Monday, May 22, 2023

Lutherans in America Using Latin in Ordinations in 1703

The following excerpt is taken from A Year with American Saints, written by an Episcopalian pastor, Christopher L. Webber, and a Lutheran pastor, G. Scott Cady (Church Publishing, 2006). The book tells stories about Christians of various denominations who played a role in caring for their communities during the whole span of American history, from the Jamestown colony to the Civil Rights Movement. Of special interest to me, however, is the following vignette about Latin as a unifying language in early American Protestantism, which showed in this case a common sense that is utterly lacking in the ethnically-charged, politicallly motivated multilingual large-scale Catholic liturgies of today.—PAK

The first Lutheran ordination in the United States was apparently performed in Latin, carried out as it was before ethnically mixed congregations of Germans, Dutch, and Swedes, so as not to privilege any of their vernaculars!

Providing leadership for small, struggling congregations is still a challenge for church bodies. In the early eighteenth century, it was more so. Without well developed structures and support systems, and with the kind of inertia that still characterizes so many churches today, newly formed immigrant congregations in the colonies could not count on good leadership. One of the consistent reports we have of frontier congregations of that period concerns the shortage of adequately trained clergy. Such was the case for New World Lutherans in general, and certainly in the Hudson Valley area.

There was a kind of extended parish of Lutherans in this area, many of whom had Dutch roots. Andreas Rudman had been a good pastor to them, but his health was declining, so the parish wondered where they would find a qualified replacement. Justus Falckner [November 22, 1672–September 21, 1723] eventually became that leader, but he never sought out the role. In fact, the prospect was something of a conflict of conscience for him. As a Swedish pastor, Rudman wrote him, asking: “What shall I do forsaking my little flock? Looking everywhere, I find no one better fitted than you to whom I may safely entrust my sheep.” Though complimented, Falckner remained hesitant. He was German, and not fluent in Dutch. He had studied theology, but instead chose to be a land agent and surveyor. He questioned the legitimacy of ordination in the absence of regular church procedures for calling and ordaining new pastors on North American soil.

At thirty-one, Falckner was finally convinced that Rudman’s request was indeed a true call to ministry. There were Lutheran precedents for what we would now call “presbyteral ordination”—the use of parish clergy to ordain new parish clergy—in the New World. The mission of the church can be hampered by too much rigidity about specific details, especially in times and places that are simply too far removed from the normal apparatus of traditional ecclesiastical structures. Rudman had authorization from his bishop in Sweden to ordain new pastors in the colonies. In addition, Falckner’s own inner call began to be irresistible. In a letter to one of his former teachers, he wrote: “After much persuasion, also prompting of heart and conscience, I am staying as a regular preacher with a little Dutch Lutheran congregation, a state of affairs which I had so long avoided.”

On November 24, 1703, three Swedes, including Rudman, participated in the ordination of Falckner in Philadelphia. In his book The World of Justus Falckner, Delber Wallace Clark describes the event that needed to take into account Swedish, Dutch, German, and American traditions and understandings:

“The arrangements for the ordination were made with a speed which, in those days, was breathtaking. Just three weeks after the acceptance of the call, Rudman had reached Philadelphia and ordained the candidate who was already preparing to leave for New York. There was much to be done in this brief period. The Swedish ministers had to assemble, approve the plan, and settle upon a procedure.

“The three-way reference of the act made certain precautions necessary. The ordination must be in a form consistent with Falckner’s German tradition and the standards of the Dutch Lutherans to whom he would minister, and it must be the kind the Swedes could validly confer. There were minor questions, such as language, vestments, and even music. They met linguistically upon the common ground of Latin, the learned language. There were just about enough vestments to go around for all involved in the ceremony and some tact had to be used in deciding who should wear which.”

Thus began the official ministry of the first Lutheran pastor ordained in what would become the United States.

Falckner proved an able and energetic leader. He studied Dutch to make his preaching to his congregation more meaningful. He traveled the course of the Hudson River in his ministry of visitation to his far-flung parish. He covered an area that took in parts of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania and became known as a missionary and a pastor. He taught, organized, and baptized not just new European immigrants and their children, but also converts within the black and Native American communities. Despite all his pastoral duties, he also found time to develop a manual of Christian teachings and even contribute to the growing body of hymnody.

When a pastor died, others in the area would fill in, covering his duties as best they could until a new pastor could be found. Falckner’s own workload expanded until it was no longer possible for one man to fulfill it. He died at fifty-one, during a pastoral visitation journey up the Hudson River. His demise was probably hastened by the previous death of a colleague, The Rev. Josua Harrsch, which markedly increased his own obligations.

Some of Falckner’s records survive. They contain heartfelt prayers following many of the notes of baptisms and other pastoral duties in the course of twenty years of ministry. Although all reference to the date and place of his burial has been lost, his faithfulness keeps his memory alive. A hymn he wrote while still a student in Halle might serve as his epitaph:
When His servants stand before Him,
each receiving his reward;
when His saints in light adore Him,
giving glory to the Lord:
“Victory,” our song shall be,
like the thunder of the sea!

NLM comment: Even with today's lax standards of canonizaton, we do not suggest that Falckner is an “American saint,” strictly speaking. However, only a proud man would fail to be challenged by the example of his evident devotion to his flock and to his obligations, which led to an early death from exhaustion. Perhaps this, too, shall soon be the lot of some traditional priests who will not renounce the Roman Rite in favor of the modern rite, and who will end up traveling far and wide to provide the sacraments and the blessings in their traditional form.

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