Becoming Americans

Instead of doing research on individuals attached to the East Perry County area, today I have decided to talk in general about German Lutheran immigrants who came to America and settled here over the years and tell the story of them becoming Americans. When the first group of local Germans arrived in 1839 and America celebrated its birthday on the Fourth of July, their new country was just 63 years old.

I discovered by searching the term “July 4, 1839” that the story of the slave revolt aboard the ship Amistad, took place in July of 1839. A painting of that famous ship is shown below.

Amistad

A movie was produced telling the story of that revolt titled Amistad. The soundtrack for that movie even includes a selection titled, “July 4, 1839”. I have placed a video below if you are interested in listening to that song.

In that story, captured slaves mutinied in hope of returning to their native land. They were destined to be slaves in Puerto Rico, but as a result of their mutiny, and ending up in the United States, the American justice system eventually declared these mutineers to be free people.

The German Lutherans were also desiring a type of freedom. They especially sought the freedom to worship as they chose, and America seemed to offer such freedom. In Germany, the civil authorities determined what the churches would teach and how they would worship. At the time of the immigration, “Old Lutherans” were not happy with what was being taught and how they were told to worship, so one of the important reasons to move elsewhere was to live somewhere in which they would have freedom of worship.

When the German Lutherans arrived here under the leadership of Rev. Martin Stephan, it could be argued that the leadership of the immigration was not interested in becoming “Americans”. It could be argued that Rev. Stephan wanted to rule these immigrants according to the German style of church government with himself being the one in charge. After all, Rev. Stephan had himself declared as Bishop Stephan. One could say that he wanted to establish a little German “Kingdom” of sorts here in America. His expulsion from the colony of immigrants put an end to that. At the same time, others in the immigration, including both clergy and laypeople, quickly learned what freedom and liberty in America meant. I think it was one of the reasons that the polity of the early synod once it was established in 1847 included what we could describe as a more American-like system in which both the clergy and laypeople had a voice in how the church would operate.

It was not long before men from our area were presented with a war. The Civil War broke out in the 1860’s, and the German Lutheran men in East Perry County had to decide if they were going to participate, and on which side they would fight. One of the big reasons so many of them chose to enlist in the Union Army was their opposition to slavery. I know I have heard it argued that it was Germans in Missouri that enabled it to be a free state and not a slave state. I also know that during the 1850’s and early 1860’s, many men came to America to avoid having to fight wars in Europe. I am surprised that even some of them made the decision to fight during the Civil War shortly after becoming “Americans”.

Early on, quite a few of the immigrants went through the process of becoming naturalized citizens of the United States. Another aspect of becoming “Americans” was learning to speak what was becoming the national language, English. We know that the Log Cabin College taught lessons in speaking several languages, including English. In fact, we know that Theodore Brohm was the English teacher in that school. I have also read stories that say that English-speaking neighbors in Perry County were baptized by local Lutheran pastors not long after their arrival. Efforts were made by the German Lutherans to become Americanized. When the 1900 census was taken, it included a column which noted what language was spoken by people who immigrated, and by then, most of the Perry County residents were indicating that they spoke English, including my great grandfather who came as part of the 1839 immigration at the age of 4.

When World War I and World War II occurred, the loyalty of local Germans to America was really put to the test. In both those wars, Germany was the enemy of America, and these men were being asked to go overseas to fight against the nation of their heritage. I attended a Lutheran church in Memphis, Tennessee this morning and heard the story of Captain Erwin A. Rumler, who served as a bomber pilot during World War II. This man died just a matter of weeks ago. The story was told that he was once ordered to bomb the town in Germany where his grandmother lived. What a horrible position in which to be. I got to thinking about how men from our area would have to shoot at unknown people in the German army who, unknown to them, might have been their German relatives. Yet, we see that many young men from Perry County, Missouri went to serve in both of those wars, including my father.

I will put in a plug here for our upcoming Immigration Conference in October. Several of the presentations at that conference will tell the tales of how Perry County men and women served America during military conflicts.

Today, our nation celebrates its 245th birthday. Throughout its history, people arriving here as immigrants have made the decision to no longer remain citizens of their previous countries and become Americans. In fact, that has become an expectation that Americans insist upon as immigrants enter this country. The German Lutheran story in Perry County is one which involves immigration. It is a story that demonstrates very clearly that our ancestors made the very definite determination to become Americans. To this day, we are proud to be called Americans. (Although I still root for Germany when they play soccer…but not when they are playing the U.S.A.)


2 thoughts on “Becoming Americans

  1. Thank you for including your observations on the transition to English-speaking in the German-Lutheran communities of Perry County–particularly from census data. This is consistent with what I have generally observed and been told of our German ancestors throughout Missouri and the Midwest, but I have not quantified the data to back up my suppositions.

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  2. Thank you for this article. I have been thinking about these same questions and they are part of the reason I am planning to attend the gathering in October. I think the history is an important one for Lutherans of Germany immigrants to consider in this nation’s struggle to find peace with today’s xenophobia and racism. As a Lutheran pastor who has attended many pot-lucks in my day, most usually working myself to the back of the line as often as possible, I have so often encouraged those seated at the table to make room for visitors, strangers, and newcomers as well as those who have difficulty navigating the limited spaces between tables and chairs. Potlucks can’t just be about our own hunger, relationships, and status. We were once strangers in a strange land, and the hope of freedom and freedoms, opportunity and opportunities is as real to the newcomer, stranger, and visitor today as it was to those in whose “loins” we came to America.

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