Janet Heim 50 min ago
Gathered at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hagerstown are, left to right, Rev. Greg Shook, Rev. Marilyn Hembrock, and Rev. Kevin Munroe.
Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer
It’s been just shy of 500 years since Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church, more commonly known as Castle Church, in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517.
“It moved Western society out of the Dark Ages,” said The Rev. G. Stanley Steele of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Hagerstown. “It had a huge political, huge cultural impact.”
Indeed, the impact has resounded locally, where some experts argue it’s impossible to separate the Reform movement from the history of Washington County.
“The Reformation, it’s one reason why Hagerstown is here,” said the Rev. Kevin Munroe of Zion Reformed United Church of Christ in Hagerstown. “You can’t really separate the history of the migration that took place because of the Reformation with why Hagerstown was founded.
Munroe said that a large number of people immigrated to the United States as a result of religious persecution in Europe.
“And as you go forward in Hagerstown,” he said, “the leadership of the town came out of the churches.”
Churches around the world and in Washington County have been celebrating the anniversary in a variety of ways. Besides individual churches marking the anniversary, an ecumenical committee of local church members and pastors has been working behind the scenes to plan ways to commemorate the milestone.
The result is a Reformation 500 Hymn Festival featuring Dr. Wayne L. Wold Sunday at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hagerstown at 4 p.m.
The anniversary of the Reformation is celebrated on Reformation Sunday, the Sunday closest to Oct. 31.
It’s a long and complicated history and this story only begins to tell some of it.
Who was Martin Luther and what is the Reformation?
Martin Luther is one of the most influential and controversial figures of the Protestant Reformation movement.
The Reformation, a time of questioning and rebirth, took place during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries during the Renaissance, according to research done by Kent Shaffer of Zion Reformed United Church of Christ in Hagerstown.
Luther was not a saint himself and had some views — anti-Semitism and his stand against the peasants during the German Peasants’ War — that is troubling today, Steele said.
Prior to the Reformation, church services were conducted in Latin and were meant for the pious, with commoners allowed only as spectators.
The Bible was printed only in Latin, and since most people were not educated, they could not understand the service or read the Scriptures.
Their only understanding of Jesus came from the stained glass windows in the church, which in the Catholic tradition only showed Jesus’ birth and death on the cross, and did not depict his years of ministry and teaching.
Luther, born in 1438 to Catholic parents, was a biblical professor at Wittenberg University in Wittenberg, Germany. The insights gained from his studies led him to his belief that it was by faith in God alone that brought salvation.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God,” Ephesians 2:8 NIV (New International Version) was a defining Bible verse for Luther.
When Pope Leo X instituted indulgences to raise money to build St. Peter’s Basilica, Luther was prompted to nail his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church on Oct. 31, 1517.
Indulgences were basically a tax on common citizens to pay for their sins to buy forgiveness.
“When Luther articulated ‘by faith alone,’ that was basically his counterpoint to ‘you can be saved by paying money,’ that really resonated with a lot of people,” Munroe said.
Luther had many other differences with the Catholic church, but indulgences were a tipping point for him and one that garnered a lot of public support.
His posting was essentially a list of questions or points to be discussed within the university, with the intent of reforming the Catholic church from within.
It was never meant to cause a division in the church, much less start a major movement that would change the church and society in the way that it did.
“It’s very complicated. Some of it is theological and some of it is just everyday life and reactions to things like taxation and having to pay for everything,” Munroe said.
Instead, aided by the invention of the printing press in the 1440s, students at the university copied the 95 Theses and distributed them. They spread throughout Germany within weeks and throughout Europe within a few months, making Luther the top author in all of Europe.
The advent of the printing press and translation of the Bible into the language of the people were significant in the Reformation movement.
“The printing press became a reality and that helped certainly fuel the movement. The Bible was in Latin. Luther had it translated into German, which was a whole other new concept for the people, again brought the worship and the church and the Bible to the people,” said the Rev. Gregory Shook, minister of music, visitation pastor and pulpit supply at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hagerstown.
The church was not happy with Luther’s defiance and he was ordered to recant his 95 Theses, which he said he would not do unless the Scriptures proved him wrong.
Luther continued lecturing and writing in Wittenberg, publicly renouncing the Pope’s exclusive right to interpret the Bible. At that, the Pope threatened Luther with excommunication and death.
On Dec. 10, 1520, Luther burned his 95 Theses and in January 1521, Luther was officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.
After multiple refusals to retract what was seen as a critique of the Catholic church, Luther’s writings were banned and he was declared a “convicted heretic.”
That declaration made him a condemned and wanted man, putting his life in danger. With an extensive network of friends and supporters, Luther hid away at Wartburg Castle, where he translated the New Testament into German, allowing people to read the Bible in their own language.
Though he could still be arrested, Luther returned to Wittenberg Castle Church, undetected, in May 1522, aided by his many followers. He began organizing a new denomination, which became the Lutheran church.
Luther’s support grew and included German princes.
In 1525, Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun who left the convent and had taken refuge in Wittenberg. They had six children.
He died on Feb. 18, 1546 at the age of 62 and was buried beneath the pulpit of Castle Church in Wittenberg.
Luther was not alone in the Reformation movement.
Huldrych (Ulrich) Zwingli was a Swiss Reformer and a peer of Luther’s. They were united on 14 of 15 articles of faith and agreed on the rejection of the Catholic doctrines of papal authority, purgatory, priestly celibacy and the veneration of saints, among other issues.
However, Luther and Zwingli disagreed on one key area, that of communion, with Luther’s belief that Christ was actually present at every celebration of the sacrament in the bread and wine, while Zwingli believed the bread and wine were purely symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice.
Philipp 1 of Hessen called a meeting of the leaders of the Reformation movement at Marburg Castle in Germany in October 1529. The Marburg Colloquy was intended to bring unity to the Protestant states for political alliance, but Luther and Zwingli could not reconcile their differing views on communion.
Zwingli’s followers would go on to form the Reformed Church, while Luther’s supporters formed the Lutheran Church.
John Calvin, a French Protestant reformer, is considered the successor to Luther. He is credited as the most important figure in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation and the founder of the Presbyterian church.
The Brethren, Episcopal, Mennonite, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations are all products of the Reformation.
“Right place, right time. Does the person make the time or the time make the person? I think for Martin Luther it was both,” Steele said.
What positive changes came out of the Reformation?
Prior to the Reformation, worship was a performance for the pious, with the congregation as observers, not participants, said Shook.
“Luther brought worship to the people. . . I think if we remember nothing else from the Reformation, is that it became the people’s worship,” said Shook, noting that Luther was a prolific hymn writer.
Worship was conducted in Latin, while the people spoke German. At that point, the Bible was only printed in Latin, which meant those who could read could not read the Bible.
During that time period, only the wealthy were taught to read and write. Luther became aware of the great need for education for the public, mainly for the purpose of religious education.
He realized that religious education couldn’t happen until people could read and write. Even in Washington County, churches like Salem Reformed Church outside of Hagerstown and Zion Reformed Church in Hagerstown first started with a school.
“For me, it was one person’s courage, Martin Luther, to stand forth and speak the truth, to challenge the church and the hierarchy,” Steele said.
“He wanted to give individuals more say and more empowerment in their faith life.”
The Germans who came to this area were religious refugees, who had different faith expressions.
“The people that came to this country to express their beliefs in a more free way couldn’t have if it wasn’t for the Reformation,” Steele said.
What did the Reformation mean for Washington County and its churches?
Educating people and printing the Bible in their language allowed them to read the Bible and interpret the Scriptures. That new freedom led to divisions among the people.
“The biggest problem with the Reformation was all the fighting that ensued from it and that’s why the German Reformed came to this area because they were being persecuted,” Munroe said.
In the early 1700s, the Palatine Germans found themselves in the middle of warring French and German troops. With few options for safety, many fled to the New World.
The sailing voyage usually began in Rotterdam, Netherlands, with a stop at an English port, often Liverpool, the voyage lasting between eight to 16 weeks. Conditions on the ships were miserable, to say the least, and many did not survive the passage.
The mass exodus of more than 100,000 German immigrants between 1708 and 1790 to America was a result of famine, war and religious persecution. Pennsylvania was the most popular destination, with more than 40,000 settling there by the mid-1740s, according to Kent Shaffer’s research.
Jonathan Hager, who was born in 1714, was one of those immigrants and arrived in 1736 at the Port of Philadelphia.
With religion the primary focus of their lives, settlers to this area had a mission.
“Religion was very, very important to these people and I’ve always marveled with the history of Zion, that they built this massive stone church when they were still barely getting the stones out of their fields,” Munroe said.
The Lutherans came from one part of Germany and the Reformed came from another part of Germany. It was hard for them to travel far, so they set up a lot of small churches near where they lived.
The minister traveled from church to church, rather than requiring parishioners to come to a single church, but did not get to every church on his “charge” every week.
“Our first minister was serving our church, but also four other churches in the area. We actually had a minister die because he got very sick after traveling through rain and snow and sleet. . . from one place to another,” Munroe said.
Rural churches were formed and the exact timeline of their founding is up for debate.
St. Paul’s Church near Clear Spring is the first union Lutheran and Reformed church in the area and still is a union church. It is believed to be one of the first churches in the area, followed months later in 1747 by what is now Salem Reformed Church.
St. Peter’s (Beard’s) Lutheran Church on Old Forge Road was likely formed before 1747, according to the Washington County Historical Trust’s website.
Sharpsburg Lutheran and other German Reformed churches were established between 1760 and 1770, including St. John’s Lutheran in Hagerstown, Zion Reformed Church and St. Paul’s Lutheran in Funkstown.
Members from St. John’s broke away and formed new congregations. Trinity Lutheran Church was formally organized in 1869 and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church was established in 1889.
When Zion began doing worship services in English, a group broke away in 1854 and formed Christ Reformed Church, because they wanted to worship in German.
All of Zion’s records were kept their records in German until 1854.
The Influence of Jonathan Hager and local churches
Jonathan Hager came to this area and while his history is well documented, there is conflicting documentation on multiple issues.
Hager has connections with Salem Reformed Church, where he is believed to have met his future wife, Elizabeth Kershner.
When he founded Elizabethtown in 1762, named for his wife, he donated property at each end of town, one plot to the Reformed church which became Zion Reformed Church, the other to the Lutherans, which is St. John’s Lutheran Church.
“Potomac Street was anchored at both ends by the Lutheran church and by the Reformed church. Those churches were very cooperative with one another,” Munroe said.
Munroe said there’s a document in the church’s cornerstone that indicates the church was founded in 1774 and at the beginning of the document, it notes that Jonathan Hager is a member.
However, a list of Zion Reformed church members did not include Jonathan Hager, Munroe said.
Whether a member or not, Munroe said Hager was “very close” to their church and is buried in the backyard cemetery along with Elizabeth and other family members.
Munroe’s own research indicates a strong possibility that Jonathan Hager was Mennonite and since there was not a Mennonite church in the area, it’s possible he associated with Zion Reformed, but never joined it.
Despite the cornerstone information, Munroe said Zion Reformed started as a school in 1766 and had its first baptism that year, but that the church wasn’t officially founded until 1770, the same year as St. John’s Lutheran.
“These historic churches had huge influences on Washington County, with God’s help,” Steele said.
It was while Jonathan Hager was helping build Zion Reformed that he was killed when a beam fell on him on Nov. 6, 1775. He was 61 and had just finished a two-year term as a state delegate and was helping organize the revolutionary movement, according to a Herald-Mail Media story.
It is not clear which documentation – that the beam fell on him at the church site or that the beam fell on him at the sawmill – was correct.
To add to the confusion, Barbara Reynolds of the Archives Committee at St. John’s Lutheran said that there are records of Jonathan Hager’s children being baptized at St. John’s, indicating he could have been a member there.
Those two churches produced many of the early leaders of Hagerstown. During a 60-year period, five of the early mayors and some of the bankers were members of Zion Reformed.
Roman Dixon was a Zion church member and banker in town, who was the “primary mover in raising the Ransom that kept Hagerstown from being burned to the ground,” Munroe said.
The meeting to establish a seminary was held at St. John’s Lutheran Church. Three sites were under consideration – Gettysburg, Pa., Hagerstown and New Market, Va.
Gettysburg was chosen because it was more central to the Lutheran population in Pennsylvania. Immediately after the meeting, The Rev. Benjamin Kurtz, the pastor of St. John’s Lutheran, was sent to Germany to raise money for the seminary.
He returned with $10,000 and 6,000 books for the seminary library, Reynolds said.
The Rev. Samuel Simon Schmucker, a member of St. John’s Lutheran, established Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in 1826 (also known as Gettysburg Seminary and now as United Lutheran Seminary after merging with Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in 2017) and was its first professor.
He also founded Pennsylvania College, now Gettysburg College, in 1832. Schmucker was also involved with the creation of the Lutheran church body known as the General Synod.
Throughout the church’s history, five sons of St. John’s became pastors, Reynolds said.
Schmucker, who was born in Hagerstown in 1799, was a controversial figure because of his theological views and openness to teaching the first African-American student in an American seminary.
A noted abolitionist, he supported education for women and minorities.
“We need to remember how important education was to Luther, to Zwingli, to all of the people that started this whole movement and never forget that that’s a cornerstone of what we are,” Munroe said.
Cooperation among the different denominations of the Reformation movement is a key element. Munroe said there was “constantly” cooperation back and forth, whether they took each other up on the offer or not.
When Zion was in the midst of an extensive remodeling after the Civil War, St. John’s offered the Reformed congregation space to worship. Vice versa when St. John’s Lutheran bell tower was struck by lightning in 1969 and igniting a fire, Zion Reformed offered for the Lutherans to worship in the Reformed church, as examples.
“I think we felt a kinship, even though we came from different parts of Germany. We knew persecution. We knew why we came here. We knew the importance of religion and so we were, despite the difference between Luther and Zwingli, we were very cooperative,” Munroe said.
That spirit of cooperation is still alive and well in the local reformed community.
“When we came to this whole celebration of the Reformation, the first thing that was done was we all got together and said ‘How do we together celebrate this’?” Munroe said.
Marilyn Hembrock, a lifelong Lutheran who is married to retired Lutheran pastor The Rev. Richard Hembrock, was part of a Washington County committee that met and came up with a plan for celebrating the anniversary.
She researched and created a brochure on the 500th Reformation anniversary that has been passed out at local events, including the Sharpsburg Memorial Day Parade and the Mummer’s Parade.
Her goal was to boil down the complicated history and theological terminology into user-friendly information.
“What I wanted to do in the brochure was help people to understand a little about what the Reformation is, how it affected Washington County and how it affected society,” Hembrock said.
It is also a vehicle to publicize the Reformation 500 Hymn Festival on Reformation Sunday, Oct. 29 at 4 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church, 15 Randolph Ave., in Hagerstown. The Hymn Festival features Dr. Wayne L. Wold as organist and choir director.
Through Hembrock’s research, she determined that there are 22 Lutheran churches with a total of 7,273 members and nine Reformed churches with 2,500 members in Washington County.
Need to keep reforming
One of Zion Reformed Church’s slogans is “reformed and reforming.”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) theme for the 500th anniversary is “Freed & Renewed in Christ: 500 Years of God’s Grace in Action.”
“There are those that say every 500 years there is a major change and I think we’re undergoing a major change right now. . . It’s the battle between tradition, the way things have always been done and something new. And that’s exactly what happened in the Reformation 500 years ago. It’s still happening right now,” Munroe said.
Steele said it’s good to mark this milestone anniversary, but we need to keep it in context.
“The reformation we’re celebrating is great, but it is an organic thing. It’s not like a battle that is won and over. It’s an historical event. The idea is the church is continually reforming . . . The core beliefs don’t change, but how we respond does,” Steele said.
He said the Reformation was a frightening and uncertain time for people and agrees that the Church is going through another transformative phase, also anxiety-producing.
Steele said just as churches went from changing the language of worship from Latin to German, the language today needs to reflect the context of the world in which we live, so God’s word is spoken and heard by people today.
He compares the advent of the printing press to the creation of the internet.
“We’re doing similar wrestling. How do we interpret God’s work with social media and the context we use here?” Steele said.
In recent years, there’s been an ecumenical movement among the Protestant churches with the goal of finding unity among different expressions of faith.
There’s also been more dialogue between the Protestant and Catholic churches.
Steele feels there’s less emphasis on individual denominations now, acknowledging commonalities more than differences.
“I feel like we need another Reformation and to come out of a movement of the people and not some national tragedy like 9/11 or earthquakes and hurricanes. But out of a genuine yearning for a spirituality with people,” Shook said.
“I don’t know that I’ll see it in my lifetime, but it would be a nice thing to happen. Let’s shake it up. Luther certainly did.”
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