Christ's Commandment of Humility

Looking at the ordinance of humility.

Student, Andrews University. 

 IN THE upper room the church was given a new commandment—to wash one another's feet as the Lord had washed the feet of the disciples. This plain commandment of Christ soon fell into dis­use in the Christian church, but it is most in­teresting to know that some have kept the com­mandment of humility from that time to the present day, though admittedly often in a way far different from the example that Christ gave on that memorable Thurs­day night.

In the Early Church

There are several indications in the an­cient liturgies of the church and in the writings of the Church Fathers that for some considerable time feet washing formed part of the baptismal rites.

In Spain feet washing was practiced very early in connection with baptism; it was, however, formally abolished at the Synod of Elvira (c. A.D. 305).

Augustine mentions feet washing in this connection in a letter dated c. 400. Large numbers of people were baptized at the time of Lent and in many places it was customary for the bishop to wash the feet of the newly baptized'

Ambrose' writings indicate that this same practice was carried out in northern Italy. This is confirmed by inscrip­tions found above a baptistry in Ravenna dating from the same period.

The Gallican church did not abandon the practice until the time of Charlemagne. The Celtic church observed it until the eleventh or twelth century whereas in Mi­lan post-baptismal feet washing of infants seems to have occurred as late as the thir­teenth and fourteenth centuries.'

Although practiced in countries such as northern Italy, Gaul, Britain, Ireland, and the northern part of Africa, post-baptismal feet washing was never universal in the early and medieval church.

Monastic, Royal, and Imperial Feet Washing

Though the practice of feet washing was discontinued and in some places forbidden as regards the reception of the newly bap­tized into the church, the rite was nevertheless encouraged in connection with the poor, and was practiced industriously by monks of many congregations, who also used to wash the feet of their guests. The practice differed in detail from place to place and from congregation to congrega­tion. Gradually the washing of the feet of guests gave way to the washing of the feet of the poor, which was an established cus­tom in the tenth century, and usually took place on Holy, or Maundy, Thursday.

Royal and imperial maundies occurred at many European courts. Instances are known from the tenth century, onward. In England a royal maundy took place as late as the eighteenth century, while in Bavaria a maundy was observed by the em­peror in the early part of the century. Al­though other possibilities should not be ruled out, it is generally accepted that the word "maundy" is derived from the Latin word mandatum, which means "command."

Feet Washing Re-established by Anabaptists

Feet washing gained in importance and took a more Biblical form in the time of the Reformation. Among the Waldenses it was not unknown. And although Luther and the other reformers were not inclined to make this ordinance part of the Refor­mation program it was not long until it was introduced by the "radical" reformers, the Anabaptists, in various parts of Europe.

The first recorded instance of feet wash­ing among the Anabaptists occurred in the year of their organization, 1525, when Bal­thazar Hubmaier washed the feet of his pa­rishioners in Waldshut in south Germany.' A Swiss chronicler reports a similar occur­rence in Switzerland in 1531. An account of an instance of feet washing in Thuringen in July, 1535, has also been preserved.'

A major split among the Anabaptists took place in 1693 when Jacob Amman and his followers went their own way. The so-called Amish groups resulted from this break away and have through the centuries been foremost in the observance of feet washing.

Feet Washing in the Netherlands

From 1530 Anabaptism was for more than thirty years the leading force in the church history of the Netherlands, with Menno Simons (1496-1561) as its most important pioneer. His followers became known eventually as the Mennonites.

Although Menno Simons himself hardly mentions feet washing in any of his writ­ings,' this ordinance soon became a very important feature of Anabaptist religious life in the Netherlands. Another early leader of the Dutch Mennonites, Dirk Phil­ips, mentions feet washing as one of the main characteristics of the true church and as one of the ordinances that is literally binding upon the church.'

 Feet washing was most commonly prac­ticed as a token of hospitality to guests, especially visiting ministers, but from 1588 onward one of the Dutch Mennonite groups attached it to the Lord's Supper.'

The different groups of Mennonites in Holland issued many different confessions of faith. In the majority of these confes­sions feet washing is mentioned. The Dor­drecht Confession of 1632 is still generally recognized and used by American Men­nonites. It includes a paragraph which be­gins: "We also confess a washing of the feet of the saints . . ."

When a German theologian, Simeon Frederik Rues, visited the Netherlands in 1741 to make a close study of the Mennon­ites, he found most of them still observing feet washing. Later he wrote a book about the Dutch Mennonites in which much val­uable information can be found.' In Rues's time the majority of the Dutch Anabaptists observed feet washing when ministers from other places came to visit them or when someone joined the church. Twenty-six churches, some of which were so big that they had five or even seven ministers, ob­served feet washing after the communion service." A picture of such a ceremony in the church of Zaandam has been preserved.

Gradually, however, the practice fell into disuse and although still practiced by some, it has, since 1854, no longer taken place among Dutch Anabaptists.

Contemporary Feet Washing

Except for five congregations in France and one congregation in Alsace all Men­nonites in Europe have given up feet wash­ing. This is due in some measure to the liberalizing tendencies which began in the eighteenth century through the influence of the Mennonite Seminary in Amster­dam.'

The first Mennonites came to America in 1683 when thirteen German families set­tled in Germantown near Philadelphia. As the years passed they were joined by nu­merous others from Russia, Prussia, Po­land, and other European countries.

First Documentary Evidence in North America

The first documentary evidence of the observance of feet washing in North Amer­ica is found in a document of c. 1755.12 But from available sources it is shown that it never became a general practice among American Mennonites until after 1900 when some noted preachers put their in­fluence behind it.

 Today some 145,000 American Mennon­ites practice feet washing in various ways. A number of other denominations have also preserved this institution, most of them having a Mennonite or Pietistic back­ground. The best known among these are some Church of God groups and some Bap­tists.

The largest feet-washing denomination that exists today is the Seventh-day Advent­ist Church. Nearly 1.5 million believers around the world believe that this service has a definite meaning for modern Chris­tians and ought to be practiced preceding the Lord's Supper.

From early Adventist sources it would seem that not all early Adventist believers agreed on this point of feet washing." As early as 1845, however, advocates referred to it as "an example for showing our love to the brethren," and as a sign of humility." The earliest reference by Ellen G. White to feet washing is found in a Present Truth article dating from 1850, in which she con­firmed its value." The fact that many were prejudiced against this practice may ac­count for the long articles that were writ­ten on the subject in Adventist periodicals in later years.

In 1889 a prominent Baptist stopped at Battle Creek, then the headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, to at­tend a communion service. His account of this service in a local Baptist paper of De­troit shows that the service then differed very little from the service as it is held to­day by the Seventh-day Adventist Church members.

1 Augustin, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), vol. 1, p. 314.

2 P. Dr. Thomas Schafer, Die Fusswashung im Monas­tischen Brauchtum and in der Lateinischen Liturgie (Beuron: Beuroner Kunstverlag, 1956), p. 7.

3 /bid, D. 19.

4 John Horsch, Mennonites in Europe (Scottdale, Penn.: Mennonite Publishing House. 1950, ed.), p. 357. See also G. G. Williams The Rodimll Reformation (Lon­don: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1962), p. 136.

5 Paul Wappler, Die Tauferbewegung in Thuringen (von 1526-1584) (Jena, 1913).

6 Menno Simons, Opera Omnia Theologica (Amsterdam, 1681). H. 836

7 Dirk Philips. "Enchiridion." in 11;bliotheca Reformator­ica .Weerlandica, vol. X. pp. 397, 399.

John Chr. Wenger, Introduction to Theology (Scottdale, Penn.; Herald Press, 1956 ed.), p. 230.

9 S. F. Rues, Tengenwoordige Staet der Doopsgezinden of Mennoniten in de Vereenigde Nederlanden (Amsterdam, 1745).

10 Ibid., pp. 66. 67.

11 Clarence Hiebertical Seminary. 1954, vol. II, p. 350.

12 ibid.

13 See. e.g., Advent Herald, Jan. 31, 1846.

14 Day Star, Oct. 25. 1845, p March 26, 1845. and Day Star, 11. Present Truth, vol. I. no. 11,


15 Ellen G. White. letter in November, 1850, p. 86

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Student, Andrews University. 

July 1966

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