Review: Johann Kilian, Pastor

Title of Work:

Johann Kilian, Pastor: A Wendish Lutheran in Germany and Texas

Author of Work:

George Nielsen


Pastor Jeff Samelson

Page Number:

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Johann Kilian, Pastor: A Wendish Lutheran in Germany and Texas, by George Nielsen. Serbin, TX: Texas Wendish Historical Society, 2003. 84 pages (149 with appendix, notes, index, etc.).

SS.36.Johann Kilian.LgGeorge Nielsen taught American History at Concordia University in River Forest, IL until his retirement in 1997.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and has published primarily in the area of ethnic history, including titles such as In Search of a Home: Nineteenth-Century Wendish Immigration, The Danish Americans, and The Kickapoo People.

Chances are you don’t recognize the name “Johann Kilian” and are more likely to add an “l” and think of an Irish-style lager than connect his name to the history of Lutherans in America.  Similarly, unless you’ve had some personal or geographical connection to the Wends, their history and significance as a people will have escaped your attention.

George Nielsen’s book, Johann Kilian, Pastor: A Wendish Lutheran in Germany and Texas, attempts to correct that common ignorance by not only putting together a biography of an important immigrant Lutheran pastor, but also placing his history within the larger history of an ethnic group and its struggles to maintain its identity in the midst of cultures that threatened to absorb it.  In sharing that information with the reader, Nielsen largely succeeds.

Nielsen organizes his material into two chapters with an obvious biographical division: Kilian in Europe 1811-1854 and Kilian in Texas 1854-1884.  The first chapter begins by putting Kilian’s life into its historical and geopolitical context. He was born into a time of tumult in Europe, in a region that had been torn apart by war and split into different political territories—even divided between different nations—despite the ethnic, historical, and geographic ties that should have kept the area united.

Unfortunately, his native people were not strong enough to make demands of the power brokers of Europe after Napoleon’s defeat. The Wends, also known as Sorbs, were a Slavic people native to the region known as Lusatia, but their homeland had long before been conquered by German forces. For centuries, the Germans had governed them, and to a certain extent, assimilated the Wends.

In the age of emergent nationalism that was the 19th century in Europe, however, many of the Wends, who had retained their language and culture, began working hard to preserve these things for future generations.  Johann Kilian joined these efforts as a pastor serving Wendish Lutherans, even though theologically he had more of an affinity with the Germans he had studied among at the University of Leipzig.

The tension between his devotion to Wendish interests and orthodox Lutheranism would continue throughout his life, but these dual interests served him well as a pastor. He translated solid Lutheran materials, even the Lutheran Confessions, into Wendish for the benefit of his parishioners, and also wrote many devotions, hymns, and other writings of his own.

As time passed, however, Kilian began to face difficulties in serving his people. On the ecclesiastical front he faced two challenges: the unionism of state churches, which was incompatible with confessional Lutheranism, and Pietism, which was popular among the people.  On another front he was confronted by parishioners who had grown tired of their uncertain status in Saxony and Prussia and wanted to emigrate to a land where they could establish a new Wendish community and prosper.

Eventually Kilian was persuaded to join a group of these emigrants. Thus he found himself disembarking in Galveston, Texas at the end of 1854. After some difficulties transiting the country and arranging for land purchase, eventually they settled in a town called Serbin in the region between Houston and Austin. Kilian, who had been contracted before the journey to be their religious leader, became and remained their pastor.

This was not without challenges of its own. The history of the church he pastored was hardly a peaceful one. Personal, doctrinal, and linguistic conflicts produced splits in the congregation and animosity toward Kilian himself. The way some of these conflicts were handled by the Missouri Synod, with which he had affiliated after establishing himself in Texas, also affected Kilian negatively, even though he found much good in his association with Missouri. (Kilian and C.F.W. Walther had overlapped as students at the University of Leipzig, though it is uncertain whether they knew each other there).

After sampling various events and controversies from Kilian’s service in Texas, Nielsen provides a three-page appraisal of the Wendish pastor’s life and career at the end of the text. A certain sourness of soul seems to predominate in Kilian, and the author brings this out ably with details and quotations. Nielsen posits, “If Kilian had been asked to evaluate his life, he most likely would have considered it a failure…” (83). Nielsen goes on to list things which, to the pastor’s dissatisfied eye, had not gone as they should have, but the author concludes:

In spite of what he may have considered failures, he and his congregation sowed a seed of Lutheranism in Texas. It was not Wendish, but it was Lutheran; and eventually the parishioners spoke neither Wendish nor German but the language of their new homeland. His life had come full circle. His youthful dream of becoming a missionary in a foreign land, a dream he had abandoned, had become a reality, and the intermittent bickering and conflict prevented him from realizing it. (84)

This is not the kind of conclusion one normally expects from the biography of a “hero” of the church. While it certainly appears to be justified from the information and documentation Nielsen put together, it unfortunately contributes to the overall dissatisfaction this reviewer had with the book.  After reading this biography, it’s hard to say if Johann Kilian is someone we need to know better, or whose legacy we should want to follow, or even whose life has great lessons for us. He certainly was a significant figure in the history of a group of people, but without a connection to that group, it is difficult to answer the question, “Why should this man be important to me?”

At the same time, Nielsen was certainly limited by a lack of source material. What documentation he was able to find he made good use of, but most of it appears to either be official acts of state or church or one-sided letters—often written in response to conflicts of one sort or another. The memories and impressions of his contemporaries—friends, family, parishioners, schoolmates, and colleagues—that can add so much balance and “humanity” to a biography are missing from this book largely due to the fact that they no longer exist after so many years.

Even with limited source material, however, the sense of Kilian’s significance is hard to grasp and the reader misses the anticipation of “What’s going to happen next?” as his life unfolds.  Nielsen shows himself to be an able historian, but a mediocre storyteller.  Sadly, this will keep Johann Kilian, Pastor: A Wendish Lutheran in Germany and Texas a book of limited.

That’s not to say that there is nothing of value in this biography. Any modern Lutheran pastor will benefit from comparing the challenges of his ministry to those Kilian endured. The distances traveled, the deprivations experienced, and the determination the man showed in the face of conflict should serve as a powerful corrective to any “Woe is me!” temptations we might face today. Also the contentiousness that Kilian showed in his pastorate and his relationships and the apparent conviction that he was always right in his views has a timeliness and currency we should appreciate…and recognize in ourselves, when intellect and conviction combine with less than noble and congenial results.

For students of historical theology, there are a number of things in the book that do pique one’s curiosity. One is the relation between Kilian (and his family and congregation) and the young Missouri Synod. Apparently there was less uniformity of doctrine and practice in those early years than this reviewer, at least, had previously understood.

A second point of interest is evidence that shows that lack of uniformity: Kilian was a millennialist, and not mildly so, yet he was apparently able to maintain and promote his position, even to write freely about it, largely without any “pushback’ from Walther or other synodical forces. It seems his millennialism was more ignored than tolerated, which perhaps contributed even more to Kilian’s dissatisfaction with his life—not even this got him much attention or respect. Nielsen suggests that perhaps Kilian’s unhappiness with life attracted him that much more to millennialism and its “hope for better times for the church on earth” (77). Nielsen, who doesn’t delve too deeply into theology in this biography, understandably does not specify what type of millennialism Kilian maintained. Nevertheless, this example serves as a reminder that this eschatological error was once quite widely ascribed to in Lutheran circles, even confessional ones, and is not simply a feature of evangelical Protestantism.

Nielsen is to be thanked for giving us this biography of Johann Kilian and for the scholarship that it represents. For those interested in very specific areas of Lutheran history—ethnic migration, Texas communities, the move toward confessional uniformity, 19th century practice in America, etc.—this book might be worth having in your library. For others, it might be something best borrowed from someone else’s library.