This past weekend I attended a ‘Cross-Currents’ seminar at the London Mennonite Centre. These are seminars the Centre hosts from time to time on various issues; the one I attended was presented by Alan and Eleanor Kreider and was entitled ‘Anabaptist Spirituality: Disciples Who Pray and Sing’. Alan and Ellie’s teaching was rooted in the past, in the prayers and hymns of the 16th century Anabaptists, but also reached into the present with a desire to help this tradition live in the spiritual experience of modern Christian disciples.
Disciples who pray.
Alan and Ellie began by reminding us of what 16th century Anabaptism was: a radical renewal movement which was given its name by its enemies (‘re-baptizers’). The Anabaptists lived at a time of turbulent change, a time when troublemakers got called before the magistrates; much of what we know about the early Anabaptists comes from the court records of their testimony on trial. Many of them were tortured and a good number executed for their beliefs. The authorities saw them as destroying good civil order; the Anabaptists would have said that they were concerned with following Jesus faithfully and building churches committed to peace.
How did they survive? What sort of prayer life sustained them in their suffering? Scholars who write about 16th century Anabaptism don’t tend to address this question, although in recent years C.J. Dyck and C. Arnold Snyder have investigated it.
One of the great Anabaptist books is the Martyrs’ Mirror, a record of Christian martyrdom from New Testament times down to the 16th century Anabaptists. It includes some prayers taken from letters sent by Anabaptists in prison awaiting possible execution. Here are a couple of examples:
Loving God, you have baptized us into one body, and made us to drink the one Spirit. Now grant us pure and faithful hearts that we may serve one another diligently in love and find no cause to separate or divide. Call each of us to esteem others better than ourselves so we may remain together in peace and joy. Grant these mercies to us and all your people. Amen. (Tijs Jeuriaenss, 1569)
O God of heaven, watch over your sheep, who are such a little flock, that we may not depart from you or be led astray. Keep us under your protection and sustain us in your will. Grant that those who teach false doctrine may amend their steps and do your will. Fill us with your divine power, O God, for we have no other Lord in heaven and earth but you. Amen. (Eighteen Martyrs, 1528)
Lord God, I will praise you now and until my end because you have given me faith, by which I have learned to know you. When I felt the heavy load of sin in me, you came to me with the Word of your divine grace. For this I will now praise and magnify your glorious name forever. Strengthen my faith, O Lord. Do not forget me, but be with me always. Protect me and teach me with your Holy Spirit that in all my sufferings I may receive your consolation. Dear Lord, help me to bear the cross to the destined place, and turn yourself to me with all grace, that I may commend my spirit into your hands. I sincerely pray for all my enemies, O Lord, however many there may be. Do not lay their sins to their charge. Lord, I entreat this according to your will. May God finish his holy work and give strength to the end. Amen. (George Blaurock and Hans van der Reve, 1529).
Common themes in these and the other prayers Alan and Ellie showed us include: unity, service, faithfulness, God’s grace, the ministry of all Christians, a desire to obey God, prayer for God’s comfort, a sense of danger, a fear of falling away, and prayer for strength to love one’s enemies.
Where did these prayers come from?
Recent scholarship has rediscovered the ‘Biblical Concordance of the Swiss Brethren’, a topical concordance first published in 1540 and reprinted fourteen times over the next 150 years – the second most printed Anabaptist text. The theological angle taken by the compilers makes a huge diffrence in topical concordances (‘Nave’s’ has three whole columns on ‘Dishonesty’ and only seven lines on ‘Discipleship’!). The topical concordance of the Swiss Brethren is an aid to scripture memorization with a practical slant – its themes form a journey through Christian discipleship. It begins with the Fear of God, them moves through Repentance, Discipleship, Rebirth, Service of God, Faith, Baptism, Spirit, Persecution, Bearing Witness and so on. Later we see themes like Pride, Treasure, No one can serve two Masters, Do Not Depend on the Great Crowd, Brotherly Rebuke, and so on. Some verses are printed in full, for others references are simply given. The idea was to aid a largely illiterate people in memorizing the key biblical texts for Christian discipleship.
These texts informed the prayer lives of the Anabaptists; many of the verses keep showing up in the written prayers found in Martyrs’ Mirror and other places. Arnold Snyder calls their spirituality ‘A piety of the remembered word’. These texts also show up again and again in the court testimonies of Anabaptists who were on trial for their beliefs. This topical concordance is not a leisurely document for people who want to study erudite theology; it is a Christian survival guide for a persecuted people, and it helped them become a Bible people and a praying people.
Disciples who sing.
After coffee Alan and Ellie introduced us to the ‘Ausbund’, the oldest hymnal in continual use in any Christian tradition, a sixteenth century book still used today by the Amish.
In the 1530s sixty people were brought into a crowded prison in Passau, Moravia. They were held for years, and some of them died there. Among them were some excellent hymnists, and they wiled away their time composing hymns together. This group produced the original fifty-one hymns of the ‘Ausbund’, and the themes reveal the tone of Anabaptism at the time. One dominant theme is ‘confidence’ – ‘God will not abandon us’. Twenty years later eighty additional hymns were added.
Here is a sample hymn (translated from German into English):
I cry to you from deepest need
O God, hear my call
Send your Holy Spirit to us
To comfort our deepest despair
As you have done to now, O Christ
We rely on your command
but now they want to kill us.
The flesh is weak, as you know
It fears the smallest pain
So fill us with your Spirit
We pray from our hearts
So that we may remain until the end
And go bravely into suffering
And not fear the pain.
The spirit is surely willing
to undergo suffering
Hear us, O Lord,
Through Jesus Christ your beloved Son!
We pray also for our enemies
Who know not what they do
and think not of your wrath.
We ask you, Father and Lord
As your loving children
Kindle the light through Jesus Christ
Even more in your little flock
That would be our hearts’ desire
That for which we hunger and thirst
And would bring us greatest joy.
You have received us in grace
And made us your servants
This we have all done willingly
And fulfilled with your help
Keep us pure in your word
We want to be obedient to you
Give us aid and comfort
You, Lord God, are our protection
We lift ourselves up to you
So it is but a small pain
If our lives be taken from us
You have prepared for us in eternity
So if here we suffer insult and blows
It will not be for nothing.
Body, soul, life, and limbs
We have received from you
These we offer up to you
To praise and glorify your name
It is nothing but dust and ashes
We commend to you our spirit, O God,
Take it into your hands. Amen.
(Seven Prisoners in Gmund).
Common themes in the hymns include: grace, discomfort, desperation, prayer that God will keep them faithful, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the church as a ‘little flock’. Context is obviously vitally important; these are the hymns of a persecuted people who feel themselves to be in a precarious position in the world. Their desire is to be faithful to God, and the hymns they wrote have great value to us today. If a Christian community sings only triumphant hymns, how will that help the members when they fall into trouble? And also these hymns link us to Christians who suffer today around the world.
Bringing the tradition alive today.
In the afternoon Alan and Ellie reflected on the fact that Christians of all traditions seem to be praying and reading the Bible far less than our forebears did. There is less scripture memorization and Christians feel less confident in praying.
This led them to tell the story of the Anabaptist Daily Office which has been under development for some years. I will not repeat the story as there is a wealth of information about it at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary website here.
This was another great day with Alan and Ellie. for myself, it led me to consider a number of questions:
- Why don’t I memorise scriptures? I did at one time, but haven’t for many years. The plethora of different translations is obviously a problem here, but they way in which the texts from the topical concordance shaped the prayer life of the early Anabaptists is a real challenge to me.
- How important is context in the writing of hymns and songs? Today many contemporary worship songs have little sense of context or story at all. If we really wrote hymns and songs that come out of our present experience and are informed by the biblical story, what would they look like?
- How can we help people who feel little confidence in Bible reading and prayer? In Anglicanism we have along tradition of the daily office, but it is not very accessible to most church people. How can we provide resource for people to help them pray with confidence?