Sep 19, 2012

German prayers in America

Meeting notes taken in the late 1930s -- that seems to be the very last remnant of the German language in the history of the German United Evangelical Synod of the North America.

Everything official was in English, at that point. There was just one last meeting where one old churchman kept notes in German.

There is no German United Evangelical Synod of North America today. The church joined with the Reformed Church -- itself formerly the German Reformed Church -- in 1934. Then that church, the Evangelical and Reformed Church, joined with the Congregational Churches in 1957 to become the United Church of Christ. Even before that series of ecumenical mergers, though, what was once an immigrant church with a strong ethnic, "Old World" identity had accommodated and assimilated, jettisoning its Germanness, according to History of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, over the course of about 90 years.

That story is the story of immigrant assimilation in America.

The church began in St. Louis in the 1840s, a collection of immigrant congregations that defined themselves in opposition to the area's "ultra-Lutherans." These congregations adhered to the Heidelberg Catechism. The new church called itself a verein -- a union or an association -- and had a strong ethnic identity. Thought it existed only in the American Midwest, it formed with a German name: Der Deutche Evangelische Kirchenverein des Westens. After about 30 years, the church officially translated its name into English, re-christening itself in the late 1870s as the German United Evangelical Synod of North America.

Not quite two decades after that, in the 1890s, the church took the next major step in assimilation, following a course that was, by then, fairly well defined by other religious groups transplanted from Europe to North America: Sunday School curricula was switched to English. 

The catechism was put in English, then the church's hymnal, then, soon, the entire church was functioning in English, and the only remnant of the original language was those synod meeting notes, kept in German long after anyone needed them to be German.

Other groups were pressured to make the transition into English by war. Some Dutch Reformed churches faced serious social pressure to assimilate during World War I, for example. As James D. Bratt notes in Dutch Calvinism in Modern America, Christian Reformed Churches that continued preaching and praying in Dutch elicited outrage from "American neighbors unable to distinguish between 'Dutch' and 'Deutsch.'" Several Midwestern states actually passed laws prohibiting churches from holding services in any "foreign" language, unless full English translations had been given prior approval by the state legislature.

For the Kirschenverein, though, it wasn't nativists and nationalism behind the push to translate the church into English. It was religious competition. The big concern for the German United Evangelical Synod of the North America in the last decade of the 19th century: Lutherans.

The Lutherans had all their services in English at the time, and the Evangelical Synod leaders heard horror stories of youth across the Midwest abandoning the faith of their fathers and mothers for English-language Lutheranism.

It's a curious moment. A kind of tipping point for an immigrant community: there came a moment in the 1890s where, for a younger generation of German-Americans, churches they'd never attended more familiar, more inviting and less strange than the churches they'd grown up in, because of the issue of language.

The "religious marketplace" pushed the Evangelical Synod to adapt to America, in a sense, and so, about 50 years after it began, the immigrant church shed its immigrant language. For the sake of maintaining a connection to children and grandchildren. And 40 years after that, on the eve of the Second World War, the last remnant of the original language of the church was scribbled in synod meeting notes, and then was no more.

The Evangelical Synod was the last major German church to jettison its immigrant identity, one aspect of which was its language. By the time of the First World War, when Dutch pastors were finding their homes graffitied in "paint raids" with slogans such as "Be an American" and "Buy a Liberty Bond," the once-German churches in the American Midwest didn't really seem German anymore.

That wasn't the end of German-language worship in America, though. There are some small pockets of resistance to assimilation, and also ways in which assimilation has come to include, rather than exclude German-language prayer and worship. Assimilation, being what it is, doesn't seem to ever mean the total erasure of immigrant history. Instead there's a often kind of submersion, where "identity" becomes "heritage," which is another sort of identity.

It's accessible -- for what gets called, in cultural studies, "projects of the self" -- in part through the persistence of  culture tourism and "heritage" consumer products.

For German-Americans, this means "German villages" in California and Georgia, an annual "Wurstfest in Texas, and companies selling imported German food, German-style windows (made in America), and "authentic German garden gnomes."

In the back of one the last remaining German-language papers in the United States, Troy, Michigan's Nordamerikanische Wochen-Post, one can find four listing for German-language church services:

  1. A Catholic Church in Detroit, St. Joseph's, where one can find "Feierliches Deutsches Hochamt mit geistlichem Gesang von deutschem Quartet (Die Minnesänger) an jedem vierten Sonntag des Monats um 10:30 Uhr morgen," "A solemn German high mass with spiritual singing from the German quartet (The Minstrals) on every fourth Sunday of the month at 10:30 a.m.," as well as a weekly German-language novena.
  2. St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Warren, Michigan, which has a bilingual, German-English service every Sunday at 10 a.m., according to the Wochen-Post.
  3. Gemeinde Gottes -- of a very small, strict Holiness denomination -- in Swartz Creek, Michigan, which seems to have retained German not as a preservation of heritage but as one way of maintaining a distinction from the surrounding culture and the churches deemed "apostate." They have a weekly "Bibel- und Gebetstunde" "Bible and prayer hour" in German, and a German-language service three Sunday evenings a month.
  4. Benediction Lutheran Church, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they hold one German-language service a month, "normalerweise" on the third Sunday of the month at 2 p.m.
Just as German-language prayers ended in the 1890s as a way for parents to maintain a connection with their children and grandchildren, German-language prayers continue today, in various ways, as a means of retaining continuity with generations past.

There's been a strong trend away from "denominational histories," in recent years. One doesn't have to dig too deep into the records of various denominations and religious traditions, though, to find all sorts of interesting, enlightening aspects of American history, and "the American experience." Church history becomes immigration history becomes war-time conflict or generational relationships, becomes the religious marketplace, becomes identity formation.

The end of German-language prayers in America becomes -- curiously -- German-language prayers offered again, every third Sunday or with a special deutschem Quartet