The article by G. Birkmann and translated by Ray Martens first appeared in the Giddings Deutsches Volkblatt, Giddings, Texas, on 21 April 1932.
Psalm 77 says, “I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; …My heart mused and my spirit inquired” [English of the NIV, rather than a literal translation of Luther’s German]. It happens with me too that I often think about the former years, the good old days, as they are called. I am of the opinion, however, that not everything was good in the old days, since we did have our share of trouble. But I also wish to stress that one found just as much cheer and joy of living among people fifty and more years ago as there is now, when, it is said, everything has gotten much better. Either one is happy and satisfied is entirely a matter of attitude of heart and disposition, “Godliness with contentment,” says St. Paul, “is great gain.”
Congregational life was very active in the newly established churches around Giddings, at Fedor (founded 1870), at Warda (founded 1874), and on the San Antonio Prairie (Ebenezer, founded 1876) – and my references are only to these. This was evident in the fact that people were willing to build churches and parsonages, to support these efforts with their limited means, and to help in the building itself by bringing lumber and the like. They considered themselves obliged to work in order to maintain the spirit of a congregation, and the majority willingly committed their hands to work. What was necessary for the livelihood of the pastor they brought gladly, for people were happy and thankful that God had given the congregation its very own shepherd and Seelsorger. [The dictionary says “clergyman,” which is correct, but the German has in it the richer literal sense of “one who cares for our souls.”] But even more, services were well attended, and their little church was the most important thing in the whole settlement. One might say, “The bird has found a house, … (Psalm 84). [That psalm begins with “How lovely is your dwelling place,” and continues with “Blessed are those who dwell in your house,” all of which he surely had in mind in quoting only several words.]
The catechism also had to be studied diligently in church [Christenlehre] with the entire congregation, young and old, all giving their attention. Every festival day for which our hymnal provided Scripture readings was observed -one for John the Baptist, three for Mary, one for St. Michael, and ten others – and in Serbin another three for the festival days of the apostles. The people of the time considered preaching the Gospel and learning the decrees of God about righteousness to be the thing to do. In this respect, the listeners often were more zealous and strict than their preacher who had come from the North, one who was not accustomed to certain usages and customs, such as the observance of days for Mary and the like.
At the installation and ordination of a pastor, the entire congregation would form a procession to proceed from the parsonage to the church before the service began. In the same way, this would be done from the teacher’s house when he was installed.
In the first years in Wendish congregations, hearing preaching in the Wendish language, of course, was much preferred. But because the people in Fedor understood German very well, with few exceptions, conducting services in Wendish was soon abandoned – I was expected to use only German – a necessity, for, otherwise, it would have been difficult to get a pastor. In Fedor were also a number of people who knew no Wendish at all, which further gave rise to the necessity that Wendish services be discontinued.
OUR PAROCHIAL SCHOOLS
I speak of parochial schools in the plural because, as in Fedor, so also in other congregations, it was self-evident that the pastor, in the absence of a regular teacher, would conduct school himself and so obey Christ’s commission to feed his lambs. We young pastors who studied in St. Louis under Walther or Craemer knew that it would be exactly this way. Walther was accustomed to saying that a congregation which established no Christian school and sent their children to a secular school was contributing to its own demise. What kind of church members would those be later who had no thorough instruction in God’s Word nor any Christian training? Furthermore, we young pastors who came here to Texas had never in our lives been acquainted with a Christian congregation which did not have its own school.
At first, I also conducted school at Fedor in our parochial school. Something over thirty children were in attendance. No separate school building existed. Instead, we used the church, where there were a half dozen long so-called school benches, of the kind that, happily, we no longer use in our schools. We had little of what is now commonplace. Missing entirely were maps and regular chalkboards and the like. We had to manage in a tall and relatively large space with one small stove, but I believe that my tough, hardened, Texan children did not freeze as much as I did. They also had plenty of exercise in their free time.
Catechetical instruction and the sharing of biblical accounts were obviously first and most important. I thought it especially useful for learning to have the children repeat the beautiful biblical accounts after they were presented. In that way they learned, not only the stories, but also something about speaking, about language, the kind of thing for which they had no real training at home, to the extent that they could hardly express themselves when they first came to school. In my classes we also gave much attention to instruction in reading. My predecessor, Rev. Proft, impressed upon me already shortly after my entry into the ministry the importance of paying great attention to getting quickly to the point of having children read a lot in order to learn to read properly. That is the way in which they can help themselves in other subjects. We also had mathematics and English in school. This language at the time was not as extensively taught as it is now. Most everything was only German. We seldom heard English spoken, with the result that we, who upon our arrival from the seminary obviously could speak it only to a limited extent, lost even that ability in part after a long tenure in our German congregations. But I do not believe that the students in Fedor suffered much disadvantage, even if they made only modest gains in English, because they learned instead so much more in German. What English they learned was enough for them later to further their learning on their own. By the way, it seems right to me that the matter now is handled differently, probably with better results. Nonetheless, everywhere in our German congregations (including those which previously were Wendish), German ought not be set aside, but studied quite thoroughly and with great love. It is the mother tongue, and whoever gives it up is forfeiting his original uniqueness and essence. In short, the person who lets go of the German language and would like to become English is in the process, as it were, disowning his mother and his father and is choosing to make strangers of his friends and companions.
We did much singing in our school. Teacher Leubner [serving at St. Peter’s, Serbin] told me once that he always had his pupils sing a lively song when he noticed that they were getting tired, and that afterwards they were fresh and lively once again. We did not do exactly the same thing, but twice a week we practiced songs from our hymnals and also folk songs. Naturally, every school day started and ended with song and prayer.
I do not mean to suggest with what I am reporting how well I did my job. Not at all. I knew very well that I was not a skillful educator, and my congregation soon relieved me of this task by calling a real teacher, and, after his departure, another, and so on. But in the interims I did need to conduct school again a number of times during vacancies often lasting a whole year. These were times in which I was happy to be among the children again with the opportunity to become well acquainted with the dear lambs of the flock and to feed them, and in this way to serve my beloved old church in Fedor.
The lines above illustrate how the people in Fedor (and, in the same way, in other congregations near Giddings) were served and cared for in church and school, and how with time they developed and grew as new congregations kept being established in Lee and Fayette Counties: Giddings in 1883, St. John’s in Lincoln in 1886, St. Michael’s in Winchester in 1887, the present Ebenezer in Manheim in 1890, and St. James in Lexington in 1891, and in the next years the congregations in La Grange, Greens Creek, and Loebau (which in 1896 called Rev. Schaaf of our Missouri Synod).
In a subsequent article I would like to show how our people in Fedor fifty and more years ago certainly had to do without many things which people now have, but, with that, were frugal and of good courage.