Assembly Members Take Time to See Shrine Important to Their Lutheran Roots
8/18/1997 12:00:00 AM
PHILADELPHIA (ELCA) -- "You can talk about history, but it's a lot different to see it," John Gruber said as the tour bus made its way back to Philadelphia Sunday afternoon. A bit of history had, in fact, been seen that day.
Gruber, from Milwaukee, is a voting member of this year's Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting here through Wednesday. He was among just over 100 other voting members, spouses and visitors who spent their one afternoon free of assembly business to visit a church building -- a shrine, really -- steeped in American Lutheran history.
The visit was to Augustus Lutheran Church, more often called "Trappe Church" after the borough in which it is located. Built in 1743, the old Trappe Church is not only the oldest unaltered Lutheran church building in North America, but is also the church most closely associated with the patriarch of American Lutheranism, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg.
A picture of the building itself is the focal point of the backdrop behind the assembly podium at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Some may think it's a picture of a barn, for that's what it resembles. But it's not a barn (even though a barn is where the congregation in Trappe, then called Providence, first worshiped). That's just the way 18th century German architecture looks to us today.
Young Pastor Muhlenberg traveled from Germany to Pennsylvania in 1743 to take charge of the Trappe congregation. Just weeks after he preached his first sermon there, the congregation began work on their first true church building, which now stands a short distance behind and to the side of a newer structure, built in 1852. As time went on, Muhlenberg more than any other single human being, was responsible for the growth of Lutheranism in the eastern United States.
"History is one of the weakest points of my being," Susan Stengel, an assembly visitor from Voorhees, N.J., said to explain why she had taken the trek to Trappe. Originally from Texas, her family moved first to Boston, then to the Philadelphia area, two cities of no little historical import. "This is God's way of getting me interested," she said.
The congregation does its best to get the visitor interested as well. Members were on hand to help answer questions, and one was dressed in colonial garb and reviewed the history of the old building. He explained, for example, that specific pews were auctioned off every year. The higher-price d seats were near the front of the church perhaps a surprise to visiting Lutherans today, who often seem to prefer the back seats in church.
The congregation's assistant pastor, the Rev. William A. Fluck, added even more to the experience by dressing in white wig and black gown, in spite of this August afternoon's heat and humidity. He was Muhlenberg this day, reporting with relish that he had just returned from a visitation to a neighboring colony and that "our churches in New York are flourishing."
Then, clear as a bell in a building with hard, white walls and nearly perfect acoustics, the visitors sang a hymn under the direction of Pastor "Muhlenberg:" "Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices, Who wondrous things hath done, in whom our heart rejoices, Who from our mother's arms hath bless us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today."
On the bus ride back to the city, the Rev. Frederick Schumacher, a voting member of the assembly, from White Plains, N.Y., reflected on the experience and the hymn. "Being in this church and singing 'Now Thank We All Our God,'" he said, "gave me a sense of all the saints who have gone before us."
And that is history come alive.
For information contact:
Ann Hafften, Director (773) 380-2958 or NEWS@ELCA.ORG