Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A Still Small Voice

 “And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.” 1 Kings 9:11-12 (NIV) (In other versions called a “still small voice.”)

Newspaper headlines after
the tornado that ripped through Hesston.
In March of 1990 I was living in Hesston, Kansas, when a powerful F5 tornado ripped through, destroying a third of the town. I watched from my basement window as debris whirled around the black cloud that passed only two blocks to the north west of my house. Although only one life was lost, many people suffered significant damage to their properties and the psychological scars cut deep. It was an extremely frightening event.

Torre Latinoamericana in Mexico City
from the sidewalk.
In April of 2012, I was with a group of students in Mexico City looking at the street below from the observation deck on the 44th story of La Torre Latinoamericana, one of the tallest building in the city. Suddenly the building began to rock significantly. It was more than the gentle sway when a strong wind buffets such a building. Below, people were scurrying out of buildings like rats fleeing a sinking ship. We were stuck in a skyscraper in the middle of a major earthquake. Even though there was little damage nor loss of life from the earthquake, it was an extremely frightening event.

In June of 1994, my family had just moved to Harrisonburg, VA. Esther had bread in the oven while we all were huddled in the family room in the basement watching a TV show. Suddenly, the smoke alarm in the kitchen went off. We hurried to the kitchen to see smoke billowing out of the oven. Soon the whole upstairs was engulfed with smoke. We called 911, and miraculously our neighbor was monitoring his scanner and rushed over to our house long before the fire trucks arrived. He was a volunteer firefighter and knew exactly what to do to contain the blaze to our oven. Apparently accumulated grease in the oven by the former owners caught fire and except for the quick action of our neighbor, our house could have been burned to the ground. It was an extremely frightening event.  

I was at a silent retreat in rural Pennsylvania. A group of about 40 contemplatives huddled in a small room practicing centering prayer for 20 minutes. I was used to practicing silence alone, in an isolated place, not with a group of people. I expected lots of distractions with so many people in the room. However, the silence in the room, despite the presence of so many people, was so thick you could slice it with a knife. Time stood still. The hunger for God in that small space was palpable. I was moved to tears. When the chimes sounded signaling the end of the twenty minutes, I could hardly believe it. I wanted to remain in silence, united with forty other souls basking in the eternal embrace of God’s love. It was an extremely rewarding event.

My personal life has not only gone through literal tornados, earthquakes and fires, as described above, but also many emotional upheavals. I often wished I could hear the voice of God speak to me in dramatic forms like in the wind, an earthquake or a fire. Like Elijah, I needed a direct message from God telling me what to do during my times of emotional stress and uncertainty. In spite of the wake-up calls that God gave me in the literal winds, earthquake and fire, they were not events that helped me to find the message I needed to hear from God. Indeed, the fear those events produced made me aware of the awesomeness of God’s presence in nature and sovereignty, but not the inner voice I needed to hear to assure me that I was indeed made in “God’s image and likeness,” and that I was “beloved of God.”

The event that spoke to me more directly was the “sound of sheer silence” (NRSV) experienced at the silent retreat I also described above. What is “sheer silence?” It is: utter silence, complete silence, total silence, and absolute silence, to use synonyms from the dictionary.

Few of us ever experience such silence. We are surrounded by noise. We are scared of silence. When we enter a room and are alone, we turn on the TV, a radio or a streaming music service to keep us company. “Sheer silence” makes us afraid. We are afraid that we must face the inner demons that surface in silence. Our culture supplies us with many noisemakers beyond those used to celebrate the New Year.

Throughout the silence that I experienced during the centering prayer exercise, I felt a unity with those around me that I had never experienced before in the same way. There were numerous denominations in attendance, and I’m sure many different interpretations of scripture and political persuasions. That didn’t keep us from being one in silence, and I believe in mind.

The “still small voice” that I heard in silence challenged me not only to spend more time in silence, but also to find unity within myself and with others. There are myriad voices within our psyches from our socialization that pull us in many different directions. In fact, when we are tormented by them, they could easily be represented symbolically by the wind, the earthquake and the fire. To still those voices, and to try to attain wholeness within (unity), we need silence.

Perhaps God speaks to us through a storm or some earth-shattering event. In my experience, however, God has spoken most clearly and at the same time most enigmatically, through the “sheer silence,” or the “still small voice.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

First Person Account of Anabaptist Immigrant Henrich Clemmer

Hello, my name is Henry Clemmer. I was Henrich (or Heinrich) until I immigrated to an English-speaking colony in Pennsylvania. My last name also has many variations in Switzerland from where my family originates; Klemmer, Klymer, Klimmer, or Kleiner, sometimes spelled with a "C" and sometimes with a "K"; take your pick.

I arrived in the USA in 1717, that’s 300 years ago, with my father Valentine, four brothers and a nephew. I was 16 years old at the time. My father told me, “There were so many emigrating from the Palatinate to Pennsylvania that we filled three ships.” I’ve been told that for a period of nearly 100 years, nearly 70,000 people emigrated from the Palatinate in Germany, although not all were Mennonite. 

The Center of the Town of Affotern am Albis, the origin
of the Clemmer/Clymer name
I was born in Friedelsheim, Germany in 1700. My father had moved there from Affoltern am Albis, Switzerland, after the persecution in Switzerland had become unbearable. Particularly in the Canton of Bern, the authorities were severe. Dad told me of family farms of Anabaptists that were confiscated, sold, and the proceeds divided up among the local magistrate, the local government and the Bernese government. To add insult to injury, some of the funds were used to build new Reformed churches in the area to try to restrain the Anabaptists from spreading.

Dad also told me that the Swiss authorities released prisoners if they agreed to hunt down Anabaptists, paying them a bounty for each one they turned in. Those turned in were sent to prison where they were tortured to reveal names of other Anabaptists. Some were sold as galley slaves, and some were exiled and shipped down the Rhine River to Holland, when Dutch Mennonites offered to pay their passage. They were warned never to return to Switzerland. If they returned to Switzerland they were imprisoned for life, or drowned. This happened to several of my dad’s acquaintances.

My dad tried to explain to me why the Anabaptists were hated so much that the Swiss government wanted to get rid of them completely. It began with believer’s baptism. They didn’t allow their infants to be baptized. The decision to follow Jesus could only be made by an adult. Since their infants weren’t baptized, the church and the government couldn’t control them. They also were hated because they refused to swear oaths, and to bear arms. But there was another driving force. Switzerland was the only territory in the region that had a conscripted army. Other countries had mercenary armies, and the Swiss government hired out their conscripted soldiers to the armies of other countries. With Anabaptists refusing to be conscripted, the authorities were losing a significant source of income.
Torture chamber in Trachselwald prison where
Anabaptists were held in Switzerland

In spite of the persecution, the movement continued to grow. People saw how their Anabaptist neighbors lived holy lives, and followed the hard teachings of Jesus that were often ignored by larger society. After my dad began reading the Bible carefully, and began attending clandestine meetings of the Anabaptists, he became convicted and was converted. Most of his siblings remained Reformed.

Dad told me about the many superstitions that the peasants in Switzerland believed in more than freedom in Christ. The supposed presence of mountain spirits, devils and demons caused much fear and paralyzed their lives. The Reformed Church authorities allowed these superstitions to be propagated because it helped them to control the people. Anabaptism released the converted from these burdens and fears.

When the persecution became overbearing, many Anabaptists moved from
The house where the last Klemmer family lived in
Friedelsheim, Palatinate, Germany
Switzerland to the Palatinate in Germany. My dad and his family joined them. They moved to the village of Friedelsheim, near Mannheim, just west of the Rhine River around 1679. The ruler of the Palatinate invited people to resettle this region after it was devastated by the 30-years’ war; one of the most destructive wars in history. My uncle, Hans Jakob Klemmer, had already moved to Friedelsheim several years earlier. Even though my uncle was not an Anabaptist, there were many other Mennonites in the region, including the family of Christian Hershey. His family was one of the many who emigrated with us from the Palatinate to the USA. I don’t remember when my father became a bishop with the Mennonite church. I always remember him as a church leader.

Things in the Palatinate were better than Switzerland, but Mennonites were still considered second-class citizens. They couldn’t own property, they weren’t allowed to proselytize, and couldn’t meet in groups of more than 20. So, after my mother died, and after my dad heard about the invitation by William Penn and George Fox to come to Pennsylvania, and after he had spoken with many other Mennonites in the region, he decided to emigrate to Pennsylvania. I imagine he really didn’t know what lay ahead for him, but he figured that life couldn’t be much worse than it had been in Switzerland or now in the Palatinate. I was only 16 when we left Friedelsheim bound for Philadelphia.

The trip to Rotterdam then across the ocean was a real hardship. We endured a long, arduous journey that began with a 6-week trip down the Rhine River to Rotterdam, Holland. We were delayed for several months in Holland waiting for a ship to take us across the ocean. We sailed across the Atlantic Ocean for 7 weeks until we finally reached Pennsylvania. During the journey, I was seasick most of the voyage. We had trouble with rats scouring around the decks and getting into our supplies. We suffered from sour beer, worms in the drinking water and fighting among fellow passengers. Each passenger had a sleeping and sitting area of 2’ by 6’. The meat, fish and butter were so heavily salted and smelled so terrible that I could barely swallow. I was always thirsty and either too hot or too cold! Someone opened our chests that we had put in the cargo area of the ship and our valuables were stolen. I remember my father Valentine and the other Mennonite Bishops sitting together and studying their German Bibles and the one map they had of William Penn’s Colony.

When we finally got to Pennsylvania, we spent some time in Germantown with other Mennonites and some Quakers. Germantown is a little north of Philadelphia. My father worked as a weaver until we accumulated enough money to buy some property and begin a homestead. We eventually settled in Bucks county, where dad started a church. I helped build what became the second Mennonite church in the USA, working as a mason. It was Skippack Mennonite Church, founded in 1720.

Clemmer home on Allentown Rd. as it appears today.
After I got married to Maria Bitzer in 1740, I bought land and built a house in 1748 between Allentown Road and Godshall Road in Franconia Township, Pennsylvania, just south of Souderton and Telford. I built my log house in the typical Swiss-German style. We had 156 acres to farm, kept about four horses for transportation and farm work, and four cows.

On October 14, 1777, George Washington’s men from the Revolutionary army passed by my homestead as they retreated from the battle of Germantown. The soldiers took the Allentown Road with the wounded on their way to the hospital in Bethlehem. After all that my family had been through in Switzerland and Germany, you can imagine how we felt about this turn of events. Most of us had little problem being British subjects. The Revolutionary militia began soliciting us to fight for them. We suggested donating to destitute families who lost husbands and sons to the war. Pennsylvania countered with levying a war tax or paying for a substitute soldier. We couldn’t in good conscience do either. We could not in any way assist in the destruction of people’s lives. Some of my fellow Mennonites had their farms confiscated in order to pay the fines.

Some of my Mennonite friends were considered traitors by the patriots because they came to the aid of hungry and wounded soldiers on both sides. Life in what we thought was the promised land turned out to be just as hard to a true follower of Christ as it had been in Europe. As a result, some of my friends decided to move to Canada.

Eventually things settled down and we joined Franconia Mennonite Church. Maria and I had 8 children. We dedicated our lives to being good farmers and followers of Jesus.

Preserved gravestone of Henrich and Maria Clemmer
at Franconia Mennonite Church
My father continued as a bishop in the Mennonite church, and was one of the signers of the Dordrecht Confession of Faith in 1724, which was first published in Holland in 1632. This statement of faith had helped to consolidate the beliefs of the disparate parts of the Radical Reformation in Europe, and now was available to influence our Mennonite church here in America.  

In spite of everything, I lived a long life—91 years. I died in 1791, and was buried beside my wife Maria in the Franconia Mennonite graveyard.

Sources: Clemmer book, Richard Davis,, Donna Basinger, Furgge, historical novel by Katharina Zimmerman, US Anabaptists during the Revolutionary War