I Called Her Mary

I Called Her Mary

By Margaret M. O’Hagan & Thomas Gorman

Reviewed by Hank Bitten

“And now these three remain” faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:1)

“Every Sunday, we walked together about five miles to church.  We didn’t have a car, so we walked over an hour to arrive at Mass on time.  We had the choice of going to 7:00 A.M. Mass at the monastery or walk in the opposite direction for 9:00 A.M. Mass at church in Shinrone.  On rainy days, we ran while the rain soaked through our clothes.  To this day, I never remember seeing an umbrella in Ireland.” (p. 29)

The Roman Catholic Church in Shinrone, built in 1860

The hidden stories of ordinary people are an essential part of the historical narrative. Unfortunately, these stories remain hidden. Everyone reading this book review has an important story – one related to triumph, tragedy, perseverance, culture, faith, and philosophy. The story of Peg Holland began on April 12, 1937. It was the age of the Zeppelins and there was a good chance that the giant German airship with 97 passengers passed over the farm house of the Hollands on its fateful voyage to Lakehurst, New Jersey in May of 1937. Peg will grow up during World War II and her life as a young adult at the age of 13 will begin in the middle of the 20th century. This is significant as immigrants from West Germany and Ireland came to America in the hope of a better life. The United States of America was a place of hope, liberty, and freedom from the traditions of Europe. 

The story of Peg Holland is anything but ordinary as it reveals insights into Irish and American culture.  Her story is powerful and very different from Life with Beaver or Father Knows Best. The story of history is the story of people. Through her experiences we learn about Elvis, Irish clubs, dating, conflicts, and hopes. The stories of ordinary people are valuable because they provide insights that are deeper than nostalgia. They reveal why liberty, equality, homeownership, education, and family are important and at times appear to be the ‘impossible’ dream.  In this context we see how an immigrant woman comes to understand the purpose of the American Revolution for her.  This is a story that prompts inquiry and discussion by students in a Sociology or history class, book club, or religious study group.

The design of this book is carefully planned for discussion and reflection as each chapter is less than ten pages taking less than 15 minutes to read.  Each chapter includes a unique episode similar to binge watching a streaming movie.  In fact, one might look at this book in terms of five seasons:

Season 1 (life in rural Ireland)

Season 2 (adoption of Mary and moving to New York)

Season 3 (married life)

Season 4 (unexpected situations)

Season 5 (reunion and optimism)

This memoir is an inspiring account of the discrimination of an unwed teenage mother experienced by the women in her community, a decision for adoption of her nine-month old daughter, working as a nanny, finding love in the Bronx, moving to the suburbs of New Jersey, the extended Irish family, and her reunion with her daughter 50 years later.

This historical narrative takes place over 70 years from 1950 through 2020 from the perspective of an immigrant woman from Ireland.  It includes her memories of dating in the Sixties, apartment living in the largest city in the world and making the move to the suburbs, the influence of music, television, and the church in her life, returning to Ireland, and community social events. For teachers interested in using this memoir to help students understand culture, family, and faith, this book provides a sociological framework of American culture during the last four decades of the 20th century and the transition into the 21stcentury by a senior citizen and grandparent.  The setting is Long Island, the Bronx and Bergen County, NJ.

The book will also prompt serious questions about how an immigrant teenage girl from Ireland entered the United States under the restrictions of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (McCarran-Walter Act), the role of Catholic Charities and other religious and private agencies with the relocation of people, commercial airline travel in the 1950s, the increased demand for parochial education, raising children, the baby boom generation, the influence of social clubs, the role of women in Irish and American culture, and how the American Dream of Peg Holland compares to the American Dream as defined by Betty Friedan:

“Each suburban wife struggled with it alone…they learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights…. ”(Rudnick, 72). Friedan goes on to emphasize how societal views have caused women’s “greatest ambition” to be marriage and children. Her biggest point eludes that “it is easy to see the concrete details that trap the suburban housewife, the continual demands on her time.” American Dream Project

For members of a book club, the book provides opportunities for discussion about teenage pregnancy, resilience, perseverance, facing discrimination, gangs, the life of an unmarried woman, struggling with debt, coping with cancer, raising a family, the importance of faith and hope, and if our lives are predetermined by a higher force or subject to chance and luck. The characters are real and their stories are from their hearts. Even if the authors edited phrases or words, the primary source documentation and candid expressions will make your eyes water with sadness and happiness.

For members of a religious discussion group this memoir offers ten examples of situations that require us to hit the pause button and stop and think. For example, the circumstances of a virgin pregnancy, living away from home during her pregnancy, twists and turns of the decision to give a daughter up for adoption, working as a nanny, finding friends, falling in love, purchasing a home, facing devastating health issues, reunion in Ireland, and receiving an unexpected phone call. 

For those who may read this book as an individual, I can only provide my perspective as a man, husband, and grandfather.  I experienced emotions of sadness, helplessness, empathy, inspiration, encouragement, and thanks for my personal religious beliefs in reading Peg’s personal story. It made me think about the teenage mothers I knew, decisions about who to trust, personal hardships and triumphs, the power of forgiveness, and the challenges teenagers and parents face. The characters in this memoir are living examples of these experiences. 

I also enjoyed the Irish culture and local color of Long Island, Valentine Ave. in the Bronx, and Hawthorne, NJ. These were all places where I lived but my experience was one of a middle-class man with a college education. To some extent my stereotypes of Irish culture found agreement and yet they were also proven wrong and my perspective of life and culture was broadened.

2314 Valentine Ave. Bronx, NY

“My prayers were always the same.  I prayed to God to help me get over my guilt, and He answered my prayers. After each conversation with Mary, I could feel the healing continue.  I began to feel like a person who was more sure of herself. I was no longer stuck beating myself up over something I have no control over anymore.  I told myself Enough already, I cried so many nights after I gave Mary away and when I was by myself.  Finally hearing Mary’s voice and everything she had accomplished in her life shot through me to my core and started to heal me within. It was confirmed I did the right thing.” (words of Peg Holland O’Hagan in her mid-70s)

The book is available on Amazon. It is written by a husband and wife with professional careers in education. I am honored that Thomas is my former student and years later became my colleague.



By Richard C. Reid

            Yes, I’ll tell you why. When I was nine years old in 1921 in the Bronx. I was playing with my friends at a construction site along Blondell Avenue near Eastchester Road when the local patrol cop, O’Toole, turned onto the street riding his chestnut horse. All of us kids feared him something awful. I had my back turned to him, so I didn’t know why all my friends were suddenly yelling and running away until I looked over my shoulder and saw who was coming at a brisk trot. I was too scared to run. All I could think to do was to duck down where I was behind a stack of bricks, hoping he had not spotted me.

It was less than half a minute, but those were some of the longest seconds of my life. O’Toole, you see, was known for using his nightstick. We all had seen the bruise an older teen in the neighborhood had said he received for talking back to the cop. We had all heard the neighborhood stories about him cracking the skulls of people who resisted arrest. He was a tall man, probably six foot four. When he rode that horse, he towered over us like some giant from a fairy tale. 

Now I knew he was there, just beyond my hiding spot because I could hear his horse panting but since he was saying nothing, I thought maybe I was going to get away with it. Fat chance.

“I know you’re there.”

Those simple words cut into me like a knife but I still didn’t move, hoping he wasn’t sure anyone was actually behind those bricks, that maybe he was just trying to bluff me out.

“You dumb Mick. If I have to get off this horse, you’ll wish I didn’t.”

It was then that I knew the jig was up. Standing, I saw a little smile cross his lips. I didn’t like the look of it. Still on his horse, he ordered me to follow him to the street. He was Irish like me, but he called us all Micks.

“Can you read, Mick? Tell me what that sign says.”

No Trespassing. He had me say it several times, each said louder than before. With one arm, he scooped me up like a milk bottle, put me on his horse in front of him, and said I had to direct him to my house which wasn’t very far.

Spying one of my older sisters, he asked her to get my father who came out right away. After the cop put me down, I ran to her on the porch, clutching her tightly while my father went over to speak with the dreaded policeman. At that point, I was more afraid for my father than I was for myself. I was very familiar with his oft-told tale about leaving Ireland to avoid arrest because he had badly beaten a cop. That was how my family came to be in America, a few months before I was born here, at least that was the family story I always knew. Now he was confronting a Johnny Law who had apprehended his son and was known for freely using his nightstick when given any guff. I was terribly afraid for my father.

Bending low on his horse, O’Toole and my father spoke quietly for a bit. Then my Dad came over to me, looking and sounding quite scared.

“I tried to reason with him, Charlie. I told him you were a good boy led astray by your bad companions, but the law’s the law, he said. You were trespassing on private property. There’s nothing I can do for you now. He has to take you to jail.”

            Although I was relieved to learn that my father hadn’t come away smarting from O’Toole’s nightstick, those were words I did not want to hear. I was sobbing as my father led me back to that terrifying giant who pulled me once again up on his horse. 

 As we set off at a slow pace heading to the Westchester Square station house, we passed neighbors who looked at me in amazement. A little girl followed us, gleefully saying in a singsong as she skipped along for half a block, “Charlie got pinched! Charlie got pinched!” on and on. It was awful.

O’Toole talked about the judge likely sending me to reform school. I found out later on that they wouldn’t have done this to a nine-year old for what I had done, but at the time, I believed him.   After a few more blocks, the horse suddenly halted. That’s when the cop commanded that I look straight at him. Turning, I saw a face colder than any my father had ever shown me. I’ll never forget the intensity in his dark eyes. Had they been knives, they would have cut me to shreds.

“You know what you did was wrong, don’t you?’

I nodded silently. In response to his stern directive to say it, I blurted that trespassing on private property was wrong. He insisted I say it three times. That was when he lowered me to the street.

“I’m letting you off with a warning this time. But if I ever hear of you doing anything bad again, I’ll hunt you down and arrest you. Got that, Mick?’

I assured him I had. But he wasn’t quite yet finished with me. With the barest hint of a smile, he leaned down toward me. In a softer voice, he said something I’ve never forgotten.

“Remember to say your prayers tonight, son.”

That evening, I knelt next to my bed for my usual nightly devotions. About halfway through the Lord’s Prayer, I froze up when I realized what the next word was. In a flash, I was back there on O’Toole’s horse, his big hands gripping me. For several months as a child, I couldn’t say that prayer, couldn’t say that word, “trespasses.” I always believed it was O’Toole’s sadistic parting gift to me, making sure whenever I said my bedtime prayers, I would remember him. It wasn’t until I heard he had been transferred about five months after our encounter that I ever felt at ease in my neighborhood again.

A day after that news, I finally told my parents what had been bothering me all those months. My mother said it was just the officer’s way of telling me not to worry, that my trespassing that day would be forgiven by a merciful God who loves all children. My father thought telling kids to say nightly prayers would help keep them on the straight and narrow, adding that surely O’Toole never meant it to be a source of torment. It was then that my father, upset to hear of my pain, apologized to me, explaining that he and O’Toole had arranged the whole thing on the spot to put a scare into me, to teach me respect for the police and the law. Dad said his father had done something similar with him when he was little, that I was never really going to reform school. But he knew nothing about O’Toole telling me to say my prayers. Wondering what O’Toole meant has dogged me my whole life. I’ve also always wondered whatever happened to him.

“Officer John Patrick Aloysius O’Toole passed from his earthly life on the afternoon of June 28, 1924. When he was walking his beat in Brooklyn, he saw a tenement ablaze and ran to help. He got five people out safely before he went back for a little girl glimpsed at a fourth-floor window. Neither of them made it out.”

I never knew that. I guess he wasn’t such a bad guy after all to do something like that. Well, I expect this has been a rather long-winded answer to your question about why I always wanted to ask you my question which is this: Lord Jesus, what did O’Toole really mean that day when he told me to say my prayers?

“John’s not far from here, Charlie, just down that path over there by the pasture. He’s expecting you. Why not get reacquainted?”

Does God Have a Plan for History and Us?

Esther 2:17 “Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins.  So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.”

The crowning of Queen Esther

The book of Esther is a controversial book and this commentary is specifically designed to encourage readers to research the reasons for an against including it in the Holy Bible, to ask questions about Queen Esther and the events in this book, and to discuss or debate the issue on the amount of free will and individual has and the role that God plays in our lives.

From a personal perspective God has played a visible and hidden role in my life as it pertains to education, career, marriage, family, and other events. My personal view is that God has put me in places for a reason and intervened in things I wanted to prevent them from happening. In reflection, these “interventions” (or disappointments at the time) were likely for a reason. In 2020, the world is experiencing a pandemic that is a challenge for most people and devastating for others. How do we understand the event of a pandemic? Is it God’s plan, does God allow the pandemic to bring us closer to faith in God, do we see it as a call to repentance, is it just a random event that occurs once every 100 or 500 years? These are all great questions. Do we answer the question of a pandemic (or an asteroid that lands on our planet, genocides, wars, economic hardships, a vaccine that is a cure for the pandemic, a peace agreement, or an economy that improves each year the same way?

After the pandemic of the flu in 1919-20, many people turned away from God and adopted the phrase ‘God is Dead’ first introduced by Frederick Nietzsche. When it comes to events today, the majority of people accept the philosophy that everyone has a free will and events occur randomly and are not predetermined. Some consider the opposite of free will to be fatalism. The origins of this debate go back to the ancient civilizations. Others, have a worldview that is predetermined by God’s timeline or at least partly determined by God’s intervention. The birth of Jesus Christ was not a random birth but one that was part of God’s plan from Creation. Is our birth any different?

Let’s consider the events in Esther’s life in the fifth century B.C.E. (490-460) under the rule of King Ahasuerus of Persia. The story begins with Queen Vashti’s refusal to obey the command to appear before the king, her husband. As a result the king seeks a new queen and Esther is the one he chooses. Two of the advisors to King Ahasuerus, Mordecai and Haman, report false information to the king and this leads to a decree that allows the population to seize the property of the Jews in Persia with no protection for their lives. This is one of the biggest human rights violations in the history of the ancient world. Tens of thousands of Jews feared for their lives.

  1. Why did Esther hide the fact that she was Jewish?
  2. Why did Queen Esther delay in telling the King to the decree against the Jews?
  3. Why did Esther call fast for three days?
  4. Did the preservation of the Jews occur by chance or was this the work of God?
A 19th century depiction of Queen Esther (Getty Images)

The name of God is not explicitly stated in the Book of Esther and yet the presence of God is obvious throughout the events in this book. There were many beautiful girls in Persia, the edict against the Jews was based on evil intentions, and the circumstances leading to the ending of the decree are very unusual. Martin Luther saw God as active in history and in the lives of each person created y God. Unfortunately, as a result of myopic vision caused by our human nature (sin) many people understand God as passive and inactive.

It is the stories of Esther, Exodus, the rise of Joseph in Egypt’s government, the birth of Jesus, the events of Good Friday and Easter, the conversion of Paul, and my baptism and yours that God reveals Himself as a active and engaging!  We also ‘see’ God in the miracle of birth, the forgiveness of sins, and the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper!

Martin Luther saw a two dimension world – the physical world and the spiritual world. When we drive down the highway or road, we can only see for a short distance as we look ahead. We are not able to see what is 100 feet to our left or right. But when we fly a drone, we are able to see everything differently. We see a bigger picture. This is the way it is with life and faith. Our lives are focused on our experiences and perhaps to some extent on the lessons of history. We cannot see tomorrow or even the next hour. We are familiar with the phrase, “our life can change in a minute or a second.’ With faith, we can see things differently. We are able to see the bigger picture of grace, love, and eternity.

We have reason to celebrate! Comments: hbitten@reverendluther.org

How Historical Events Have Impacted the Christian Church – Part 5 of 7: World War I

The Response of the Christian Church to Significant Changes in World History

Introduction: One of the themes in world history is continuity and change over time. The Christian Church emerged during the first century during a time when the Roman Empire was flourishing during the Pax Romano. The first centuries of the early church were faced with persecution, death, and a deliberate effort by the government to prohibit it.  In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan ending the persecution of Christians. The Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., the Roman government recognized Christianity as an official religion. Historical events lead to change and the Christian Church is now in the third millennium of historical time. However, the Christian Church is not static or passive; instead its role is one of change in response to world events.

In the first part of the 21st century, the world is experiencing an historic event that will likely change the lives of humans around the world in a significant way. This event is the arrival of a powerful and pervasive virus, COVID-19, which is already changing government budgets, the way people respond to information, educational institutions, and our consumer economy. The global pandemic will also change the institution of the Christian Church (and other religious institutions) and may also affect the way people respond to the message of the Christian Church. There is no “normal” for the coming years and likely the “new normal” will evolve over a decade or longer. After the Attack on America on September 11, 2001, the way people traveled changed dramatically.

This point of view essay may be used as a discussion with small groups interested in the evolution of the institution of the church over time.

World War 1

20th Century (1900-1945)

Church service in Alabama circa, 1925

The house of horrors that tormented the world during World War I resulted in unprecedented injury and death of 40 million people.  The flu pandemic took the lives of approximately another 500 million people infected and 50 million deaths.  The significance of this turning point event challenged the Christian Church with an alienated population, the philosophy that God was Dead, and a conservative reaction to the lifestyles of urban populations. Friedrich Nietzsche inserted the phrase “God is Dead” into his book, The Gay Science, in 1882, before World War 1 but it became popularized after The Great War. He understood the culture wars at the time and favored the truths of science over the morality of the values of the Christian faith.

It is unlikely that Nietzsche literally proposed that a monolithic or Triune God had died but rather that religion, and more specifically the Christian Church, was becoming a failing institution. Nietzsche’s core thesis is what would the world look like without any religious faith. Would the masses turn to nihilism, anarchy, and immorality.

This was the age of exploration and scientific and technological discovery as a result of the industrial Revolution.  Darwin’s theories of evolution challenged the Biblical teachings of creation which received international scrutiny in the Scopes Trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. The Christian Church had to respond to the new morality of the Jazz Age which led to the migration of Black Americans to northern cities, the expression of the modern woman, income inequalities, prohibition of alcohol, and the freedom of the automobile.  Many churches became more concerned about preventing women from smoking cigarettes, sexual and reproductive ethics, social security, and the threat to institutionalized religion by totalitarian governments, than the gospel of God’s grace. The two decades between World War 1 and World War 2 were some of the most challenging to the Christian Church and they will form the catalyst for the direction of some evangelical groups in the second half of the 20th century.

The voices who spoke on behalf of the church were Norman Vincent Peale (positive thinking), Father Charles Coughlin (social justice), Billy Sunday (Born Again evangelism), Paul Tilich (existence of God), and Rheinhold Niehbur (nature of man and God’s unconditional grace).  The radio became a popular medium to communicate quickly with the masses. In the years after World War I, the Christian Church struggled with its relationships with people and society. It is estimated that 43% of the population in the United States belonged to a Christian Church during this time.

The Christian Church faced two major challenges as the result of the Great Depression.  First, churches were heavily indebted because of construction projects initiated during the prosperity of the 1920s. With the depression, church revenues declined sharply making it difficult to repay loans and to support their staff.. The second challenge was in the area of social ministry as people in their churches and communities became unemployed. The ministry of Christian churches was to provide for the basic needs of people.

The worship of Christian Churches closely followed liturgical forms.  The singing of hymns was popular in Protestant denominations during this period.  In the southern churches gospel and spirituals became popular. The Roman Catholic Church followed liturgical forms of worship in Latin. They had a significant presence in urban areas, with immigrants and union workers, and parochial schools. The nomination of Al Smith for president of the United States in 1928 supports to popularity of the Roman Catholic church. However, the fear of papal influence divided Protestants and Roman Catholics.

How responsive has the Christian Church been over the centuries to the suffering of people as a result of persecution, war, and genocide?

Do you agree or disagree with the statement that the first half of the 20th century was one of the most challenging for the Christian Church throughout world history?

How might the Christian Church have made different decisions regarding its ministry in the years after World War I?

Contact: hbitten@reverendluther.org

Link to Home Page for this Series

How Historical Events Have Impacted the Christian Church – Part 4 of 7: The Industrial Revolution

The Response of the Christian Church to Significant Changes in World History

Introduction: One of the themes in world history is continuity and change over time. The Christian Church emerged during the first century during a time when the Roman Empire was flourishing during the Pax Romano. The first centuries of the early church were faced with persecution, death, and a deliberate effort by the government to prohibit it.  In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan ending the persecution of Christians. The Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., the Roman government recognized Christianity as an official religion. Historical events lead to change and the Christian Church is now in the third millennium of historical time. However, the Christian Church is not static or passive; instead its role is one of change in response to world events.

In the first part of the 21st century, the world is experiencing an historic event that will likely change the lives of humans around the world in a significant way. This event is the arrival of a powerful and pervasive virus, COVID-19, which is already changing government budgets, the way people respond to information, educational institutions, and our consumer economy. The global pandemic will also change the institution of the Christian Church (and other religious institutions) and may also affect the way people respond to the message of the Christian Church. There is no “normal” for the coming years and likely the “new normal” will evolve over a decade or longer. After the Attack on America on September 11, 2001, the way people traveled changed dramatically.

This point of view essay may be used as a discussion with small groups interested in the evolution of the institution of the church over time.

The Industrial Revolution

19th Century

Sunday School in England

In 1765 James Watt improved on the earlier steam engine of Thomas Newcomen. The steam engine changed the way people worked and lived. Instead of producing goods in the home, factories emerged in new towns along rivers and near water falls. In the first 25 years of the 19th century canals, railroads, and clipper ships moved resources and products. People worked long hours for low wages seven days a week. As a result of the low wages (10 cents an hour), young children had to perform work.  There were no schools and sickness and injuries were common.

The first Sunday School started in England by William King in 1751. By 1785, there were 250,000 English children attending Sunday School. It was the only education available as public education will slowly evolve after 1850. The first Sunday School in the United States was started in Brooklyn in 1838 and Brooklyn Queens Day is still a holiday. The Sunday School movement led the way to public education in the United States and continued to increase in popularity through most of the 20th century. Even with the decline in Sunday Schools after 1975, they continued to be an important part of church ministry into the 21st century. This period also embraced the holidays of Christmas with Christmas trees and pageants of the birth of Jesus and Lent with fasting, confession, prayers, and resurrection themed sermons.

The problems of poverty, homeless, immigration motivated church groups in the United States to organize social ministries. This movement was less popular in Europe. Walter Rauschenbusch was a pastor in New York City and promoted the social gospel. The Salvation Army was organized by William Booth in London to aid the homeless and destitute. The mission is based on the call of the disciples of Jesus Christ to assist people in need.  Today they are an international organization. The Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) also began in London and promoted its evangelical mission in cities around the world. The social gospel movement was prominent with denominational Protestant churches and evangelical churches. During the civil rights movement, the social gospel evolved in promoting social justice in the United States.  The popularity of the Sunday School and social gospel ministries sparked the establishment of the parish church structure we have today in communities and neighborhoods around the world.

The Industrial Revolution also led to globalization in the name of imperialism and colonialism. As capitalist businesses acquired natural resources in other countries and looked for new markets to sell products, the Christian Church saw the need to convert people in other countries to their faith.  Missionary work first began with Ignatius Loyola at the University of Paris with the Society of the Jesus. His followers traveled throughout Europe, Africa and Asia to convert Muslims, counter the teachings of Martin Luther with the Roman Catholic faith, and eventually organizing schools.

The missionary work of the Christian Church began around 1820 in Europe with the end of the Napoleonic wars. In the United States, the missionary work before the Civil War was mostly invested in spreading the gospel with the expansion west to California. After 1850, the work of foreign missions exploded in China, Korea, India, Africa and continued on a global scale with the translation of the Holy Bible into vernacular languages. Missionary work was an opportunity for men and women to start hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Missionary work continued to increase throughout the 20th century and continues to be important to the goals of Protestant, evangelical, and Roman Catholic institutions.  

With 21st century people concerned about social injustice, are there lessons to be learned from the social ministries of the 19th century?

How did the Christian Church meet the needs of the people during this time?

Is missionary work in other countries critical to the vision of the Christian Church today or does the Church need to focus on different needs and issues?

Contact: hbitten@reverendluther.org

Link to Home Page for this Series

How Historical Events Have Impacted the Christian Church – Part 1 of 7: Fall of Rome

The Response of the Christian Church to Significant Changes in World History

Introduction: One of the themes in world history is continuity and change over time. The Christian Church emerged during the first century during a time when the Roman Empire was flourishing during the Pax Romano. The first centuries of the early church were faced with persecution, death, and a deliberate effort by the government to prohibit it.  In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan ending the persecution of Christians. The Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., the Roman government recognized Christianity as an official religion. Historical events lead to change and the Christian Church is now in the third millennium of historical time. However, the Christian Church is not static or passive; instead its role is one of change in response to world events.

In the first part of the 21st century, the world is experiencing an historic event that will likely change the lives of humans around the world in a significant way. This event is the arrival of a powerful and pervasive virus, COVID-19, which is already changing government budgets, the way people respond to information, educational institutions, and our consumer economy. The global pandemic will also change the institution of the Christian Church (and other religious institutions) and may also affect the way people respond to the message of the Christian Church. There is no “normal” for the coming years and likely the “new normal” will evolve over a decade or longer. After the Attack on America on September 11, 2001, the way people traveled changed dramatically.

This point of view essay may be used as a discussion with small groups interested in the evolution of the institution of the church over time.

The Fall of Rome

5th Century

The Ruins of the Roman Empire

After the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Christians were free to come out of hiding and organized public worship began. The church was organized in different cities. The Christian Church experienced the leadership of St. Jerome and St. Augustine. The first ecumenical council met in Nicea, (Turkey) in 325 A.D. and adopted a strong statement influenced by Athanasius that defeated the Arian heresy with explicit statements about the Trinity.  St. Jerome began collecting the Latin texts to organize the Vulgate Bible, which became the de facto Bible until it was adopted by the Council of Trent in the 16th century. and the prolific writings on faith and grace by Bishop Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine) in the first quarter of the 5th century. Augustine’s the City of God.  Although historians record a line of church leaders, bishops or popes, dating back to Peter in 29 A.D., Pope Leo I is considered the first Pope of Rome who was supported by the local rulers outside of Rome in 440. A.D.  

The decline of Rome was slow but consistent.  It failed in multiple ways with the movement of populations from northern Europe, a declining in cultural values, loss of independent farms, deteriorating infrastructure, inflation and debt, and corruption. The Roman Church began to emerge as the leader and protector of the people. Churches were built as fortresses and monastic orders in the mountains protected church records and became safe places of opportunity for the youth.

As western Europe declined into chaos and fighting among feudal lords or kings, the Roman Catholic Church provided for both the physical and spiritual well-being of the people.  As the Eastern Roman Empire located in Constantinople and Asia Minor became a center for trade and political stability, the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church divided on their teachings of the authority of the pope, importance of the Holy Spirit as coequal to God the Father and Jesus the Son of God, the historic dating of Easter, and the presence of statues in churches. These disagreements continued for centuries and eventually the Roman Catholic Church split into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. The main theological differences between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic faith is that in the Eastern Orthodox Church the pope is considered a bishop and is not infallible, the Holy Spirit is part of the Trinity but ‘does not proceed directly from the Father and the Son (Nicene Creed), Easter is dated on the Sunday closest to April 14, (although it can be celebrated on a date between April 4 and May 8) and icons (two-dimensional images) are used in place of statues (three-dimensional images). The Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church split into two separate institutions in 1054 A.D.

Why were there threats to the Christian faith in the first centuries of the Christian Church?

Why have the creeds of the Roman Catholic Church remained popular throughout world history?

Will church doctrine continue to be central to the beliefs of Christians in the 21st century?

Contact: hbitten@reverendluther.org

Link to Home Page for this Series

The First Easter

The Historical Eyewitness of Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary, the mother of James

Mark 16: 1-8

Mark 16: 1-4   When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large.

Excerpt from Martin Luther’s Easter sermon (1520s):

The great longing and love of the women for the Lord must also be particularly noted here, so that unadvised and alone they go early to the grave, not thinking of the great stone which was rolled before the tomb. They might have thought of this and taken a man with them. But they act like timid and sorrowing persons, and therefore they go on their way without even thinking of the most necessary things. They do not even think of the watchers who were clad in armor, nor of the wrath of Pilate and the Jews, but boldly they freely risk it and alone they venture on their way.

What urged these good women to hazard life and body? It was nothing but the great love they bore to the Lord, which had sunk so deeply into their hearts that for His sake they would have risked a thousand lives. Such courage they had not of themselves, but here the power of the resurrection of Christ was revealed, whose Spirit makes these women, who by nature are timid, so bold and courageous that they venture to do things which might – have daunted a man.

These women also show us a beautiful example of a spiritual heart that undertakes an impossible task, of which the whole world would despair. Yet a heart like this stands firm and accomplishes it, not thinking the task impossible.

And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Excerpt from Martin Luther’s Easter sermon (1520s)

This is the meaning of the words by St. Paul: “Christ was raised for our justification.” Here Paul turns my eyes away from my sins and directs them to Christ, for if I look at my sins, they will destroy me. Therefore, I must look unto Christ who has taken my sins upon himself, crushed the head of the serpent and become the blessing. Now they no longer burden my conscience, but rest upon Christ, whom they desire to destroy. Let us see how they treat him. They hurl him to the ground and kill him. 0 God; where is now my Christ and my Savior?

But then God appears, delivers Christ and makes him alive; and not only does he make him alive, but he translates him into heaven and lets him rule over all. What has now become of sin? There it lies under his feet. If I then cling to this, I have a cheerful conscience like Christ, because I am without sin. Now I can defy death, the devil, sin and hell to do me any harm. As I am a child of Adam, they can indeed accomplish it that I must die.

Now I have a clear conscience, am joyful and happy and am no longer afraid of this tyrant, for Christ has taken my sins away from me and made them his own. But they cannot remain upon him; what then becomes of them? They must disappear and be destroyed. This then is the effect of faith. He who believes that Christ has taken away our sin, is without sin, like Christ himself, and death, the devil and hell are vanquished as far as he is concerned and they can no longer harm him.

Now, this Gospel he has not taken with him into heaven, but he caused it to be preached throughout the world, so that for him who believes in Christ, spear and whetstone, nay, sin and death, should be destroyed. This is the true Gospel, which bestows life, strength, power and marrow, and of which all the passages of Scripture speak.

Take as an illustration the fish in the water. When they are caught in the net, you lead it quietly along, so that they imagine they are still in the water; but when you draw them to the shore, they are exposed and begin to struggle, and then they first feel they are caught.

Thus, it also happens with souls that are caught with the Gospel, which Christ compares with a net, (Matthew 13:47). When the heart has been conquered, the Word unites this poor heart to Christ and leads it gently and quietly from hell and from sin, although the soul still feels sin and imagines to be still under its power. Then a conflict begins, the feelings struggling against the Spirit and faith, and the Spirit and faith against our feelings; and the more faith increases, the more our feelings diminish, and vice versa.

We have still sins within us, as for instance pride, avarice, anger and so forth, but only in order to lead us to faith, so that faith may increase from day to day, and the man become finally a thorough Christian and keep the true sabbath, consecrating himself to Christ entirely. Then the conscience must become calm and satisfied and all the surging waves of sin subside. For as upon the sea one billow follows and buffets the other, as though they would destroy the shore, yet they must disappear and destroy themselves, so also our sins strive against us and would fain bring us to despair, but finally they must desist, grow weary and disappear.

These two things, sin and death, therefore remain with us to the end that we might cultivate and exercise our faith, in order that it may become more perfect in our heart from day to day and finally break forth, and all that we are, body and soul, become more Christlike. For when the heart clings to the Word, feelings and reasoning must fail. Then in the course of time the will also clings to the Word, and with the will everything else, our desire and love, till we surrender ourselves entirely to the Gospel, are renewed and leave the old sin behind.

Then there comes a different light, different feelings, different seeing, different hearing, acting and speaking, and also a different outflow of good works. It comes in this way: When the heart and conscience cling to the Word in faith, they overflow in works, so that, when the heart is holy, all the members become holy, and good works follow naturally.

Comments: hbitten@reverendluther.org

Historic WW 2 Sermon, April 8, 1945

Text: “All things work together for good to them that love God.” Romans 8:28


Ridgewood, New Jersey

The following sermon was delivered on April 8, 1945, one month before V-E Day, and simultaneously read by servicemen from the congregation in Ridgewood and others in harm’s way in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and those serving in South America, stationed in the United States, serving on naval ships, and recovering from injury in a hospital.  April 8 was the date selected by The Lutheran Church for a special worship service dedicated to the men and women in the armed forces and their families and others on the home front.

Sermon – delivered by Pastor F. A. Ottmann at a special service held in honor of our men and women in service – April 8, 1945 at 10:30 A.M.

Beloved in Jesus Christ:

To many people, the world is full of unsolved riddles, perhaps now more than ever.  Time and again in past years, we have heard the question asked, “Why such a monstrous war when God long ago proclaimed peace on earth, and all nations engaged in this terrible struggle profess to accept the religion of ‘good will toward men’?  Why should so many be made to suffer because of the unholy ambition of a few?  Again people ask, “Why are epidemics permitted to stalk through the country claiming their victims by the thousands among the unbeliever as well as the Christians?  Why do the honest and upright frequently have affliction and sorrow while the wicked are apparently free and prosperous?”  These and other questions of a similar nature often greatly disturb the souls of men.  Especially when adversity comes to the individual, when the question takes this form:  “Why should I have reverses?  Why should my house be stricken with disease?  Why should my husband, my wife, my son, my child die?”  Then the puzzle often spells disaster, wrecking men’s lives and driving them to despair.  We Christians too, are sorely tried by such questions.  But we know where to find an answer.  We turn to the Word of God.  True that Word does not always give us a definite answer to these particular questions.  On the contrary, it tells us that often God’s judgments are unsearchable and His ways past finding out.  But it assures us that they are ways of wisdom and love gives us the definite promise that “all things work together for good to them that love God”.  And that comforting assurance I want to impress upon you today.  The Theme:

All things for good – so God says to His children.

            “All things”, that is an all inclusive statement.  It includes everything and excludes nothing.  “All things”, whether to is they seem good, bad, or indifferent.  We usually make this distinction.  Some things we consider to be always beneficial to us, as good health, a comfortable income, a circle of true friends.  Other things we look upon as misfortunes, believing them to be contrary to our interests, as calamities, war, sickness, business reverses, loss of employment.  Then there are things which we ordinarily imagine have practically no influence on our welfare.  But our experience and that of others show us that we are often mistaken in making these distinctions, what we usually call blessings are often harmful to those who receive them.  Many a man has been morally and physically ruined by prosperity.  So called misfortunes, on the other hand, often proved to be blessings in disguise and the apparently trivial things of life are in many instances of momentous importance in their consequence.

            But here comes the Word of God, saying that all things work together for good to them that love Him, even the evil things. Yes, God even makes use of the sins of men, for which He is in no wise responsible, to further His ends, as the story of Joseph in the Old Testament and particularly that of Jesus in the New Testament clearly how.  Joseph was torn from his home, sold into Egypt as a slave by his brothers.  They wanted to get rid of him, get him out of the way, they hated him.  But God was with Joseph.  He made use of the sin of his brethren to further His purpose, namely to elevate Joseph to the regency of Egypt and make him a benefactor of the world of his time and especially to his own brethren.  Wherefore Joseph said to them, “And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.  So, it was not you who sent me thither, but God.”  Yes, God was with Joseph.  And need I remind you of the fact, that the greatest wrong man ever committed, the betrayal of Judas, the condemning of Jesus by Caiaphas, the sentence of death placed upon Him by Pilate, the crucifixion on Calvary, was used by God for the eternal salvation of man.

            All things work together says our text.  There is design and purpose in everything.  We have the evidence of that fact all about us.  In the whole universe there is order, adaptation, system, as every careful student of nature must see. The great things as well as the small things denote the presence of a divine Master-mind.  There is purpose then in the things that enter into the life of each individual, and all things which enter into your life work together to accomplish a certain end.  What is that end?  That work together for good.  God’s purpose is always good so all things must work together for the good of His children – I say for His children.  The Lord knoweth them that are His.  That is our great comfort at all times and in all conditions of life that the Lord knows us as His own.  He is deeply concerned about our welfare.  Nothing can befall us without His will and so all things must work together for our good.  Which does not mean that they work together solely for the promotion of our pleasure or according to our ideas of what is good, but for our best interests, our welfare, our real happiness according to God’s ideas in time and eternity. Everything in our lives is a means to an end.  It is not always the medicine which is most pleasant to the taste which is most effective.  Sometimes a very bitter medicine prescribed proves to be the very thing to restore health to a sick person.  So God often prescribes for us, bitter things, which at the time seem far from good for us, yet they are for our benefit. 

            As the Apostle says, Hebrews 12:11: “No chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous; nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.”  Not of themselves however, are our experiences productive of that good of which the text speaks.  The essential thing for our true welfare in time and eternity is the salvation of our soul.  And that is obtained only by faith in Christ, not by any other thing entering our lives.  It is by faith only that we receive full pardon for our sins and become acceptable to God.  It is by faith only that we are made righteous and heirs of eternal life.  It is faith which fills our hearts with peace and joy, comfort and hope, faith, living faith, in the Savior Jesus, and such faith is wrought and strengthened by the Holy Spirit through the means of the Gospel.  All the various things then that we experience in life work together for good only when they serve the purpose of bringing us closer to Christ, nearer to God, more and more under the influence of the Gospel.  And that is precisely what adversities and afflictions, according to the will of God, are to accomplish.  It is the days of good fortune that ought to bring us nearer to God.  They ought to fill our hearts with greater appreciation of God’s goodness.  They ought to turn us to God in true repentance.  They ought to induce us to seek the Lord in His temple, to come before Him with thanksgiving.  But we know very well that God’s blessings only too often have the opposite effect.  When a man enjoys God’s blessings he often becomes careless of spiritual matters, of church and religion, and drifts away from God.  Instead of being led to repentance by the goodness of God, he despises the riches of God’s mercy and forbearance.  Therefore, the discipline of trials and sufferings are needed.

            They are to divert our minds from the perishing things of this world and fix them on things above.  They are to remind us that our welfare is entirely in the hands of God, that He must provide for us the things that make for our real happiness, and that our relation to Him must be right if we are to enjoy His blessings.  As Job says: “Lo, all these things worketh together oftentimes with man, to bring back his soul from the pit, to be enlightened with the light of the living.” (Job 33:29)  Many who are Christians today, earnest Christians, are ready to acknowledge with feelings of deep humility and gratitude that they never had serious thoughts of eternity, never truly sought their Savior, never found comfort in the Gospel until the days of adversity made them consider, gave them food for thought, so that today they are more thankful to God for some of the troubles they have had than for the good fortunes which befell them.  And we earnestly hope that all the anxiety and worry, the trouble and want, the suffering and sorrow, and the heartache and heartbreak of the present time will have the result of turning the people more permanently to God and His Word, and that all these things and whatever affliction God permits to come into our lives will truly work together for the real good of all of us.

            But if that is to be the case, we must not forget the concluding words of the text, “All things work together for good to them that love God.”  While God’s dealings with men are intended to be for the good of all, His gracious purpose is realized only in some.  Not in those who merely entertain reverent thoughts of God, not in those who merely form resolutions to lead upright lives, not in those who attend church off and on to pacify their consciences, not in those who come to God in days of affliction, but soon drift away again.  No, only in those who truly turn their hearts to God, who realize that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and cling to Him with an abiding faith; only in those who are moved by the Spirit of God and therefore are God’s children.

            It is to His children that God gives the promise that all things work together for good to them.  One of the chief characteristics of a dear child is that he listens to the voice of the father and abides by his will, and so the child of God will, even in deepest sorrow and the greatest trouble, turn to the Father and say, “Father, Thy will be done.”  So if we are truly children of God, come what may, all things must work together for our good.  Here is God’s definite promise. Behind that promise He stands, the all gracious One, the all wise One, the all powerful One, the all faithful One.  It must be fulfilled.  Amen.

Bible verses about the Cross

The Cross

Isaiah 53:5: But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

Luke 23:33: They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.

John 19:18: There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between.

Matthew 27:37: When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left.

Matthew 27:54: Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

Luke 23:47: Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent.”

Matthew 27:37: And above His head they put up the charge against Him which read, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.”

Mark 15:25: It was the third hour when they crucified Him.

John 19:32,33: So the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who was crucified with Him; but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But when they came to Jesus and found he was already dead, they did not break his legs.

The importance of the Cross in our Lives

1 Corinthians 2:2: For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.

Galatians 2:20: I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

Titus 2:11,12: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.

John 16:33: I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

2 Corinthians 10:3: For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.

1 John 2:17: The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

1 Timothy 6:7,8: For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.

James 4:4: You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

Mark 16:15: He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”

Bible verses about Holy Communion

Holy Communion, Holy Baptism, and God’s Word in the Bible are the intimate means God is with us in faith, grace, and love. Our faith in Jesus Christ is made stronger and more vibrant each day that we read and hear His Word, remember the promise of eternal salvation when He called us by name in our Baptism, and when we receive His forgiveness and grace in the bread and wine that He told us to do in remembering His presence in our lives and world.

Matthew 26:28 “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

John 6:33 “For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

John 6:35 “Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Luke 24:30 “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.”

Luke 22: 19-20 “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

Matthew 26: 26-28 “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

John 6:48-51 “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

1 Peter 3:18 “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.”

Acts 20:7 “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.”