What We Know (or Don’t!) About the Flying Bible (and some contextual possibilities!)

What We Know (or Don’t!) About the Flying Bible (and some contextual possibilities!)

Old First Anniversary Sunday sermon, preached by Robert A. Schneider, September 26, 2021

Good morning. I’m glad to be here with you today, on the 294 th anniversary of Old
First’s founding.

Let us pray, using the words we often use for this purpose, which are adapted from
those we just heard in Psalm 19:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations
of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer.

I am not sure that what follows should be called a sermon. Of course, we can find
the Word, and inspiration for our faith, in anything, but this will be less a deep
Biblical and theological analysis and more a historical story with some reflections
on it. It is offered to help inform a particular moment in our life as a community of
faith, the upcoming discussion about what to do with the image of the Bible on the
reredos—in church architecture, “a decorated screen or partition wall that rises
from the floor behind an altar”—behind the chancel in the sanctuary.

My intention is to talk not about the potential future of that image, but its past—what we know,
now, about that image. Where it came from, when it first appeared, and why
someone might have put it there.

For those who may never have been in the sanctuary, and to remind those of us
who have been, there is a photograph at the top of this article of how it appears now. I will be talking only
about the image of a Bible within the circle within the rectangular frame, below the
Scripture passage and the church dates.

When I say “what we know about the Bible” I use the term “know” as a historian
would. What are we reasonably sure is true, on the basis of some kind of reliable
evidence? Historical evidence is usually a written source or an identifiable object,
something that indicates that a statement is factual, as opposed to being a
deduction, speculation, or wishful thinking.

So, what are “the facts” about the Bible on the Old First sanctuary wall? In art
history terms, what is its provenance—its origin and history?
In fact (sorry for the pun), despite our best efforts, we actually know very little
about that image of the Bible. We have some pictures, which you’ll see, and some snippets from the records that may or may not be relevant, and some stories, but no
body of data or coherent narrative.

Here is the handful of facts we have:
1. The image could have been put up on the wall any time in the forty-five years
between the building of the church in 1837 and 1887, when the congregation left it
for its new building at 10 th and Wallace Streets.

2. It was on the wall in 1877. The photograph labeled as being from the 150 th
anniversary celebration in September 1877 is the evidence of that (below). The decorations
seen in the photo are for the anniversary—George Michael Weiss, the name at the
top, was the founding pastor; the names on the sides are presumably of the first
members of the church. And there, in the circle, is the Bible.
So, we have evidence that it was there in September 1877.


3. But we also have evidence that it was not there at some point in the forty-five
years it could have been. That evidence is an artist’s rendering of the chancel area
that appeared on a chart the church used to rent pews to parishioners. Pew rental
was a common way for congregations to raise money before the modern pledging
system was introduced in the early twentieth century.

You can see that the Bible does not appear in this picture (below). The details of the upper
part of the reredos are there, so it is more likely that the Bible was not on the wall
at the time the print was made, than that the artist, whoever they were, chose not to
include just it.

Old First rented its pews until into the 1880s, and the chart does not have a date on
it, so it does not tell us when the Bible was not there, but it does indicate that it was
not there the whole time.

 

4. Finally, we know that the Bible image with which we are familiar is not actually
the same one in the 1877 photo. The one we have seen was the product of
decisions made during the restoration of the church that followed the
congregation’s return there in the 1960s from its fifth building at 50 th and Locust
Streets.

In 1882, when the congregation moved out, it sold the building at Fourth and Race
to John Lucas’s paint company. Lucas made many changes to turn it into warehouse, including adding a floor where the church’s gallery was. But he left,
and boarded over, some of the distinctive features we see today, such as the
sunburst ventilator in ceiling and the reredos. The photographs of the reredos from
the restoration show what it looked like when the second floor and the structural
supports Lucas had added were removed. Though covered, the reredos had been
damaged, and the Bible image is not visible.

At our historical distance from it we tend to refer to “the restoration” as if it were a
quick and simple process. In fact it was a massive multi-year undertaking that
required many crucial decisions. A key one was to attempt to restore the sanctuary
to the way it looked when it was new, in 1837. But the restorers didn’t have much,
if any, more evidence than we do now for how it actually looked then.
For the reredos, they had the 1877 photo, and perhaps other evidence we don’t
have now, so they decided that restoring the sanctuary included restoring that
image of the Bible. They consulted an art gallery about how to do so and were told
the original image had been on wallpaper. Reproducing such wall paper in the
1960s was prohibitively expensive, so the church commissioners an artist to use
the available pictures to paint the image we have now.
“That’s all, folks!” Those are the facts about the Bible on the chancel wall that we
know from the evidence we have at present: The Bible was put up—probably as
wallpaper—sometime between the building of the church in 1837 and the
anniversary in 1877; it was not there all of that time; it was damaged during the
congregation’s absence from the building; it was reproduced in paint during the
restoration in the 1960s.

That is not a very satisfactory solution for our historical mystery: we know the
“what”—an image of the Bible—and where—the chancel wall—but we don’t
know the “who,” “when,” or “why.”

Maybe someday we will find Board minutes that say something like “on this date,
we decided to put a Bible on the wall because….” That would be nice, even if the
“because” turns out to be only that a church member had a leftover piece of Bible
wallpaper so it was decided not to let it go to waste. But until then, those few facts
are all we know.

Now don’t panic—or rejoice. Those are all the facts, but not all that I have to say.
Just because we don’t know more than that does not mean there is not more to talk
about. It does not mean we should not go just a bit beyond what we know to try to shed some light on the situation by looking at several broad religious and social
movements related to the Bible that were part of the larger context of Old First
during the period in which our image of the Bible appeared.

Let me be very clear that what follows is inference, not fact. There is no proof that
any of these contexts do relate directly to our Bible image. But, on the other hand,
there is no proof that they do not.

Here are several contexts involving the Bible, taken in order from broader to
narrower.

The broadest context is the importance of the Bible for all forms of Christianity,
and to a unique degree for Protestant Christianity.

Hebrew scripture was important to Jesus’s first followers. We tend to assume that
the passage about the “usefulness” of scripture, from the Second Letter to Timothy
(3:14-17), that we heard earlier in the service, refers to our whole Bible. But in fact
there was no Christian scripture when the letter was written (about 100 CE), and it
referred solely to the Hebrew scriptures (our “Old Testament”).

All Christian communities share a belief in the fundamental value of Scripture. It is
how we know about God, and Jesus, how we know what to believe and how to
live. As the letter to Timothy says, “the sacred writings are able to instruct you for
salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”

But scripture can be, and always has been, read in very different ways. It can be
read allegorically, literally, as literature, under historical analysis, and so forth.
Over the centuries the major branches of the church developed different
interpretive traditions to assist the faithful in properly understanding the Bible.

The Catholic church in Western Europe came to emphasize the authority of the
church—ultimately, the Pope—in having the final say as to how Scripture was to
be understood. And that, for the Protestant reformers in Europe in the 16 th and 17 th
centuries, was clear proof of how far the church of their day had declined from the
purity of the early Christian community and its use of the Bible.

Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and others popularized the Latin
phrase sola scriptura—scripture alone—to express their belief in the primacy of
the Bible over tradition and hierarchy. A wall of statues erected in Geneva, Switzerland, in the early twentieth century depicts four of the Reformers of that
leading Protestant city. Left to right they are William Farel, who invited John
Calvin to Geneva; Calvin, its most famous pastor; Theodore Beza, Calvin’s
successor there; and John Knox, who visited Geneva and then led the reformation
in Scotland and helped give us Presbyterianism, a major Reformed tradition. You
will note that each of these Reformers is holding a Bible.

Those reformers believed that not only people like themselves, highly educated
scholars and pastors, could understand the Bible. They insisted that ordinary
Christians, with an ordinary education—they could read—could learn from
scripture all they needed to know for their salvation. That became a foundational
belief of Protestantism. In the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, the defining
document of the German Reformed tradition, Question 21 asks: “What is true
faith?” The answer includes the statement that it is “a sure knowledge by which I
hold as true all that God has revealed to us in Scripture.”

So, to sum up the first context, while we have no explicit statement that there is a
Bible on our wall because Old First is a Protestant church, it is, so the Bible is an
appropriate symbol to appear there. If it were an image of the Virgin Mary—or the
Buddha—we would have some explaining to do. Not so with the Bible.

Within Protestantism, there is a narrower context related to the Bible:
Evangelical Protestantism. The growth of evangelicalism in the United States was
a major development in the nineteenth century. Evangelicals take the early
Protestant move—away from the Church and toward the Bible—even further.
They emphasize the authority of the Bible, personal experience of salvation,
Christ’s sacrifice as the source of salvation, and the need for believers to be active
in spreading the faith and improving society.

The focus on personal experience of salvation made “conversion”—conviction of
sin, repentance, acceptance of forgiveness, and changed behavior—central to this
tradition. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries religious “revivals”—efforts to
encourage individual conversion through preaching, prayer, music, and special
gatherings—became a hallmark of evangelicalism.

In terms of the authority of the Bible, the conviction that the Bible is
“inerrant”—without error, reliable about all things—and must be read literally
emerged in the late nineteenth century as central tenets for many evangelicals.

A painting of Dwight Moody, one of the leading revivalists of the later nineteenth
century, shows him preaching the need for conversion—and waving a Bible. (I can
almost hear the recorded voice of his twentieth century successor, evangelist Billy
Graham, proclaiming as he so often did, “the Bible says….”). Moody and the
school he founded—the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago—were major
proponents of Biblical literalism.

To return to Old First, many nineteenth-century German Reformed leaders and
members were evangelicals. They preserved the distinctive German Reformed
traditions of doctrine and church governance, and also shared the evangelical
commitments to the primacy of the Bible, individual conversion, religious revival,
and social action for righteous causes.

In the1820s Old First was moving from using German to English in worship and
was coming to see itself no longer as an ethnic German church but as part of the
broader evangelical community. For six months in 1828, prominent Presbyterian
revivalist Charles G. Finney preached held revival meetings on Sunday afternoons
and evenings and Thursday evenings in the Old First sanctuary (this was the
second, 1774, church, right next to Race Street).

These were revivals for everyone in the city—it was the Presbyterians that Finney
was primarily aiming at—but Old First had a large auditorium and was, I think,
“neutral ground.” When Old First’s long-time pastor Samuel Helfenstein retired in
1830, members of the congregation asked Finney to take the position. He declined,
but it was clear that Old First’s future lay with the American evangelical form of
Protestantism he embodied.

The next context related to the Bible is the Mercersburg controversy within the
German Reformed Church. The denomination became an arena for playing out the
confrontation between the evangelical perspective and that of a more “churchly”
understanding of Christianity and its way to salvation.

In the 1840s professors John Nevin and Philip Schaff at the German Rerformed
seminary in Mercersburg, PA, provided a severe critique of revivalism, and of
evangelicalism in general, that came to be known as the Mercersburg theology.

They advocated renewed appreciation of Christian traditions other than the
evangelical, including Catholicism. Perhaps, they suggested, the church, liturgy,
tradition, Christian education, might also help a person to salvation. In response,
their opponents, calling themselves “Old Reformed,” reasserted the primacy of
scripture over both tradition and church hierarchy.

The reason this is relevant to our Bible image is that Old First and its leaders were
prominent among the Old Reformed, including its two longest-serving pastors in
this period.

Joseph F. Berg, pastor from 1837 to1852, initiated public critique within the
denomination of Schaff’s ideas in 1844. Eight years later he left Old First, and the
German Reformed Church, for what he saw as the more truly “Reformed” Dutch
Reformed Church.

John H. A. Bomberger, pastor from 1854 to1870, was a prominent critic of Nevin’s
later efforts to modify the German Reformed liturgy. He left Old First to help
found Ursinus College and Seminary in Collegeville, PA, intended to be a
counterweight to Mercersburg.

We have no evidence of these people’s specific attitudes toward the reredos Bible
but the circumstances bear considering. Berg was installed as pastor six months
after the 1837 church was dedicated and was here until 1852. Bomberger was here
for 16 years during the period the Bible could have appeared, and oversaw the
decorating of the sanctuary for the denominational celebration of the tercentenary
of the Heidelberg Catechism at Old First in 1863.

So, again, while we have no explicit statement that there is a Bible image on our
wall because Old First’s evangelicals intended it as a message to Mercersburg, the
Bible is an appropriate symbol for what at the time was an evangelical
congregation. If there were an altar against the wall, or a stained glass window in
it, we would have some explaining to do, as those would be less evangelical and
more Mercersburg. Not so with the Bible.

The last broad context related to the Bible will probably be less familiar to you
than the previous ones, and is more problematic for our present identity. But if we
are, as impartial historians, surveying all the possible influences behind the pasting
up of the Bible, we have to include it.

That context is the nativism and anti-Catholicism that were rampant among
Philadelphia Protestants in the mid-1800s. The two movements are separable.

Nativism was a social movement. The term in this sense does not refer to
American Indians, indigenous people, but to Americans of European descent who
believed that large-scale immigration into the United States threatened to
destabilize if not destroy American society as they wished it to be.

Anti-immigrant attitudes and activism are not new in this country. Even though
everyone in it except indigenous people is descended from modern immigrants,
there are always people who see immigration in their time in negative terms.

Anti-Catholicism was an explicitly religious movement. Hostility to the Roman
Catholic Church has always been a temptation for Protestants. In some ways it is
almost inevitable, since their tradition began as a “protest” against the Catholic
church as it was in the 1500s, and they continued to need to identify themselves
over against Roman Catholicism. The distinction was vitally important, because
the true way to salvation was at stake. As they saw it, they were not “anti”
anything. They were “pro:” pro-true faith, pro-Protestant values, pro-Bible.

Old First as a community of faith in the twenty-first century welcomes and celebrates
diversity; our predecessors in this congregation saw it not as a desirable value, but
a danger.

The growth of American Catholicism for any reason was a threat, but the cause of
it that was most obvious was that many of the immigrants who threatened the
nativists were Catholics, primarily from Ireland and Germany. So social nativism
and religious anti-Catholicism tended to blend into each other, or at least to pull in
the same direction.

Further than that, it was clear to Protestant activists that not only were there far too
many Catholics in the country, but that the Pope was slyly using them in a
conspiracy to deliberately undermine American values, including democracy
(which—for these Protestants—flowed directly from the country’s Protestant
heritage). If you are hearing echoes of more recent events, you are not imaging
things. Conspiracy theories are not recent but are close to being, unfortunately,
core American traits.

Why do I bring this up now? What does it have to do with the Bible on our
reredos? For two reasons. The first is that an “open Bible,” often visually depicted
very similarly to ours, was a symbol popular in both religious anti-Catholicism and
social nativism in the mid-nineteenth century, including in Philadelphia

The local situation in the 1840s was that growing numbers of Catholic children
were attending public schools. Students in public schools were read to from, and
themselves read, the Bible. The Bible used was the King James version, a
Protestant version. Catholics had their own version (Douay) that, in keeping with the interpretive authority of the Church, had commentary in it on how to
understand the scriptures.

When in 1844 the Catholic bishop of Philadelphia resisted Catholic students in
public schools having to be read to from a Protestant version of the Bible and
asked that they be allowed to use the Catholic version, activist Protestants
denounced the request as the first step toward removing the Bible altogether. That
is not demonstrably true. But facts, then or now, rarely deter true believers in
conspiracy theories.

The school Bible controversy led to the so-called “Bible riots” here in May 1844.
There were violence and deaths in Kensington and the burning of Catholic
churches, including St. Augustine’s Church on Fourth Street a block from Old
First. Two months later, in July, nativist and anti-Catholic celebrations of the
Fourth of July included public displays of open Bible imagery, and in days were
followed by a second anti-Catholic riot in Southwark (below South Street), though
this time the attempt to burn a church was unsuccessful.

The nativist open Bible is visible on the parade ribbon worn by a member of the
Native American Association in a Fourth of July parade that year. The Bible is on
top of the dome, in the eagle’s claws. The writing on dome, just above the words
“liberty beware,” says “without note or comment.” That was a Protestant slogan:
true Christians don’t need the Church’s commentary to tell them what Scripture
means.

Now, as I have made clear with regard to the other contexts I have described, there
is no direct evidence that there is the Bible on our chancel wall was a direct
product of nativism or Protestant activism.

But there is a second reason for bringing it up here, beyond the similarity between the images of our “flying” Bible
and the “open” Bible of the anti-Catholics. Joseph Berg, whom we met earlier as Old First’s pastor from 1837 to 1852, was
not only prominent in the opposition to Mercersburg but was also a prominent
Protestant activist. Religious anti-Catholicism in Philadelphia was embodied in the
American Protestant Association. Most of the Protestant ministers in the city
belonged to it, including Berg, who helped organize it in 1842. He also edited the
Protestant Banner magazine and produced other anti-Catholic publications.

We have in our archives a printed statement by Old First’s governing board from
this period explicitly supporting its pastor’s position. He was, after all, only
protecting the Bible, the source of knowledge essential to salvation.

Three years after Berg left the pastorate at Old First he published a book entitled
Paganism, Popery, and Christianity: or, the Blessing of an Open Bible, as Shown
in the History of Christianity.

To be sure, Berg was not unique in his anti-Catholicism. He, was, in fact, quite
typical of Philadelphia Protestant pastors at the time. But he was ours. And he
became pastor right after the 1837 church was built, and served here for the next
15 years.

Again, there is no proof. I am not saying that the Bible on our reredos was a direct
product of nineteenth-century Protestant hostility to Catholicism.

But we are looking for broader contexts related to the Bible, and—especially given
the visual similarity and the Berg connection—the Protestant activists’ open Bible
is one of them.

So, in these few moments I have thrown at you a handful of facts and another
handful of possible connections—altogether, a lot of information. Where does it
leave us?

I hope that it leaves us:
 As informed as we can be about the provenance of the reredos Bible as we
proceed to make decisions about refurbishing the sanctuary.
 Aware that sometimes things we think we “know” may not be all that
accurate; that sometimes there are things we don’t know that we should
(even though some of them we might then wish we hadn’t learned); that
images and symbols are multi-valent—they can mean different things to
different people at the same time, and their meaning can change over time.
 Aware that nothing I have said here tells us what to do in the sanctuary. It
should inform our discussion, but it does not determine our decisions.

The historical bottom line is that someone connected with Old First, at some point
between 1837 and 1877, decided that having an image of the Bible on the wall at
the front of the church was meaningful to them. Perhaps because they were
concerned to with the need to defend the Protestant way to salvation. Or just
because they were Protestant. Or Christian.

We have the same obligation to discern what is meaningful for us to have—or not
have—in front of us as we worship, when we return to the sanctuary.

Amen?