October 28, 1937 – Reformation Festival, Sunday, October 31

This article by Rev. Gotthilf Birkmann, Pastor Emeritus, first appered in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt on Octobe 28, 1937. It was translated from German by Ray Martens. Comments in brackets are Ray’s.

Dr. Martin Luther was the chosen tool through whom God, out of his great mercy, allowed the light to rise again upon the people who wandered in darkness, that is, the world, which knew almost nothing anymore about the Holy Scriptures and did not recognize the only Savior and, instead, sought their salvation in the commands of men and in their own righteousness. Luther was the angel about whom the Revelation of St. John says in chapter 14[:6], “Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language, and people.”

God had made preparation in the world already earlier for this great work of his through Luther through faithful witnesses to the truth who were willing to suffer everything for the revealed truth, even death: Hus and Jerome from Prague in Bohemia, Savonarola in Italy, and Wycliffe in England. The latter was pursued and taken captive, and the first two named were burned [at the stake] because of their faith.

The world was further prepared by the invention of the printing press. Already in 1440 a printed Gutenberg Bible appeared, and in the years following many printing presses came into existence in all the cultured countries of Europe. The art of printing took a marvelous upswing with the result that, at the time of the Reformation, thousands of manuscripts could be printed in Germany alone, and the writings of Luther, most notably his translation of the Bible, the Lutherbibel, could soon be bought for a modest amount of money, whereas, before that time, when one had to make copies of books with a pen, a copy of the Bible was found only rarely, and then, like the Bible in the Erfurt monastery, tied down with chains. How could the work of the Reformation have happened without Gutenberg’s invention?

What further paved the way for the Reformation was that, already before Luther, at about the time the art of printing began, the study of the old languages was pursued again, languages which previously were greatly neglected in western Europe, that is, in Germany, Italy, France, and England. At the time, Latin was the prevailing language in the church and among the so-called learned circles, but even that was corrupted and stunted in the course of time [Medieval Latin did not have the precision of Classical Latin.], until the time of what was called the Renaissance, which is to say, with the rebirth of the ancient languages, the old Roman authors began to be printed and to be studied again. But what was especially important and necessary if the Gospel was to be taught again in its truth and purity, was that the original languages of the Bible, Hebrew and Greek, be studied again. Without knowledge of these languages, the Bible could not have been correctly translated, and, without these languages, Luther would not have witnessed to the truth so surely and powerfully and could not have put down all objectors. So it was that Luther said much about the fact that one dare not abandon the study of the ancient languages. “They are the sheath in which the sword of the Gospel is inserted,” and, “Let us hang on to the languages as strongly as we love the Gospel.” These are sayings of Luther.

The discovery of America took place when Luther was still a boy. Also here in America, Lutheran teaching and the Lutheran Church spread widely, making it much like a city of refuge during the end times.

In this article, I also wanted to share memories of especially significant celebrations of the Reformation of which I was a part.

When I arrived at the college in Fort Wayne in September of 1867, the congregation in the city was preparing for a major celebration, which was to be observed throughout the Missouri Synod, namely, the 350th anniversary of the Reformation on October 31. In the college just at that time were a very large number of students, sixty of them in sexta [the youngest of six classes]. Our choir director was Prof. W. Achenbach. He took us students, not just sexta but all the students, with him to the church, where there was a pipe organ, in order for us to practice. Teacher Leefer played the organ while Achenbach directed the singing. What we practiced was a glorious piece of music. It began with the words, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” — “Glory to God in the highest.” The song went on, “et in terra pax,” — “and peace on earth,” and further, ”hominibus bonae voluntatis” — “among men of good will.” We in sexta had only mastered a very little Latin at the time, and so it was for us something quite new and unusual to be introduced in this way both to playing and singing in the obscure Latin language. Oh, what a powerful melody that was! Still today it rings in my ears. A great many in our class were still so young that our voices had not broken, and so we could sing what is called the soprano part quite well. The older classes, naturally, sang the deeper parts, alto, tenor, and bass. We all sang with great joy, and also did our thing at the celebration very well, it seems to me. Then at night there was a torchlight procession of us students of the college and the children from the parochial school, and perhaps others as well. This congregation was the only of our synod in the city, and they had two pastors, Dr. W. Sihler and Rev. Studnagl, along with four teachers, Grahl, Grimm, Gotsch, and Leefer. The streets were not as they are today [i.e., not paved], but we college students had boots on. At the time, all young people wore boots, made by a cobbler and costing almost six dollars a pair. They needed boots to go to the church or to other places in the city in wet weather—these were about a mile or more away. And so we were pleased as we made our departure on the evening of the celebration. Whether brass bands played I no longer remember, but very likely the congregation arranged for that.

Dr. Walther and others were always very much in favor of making such celebrations very splendid. They knew that through such events others who are not a part of us would take notice and ask, “What is it really for which these Lutherans go to so much trouble and expense?” Furthermore, it is a fact that such celebrations, with processions and music and choral works and more, stick in the memory of the participants so that they think about them when they are old, long after they have forgotten what subject was preached about in the service and who the speaker was.

In my congregation in Fedor we had numerous Luther festivals apart from the annual Reformation celebration. In 1877, we celebrated, as did the entire synod, the 300th anniversary of the Formula of Concord, which contained nothing but Luther’s teaching. In 1880 I was in Dallas, and we observed the Augsburg Confession [350 years] and the first publishing of the Book of Concord [300 years].

In 1883 I was back in Fedor, and on November 10 we observed that God had allowed our beloved reformer to be born 400 years earlier. On February 18, 1896, we observed his blessed departure, the death of our father Luther [350 years].

In 1921 a sermon was about Luther at the Diet of Worms [400 years]. Apart from that, we in Fedor also observed the fiftieth and the seventy-fifth anniversaries of the founding of our synod, in 1897 and 1922.

            Jointly with the neighboring congregations, the 400th anniversary of the Reformation [1917] was celebrated in Giddings. The congregation in Giddings provided seating and built a platform for the preacher and the choir. The children sang under the direction of Teacher Griebel from Giddings and Teacher Roesel from Fedor. Our previous president, when we were still a part of the Southern District, the Rev. G. J. Wegener from New Orleans, preached in German in the morning, the Rev. H. Studtmann from Riesel likewise preached in German, and the Rev. Siebelitz from Winchester preached in English in the afternoon. Not a few English-speaking people came to the service, where they heard, probably for the first time, about the real meaning of the work of the Reformation. A brass choir led the singing. The group was from Manheim, joined by Emil and Oscar Moerbe from Thorndale, and was ably directed by G. Biar, likewise from Thorndale.

            The Rev. G. W. Fischer, who already back then had served the congregation in Giddings (Immanuel) for eight years and now has been here for twenty-eight years, contributed much to all of this, as did his congregation, so that we could jointly celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Reformation here.