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1. From the Pioneer Times of an Old Texas Pastor

Saturday 23 March 2097 at 7:52 pm.

This article appeared in Worthy of Double Honor: The Rev G. Birkmnn, D. D. written by his grandson Ray Martens and published by Concordia University Press.


The following account was composed and typed by Gotthilf Birkmann to record his experiences in Fedor and is preserved among papers held by Herbert Birkman. It deals with his impressions of the members of his congregation in the 1870's and 1880's, predominantly Wendish in background, either by way of Serbin in the 1850's or directly from Upper Lusatia more recently. The reader will note that his observations are overwhelmingly complimentary and illustrate the love he had for his congregation in Fedor, which he served for forty three years.

"From the Pioneer Time of an Old Texas Pastor" suggests both its purpose and date in its opening sentence: "to portray memories and impressions" of a time between 1875 and 1890 from the vantage point of the 1920's. Form and content suggest that the writing was intended for publication or some other form of dissemination. Whether or how that may have happened is not known. Maybe this will be its first public appearance. The original is in German, here appended my translation.

From the Pioneer Times of an Old Texas Pastor

What follows intends to portray memories and impressions from a time forty to fifty years ago in a congregation of mostly Wendish origin, but people who understood German and expected nothing more but that I serve them in the German language. Most of them did indeed still speak Wendish in their homes but, with few exceptions, were perfectly capable of expressing themselves fluently in German.

Fifty years ago there were about a half dozen such Wendish congregations, essentially similar to mine. What I have to say here about my congregation finds its counterpart in what was also true in other Wendish groups with regard to habits and customs. The core group of my congregation came from Serbin, mostly from St. Peter, whose first pastor was Rev. Pallmer. Yet, after about ten years, a dozen families or so came to Fedor directly from Germany (Upper Lusatia, Saxony [and so also apparently Wends]), along with several from Moravia, Catholics upon arrival, but people who professed our faith after instruction in Lutheran doctrine. So a variety of people had gathered here, but the old Lutherans who founded the congregation, faithful and enthusiastic in their faith, headed it in the right direction and impressed their character upon it for a long time. They counted the word of God more important than anything and attended church regularly, even on the third festival day of Easter, Pentecost, or Christmas, as well as on other feast days listed in the Lutheran calendar, except for those commemorating the apostles (though even these were observed in their mother church). Even when working the fields was urgent, the people observed festival days, whether for Mary or John the Baptist, as they appeared. At least a portion of them came to church and listened with pleasure to preaching on the appointed texts. I always was favorably impressed with the great joy they displayed at hearing the word of God. They also enjoyed reading [religious materials] in their homes, where I discovered they had Luther's and Walther's sermon books, Bibles (of course), hymnals, and Luther's Large and Small Catechisms (the Large Catechism in Rev. Kilian's Wendish translation). There were, of course, some to whom such compliments do not apply, but the good example of those enthused about this sort of thing had a wholesome impact on them too. If good books from Concordia Publishing House came to their attention, they bought them. They had their children baptized in timely fashion and almost consistently came to Holy Communion three or four times a year [a standard of excellence in 1876]. I count this to be a sign of spiritual life, even if attendance at Communion was just a matter of habit. There is reason to rejoice when Christians are diligent about their participation; persistent impenitence, after all, would finally lead to discontinuing one's attendance at the Lord's Table altogether.

In the early days we had monthly congregational meetings, later bimonthly, with occasional special meetings for pressing business. We could ever get along with meetings only quarterly. We met not only to deal with business items, but also to benefit from instruction about this or that. We read and discussed Walther's book, Die Rechte Gestalt einer...Ortsgemeinde [The Correct Form for a Local Congregation] or one essay or another from Der Lutheraner or Proceedings of the synod or districts (including those other than our own). If I had gone to a convention, I told the congregation as much as I could about it and, of course, gave their lay delegate the opportunity to do the same. (Meetings were always enjoyable when we could hear a report about a synodical or district convention from the mouth of our own delegate.) From time to time, a report about the status of our mission work was shared with those in attendance. Our teacher, too, almost every time had something to say about his school.

Der Lutheraner was read in more than forty of our homes. If people did not get it, one could only assume that it had no personal interest or appeal to them. If things are handled correctly, the pastor must do more than simply speak from the pulpit; it is a worthy goal for him also to seek to gain readers of our church publications, a real help to making members informed and active.

My congregation always enjoyed participating in joint activities with brothers and sisters in the faith. We Lutherans on the West Yegua (Rev. Kaspar's Ebenezer and we at Fedor) jointly celebrated Mission Festlval -an observance hardly known in this part of the country fifty years ago, but celebrated here and there, as Der Lutheraner always reported - in the outdoors under the trees near the church on the earliest occasions. The very first Mission Festival among our congregations in Texas was held in Serbin or Warda in 1875, where Rev. Greif spoke on foreign missions. Then followed Roesener's congregation at Rose Hill and Klindworth's in William Penn, at about the same time that we (Fedor and Manheim) celebrated ours. We gathered near where Kaspar preached, taught school, and lived with his family. Rev. Wischmeyer spoke, as did Simon Suess, formerly a missionary in Africa. Unless memory fails me, I believe Wischmeyer spoke in English with English speaking people [Amerikaner] in attendance, Sheriff Brown among them.

We hosted the convention of the Southern District in Fedor during February of 1901, probably the first Lutheran convention anywhere in the twentieth century. About sixty delegates and guests attended. Unhappily, the weather was rainy, making the two daily round trips to and from the church difficult. (The noon meal was served in individual homes [by the host families]). Those who did the transporting almost always stayed and listened to the proceedings. My people were very happy to have these guests and said later that they would like to accommodate the next convention, but in summer, not again in such cold, wet weather with such muddy roads.

When in February of 1886 the convention was held in Serbin, people came in crowds, and hundreds joined the fewer than fifty delegates seated in the space below, with tables already set for dining in the balcony above. As in Fedor, our Wendish congregations elsewhere also valued most highly their church, God's word, singing, praying, and Christian gatherings.

In my congregation I discovered numerous churchly ceremonies (brought along from the Wendish homeland in Germany) which were new to me. When the mother of a newborn infant wished to make her first return to church, she came in the company of another woman holding the child in her arms to the entry door of the church, where the pastor met them. He greeted them with the words, "The Lord bless your going out and your coming in," and then turned around. The women followed him to the steps of the altar, where they knelt while the pastor offered a prescribed prayer. Only then did the woman and her companion go to the seats in which they intended to sit. The ordinary intercessions of the congregation followed the sermon. This latter practice survives, but the other ritual no longer is observed in most Wendish congregations here.

Not a few wedding customs also caught my attention. Publishing the banns three, or at least two, times was the practice also in congregations up north, but the strict observance of times at which this was forbidden (an old Saxon practice) I had not noticed anywhere else, even though Walther's Pastorale [Pastoral Theology] says something about this.

Fixed customs were also generally associated with a church wedding, which many of the younger people attended, while their older counterparts tended to stay away, only to be found, instead, already at the home of the bride's family. Weddings fifty years ago were relatively expensive celebrations, with many invited guests, and with arrangements for entertaining on the next day as well. [Grandpa Birkmann would have been not only officiant, but also groom, at a wedding like this.] Those at church made their way to the house where the festivities were to be hosted as fast as their horses could run, full-speed, cross-country [über Stock und Stein], uphill and down. Upon arrival, all those who had ridden the wagons and horses formed a procession behind the bride and groom, the wedding party, and the pastors and teachers, all making their way to the steps, where "Praise to the Lord" was sung and the Our Father was spoken. Then inside, where everyone went to the tables, richly laid out with the best that the land produced and that one could buy in Giddings. In front of the bridal couple stood a large cake decorated with icing, a masterpiece of the most skillful baker thereabouts, supplied with candles, as I recall, which were lit at night and burned for hours. To the right and left of the bridal couple were the members of the wedding party, the dozen or more young people who for the occasion had the credentials of honored guests.

After the meal, the party scattered, the young seeking to be entertained outside with all kinds of organized pastimes and games, as happened also on other occasions. Again and again it struck me how happy such a group could be, how tirelessly cheerful and in good spirits, virtually all night long. When they tired of playing outside, they would sit together in the house and sing the kind of songs which they liked to sing in school or church. And not just a couple of stanzas, but the whole song from its beginning to its last verse. Then another and another, all with joy and delight. I have never seen or heard the like, except here in our Wendish congregations. The older people, parents and grandparents, enjoyed the singing too and would often say that they would need a book to sing the songs in German, but that in Wendish they had them memorized.

Such an extended night naturally offered plenty of opportunity for being entertained by the older guests, for the most part also cheerful and in good spirits, many of whom could regale you with lengthy accounts about the beginnings of the settlement of Serbin, how they had to pay as much as a dollar (an amount like two dollars now) for maize if the local crop failed, and how they had to carry it on their backs for the long trip home. Or about the bad times of the Civil War, when men were forced against their will to fight for the South, but, subsequently, during the course of a battle, would aim their rifles way too high to hurt anyone. The burden of providing food and clothing for their families fell mostly on the women during the war years. They worked in the fields, took care of the cattle, and did the spinning and weaving to provide material for the needed clothing. All of this made for interesting material again and again in conversation. [All of this is apparently his polite way of saying, "If I heard these stories once, I heard them a hundred times."]

Accounts of hunting exploits also abounded, for we lived in a splendid area for hunting. Wild geese and ducks appeared by the thousands in fall and winter on the lakes of the Middle Yegua, and now and then one could kill a deer. (I was told that here and there deer would break into fenced enclosures and cause great damage by eating young corn or other plants.) In thickets along the creeks, there were still numerous wild animals, everything from panthers to raccoons. Many birds also found shelter and food in such bushes and thick brush along the Yegua. (Our creeks were called West, Middle, and East Yegua.)

This region was not yet heavily settled at that time, and wide stretches of woods or prairie were riot yet hemmed in. One could ride or drive in whatever direction one might choose, making trips of discovery. Today, this is no longer possible around here, and, with the exception of some older people, readers really will not even understand what I am saying in this paragraph.

Move with me from a wedding to a funeral. It is only a step from life to death. I was ordained and installed on October 1 [1876] by Rev. Geyer, who had lunch with me in the home of a congregational officer. In the course of the afternoon, the report came to us that a woman, the mother of six, had died that afternoon after suffering terribly. I was to bury her the next day with a funeral address, even before my initial sermon was behind me. A great many came to the house of bereavement, something like thirty or forty wagons and about that many more men and women on horseback. (At the time, almost all of the women rode horses, except for elderly mothers and grandmothers.) After the devotion, the coffin with the body was loaded on a farm wagon (no alternative transportation was available at the time), and the mourners rode behind the pastor, seated in the wagon immediately behind the body. A procession one quarter mile long made its slow way along the two-mile stretch to the cemetery, with the people all the while singing an entire funeral hymn, with pauses between the verses. How does one keep time singing from wagons stretched out over such a distance? Everyone surely gave it his or her best effort, but, in spite of good

intentions, the sound of it all in the otherwise silent woods on both sides of the road bordered on awful. Yet, in spite of the difficulties, this very custom lasted for more than thirty years. Now such processions are long gone, but the beautiful way of singing while carrying the body to the grave has lasted.

A sense of equity was deeply ingrained in all of our Wends. Equal rights, equal duties, equal tasks, equal contributions - all as a matter of principle. We had lists of gravediggers to assure that all the men took their turns at digging graves. We had an overseer commissioned to demand a wagonload of wood from each of the members in turn to provide for church and school, as well as for the families of the pastor and teacher. We had other lists. Initially, almost equal proportionate wealth [in the families] led to the declaration that an equal contribution was expected from every communicant member who lived at home. This was later changed as more and more people took to heart the [biblical] standard, "...not reluctantly or under compulsion" [II Corinthians 9:7].

Our people found great joy in their dealings with others like them. Family events almost always were celebrated with friends and acquaintances present. Even if the house was small, there was a bench on the porch. One could even endure spending the night outdoors if the temperature was mild. It was a time to be happy and cheerful, to enjoy oneself with the best of things, to forget all your troubles in pleasant chatter, and - let it be mentioned again - to sing happy songs. When it was over, you would go back home refreshed and full of the best of hope.

That is how I learned to know and value my people.

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