May 11, 1939 – Missouri Synod Congregations in Illinois About to Celebrate Their Centennials

This article was written in German by Gotthilf Birkmann for the 11 May 1939 edition of the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt. It also appeared on page 266 in Worthy of Double Honor, the Rev. G. Birkmann, D. D. where it was translated by the author Ray Martens.

Missouri Synod Congregations in Illinois About to Celebrate Their Centennials

One is reminded this year that one hundred years have passed since the Saxon Lutherans immigrated to St. Louis and Altenburg, Missouri, founding congregations which not only still exist, but also were major contributors to the founding of our synod eight years later.

Along with this, it is fitting to note that when the Saxons came to this country a number of Lutherans from German provinces already had settled in Illinois, not far from St. Louis, in counties bordering the Mississippi: Madison, St. Clair, Monroe, and Randolph. Here I shall name congregations only in this area because I am not able to report on other locations, nor even to report precisely on these. Yet, I wish in this article to share what I have been able to discover and research.

Ottomar Fuerbringer, one of five [six?] pastoral candidates in the group of Saxon immigrants, already in 1841 received a call to serve the Lutherans in Venedy, Illinois. [Venedy is not in the counties named above, actually about twenty miles from any of the congregations named below. But it is another example covered by the title, and its founding pastor is a man of some consequence in the history of the Missouri Synod. Whether he served or founded other congregations in the area is not clear.] Not long ago a picture of this venerable man was reproduced in Der Lutheraner with the subscript: “A deep thinker and highly educated man.” Every article and speech of his that I have read in our journals and synodical proceedings has led me to conclude that he certainly was both highly educated and a deep thinker. But he was also an outstanding preacher and later, for many years, president of our synod’s Michigan District [at the time actually called the Northern District]. A good teacher of his confirmands too, for my teacher Daenzer told me that when Fuerbringer taught them the Scriptures, explained a passage, his message flowed like a stream, and his exposition delighted them.

This Ottomar Fuerbringer was called from Venedy, Illinois, to Freistatt, Wisconsin, then, some years later, to Frankenmuth, Michigan. He was the father of Dr. Ludwig Fuerbringer, now the president of our seminary in St. Louis. Already over fifty years ago, the younger Fuerbringer took over the burden of his father’s work and soon after his death in 1893 was called as a professor of our seminary. [Two generations of Fuerbringers cover an unlikely span of years because both were octogenarians, the second born when his father was fifty-four.]

Pleasant Ridge, Madison County

After Ottomar Fuerbringer was called to Wisconsin, the Rev. Friedrich Lochner came to Pleasant Ridge. He had been born in Bavaria, first served in Toledo, and with Craemer, Sihler, and others was among those founders of our Synod who had not come with the Saxons. In February, 1848, Lochner ordained and installed my sainted father in Ridge Prairie, Madison County, Illinois. The Rev. J .F. Buenger assisted. My father was born in Bavaria, studied under Loehe, and was sent to Ft. Wayne, Indiana, with the other ten “Loehe students” [everywhere known as the Loehe’s Zöglinge] in 1846 to the newly established seminary, where he continued his study of theology under Professor Wolter and Dr. Sihler. He was examined in St. Louis by Rev. C. F. Walther, including having to preach in Walther’s church. Candidate Strasen went through the same thing at the same time. One of the two got stuck while preaching and heard Walther call out, “Extemporize!” The record is silent about whether any extemporizing followed, but both passed the examination. Strasen became pastor in Horse Prairie [Trinity], near Red Bud, Illinois, where the former leader of the Saxon immigrants, M.[artin] Stephan, had served after his removal from the colony at Altenburg. Stephan had been pastor there across the river in Illinois until his death, and he lies buried there. Strasen began to serve the congregation in 1848. Later he served a number of years in Collinsville, but most of his time he spent in Watertown, Wisconsin, where he was elected president of the Northwest District and, again after a few years, to the same position in the Wisconsin District. Like Ottomar Fuerbringer in Michigan, Strasen in his territory did highly beneficial work, and both were greatly respected men in the Synod, a fulfillment of the promise in Psalm 91: “I will rescue him from trouble and bring him to a place of honor. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

Monroe County, Illinois

Another of the candidates among the Saxon immigrants, G. A. Schieferdecker, already in 1841, the year he was ordained and installed by C. F. W. Walther, gathered together Holy Cross Church near Waterloo [Wartburg], a congregation which still exists. (In two years the congregation will be able to celebrate its centennial.) Schieferdecker also founded {actually already in 1840] the congregations in Columbia (Monroe County) and Centerville, now Millstadt (St. Clair County). When Schieferdecker in 1849 went to Altenburg, Missouri, to succeed the Rev. Loeber, the Rev. Schliepsick followed in Waterloo, but within a year was off to Madison County. That is when [1850] my father was called to serve this and, later, another sister congregation six miles away until his subsequent death in 1865.

To the congregation in Centerville (Millstadt) [Trinity] came Candidate W. Wunder in 1850, another of Loehe’s Zöglinge, who, however, studied also at our first college in Altenburg. After less than a year, he moved to Chicago to the congregation in which he served for 63 years. Through his efforts, a number of congregations were founded in Illinois and neighboring states.

Wunder’s successor in Millstadt was Rev. F. W. Rolls, who worked there for thirty years and also faithfully cared for Columbia [St. Paul] and another rural congregation. The maiden name of Mrs. Rolls was Tirmenstein, a family from St. Louis who had been a part of the Saxon immigration. The Rolls family were friends of our family, and we visited with one another from time to time. We lived about fifteen miles distant and, because of inadequate transportation and poor roads in those old days, making a visit like this was not easy. So a day took on great significance for us children when the Rolls family could finally come and we children could play and have fun outside while our parents exchanged experiences. How wonderful to use those valuable few hours to best advantage! My father once drove [a wagon] to Centerville to take Rev. Rolls with him to a conference to be held at a place farther on. I stayed with Mrs. Halls and their children. They had school the next day, but I stayed outside. It never occurred to me to mingle with these children and teachers who were strangers. After two days, the men returned. After a while, as my father climbed on the wagon to go home, he asked me, “Son, did you go to school?” “No,” I answered. At that my father announced, “Then I am not going to take you along.” He started the horse and drove away, faster and faster, as I ran behind crying and screaming, while the Rolls family stood and laughed heartily, enjoying the scene. Naturally, my dear father took pity and stopped and let the boy crawl up on the wagon.

When, in about 1883, Rolls was called away from Millstadt and took a position in a congregation out east, Rev. E. O. Lenk, previously pastor at Bethlehem in St. Louis (in an area called Bremen), came to replace him. Lenk as a young pastor came from Germany with his wife and sought out Prof. Walther, who, as was his custom, welcomed them warmly and kept them for weeks as guests in his home. I met Lenk in 1874 at the seminary when he sat in on our classes for several weeks. At the end of that year he received a call to Bremen.

I often heard him preach, for the people we students called our “wash folks” (because they did our wash) in my case lived in the neighborhood of Bethlehem Church. [The site of this church is roughly four miles north of the location of the seminary at that time. I do not know what the mode of transportation may have been.] Lenk cut short his Sunday sermons to accommodate Christenlehre, taught by the teachers, an exchange that I enjoyed hearing. There were four teachers (Meibohm, Bathel, Kils, and another, whose name does not come to mind) who took turns every Sunday.

In 1888 I visited my old home once again and, as I was walking up, not far from the parsonage and church, a man and woman seated in a buggy caught my attention, though at first I did not recognize them. Once inside the parsonage of Rev. Bergen, it came to me that they were Pastor Lenk and his wife Margaretta Lenk. Her name later became very well-known because of the many beautiful stories she wrote in Germany, widely disseminated also here, stories which have lasting value for all who still can and wish to read German. At the time of this visit to Rev. Bergen in the fall of 1888, Mrs. Lenk had not yet published anything, and I knew nothing of her talent as a writer. She met in the room with us men and with her friend, Mrs. Bergen, a daughter of Rev. A. Wegner in Chicago, and took part in our conversation as she knitted constantly. In one of her books she said later that she had not enjoyed knitting as a child and that she had never learned to do it well. Her father – the family had lived in Dresden – had taught her well and she had learned to write well, but for housework, so she said, she had neither the skill nor the inclination.

This couple soon thereafter made their way back to Germany (in Voigtland, as it was called), where he was a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church [What is “free” about this church is that it is independent of the unionistic state church.] until his death in 1900. Before that, she had already begun to write her reminiscences and other accounts. There were ultimately many volumes, including smaller books which she had written for children, whom she loved dearly. In her book, Fünfzehn Jahre in Amerika [Fifteen Years in America], she reports on their life and her husband’s work in Bremen (St. Louis) and in Millstadt. She tells many things of significant interest about their stay with Prof. Walther and his wife. She tells about how Mrs. Walther made bread and about Walther’s demeanor and behavior as they gathered in his house in the evening. Mrs. Walther once told about snakes that they encountered in Altenburg. Mrs. Lenk fainted at the report, but recovered quickly. Walther then spoke to her in a friendly way, and in a speech about snakes and like creatures cautioned all those present to be very careful. Mrs. Lenk died in Dresden in 1918, still a member of the Free Church.

The congregation in Millstadt like the one in Columbia will celebrate its centennial soon.

N.[ota] B.[ene]: My son George along with his wife and daughter, Margaret [Marguerite], came yesterday to visit us here, and went to church with daughter Ella this morning. They come from time to time, as do also my other children, Karl [Carl] from Houston with his family, Alma from Fairbanks with her husband, A. R. Hillegeist, and their son, Perry. Pastor Paul G. Birkmann comes from Rose Hill, and even more frequently Gus E. Steglich with his wife [Meta] and children from Austin, usually including a visit with relatives in Serbin. We also await seeing this summer our Ernst A. Birkmann, who lives 300 miles away in Iowa Park and belongs to the congregation of Rev. Kaiser.