Bethlehem’s Fountain

Two hundred and fifty years after Reinhard Ronner’s work in St. Thomas I drove east toward Bethlehem in Pennsylvania. Frost lay bright on the fields, at sunup, in the beginning of Advent season.

East over the Tulpehocken Creek where Nicholas Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf stayed with Conrad Weiser on his way to Indian territory. East past the Indiantown Gap into the valley of the Lehigh I found my way into the heart of old Bethlehem, looking just as I had remembered it. Stone buildings with many floors, levels, and curious additions looked through small-paned windows onto its streets and squares under spreading walnut trees. Beneath a weather-vane in the shape of a lamb, nestled what had been its central meeting house, communal residences, and dining hall. But on this visit to Bethlehem I did not stop at its steep-roofed Gemeinhaus1 built of logs in 1741. I did not watch the current film at the Moravian visitors’ centre, or drink a mug of hot cinnamon tea with milk at the Sun Inn. Today I was “on to something.” I parked my car at the Monocacy Creek below the Single Brothers’ House and set off walking briskly uptown.

Much water had flowed under the Lehigh bridge since I first came to know the Moravian Church and their former communal settlements in eastern Pennsylvania. In fact, now that I was back in Bethlehem, I could not help but rehearse the story in my mind.

It began at an auction sale in my home town of Kitchener, Ontario. The sun was about to set on a snowy, winter afternoon. The auctioneer had become anxious to quit and bargains began to move, right and left. My mother bid two shillings on a box of books and got them. She also got a kitchen table, a mattress, and several chairs. A German immigrant hauled them home for us (we were “horse and buggy Mennonites” and could not easily take things out of the city) and I dug through the box of books to see what I could find. My first discovery was the story of the Moravian Church, told in a book about Pennsylvania.2

It spoke to my soul and stayed with me.

In fact the Moravians, through their witness and writings, took me to where I as a thirteen-year-old could not have dreamed—even though my family knew both, centuries before my time.

In 1748 a Moravian pilgrim, Brother Hautzach, stopped for the night in Pennsylvania’s Conestoga River settlement. After putting up and feeding his horse, Brother Hautzach’s hosts, Christian Martin and his son David (my Mennonite great-grandfather, five generations removed) took him in for supper and to visit. The Martins, like Brother Hautzach, had come from Germany and felt kindly disposed toward him. Much more, they felt spiritual kinship in their dedication to Christ and in the nonresistant, nonconformed lifestyle they shared. Christian had spent a long time in jail for what he believed (like the Moravians he refused to do military service and swear oaths). David’s wife had died and he buried her at sea on the voyage to William Penn’s colony where—like the Moravians—he had come in search of religious freedom.3

But the pleasant conversation and spirit of unity ended when Christian’s son Heinrich (also my ancestor) came over. Heinrich Martin, Brother Hautzach reports in his journal, was not “tender toward the Lamb’s wounds” like his father and brother. Rather, he was in a quarrelsome mood and contradicted everything the Moravian pilgrim had to say.

For many years I felt uncertain about the attitude we Mennonites had taken toward the Moravians. On one hand I deeply appreciated the Moravians’ conviction, in the eighteenth century, to live by the Sermon on the Mount. I saw that like the early Anabaptists, they gave everything up to follow Christ. Their communal settlements—their “Pilger” and “Hausgemeine” (pilgrim and home congregations)—fascinated me, along with their witness for peace, their evangelism “by the wheel,” and the First Fruits story (the incredible account of their world missions, made the subject of a 20’th century film).

Nevertheless, I continued to have my doubts. Only too well could I imagine what my great-uncle, six generations removed, would have found to contradict.

The Moravians were “plain,” in some ways more so than Mennonites in the eighteenth century. But along with their “plainness” they had a flair for celebration—great feasts with decorated halls and music by their church orchestra. Intellectuals among them, university professors, artists, composers, even nobility, set for them a remarkably different tone than that of other non-conformed groups. I could see how this would have given my Mennonite family a problem. But there were other, even more serious, differences. . . .

My great-grandfather Heinrich would have had a hard time with the Moravians’ view of the sacraments, especially baptism. Certain expressions in their worship he would have found baffling, or more likely, offensive. And as a climax of differences, he no doubt rejected totally the renewed Moravians’ concept of becoming “ganz klein und sünderisch” (altogether tiny and sinner-like) before the Lamb. I did too, until a long series of events—Moravian influences among them—brought me to make a difficult adjustment to my Anabaptist understanding of what it is to be a Christian.

Where my Anabaptist ancestors focused on obedience to Christ, the Moravians focused on recognition of their guilt and trust in Jesus’ blood. Both groups believed in both teachings, but their clear contrast in emphases led to cases like that of Peter Haller and Jakob Lischy in 1745.

Peter Haller, like my Martin ancestors, was a Mennonite settler in Pennsylvania. He liked the Moravians and began to attend their Sing and Gebetsstunden (song and prayer meetings) until a neighbour who also attended the meetings fell in temptation and got drunk. Then Peter had a problem. “Why didn’t you take action against that man?” he asked the Moravian pilgrim, Jakob Lischy, after the next meeting. “The Bible says no drunkard shall inherit the kingdom of God, and we are to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but must rather reprove them. Also, we are to separate ourselves from sinners and come out from among them.”

Peter Haller felt confused and upset. He could not understand pilgrim Lischy’s calm acceptance of the man’s continued participation in the meetings. Even less could he understand what Jakob meant by saying, “Now I love him [the brother who had sinned] even more than before.”

Then things went wrong for Peter. He “looked too deep into the cider barrel” himself and on top of that, got into a fight.

The day afterward he returned, a changed man, to speak with Jakob Lischy. “God has punished me for judging my neighbour,” he confessed. “Now I see that I sinned even more than he. I got drunk myself and fought like a devil. I have come to see what kind of man I am and my own holiness has fallen into the dirt.”

Jakob Lischy neither condemned nor condoned him. Neither did he smile and say, “I told you so!” He simply wished him “viel Glück mit der Sache” (a good outcome of the matter) and thanked the Saviour for doing his wonderful work in men.4

The Saviour keeps on working.

By the time I entered Bethlehem that frosty December morning I had a number of eventful years of Christian living behind me. My Anabaptist ideals of church purity and personal obedience to Christ had been tried out in more ways than I could have imagined. In mission congregations in Latin America, in teaching Bible School, and serving as a minister in a Mennonite church, I had made discoveries and observations—not all of them positive—and had more questions by now than answers, on how to do things.

Some of my questions involved the church. Did we Anabaptists know how to build a church like Christ had in mind? What about our constant struggle for unity in details, our bannings and shunnings, and our belief in the fellowship of the sanctified (die Gemeinschaft der reingewaschene we spoke of in my childhood) in the context of our appalling fragmentation? Without much humour I recalled an observation made by the Moravian, Georg Hantsch, in 1748: “May the dear Lamb bless our visit among the poor Mennonites who know nothing but fighting and struggling, and who consider our teachings dangerous because we direct them to the Gospel instead of to the law.”

Along with these questions I wondered about our ability (or lack of it) to “make disciples of all nations” and bring them to obey what the Lord commanded. Even though the Anabaptist movement began with a great wave of new converts, within one generation the wave became a trickle, and by the time of the renewing of the Moravian church in the eighteenth century, it had not only stopped flowing altogether, but reversed.

What happened?” I asked myself. While non-conformed non-resistant Moravians preached the Gospel to millions around the world and started communities in the most inhospitable places on every continent except Antarctica, nonresistant nonconformed Anabaptists became tiny enclaves, fortified with tradition and ethnic peculiarities against a hostile world. What did the one have that the other lacked? Even today it is rare for seekers “from the outside” to successfully become part of plain Anabaptist communities. Did this mean we have down-played personal “experience” so far, and focused on submission to the brotherhood so long, I wondered, that we have become stunted and weak? Or was something worse the matter with us?

Above all else, I had come to have questions about myself. After years of preaching, writing, and teaching others, circumstances had forced me to a shocking recognition of my own imperfection. Whether I liked it or not, honesty before God forced me to see I was still a sinner by nature, and far too often a sinner (a “short-comer”) in thought and deed as well. In fact, it plainly seemed the older I got, the more sinful I looked to myself.

That, for one who had long believed the sinful nature dies at conversion to be replaced by a new and utterly transformed “Christian” nature, was difficult. More difficult, perhaps, than anything else in my life.

Could I, after so many years of claiming “assurance of salvation” and holiness in Christ, sit down and admit I was still a sinner? A sinner by nature? Could I beat my chest and pray like my students at mass (in Costa Rica I taught at a Catholic school), “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner”?

The very idea seemed heretical. I had not called myself a sinner since my conversion years before. (We believed it was possible for a Christian to sin, but by accident, not by nature. Therefore Christians were no longer sinners but saints. “Don’t make the Church of Jesus Christ a hospital for sinners!” I remembered a Mennonite preacher thundering across the pulpit.) Yet now, the more I thought about it the more I felt like admitting exactly what I was—a great sinner—and live with the consequences. Living with the truth, for as terrible as it might be, looked suddenly more attractive than living with a lie.

With this change of perspective, it became easy to admit our shortcomings in the church as well. For the first time I felt ready to confess that neither I nor the church to which I belonged, was anything more than ordinary. But could I go on and say the rest?

I am a sinner and my church is simply another cell in that vast assembly of sinners—wounded, imperfect, scattered across the ages and around the world—that together form the body of believers for which Christ died.”

That, for me, still seemed like a startling and unacceptable confession, totally unlike what I as an Anabaptist had learned, and it brought serious paradoxes to mind. How could one follow Christ and be a sinner at the same time? How could the Church, consisting of sinners, be spotless and without wrinkle? Wasn’t this where Martin Luther had gone wrong?

Toward the end of a difficult period of rethinking and adjustment, these questions took me to Bethlehem in Pennsylvania—down to the lower story of the library at Moravian College, back through carpeted spaces into the beautiful Moravian Studies room. Beautiful, that is, not for its pleasing modern design but for what I found among leather-bound, carefully printed German books—several thousand of them from the eighteenth century—on its shelves and in special collections.

Holding in my hands the very books they carried to the West Indies in the 1700s and reading their letters for myself, the inner workings of the renewed Moravian church began to come clear. I began to understand their ganz klein und sünderisch attitude, not as a license to keep on sinning (as my Mennonite ancestors may have supposed), but as the lowly position—the only position, in fact—from which one can see the Lamb.

Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!”

In previously unknown Sünderhaftigkeit (recognition of human sinner-ness) I began to feel, with the young slave on St. Thomas, the unspeakable worth of Jesus’ blood and wounds. Thousands of Moravian hymns suddenly became my hymns. Their struggle to put to words what they felt, became my struggle, and their vision to bring the world to unity and peace under the conquering Lamb, became my vision. Then the story of Saul and David came home to me.

God chose Saul, the tallest and most handsome man in Israel, to be that nation’s first king. Samuel anointed him. God helped him win spectacular victories. But Saul did not stay “little in his own eyes” and God gave his work to a shepherd boy from Bethlehem.

He always does. It takes little people—like his son, born into that shepherd boy’s family, in a barn—to change the world.

Back on the street I hurried past the Sun Inn. Down to the family and widows’ houses above the Monocacy Creek I hurried past the area where the mill, the dairy, and the water works hummed with activity in community days. And there, close to the stable in which the first settlers lived and the settlement got its name from a carol on Christmas eve, 1742, I passed a fountain. Every time I saw it earlier, its whimsical inscription had cheered me: “Drink Pilgrim here; and if thy heart be innocent, here too shalt thou refresh thy spirit.”

Only on this cold day at the beginning of Advent, it no longer seemed so whimsical. If our hearts were innocent, to “drink from the fountain in Bethlehem” might change what we believe and how we live, forever.

1 Community house, where the “pilgrim brothers” lived and where believers met in its second story Saal.

2 Klees, Fredric, The Pennsylvania Dutch, MacMillan, New York, 1951

3 In North America the Moravians first settled in Georgia. But Georgia’s colonial government compelled them to bear arms and they moved to Pennsylvania rather than comply.

4 From Lischys und Rauchs Relation von ihrer Visitationsreise und Predigten in den Reformierten Gemeinden in Pennsylvanien, 1745, Moravian Archives