Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Worship then and now

Then was sixty years ago when I was a teenager and member of the Anglican Church of Canada. Services would begin with this exhortation:

Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.

The service would continue with words of like eloquence, interspersed with a reading from the Old Testament, another from the New Testament, the reciting of some poetic passages of Scripture, either in unison or as a responsive reading. There would be a few hymns mixed in plus a sermon. All followed the familiar pattern of the Book of Common Prayer, which was little changed since it was formulated by Thomas Cranmer 400 years earlier.

It didn’t take long until you had the services memorized and didn’t need to follow in the book any longer. This was the great danger: the words were beautiful, meaningful and true, but one could recite them with nary a thought as to what one was saying. I have no doubt that many Anglicans were born-again people, but many, probably the majority, just droned along with their mind somewhere else altogether.

I remain very thankful for all the Scriptures read and recited in the Anglican services. I suppose this began in the day when most attendees were unable to read and this was the only exposure they had to the Word of God.  It was still good for those who were readers.

Now, in the Mennonite church to which I belong today, the services might seem a little tohu-bohu (the Hebrew words translated without form and void in Genesis 1:2). There is a certain order to the services, but they are informal and unstructured compared the church of my youth. Still, just as in Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God is present.

Most congregations have more than one minister. None of them are professionals, they do not derive their income from the church but earn their living much as other members of the congregation. The hymns we sing are not chosen in advance but are chosen in a seemingly random manner by members of the congregation as the service progresses.  Lay brethren are often invited to volunteer to present some thoughts and a prayer to open the service. It may take some time for one to get up from his seat to do so. The sermons are extemporaneous, not written out beforehand. Sometimes there are no ministers present and the whole service is conducted by lay brethren. 

It works. We are fed, encouraged, reproved, inspired. We trust that everything, the hymns that are chosen, the words that are spoken, is prompted by the Holy Spirit.

This type of service goes back to long before Archbishop Cranmer. The apostle Paul wrote:

How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. . . Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

John Wycliffe, as seen by Geoffrey Chaucer

In 1367, when John Wycliffe taught at Canterbury Hall, Oxford, one of his students was Geoffrey Chaucer.  These two men had a great influence on the development of the English language.   In later years, John Wycliffe produced the first translation of the Bible into the English language, and Chaucer produced the first literary work in English, the Canterbury Tales. The following verses are the portion of the Canterbury Tales where Chaucer speaks of his mentor. This is very old English, and you might need to pause a moment here and there to get the meaning.

A good man was there of religioun,
And was a poure Persounn of a toun,             (poor parson)
But riche he was of hooly thoght and werk.
He was also a lerned man, a clerk                 (cleric)
That Cristes gospel trewly wolde preche;
His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.
Benyne he was, and wonder diligent,
And in adversity ful pacient,
And such he was ypreved ofte sithes. . .

Wyde was his parisshe, and houses fer asunder,
But he ne lefte nat, for reyn ne thonder,
In sicknesse nor in meschiefe, to visite
The ferreste in his parish, much and lite,
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staf.
The noble ensample to his sheep he yaf. . .

He was a shepherde and noght a mercenarie,
And though he hooly were and vertuous,
He was to sinful men nat despitous,
Ne of his speche daungerous ne digne,
But hin is techying discreet and benygne.
To drawen folk to hevene by fairnesse,
By good ensample, was his bisynesse. . .

A bettere prest I trowe that nowthere noon ys.
He waited after no pompe and reverence,
Ne maked him a spiced conscience,
But Cristes loore, and his apostles twelve,
He taught, and first he folwed it  hymselve.

Double-decker church planting

I grew up in a town I shall call Seagull, Saskatchewan. This is a fictional name, as are all the other names given in this account, but the events are true to life as best as my memory serves. Like all other prairie towns, there were a number of tall wooden grain elevators lining the railway tracks in Seagull. As soon as you got out of town you could see the elevators of the next town.

Yet the land was not as flat as it appeared from the highway, it was broken by ravines and coulees which eventually led into the Grand Valley River. Ravines and coulees, we tended to use those words interchangeably. I guess a coulee leads into a ravine, which eventually leads into a river. In spring, these valleys funnelled water from the melting snow into the river, the rest of the year they were dry. The river valley was indeed grand — deep and a mile wide; the river itself was a narrow stream tracing a sinuous path along the floor of the valley.

There were three churches in Seagull, none of which could be considered evangelical. Some folks wished for something more. When I was twelve a Baptist evangelist from the USA came to town and held a week of meetings in the Legion Hall. This caused quite a stir, some made fun, some were curious, some were searching and appeared to find what they were looking for.

At the end of the week, it was clear that there were enough committed people to establish a church. There was an empty country schoolhouse available, they bought it, moved it into Seagull and made it into a church. They called it the Seagull Baptist Church and hired a young Bible School graduate named Larry McLeod as their pastor.

They began as an unaffiliated congregation and happily worshipped together in Christian fellowship for several years. Some members advanced the thought that there would be benefits in affiliating with a denomination and it seemed that the majority were persuaded that this was the way to go. Thus, after seven years of independence they affiliated with one of the Baptist denominations. A hitch developed, though, when it was found that pastor McLeod and the denomination were not altogether in harmony. He was replaced by someone more acceptable to the denomination.

Feelings were ruffled, some members withdrew from the Baptist church and asked Pastor McLeod to stay on as their pastor. More evangelistic meetings were held, a new congregations was formed, and a rural church that had not been used for some years was moved into town. This was the beginning of the Seagull Gospel Church. Now Seagull had five churches, enough to satisfy most everyone you would think. But could they all afford to support a preacher?

The Baptist church was the first to go, closing their doors 13 years after they began, 6 years after the split. The cost of supporting a minister was just too much for those who were left. The Gospel church struggled on four more years, then voted to amalgamate with a congregation in a town twenty miles away so that together they could afford to support Pastor McLeod. The evangelical witness in Seagull lasted a total of 17 years.

Josiah Henson learns to read

It so haJosiah_Henson_bwppened that one of my Maryland friends arrived in this neighbourhood, and hearing of my being here, inquired if I ever preached now. I had said nothing myself, and had not intended to say any thing, of my having ever officiated in that way. I went to meeting with others, when I had an opportunity, and enjoyed the quiet of the Sabbath when there was no assembly. I would not refuse to labour in this field, however, when desired to do so; and I was frequently called upon, not by blacks alone, but by all classes in my vicinity, the comparatively educated, as well as the lamentably ignorant, to speak to them on their duty, responsibility, and immortality, on their obligations to their Maker, their Saviour, and themselves.

It must seem strange to many that a man so ignorant as myself, unable to read, should be able to preach acceptably to persons who had enjoyed greater advantages than myself. I can explain it only by reference to our Saviour’s comparison of the kingdom of heaven to a plant which may spring from a seed no bigger than a mustard-seed, and may yet reach such a size, that the birds of the air may take shelter therein. Religion is not so much knowledge, as wisdom; — and observation upon what passes without, and reflection upon what passes within a man’s heart, will give him a larger growth in grace than is imagined by the devoted adherents of creeds, or the confident followers of Christ, who call him Lord, Lord, but do not the things which he says.

Mr. Hibbard was good enough to give my eldest boy, Tom, two quarters’ schooling, to which the schoolmaster added more of his own kindness, so that my boy learned to read fluently and well. It was a great advantage, not only to him, but to me; for I used to get him to read to me in the Bible, especially on Sunday mornings when I was going to preach; and I could easily commit to memory a few verses, or a chapter, from hearing him read it over.

One beautiful summer Sabbath I rose early, and called him to come and read to me. “Where shall I read, father?” “Anywhere, my son,” I answered, for I knew not how to direct him. He opened upon Psalm 103. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name;” and as he read this beautiful outpouring of gratitude which I now first heard, my heart melted within me. I recalled the whole current of my life; and as I remembered the dangers and afflictions from which the Lord had delivered me, and compared my present condition with what it had been, not only my heart but my eyes overflowed, and I could neither check nor conceal the emotion which overpowered me. The words “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” with which the Psalm begins and ends, were all I needed, or could use, to express the fullness of my thankful heart.

When he had finished, Tom turned to me and asked, “Father, who was David?” He had observed my excitement, and added, “He writes pretty, don’t he?” and then repeated his question. It was a question I was utterly unable to answer. I had never heard of David, but could not bear to acknowledge my ignorance to my own child. So I answered evasively, “He was a man of God, my son.” “I suppose so,” said he; “but I want to know something more about him. Where did he live? What did he do?” As he went on questioning me, I saw it was in vain to attempt to escape, and so I told him frankly I did not know. “Why, father,” said he, “can’t you read?”

This was a worse question than the other, and if I had any pride in me at the moment, it took it all out of me pretty quick. It was a direct question, and must have a direct answer; so I told him at once I could not. “Why not,” said he. “Because I never had an opportunity to learn, nor anybody to teach me.” “Well, you can learn now, father.” “No, my son, I am too old, and have not time enough. I must work all day, or you would not have enough to eat.” “Then you might do it at night.” “But still there is nobody to teach me. I can’t afford to pay anybody for it, and of course no one can do it for nothing.” “Why, father, I’ll teach you. I can do it, I know. And then you’ll know so much more, that you can talk better, and preach better.”

The little fellow was so earnest, there was no resisting him; but it is hard to describe the conflicting feelings within me at such a proposition from such a quarter. I was delighted with the conviction that my children would have advantages I had never enjoyed; but it was no slight mortification to think of being instructed by a child of twelve years old. Yet ambition, and a true desire to learn, for the good it would do my own mind, conquered the shame, and I agreed to try.

But I did not reach this state of mind instantly. I was greatly moved by the conversation I had had with Tom — so much so that I could not undertake to preach that day. I passed the Sunday in solitary reflection in the woods. I was too much engrossed with the multitude of my thoughts within me to return home to dinner, and spent the whole day in secret meditation and prayer, trying to compose myself, and ascertain my true position. It was not difficult to see that my predicament was one of profound ignorance, and that I ought to use every opportunity of enlightening it.

I began to take lessons of Tom, therefore, immediately, and followed it up, every evening, by the light of a pine knot, or some hickory bark, which was the only light I could afford. Weeks passed, and my progress was so slow, that poor Tom was almost discouraged, and used to drop asleep sometimes, and whine a little over my dullness, and talk to me very much as a schoolmaster talks to a stupid boy, till I began to be afraid that my age, my want of practice in looking at such little scratches, the daily fatigue, and the dim light, would be effectual preventives of my ever acquiring the art of reading.

But Tom’s perseverance and mine conquered at last, and in the course of the winter I did really learn to read a little. It was, and has been ever since, a great comfort to me to have made this acquisition; though it has made me comprehend better the terrible abyss of ignorance in which I had been plunged all my previous life. It made me also feel more deeply and bitterly the oppression under which I had toiled and groaned; but the crushing and cruel nature of which I had not appreciated, till I found out, in some slight degree, from what I had been debarred. At the same time it made me more anxious than before to do something for the rescue and the elevation of those who were suffering the same evils I had endured, and who did not know how degraded and ignorant they really were.

The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, first published in 1849

I’m on my way to the freedom land

As a slave, Josiah Henson received no formal education and did not learn to read and write. As is typical of people from oral cultures, he had a prodigious memory and could remember every Bible verse he ever heard. He was ordained to the ministry in the Methodist Church while still a slave, serving mostly his fellow slaves.

Twice he was able to raise the money to purchase his freedom, but due to Josiah’s illiteracy, his master found a way each time to cheat him of his freedom. After the incident mentioned in a previous post where he had been tempted to murder his young master, his master fell deathly ill and Josiah nursed him back to health. This bought him a little time, but before long he learned that his master had plans to sell him, his wife and their children separately. Up to this time, Josiah had considered himself honour bound to remain with his master, but now he finally became willing to take his family and attempt to escape to Canada.

It was on a Saturday night in September of 1830 that Josiah, his wife and their four children set out to walk to Canada. Josiah knew that it would be several days before they were missed and determined to get as far away as they could in that time. They travelled at night and hid by day, eventually making it to Ohio where they encountered people who helped them make the rest of the journey.

There never was a plantation system in Canada such as the one in the U.S. south, but slavery was not officially abolished in Canada until 1833. Still, Canada was the land of hope to those bound in the oppressive slavery of the south. Some of the songs they sang had a double meaning, such as “I’m on my way to the freedom land.” Canada was a safer place for black people, not because Canadians were better people, but because the laws were better. An escaped slave was not safe anywhere in the USA. If found, he could be captured and returned to his master. There were even cases of free blacks being captured and sold into slavery. Few white judges and juries would take the word of a black man against the word of a white. Slave hunters did venture into Canada, but were arrested, hustled back across the border and warned not to return.

The underground railway was just beginning in 1830 and the Henson family avoided human contact as much as possible until they neared the lake that stood between them and Canada. Here they encountered some sympathetic Indians who fed them, gave shelter for the night and directed them on their way the next morning. Then Josiah met a ship’s captain at Sandusky, Ohio who sent a boat for the family after dark, took them to Buffalo and paid the ferry to take them across the river into Canada.

” When I got on the Canada side, on the morning of the 28th of October, 1830, my first impulse was to throw myself on the ground, and giving way to the riotous exultation of my feelings, to execute sundry antics which excited the astonishment of those who were looking on. A gentleman of the neighbourhood, Colonel Warren, who happened to be present, thought I was in a fit, and as he inquired what was the matter with the poor fellow, I jumped up and told him I was free. “O,” said he, with a hearty laugh, “is that it? I never knew freedom make a man roll in the sand before.” It is not much to be wondered at, that my certainty of being free was not quite a sober one at the first moment; and I hugged and kissed my wife and children all round, with a vivacity which made them laugh as well as myself. There was not much time to be lost, though, in frolic, even at this extraordinary moment. I was a stranger, in a strange land, and had to look about me at once, for refuge and resource. I found a lodging for the night; and the next morning set about exploring the interior for the means of support.”

The conversion of Josiah Henson

I was born, June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Mr. Francis N., about a mile from Port Tobacco. My mother was the property of Dr. Josiah McP., but was hired by Mr. N., to whom my father belonged. The only incident I can remember, which occurred while my mother continued on N.’s farm, was the appearance of my father one day, with his head bloody and his back lacerated.  Though it was all a mystery to me at the age of three or four years, it was explained at a later period that he had been suffering the cruel penalty of the Maryland law for beating a white man. His right ear had been cut off close to his head, and he had received a hundred lashes on his back. He had beaten the overseer for a brutal assault on my mother, and this was his punishment.

When I was 18 an incident occurred that deserves especial notice. There was at Georgetown, a few miles from R’s plantation, a baker who was an upright, benevolent, Christian man. He was noted for his detestation of slavery, and his avoidance of the employment of slave labour in his business.  His reputation was high, not only for this almost singular abstinence from what no one about him thought wrong, but for his general probity and excellence.

This man occasionally served as a minister of the Gospel. One Sunday when he was to officiate at a place three or four miles distant, my mother persuaded me to ask master’s leave to go and hear him; and although such permission was not given freely or often, yet his favour to me was shown for this once by allowing me to go, without much scolding, but not without a pretty distinct intimation of what would befall me, if I did not return immediately after the close of the service.

I hurried off, pleased with the opportunity, but without any definite expectations of benefit; for up to this period of my life I had never heard a sermon, nor any conversation whatever, upon religious topics, except what had been impressed upon me by my mother, of the responsibility of all to a Supreme Being. When I arrived at the place of meeting, the speaker was just beginning his discourse, from the text, Hebrews 2:9; “That he, by the grace of God, should taste of death for every man.” This was the first text of the Bible to which I had ever listened, knowing it to be such. I have never forgotten it, and scarce a day has passed since, in which I have not recalled it, and the sermon that was preached from it. The divine character of Jesus Christ, his life and teachings, his sacrifice of himself for others, his death and resurrection were all alluded to, and some of the points were dwelt upon with great power,–great, at least, to me, who heard of these things for the first time in my life.

I was wonderfully impressed, too, with the use which the preacher made of the last words of the text, “for every man.” He said the death of Christ was not designed for the benefit of a select few only, but for the salvation of the world, for the bond as well as the free; and he dwelt on the glad tidings of the Gospel to the poor, the persecuted, and the distressed, its deliverance to the captive, and the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, till my heart burned within me, and I was in a state of the greatest excitement at the thought that such a being as Jesus Christ had been described should have died for me–for me among the rest, a poor, despised, abused slave, who was thought by his fellow creatures fit for nothing but unrequited toil and ignorance, for mental and bodily degradation.

I immediately determined to find out something more about “Christ and him crucified;” and revolving the things which I had heard in my mind as I went home, I became so excited that I turned aside from the road into the woods, and prayed to God for light and for aid with an earnestness, which, however unenlightened, was at least sincere and heartfelt; and which the subsequent course of my life has led me to imagine might not have been unacceptable to Him who heareth prayer. At all events, I date my conversion, and my awakening to a new life from this day, so memorable to me.

I used every means and opportunity of inquiry into religious matters; and so deep was my conviction of their superior importance to every thing else, so clear my perception of my own faults, and so undoubting my observation of the darkness and sin that surrounded me, that I could not help talking much on these subjects with those about me; and it was not long before I began to pray with them, and exhort them, and to impart to the poor slaves those little glimmerings of light from another world, which had reached my own eye. In a few years I became quite an esteemed preacher among them, and I will not believe it is vanity which leads me to think I was useful to some.

-an excerpt from The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, first published in 1849.

The Universalist and the Quaker

A Universalist preacher, who believed that no one would be excluded from heaven, held a series of meetings in a rural town. He was a gifted speaker and many people came to hear him. At the close of the meetings he announced, ” Now if you would desire, I would like to come each Sabbath evening and preach to you. I would like a response from this audience.”

No one responded. Finally he asked anyone who objected to speak.

Again there was a long silence. Finally an aged Quaker arose and said, “Friend, I have been listening to thee and thought I would say nothing, but thou hast insisted that someone speak. We don’t want thee because, if thy theory is correct, we have no need of preaching for all will be saved. And if thy theory is not correct we don’t want thee, because it is then a lie and we don’t want thee to preach lies to us.”

-Source unknown

The difference between worship and entertainment

Worship is an act of homage, reverence and devotion paid to a deity. Entertainment is something that offers us amusement, excitement and a diversion from the mundane problems of our life.

Worship is something we do; it implies an active participation in the act of worship. Entertainment is an activity where we are merely spectators. Our emotions may be thoroughly aroused, but we have no active role in the activity being presented.

These concepts seem to have become all muddled up in our day. Many people regard church as a spectator activity; they go to church expecting an experience, lively music, an attention grabbing message, eloquent prayers. At the same time, there appears to be a very real adoration and worship of singers, musicians, actors and athletes.

But none of these popular gods can do anything to help us with the real problems of our life. The best they can do is divert our attention from our real needs for a moment and allow us to participate vicariously in their seemingly glamorous and thrilling lives. That will eventually grow old and leave us deflated.

True worship of God the Creator does not need to be embellished by ornate buildings, loud music or human eloquence. Our need is to meet our maker in heartfelt adoration, make our pleas known to Him and to hear what He might have to say to us. This may come through the words of a song, the reading of Scriptures, the words that are spoken and the prayers that are made in the service, but the ultimate source of what we receive is not in the outward things, but in the inward working of the Holy Spirit.

Meaningful worship does not depend so much on the performance of the preacher, or of others who take an active part in the service, but in an attitude of the heart that feels a need to commune with God through worshipping together with those who are bound together in the same faith.

Timidity in the pulpit

If spiritual pastors are to refrain from saying anything that might ever, by any possibility, be misunderstood by anybody, they will end – as in fact many of them do – by never saying anything worth hearing. Incidentally, this particular brand of timidity is the besetting sin of the good churchmen.

Dorothy Sayers

The foolishness of preaching

For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. — 1 Corinthians 1:17-21

Here is the genius of true Christian preaching: it is not a dry learned discourse, nor is it an exercise in emotional demagoguery. The preacher must have personal experience of the gospel he preaches, or his preaching will have no life. There must needs be something of teaching and something of feeling, but the preacher stands on common ground with those to whom he is speaking and talks of the aspirations and trials that are common to all and of God’s grace which is accessible to all.

A distinction needs to be made between the written word and the spoken word. A Christian writer may be inspired to write about a topic or an event and sit down to get this inspiration into written form. The writer then needs to revise and edit to make sure that the inspiration is not befogged with unnecessary words or digressions into side issues, and that all the information is there for the reader to understand the inspiration. The reader is able to go back and reread a portion that was not clear on the first reading, or perhaps read the whole thing over at a later time to let the meaning sink in.

The spoken word is immediate and fleeting. The hearers will not remember every word that was said and will have no opportunity to go back and listen to it again. If the preacher has been inspired by God with a message and opens his heart to share that message as being as much in need as his hearers, the message will have a lasting impact after the words have vanished from memory.

For this reason, I believe that preaching can truly be described as the living word. A sermon has its most powerful impact upon those who are assembled in one place to listen. I don’t believe it has the same impact when broadcast over a phone line, closed circuit TV, or other means. A sermon that is recorded or transcribed also loses much of its vitality.

In the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, we do not believe in a trained and salaried ministry. Nor do we believe that a minister should write out his sermon beforehand. All these things diminish the leading of the Holy Spirit as he speaks and weaken the authenticity of the message.

The word minister means servant, an apt description of a person who is called to serve spiritual nourishment to a congregation of believers. Ministers are also called pastors (shepherds), bishops (overseers), teachers and evangelists. But they are never to be looked upon as lords over the people of God. All his spiritual work must be done with the collaboration and support of the congregation, or it will never stand the challenges that will come.

All ministers are not equal in their ability to expound on the Scriptures, in eloquence, or even in their mastery of the language. These are all things that can be improved on with time. The most important qualifications of a minister are a pure life, humility, love for others. These are not things that can be learned from books, but the fruit of a life truly dedicated to serving God and his fellow men.

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