January 27, 1938 – Some Memories of my Attendance at the Convention of the Synod’s General Convention in Milwaukee in 1890

This article by G. Birkmann, pastor emeritus, first appeared in the January 27, 1938 edition of the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt.  It was translated from German by Ray Martens.


          At that time, it was just as cheap to travel to the north from Texas by way of New Orleans as it was by the shorter routes through the Indian Territory, as it was called then (now Oklahoma), or through Arkansas. The trip certainly took longer, but we young people would do it for that very reason, make rather long trips and see quite a lot. My traveling companions were Rev. G. Buchschacher and Rev. L. Ernst, my neighbors in ministry, the former in Warda and Ernst in Lincoln. A son of Rev. Geyer in Serbin accompanied us as far as New Orleans, where he lived and served temporarily as the Assistant Treasurer of the Southern District. He had been visiting with his brother, Dr. Geyer, in Giddings and with his parents in Serbin, and now, while lined up for our trip in Giddings, we were happy to have him join us as a comrade in travel as far as New Orleans. In Houston we visited our dear friend Rev. John Barthel, who had been a pastor there for a year. At first, from 1886, he has been in Hamilton County, Texas, and from there had served many mission stations, but had become the successor of the Rev. J. J. Trinklein in Houston in 1889. Still today Barthel is active as a preacher in Lincoln, Illinois.

          In New Orleans I visited our District Treasurer Frye, for whom the previously mentioned Mr. Geyer, his son-in-law, was taking care of the bookkeeping. Probably from its beginning he was a member of Zion congregation, founded already ninety years ago, and in which German was still preached fifty years ago, even though in many homes English had become dominant.

          Buchschacher and Ernst accompanied me on a visit with the Rev. G. J. Wegener, who for three years had been the pastor of St. Paul congregation. We had learned to know him in this congregation during the convention in 1888. He served this congregation for more than fifty years, and is even now in ministry as an assistant pastor. In 1891 he became president of the Southern District of our Missouri Synod and supervised this district for thirty-six years, for fifteen of those also the leader in our church work in Texas while we still belonged to the Southern District.

          We stayed with Wegener for quite some time and told him at length about our missionaries and their successes until he had enough of that and said, “Let’s talk about something else. I have here a crossbow, and sometimes for recreation I practice shooting the crossbow.” Indeed, that was something strange to us, and we tried for a bit to hit the target, though not as successfully as our more skillful Wegener.

          On the next day we climbed aboard a train of the Illinois Central Railway, which brought us to Chicago the following day. I was not feeling well and decided to stay there to rest, for it was still several days before the opening of the convention in Milwaukee.

          I had an upset stomach and tried a lemon cure. During the day I ate nothing but lemons with the successful result that I soon started feeling better. I stayed in my room another day, although in the evening at a nearby wax figure display I took a look at many famous men about whom until then I had only read or heard. These figures created in wax had a totally different effect on me than just pictures could have had. It was for me an unforgettable evening.

          On the next day I arrived in Milwaukee and soon, outside on the sidewalk next to the school building of Trinity congregation, I again came across my previous companions, Ernst and Buchschacher. Professor A. L. Graebner also approached us, and I introduced him to my two Texans. He was especially struck with Buchschacher and asked me later about from where this man comes and what he does.

          Nowadays it is the custom, a very necessary custom, that several important committees meet already before the opening of the convention to prepare in advance the main business of the convention. That was not the case at the time. Back then, the committees were first elected or appointed by the president after the opening. The Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States at the time had only about one fourth the numbers that it has now. It numbered about eight hundred pastors and barely more than a third of a million souls, while now the number of souls has grown about a million and the number of pastors amounts to over three thousand.

          Accordingly, there was less business to conduct fifty years ago, and more time could be devoted to lectures and discussions. To be sure, fifty years ago we already had two seminaries, the one in St. Louis and the one in Springfield, but just one teachers’ college and one full gymnasium [i.e., a full six-year program incorporating high school and junior college years], namely the one in Fort Wayne.

          The institutions in New York (Hawthorne), in Concordia, Missouri, and in Milwaukee indeed already existed at the time, but merely as preparatory schools for our Fort Wayne college.

          Mission work among the heathen was not going on yet.

          The opening service took place in Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church. It was June 25, the day on which once 360 years earlier in Augsburg, Germany, the confessional writings of the Lutherans were presented. President Buehler from California referred to this fact in his sermon and encouraged those in attendance at the convention toward a faithful confession of Christian truth.

          The sessions of the convention were held in Lincoln Hall. In later years this facility did not offer enough room, with the result that the city auditorium had to be rented. That happened in 1917 and perhaps on other occasions. Lincoln Hall stood among other buildings and offered few amenities, especially since it was very hot in Milwaukee during those days. The temperature was so high that not a few suffered from it, and I noticed that quite a number of conventioneers tried to cool themselves with wet towels, which they laid on their heads. So, for example, Rev. Koestering and Prof. Kroening, who, even when they were speaking to the convention, had the cooling towels on their heads. Dr. Pieper, the essayist, had a difficult situation because of this. I saw repeatedly how he wiped off the sweat, not merely from his forehead, but also from his cheeks and hands. This heat lasted for several days, and only at the end of the convention did there come a significant change in the temperature.

          It was a weighty topic that the essayist took up, namely, that the preaching of the Gospel is the only task of the church, and so it should also be our main task, and what implications that has for us. Pieper on that occasion did not speak only a short time, perhaps a half-hour as he did at later conventions, but he carried on for hours, and I do not remember that he got any meaningful relief during all of his talking.

          Another subject of discussion was the struggle for our church schools, which at the time had to be conducted by our people in the states of Illinois and Wisconsin. There were many people back then in those states who were trying to bring our church schools under the control of the state. That was a bad thing, and it was necessary that our synod come to the aid of our congregations with instruction and advice. Prof. A. L. Graebner was the chairman of the committee that dealt with this subject, and they were to present theses through which the opinion of the convention would be expressed. The committee went to great pains in laying out statements, which were then discussed in the sessions and also in a special meeting of professors and pastors one evening. It took a long time until they got everything right. Graebner’s patience was considerably put to the test. This and that would be amended in the statements as composed, and new motions would be made in this respect, with the result that Graebner finally said that he found no more pleasure in this work. Yet, a draft was finally agreed upon, which was then published in the Lutheraner and in the convention proceedings as what was adopted by the synod.

          Director Schick and Prof. R. Lange also spoke at that evening meeting. Schick closed his speech with the words, “We have to fight, fight to the point of shedding blood.” From the assembly came calls, “Professor Lange, Professor Lange.” In this matter, they wanted to hear from this level-headed man who had such good judgment. Lange said, “The training of the children has been committed only to the parents and not to the state or the government. Our church schools help the parents in the fulfillment of their task, etc.” He also pointed to our nation’s constitution about the separation of church and state which exists here.

          In summary, the upshot was: we are not going to allow to be taken away from us the right to keep the controlling, the equipping, and the conducting of our schools in our own hands, while we are also fully prepared to give everyone an insight into what is going on in our schools and how they are being conducted. In the same year, the foes of our schools in Wisconsin as also in Illinois suffered a thorough defeat as the result of a vote.

          The assignment of candidates for the preaching and teaching ministries was also taken up during the days of this convention. In 1889, the previous year the presidents of the individual districts in conjunction with the professors of our seminaries took time to do this over a number of days. This time, however, we had to be content with an individual hour here and there, perhaps the noon hour or after the afternoon session. On one occasion we went about the task for a number of hours in succession. The synod back then had thirteen districts. Three or four districts were not represented. Absent were Rev. Wunder of the Illinois District, Biltz of the Western, and also Pennekamp of the Kansas District. From the St. Louis seminary Pieper was there along with Graebner and Guenther and Lange. From Springfield Prof. Craemer was present, as was Prof. Wyneken. Prof Krauss from the Teachers’ College in Addison. It was the last time that Craemer was present at a convention, for, already in the next year, his richly productive life came to an end. Wyneken, too, who conducted the pastoral sermon [?] at the convention of which I am speaking, was broken in body and soon resigned. Prof. Guenther was the senior member of the professors from St. Louis, and he chaired our assignment sessions.

Opposite me was President Buehler, who was of interest to us because he came from so far and was such an able preacher. He was the pioneer of our church in California, who had come to San Francisco already in 1860 and worked successfully also as president and as leader of the teaching negotiations which his district placed before him. Physically he was rather powerful, bµt it occurred to me that he was somewhat nervous with the pencil that he had in his hand, seated, as we all were, but incessantly scribbling also when he spoke until soon all the papers he had before him were full of drawings.

                        On that occasion Texas was treated very well with assignments. In that year we received the candidates Bernthal, Kramer, and Heckel, and also Schleicher from Springfield. The latter was called to Kurten and Willow Hole, but he was also sickly and soon resigned. Bernthal became pastor in Shiner, Kramer in Coryell, and Heckel in Sealy.