merican religious history is filled with churches youll never find on Fifth Avenue or, for that matter, on Main Street, Paducah, Kentucky. In any comprehensive handbook of denominations youll encounter the Dunkards and Shakers, the Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists, Hephzibah Faith Missionary Association, Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God of America, and the Old German Baptist Brethren.
That last one was my church, going back seven generations. Old German Baptists originated in Schwarzenau, Germany, in 1708. A blend of Mennonite, Anabaptist,* and Pietism, they arrived in America in 1729, where they found freedom to worship God as they pleased. Today they number about 5,200, and are generally known as either Amish or Mennonites. Think of them as Amish in minivans.
Nothing in my childhood motivated me to leave my church. My boyhood memories overflow with scenes of sincere worship and fellowship. That 80 percent of German Baptist youth remain in the church is a testimony to the attraction of the German Brethren way of life. My people value hard work; thus the skill to start ones own business is treasured more than an academic degree.
So it was with me. I had 25 years of construction experience under my belt when I turned 40. I also had a solid, TV-free education in the ABCs, and I knew enough of the rest of the alphabet to know the difference between good and evil.
As you would expect of a church with direct ties to the Anabaptist Reformers, membership doesnt come as a birthright; you choose a believers baptism when youre ready, not before. For me, that choice came in 1984. I was baptized in the chilly spring that flowed through Uncle Carls farm in Covington, Ohio. I witnessed no heavenly phenomenon as I wiped the water from my face--just the quiet realization that I was carrying the torch for another generation. My fellow members expected this of me, and I determined to fulfill my twentieth-century Anabaptist role the best I could.
An ancient story stoked my determination. In my minds eye I saw Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan. They stood for a moment, the hand of the elder resting gently on the shoulder of the younger. A request is made, a conditional promise given, and they move on. Then a celestial chariot swoops down, and Elijah steps on board. Behind he leaves only the emblem of a fulfilled promise. Nothing on earth is as precious to Elisha as that old piece of Elijahs mantle.
Sixteen years ago the Lord led me back to this story and left me with the conviction that I too had been given a mantle--a black broad-brimmed hat and pants that buttoned (no genuine mantle would have a zipper). It came with a question every believer must answer: Did your mantle fall from heaven or from tradition?
My Better Half
My wife, Nancy, grew up in Scottville, Michigan. She and her 11 siblings were raised in a barn that had been converted into a house. Like me, she had 11 grades of education. She received her diploma through a GED program just five years ago, which, she reminds me with a twinkle in her eye, makes her smarter than I am.
As often happens in Old German Brethren circles, we first saw each other in church and, for three years, exchanged covert glances across crowded rooms. We finally met after church one night in Maple Grove, Ohio. I was 21, Nancy 18. As a baptized member of the church, Nancy wore a patterned dress approved by the church. Her lace prayer covering symbolized the veil Paul advocated for women in the church at Corinth. On our first date two nights later, we joined 150 fellow German Baptists to witness the baptism of four youth--by immersion, of course. Our second date took us to the Stillwater congregation near Dayton, Ohio, for the annual Communion service. On Mothers Day, 1982, after seven months of courtship, I popped the question. We were married on October 2.
Because German Baptists dont conduct weddings inside their churches, we were married in a community center owned by my uncle Glen. Uncle Carl performed the ceremony before some 200 relatives and friends. The wedding was modest--a few flowers, a few candles. Nancy wore a white dress cut to the churchs pattern. Because I was not yet baptized, I wore a rented tuxedo. Pretty snazzy! Normally, marrying a nonmember is not encouraged, but in my case the brethren knew it was just a matter of time before I made my commitment to God. I was baptized a year later.
Nights of the Burning Heart
In November 1986 Nancy served me our usual breakfast of bacon and eggs. I drank my usual cup of orange juice, carried my dishes to the kitchen sink, as usual; kissed Nancy on the cheek, as usual; patted our two children, Dylan and Nathan, on the head, as usual; and headed for my backyard workshop--as usual.
That Saturday evening Nancy and I shared a meal in the home of a business partner, Eric Rich. Nancy had lived with Eric and his wife, Shirley, in Ohio. As we ate, Eric showed me a colorful brochure that had been put into his mailbox that morning. It advertised something called a Daniel and Revelation Seminar. Eric and I discussed it at length and decided to attend the opening nights meeting. Knowing the suspicion with which our church colleagues regarded anything our church had not originated, we didnt advertise our decision. We determined that if it wasnt good, we wouldnt go back.
Although I cant speak for the rest of the audience that evening, we two German Baptists were hit between the ears with something powerful: indeed a revelation of Jesus Christ. I found myself irresistibly drawn to Him.
The following Monday evening Eric and I gathered up our families and returned--early, to get a good seat. Night after night the Holy Spirit opened my mind to hitherto unseen Bible truths. Like the disciples on the Emmaus road, we said to each other, Did not our heart burn within us as he opened the Scriptures to us? I attended all 21 sessions, even after circumstances prevented Eric from returning. By the close of the seminar I had learned three compelling truths: The Bible is held together by extraordinary power. That power is a Person. That person is Jesus, the Christ.
A Complete Nitwit
The evangelist, Pieter Barkhuizen, and his wife, Yvonne, made a great team. To the great foundational truths of the gospel, Barkhuizen added others: the conditional immortality of the soul, the impending judgment all must face, the Sabbath rest, and a panoramic view of redemptive history--the great controversy. These wonderful revelations were like water from a deep well, all pointing to Jesus and His unbelievable love.
But now I had a problem: Where had these truths been for seven generations? Where were You, Jesus? I prayed. Why have these plain truths been hidden from me? I was shaken to the core. Revelation Seminar indeed!
I did the only thing I could think of; I got out my Bible and began to study it carefully. Maybe Id missed something. Seven generations cant be wrong. I resolved to disprove this new message. During the next two years of intensive study, I learned that if a pillar of faith topples, it is a false pillar, without biblical foundation.
At the end of two years of research I had earned the suspicion of my wife, who silently observed her well-respected husband confirm a message he had sought to refute. I was about to go from well-respected husband and church member to complete nitwit in the eyes of my family and erstwhile friends. Had I mistaken the strictures of conviction that bound me for a mantle? I was sorely torn between the pull of my heritage and the power of the Advent message.
Questions for Reflection
Or for Use in Your Small Group
1. What does the phrase The truth as it is in Jesus mean to you? How has it made a difference in your life?
2. When have you been challenged to reexamine some of the traditions handed down to you? What was the result?
3. What Bible passages have been especially helpful in shedding light on your spiritual development over the years?
4. What methods do you use to translate Adventist values and biblical understanding to young Adventists or new believers? What do you find most effective?
One night in the spring of 1988 I fell to my knees and prayed with the intensity of one faced with loss of home and heritage. Father, please help me! You alone know and understand the struggle within me. Take it out of my hands. May Your will be done.
When morning broke, a startling series of events revealed the guidance of a heavenly hand. My feet were directed, step-by-step, onto the path of the Advent movement. And, believe me, not one step went unreported! Rumors spread from Ohio to California and back again, embellished several times over. In two weeks I became a social and spiritual pariah.
Through it all I clung to the revelation of Jesus Christ that had challenged and transformed my heart. I recall thinking that it should really bother me to walk away from the heritage of my forebears. But nothing mattered to me but doing my heavenly Fathers will, nothing. The Advent mantle had fallen in my path. I picked it up and made it mine.
Walking away from seven generations of tradition--particularly in such a close-knit, distinctive church as that of the Old German Baptist Brethren--is never easy, nor done casually. But for me, it was the only road to peace. I surrendered to God in late 1988, and on January 7, 1989, I was baptized into the Advent movement--without Nancys support. Only those who have experienced it can know the trauma and tension when only one is baptized into a new faith, particularly when one continues to live with neighbors of the old tradition.
So you can imagine my joy when, in August, Nancy ended her own spiritual struggle and joined me in the fellowship of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Once again, no divine presence appeared over the Wagoner household to signal Gods approval to the community. Nor did a heavenly being make itself visual in our kitchen or workshop. However, the Scriptures I loved as a boy blossomed into living truths, foremost that one that said, I am the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6, NIV).
A Mantle From Heaven?
Look!--Theres a mantle on the ground in front of you. Old. Worn. Threadbare. Lacking the luster of discovery. A mantle that symbolizes how some who have been long in the way--years, decades, centuries--regard truth. Yes, some of them are descendants of the Anabaptists. But there are also descendants of Adventist pioneers.
No parent or grandparent can put that mantle on our shoulders; it doesnt work that way. It works the way it did with me: a Bible in hand, knees bent in prayer; conviction pressed home on the heart by the Holy Spirit.
That mantle in front of you! Pick it up. Look at it. Ask yourself: Did the Adventist mantle fall from heaven or from tradition?
*To learn what the author believes Adventists can learn from Anabaptists, and what he believes the Anabaptists can learn from Adventists, click here.
Gerry Wagoner is a commercial roofing contractor. The Wagoners are members of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Piqua, Ohio. This story is adapted from an article that originally appeared in Perspective Digest.