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Brethren Religious Consciousness Series: Archaic Stage

In an earlier blog, I made brief mention of Michael Barnes’ book, In the Presence of Mystery: An Introduction to the Story of Human Religiousness (1990). Barnes offers helpful descriptions of religious experience/consciousness as part of a four-stage development (primitive, archaic, historic, and modern).[i] In this next series of blogs, I would like to expand on each of these stages in a Brethren context.

The primitive stage of consciousness contains little to no individuality but only the collective identity of the tribe or community. In the archaic stage, basic structures and systems emerge within the group. The historic stage witnesses the development of absolute truth and identity over and against other truth and identity claims as a systematic articulation of theological identity develops. Lastly, the modern stage transitions a black and white ideology/theology to one of paradox and mysticism in pursuit of the common good.

The archaic stage of Brethren thought came in the adjustments needed in colonial America. The Brethren, having recently emigrated from Krefeld, Germany, found themselves with Mennonite and Quaker groups in Germantown. 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. “Archaic cultures,” Barnes writes, “have a hierarchy of power among people, from peasant to landlords and military leaders to kings.”[v] Mack’s poetry communicates this transitional self-awareness. Brethren in colonial Pennsylvania were interacting with religious “others” in a new context. The tension of autonomy and communal identity, intrinsic to the archaic shift, 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.[vi]

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.[vii]

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.[viii] 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.[ix]

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.[x]

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

  • Nonresistance
  • 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[xi]

Stoffer further remarks from Mack’s poetry and other writings, “Mack is inwardly and spiritually a Pietist, and outwardly and practically an Anabaptist.”[xii]

As Brethren entered the nineteenth century, they were transitioning from a German-speaking people on the fringe of the American mainstream to a people speaking English and developing dialogue with the larger society.[xiii] During the antebellum period the Brethren entered a period of introspection and reflection on their identity amid migration beyond the borders of Pennsylvania. A tendency for dogmatism and a strong push for order in theology began to appear and is manifested in the theological writings of the period as the Brethren wrestled with the larger questions of assimilation. Steven Nolt, while not writing about Brethren of the period but rather German Reformed and Lutherans of Pennsylvania, maintains that German religious groups (of which the Brethren were one) were America’s first groups to experience a phenomenon that he characterizes as “ethnicization-as-Americanization.”[xiv]

By the 1780s, Pennsylvania Germans had taken very few steps toward assimilation into the larger Anglophone society of the early Republic.[xv] The United States was constitutionally a land demographically dominated by “British stock” residents.[xvi] Those who had started the Revolution were now the sole ones debating its legacy and such an Anglophone society was at odds with those of German stock. The resulting tension became one of ethnicity in early America.

Ethnicity rested on a conscious acceptance and perpetuation of culture—the interrelated collection of symbols, folkways, institutions, and ideals that defined and gave meaning to the good life and the accepted way of living it…But ethnicity…was always more than attachment to a particular language or collection of distinctive folkways. At its heart were values and ideals that gave meaning to ordinary activities and relationships.[xvii]

These ethnic “values and ideals,” according to Stephen Longenecker, experienced, at minimum, four “revolutions” during the early nineteenth century. Studying those deemed “religious outsiders” rather than “mainstream” on the Virginia backcountry, Longenecker defines the revolutions as American, Methodist, market, and Southern—though these revolutions impacted Brethren beyond the Shenandoah Valley. In Longenecker’s assessment, what developed during this period was a tension not just between outsiders and mainstream but, rather, a tension over what “outsiderness” meant.

“[Outsiderness],” Longenecker asserts, was an indicator that “[prevented] separation from the world from being empty rhetoric.” Such definition increased the likelihood “that the group [would] resist the mainstream.”[xviii] The “mainstream” was those in power who made the division from the cultural mainstream distant. “Outsiders” were those non-conformists who saw the division from the societal mainstream as being much more local and thus demanding clear ethnic borders with the world. The mainstream, Longenecker writes,

often termed themselves as outsiders [and] located the darkness so that its avoidance required little effort, and they moved easily in the secular world. While nonconformists [read “outsiders”] deliberately separated from a world that was dominant and local, the mainstream defined the sinful world as distant, outlandish, or specific to a minority, such as women or youth. While nonconformists were a self-conscious minority that took positions that might bring risk or embarrassment, the religious mainstream conception of worldliness allowed them to live much like their non-religious companions in the mainstream. Although separation from the world was popular in theory, fellowships that in reality appeared indistinguishable from secular attitudes were part of the mainstream, not outside it.[xix]

While both mainstream and outsiders claimed nonconformity, Longenecker argues that the four revolutions that swept through the nineteenth-century Shenandoah Valley, specifically, and larger America generally, identified the authentic nonconformists as those who faced persecution for their beliefs. The dialectical challenge presented to Brethren of the period was how to simultaneously be in the world but not of it (cf. Jn. 17:14-19).

The first revolution was the impact of the American Revolution on outsiderness. This Revolution “varied according to the manner in which traditions marked the mainstream.”[xx] Brethren developed specific practices that informed their otherness to the mainstream, regardless of who was in charge. Practices like nonresistance forged an identity boundary amid a country at war.

The next cultural shift came with the Methodist Revolution of the nineteenth century with the impact of revivalism, especially, on outsiders and mainstream religion. The Methodist revolution occurred as a “new wave of revivalism and emotional worship [throughout] Protestantism in the early nineteenth century.”[xxi] Accentuating the role of personal experience in worship and the importance of evangelism and civic duty, revivalism “brought enough change and so successfully overwhelmed its competition and captured the soul of America that it constituted a revolution.”[xxii] Brethren rejected revivalism finding it to be a distortion of the dialectic of Radical Pietism over, and against, Anabaptism by skewing faith to a hyper-individualistic experience. Brethren maintained inspiring worship as a communal witness around the growing presence of meetinghouses.

The third revolution occurred in the market—a revolution that “reconstructed the economy, transforming a localized, subsistence, handicraft process into a market-oriented, cash and debt, industrialized system.”[xxiii] Those who had once been able to categorize extravagance like fashion as “sinful” were now confronted with the “world.” Brethren of the period still remained separate from this revolution but the boundary lines become largely dependent on identity and separation—a boundary line that proved disastrous in the late nineteenth-century.

The final revolution arose from the secession of southern states from the Union and the problem of slavery. “As the Valley’s majority increasingly fell into step with slaveholders,” Longenecker asserts, “Brethren…occupied the opposite pole by tagging this popular institution as part of the sinful world.”[xxiv] This became a part of their outsiderness. With this outsider identification came great persecution that Longenecker identifies as “unionism.”[xxv]

Unionism’s emergence as a marker of outsiderness shows that sometimes one firmly held boundary against the world can unexpectedly lead to another; determined anti-slavery resulted in opposition to Confederate nationalism. Secondly, boundaries of little notice can quickly become critical in new circumstances; nonviolence in peacetime was a little-noticed marker, but it brought persecution when the nation-state desperately struggled for life.[xxvi]

Whereas Methodists and Presbyterians witnessed assimilation into the mainstream in the wake of the American and market revolutions respectively, Brethren became the quintessential definition of “outsiders.”

Ethnic themes for Brethren emerged amid the ongoing “revolutions” that are helpful in understanding the divisions of the late nineteenth century. The first is the theme of nonconformity in religion. What role does nonconformity serve in religious expression? Nonconformity developed as a sign of the true church. As various religious groups lost their “outsiderness,” many, simultaneously, lost their witness. The second, but related, theme was the tension of outsider and mainstream and how each fit in the process of what Nolt called “ethnicization-as-Americanization.”[xxvii] As outsiders assimilated to the mainstream a piece of their folk experience was lost. This “ethnicization” process was a catalyst for the Brethren to move from an archaic consciousness to a more systematic historic stage.

[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] Barnes, In the Presence of Mystery, 20.

[vi] Scott Holland, “Sander Mack and the Poetics of Pietism,” Brethren Life & Thought 58, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 108.

[vii] 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. While German Mennonites would have utilized Ephrata for publication of Martyrs’ Mirror, they probably did so pragmatically—for financial reasons—as they would not identify with Philadelphia ideals. German Mennonites had the resources for such a printing and Ephrata accepted the task for economic reasons.

[viii] Such a theme would have been consistent with Mack during his time at Ephrata. Philadelphian ideals are less present in Mack’s later life.

[ix] Ibid, 235-236. For more, see Christian Bunner, ed. Lieder des Pietismus aus dem 17. and 18. Jahrhundert. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2003.

[x] 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.

[xi] Dale Stoffer, “Alexander Mack Jr.: The Pilgrim of Love and Light,” Brethren Life & Thought 58, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 18.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] During this period, the Brethren were officially known as the German Baptist Brethren and informally as the Brethren. Another designation in scholarship on the period is “Dunker.”

[xiv] Nolt, Steven, Foreigners in Their Own Land: Pennsylvania Germans in the Early Republic (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), 3.

[xv] Ibid, 17.

[xvi] Ibid, 22.

[xvii] Ibid, 29-30.

[xviii] Stephen L. Longenecker, Shenandoah Religion: Outsiders and the Mainstream, 1716-1865. (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2002), 12.

[xix] Ibid, 10.

[xx] Ibid, 53.

[xxi] Ibid, 7-8.

[xxii] Ibid, 59.

[xxiii] Ibid, 80.

[xxiv] Ibid, 142.

[xxv] While this would have been true only of Brethren in the South. “unionism” does describe the backlash that nineteenth century Brethren received with their response to the Civil War—the identifying meta-crisis of America in the nineteenth century. The Brethren stance against fighting and slavery put them against those who did not share such sentiments—often times against denominations with different theological outlooks on the conflict.

[xxvi] Ibid, 181.

[xxvii] Nolt, Foreigners in Their Own Land, 3.

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