When the Brethren, having recently emigrated from Krefeld, Germany, found themselves with Mennonite and Quaker groups in colonial Germantown Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s, a new era of Brethren life began—one marked by religious others, economic opportunities, and revolution. The exemplar of this period was Alexander Mack Jr. (or Sander Mack)—more specifically, his poetry. Jeff Bach describes Mack as “the most prolific Brethren poet in North America in the eighteenth century. His poetry opens an important window onto Brethren understandings of spirituality.”[i]
Mack’s poetry communicated themes of separation from the world, the pilgrimage of faith, and hope. As aliens in a foreign land, one that was often hostile, Mack remained steadfast in his hope. Throughout his poetry he references Pietist understandings of Christ who is the “Lamb of God,” “the Bridegroom,” and the “Good and Faithful Shepherd” and whose teachings are “sweet as sugar” and “sweeter than honey.”[ii]
Bach identifies the humanity that underlies Mack’s prose. “Throughout Mack’s poetic path of spirituality,” he highlights, “is a deep, at times dark, awareness of the frailty and brevity of life and the wrong directions in which bodily desires can lead.”[iii] Almost 100 years prior to Bach, Samuel Heckman translated much of Mack’s poetry from German into English and placed Mack’s poems into two categories. The first were hymns and spiritual songs. The second were poems printed in Christopher Sauer’s religious magazine between 1763 and 1772.[iv]
Through these mediums—poems and hymns—Mack captures and communicates the Brethren immigration narrative. His poetry communicates this transitional self-awareness. Brethren in colonial Pennsylvania were interacting with religious “others” in a new context. A developing tension of autonomy and communal identity reflects Brethren life of this period. Mack’s writings reveal the creative tension of Anabaptism and Pietism as Brethren engage their new religious neighbors—German and English speaking alike.
Scott Holland reveals the Anabaptist theme of discipleship in Mack’s poetry with what he terms the “poetics of Pietism”:
This linking of poetry to discipleship is intriguing. It of course speaks to the issue of the surpluses and excesses of meaning in religious language, always inviting further exploration and fresh articulation in the ongoing adventure of faith and following. However, it also speaks to matters of the heart. It is here, I would suggest, that the Pietist offers a helpful corrective to the Anabaptist.
For the Anabaptist, discipleship is grounded very much in the clear and concrete exercise of the will to follow Jesus. In this sense it is a highly ethical and reasonable expression of faith and practice. The poetics of Pietism, however, emphasizes the reasons of the heart which can be more touched by mystery, metaphor, wonder, love and transcendence in the romance of faith….Mack writes very confessionally, emotionally and poetically.[v]
Holland’s observation of a Pietist synthesis of the central theme of discipleship in Anabaptism speaks to the translingual (and transcultural) reality of German sects, like the Brethren, within colonial Pennsylvania. The attempt to create a Philadelphian society that would rise above divisions of language and dialect precipitated a plethora of spiritual, often Pietistic, writings. Mack would have been a part of this spiritual project and his writings are congruent with two events mentioned by historian Patrick Erben:
Two iconic instances of translingual and transcultural communication tried to recreate the ideal of a Philadelphian society joined by a common spiritual language. In the 1740s and 1750s, Pennsylvania German Mennonites (an Anabaptist denomination) and the radical Pietists at Ephrata transplanted and translated the language of suffering and the Dutch Martyrs’ Mirror— as the central text embodying the ideology of Anabaptist martyrdom— into the communal and political context of a province rife with fears of war and mandatory armament. The translation of the Martyrs’ Mirror produced at Ephrata renewed the utopian ideal of preserving spiritual congruencies across linguistic and doctrinal divisions, which could counteract the language of militarization and invigorate the spirit of resistance among a variety of German peace sects, including Brethren, Schwenkfelders, and Mennonites. Second, the joint English Quaker– German sectarian participation in the Friendly Association for Regaining and Preserving Peace with the Indians by Pacific Measures during the Seven Years’ War precipitated a revitalization of a common spiritual foundation among both groups, especially by stressing their common history of persecution and suffering, and resulted in revitalizing the ideal of a common spiritual language in spite of increasing internal and external threats.[vi]
Erben’s “iconic instances” marked Mack’s life.He participated in the translation of the Martyrs’ Mirror at Ephrata. Yet his was a life marked by war. The threat of violence and division was always palpable in his world, yet his writings do not communicate anxiety. They speak to a peace, manifested through the medium of poetry, that in many ways accomplished the Philadelphian dream of transcendence. Mack’s writings illuminate Scott Holland’s Pietist synthesis of Anabaptism. Pietism was the impulse and Anabaptism the behavior. Christian Bunner identifies eight themes central to Pietist literature of Mack’s period. Pietist poetry and hymnody provided for
the communication of religious assurance through individual experience of God; renewal and transformation of life through the Holy Spirit; the critique of dead, conformist church spirituality; the awakening of hope in an imminent eschatological kingdom of God; the transformation of believers by the divine Being; the formation of fellowship; the encouragement of active expressions of love; and the sharing of one’s faith.[vii]
These themes synthesize the Anabaptist witness of the Brethren. Therefore, Mack remains quintessentially Brethren. This tension of heart/emotion (Pietism) and discipleship/community (Anabaptism) is evident throughout Mack’s writings.
The strongest theme of Mack’s writings is his Christocentric hope which is born out of the creative tension in Brethren theology between the Inner Word of the Spirit and the Outer Word of Scripture. As the Pietist witness called Brethren to a new life in Christ, the Anabaptist witness anchored that conversion in the Bible for Mack. Mack’s writings are firmly founded on the authority of Scripture. Though Mack firmly believed in the necessity of a vital, heartfelt inner life of the Spirit, he also held to the necessity of a life lived in accordance with Scripture. Whereas Radical Pietism tended to elevate direct revelation over Scripture due to fear of legalism, Aaron Jerviss notes that
the poetry of Alexander Mack Jr., however, seems to nicely balance the experiential and the external. Mack believes in a vital, Spirit-awakened relationship that still recognizes the written word of God in Scripture as a beneficial and necessary foundational document.[viii]
Stoffer further details the elements of Radical Pietism, Pietism, and Anabaptism in Mack’s poetry:
Elements from Pietism and Radical Pietism
- Mild Christ mysticism, using the bride and bridegroom imagery drawn from Song of Solomon
- The use of the term “Babel” to refer to established churches, especially because of their lack of discipline in the case of “unbelievers and despisers of the Divine Word
- Belief in the thousand-year reign of Christ (the millenium)
- Universal restoration
- The recurring theme of love throughout his writings, a theme found in the thought of Jacob Boehme and many of the Radical Pietists
- References to the kiss of peace or love as an expression of fraternal love
- The creative spirit reflected in Mack’s poetry and hymn writing; such creativity had disappeared for the most part among the Mennonites by this time
- Hermeneutical emphases such as reading the part in light of the whole and comparing Scripture with Scripture
- Spiritual Sensitivity
Elements reflecting Anabaptist thought and practices
- A high view of the visible church, the gathered community of the disciples of Christ
- Consensus decision making, as reflected in great meetings or annual meetings attended by Mack
- A commitment to discipline
- The theology of baptism
- Belief that children are in a state of innocence and are covered by the salvific work of Christ; they therefore do not need to be baptized
- View of communion as a memorial of Jesus’ suffering and death
- Reference to the “shadow” of the Law and the “essence of the new covenant”
Elements derived from both Pietism/Radical Pietism and Anabaptism
- A strong appeal for regeneration, a new life conformed to Christ
- Understanding the Christian life in terms of discipleship to Christ or following him
- The vital role of the Holy Spirit in all aspects of the Christian life
- Reference to the inner and outer Words to refer to the Spirit and Scripture respectively
- Following the example of the early Christians
- Commitment to serve the “least of these”
- Humble yieldedness toward God[ix]
Stoffer further remarks from Mack’s poetry and other writings, “Mack is inwardly and spiritually a Pietist, and outwardly and practically an Anabaptist.”[x]
[i] Jeff Bach, “Brethren Spirituality in the 18th Century,” in Brethren Spirituality: How Brethren Conceive of and Practice the Spiritual Life (Philadelphia: Brethren Encyclopedia Inc, 2015), 14.
[ii] See Samuel B. Heckman. The Religious Poetry of Alexander Mack, Jr. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1912.
[iii] Bach, Brethren Spirituality, 14.
[iv] Heckman, Religious Poetry, 151.
[v] Scott Holland, “Sander Mack and the Poetics of Pietism,” Brethren Life & Thought 58, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 108.
[vi] Patrick M. Erben, A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania (Williamsburg, Virginia: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 245, Kindle Edition.
[vii] Ibid, 235-236. For more, see Christian Bunner, ed. Lieder des Pietismus aus dem 17. and 18. Jahrhundert. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2003.
[viii] Aaron Jerviss, “The Spiritual Writings of Alexander Mack, Jr.,” in Brethren Spirituality: How Brethren Conceive of and Practice the Spiritual Life (Philadelphia: Brethren Encyclopedia Inc., 2015), 154.
[ix] Dale Stoffer, “Alexander Mack Jr.: The Pilgrim of Love and Light,” Brethren Life & Thought 58, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 18.