"Marching to the beat of a Different Drummer"
July 5, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Romans 13:1-10
222 years ago yesterday, 56 representatives of the 13 American colonies of Great Britain gathered in Philadelphia to sign a "Declaration of Independence" from the "governing authorities" of King George III. A war was raging, which began in earnest the previous year, a conflict that would continue for five more years. We call it the American Revolution, but in many ways it was our first Civil War. Itís easy to forget, amid all the celebration, that the colonists at that time were not united in their opposition to England. Those were tumultuous times. Families divided over whether to align with the King or the fledgling Continental Congress. Events were not as clear-cut as we would like to believe. They rarely are, you know.
This morning, Iíd like to remind us of our Brethren ancestors who found themselves in the middle of this war, a story not often told. They were just as much a part of the beginning of this nation as John Hancock, who was the first to sign that Declaration long ago. Our forbearers in the faith had come to this land, just as many others before and after them, as a place of opportunity, where they could exercise the freedom of conscience. That freedom was put to the test in the very war fought to win it.
It would do us well to recall that our church was born out of war. In the seventeenth century Europe was a battleground of competing religions and states. Germany was not yet a united nation, but rather a loose collection of principalities. War raged between them, the fire stoked by the question of which Christian faith would dominate. Of course, as with any conflict, there was more to the so-called "Thirty Yearsí War" than one cause, but religion was an important factor. Today, we look at the Second World War as the most devastating war experienced by Europe, but 300 years earlier the civilian casualties there were much higher - about 50%, by some estimates. Germany was an ash heap, the common people paying with their lives. Out of these ashes sprouted our denomination, which explains some of why our forbearers emphasized putting away the sword.
Like the Mennonites, the emigration patterns of the Brethren flowed from principalities where they were forced to swear allegiance to an earthly king and his religion, and serve in his army, to localities where they were allowed to peacefully practice and spread their faith without taking up arms. An invitation from the English Quaker, William Penn, to settle in his new land across the Atlantic was followed. In Pennsylvania, the Brethren joined others of German background, and thrived. They were grateful to the King of England who allowed them the freedom to settle and grow and propagate their faith.
Like everyone else, they didnít like to pay taxes, but they considered it the cost of this new freedom. So, following the teaching of the apostle Paul, they paid "to all what is due them--taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due." (Rom. 13:7) Though there were things they would not do for any earthly King, such as take the life of another human being, they saw themselves as "subject to the governing authorities," i.e. the King of England and Parliament, believing them to be "Godís servants." (13:1,6) As long as those early Brethren were allowed to live out the law of Love, they could exist under any ruler.
Now, there were those in the years leading up to and during the American Revolution who were more loyal to the King of England. These were called "Tories," and their numbers were higher than one might expect. After all, as I said, this was really the first Civil War on American soil. The Brethren position was that of neutrality, as was most of the German population at first. Actually, the Brethren had a fair amount of influence in this new land, primarily among the Germans. This was due to the printing press of Christopher Sauer and his son. Sauer sr. was not a baptized Brethren, though he worshiped and studied with, and printed the writings of the Brethren. His whole family joined the church, Christopher Sauer jr. becoming an elder. Sauer sr. and jr. published German newspapers in which they resisted the growing tide of war. Their enterprise rivaled in size the press of Benjamin Franklin.
Like the various ethnic groups that followed them, Germans were viewed with suspicion by many of the English settlers. They kept their German language instead of adopting English. Does this sound familiar? Many Americans today are suspicious of the most recent immigrants, forgetting that their ancestors started out the same way. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
As war developed in the 1770's, our Brethren forbearers found themselves in a difficult position, as they have in every war. To be honest, they were not on the side that ultimately won. Though they were "officially" neutral, they leaned toward the King as the authority instituted by God. It was the King of England whom they saw as offering them freedom from persecution in Germany. Twentieth century Brethren theologian Dale Brown tells of a conversation he once had with an old order Brethren elder. Following an old pattern of refraining from politics, the minister said, "we donít vote, but we pray Republican." That would be similar to the Brethren position back then. Iím not implying they were right in leaning toward the King, even though I believe their refusal to bear arms was.
The Quakers had helped pave the wave for conscientious objection, so that most colonies made provision for those not bearing arms. Though the Brethren would not join the local militias, they did pay a fine or penalty for this right. They were also pressed for contributions to the Revolutionary cause. "In 1777-78 a Germantown militia company asked the public for financial support. Christopher Sauer jr. headed the list of donors with a large sum, but with the designation Ďfor the poor widows and children.í" (Fruit of the Vine, p. 152) Over time, the amounts demanded increased. In fact, the Continental cause depended upon this money from those who would not fight. Furthermore, when foraging for food and other supplies on the road, as was done back then, American forces often hit Brethren, Mennonite, and other nonresistant farmers first, taking more than what was right, since they knew these folks would not fight back.
Iím not saying the Brethren were innocents in all this. Christopher Sauer III eventually took an open stand for England. He and his brother joined the Tory cause, working for the English, becoming intermediaries between the Redcoats and pockets of resistance in the colonies which, as the war progressed, went underground. As I said, this was a civil war at first. Christopher Sauer III even played a major role in the Benedict Arnold affair. After the war, he and his family settled in the Canadian colony of New Brunswick, like many other Tories.
The shift in position of his children made it difficult for Christopher Sauer jr. He remained neutral, like the rest of the Brethren. Unfortunately, guilt by association with his sons led to his downfall. Unwisely, during the winter of 1777-78, the same year he gave a large donation to the Rebel cause, he moved in with his son in Philadelphia, which was then occupied by the British. When he returned to his Germantown home in the Spring, he was arrested for Treason by Continental soldiers. It is a sad page from American history.
Marching him to Valley Forge, this elderly man was badly mistreated. Along the way, they stripped off his clothes, mangled his hair and beard, painted his body, and prodded him with bayonets. He was imprisoned for quite a while, and when released, he was forbidden to return home. His printing presses, home, and other properties were auctioned off, the proceeds going to the rebel cause. His business rivals thus acquired cheap materials and got rid of some competition, all in one fell swoop.
On the surface, the reason given was that Christopher Sauer jr. had been pronounced a Traitor to the American cause while he was away and had not appealed it. As he later protested, Sauer was in jail at the time, and was not allowed to make that appeal. He died a poor and broken man six years later, though he had paid back all his debts, still appealing the unjust seizure of his property.
One can only suspect other reasons behind his mistreatment, from using war as a guise for economic advancement, to hatred of Germans and dissenters. Truth is often a casualty of war, even a war many consider righteous. Thankfully, the case of Christopher Sauer jr. is the most severe example of maltreatment of Brethren during the Revolution. Generally, though often mistreated, they survived the war and adapted to the new government, seeing as "Godís servants" these new "powers that be." The framers of the Constitution of this new country, to their credit, built in protections for those who dissent, such as our Brethren forbearers. That is reason for celebration!
Those protections would be greatly needed, as well as sorely tested, in the years that followed. Only a few generations later, another Civil War would be fought, this one much more violent and costly. Brethren found themselves, again, on both sides of the conflict. Again, they had to manage their way through the mess, paying taxes and fines for their refusal to fight, bearing maltreatment and offering comfort to the wounded on both sides, living out the law of love. Where all the major denominations split during that war, however - one siding with the south, the other siding with the north - the Brethren remained united as one church. Of course, this time around they were leaning in the direction that won. After all, from the beginning Brethren did not own slaves.
It is right and good to celebrate July 4th, Independence Day. Who can resist the thrill of parades and fireworks, and remembering what happened so long ago when our nation was born? It is also right and good to recall the whole story, and to realize that our country was built not just by minutemen from Massachusetts who fired the first shot, and learned men from Virginia who penned a profound declaration. Just as important were those who marched to the beat of a different drummer - such as our forbearers in the faith. Without taking up arms, they fought for the right to dissent. They did so simply by taking seriously what the apostle Paul wrote:
"Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ĎYou shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covetí; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ĎLove your neighbor as yourself.í Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." (Rom. 13:8-10)
Do you hear the call of that distant drummer, also?
©1998Peter L. Haynes
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