to make the rounds. The driver whom Kilian took with him [Carl Teinert] served very well at the same time as song leader. That Rev. Kilian took charge of these Lutherans so diligently surely was not watched with pleasure by those higher up; yet, no one bothered him when he announced his intention to preach at a certain place, even when published in an official paper. The Lutherans themselves had to take care of the place to preach [i.e., the government would not provide it]. Services were held mostly in private homes or funeral chapels.

Who would blame Rev. Kilian and his dear, faithful Lutherans for feeling themselves squeezed by this peculiar ecclesiastical situation and, therefore, for the most part, thinking about emigration? Yet, we hear from Rev. Kilian himself:

Just as the decrees and bulls of the Roman popes are enslaving human rules, so too are the orders from the cabinet of the Berlin “popes,” the kings of Prussia, through which already in 1830 they abandoned the community rights guaranteed by the Treaty of Westphalia [1648, at the end of the dreadful Thirty Years’ War] to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in their midst and have robbed them of their earthly possessions. The faithful Lutherans in Prussia are placed into a predicament by these royal cabinet orders, through which a new or “confusion” church is being created arbitrarily and forcibly. They suffer greatly as now they may either leave the royal church or stay in it…. For this reason many faithful Lutherans in Prussia say, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest – I would flee far away and stay in the desert. I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm” (Psalm 55:7-9 [NIV English, rather than a literal translation of Luther’s German]). This gave rise to the strong impulse toward emigrating, a choice also seized upon by pious souls.

About the emigration of Rev. Kilian, we find the following from his hand in a letter shared in Der Lutheraner years ago:

In 1853 thirty-plus Wends, Prussian Lutherans, immigrated to Texas by way of Bremen and suffered a shipwreck at the island of Cuba, though their lives were spared. These people wrote such favorable letters from Texas that in the winter of 1854 a company of more than five hundred souls followed them. This evangelical Lutheran congregation, made up of so-called “Old Lutheran” Prussian families, about two hundred of whom had come out of the Saxon Lutheran state church, called me to accompany them here as pastor and teacher…. I arrived in Galveston with this congregation on December 16 of that ominous year (1854) and moved inland two hundred English miles with the more well-to-do, after those who were poorer had to go to work in Houston and elsewhere. The wealthy part of the group, those who had paid for the passage of the poor, came here to Rabb’s Creek in Bastrop County to buy a league of land, in order also to bring the poor to their new home. There is an abundance of unoccupied land here, but, because of the difficulty of finding the rightful owner of a tract of land in Texas, it has not been possible until now for our people to make the purchase, with the result that they have had to live in huts for weeks. My emigrant congregation in general has gone through many calamities, although the journey at sea passed without any real storm. We lost in death more than seventy people, most of them because of an outbreak of cholera which struck the group during its trip through England. Many people died already in Liverpool. Yet, on September 26 we left Liverpool in a large double-decked English ship, the Ben Nevis, with about five hundred and eighty souls on board, apart from the crew – not just our specific party, but also other passengers from Germany who came along. During the very quiet journey, just in the Irish Channel alone, so many cholera deaths occurred that we had to lie in quarantine for three weeks in Ireland’s Cork Harbor. Our voyage from there to Galveston lasted eight and a half weeks. Several more died during this time. In this country, however, the people are well and also have found their brothers who preceded them in 1853 to be well.

[PART 2]

Still in 1855, Rev. Kilian’s congregation bought a league (4,400 acres) o fland, to be divided among the individual families. One portion, ninety-five acres, was set aside for church and school purposes. Without delay began the construction of a parsonage, also needed to serve as church for the time being. However, before this building project could be finished, serious illnesses broke out, delaying its completion. Later, when the unfinished project was resumed, the rafters, which had fallen down in the meantime, had to be put back in place. Oh, it was a difficult start! It had gotten too late to cultivate the land in the first year, and an unheard-of drought prevailed both of the next years. Grass withered, springs and streams dried up, and fields did not produce. On top of that, the newcomers to the wilderness had to contend with high fevers and difficulties of every kind. Nevertheless, the old settlers testify that they were never so fortunate as then, for, at the time, all were of one heart and mind, and they gladly forgot all trouble because of their joy at being able to build here unhindered in their faith.

Yet, with time it became better in Serbin also in externals. Fruitful years returned. The people grew accustomed to the climate and enjoyed excellent health. The families left behind came later, and the congregation in Serbin became larger from year to year. A wing was built on the parsonage, but, because that still did not provide enough room for church services, a church was also built. Even this church soon became inadequate, so a new church was built and the old one used for school. Yet, the colony grew always larger. So far, almost 2,500 souls have come to Texas [including descendants born in Texas over several decades]. But they do not all belong to one congregation. As the years passed, no less than six congregations have been established out of that first one.

In spite of these comments, we have cut short our account. Naturally, not every single thing can be mentioned in a sketch as compressed as this. During the war (1861-65), our Lutherans in Texas got by much easier than did those in other southern states because Texas was almost entirely spared from the war. Rev. Kilian was not satisfied merely to care for his own congregation those first years; he carried on as much mission work as he could. He had to ride forty miles every five weeks to a branch [part of his original group] in New Ulm, and, whatever the conditions of the weather or road from Serbin to New Ulm, he regularly made it back in a day. How regrettable it is that our Synod already thirty years ago could not have had a circuit­riding pastor in Texas! Now we have only paltry gleanings, after the Texas Synod along with German Methodists and Presbyterians have taken possession of the entire state, and what they could not win for themselves they very nearly spoiled for us.

It should be mentioned with reference to Rev. Kilian’s family life that he entered into holy matrimony with Miss Maria Groeschel just when he moved from Saxony to Pnissia [i.e., from Kotitz to Weigersdorf ], namely in 1848. For thirty-two years he lived with her happily and contentedly. In this marriage God gave him nine children, four of whom had already gone into eternity ahead of him. Still living are three sons and two daughters. One son is Teacher Gerhard Kilian in Serbin, who studied in Addison and entered his ministry in 1872 in the school in which he still works and is blessed. Another son is Pastor Hermann Kilian, who studied at the seminary in St. Louis and, after successful examination, was called as pastor by his father’s congregation, solemnly ordained with the assistance of his father. Both the congregation and the elderly father blessed the day on which this long cherished wish was fulfilled.

The deceased worked in joy and blessing for many years without unusual incident until God took from his side through death his faithful and beloved life’s companion. That happened early in 1881. From this time on he often was beset by weakness and fainting, so much so that he could hardly wait for the time that his son would relieve him. Yet, he could not choose to be totally idle even after his move into retirement. It was a joy for him to climb again from time to time into his familiar pulpit to proclaim the word of salvation to his beloved old congregation. He had preached the Sunday immediately before his death. A stroke brought his life to an end. The warning had already been issued previously that it could happen that he be found dead unexpectedly. This is what happened on the morning of September 12 of this year. He had complained a bit for a brief time earlier that he was not feeling well, but no one thought the end was near. They hurried to him when they heard a thud. He was sunken backward against the wall, dead, with his eye crushed and his jugular veins running blue. The Lord had called his weary worker to his evening rest.

Present the next day for the funeral was a large representation of the local congregation, along with many strangers. The neighboring pastors also showed up. The highly respected Rev. Geyer, Sr., delivered the funeral sermon based on the text, “There is still a rest at hand for the people of God.” As he recalled how the deceased had worked so many years for the salvation of his congregation and what all he had accomplished during his time of service, surely no heart remained unmoved, no eye dry. On the next Sunday, Rev. Buchschacher, additionally, delivered a memorial sermon in the church of the departed. His text was, “Well done, good and faithful servant!…” [from the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25].

The life of the deceased was adorned with many blessings. In Germany he made of himself a wall of opposition and set himself against any division regarding the corruption of the union closing in on them. He was there a faithful shepherd of his flock, which, protected from wolves, he calmed with friendly words and brought unscathed through all the dangers. Here in Texas he became the pioneer of the true Lutheran Church, as he, in more than one respect, blazed a trail for the kind of orthodox pastors who at present are working in this state.

The contributor of this material often was permitted to visit this man now separated from us and to enjoy his cheerful and outgoing nature. Rev. Kilian had so many qualities which made him most attractive to a young pastor. He was original, witty, spirited, amusing. He knew how to communicate out of the treasure of his experience and out of his reading, both old and new. No one could surpass him in telling stories. His language was choice, his gestures lively, but exceedingly graceful. Moreover, his speech was always spiced with salt. He knew how to include edifying thoughts in everything he said. He was uncommonly well versed in the Holy Scriptures, as also in Luther’s works, which he had studied diligently. If ever it happened that he spoke mistakenly, he accepted correction. There can be no doubt that he hated synergism in his very soul. In the last doctrinal dispute, he stood firmly on the side of the Missouri Synod, to which he had belonged already since 1855.

May his memory remain a blessing!