❦ UCC Series VI ❦
One is his hymns. We sang one of his hymns earlier in this service, and we sang his most famous one a couple of weeks ago—called Praise to the Lord, the Almighty. And the other thing has nothing to do with anything he did, except that one of his favorite places to go to commune with nature—and kind of like Jesus, people would follow him there and he would hold worship in the outdoors—was the valley of the Düssel River (the river that gives Düsseldorf its name). Long after he died, they renamed the area where he preached the Neander Valley, which in German is Neanderthal. It was in this valley, too, that the bones of a subspecies of pre-modern humans was discovered, and so we call those people Neanderthals. Remember that the next time we sing Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.
But the Dutch came to the rescue, and not only ordained him in 1729, but validated his ministry before then retroactively. Boehm remained in Pennsylvania the rest of his life, and was committed to the Reformed churches, resisting the very thing that later Germans easily embraced, namely, efforts to unite the German-speaking Reformed and Lutheran (as well as the Moravian)—churches in the New World. But because the Germans were relative newcomers, his work—as well as that of other German Reformed pastors—remained under the auspices of the Dutch Reformed Church, which had arrived on the scene a hundred years earlier.
It wasn’t until 1793, well after American independence, that the Germans formed their own denomination. The Dutch Reformed Church became the Reformed Church in America—a denomination that still exists today, and which has what’s called a “Formula of Agreement” with the UCC—and the German Reformed Church became the Reformed Church in the United States. This denomination had a college in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and so it was natural that when it came time to establish a separate seminary, that that school be located in Mercersburg as well.
That name may just represent a town to many of you, but it gave its name to one of the most fascinating movements in American theological history. But before I talk about that, I want to broach another subject:
So picture a friendship in which one friend likes the other friend only because of what that friend can do for them. Maybe your friend gives you money, or feeds you, or drives you wherever you want to go. Maybe they provide all the emotional support you want, while you don’t have to give any in return. Now imagine that friend running out of money, or having their kitchen destroyed, or losing their driver’s license. Maybe that friend suddenly has horrible problems of their own and doesn’t have the emotional energy to listen to you. What kind of friend are you, then, if you dump that friend and find a new BFF?
The answer is, if you only keep up a friendship because of what another person can do for you, you’re really not much of a friend, are you? I think just about all of us want people to love us not based on what we can do for them, but on who we are.
It all sounds wonderful to our ecumenical ears. But there were those in his church who were scandalized by what he wrote. And so they held an ecclesiastical trial, in which both he and his books were found innocent of heresy. But the small minority who opposed him were never quite satisfied with that verdict. The church synod told them that if there was to be another trial, it would have to be conducted by the seminary where he taught. Needless to say, there was never another trial.
|John Williamson Nevin|
In Nevin’s book on the Lord’s Supper called The Mystical Presence, he goes to great lengths to explain and defend our theology of what happens in Holy Communion. But he also advances the idea that the atonement we celebrate at the table comes to us not through the work of Christ, but through his Person.
Based on Mercersburg theology, the Reformed Church in the United States produced a new liturgy that was an enormous departure from just about anything Protestants had adopted in the past. It was basically a Roman Catholic Communion service for use in Protestant worship. Needless to say, it took the focus off the pulpit and put it on the altar. And those who were opposed to it were really opposed to it. They promoted a separate liturgy and founded a separate college. To this day, Ursinus College and Franklin and Marshall College still exist, as does the Mercersburg Seminary… though the seminary has since moved to Lancaster, so that’s what we call it. But one of the more fascinating things about the old Mercersburg liturgy was that once Vatican II allowed Roman Catholic worship in a language other than Latin, a member of the old Reformed Church (or its successor the E&R Church) found themselves in a surprisingly familiar worship environment when they attended a Roman Catholic Mass.
Through Christ, we are united with God, and in Christ we are called into union with each other. I hope learning a little bit more about our German Reformed ancestors can help us better understand why church unity is such an important part of our DNA, and why we can never be satisfied with the state of a church that is broken and divided along denominational lines.
—©2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.