July 1930 – Pioneer Days of an Old Texas Pastor

This article by G. Birkmann, titled “Aus der Pionierzeit eines alten Texaspastors” appeared in Die Missions-Taube in July 1930).

It was translated from German by Bill Biar, Denver, Colorado, April 8, 1991.

In the following, reminiscences and impressions are portrayed from the time, forty to fifty ago, when I was the pastor, for the most part, of a congregation composed of Wends who understood German and expected me to serve them in the German language. Indeed, most of them still spoke Wendish at home, but, with few exceptions, had a command of German and could express themselves fluently in it.

Fifty years ago there were still about a half dozen of such Wendish congregations in Texas, which were in essence similar to mine in Fedor. What took place in my congregation, as reported in the following, also took place in other Wendish groups at other places, so that similar customs and practices were also found there.

The bulk of my congregation came from Serbin, Lee County, the larger part from St. Peter’s congregation, whose first minister was Rev. Pallmer. However, after ten years – around 1882 – about a dozen families came direct from Germany (Upper Lusatia, Saxony) to Fedor, also some from the Roman Catholic Church in Moravia, who were instructed in the Lutheran Catechism and then joined us.

They were a diverse people, who came together here; but the old, loyal, ardent Lutherans, by whom the congregation was founded, had given it the proper direction and for a long time impressed on it its character. The congregation put God’s word above all else. Church services were well attended; also the third holidays of the festivals of Easter, Pentecost and Christmas, were celebrated, as well as, all other holidays on the Lutheran calendar, except the days of the Apostles, which were still observed in the old mother congregation. Even when field work was urgent, when a holiday came, a feast of Mary, or the Nativity of John the Baptist, the people observed them, at least a part of the people attended church and gladly heard the preaching on the respective texts. I always marveled over the great joy that was evident in hearing God’s word. Also, in the homes many willingly read the Bible. I found Luther’s and Walther’s sermon books among them and, naturally, Bibles, hymnals and also Luther’s Large and Small Catechisms; the Large Catechism in the Wendish language, translated into Wendish by Rev. Kilian, Sr.

There were some people of whom this commendation could not be made; but the good example of the ardent members was a good influence on them. When good books were offered by Concordia Publishing House they bought them. Their children were baptized soon (after birth) and they came to Holy Communion, almost without exception, three to four times a year. I view that as a sign of spiritual life. Even though attendance at Communion at times was done merely because it was the customary thing to do – by the self-assured – the attendance at the Lord’s Table by persistent impenitence will finally discontinue completely. Where Christians go to Communion diligently, there one has reason for joy.

Congregational Meetings

At the beginning we had a congregational meeting every month, later every two months and special meetings when warranted by pressing business. We were unable to manage with only quarterly meetings of the members. Meetings were not always held to transact business, but to instruct the congregation about this and that. We read and discussed Walther’s book: “Die rechte Gestalt einer vom Staat unabhängigen Ortsgemeinde” (The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation Independent of the State) or this or that article in the “Lutheraner” or a synodical report, and that not only the ones of this district.

When I attended a Synodical meeting, I reported as much of it as possible to the congregation and naturally also gave the delegates the opportunity to do so. Meetings were always gratifying when delegates to the general synodical conventions, who represented our circuit, or delegates, who represented our congregation at our district conventions, gave their reports. From time to time we discussed the status of missions and available reports were presented. And each time our teacher said something about his school – and so forth.

Synodical Periodicals

We had over 40 subscribers to the “Lutheraner.” When people do not subscribe to the official publication of Synod, as a rule, it is because they are not personally accosted and asked to read it. It is not good enough to announce this from the pulpit; if good results are desired the pastor must make the effort himself to gain readers for our church periodicals. The good thing is that it is well worth the extra effort it takes. He has faithful assistance from these periodicals and from the actual readers he gets knowledgeable and effective members.

Mission Festivals

My congregation was always ready to foster fellowship with others of the same faith. Fifty years ago joint mission festivals were uncommon in this area. When they occurred now and then in our circuit they were reported in the “Lutheraner.” In those days we Lutherans along the West Yegua (Rev. Kaspar’s Ebenezer Congregation and Fedor) celebrated our mission festivals together and, to be sure, from the beginning always in the open under the trees near the church. The first mission festival of our congregations in Texas was held in either Serbin or Warda in 1875 and Rev. Greif preached on heathen missions.

This was followed by Rev. Roesener’s congregation at Rose Hill and Rev. Klindworth’s congregation at William Penn. And about the same time we in Fedor, together with Rev. Kaspar’s congregation, celebrated a festival near the church (building) in which Rev. Kaspar preached, taught school and, at the same time, lived with his family. Rev. Wischmeyer and Rev. Simon Suess, the former missionary in West Africa, preached. I believe Wischmeyer preached in English; for I remember that Americans from Giddings were present, among them also Sheriff Brown.

Church Ceremonies

I found various church ceremonies in the congregation that were new to me. They were brought along from the Wendish homeland in Germany.

When a woman wanted to go to church for the first time after giving birth to a child, she, holding her child in her arms, went to the church door accompanied by another woman. The pastor went toward her in the church and met her at the entrance door. Then he greeted her with the words: “The Lord bless your going out and coming in”, etc.

Then he turned around and the women followed him to the foot of the altar; they knelt down and the pastor then spoke an appropriate prayer. After that the woman with her companion went to take their seats for the service. Moreover, the customary intercession of the congregation followed the sermon. This (intercession ) is still spoken ; the rest is no longer practiced in most of the Wendish congregations here in Texas.

When it came to weddings there were a number of things that caught my attention. The three-fold or, at least, two-fold public announcements (banns) were at that time also practiced in the congregations in the north but the strict observance of the so-called “closed periods” during Advent and Lent in which public announcements were forbidden – there was probably something about this in Walther’s “Pastorale” (Pastoral) – but I had never observed elsewhere where one was so strict about these old Saxon ways.

Marriages were generally performed in church; also many young people attended church weddings but nearly all of the parents stayed away. They were at the bridal house when we arrived. At that time – fifty years ago – weddings were usually celebrated in grand style. Many guests were invited and arrangements were made to have them back the following day. The way from the church after the wedding ceremony to the house, where the wedding feast took place, was made as fast as the animals could run. They went over stumps and stones, uphill and downhill, at a rapid pace. Near the house where the wedding feast took place, a crowd, who came by wagon and on horseback, gathered. After the bridal couple and witnesses, as well as, the pastor and teacher, arrived everyone went to the house. At the entrance the hymn “Praise to the Lord” was sung and the pastor prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Then they went into the house. All were seated at tables where the best (food) the immediate area offered, and what one could buy in Giddings, was set before them in large proportions. In front of the bridal couple stood a large wedding cake, a masterpiece of the most skilled baker in the area, which, if I remember correctly, had a candle on it which was lit and burned for hours. To the right and left of the bridal couple sat the witnesses, a dozen or more young people, who were designated as guests of honor.

After the meal the guests dispersed. The young people found entertainment outside the house. It was the custom to offer all types of amusement and games out in the yard. Again and again I observed how happy the celebrations were, how tirelessly cheerful and enjoyable they were, well-nigh the whole night through. When they grew tired from the games outside they sat down together in the house and sang songs, that is, the songs they loved to sing in school and church. And not just a few verses of a particular song were sung but all the verses from beginning to the end. And then another song and another; and they sang with joy and delight. I had never witnessed this before and never heard of it being done elsewhere except in our Wendish congregations. Parents and grandparents enjoyed the singing; some said that they could not sing these songs in German without songbooks, but in Wendish they knew them by heart.

The long nights naturally gave occasions for conversations with the elderly guests. These were also cheerful and content and many were able to relate much about the beginnings of the settlement at Serbin, when there was a crop failure in the Serbin area, how they had to pay one dollar for corn and a dollar at that time was like two today and they had to get it from a great distance, even having to carry it on their backs. And then there were the bad times during the Civil War. Men were forced against their will to fight for the Confederacy and then probably, as they said, in battle, aimed their rifles high so that they would hit no one. During the war the burden of providing food and clothing for their families was usually placed on the women. They had to work in the fields, feed the cattle, and spin and weave material for clothing. This always provided interesting topics for conversation.

There were also stories about hunting, because we lived in an area where hunting was excellent. In the fall and winter there were wild geese and ducks by the thousands on the inland lakes near the Middle Yegua, and now and then a deer was shot. I was told that sometimes deer got into the fenced in fields and caused great damage, ate the young corn or something else. There were many wild animals: cougars, raccoons, etc., in the thickets along the creeks. During the winter many birds found protection and food in such bushes and thick undergrowth along the Yegua (these creeks were called West, Middle and East (Yegua).

At that time this region was not yet densely settled and wide stretches of forest and also prairies were not yet fenced in; therefore one could ride or drive in any direction and, as it were, undertake exploratory journeys. Today this is no longer possible around here and, with the exception of the elderly people, the reader will barely understand this segment of my report.

A Funeral

From a wedding let us go to a funeral. It is only one step from life to death. On October 1, 1876 I was ordained and installed by Rev. Geyer, who then ate the noon meal with me at the house of an elder (1) of the congregation. During the afternoon we were informed that a lady, the mother of six children, died in the morning, after a long illness. I was asked to conduct the funeral the next day and deliver the sermon, this before I preached my inaugural sermon. It was a large funeral; thirty to forty wagons came to the house of mourning, just as many men and women on horseback; in those days nearly all women rode on horseback with the exception of the older mothers and grandmothers. After the devotion at the house the coffin with the corpse was placed on a farm wagon – there were no other conveyances at that time – and the mourners drove behind the pastor, who was on the wagon that followed the one bearing the corpse.

The way to the cemetery was two miles. As the quarter-mile-long funeral procession moved along a long funeral hymn [dirge] was sung. Short pauses between verses were made. But how can people singing on wagons keep the same time? Of course, all tried very hard, but it sounded, as good as the intentions were, rather dismal in the otherwise quiet woods, on both ends of the procession. This custom lasted about thirty years, in spite of all the difficulties it entailed. It has long since been discontinued; but the beautiful custom of carrying the corpse to the grave in a procession while singing has been retained.

Social Contact of Members of the Congregation with One Another

Our people had great enjoyment in staying in touch with their peers. Family events were practically always celebrated with friends and acquaintances. Even if the house was small there was always a bench on the porch; they could also stay outside at night in the mild climate; they were happy and cheerful; enjoyed conversing with each other: during the spirited chatter they forgot their troubles and – again it needs to be mentioned – sang joyful songs and went home content and full of good cheer.

This is how I got to know and value my people. G. Birkmann

(1) The translator’ s great grandfather, F. Jacob Moerbe