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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Hope in the swamp, hope in the heart

Celebrating the school’s 150th anniversary, the Newberry [S.C.] College Alumni Association sponsored a symposium honoring founder John Bachman. He was not only a pastor and theologian but also a social reformer, educator and naturalist. Through his several vocations, he left a legacy that encourages Christians today to engage all of the seemingly disparate parts of our world. And a warbler he discovered is still a quiet symbol of hope.

 John Bachman
As pastor of St. John Lutheran in Charleston, S.C., Bachman worked to enlarge the congregation’s ministry among African Americans. He encouraged one member, Jehu Jones, to pursue ordination. Jones became the first African American Lutheran pastor in North America. Bachman brought his theology to bear on social reform when he wrote a treatise arguing that slaves and their masters were of the same species. Although this position seems obvious today, in the Antebellum South, it cut at the very foundations of slavery.

Bachman was an avid student of coastal Carolinas’ natural history and became a friend of John James Audubon, the famous artist and naturalist, when they met in 1831. The next year, Bachman collected the first specimens of a small, yellow warbler with a black bib. Audubon recognized the bird as a new species, and when he published its description in the gigantic Birds of America, he named the bird for its discoverer.

Bachman’s Warbler began its slide toward extinction only a few decades after its discovery. The species apparently specialized in bamboo thickets in the swamps of the South. As those habitats succumbed to development for farming and other uses, the species had fewer and fewer places to nest. Its Cuban wintering grounds also underwent rapid changes at that time, so the tiny bird probably experienced threats at both ends of its annual migration. It was soon among the rarest of all birds in North America.

Bachman's Warbler
Despite its precipitous decline, members of the species continued to make appearances in the U.S. and Cuba. The last universally accepted sighting was in 1961, but from time to time birders still report tantalizing glimpses that might be Bachman’s Warblers.

One such sighting occurred this year, when the Cornell  [N.Y.] Laboratory of Ornithology released a low-quality video that may show a female Bachman’s Warbler in Cuba. Many ornithologists believe the video shows a more common species, the Yellow Warbler, but even the possibility of the Bachman’s Warblers still existing is a small miracle.

If Bachman’s Warblers indeed are still flitting around the woods of Cuba, that reveals a world that is wilder and more mysterious than we might think. Such a hope strikes a chord in the part of the human heart that longs for unexplored places where new discoveries may yet live.

Bachman preached of hope long ago. That hope still lives in the swamps of Cuba and South Carolina where his warbler may still sing. That hope also finds a home in our hearts, where it frees us to explore the whole world—all of the complexities of society, science and religion. Hope even calls us to the wilderness, where only God knows what remains to be discovered.


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