I stepped back in time 200-years today. No, I did not go to a museum. I went to a funeral. A friend’s father died after an extended illness, and Debbie and I attended the funeral today. Our friend’s father was of the Old German Baptist Brethren, and the funeral moved me profoundly.
We got lost on our hour-and-a-half drive to find the Old German Baptist meetinghouse, and pulled into the churchyard just as the funeral was beginning. As we walked up to the church door, I heard the sounds of singing. In unison and without accompaniment, as one great strong voice, the congregation was singing as we entered the meetinghouse. A bearded minister stood at the front of the large meeting room, “lining” the hymn — he spoke the verse, which the congregation then sang. The sound reminded me of vespers at a monastery retreat I took several years ago. Almost a chant, the melody soared and fell in a slow, deliberate cadence that was solemn, but not sad.
Debbie and I sat down, only to realize upon looking around that we were seated on the left section filled with men only. The center section contained families — husbands, wives, children — and the right section of pews seated only women. All the pews faced the front of the room, which could probably seat about 400. One group of pews on the left faced toward the ministers. Deacons occupied those pews, I was later told.
The meetinghouse was well-constructed, but plain — a wood floor, newly polished; white unadorned walls; flat ceiling about 14-feet high; and plain pews with no hymn racks. The rectangular room was lined with pews in three sections, all facing the wall opposite the door. The two entrance doors were on the south wall, the pews faced the north wall, both were the longest walls, so that the congregation was broader than it was deep.
As I looked at the front of the room, there was no platform and no pulpit. The ministers, who are elected by the congregation and are unpaid, sat on two rows of pews facing the congregation. In front of those pews, between the ministers and congregation, was a long wooden table. I had read that the earliest Baptist meetinghouses had a central table around which the congregation was seated. I was witness to that 300-year old arrangement at the Old German Baptist Brethren church today.
After the hymn singing ended — each person carried their own small hymnal with words but no music — a minister stood to speak. Although he used no microphone, his words resounded off the floor and walls with crisp clarity. “This is what a service must have been like 200-years’ ago,” I thought to myself, although the room did have plain electric lights hanging from the ceiling.
The men wore beards, but no moustaches. Their suits were dark without collars, jackets buttoned at the top button only. Plain white shirts without ties worn under a dark vest completed their attire. Women wore dark dresses, with a cape-like design that covered their upper torsos. Dark bonnets nestled in their husband’s black hats, either hung on hooks or suspended in an ingenuous wire hat rack that ran overhead from the front of the room to the back.
The service included two speakers, two or three hymns, two prayers during which the entire congregation — men, women, and children – knelt on the hard wooden floor, and the Lord’s Prayer followed each prayer. From 10 AM to 12 noon we sang, prayed, knelt, and listened as this funeral “meeting” offered words of comfort, and a community of support.
After the funeral, we drove the short distance to the church-owned cemetery. As we stood by the graveside, brief words were spoken. Then cemetery workmen lowered the casket into the vault, secured the top of the vault, and lowered both into the grave. As they did so, two of the Brethren came alongside with long tamping poles. As the vault was lowered, they inserted the poles down each side, guiding the vault away from the sides of the grave into the center. What followed was remarkable.
The gathered congregation began to sing. As they sang, bearded men in black suits picked up shovels and began to shovel dirt into the grave. These hands were not strangers to work, and as they shoveled, other men holding the tamping rods tamped the dirt vigorously as the grave filled. One song gave way to another as one by one, bearded men and family members shoveled dirt into the grave, and tamped it lovingly into place. Some tears were shed, but most wore pleasant expressions of seeing an old friend off on a long journey. As the grave filled, other men brought rolls of sod, covering the smoothed dirt with green grass.
The hymns ended. A minister spoke of the journey of their brother, a journey that had taken him safely home. A prayer was offered and then another minister thanked everyone for their loving kindness to the family.
As Debbie and I stood among these gentle people dressed in clothes belonging to another place and time, I marveled at how they had gathered to take care of their brother even to the duty of laying his body in the ground. This was a community of faith. A community carrying out centuries-old traditions, but not without meaning. This community gathered from all over the country, as automobile tags carried the designations of many states. They gathered, greeting each other with hugs and holy kisses, to do what communities do — to cry, to pray, to help, to support, to do the work that one friend does for another.
Most of those Old German Baptists were old. Gray beards and gray-bonneted hair were in the majority. I felt we were witnessing the passing of an era. An era when people believed together, worshipped together, mourned together, and rejoiced together. An era when life was simple, families were close, and faith was real.