I Wish I'd Been There .
MHB readers respond to
the question: What is the one event in Anabaptist-Mennonite history
you wish you could have witnessed -- and Why?
Worship at Mellinger
by Steve Nolt
Mennonite historical scholarship
has grown in almost all directions during the past few decades.
We know a lot more about the lives of church leaders, the growth
and development of institutions, mission activity, controversy
and schism, and theological debate and concord. Yet there are
times I wish I had actually been there to witness events that
remain cloudy in the historical mirror. We still know too little
about Mennonite worship in the past. It's a great irony, actually.
Nothing could be more central to the life and witness of any
congregation than its meeting for corporate worship. Yet perhaps
because worship is so "common" in the life of the church,
its story easily gets lost. Often we know more about the history
of our church buildings and who owned the farms around them than
we do about what actually went on inside those meeting houses.
I wish I could attend a meeting for worship at my home congregation,
Mellinger Mennonite Church, Lancaster, Pa., during the early
1800s. I'd like to go inside that 1767 limestone structure and
experience worship with them. I'd like to know more about their
Sunday mornings together.
We know which hymnbook they used, but did the congregation have
favorite songs which they sang more often than others? What did
the music sound like? How long did it take them to learn the
new hymns included in the 1804 Unpartheyisches Gesangbuch?
Did any of the preachers have favorite biblical texts or themes
which they wove into their sermons no matter what the subject
was? Did sermons include references to current events in the
life of the young nation--warnings or encouragement to the congregation
as its members found their way in a restless new society?
And I'd like to be there as they baptized and joined in communion.
Today we have some surviving documents that suggest the standard
words leaders spoke at such events, but what was it like at the
time? What did the people of Mellinger think about the practice
of footwashing, a rite common among the American Amish but apparently
not among their Mennonite neighbors? We know that the congregation's
venerable immigrant deacon, Martin Mellinger (1763-1842)--from
whom the congregation actually derived its name--had witnessed
footwashing among the German Baptist Brethren (Church of the
Brethren) while visiting in another country.
He came away from that experience
believing footwashing was a meaningful symbol which his church
should adopt. But he met stiff opposition within the congregation
from--among others--one of my ancestors, preacher Heinrich Buckwalter
(1742-1805). I'd like to talk with them about footwashing and
what each one saw in its practice. And I wish I'd been there
when the congregation first decided to include this rite of service
in their communion worship sometime in the 1810s.
In the future historians may be able to use our church bulletins
to gain a better idea of what our worship today was really like.
But worship is something you have to experience, not just explain.
That's why I wish I had been there.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July, 1997