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Making History Today: Deeply Rooted

Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest

James S. Currie, Executive Secretary

In “Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge” in May 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “To be deeply rooted in the soil of the past makes life harder, but it also makes it richer and more vigorous” (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 295). In this letter which is written from prison and is addressed to the infant son of Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s best friend, Bonhoeffer imagines what the future church might look like. He envisions the church having a new language, being “perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming” (p. 300). 

On the occasion of this baptism Bonhoeffer also writes that “(a)ll those great ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be spoken over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out on you, without your knowing anything about it. But we are once again being driven right back to the beginnings of our understanding. Reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship” (p. 299). 

By seeking to discover and being reminded of our Reformed heritage in this part of God’s kingdom, the PHSSW does not simply want to learn more about and to celebrate those persons, events, and places that have helped shape and form us and the Presbyterian Church in the Southwest (although it does want to do that). In doing that we also hope to be reminded of the deep rootedness of the faith that sustains us in the present. As the church undergoes changes from generation to generation, some things do not change, or as Bonhoeffer writes, “reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship” remain a central part of who we are.  

In his book, Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs writes about sitting down at a table with and learning from literary figures who have gone before us – Horace, Homer, Petrarch, Chaucer, Shakespeare, as well as more contemporary writers. Willem Henrik van Loon goes a step further and imagines dinner conversations between persons from different generations – William the Silent and George Washington, for example; and Hans Christian Anderson and Mozart; and Dante and Leonardo da Vinci; and Emily Dickenson and Frederic Chopin. 

What an interesting conversation it would be to have Rachel Henderlite sit down at the dinner table with Daniel Baker, or to listen in on a conversation between Benjamin Morgan Palmer and Jorge Lara-braud. You can pick your own conversation partners. But Jacob notes that “(t)he dead, being dead, speak only at our invitation: they will not come uninvited to our table.” And that means that some work is required on our part. 

Being deeply rooted in the soil of the past, Bonhoeffer says, makes life harder. That is true, at least in part, because it requires effort and work on our part – to dig, to read, to learn, to discern. But it’s also true, as Bonhoeffer writes, that it makes life richer and more vigorous. Jacobs says something similar: “any genuine kinship with our ancestors must be earned through hard mental work” (p. 77). But such labor is rewarding. 

So, as we learn more and more about the saints who have gone before us in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, we do so neither to idealize nor to demonize anyone, but rather with a keen sense of gratitude for their faith, their call to discipleship, and the many and varied ways they have shaped us. We might not do things the way they did, and we might disagree with them on certain matters, but we are still part of the Reformed family. The face of the church will change, as it always has, but the head of the church, Jesus Christ, and the gospel message remain the same. 

As we make history today, may we do so not only knowing about those who have gone before us, but, to the extent possible, actually knowing them and being grateful for them because we do indeed stand on their shoulders. 

The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest exists to “stimulate and encourage interest in the collection, preservation, and presentation of the Presbyterian and Reformed heritage” in the Southwest. If you are not a participating member of the Society and would like to become one, the annual dues are $20 per individual and $25 per couple. Annual institutional and church membership dues are $100. Checks may be made out to PHSSW and sent to: 

PHSSW – 5525 Traviston Ct., Austin, TX 78738.  

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