Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"Fell on Sleep"

I found myself making an unexpected and fun investigation today while I was trying to find out exactly when the liturgical reformer Luther Reed was serving this congregation back in the late 1800s. To figure this out, I had to open our church safe and consult our old parish registries. I opened the one begun in 1907, the year our parish moved out of the North Side of Pittsburgh and into its current location in Bellevue. I thought I could find my answer there, but I didn't.

However, I got distracted by all the beautifully scripted writing in the dusty old tome. The records had been kept impeccably by someone with an ink fountain pen, the kind you have a hard time finding nowadays. I scanned the names of the members at that time. I followed the entries across the page to find out the year they joined or were confirmed and then, a little further across under another column, when they were removed from the registry. Then, next to that, it had been recorded exactly "how" they were removed. A few of these boxes were left blank for some people, but for others it contained the reason: "lapse of membership" had been neatly written by several; a few others said, "killed in action inFrance" (indicating a casualty of WWI), and still others said, "letter." Beside those which said, "letter," another church name had been written, which I assumed was the church to which that person had transferred their membership in that year.

The most puzzling entry in the "how removed" column was something that, to the best I could tell, said "fell on sleep." At first I thought it read "fell on stoop," but then I noticed that dozens of people had this same entry, and they all clearly said "fell on sleep" (I also ruled out that 50 or more people couldn't have possibly all died from falling on a stoop. Too coincidental). I couldn't figure out what it meant. It would make the most sense if that meant those people were removed because they died, but I'd never heard that euphemism for death before. I called a colleague pastor who is generally pretty knowledgeable about these things, but as it turns out he'd also never heard of "fell on sleep" before. I hung up and called the Synod office, thinking they'd surely know. They didn't, either. Then, minutes later, the first colleague called me back with the answer. It turns out that "Fell on sleep" occurs in Acts 13:36 in the King James Version: "For David, after he hadserved his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers..." All my colleague had to do to solve this mystery was Google the words "fell on sleep," and voila! he had it.

Although I now know what "fell on sleep" means, I still don't have an answer for another mystery: why was the record-keeper of my parish registry in 1907 so taken with the phrase? "Fell on sleep" is certainly another way to say "removed due to death," but it's not altogether that intuitive.