John (Johann in German, Jan in Wendish) Kilian, leader of the Wendish-German colony in and around Serbin, Texas, son of Peter and Maria (Mättig) Kilian, was born on March 22, 1811, in Döhlen, near Hochkirch, Saxony. This area, Upper Lusatia (Ober-Lausitz), which belonged to Saxony in the south and Prussia in the north, had a mixed population of Germans and Slavs (called Wends or Sorbs). Like most of the Wends at the time, Kilian spoke both Wendish and German; all of his higher education was in German. He graduated from the classical Gymnasium of Bautzen and thereafter from the theological school of the University of Leipzig. When he entered the ministry in the 1830s, it was a troubled time for conservative "Old Lutherans" like him. There was a tendency towards merging the various Protestant churches, resulting in what Kilian considered lax doctrine in Saxony and in downright government oppression of unassimilated Old Lutherans in Prussia. Kilian became one of the leaders of the Lutheran resistance. He served first in Saxony, as pastoral assistant in Hochkirch from 1834 until 1837, in which year he was ordained to the ministry and called to succeed his deceased uncle as pastor at Kotitz, also in Bautzen. In the 1840s the oppression in Prussia was relaxed to the extent that the Lutherans were allowed to form congregations, but certain vexing restrictions still remained-for example, that Old Lutheran churches could not have steeples or bells. Small congregations were formed in the neighboring Prussian villages of Weigersdorf and Klitten, and Kilian was called as pastor. When he assumed this post in 1848 he also took over the pastoral care of all the scattered small groups of Old Lutherans in Prussian Lusatia and made regular visits to his subcongregations in Spremberg, Muskau, and Cottbus. In 1848 he married Maria Groeschel of Sarka, near Kotitz; in Germany they had four children, only one of whom survived infancy. Besides serving his dispersed congregations in Wendish and German, Kilian developed a considerable theological literary activity: he published Wendish translations of Luther's Large Catechism, the Augsburg Confession, and works of such theologians as Fresenius. He also contributed a score of hymns to the Wendish hymnbook and published a small volume of religious songs, entitled Spjewarske Wesselje (Songs of Joy).
In 1854 about 550 Wendish Lutherans from Kilian's congregations in Prussia and also from Saxony called him to lead them in the move to Texas that resulted in the establishment of Serbin. In Texas, Kilian affiliated himself immediately with the Missouri Synod Lutheran church and became the first Missouri Synod pastor in Texas; the congregation at Serbin, however, did not join the synod until 1866, delayed in part by the Civil War. Kilian served as pastor at Serbin, using Wendish and German, for thirty years, until shortly before his death. For the first ten years he also made regular visits to the New Ulm area in order to minister to a group of his immigrants who had settled there, and he sporadically served German Lutherans at Bastrop and elsewhere. He also taught the parochial school at Serbin for twelve years. It is not surprising that his literary work ceased almost completely in Texas. He had five more children, of whom four survived infancy. His son Gerhard became his schoolteacher in 1872. A younger son, Hermann, succeeded him as pastor in 1884. Kilian continued to help with the ministerial duties until his death, on September 12, 1884.