The Importance of Hebrew in the Early Academy and General Church
“Bishop Pendleton had been requested to open the Theta Alpha meeting [at the 1910 Assembly] with a religious service as nearly as possible to what it had been fifteen years ago, when we made much of the Hebrew. He had been very much surprised to see how well they remembered the Commandments in the Hebrew. They were repeated by a large number of ladies without any halting or error. He was still more surprised to see in the singing of the Hebrew anthem how well they remembered, the affection with which they sang, and the great volume of the singing. He had never heard the like before” (New Church Life 1910, 508; emphasis added).
From the earliest days of the Academy of the New Church there has been ongoing discussion about the importance of the Hebrew language to the New Church and its place in the curriculum of New Church schools. Bishop Pendleton’s observations above were made during a session of the 1910 General Church Assembly in which Enoch S. Price read his paper, “The Study of the Hebrew Language.”
During this same session, one of the participants outlined a brief history of the subject of Hebrew. Dr. Burnham is credited with having first called attention in 1837 “to the importance of the study of Hebrew in an article in the Precursor. Mr. [Richard] de Charms made a specialty of it, and Mr. [William H.] Benade and the Academy men have since that time studied more and more deeply into it, and there has been a growing appreciation of it. Then came the time when possibly there was an overdoing of it. It went to an extreme in the idea that every layman should know it. He had heard statements even, in effect, that by and by we should not need translations of the Word because every Newchurchman would read the Word in the original Hebrew. Because of this extreme there was reaction, but at bottom the early remains implanted in the Academy and General Church were there” (New Church Life 1910, 506).
A succinct doctrinal rationale for the teaching of Hebrew occurs in an 1890 New Church Life report: “The Hebrew language is taught to all, from the youngest to the oldest, male and female. This is on the ground that the Hebrew is the most ultimate form in which the Word of the Lord exists with men, and that while the Word in the Hebrew is devoutly read by men, and especially while it is read by little children, the angels, who are in its internal sense, are delighted, and inflow and implant in the reader the remains of good and truth from the Lord” (“Something About the Academy Schools,” New Church Life 1890, 38).
The debate concerning the teaching of Hebrew eventually crystallized around the question of whether it should be mastered as a language or approached as an “affectional” experience. Bishop W. F. Pendleton gave his opinion on the matter in 1898 at the Teacher’s Institute in Glenview, Illinois: “Bishop Pendleton said that there were two lines of thought in regard to this subject. One was, Hebrew as a science; and the other, Hebrew as a religious exercise. He was convinced that its usefulness did not consist in its being studied merely as a language. Let the teacher read and the children follow as they can. They pick up a little all the time, but its main use lies in bringing them into consociation with the angelic societies. Let the scientific part be incidental. The thing now is to cultivate an affection for the language” (New Church Life 1898, 122). Pendleton’s philosophy appears to be the one that has continued to the present day in General Church schools.
Today, Bryn Athyn Church elementary school students still learn to sing Hebrew anthems in music class, produce a book of Hebrew characters in second grade [see photo, left], and learn to recite the Ten Commandments in Hebrew in third grade. Biblical Hebrew continues to be taught “as a science” at Bryn Athyn College of the New Church, where the courses enjoy solid enrollment.
Photos: The Christmas cards with quotations in Hebrew are in the collection of the Glencairn Museum Archives, Bryn Athyn, PA. The Hebrew inscription in gold leaf above the repository in the chapel of Cairnwood (painted circa 1895) reads as follows: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; photo by David Hershy). The cornerstone of Bryn Athyn Cathedral (the stone was dedicated on June 19th, 1914) is inscribed in Hebrew with “the head of the corner” (from Psalm 118:22; photo by Ed Gyllenhaal). The Hebrew alphabet booklet was made by a second grade student in the Bryn Athyn Church School during the 2006-2007 school year.
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