June 28, 1931 – Congratulations…

This article was written in German by Gotthilf Birkmann for the 28 June 1931 edition of the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt. It also appeared on page 270 in Worthy of Double Honor, the Rev. G. Birkmann, D. D. where it was translated by the author Ray Martens.


…from the Rev. G. Birkmann to his home congregation in Wartburg, near Waterloo, Illinois, which is about to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of its founding on June 7. The congregation, about twenty-five miles from St. Louis, was founded through the Rev. G. A. Schieferdecker, one of the six theological candidates who came with Walther and the Saxon immigrants. Dr. C. F.W Walther installed Schieferdecker in this congregation in 1841.

Giddings, Texas

May 25, 1931

Holy Cross Lutheran Church

Wartburg, Illinois

The undersigned, born in the area of Wartburg, near Waterloo, Illinois, has learned to his great pleasure that his home congregation, Holy Cross, on the seventh of June this year intends to celebrate the ninetieth year of its founding. Simi lar to a golden wedding anniversary, such an occurrence is surely rare. A ninety-year history may make it the oldest of our congregations in Illinois. So it is that I feel obligated herewith to congratulate you, my dear home congregation, to wish you God’s blessings, along with the grace to continue to be faithful to God’s Word and to continue to pass it on in church and school. It pleases me too that the congregation has held on to its German mother tongue until now, with the result that it has the golden apple of the Gospel in a silver container, the language of Luther.

May God bring to fulfillment in your congregation, “May your old age be as your youth,” and, “Those who are planted in the house of the Lord will sprout in the courts of our God. Even if they grow old, yet they will bloom, be fruitful and fresh, etc.” Psalm 92.

With heartfelt greetings, your

G. Birkmann

I believe that many will find my reminiscences about my years in this Wartburg congregation to be welcome. I love my old home more and more as time goes by, and I am often delighted by my memories of it in these weeks before their celebration. The years of my childhood and youth were surely simple and meager as, in fact, those early years were for all the members of the congregation seventy and more years ago, but youth is so blissful that it forgets that the roses also had thorns at the time.

About the founder of the congregation, the Rev. Schieferdecker, whom I heard preach at the convention of the Synod in St. Louis in 1884 when he was about seventy years old, I can say only that I derived little benefit from this sermon, but that because he could not be understood well in the large expanse of Trinity Church. But I have the impression from several printed sermons of his that he was a good exegete, thorough and edifying in his speaking and writing, as is evident also in his worthy little book on confession and communion.

Schieferdecker’s successor at Holy Cross in Wartburg was a Rev. Schliepsick, who stayed only a year. In 1850 my sainted father, J. G. Birkmann, followed him. He was one of the eleven who had been sent by Loehe from Bavaria in 1846, and who then studied additionally with Dr. Sihler and Prof Wolter at the practical seminary in Fort Wayne. My father first served as pastor for a year and a half at Ridge Prairie in Madison County, Illinois [St. Jakobus, Liberty Prairie]. Then, as noted, he came to the congregation near Waterloo in the summer of 1850. At his time, the first church building (Schieferdecker’s) was moved two miles southward, farther from Waterloo, to the site where the present church is located. As best I recall, the frame (built of lumber [rather than logs]) building was tall relative to its area. After the stone church was built, the frame building functioned as the school, but, by then, it was about one hundred feet north of the church instead of in its former location east of that church.

During my time, school was held in the house which had earlier served as the parsonage, a log cabin with two large rooms and a small chamber, the northern­ most of the large rooms serving as classroom. That building was located about 150 feet east and 150 feet south of where the stone church later stood. Between the log cabin and the church was a fruit and vegetable garden which extended west to the Hohnbaum’s property line. His border fence ran so near the brick parsonage on the west that his plow went right past our windows. When once I spent time with Rev. Schuessler, it was just as it had been, which led me to conclude that the present parsonage occupies exactly the same spot where the earlier brick house stood, the one in which my parents lived toward the end of their time, then Kleppisch, Nachtigall, etc.

My teachers were my father, then Deffner, then Rix, then my father again. Deffner was there during the first year of the Civil War. While we were sitting at breakfast one morning, Mrs. Deffner rushed in with the exclamation, “We are at war!” We were not a little startled, and coffee cups fell from unsteady hands. After some time, Deffner took over a free school two miles east of the church across the creek, and I attended there for a time with some of our other students. It was a pleasure for me, for I always hoped for the good fortune of walking with my satchel to school every day in the company of other children and to eat my lunch as they did. The path was also delightful, especially when there were May Apples and the like.

Teacher Rix had recently arrived from Germany, and he and his wife wore clothes out of durable material with a German cut. But he also soon took another call and later taught at parish schools in Milwaukee and Detroit. My father did not dislike teaching, but he had two congregations and found it difficult to take care of the school at the same time. He loved singing and even taught musical notes to us children. He also organized a choir of young men, who sometimes sang in church in four-part harmony. He could also draw very well and would often cover the chalkboard with printed letters [Frakturschrift, the old German print form, often (mistakenly) called Gothic], which we children enjoyed copying.

1n 1863 the stone church was built. I still recall how the wagons came from the creek where the stone was cut, at times one after the other. Procuring this stone required the investment of much toil and labor (apparently volunteer labor by members of the congregation]. There were only a few masons on the job, and so it took months before one could see the plans take shape. It was a good thing, though, this undertaking right in the middle of the war. (Of the men in the congregation, some had to serve, and others found substitutes in exchange for a significant sum.) It was a time of scarcity, but also a time of several types of gain and profit. Wheat had a good price, and many farmers made a nice profit with each wagonload of barrels of flour they hauled from the Waterloo mill to Harrisonville, there to be taken farther on its way by river steamer. That was the time too that many farmers whose land had been worn out by constant cultivation rented acreage in the rich American Bottom near Harrisonville, only to drag their equipment and seed over there in the spring and then, in the fall, to bring the harvest home twelve miles or more.

During my father’s time, the congregation in Wartburg bought its first organ, one built by a Mr. Pfeffer in St. Louis at a cost of about $375. It served the congregation for at least twenty years.

While I was still in elementary school, Phil. Studt and Jacob Horn were already away at college and seminary. Both entered the ministry in 1866 and served many years in Iowa, including serving as district president there one after the other. Later Gotthilf Horn followed their lead, also becoming a pastor in Iowa, but he died already in 1878.

My father died on December 28, 1865. Student Hieronymus took care of the congregation by preaching and conducting school for about a half year. Rev. Kleppisch was installed during the summer of 1866, and he went on to serve there for about five years. He was well prepared, especially also in English, for which we had little use in Wartburg and vicinity, where everything was German. He was my teacher in the 1866-67 school year, although I do not recall that he troubled himself to improve our English, about which we students knew only a very little. But in confirmation instruction, as in the entire conduct of his ministry, Kleppisch was very ordered, and obviously he was very serious about shepherding Christ’s sheep and lambs correctly. Along with that, he had a lively, vigorous, and somewhat blunt nature. He loved humor, fun, and gaiety.

From the confirmation class of 1867, Kleppisch arranged for three to go to the Gymnasium [a six-year institution modeled after a German precedent] in Fort Wayne; Carl Johanning, Wilhelm Ruff, and me. The Ruff and Johanning families provided their own financial resources, but, to a large extent, I was subsidized by the congregation. I am deeply grateful to my congregation for being willing to make it possible for me to complete my studies in Fort Wayne (1873), and then to cover my costs at the St. Louis seminary, which I finished in 1876. I spent most vacation periods at home. When the time came to go back to college, I was told that I should bid farewell to the individual families of the congregation. So I set out on foot, visiting house after house, finding that the hand extended in a goodbye handshake contained a dollar bill. By the time I arrived home in the evening, I had twenty or more dollars. The next day I gladly repeated the farewell procedure. I finished with enough to pay for the trip to Fort Wayne, besides covering the cost of room and board for the first quarter along with whatever else I needed.

After Johanning completed the course of studies, he served as a pastor first in western Missouri and then in the area of Champaign, Illinois, where I assume he still lives, although he resigned from the ministry already in 1899.

When I was a student in St. Louis, Rev. John Nachtigall was in Wartburg, coming in 1871 and staying more than thirteen years. His temperament was the opposite of Kleppisch, his predecessor. He was more gentle and quiet and showed more emotion. He served both congregations (Wartburg and the one three miles south of Burksville) faithfully. He was a fluent speaker but had a very high voice, distracting until one became accustomed to it. You could learn a lot from his well-prepared sermons. Sadly, he was often sick, frequently suffering from spells of malaria, as did also his good wife. In times like those, I was happy to have opportunity to gain some practical experience and to introduce some variety into my daily routine. I was often with Nachtigall during vacations. He was a dear friend, one who benefitted me greatly.

I was in Wartburg only once during Rev. Bergen’s time, in 1888. As I was making my way on foot from Waterloo to visit my old acquaintances and friends (Wilhelm Horn and his family, along with Rev. Bergen) and saw again the places of my childhood and youth, how wonderful all of that appeared to me: the hills and valleys, the tall oaks and other trees with their slender trunks and green tops, Fountain Creek, which I loved so much as a child, all of nature itself along with the beloved people and the good that God provided me through them. I need to say that the scale of the landscape appeared to be smaller than what I had pictured in my mind, probably because of the dozen years that I had lived in Texas, with its larger fields and pastures, and where most people, especially young people, moved around more broadly to see things than did these residents of my former home, who rarely crossed evert their county line.

Every place has its advantages, Monroe County, Illinois, just like Lee County, Texas. The Lord takes pleasure in all his works. I wish to sing to the Lord my whole life long, to praise my God as long as I exist. My speech must please him. I rejoice in the Lord. Praise the Lord, my soul. Hallelujah!