An old farmer (not my great-great-great-grandfather; there are no photos of him)
This meditation is from a sermon I gave July 10, 2005 at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Henderson, Minnesota. It is the congregation my ancestors attended when they immigrated to Minnesota from Germany in 1875. The congregation was already 20 years old in 1875, and in 2005 they celebrated their 150th anniversary. I was serving as Redeemer’s pastor at that time.
Johann Christian Stier, my great-great-great-grandfather, was born in 1808 in the tiny village of Gotthun, Germany. He worked as a brick maker and a farmer, and he and his wife Anna had several children. The children were baptized in the Lutheran church in nearby Roebel. In 1875, as an old man, Johann immigrated to this country with his son and wife, August and Augusta, and their little boy Ernst.
My guess would be that Johann did not want to make the journey, did not want to leave his homeland at such an advanced age, and did not want to die and leave his bones in this strange land. But what could he do? All his children were emigrating, his wife had died the previous year, and who would take care of him? Sixty-seven years isn’t all that old now, but it was very old in those days, and there was no Social Security check in the mail each month. Johann was dependent on his youngest boy, and the boy was going to America, so he had no other choice but to go along. Besides, why should he discourage his son from this opportunity, condemning him to life as a poorly paid farm-hand in Gotthun, when he had a chance to be a landowner in America? So the old man agreed to come along.
When the Stier family got here, they probably stayed for a time with Augusta’s brother, a pioneer named John Schmidt. He had a farm in the Keystone area, not far from where there still is a John Schmidt living and farming. And they came to church right here at Redeemer, a well established congregation by then, with a brand new brick building. Here August and Augusta’s next two sons, Charlie and Herman, were baptized by Pastor Jacob Kogler.
In 1881 Johann died at the age of seventy-three. Pastor Kogler did the funeral, as recorded in our oldest record book, and great-great-great grandpa is probably buried somewhere out on the hillside east of the church. There is no gravestone. Perhaps a wooden marker was placed there at the time, but if so, it has long since rotted away. We have many such unmarked graves in our cemetery.
There is only one other thing known about Johan Christian Stier. He had a broken leg in 1880, as noted by the census taker that year.
Our congregation’s 150th anniversary makes me think about all the people, like Johann, who worshiped here before us; all six or seven generations since the founders of this congregation left Germany 150 years ago. I think about what different lives they lived back in those earliest years. This was the frontier then. Log cabins had to be made by hand. Everything had to be built from scratch. This whole area was a forest. In fact, the first name of this church was ‘The Lutheran Church in the Big Woods.’ Therefore, the land had to be cleared for fields– one tree and one stump at a time. It took decades of hard work to turn that dense hardwood forest into the rich fields that now surround the church. Everything was new and different, and it was a difficult adjustment even for the young.
My guess is that old Johann never adjusted to this new land in the remaining six years of his life. I imagine him sitting in his ambitious son’s cabin in 1880, all alone with a broken leg. Everyone else would be out working, but he, unable to help, sat there in his misery thinking back to his life in Germany. He would be remembering his wife, and regretting how there was no one there anymore to visit her grave, and no one to be buried by her side. He knew there was no chance of anyone ever going back. He would be buried here, not there. I can imagine that on many Sundays he stood out in front of church, right over there, looking over at the first few graves with wooden markers, and thinking, “Ach du lieber, that is where I will have to buried; and what do I want here, so far from my home and my wife?” As for his grandchildren, they would never even know Germany. This would be home for them. He probably died still wondering if it was the right move for anyone.
Now, that is just one story, one that I know a little bit about, and I had to use my imagination for some of it. But there are dozens of stories like that in all of your backgrounds. We are all just a few generations off the boat, but we are pretty well settled in here now. Of course we are, we don’t know anything else! But today is a good time for us to think back to those who came before us not so very long ago, and who worked so hard and sacrificed so much so that their descendants– so that we– could have a better life.
They had much to do as new settlers in unbroken land. But as soon as they got here, to what soon became know as ‘the German Settlement,’ they began to gather for worship. 1855, the year this congregation began, was the same year the first families arrived. They wasted no time in establishing a community of faith. And some of the very first settlers are still common names in the area: Winterfeldts, Latzkes, Woestehoffs, Schimdts, Krentzes, Oldenburgs, Nagels, and Schultzs. They were all here that very first year. Krumreys, Haases, and Kahles came the next year. Kesslers, Kruschkes, Moenkes, Koepps, and Tiegs came soon after; and then a few years later, the Stiers and many others arrived. There was, at first, no church building, so folks gathered in homes. The first crude log church was built in 1857. At first, there was not even a pastor. Deacons would read from sermon books and hymnals, which were packed in the trunks from the old country.
Think of all that has happened since those early years. Prayers were said on this spot for the preservation of the Union during the Civil War, for protection and the safe return of boys off fighting the Rebels, for protection from attack during the frightening times of the Sioux uprising, and for the nation after the assassination of President Lincoln. People were worshiping here already when Minnesota became a state, when the West was settled, and during two World Wars. Those wars must have caused some confusion and anxiety, especially the first World War which the United States entered in 1917. Germany was the enemy. Many, like my great-great grandfather August, had left Germany as adults and were still alive; and German was still the language used for everything at church. Then there was the Great Depression, the Cold War, Vietnam and the tumultuous 1960’s, and now the war on terror. Prayers for all those times have been said by God’s people on this very spot. (continued…)
Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.