Sounding the Gospel of our common Christ: Lutherans and Mennonites move toward right relationships

by Dr. John Ruth, Salford Mennonite Church, and Bishop Claire Burkat, Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in AmericaLutheran and Mennonite Reconciliation

The history of Lutherans and Mennonites has not always been one of mutual appreciation. The Mennonite Church is a church of Anabaptist heritage. The name Anabaptist was first used in the 16th century by Lutheran reformers. “Anabaptist” literally means re-baptizers, because of the practice of believers’ baptism. This was not used as a term of respect; in fact the early Lutheran reformers used the name in derision, condemning Anabaptists as heretics and accusing them of sedition.

In the 16th century, Lutheran invectives against Anabaptists were treacherous and produced serious harm and death to the historic members of the Mennonite community. Hundreds of Anabaptist Christians were put to death, imprisoned, and persecuted by Lutherans. Lutherans by and large developed an historical amnesia about this shameful part of their Reformation heritage.

Last summer in Stuttgart, Germany, the Lutheran World Federation presented a statement of regret to the Mennonite World Conference, asking forgiveness from God and from their Mennonite brothers and sisters. The expression of a “deep and abiding sorrow and regret” from Lutheran people of the 21st century for atrocities perpetrated by their ancestors almost 500 years earlier, is a confession and subsequent reconciliation which God has desired for centuries.

Ripples from those deep events have reached the backwaters of the Delaware Valley, to a place watered by the Indian Creek, once known to both Mennonites and Lutherans as “Indianfield.”

This landscape still carries names of historic memory: at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale, Pa., there is Grebel Hall; in Allentown, Pa., there is Muhlenberg College; in Souderton, Pa., a Zwingli United Church of Christ.

These names are reminders of people and events that shaped our history and our identity; things that happened in European cities like Wittenberg, Zurich and Augsburg—and, after nearly five centuries, last summer in Stuttgart—still affect us today.

Yet our joint history is not just one of animosity and persecution. Over three hundred years ago, Mennonite and Lutheran refugees made their way to Pennsylvania to enjoy a religious freedom that they had never before experienced. The immigrants got along remarkably well together in Penn’s Woods.

One of the Lutheran’s early leaders was Henry Muhlenberg. Even after Muhlenberg had a beautiful new church built at Trappe, he allowed one of his members, who had been living among the Mennonites of Skippack, Pa., to bury his aged mother’s body in the graveyard of the Mennonite congregation. Of course the service would be conducted by the Lutheran pastor, who was considered the best preacher of the gospel in the region.

The day was very hot, so Muhlenberg proposed to preach under a large tree. He was surprised that the Mennonite leaders present urged him instead to come into what he called their “roomy” meetinghouse for the service.

Hesitantly but respectfully accepting this invitation, Muhlenberg found himself nevertheless cautioned at the meetinghouse door by an elderly Mennonite minister, who hoped that the Lutheran pastor would not include any “strange ceremonies” in his service. Yet after the service came another surprise, when the same old man thanked Muhlenberg—with tears—for “sounding the Gospel” in their Mennonite meetinghouse.

Lutheran and Mennonite ReconciliationThree hundred years later, in a gesture unimaginable for early Mennonites, Lutherans once again held a service in one of their roomiest houses of worship, Franconia Mennonite Meetinghouse in Franconia, Pa. This time, as part of their annual business meeting on May 6, 2011, the Lutheran Synod of Southeastern Pennsylvania extended their own apology for the oppression of the past, reminding those gathered that reconciled communities are not about abstract relationships; instead, the forgiveness and healing between Mennonites and Lutherans is a family matter.

As Charlie Ness, pastor of Perkiomenville Mennonite Church, responded to the apology, he echoed the words of the President of the Mennonite World Conference Danisa Ndlovu, saying, “Today, in this place, we together—Lutherans and Anabaptist Mennonites—are fulfilling the rule of Christ. We cannot bring ourselves to this table with heads held high. We can only come bowed down in great humility and in the fear of the Lord. We cannot come to this point and fail to see our own sinfulness. We cannot come to this point without recognizing our own need for God’s grace and forgiveness.”

Once again on that sunny May morning, the Lutherans were sounding the Gospel—for what is the good news but the news of the reconciliation of all things in heaven and earth and under the earth, worked and revealed and offered by Christ on his cross? As at Skippack, that day in Franconia, Lutherans accepted Mennonite tears of joy for their gesture, this request for forgiveness. And on that day, their witness to our common salvation, sounding out in the Mennonite’s roomy meetinghouse, was the Gospel of our common Christ.

Adapted from remarks shared at the Eastern Synod of the ELCA gathering on May 6, 2011 by Dr. John Ruth, historian for Franconia Mennonite Conference, and Bishop Claire Burkat, bishop of the Eastern Synod of the ELCA.


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