Friday, September 6, 2013

Courage of the Franks

Charles "The Hammer" Martel,
King of the Franks
Not long ago my friend Bill and his partner Steve went off on one of their ancestor quests.  I’ve managed to locate some 250 people on my family tree, but Bill puts me to shame.  He can go way back on both parents’ sides and when he’s done with them he starts digging around for information on Steve’s ancestors.  Or they both do, I should say.  I think it’s a shared passion. 

More than once we’ve shared our thoughts about being the children of German immigrants, and what it means when people try to find out more about “where they came from,” as if those roots carried some hidden meaning.  I’m not sure they do.  Not for most of us.  Most of us are fully assimilated members of American culture, and Germany is as foreign a land to us as it is to the children of Italian or Chinese immigrants.  Still, the interest is there, and we find ourselves constantly looking for cause-and-effect connections, explanations for who we are.

In talking about Steve’s Minnesota ancestors, it came out that they seemed to come en masse – or at least not just singly, but collectively, from a village in Franconia, an area of Southern Germany that is now part of Bavaria.    That’s interesting, I thought.  My friend Sally comes from a town in Michigan settled by Franconian Lutherans.   It never occurred to me before, but when you say “settled by Franconians” you are talking about group emigration.  Was the religious part of their identity just coincidental?

I mentioned that apparently trivial coincidence to my other half at dinner that night.  He immediately asked, “Were they running away from the religious wars?”  “No,” I answered confidently.  “The wars you’re thinking about were two hundred years earlier, in the 17th Century.  These folks emigrated in the early and mid 19th Century.”

“Then why did so many leave and why did they leave all together?” he asked.

I didn’t have an answer to that.  And I began to wonder if I had answered a bit too confidently just now.

So I decided to do some digging.

My friend Sally comes from Frankenmuth, Michigan.  What a bombastic name to give a town, I remember thinking the first time I heard it.  “Courage of the Franks.”  When you hear the name “the Franks” you think of Charlemagne and the Germanic tribes who gave their name to France.  Why would a bunch of Lutheran immigrants go back to a tribe of hairy Gothic types to find a name for their settlement, I wondered, when so many other more Lutheran possibilities come to mind.    Melanchthon is a bit of a mouthful.  And Schmalkald sounds like something you might eat with sweetbreads.  But when you think of things to be proud of as a Lutheran, what would be wrong with naming your town Johann Sebastian Bach?   Or they could take the name of the town of Wittenberg, maybe, where Luther developed many of his core ideas.  But “courage of the Franks?”

It turns out there are Franks and then there are Franks.  The tribal Franks who crossed the river at Frankfurt (literally, “where the Franks ford the river”) eventually spread across much of Southern Germany.  Today, when you say “Franks” in German (Franken) you mean the people of East Franconia, a region included within the State (Land) of Bavaria, including places like Würzburg, Schweinfurt (where the pigs cross the river), Nuremberg and Bayreuth.

The Frankenmuth story begins in a town in Franconia called Neuendettenslau and a Lutheran pastor named Wilhelm Loehe.  Unhappy he couldn’t get a church in a decent town, Loehe hated Neuendettenslau and said he wouldn’t even bury his dog there. But he found a way to channel his energy.  He believed God had a job for him to do in missionary work and in keeping the faith pure. 

Protestants and Catholics were no longer at each other’s throats.  Who went to what church had been settled in 1555 by the Peace of Augsburg and the principle of cuius regio, eius religio – whose region, his religion.  If your prince or your duke or whoever called the shots in your area was a Protestant, so were you.  If he was Catholic, so were you.  You signed on to the local religion or you got out of town.  And that led to a new problem.  All those Calvinists escaping from places that would have required them to convert to Catholicism were pouring into Lutheran Prussia and that meant there were now two conflicting Protestant faiths in the same place.  And that meant the boss-man (in this case, one King of Prussia after another) was finding it difficult to present a unified force against the Catholics.  How, after all, can you practice a close-formation drill when your soldiers are arguing over whether Jesus comes “in, with and under” the bread and wine on Sunday or through the front door any old time, and whether you should bow your head when a Presbyterian says a prayer.  Or a Lutheran, as the case may be.  (The Calvinists found this less of a dilemma, actually.)

Friedrich Wilhelm III became King of Prussia in 1797 quite by chance because his gay great uncle Freddie the Great, who composed music for the flute and strolled the gardens at Sans Souci with that notorious atheist Voltaire had died without issue from his own loins.  Willie III, himself a Calvinist married to a Lutheran, had inherited the discord between Calvinists and Lutherans that plagued his father’s regime.  He decided it was time for the Lutheran and Reform Churches to be combined to make a single Protestant state church, despite their doctrinal differences.   They would call it The Union and they would share a common order of worship, known as “the agenda.”  Problem was, Lutherans spotted immediately that the agenda had left out the notion that God was “really present” in the Eucharist, and that would never do.  “Old” Lutherans, including Wilhelm Loehe, began to break away.   Lutherans had taken such a firm stand against the Roman Catholic notion that the bread (nowadays they’re gluten-free wafers) and wine of the Eucharist become the actual body and blood of Christ in a miraculous process called transubstantiation, that (miraculously) leaves you unable to taste the flesh or smell the blood.  No, no, no! said the Lutherans.  Christ comes “in, with and under” the bread/wafers in a process called not transsubstantiation, but consubstantiation.  After all that clarification, how could they possibly now go along with folks who argued God was omnipresent and no one needed a church or a liturgy or a particular form of worship to experience him?

The church had come a long way from the time when they argued over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, you see, and could get down to the things that really mattered.  So when King Frederick Willie the Third tried to pull off a “max nix” (German for “who cares”) move like this Union business, the conservatives weren’t having any.  The “Old” Lutherans, as they came to be called – those insisting on keeping the old ways – soon found themselves to be a minority.  And you know what happens to minorities.  They start looking for ways to escape.

As it happened, in 1840, one of the early German missionaries to the Chippewa in Michigan, Friedrich Wyneken, wrote to Loehe asking for help.  The German communities there were sorely in need, he complained, of religious support and guidance.  Apparently the missionaries had run out of missionary fervor and needed some good (i.e., German) missionaries of their own.
(hardcopy source): Wolf, Edmund Jacob, D.D., The Lutherans in America: A Story of Struggle, Progress, Influence and Marvelous Growth, NY: J.A. Hill & Co., 1889.

That gave Loehe a twofer – he could send missionaries to the Indians and to the Germans of Michigan and Iowa and elsewhere, all at the same time.  He put out the call and it was answered by, among others, a thirty-year-old young pastor named Ferdinand Sievers.  After arranging to buy some land along the Cass River to which he gave the name “Courage of the Franks” – Frankenmuth - Loehe arranged for a group of thirteen people, eight from the nearby village of Roßtal, to form a colony.  They took the winter of 1844-45 year to get ready, made their way in April 1845 any way they could to Bremerhaven where they joined Sievers, crossed the Atlantic, entered New York at Castle Garden, the predecessor to Ellis Island, and continued on a trip from hell.  According to the Frankenmuth webpage,

…the drunken captain steered the ship into a sand bank of the Weser River. Because of winds and storms, they had to sail around Scotland instead of through the English Channel.  Their journey across the Atlantic encountered violent storms, seasickness, a nightmare collision with an English trawler, and undesirable winds which drove the ship north into icebergs and dense fog for three days. The ship was damp and overcrowded, and their food became stale. Toward the end of the journey almost everyone in the group contracted smallpox, and a child in the party died from it. They reached New York Harbor on June 8, after 50 days of sailing.

Franconian dress
(from Ochsenfurt -
where the oxen cross the river)
To reach Michigan, they took a steamboat, a train (which collided with a coal train, giving them only slight injuries), and another steamboat. They took another steamer to Detroit and then a sailing ship on Lake Huron for a week-long trip to Bay City. From there they had to pull the ship 15 miles up the Saginaw River to Saginaw, where they stayed until their exact settlement site was chosen. They were objects of curiosity to the French and English of the city because of their Franconian dress and habits.

A few of the colonists walked to the future settlement region to examine the land. They selected a slightly hilly area which reminded them of the native Mittelfranken and built a rough shelter there. On August 18, almost four months after they had left Bremerhafen, the 15 colonists packed their belongings in an oxcart and walked about 12 miles through forest, thickets, and swamps to Frankenmuth.  

So there you have it.  “Courage of the Franks” is the wrong translation.  It wasn’t Fred and Mary Merovingian they were talking about, or Theudemer, king of the Franks at the time of Pope Gregory, or any of those men with eyes “faint and pale, with a glimmer of greyish blue” that Sidonius Apollinaris writes so homoerotically about in the 5th Century, men whose

faces are shaven all round, and instead of beards they have thin moustaches which they run through with a comb. Close fitting garments confine the tall limbs of the men, they are drawn up high so as to expose the knees, and a broad belt supports their narrow middle.   

Not those guys.  It was the good folk from around Nuremberg in East Franconia who left their homes in the 19th Century with the aid of a preacher upset that the King of Prussia was giving too much space to people for whom the Eucharist was not necessarily the center of all Christian worship.

If this tale strikes you as a tad far-fetched, consider what a preacher had to say at the fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1897 of one of the groups that followed the Frankenmuth group two years later, in 1847, this one to Frankentrost (Consolation of the (East Franconians) Franks, in modern-day Saginaw:

Fifty years have passed since God found us crying in the wilderness, in the dry German wasteland of the day, of Protestantism and a state church almost entirely fallen away from God, and saved us from rationalism and faith in reason and lead us into this new fatherland and gave us his pure sanctifying word, and watched over us like the apple of his eye, the way an eagle watches over its young…

source: Kurzgefaszte Geschichte der deutschen evangelisch-lutherischen Immanuelsgemeinde zu Frankentrost, Blumfield Township, Saginaw Co., Mich.... 1897 by Heinecke, E.   One of the glories of the digital age is that this book is available online in its entirety, google-digitized.   Translation is mine.

The following year, 1848, three years after the Frankenmuth group arrived, and one year after the Frankentrost group, a third group followed and established Frankenlust (which I would translate “passion” of the Franconians, but they prefer the word “joy”), just north of Saginaw.

And then, a year after that, in 1849, there was even a fourth.  This one was called Frankenhilf (Succor to the Franconians), a name that has since been replaced by Richville.  No need to dwell on the hardships, I guess. St. Michael’s Church of Frankenhilf, Missouri Synod still remains, however, with services in English, German and Hmong (the first two every Sunday, Hmong on the 2nd and 4th Saturday at 9 a.m. in the overflow room.)

In fact, the original intent of the colonies, to maintain German language and culture, is still being maintained to the degree that all the original founding churches still have services in German.  Besides St. Michael’s in Frankenhilf,  there is St. Paul Lutheran Church, 6094 Westside Saginaw Road, Bay City, MI 48706, in the still unincorporated township of Frankenlust.   And Immanuel Church of Frankentrost,  8220 E. Holland Rd., Saginaw, MI 48601.  And last but not least, the original St.Lorenz Church in Frankenmuth  (church itself at 1030 W. Tuscola St., offices at 140 Churchgrove Road), where German services (Pastor Loehe might shed a tear) are down to once a month, the second Sunday at 11 a.m.

Since most of the sources I read for this history were Lutheran church sources, I was naturally curious if I was getting too rosy a version of their history.  I really got suspicious when I learned that Friedrich Wyneken, the man who wrote to Loehe for help in 1840 and got the whole Franconian Lutheran immigration on the road, worked together with Loehe and others to found the Missouri Synod, American Lutheranism’s most rigidly conservative branch.  So certain was Wyneken of his doctrinal purity, in fact, that he decided a break was in order with the Lutherans of Germany, who had, after all, allowed themselves to join the Union with the Reformed Churches, shame shame.  Shades of the conservative “Old Lutheranism” of Loehe and Wyneken remain in the modern-day Missouri Synod rejection of female clergy and of homosexuality, and the insistence on recognizing the creation story in the Bible as the true origin of the world, and isn’t it interesting how the conservative mindset enables you to say no to so much that your ancestors had not had the opportunity to reject.

No doubt remembering the pains his founding fathers, Friedrich Wyneken and Wilhelm Loehe, took to keep the church pure (Wyneken was the Missouri Synod’s second president), the Missouri Synod’s 14th and current president,  Matthew C. Harrison, made the news back in February when he censured a Missouri Synod pastor from Connecticut for praying with others at a memorial service for the children massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.  He backed down, eventually, because this is 2013 and not 1845 and his decision caused quite a stink. The official church position may be you don’t pray with non-believers (non-believers being everybody who isn’t a member of Missouri Synod), but today that’s simply taken as very bad taste.

Which goes to show you how time has a way with us.  For a while, I thought I was onto evidence of direct old world tight-ass religion on American life.  But to make something of that I would have to ignore the last 160 years of evolution of disillusionment with organized religion in both Europe and America.  In Germany, for example, one illustration should illustrate what I mean.  If you go to the links page of St. Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche), where Loehe was pastor, you find a link to the Catholic Church website, where you will find another link taking you to a story about a battle in Berlin over the place of religion in modern life.  In the district of Kreuzberg, in Berlin, they are trying to establish secularism as the official state view.  That may not sound like a radical idea here in the U.S. where church and state are already separated, but it’s a big deal in Germany, where its still official state churches tax you to pay their clergy.  The point is the Catholics and the Protestants need each other as never before to deal with the growing Muslim presence, and the fact that the churches are practically empty.  The differences over doctrine all go up in smoke when you have to face a lack of interest in religion among Germans in general.

Nor does this quick look into one of the many examples of folk coming to these shores for reasons of religion say much about the modern-day descendants of these people in America.  Overall, church attendance in America is greater than in Europe, but not by much – around 18 to 20%.    See also here on the question of over-reporting.

Time changes things in other ways, as well.  I find it amusing that on the webpage of modern-day Rosstal, in the section under sister cities, is the line:    Es bestehen freundschaftliche Beziehungen zu Frankenmuth in den USA, da viele Frankenmuther Siedler aus Roßtal stammen.” (There are friendly relations with Frankenmuth in the U.S., since many Frankenmuth settlers came from Rosstal.)   Yes, the settlers came from Rosstal.  But they were also running from Rosstal, guys.  Turned their backs on you and never went back.  I guess we all do that.  The internet has been full of jokes since the Bush era about wanting Queen Elizabeth to take us back now that we are routinely subjected to the likes of Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. That’s not that different, I suppose, from getting German-American immigrants to travel to picturesque Bavaria, drink their beer and wonder how anybody would want to leave such a beautiful little town.

If you are a descendant of the courageous Franconians of the Lutheran persuasion who dodged icebergs and survived trainwrecks to bring the faith to the Chippewa, and farm, make cheese and blood sausage in the New Fatherland, and somebody ever asks you whether the Hohenzollern Kings of Prussia mean anything to you, you can answer in the affirmative.   Just as Southern Baptists wouldn’t be Southern Baptists if their ancestors had opposed slavery, you wouldn’t be an American, most likely, if your ancestors had made nice with the Presbyterians.

Now I’m curious to know a bit more about Steve’s ancestors.  They were Catholics.  But they were also Franconians, and – it’s just a guess, of course – probably no less courageous.

Charles “The Hammer” Martel, King of the (original) Franks, and man of great courage;
Ochsenfurt dress

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