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Church Services at Economy

Milestones Vol 31 No. 1

By Eileen Aiken English

What was it like to attend church in the Harmony Society? Surprising to many, the services were quiet and simple, and often attended by guests, who sat separately from the brethren. The spiritual leader was founder George Rapp, who first drew followers in Germany in 1785, and preached almost until the day he died, in 1847. His beliefs are known as radical pietism, and appear to be unique. Thanks to researchers such as Alice Ott, the 2006 scholar in residence at Old Economy Village, we are learning more about the religion of the Harmonists.

Rapp had been reared in the Lutheran faith, but his adult life was heavily influenced by the philosophy of European mystics, primarily Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769). Tersteegen advocated "quietism," which called for the annihilation of self-will and passivity before God. Through years of reading and meditation, George Rapp developed a very austere view based on complete denial of self and total submission to God's will. The reward for unswerving faith would be remaining with Christ in Paradise, until he returned to earth.

Several descriptions of Harmonist services appear in travelers' journals and archival records. An array of hymnals, collections of Father Rapp's sermons, and his only published work, Thoughts on the Destiny of Man, add perspective. Two travelers, John Melish (who attended church at Harmony, PA, in 1811) and James Silk Buckingham (who spent a Sabbath at Economy in 1839), wrote vivid accounts of their Sunday experiences. Fairly complete minutes of the Easter, 1832, services were penned by Romelius Baker, then the associate business leader.

The Harmonists worshiped together at least three times a week: Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon, and Wednesday evening. Attendance was not required, but because members had deep religious conviction, almost everyone was present. Excused were those too ill to attend, teachers and youngsters aged six to fourteen (for whom Sunday was another school day), and women who supervised the younger children.

The church at Economy was built in 1827 and stood in the center of the town, across from George Rapp's house. Outwardly, it remains unchanged, distinguished by a one-handed clock and musicians' balcony. The brethren knew it as a lofty, spacious hall, unadorned and unfurnished except for many rows of benches lining both sides, and a platform in front supporting a table and a chair.

The brethren were summoned to worship on Sunday morning at 9:00. At the peal of a bell they spilled onto the street, men supporting women on their arms. At the church couples separated, males and females entering through separate doors and taking seats on opposite sides of the room.

Not all services were conducted by Father George Rapp. Sometimes they were led by his adopted son, Friedrich, who was the principal business leader of the Society; perhaps other prominent men in the congregation assisted as well. The preacher entered after everyone was settled, climbing the few steps to the dais and setting his hat on the table.

The celebration opened with song, with each Harmonist singing from his own hymnal. Many of the melodies were composed by Father Rapp, Dr. Christoph Mueller, and other Society members, writing alone or in companies. When the last note had faded, the brethren rose for prayer. As the leader lifted his voice, the congregation stood soberly in silence, hands clasped in each other and closed upon their breasts. Visitor Buckingham described the prayer as fluent, copious, and fervent, without being violent; and it was received by the congregation in utter quiet, with no sighing, sobbing, or moaning, in the most perfect order and decorum.

Everyone sat for the sermon, including the preacher. Many of George Rapp's addresses survive. Perhaps the average delivery spanned 80 or 90 minutes. All were based on passages from the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation. The service concluded with another hymn. By 11:00, the church emptied as quickly as it had filled. Each parishioner returned to his home, where each household took dinner at noon.

At half-past one, everyone gathered again for worship. Romelius Baker's detailed description of Easter afternoon, 1832, shows how Father Rapp conveyed principles of radical pietism into sermons for his congregation. This particular holiday marked an especially poignant time for the Society, because it occurred just a few weeks after a third of the Harmonists withdrew en masse to join Count Leon. The event had wrenched the community apart, with sons, daughters, even wives, forsaking their families. Bitterness and sorrow had engulfed the town.

For this service, George Rapp had a message crafted to heal his congregation and urge them to keep sight of their goal. His venue was the cemetery that lay in the orchard, then at its peak of April splendor. The Harmonists gathered at the heart of town and walked the distance together, singing, "Jesus, my Assurance, lives." When all had gathered in the sea of fragrant blossoms, Father Rapp spoke. "Hold to the bond of Harmony," he beseeched his people, and reminded them that true self-denial held reward. He implored them to have true faith, keeping in mind Christ's suffering, death and resurrection. The hereafter awaited those who were unswerving in their faith; only they would remain with Christ in Paradise, until his return to earth.

A series of three hymns completed the tribute. At the cemetery, the Harmonists sang, "Rest well, you departed." They returned to town with, "Rejoice, ye heavens, earth be happy." The third song, "Hallelujah, Praise and Glory," was offered in front of Father Rapp's house. Afterward, everyone returned to the church, and the spiritual leader delivered his afternoon sermon based on the twelfth chapter of Exodus. He related scripture to the recent secession, and called for the Harmonists to commit both themselves and the entire affair to God. Jesus had defeated his enemies through suffering and death, he reminded them.

These afternoon messages reflect the essence of George Rapp's radical pietism. Everything important was to be denied: honor and reputation; money and property; house and home; friends and relatives. (In 1832 this referred particularly to family members and friends lost in the secession.) Passivity was essential; all choices were to be left to God, and outcomes accepted cheerfully. Pain and suffering were necessary to advance spiritually.

Although records of worship in the Harmony Society are few, they are rich in description. They chronicle the brethren's simple ritual, and specify music and pastoral messages through which the creed was conveyed. Alice Ott and other researchers offer understanding of radical pietism; however, the notes of Romelius Baker demonstrate its conveyance through George Rapp's sermons and addresses to his congregation. The accounts of travelers such as Melish and Buckingham provide different insight; they paint mental portraits of the community's quiet, unadorned setting for worship, an ambience that mirrors the disciplined, un-embellished religion that was radical pietism.