Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Catherine Hummer

The story of Catherine Hummer of White Oak, Pennsylvania, is an important, if largely forgotten, event in our Colonial history. In 1762 a Brethren teenager in Colonial America claimed she saw angels. She said she looked into heaven and saw people who were baptized after death - three times forward of course - and saved. And she preached about it. That made her the first woman to preach among the Brethren.

There was tremendous controversy. Some who heard her preach insisted they saw angels as well. Others questioned the source of her visions. She saw these visions, according to the accusation, only when alone in the presence of the doctor Sebastian Keller, a married man who'd left his wife behind at the Ephrata Cloisters. Her father, the first minister of White Oak, fiercely defended her. Conrad Beissel, the charismatic head of the Ephrata Community, believed her visions and recorded them, inviting her to stay.

Like a meteor across the sky she attracted the attention of Colonial Pennsylvania, Brethren and non-Brethren alike. For a moment she was the brightest thing in the heavens. And like a meteor she vanished, without a trace. Despite the fact she was a central figure in a major controversy. Most of her life is a mystery. Not even the dates of her birth and death are known.

More important than Hummer herself was the Annual Meeting decision that followed on May 28, 1763. Twenty-two Brethren elders, including Alexander Mack, Jr., and Christopher Sauer II, came up with one of the most extraordinary decisions that Brethren have never paid attention to, one that should certainly speak to us today.

"...we advise," they wrote, "out of brotherly love, that on both sides all judgments and harsh expressions might be entirely laid down, though we do not have the same opinion of that noted occurrence, so that those who do not esteem it, should not despise those who expect to derive some use and benefit from it."

The Brethren, who prized uniformity in their nonconformity to the world, decided they could achieve that uniformity in action and appearance - but not in thought. They could not and would not legislate what fellow Brethren ought to believe with regards to the truth about Catherine's visions. Their only concern was about the outward behavior of Brethren toward each other.

Source: Frank Ramirez, Tercentennial Moment for May 25, 2008