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Genealogical newsletter for Americans with Sorbian / Wendish ancestors and friends of genealogy


How the Wends became Lutheran?

The great German reformer Martin Luther started the “Reformation” of the catholic religion in 1517 in Wittenberg (Kingdom of Saxony). This was the beginning of the “Lutheran religion”. In the early 1520’s entered the Lutheran reformation Lusatia, in that time mostly settled by Wends. The University of Wittenberg was one of the most preferred places to study for students of Lusatia. The other two places for students of Lusatia have been Frankfurt and Leipzig. Counted among the students in Wittenberg were some Wends. They brought the Lutheran idea into Lusatia. First, all of the cities were open to the reformation because most of the German speaking citizens could read the German translation of the Lutheran Bible. Most Wends, however, lived in the country side during this time and many of them could neither read nor speak German.

Martin Luther did not like the Wends. In his speeches he often said that the Wends are: “the worst of all nations”. Historians assume that this came because of his experience with the Wendish students. Their German language skills have been underdeveloped and a written Wendish language did not exist in the beginning of the 16th century. Luther did not have a strong interest to spread the idea of reformation in the Wendish language. This work was done by others, like the theologian Philipp Melanchthon. Luckily it was not the personal preferences which influenced the impact of the reformation in Lusatia, but their written work and their claims. Quite soon the deputies of the guilds in Lusatia requested that the reformers in Wittenberg also ordain priests who are able to preach the reformation in Wendish.

In the 16th century most parts of the Upper- and Lower Lusatia belonged to the Bohemian Kingdom, with the exception of the Cottbus County. The king of Bohemia belonged to the nobility of the German Habsburg-line. This nobility was catholic and did not want to allow the spreading of the Lutheran religion in their country. Nerveless, their actions did not prevent the Lutherans in the cities from influencing the German knighthood and changed the thinking of the people living in the country side. The ruler in the cities organized the reformation in the churches by themselves. Until 1550 almost every duchy in Lusatia converted to the Lutheran faith. All Wends in the Lower Lusatia and ľ of the Wends in Upper Lusatia converted until the mid 16th century to the Lutheran religion. Only the Wends belonging the monastery St.Marienstern (located in the town of Kuckau) and some Wends belongs to the St.Petri parish (located in the city of Bautzen) stayed catholic. One additional reason for the high number of conversions from catholic to Lutheran was the serfdom. When the Landlord of the duchy converted than his bondsmen were also forced to convert. It is known that in the Württemberg area the farmers of some villages had to convert seven times back and forth between different religions.

On the west-side of the Wendish settlement area lived Wends and Germans together, belonging to the same catholic parish but having different church services. For the Germans the preaching during the church service was held in German, for the Wends in Wendish. The rest of the church service was in Latin. After the parish converted to the Lutheran faith, the church service was held in German. Because of missing Wendish priests of the Lutheran faith a religious division between Germans and Wends started. It took more than 10 years before August, Elector of Saxony (who became also Lutheran) allowed to be held a Lutheran church service in the Wendish language. This was about the year 1540. The first Lutheran Wendish church service was held in the town of Senftenberg in Lower Lusatia. It did not take too long and Lutheran Wendish church services were also held in the towns of Calau, Vetschau, Lübben and Cottbus (all in Lower Lusatia).

In the year 1559 the church property of the Stolpen area and Bischofswerda area (both upper Lusatia) came under the rule of August, Elector of Saxony. So the second biggest Wendish parish, located in the town of Göda, became Lutheran. In Göda was during this time a school, what was known for providing higher education. Students, who could afford to attend the school in Göda, later often went to the Universities of Wittenberg or Leipzig. With this the “intelligence” of the next generation had a “Lutheran mind”.

From the mid of the 16th century some Lutheran Wendish priests began to create Wendish literature. This literature was religious, pointing out the basics of the Lutheran religion, abridgements of the Bible, the catechism was published and church songs had been translated from German into Wendish. Because of this the Wendish literary language was developed. In the year 1548 the New Testament was translated into Wendish by Miklaws Jakubica, but unfortunately this was not published. In the year 1574 was published by Albin Moller the Lutheran catechism and a song book in the Lower Wendish language and 1597 followed the Lutheran catechism in the Upper Wendish language. The Catholic Church tried with the publishing of their religious literature to stop the conversion to the Lutheran faith.

The conflicts between Lutheran and Catholic duchies and Kingdoms resulted into the 30-years war (1610-1640). This war was the end of Wendish publications for many decades. Like in other areas in Germany also the Wends suffered in and after the war. Not only continuing raids but also epidemic plagues have been reasons that thousands of Wends died. The hardest blow was in the eastern part of the Wendish settlement. Many villages have been after the war almost without inhabitants. These areas, along the river Neisse and also east of this river have been resettled by Germans. The few Wendish survivors assimilated with the Germans and the Wendish language died out in these areas. The 30-years war and its consequences reduced the Wendish territory extensive.

Now comes up the question, what this report has to do with genealogy.

As mentioned before, the switching between the different religious faiths was quite common. For some years the parish became Lutheran, than switched back to Catholic or became Calvinistic, and maybe became again Lutheran. Most Wendish speaking parishes in the Upper Lusatia on the end went back to the Catholic faith.

Making genealogy in the years 1650 and earlier is real treasure hunting. Even if you are sure, that your ancestors are of one faith, always check the church books of the other religions. It was quite common to let baptize a child in the closest church parish, even if the parish belonged to a different faith. The same situation is given if you research the death records. Most likely the marriages have been performed in the church belonging to the own faith.

The reformer Martin Luther has done a great work in spreading the gospel and set the basics that everyone in Europe had the possibility to read the Bible in the native language. His work influenced the way of thinking for many generations and the written language (German and Wendish) made a big progress.

Nerveless, the result of his work had also a deep negative impact on the Wends. On the end of the (religious) 30-years war the Wendish territory was much smaller than before the war.

The Wends sacrificed for their religious freedom much more than any other nation, almost half of their territory. With all the joy of the reformation there stays one tear in the eye of our Wendish ancestors.



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