Clear your calendars for the first Saturday in June! Of the most unique Brethren practices of the Pricetown congregation is the “Liebesmahl” or “Love Feast,” which is part of their religious worship little understood by the outside world. Some years have passed, but I was able to first vividly understand this unique ceremony with the help of the late Clarence Kulp, Jr., one of the historians of the Brethren Sect in Montgomery County. “Liebesmahl,” a more personal religious practice, engaged in by any Plain Sect in Pennsylvania, may in part be why this religious order is more fraternal than most. Consequently, all the Plain Sects in Pennsylvania and most elsewhere are in themselves, unique.
Preparations for a weekend Love Feast, generally decades ago when this was a weekend event and not a half day as the current format, were usually made the week prior to this event. Traditionally, preparations involved a deacon’s visit, usually done in pairs to all the local Brethren to see if they have walked the right path of the Lord. Then, after numerous visits, a special council meeting was held by the hierarchy to plan this most involved, important annual ceremony. The preparatory service, which includes cooking of all the meals, was mostly done by the Deacons’ wives and sleeping accommodations arranged in nearby barns, attics, and homes for distant worshippers. Quite the event!
All was felt essential for this two-day period, because visitors from all over this part of Pennsylvania’s Brethren brotherhood travelled from Berks, Bucks, Montgomery, Lancaster and Lebanon counties mostly, but some even beyond the states’ borders to participate, no matter where the Love Feast was held. This most important ceremony on the Brethren calendar is considered a “great yearly reunion,” where old acquaintances are renewed and new ones formed.
In marking the beginning of the Love Feast on a Saturday, the Bishop announces the beginning of service and with the rest of the ministers entering the Brethren pulpit, or in recent years, the Preacher’s table, while the rest of the congregation take their places at the table. Men and women or brothers and sisters sat on their respective sides as they did with meetings and services, generally with women and children on the left and men on the right. Then, the first of a threefold service was ready to begin with feet washing.
The congregation would then file to special benches for the occasion. Today, the feet washing happens at the tables, and may seem odd to observers or more modern religious sects, but essential to the Brethren Brotherhood. The “brother” at the end of the row starts by wearing an apron made of toweling material and kneels before the next brother washing his feet in a designated tub, followed by a greeting with the right hand of fellowship. This, followed by “the holy kiss of charity” lip to lip, but I have seen this done cheek to cheek in current times.
The first brother continues on down the line washing several brothers until he retires and another brother picks up the task, until the whole row is completed. The cleansed brothers finally file back to their seats at the “Lord’s table” and another row begins until the whole congregation has participated. Sisters on the other side observe the same ritual.
The next segment of the “Liebesmahl” is the imitation of the Lord’s Supper or “Nachtmahl” as portrayed in the Gospels with Christ and his apostles. At this mid-afternoon feast, all members eat together as one, regardless of their station in life, and remains an important concept. Prayer is given not only before the meal but after, as well, and is known as “returning thanks.”
The second outward expression in this rite is the ordinance of the holy kiss or kiss of charity. This ritual starts with the Bishop to Minister, and so on through the brotherhood with the right hand of fellowship and the kiss of charity on the lips or cheek. The last brother comes to the pulpit or preacher’s table to complete or close the chain of fellowship. Then the Bishop greets the first female of the bench, but with only the hand. The sisters then greet in the same fashion as the men, but with the kiss included. This ritual of solidarity is supposed to symbolize and bind the love between the members of the congregation. After the holy kiss and before the Holy Communion, the fellowship meal is eaten.
The third part of the Love Feast is the Rite of Holy Communion. The bishop uncovers the “Liebesmahl brote” or communion bread under a white cloth (muslin). This Holy brote (bread) has been pronged with five perforations, symbolic of the five fatal wounds of Christ on the cross. The Bishop then asks for God’s blessing of the unleavened bread (doesn’t have yeast in) and has the congregation repeat a Holy phrase. The Bishop with the assistance of the ministry, distributes the bread to the tables. The bread is intentionally cut into long strips so brothers and sisters can break off a portion. The ends are usually given to the children.
Once each member has their communion bread, it is again broken, and into five more pieces reinforcing the idea of the five wounds of Christ. Wine is then served next from a common communion chalice, or taken by individual cups. Traditionally, the wine was never bought, but made by the senior deacon. However, wine is mostly substituted by grape juice today. The communion service would generally conclude on a Saturday and the congregation was dismissed or “Herewith you are dismissed, go home.”
With old time weekend reunions, (to my knowledge not practiced anymore today), accommodations were then made for sleeping arrangements, whether barns or the meetinghouse attic or garret for visitors, which was the case early on in early 1900s. In recent decades, congregation members offered stays in guest rooms. In the aforementioned, the deacons’ wives would give blankets and bedding, and the farmers did bedding in the barns with straw in the early days. With the latter, members supplied blankets and such, but in either times, most of the visiting brotherhood stayed overnight for the following, final day.
Early next morning was a typical Sunday morning worship service that started around 9 a.m., or even earlier. Following this lengthy service done by members or visiting ministers, a final fellowship meal was given, culminating a great two-day undertaking. After the meal, was the final afternoon session of fellowship in singing and prayer, which closed the Brethren weekend Love feast. As visitors left, the same phrase could be repeatedly heard, whether in English or German, “If we don’t see one another at next year’s Love Feast, we will meet at the great Love Feast in Heaven!” Unfortunately though, with today’s busier lifestyles, modernization, and advancement of transportation from horse and buggy, today’s Love Feast observances only last half a day at Pricetown, but still quite the sight!
Richard L.T. Orth is assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.