words by: Elam Stoltzfus
— PART FOUR —
Music, hymns, and words are ingrained at an early age; indeed, there is abundant evidence that babies can hear music before birth. Music has always been an integral part of my life. As I was growing up, we sang a lot at home, especially on Sunday evenings. My Dad would gather the family around the kitchen table, and we would sing songs from the Ausbund, the Church and Sunday School Hymnal, and other song books. I recall the haunting and almost mournful cadence of my Dad’s clear tenor voice as he sang.
My parents also shared stories about the history of the Ausbund songs. These historical accounts were given to us by stories included in the Ausbund hymnal, The Martyrs Mirror, and other stories about Anabaptists held in prison and persecuted for their faith in the 16th century. I was enthralled by the bravery of our ancestors and wondered how they could write songs and sing them when they were on the run and in danger.
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“Do you want to see the ‘Preacher’s Cell’ where the Ausbund hymns may have been written?” Dr. Buchhold asked us. Professor André Rottgeri from the University of Passau, the Oberhausmuseum curator Eva Sattleger, and Nic and I had just finished our meeting with the director of the museum, Dr. Stefanie Buchhold, when she asked if we wanted to see the room where, based on rediscovered information, the Ausbund may have been written.
And so Nic, André, and I followed Eva as she took us up the winding wooden stairwell, the well-worn boards creaking with each step. We reached the third floor of the clock tower, which housed the Preacher’s Cell, and entered the cell through an old wooden door. It was a small room, roughly thirty feet square. In the room was a collection of books and a few shelves of old documents and records; Eva explained that it is now mostly used for storage. Something caught my attention: in places where the plaster had peeled off, there were etchings on the walls. I called Nic over to photograph the etchings. I looked closer: the words appeared to be Latin or German. In another place, there were numbers; it was hard to tell, but they looked like 1535 or maybe 1565. And then, I saw the markings of a music stanza. The more we observed the walls, the more we felt like some of the Anabaptists may have been held captive in this third-floor cell of the tower. Perhaps some of the Anabaptists were held captive in the castle dungeon and others in the Preacher’s Cell.
After we left, we all agreed that there was probably more information to uncover in the Preacher’s Cell, but funding would be needed to do more research there. Professor André said he would continue to research the Ausbund in Germany, and I promised him that I would learn all I could about it when I got back to America.
When I arrived back home in Florida, I called Aaron Petersheim, who works with the Ausbund reprint committee to do the Ausbund printings in America. When I shared with Aaron what we discovered in Passau, he was thrilled. He suggested that I present my findings to the Pequea Bruderschaft Library, which is the Old Order Amish historical society in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. That May, I did a presentation about our findings to approximately forty Old Order Amish men and women. There was an excitement among the group about the information and connection to Passau. I realized that there were many questions about the Preacher’s Cell, but not many answers yet.
In August, Nic and I made a trip to the Amish settlements of Holmes County, Ohio, and Goshen, Indiana. Our goal was to meet with Ausbund historians and uncover more about its importance in Anabaptist history. After a tour of Behalt with docent Ray Miller, we met with Leroy Beachy next door at the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. Beachy is the author of Unser Leit: The Story of the Amish, based on a lifetime of research and over twenty-two trips to Europe. We shared our findings about the Ausbund with him, and he listened intently, with a sparkle in his eyes. In Goshen, Nic and I toured Mennohof with tour guide Larry Miller, and then visited the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College. There we met with Joe Springer, who is the curator of the library. He gave us an informal lecture on the history of the Ausbund. He then brought out an archival box and carefully opened it. Inside was a 1564 Ausbund, the oldest known Ausbund in existence. I held it in my hands, this small book nearly 500 years old. Who knows who else had held this book, and where all it had been.
I thought of the restored 1834 Ausbund from Raymond Smoker that I took with me to Passau, Germany. I also brought it with me to Lancaster County, where Raymond’s kin had a chance to look through it. I saw how much it meant to his family when they held it and looked through it. It was more than just pieces of paper bound together; it was an object of memories and history.
What began as revisiting my childhood memories turned into a 2018 trip to Passau to satisfy my curiosity and has now morphed into an obsession to learn as much as I can about the Ausbund. It is an honor to learn from the many who have researched, written, and collected the documents on the Ausbund.
It is my goal for you likewise to become a student of the Ausbund. Read books about it. Talk to your local historians. And, if you can do so, travel to Passau and visit the Veste Oberhaus Museum, where it was written. It is an important part of our history, and we don’t want to forget it.
Is there a future for the Ausbund?
For Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and Hutterites today, it is a precious book with songs that bind communities together, hymns that define worship practices, and stories that continue to be shared generation after generation. This unique hymn book has shaped and defined the Anabaptist faith since its inception in the 1500s. As long as it continues to be a part of our faith tradition, there is a future for the Ausbund.
Earlier this year, my dad, Elmer Stoltzfus, found out he had bone cancer, and his health declined over the last few months. A few days after his 90th birthday, he had a bad fall and became bed-ridden. His health began to decline rapidly. I called him that following Monday, and he requested that I read and sing a verse from the Lob Lied (Love Song) from the Ausbund. In a slow cadence, I sang the first verse to him in German:
O Gott Vater, wir loben dich,
Und deine Güte preisen.
Die du, o Herr, so gnädiglich,
Un uns neu hast beweisen,
Und hast uns, Herr, zusammen g’führt,
Uns zu ermahnen durch dein Wort,
Gib uns Genad zu diesem.
Oh God Father, we praise thee,
And thy kindness glorify.
Which thou, oh Lord, so mercifully,
To us anew hast shown,
And hast us, Lord, together led,
Us to admonish through thy word,
Give us grace to this.
This was the last time I spoke with my Dad; he passed away the next day.
From early memories of sitting beside Dad as a little boy, watching him lead the Ausbund hymns in church, to a final eulogy with the words of a love song, these old German hymns have come full circle in my life.
With respect and love, I will endeavor to carry on his legacy, his stories, and his heritage.
Elam Stoltzfus currently serves as caretaker of the Nicholas Stoltzfus Homestead in (Berks County) Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. In 2018, he traveled to Germany to document the history of the Stoltzfus family—this research is documented in German Lutherans to Pennsylvania Amish: The Stoltzfus Family Story. To order a copy of this book, you can mail a $30 check to Elam Stoltzfus, 1700 Tulpehocken Road, Wyomissing, PA 19610.