Early American Christian poetry: Alexander Mack Jr. 

By Brian Nixon
Special to ASSIST News Service

Albuquerque, N.M. – For many literary scholars, American poetry did not take flight until the post-Colonial era, falling roughly between the years of 1800-1900. Poets such as William Bryan (1794-1878), Henry Longfellow (1807-1882), John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) are mentioned with high regard, but culminating with Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) as the exemplars of a uniquely American voice.

All of this may be true.

But the reality is that poetry was present in the New World prior to the post-Colonial era, not only through theAlexander Mack Sr. various native tribes – where verbal histories, religious explanations, and tribal narratives were plethora – but also through the immigration of individuals from various nations.

This era of poetry prior to the 1800s is called the Colonial period.

Colonial poetry covers the years 1620-1800. Poets such as Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), Samuel Danforth (1626-1674), Edward Taylor (1645-1729), and the first black woman to publish her work, Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), are the normative poets to highlight during the Colonial era.

In all, Colonial poetry was largely religious in orientation, highlighting independence, freedom, and the Puritanical values of hard work, family life, and religious conviction.

Yet tucked in between the more known and celebrated American poets, lies a German-American poet: Alexander Mack Jr.

Alexander Mack Jr.’s life is intricately tied to the plight of the pietist Christian movement his father, Alexander Mack Sr. founded: The Brethren. It is known today through its various off-shoots: Church of the Brethren, Grace Brethren, German Brethren, and the like.

The Brethren began as a group of eight members in the small town of Schwarzenau, Germany, in 1708. After persecution, the Brethren splintered into various regions in Europe, then America. The first Brethren group arrived in America in 1719, by the invitation of William Penn, making Germantown, Penn., home.

In 1729, Alexander Mack Sr. and 59 other families arrived on American soil. From here, the Brethren gained in numbers and influence.

Alexander Mack Jr. was born in 1712 in Schwarzenau. Germany. He traveled with his family at age eight to West Friesdland, Germany; little is known of the Mack family during this period.

As mentioned above, Alexander Mack Jr., came to America in 1729 with his family. After the death of his father in 1735, Mack Jr. went through a crisis of faith, culminating in depression and mental turmoil.

To help give direction to his life, Mack joined the Ephrata Community in 1738. The Ephrata Society was an American Christian group, favoring medieval mystical ideology with monastic overtones: celibacy, strict daily orders, prayer, and Bible study.

Mack left the group in 1746 and returned to the Brethren. In 1749, he married Elizabeth Nise and began a family.

Being an educated man, Mack turned his attention to writing poetry, theology, lyrics, and letters. All of Mack Jr.’s writings were written in the German language.

According to author Samuel Heckman, Mack Jr.’s writings demonstrate a “kind and sympathetic spirit of the man, and show him to have been looked upon as a wise counselor and respected citizen.”

Mack Jr.’s largest non-poetical work was written in 1788. The book’s title, shortened to An Apology, is a defense of radical Christian thought and practice.

During the same year, Mack Jr. began publishing poems, many of which were contributions to Christopher Sower’s printed magazine Geistliches Magazien (translated as The Religious Magazine). Sower is best known as the first American to print the Bible in the New World.

According to Heckman, Mack Jr.’s ultimate purpose for the poems was to highlight “pious living and the source of his inspiration was the sacred Scriptures.” But Heckman is quick to point out that Mack Jr. had broader interests as well, stating, “He had larger learning and culture and interests is evidence through his knowledge of historical characters and events.”

Mack, Jr. died in 1803, leaving a body of work that should be placed with the other Colonial poets, as an instrumental factor in shaping early American poetry, particularly American Christian poetry. Though (by modern standards) the poems seem simple in tone and content, they are examples of Christian piety and demonstrate a deep Christian mind at work, cultivating a poetical and biblical worldview.

I leave you with his poem Number 36 (consisting of 55 stanzas), written to help comfort struggling families. The introduction of the poem, possibly written by Sower, states that Mack Jr. wrote the poem for those “erroneously dwelling in sadness, from out their house of mourning, and of leading them, with God’s blessing, to better thoughts.”

Stanza 36:

Whom love makes strong
Him, also, his affliction strengthens
Whom sorrow weakens
Him, also, his love enfeebles.
For love and sorrow
Are always closely related,
Each always extends to the other its hand
Through the whole of life’s journey
.

Sorrow and love were something Mack Jr. knew much about-experiencing the fruit of both. But as the poem continues, Mack Jr. relishes in the outcome of love’s pursuit:

Stanza 42:

The love of God
Is a fire that is effective;
It leads us, through Jesus Christ,
Into a new world.
It melts the folly out
And melts the wisdom in,
And when we are purified
It leads us all home
.

In a day and age where so many people are struggling – economically, socially, politically, and spiritually – Mack Jr.’s short stanzas (and the larger poem) sound as though they were written yesterday. Maybe it’s time afflicted people pick up the poems of Alexander Mack Jr. and learn how our founding fathers stayed the course amidst great turmoil, trusting in God’s love to see us through, eventually leading us home.

Photo (above): Alexander Mack Sr., founder and first minister of the Church of the Brethren.

Notes: Brethren Press published a book of Alexander Mack Jr’s writings in 1912. It was edited by Samuel Heckman, of which much of this material was gleaned. Additional information on Alexander Mack Jr. can be found in Donald Durnbaugh’s book, The Brethren in Colonial America, published by The Brethren Press. A reprinted version of Alexander Mack, Jr’s poetry can be found on Amazon. Also a free internet version can be read on Internet Archive:http://www.archive.org/details/religiouspoetry01heckgoog

 

Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, minister, and family man. You may contact him at www.briannixon.com

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