by C. Robert Wetzel
“Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body” (1 Corinthians 10:17).
In 1909 Christians from the Restoration Movement were making plans for the centennial celebration of the Declaration and Address to take place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that October. At the same time, in what was then a remote part of mountainous western North Carolina, a small group of believers were making plans to establish a church. Late in 1908 there had been a 30-day evangelistic meeting that led to the baptism of 14 people. In the spring of the following year, that group of believers constituted themselves as the Elk Park Christian Church.
Thus, as our churches have been preparing to celebrate the bicentennial of the Declaration and Address this past year, the Elk Park church prepared to celebrate its centennial. Over the past 47 years I have served two ministries with this congregation, and a number of interims. Hence I once again made the scenic drive up Highway 19E to celebrate this occasion with the people who did so much in shaping me for ministry.
Until construction of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad in the late 19th century, this area was remote indeed. It was said of the neighboring community of Boone that the only way to get there was to be born there.1 Early in the 19th century, closer to Elk Park, a large vein of iron ore was discovered. Although the Cranberry mines produced iron for the Confederate Army, it was not until the latter part of the century that the railroad was built from Johnson City, Tennessee, up the Doe River Gorge through Elk Park to the mines. The East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad became affectionately known as the Tweetsie Railroad because of its shrill whistle. The Tweetsie provided accessibility to a mountain area that had been quite remote.
Other churches were established in this section of east Tennessee and western North Carolina. And to this day they continue to meet yearly in the Convention of the Mountain Christian Churches.
But it was the centennial celebration of the Elk Park Church that once again gave me the opportunity to be at the Lord’s table with brothers and sisters from the Elk Park church as they celebrated their centennial in their new building. I trust that the founders will be given a glimpse of the fruit of their labors from their home in Heaven.
In any event, we shall once again gather at the Lord’s table. We shall be in communion.
One of the most significant contributions of the Restoration Movement has been the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. It was a sad day in the history of the church when the Protestant Reformation rejected weekly Communion in reaction to the excesses of the Roman Catholic Mass.
Although I remember many fine sermons, my richest worship experiences have always centered on the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper. It was in my home congregation, First Christian Church in Hugoton, Kansas, that I first glimpsed its significance. In fact, to this day when I hear a certain Bach prelude, I am transported back to that old wood-frame building that stood on the corner of Sixth and Van Buren.
It is a hot summer day with all of the windows open. The organist is playing as the trays are passed. I must have been 12 or 13, newly baptized, understanding very little, but somehow had been taught that what was happening had eternal significance. For a brief moment both the silliness and anxiety of boyhood were suspended, and I communed with and in the body of Christ. And to this day I am in communion with my home church.
In later years I had the opportunity to share in the Lord’s Supper with congregations in other countries. There was the time Michal Weremiejevicz took me to a small congregation in Poland. I understood precious little of what was being said, but when the bread and cup were passed and we ate, we were all a part of the one body of Christ. We were in communion.
Then there was the time Bob Shannon of TCM sent me to teach a course in an underground Bible college in Romania during the dark days of Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime. On Sunday morning at what was then called Second Christian Baptist Church, more than 1,000 people crowded into a building that might have comfortably seated 800.
I was on the platform with the pastors and deacons. When it came time for Communion, Paul Negrut leaned over to me and said, “Would you help us?” I had no idea how I was supposed to help, but I followed him to the table and simply watched the others.
Their practice was for the 10 or so men at the table to take full loaves of bread and begin breaking them into many small pieces. I simply watched and followed. But as the bread and cups were passed in this crowded auditorium, I thought of the privilege of sharing with these brothers and sisters. And it was humbling to think of how much so many of them had suffered for their faith under atheistic communism when I too often took for granted the freedom we enjoy in the United States.
I do not know what the two-week course I taught did for my students, but I know what these Romanian Christians did for me! It was taste and a foretaste of the Communion of the saints! We were in communion.
Then there are those quadrennial meetings of the World Convention (Christian, Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ) when heirs of the Stone-Campbell Movement from around the world gather to share their stories and be encouraged by a rich fellowship. These conventions always conclude with a Sunday Communion service that reflects both the oneness we share in Christ and the diversity of cultures. The service is always done without instrumental music, and prayers can be heard in many different languages.
At the most recent World Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, the service was planned by the Great Communion Task Force that has planned and promoted the bicentennial celebration of the Declaration and Address. And hence the service was in effect a foretaste of this celebration. And for whatever our differences, be they culture, traditions, or subtleties of doctrine, when we came to the Lord’s table acknowledging Christ as the Son of God, we were in communion.
In 1909 some 25,000 people who had come to Pittsburgh for the centennial celebration gathered at Forbes Field for Communion. It was the largest gathering of our people for a Communion service up to that time. That attendance was matched at the North American Christian Convention at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati in 1972. And it was exceeded by the NACC gathering in the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome in 1986 when an estimated 44,000 shared the Lord’s Supper together.
Again, with whatever differences we might have had culturally, institutionally, or just plain idiosyncratically, we were all one at the Lord’s table. We were in communion.
Our 2009 Celebration
Now in 2009 we celebrate the bicentennial of a document that gave insight and shape to what we are about as a movement within the church universal. Rather than attempting another mass gathering, churches will be coming together in their communities or areas to celebrate the Great Communion. Or individual congregations will be recognizing the occasion with their regular Sunday Communion service.
Hence, whether in the small mountain church in Elk Park that I love so dearly, or in the largest of our megachurches, such as Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, we will be acknowledging our heritage as a movement to restore New Testament Christianity.
All of this is a prelude to the day when we shall join that great communion of the saints and sit down at the Lord’s heavenly table with the redeemed. Thankfully all of our idiosyncrasies will not just be history but will be forgotten. We shall all be in communion.2
1University of Michigan football fans were also asking themselves about Boone, North Carolina, when Appalachian State University upset the Wolverines in the first game of the 2007 season.
2We are indebted to Glenn Thomas Carson, Douglas A. Foster, and Clinton J. Holloway for giving us the timely publication, One Church: A Bicentennial Celebration of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address. I found it a helpful source in writing this article.
Bob Wetzel retired this year as president of Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee.