19th Century Swiss Mennonite Piety: Die Ernsthafte Christenpflicht
Swiss Mennonite 175 celebration, August 30, 2015
Gerald J. Mast
A recent issue of New Yorker magazine carried an article entitled “The Higher Life”. This article described a new family of smartphone apps designed to help people practice techniques of mindfulness as a way to cope with the stress and distraction of living in a digital age. With names like “Headspace”, “Insight Timer”, and “GPS for the Soul”, these digital therapy apps offer meditation exercises, mood check-ins, and other routines that address frustration, distraction, and anxiety by reconnecting body and mind with the simplicity of presence. While these apps seem to draw most commonly on Eastern religious traditions such as Buddhism, they all seem to be after some version of the mindfulness described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Don’t worry about your life and don’t worry about tomorrow but seek first the kingdom of God.”
Reading this article, I was reminded of how my own abilities to worry less about my life and focus more on the Kingdom of God have been strengthened by a little Mennonite prayer book that was passed down to me from my Amish great grandmother Elizabeth Hershberger Swartzentruber. This German book of prayers is called Die Ernsthafte Christenpflicht. A recent English translation of this book is called Prayer Book for Earnest Christians. While researching the 19th century piety of the Swiss Mennonites in the Bluffton/Pandora area, I discovered that the 19th century Swiss Mennonites in this area were reading and using the same devotional materials that my Amish Mennonite ancestors were reading and using in Holmes County, including Die Ernsthafte Christenpflicht.
So, in the short time I have this afternoon I’d like to explore briefly the prayers in this little book, much beloved by our faith ancestors, to see what they tell us about how our ancestors coped with the struggles and challenges of their lives, and to consider what we might learn from these prayers about the challenges to mindfulness and faithfulness we face amidst the stress and distraction of our time. I hope to persuade you that spending $10 on a translation of Ernsthafte Christenpflicht is a better investment in mindfulness than signing up for the Headspace app, which currently costs $12.95 a month.
First, I’d like to talk for a bit about the basic features of Christian faith and piety that appear in Swiss Mennonite devotional books like Christenpflicht. And then I’ll talk about how this piety is expressed in prayers for a variety of ordinary occasions.
The article by Greg Hoersten that appeared in The Lima News on Wednesday (August 26, 2015) highlights the hard work and uncertainty faced by the early Swiss Mennonite pioneers when they first moved to this community, starting in 1833. The grit and determination of these hardy pioneers is often cited as the basis for their success in building a thriving and ultimately wealthy immigrant community that grew into one of the largest Mennonite settlements in North America by 1900. However, when we encounter the prayers they prayed, the songs they sang, and the letters they wrote, we find a more fully developed picture. I’ve tried to provide this more fully developed picture in my essay that appears in the program booklet. For this short presentation, I would like to offer just a brief sketch of this piety through an examination of Swiss Mennonite prayers from Christenpflicht.
The prayers of the Swiss Mennonites all accept the premise that God’s ways are not our ways and that we are happiest when we yield ourselves to the ways of God; rather than seeking to control the world around us for ourselves. The three most common expressions of piety found in Christenpflicht are gratitude, humility, and attachment to God’s people. Most of the prayers are addressed from the posture of the collective “we”, including prayers that are clearly meant for individual devotion. I’ll illustrate these spiritual themes of gratitude, humility, and attachment to one another by exploring three different types of prayers that show up in the prayer book: daily prayers, church prayers, and crisis prayers.
The first type of prayer is daily prayer such as morning and evening prayers and prayers before and after meals. The daily prayer that has most captured my imagination is the first prayer in the prayerbook, a morning prayer. As a person who does not particularly like mornings and who can easily find reasons to be grumpy when I wake up, the words of this prayer provide language for expressing thankfulness that I don’t necessarily feel at first:
“O heavenly Father! You have again let this day dawn. Help us to remember that it is your gracious gift. Teach us to understand gratefully why you are again bestowing this glorious gift. As a merciful Father, you let your beautiful sun rise above our heads. Thus may we spend all the days of our lives following your will, preparing ourselves for the eternally long and everlasting day that you will create through your grace.”
What I love about these words, which did not come from me but which I have come to receive as a gift, is that they express both gratitude for the day and also an honest need to be taught the purpose of the day. “Thank you for this day and help us know what to do with it.” Even when I don’t get around to reading the whole prayer, which is quite lengthy, this two-part mantra has become part of my morning consciousness.
Note that this prayer is written to be prayed by an individual even as the individual speaks as part of an “us.” “Help us to remember that this day is a gift. Teach us to know what to do with this day. May we spend all of our days following your will.” Praying this prayer reminds me that I come to God with my brothers and sisters, that I am surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and that I am not alone in my struggle to know the reason for the day and the purpose of my life. And all of this before my morning cup of coffee. It is wonderful to let the words of our faith ancestors speak for us and with us, when we cannot muster the words ourselves.
Another kind of prayer found in the Christenpflicht prayer book is church prayer: prayers for communion, prayers for baptism, prayers for funerals, prayers before and after the sermon. Since the prayers before and after the sermon will be part of our worship service tonight, I’d like to call attention to a couple of things about these sermon prayers.
For one thing, these prayers assume that both the preacher and the congregation need help in apprehending God’s Word: “With our human limitations, we are not worthy, skilled or able to proclaim your divine Word, to hear it, much less to keep it, without your divine, gracious aid and the participation of your good Holy Spirit.” As someone who studies communication and is fully aware of the challenges that pertain to understanding human words, even when they are uttered in the context of the same culture and language, it makes a great deal of sense to me that knowing and understanding God’s Word is impossible without the help of the Holy Spirit. These sermon prayers help us to express the proper humility that should attend our efforts to know and understand the will and Word of God.
The other thing is that these sermon prayers assume that grasping the Word of God is not merely a matter of intellectual apprehension. Rather, the Word of God is something that we consume and that consumes us. The most memorable sentence from the prayer before the sermon for me is this one: “Open as well the ears of our hearts, and give us obedient hearts.” That is a striking and vivid image: open the ears of our hearts. I take this to be an expression of hope that not only our intellect but also our desires may be expanded and even transformed to align with the desires and will and Word of God, so that we want to do what God is calling us to do. “Open the ears of our hearts” –these are good words with which to prepare ourselves for the sermon in church on Sunday morning or for any human speech or discussion or text that we expect might carry words of truth and transcendence for us.
Another kind of prayer found in Christenpflicht is what I will call crisis prayers—prayers in response to life challenges and losses such as illness, poverty, conflict, persecution, sorrow, or the realization that we have sinned. In most of these prayers dealing with a crisis there is an expression of gratitude, an acknowledgement of failure or helplessness or uncertainty, and there is the expression of trust and yielding to the will and work of God in all circumstances, not necessarily in that order. For example, in the prayer for comfort during physical poverty, the prayer moves from an acknowledgement of the “cross of physical poverty” to a realization that “the one who is poor is like a stranger on earth, whom no one wants to acknowledge, in whom no one takes interest.” The prayer then expresses confidence in God’s attention to the poor: “The Lord raises the thirsty from the dust, and lifts high the poor from the filth, placing them among the princes and letting them inherit the throne of honor. “ The prayer states in several ways that it is “better to have little and be righteous, than to have a large income and live unjustly.” And then there is a kind of encomium to the justice of God along with the expectation that God is going to finally put everything right. The conclusion is a beautifully poetic expression of the desire to rest in God’s care: “O Eternal Light! O Eternal Salvation! O Eternal Love! O Eternal Sweetness! Let me see you, let me experience you, let me taste you. O Eternal Beloved One, O Eternal Comfort, O Eternal Joy, let me rest in you.”
I should acknowledge that the prayers in this book don’t always fit very well with my own thinking about God or my own experience of God. There are passages in the prayer book that really trouble me; for example, prayers that assume sickness to be an affliction sent by God to teach a lesson. I don’t think that we need to accept that sickness and suffering is necessarily a punishment by God in order be helped by this prayer to discover what God might wish to teach us amidst the sickness or suffering that we are enduring.
Other aspects of the prayer book are counterintuitive to me in ways that I have found helpful. A very common thread in these prayers is the acknowledgment that I am a sinner and the request for forgiveness of sins. One such prayer is quite comprehensive, asking forgiveness for “all of our sins and transgressions, both hidden and public, committed knowingly and unknowingly”, sins committed “with or without our awareness, with words or with actions, secretly or openly, against our better judgment and conscience, against your law, and against your holy gospel.” This persistent thread of confession for me invites a kind of non-anxious humility that acknowledges failures and iniquities while refusing to be paralyzed by such sin.
There is also in this prayer book much prayer for enemies and asking God to forgive the sins of our enemies. Indeed the persistent expression of enemy love and desire for reconciliation is one of the most profound features of the spiritual grammar in this book. For example, there are a number of prayers that deal with division and schism in the church, one of them entitled “Prayer for Unity of Mind and Understanding in Godly Matters”. This prayer acknowledges God as a God of peace, love, and unity, not of conflict and division. It goes on to say that God alone can “establish and maintain unity”, that God lets “the world divide and splinter into pieces, so that with the false wisdom of disunity which can only lead to disgrace, the world might turn again to [God].” “Thus,” the prayer concludes, “may we turn away from every division and become of one mind, will, conscience, spirit, and understanding, aligned according to Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
One wonders whether there were Swiss Mennonites who prayed this prayer during the various church schisms of the last 175 years that ripped through this community. If so, then perhaps this joyful gathering here today is one answer to their prayers.