Luther’s Sermons, annotated by seminary student ca. 1908.
Everyone has an inner child. But mine took a double major in English and history, so my inner life can get pretty odd sometimes — I guess that’s to be expected when you spend part of your day in another century.
And sometimes it gets really, really odd, like it has this week when I’ve been reading an 1871 translation of Martin Luther’s Hauspostille (house postils, or sermons), first published in 1544, for a project I’m researching on what Swedish immigrants in Chicago thought about theological issues. So I spend at least part of my day ping-ponging back and forth from the 21st to the 19th and 16th centuries.
Well, that’s what historians do.
But sometimes it all comes together in unexpected ways.
And sometimes I sense the presence of God in it, which shouldn’t be terribly surprising in this case, since after all it’s theology that I’m reading about. So it’s on my mind anyway. Also, this: I’ve been wrestling lately with how — or if — God speaks to me. I’m talking with a spiritual director, and I’m training myself to see God at work in day-to-day living, in what are sometimes known as moments of grace.
Those moments, too, can happen in unexpected ways.
Here’s one: I’ve been reading Luther’s sermons, or postils, in order to get a better handle on what Swedish-Americans were thinking when they first established churches in Chicago and along the upper Mississippi Valley frontier. Postils are practically unknown today, but they were an important form of devotional literature in the 1800s. A postil is a sermon, or collection of sermons, taking its name from the medieval Latin phrase post illa verba (after these words). They were one of the important resources, according to Swedish-American academic Conrad Bergendoff’s history, The Church of the Lutheran Reformation, that allowed immigrant Lutherans, “with or without a resident pastor … to sing cherished hymns, read parts of a familiar liturgy or sermons from well-worn postils, and teach children the Small Catechism until in time a pastor could come to administer the sacraments.”
So the postils are as good a window as any into the thinking of Swedish immigrants of that era. In Luther’s Second Sermon for Christmas, on the text in Luke where the angels announce good tidings of great joy to the shepherds at Bethlehem, I came across this:
Shall we still doubt God’s grace and say: St. Peter or St. Paul may indeed rejoice in this Savior; but I am a poor sinner, I dare not do it, this noble precious treasure is not intended for me? My dear friend, if you will say it is not for me, to whom then does it belong? Did He come for the sake of geese, ducks or cows? For you must notice what He is. Had He wished to help another creature, He would have become that creature. (1:101)
Even in a stilted 19th-century translation from Luther’s German, I’m pretty sure we’re hearing his authentic voice here.
A handwritten note in my copy of the book* says this sermon was preached in church on Christmas afternoon in 1534, a time when we know that Luther and Pastor Johannes Bugenhagen sometimes shared the pulpit at St. Mary’s in Wittenberg. Luther says the angels at Bethlehem proclaimed “that we men, who were formerly the devil’s servants, attain to such honor through this Child, that we are received into citizenship of the dear angels.” And this:
These [angels] are now our dear friends, so that for the sake of this Child we can trust that we have one Lord with the dear angels and they with us, and that we are with they of the same household.
They, the dear angels, might well be proud that they are so much nobler than we men, in the first place as to their nature and being, and then also in that they are without sin. But we see in them no pride; they do not despsise us men on account of our misery; nay, they regard us as being greatly ennobled and honored through this their Lord and our Savior, the Son of God. (1:105)
They do not say: I do not like this sinner, this stinking corpse, these condemned, unclean whoremongers and profligates. No, they do not say thus; but they rejoice heartily that they now have such sinners for friends and associates, and praise God for this, that we, being delivered from sin, come with them into one house and under one Lord …
How much more is it not meet that we also should thank and praise God therefore, and love and help one another, even as the Son of God did us, who became our flesh and nearest Friend. But whoever will not regard this, and will not thus love and serve his neighbor, for Him, as said above, there is no help. (1:106)
Dear angels; ducks, cows and geese; stinking corpses; condemned whoremongers and profligates. It all sounds like Luther, who could be down-to-earth and had a reputation as quite a good preacher. “When I preach, I sink myself deep down,” he once said, as quoted in Table Talk (No. 427, AGES Digital Library Edition). He continued:
I regard neither doctors nor magistrates, of whom are here in this church [St. Mary’s?] above forty; but I have an eye to the multitude of young people, children and servants, of whom are more than two thousand. I preach to those, directing myself to them that have need thereof. Will not the rest hear me? The door stands open unto them; they may be gone.
Luther said, again as quoted in Table Talk (No. 410), he had a pretty good model.
We ought to direct ourselves in preaching according to the condition of the hearers, but most preachers commonly fail herein; they preach that which little edifies the poor simple people. To preach plain and simply is a great art: Christ himself talks of tilling ground, of mustard-seed, etc; he used altogether homely and simple similitudes.”
So I sense the presence of God speaking through one of Martin Luther’s sermons in 1534?
Nothing remarkable about that.
But there’s something else going on here, and it gets me thinking about unexpected moments of grace.
My copy of the House Postils was published in 1871 by the Augustana Book Concern, the publishing arm of the Augustana Synod, one of the predecessors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A two-volume set titled Sermons of the Gospels for the Sundays and Principal Festivals of the Church Year, by Dr. Martin Luther, it was edited by Matthias Loy, a professor at the Lutheran seminary in Columbus, Ohio. According to the inscriptions on the flyleaf, it belonged to a student at Concordia, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary in St. Louis.
But … wait a minute … there may be something else going on here. I’m seeing a window into the past I hadn’t anticipated. You see, it’s been my understanding that the Lutheran synods of the 1800s and early 1900s in America fought incessantly with each other over ethnic and doctrinal issues that we can scarcely understand anymore, let alone take more than a historical interest in today.
But Professor Loy was an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Ohio, a German-American body that didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Augustana. And the copyright page bears the notice that the book was “[e]ntered, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1871 … in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of Ohio.” That’s how copyrights were recorded in the 1800s, and it looks to me like Augustana published the sermons under license from the original publisher, Schulze & Gassman of Columbus. It suggests a level of cooperation I wouldn’t expect from reading the church histories of the period.
Wait, there’s more. In 1908, a seminary student named Gade (whose initials I can’t decipher) recorded on the flyleaf that he bought the two-volume set from a Mr. N.T. Suhr for $1. I can’t track down either one, but according to Ancestry.com, Suhr is a surname from Schleswig-Holstein (a part of Germany seized from Denmark in the 1860s), and it is “also found in Sweden and Denmark, probably taken there from Germany.” Gade is a common surname in Denmark and Sweden. I think most of us who have tried to track our ancestry come to realize our forebears moved around Europe more than our family stories and lingering ethnic rivalries might suggest, and the notes in the flyleaf tell a story of their own.
I love those inscriptions. They also suggest to me that this book is part of a living tradition in a way that an up-to-date edition might not. Will people in future years feel the same way about the online Digital Library edition of Table Talk? I hope so.
Not only do the inscriptions tell me the names of its owners, and record the fact that one of them purchased it used around the turn of the 19th century for $1, but they number the paragraphs and cross-reference the Second Sermon for Christmas to what appear to be German-language editions of Luther’s Works in St. Louis, from 1885 to 1910; Weimar, begun in 1883 and not completed until 2009; and Leipzig, from 1729 to 1740. The books open out flat now, and I’ll bet they were propped open and closely read, possibly by gaslight, in student housing somewhere near Concordia Seminary. They’re heavily, but neatly, underlined … I’ve underlined books in exactly the same way, although usually not as neatly.
Reading the sermons and following the inscriptions, I feel a kinship with that student at Concordia Seminary who made them. It’s a reminder that there is a communion of saints, a communionem sanctorum as Luther said in his Large Catechism, and “I am also a part and member of the same, a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it possesses, brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Ghost by having heard and continuing to hear the Word of God, which is the beginning of entering it.”
In an essay intriguingly titled “Past Imperfect: Spiritual Lessons from Things Left Behind” in Spirituality: Toward a 21st Century Understanding, Maria Erling, a professor of church history at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg (now part of United Lutheran Seminary), suggests that historians “are engaged in a kind of practice of spirituality that is incarnational, anchored, connected to real things, and to the world we inhabit” (108). Basically, she’s arguing from the material record here — inferring what she can from objects like hymnals, embroidered wall hangings, photographs and linen chests.
And, I would submit, the same thing can be done from well-worn copies of Luther’s House Postils. What’s required, Erling says, is imagination and some feeling of kinship with the people who inhabited the past:
It is often a family connection to an object that can create a bridge of understanding, but once this link is crafted I find that a much broader world is opened up for the interpreter, and the past becomes much more tangible, focused, and meaningful. I propose that this energy of interpretation, this imaginative involvement with things, is a practice that defines and locates that aspect of the concept of spirituality that involves the sense of connectedness with others, or with meaning, or with the divine. (98)
Connectedness with others, with meaning, with the divine. The communion of saints reaching across time, from Wittenberg in 1534 to Columbus, Ohio, and the Augustana Book Concern in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1871; to St. Louis in 1908; and now to me. My copy of the Postils wasn’t handed down in the family — I bought it used on Amazon for not much more than theology student Gade paid for it — but I think all the rest of it works.
* Dr. Martin Luther’s House-Postil; or, Sermons on the Gospels for the Sundays and Principal Festivals of the Church-Year, trans. Matthias Loy. 2 vols. Rock Island, Illinois: Lutheran Augustana Book Concern, 1871.