Old traditions of a living faith

Typical dress among Old German Baptist Brethren 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.

7 thoughts on “Old traditions of a living faith”

  1. I got to experience one of those, once, as well, a number of years ago– oddly enough, also in SW Virginia. (I was in Roanoke.)

    It really is a testimony of a sort of community that, I think, pastors today dream about when they think of what true community in the church looks like. Not the plainness of it, necessarily, or the dress, but the connection and commitment to one another. (I do think the inherent commitment to plainness– which expresses itself in the dress– contributes strongly to the community in a peculiar way.)

    Thanks for posting this; it brought back an interesting memory I had almost forgotten.

  2. I don’t suppose the service took place in Franklin County? I grew up in Franklin Co. and the Old German Baptists were a pretty significant group – not as many now from what I can see.

    Michael A. Jordan

  3. — Dee, you can google it and Wikipedia has a good article, plus other info. Don’t know if McBeth includes it or not.
    — Ed and Michael, this was in Roanoke, off Peter’s Creek Pkwy. I am sure the numbers are declining and it will be sad if this group completely disappears. They are a living history exhibit to those of us on the outside, but they are also a vibrant, caring community whose old ways are still very sweet and gentle. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

    Thanks for all your comments, and I always enjoy hearing from each of you. — Chuck

  4. First of all you will not find any information under baptists. They are listed under Brethren groups, not Baptist. Secondly, Wikipedia is probably the best guide for “outsiders.” It is surprisingly accurate. If you have any questions, I was raised in a German Baptist family, so I can probably answer them. Finally, Amazon.com sells a book on German Baptist. For the ultimate information guide, see if you can find The Brethren Encyclopedia (3 volumes). Hope that helps.

  5. My grandfather was from Rocky Mount, Virginia and later moved to Allen Co. Ohio. He passed away this week and his funeral was today.
    My mother was raised German Baptist but never joined the church. Growing up myself and my siblings were never treated any differently by my mothers family. They were a gentle and loving people. Your descriptive of that funeral in Roanoke was almost exactly what I experience today. How beautiful it was and what a wonderful people they are.

  6. I was also raised in the Old German Church of the Brothern. Our father passed away last May & his funeral was held near Rocky Mt. VA. That description is similar to dad’s service. The morning prior to his funeral, the brethren followed a very old tradition and dug his grave yard hand-joined by my oldest brother although none of our parents children joined the church. My brother, step brother, cousins, friends filled the his grave. Some of them did a few shovels before stepping aside to allow the next brother to take his turn. Although I no longer recall the specifics, they have a method for preparing the sod so it looks beautiful when placed back in its original place. Every step is meaningful, respectful and completed at a much slower pace than the “modern” funerals today

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