The history of Lutheranism in America would be quite different if not for the Prussian Union initiated in the early 19th Century. The effects of civil religion took their toll not only on the churches, but also on the schools of the area.
What follows is a historical survey of what led up to the migration of thousands to western New York as found in Eugene W. Camann’s Uprooted from Prussia — Transplanted in America, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the 1843 Prussian Lutheran migration to the town of Wheatfield, New York. The 140-page book can be ordered by writing Mr. Camann at 6697 Luther St., Niagara Falls, NY, 14304 or calling him at 716-731-4553.
In connection with the social and economic reform measures that the Prussian King was putting into effect, he was also preparing to announce a kingdom-wide church reorganization. It was intended to help unify and strengthen Prussia after her collapse in 1806, which had been followed by a period of foreign domination and the resulting wars of liberation.
Lutheranism had existed as the official Protestant denomination in Brandenburg since 1539, but from the time that the Calvinistic Reformed faith was introduced there in 1613, both religions had existed side by side. However, the Age of Enlightenment and its attendant Rationalism, which had held sway in Prussia for the past century, did not recognize denominational differences. Neither was the prevalent Pietism limited to any specific church organization. These attitudes had also infected many members in the Lutheran and Reformed churches, so there appeared to be very little difference between the two denominations.
Therefore, in 1817 on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the Reformation, Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III considered it appropriate to declare a merger of the two church bodies. They were combined into one official Prussian State Church which was to be known as The Evangelical Union Church. The King had professed the Reformed faith but his late Queen had been Lutheran, as were most of his subjects. But he seemed genuinely convinced that combining the two churches should be truly beneficial for all concerned. He expected the merger to strengthen and revitalize Protestant religious life in Prussia as well as helping to unify his kingdom. This is apparently why he became so adamant in striving to make his Prussian Church Union succeed. (See Map A, which indicates how vast was the Prussian Kingdom territory which was subject to this merger decree.)
Most Protestant churches throughout Prussia initially responded to the King’s merger proclamation. In 1817 they held a joint celebration of the Lord’s Supper as officially directed. But they did so only that one time, after which each church again reverted to its own traditional practice. When the King was informed of this, he was very displeased. He personally prepared a joint church Agenda which he issued in 1822. This uniform worship manual was officially called “Liturgy for the Evangelical Church in the Royal Prussian States”. However, neither the Lutherans nor the Reformed groups were willing to adopt it. The King, becoming frustrated, made some minor modifications in it and then demanded that his revised Agenda be adopted in all churches. Until that time, compliance with the merger decree had been considered optional. But now, the pastors who refused to adopt the Agenda were threatened with stiff fines as punishment for their non-compliance.
The Lutherans who adhered to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession and continued worshipping according to their traditional order of service, now faced a period of unrelenting persecution. In 1830, Pastor Scheibel of Breslau, Silesia was suspended from the ministry for refusing to adopt the new Agenda, and for continuing to conduct worship services in the Lutheran manner. Hundreds of fellow-Lutherans rallied to his cause and formed the Lutheran Free Church. They were commonly known as “Old Lutherans” because they held to the traditional Lutheran doctrines and practices.
When this group appealed to the King for permission to continue worshiping as Lutherans, he accused them of being objecting “Separatists.” From then on the persecution became very real. In 1831 the King decreed that pastors who still refused to use the new Liturgy would be guilty of “flagrant disobedience to the crown.” They would be treated as common criminals and would be subject to harsh punishment. The imperial police were now directed to search out and arrest those who refused to comply. In time, more than forty pastors in the Province of Silesia alone were imprisoned for their non-compliance.
Up to the time of these punitive measures, local congregation members had heard very little about the Prussian Church Union, especially those in country villages. Only in the towns where the provincial and regional church offices were located had its introduction become well known. But now a specially appointed Royal Commission brusquely closed one Lutheran church after the other and converted them to Union Church use.
By 1834 only one Lutheran Church still remained in Silesia that had not been forced to adopt the Union Agenda. That church in Hoenigern near Breslau had received a directive from the Royal Commission for its Elders and Church Fathers to meet at the church on September 11, 1834. The Commission expected perhaps 10 or 12 representatives for this meeting. However, when they arrived they were confronted with about 2000 people at the church. The whole congregation had turned out all because of an error in the wording of the directive. The Commission, however, mistook this large turnout for a hostile uprising against them. They felt even more certain of this when the members refused to surrender the church key, and the women crowded in front of the door so the Commissioners couldn’t get at it. Seeing their purpose temporarily foiled, the Commissioners reluctantly left, but threatened to return with military support.
Five days later, on September 16, Pastor Kellner of that church was arrested and imprisoned for seven years, longer than anyone else similarly charged. Then two days before Christmas four hundred military infantrymen and three hundred cavalrymen plus two cannons were brought in. Two hundred Lutherans attempted to guard their church against sudden seizure during the night. At 5 o’clock the next morning, December 24, the soldiers circled the church. Three times the command was given for the defenders to clear the entrance way and surrender the key. When they didn’t comply, the guns were loaded. Then the two hundred Lutherans were struck with the butt end of the guns and hit with the flat of the sword blades, and the church door was forced open. The soldiers stayed in the village for six more days during which the church Elders and many others of the two hundred defenders were arrested.