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.
8 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.
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