The religious organizations our ancestors belonged to and the faiths they espoused provide one of the most accessible and rich sources of information about their lives. My own family history shows a diversity of religious identities specific to particular times and places in North America and Europe. Their records show they were Presbyterian, Evangelical Covenant, Methodist, Quaker, Episcopalian, Anglican and Lutheran. I'm sure there are more to be found, especially as I learn about my early Pennsylvania German and Swiss ancestors.
But first, The Lutherans
I love this photo of the confirmation class of 1937 at Trinity Lutheran, Detroit (see a listing of the confirmand names here). My paternal grandmother, Marie Krist (Kirstowski) Christenson, is in the second row, second from the left. Have you ever seen such a bunch of serious eighth graders? I hate to think what happened those couple of kids who are cracking a smile. The Rev. Dr. Gilbert Theodore Otte looks like he probably didn't have any trouble keeping his confirmation classes in order.
For me, this photo suggests two sides to German-American Lutheran identity at this time. My grandmother had a reputation as a joker with a mischievous sense of humor, yet here she stands, stone-faced for this serious occasion. The father of the Pastor Otte pictured here, Rev. Herman Christian Friedrick Otte, was known for having "a fine sense of humor," a family trait that apparently had no place in this setting.
My Krist / Kirstowski and Senger ancestors loved to play cards, drink beer, dance polkas and go "up north" fishing on the weekends They were probably the most fun-loving branch of my family. At the same time, they were also very, very Lutheran. Specifically, as my great-great aunt Elsie clarified, they were Evangelical. My ancestors forged this Evangelical Lutheran identity in a very particular time and place.
19th-Century Prussian Stargard
Section of Map of Prussian Stargard circa. 1893
Before emigrating to the United States in the 1880s, 90%-100% of my maternal grandmother's ancestors lived in the area represented by this map section. Prussian Stargard is now the Polish city of Starogard Gdański, about 35 miles south of the Gulf of Danzig in the Baltic Sea.
I am still not entirely sure of the differentiation my Aunt Elsie intended to make between "evangelical" Lutherans and whatever other Lutheran identities were available. Possibly she meant that her family was loyal to the Evangelical State Church of Prussia, renamed The Evangelical State Church of Prussia's older Provinces (seriously!) in 1875.
In any case, I am thankful that geographic heritage remained important in the Lutheran churches they joined in Manistee, Michigan and Detroit, or I may still be searching for my ancestors' villages of origin.
The death register entry for my 2x great-grandfather, August Kirstowski, clearly notes his birth village as Jablau, Prussian Stargard, West Prussia.
Death register entry for August Kirstowski, Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit
6 December 1924
The confirmation entry for my 2x great-grandmother, Augusta Lämm, includes the date and village of her baptism. "Palesken," which helped me eventually find her birth record in Neu Paleschken in the microfilmed church records for Prussian Stargard.
Confirmation register entry for Augste Emilie Lämm, Trinity Lutheran Church, Manistee, MI
25 March, 1888
If you have Lutheran immigrant ancestors, I highly recommend contacting their first U.S. congregations and politely inquiring as to whether the church ledger books are available for browsing. These records may contain information you will never find anywhere else.
My immigrant Lutheran ancestors no doubt valued their 19th and early-20th-century American congregations as a thread of continuity from connecting their European and American worlds.
Two generations later, however, the Lutheran church still played a large role in my ancestors' lives. By day they were metalworkers, autoworkers and secretaries in Detroit. At night and on the weekends they socialized in Lutheran bowling leagues, met future spouses at Walther League meetings and raised funds for Valparaiso University.
My Great-Aunt Doris Krist (Kirstowski), deaf since the age of three, was the first graduate of the Detroit Lutheran School for the Deaf to attend the "regular" Detroit Lutheran High School. I believe the encouragement she received gave her the confidence to seek out and hold a "regular" job in her adult life.
Aunt Doris showed both sides of her German-American Lutheran identity, playing the role of bartender at family parties.
Doris Ann Krist (1931-2010)
Like his mother before him, my dad was also an 8th-grade Lutheran confirmand. Here he is dressed for the occasion on a beautiful day in Detroit, May, 1961with his sponsors: Uncle Ed Hokanson (a Swedish uncle by marriage) and Aunt Shirley Krist (Kirstowski) Neuchterlein.
Apparently smiling in confirmation photos continued to be optional.