This article by Rev. Gotthilf Birkmann and translated from German by Ray Martens first appeared in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt on 1 March 1934.
February 24, 1934
Dear Mr. Proske,
The congregation of my son Paul here in Rose Hill has invited the south Texas District conference, which will gather for a three-day session during Easter week. This conference numbers about fifty pastors and thirty teachers and, with a number of vicars and other guests, preparation certainly will need to be made for about ninety or even more. About one-third of the members of this conference live in the southeast part of the state, another third in Lee and Fayette and Bastrop Counties, and the final third in the southwest—San Antonio, Three Rivers, and farther south to the Rio Grande.
The north Texas District conference will gather at the same time at Malone in Hill County with the Rev. H. Gaertner. All of the pastors and teachers located along and north of the International and Great Northern Railway belong to that one, that is, pastors and teachers from Austin, Thorndale, Taylor, etc., all the way to the border at the north of the state. This conference also has become fairly large in the last years and can no longer be accommodated by a small congregation.
A number of those who wish to take part in these wonderful days of brotherly discussion and instruction obviously will need to travel quite a distance, especially those pastors from the Rio Grande Valley, who belong to the southern conference, people who probably will have 500 miles to drive. But now one has improved roads and automobiles with which one can cover five to six hundred miles without undue difficulty.
Next summer, the Texas District of our synod will hold its convention in the congregations in and around Vernon, Willbarger County, for the first time in a place so far removed from the middle of the state, up on the Red River, which separates Texas from Oklahoma, or, at least, not far from it. This will make necessary a long trip for three-fourths of those who attend the convention, but, for the congregations in that area, it will be a joy and satisfaction for once to have the convention near them, and, in all probability, they will also experience as a result of the convention more than a limited gain for the life of the church.
It would be good if our present generation at times would allow themselves to remember what one took upon himself in earlier years if our pastors and teachers and lay delegates had to make a long trip to a convention. Those who traveled to New Orleans in many cases required two or three days to reach that destination. That is to say, not all lived in a place from which they could immediately board a train; not a few, most, in fact, had to drive twelve to twenty miles to get to the station. But these trips, too, do not compare to those of our fathers and forefathers seventy and eighty years ago. Eighty-seven years ago, the pastors from Fort Wayne and its surroundings, Sihler and others, came to the first convention of the Synod in Chicago on horseback, sitting in a saddle for days and days.
In 1883, the convention was in Cleveland, Ohio. About four weeks passed before the delegates from the St. Louis congregations and the others in that part of the country returned home. There were very few trains back then. Most stretches would be traveled on canal boats [barges] or mail coaches. In Indiana and Ohio at that time there were canals which were tied in with the rivers and on which boats with passengers and freight were pulled by horses or donkeys. Just once, picture that type of travel! Two or three miles per hour. Those were “the good old days.” Nothing was as fast as it is today. But it must also be said here that a great many of the travelers generally used ordinary river steamboats to the extent possible. These travelers from St. Louis to Fort Wayne or Cleveland first rode down the Mississippi to Cairo, then up the Ohio River to Cincinnati, and only then used a canal or also, here and there, the mail coach.
The Rev. John Kilian visited the convention in St. Louis in 1860. It was the only time he was permitted to take part in the sessions of a convention. At the time, there still was no railroad from Texas to that city, and, so, he first had to be taken to Houston with horses and wagon, then he traveled on a boat down the Buffalo Bayou and so arrived at Galveston, where he boarded a ship which took him to New Orleans, and then he traveled up the Mississippi to St. Louis. That was a trip of at least ten days, maybe even two weeks.
In the same way, also, our earliest other pastors and teachers came to this state by way of New Orleans and Galveston. So, too, our earliest students who wanted to attend the teachers’ college at Addison.
I am not implying that such trips always would be troublesome and difficult from beginning to end. Without a doubt, such slow movement on a river steamer or canal boat offers something useful and interesting.
One can surmise from what has been said that attendance at conventions was accompanied with sacrifices of time and money, but also that the desire of our fathers to take part in such gatherings was very great and that they were happy to be able to take up matters pertaining to the kingdom of God with their brothers in the faith.
The convention of eighty years ago consisted of only a small group, and, as a result, they could deal with conditions in individual congregations more that is the case today. The pastor and lay delegate of each congregation were asked what they had to report about their situation, whether pure doctrine and proper Christian life prevailed, and advice was given as to how this or that deficiency might be improved—very similar to the way in which this happens today when the Visitator offers the opportunity. “The whole number of believers was of one heart and mind.” [Acts 4:32]
Our gatherings at conventions produced much peace and blessing, and this is still the case today. Would that everyone recognized that.
With respectful greetings to you, Mr. Proske from your
G. Birkmann, pastor emer.