One of my favorite authors has published a nifty little Postmodern religious primer on what those of us in the Evangelical world coyly refer to as Protestant Latin. Protestant Latin is perhaps not as different perhaps as traditional Russländer Plautdietsch, but infinitely more complicated.
In Amacing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris takes Protestant Latin head-on, detailing her vocabulary of faith, while expounding on why those definitions are pertinent to her rich spiritual life. One of the terms that she explores, Ebenezer, comes to her from a popular hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which begins the second stanza, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer; Hither by thy help I’m come,” (Norris, p. 251). While many would recognize the term Ebenezer as the Christian name of Charles Dickens’ most memorable Christmas character, Ebenezer Scrooge, Norris reveals its deeper pedigree: “The word Ebenezer is found in a passage in First Samuel, one of the historical books of the Hebrew scriptures. It describes an event, the celebration of Israel’s victory over the Philistine army, a victory that came against the odds, when the thundering voice of God threw the troops into confusion, and they fled. The passage reads: ‘Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us’ (1 Sam 7:12, KJV),” (Norris, p. 251).
In his Concise History of the EMB Conference 1889-1977, Orlando (O.J.) Wall reflects on the history of a conference co-founded by his grandfather, Aron Wall, in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, and a church movement in Nebraska led by Rev. Isaac Peters and a host of my own great-great-great grandfathers. While much attention has been given to the choice of name for the Mountain Lake Brüderthaler Church which would eventually be adopted by others when referring to the EMB or Brüderthaler, (according to H. F. Epp’s “Historical Sketch 1889-1953,” (1953) the name Brüderthaler was never actually officially adopted by the conference but did officially designate numerous congregations with the EMB). Seldom mentioned is that the other two founding churches, being Henderson and Jansen, Nebraska, were known as Ebenezer Churches, as well as the first non-founding church to join the conference -- the Ebenezer Church of Inman, Kansas. As such the conference might easily have been referred to as Ebenezerites or Ebenezer Mennonites. Admittedly, the use of Ebenezer is hardly unique to those Mennonite churches -- it is common also amongst Reformed, Lutheran and Baptist churches of my acquaintance.
Peters’ reasons for choosing this name are not readily available research-wise, but one could easily understand how such a name would appeal to a group of travel weary immigrants remembering the lands and trials from which they had been delivered, and the hope in the Lord’s promise for help in the future.
As both a community and as individuals, the term Ebenezer is one of great hope and comfort for both spiritual and physical challenges and trials. Norris expounds, “There is a powerful moment in any religious conversion, perhaps to any faith, in which a person realizes that all of the mentors, and all that they have said, all of the time spent in reading scripture, or engages in what felt like stupid, boring, or plain hopeless prayer, has been of help after all. It is nothing you have done, but all of it is one event, God’s being there, and being of help. The enemies you were facing, whatever obstacles seemed amassed against you, even your own confusion, have simply vanished. And you are certain that it is God who has brought you to this moment, which may even feel like victory,” (Norris, p. 251-252). This is the clarity under which the Ebenezer Mennonite Churches were established.
Peters, like Aron Wall, was active in the larger joint-Mennonite fellowships established in the early immigrant communities in 1874. Ironically, in Peters’ case, this group was comprised largely of Krimmer Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Brethren, and would then spread to the Kleine Gemeinde – all churches that had been founded by Piestist schisms back in Russia and the desire to reform existing congregations, often using the exact same reasons to justify their various separations that Peter now used against them in Henderson and Jansen. In the case of the Henderson Church, Epp writes, “Elder Isaac Peters, formerly of Pordenau, South Russia, was the elder. The work was difficult, as these members came from different churches, among them being truly born again and many nominal members. Works of flesh were clearly manifest in many, so that this led Elder Isaac Peters to openly rebuke such sins, but evidently without incisive results. Since the enforcement of stricter church discipline resulted in opposition, Elder Isaac decided to withdraw and organize a group that would be willing to subscribe to higher standards requiting the new birth and a separated life,” (Epp, p. 2). Founded with the Lord’s provision, these congregations were the Ebenezer Mennonite Churches.
One might easily infer that apart from the everyday physical challenges of establishing new homes on the plains, that those Mennonites who so desired to experience true conversion and victory over sin in their lives, would easily echo Norris’ sentiments, “The enemies you were facing, whatever obstacles seemed amassed against you, even your own confusion, have simply vanished. And you are certain that it is God who has brought you to this moment,” (Norris, p. 252). What a beautiful sentiment upon which to build a church.
- Epp, H. F., Historical Sketch 1889 - 1953, 1953.
- Norris, Kathleen, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Riverhead Books, 1999, p. 384.
- Wall, O. J., Concise History of the EMB Conference 1889 - 1977, A, 1977.