Photo Friday: Recapturing the Religious Roots of Messiah College

Three Messiah College leaders (L to R) -- Trustee Ernest L. Boyer, President Rodney J. Sawatsky, and President D. Ray Hostetter -- at Sawatsky's inauguration in 1994. (Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives)

Three Messiah College leaders (L to R) — Trustee Ernest L. Boyer, President Rodney J. Sawatsky, and President D. Ray Hostetter — at Sawatsky’s inauguration in 1994. (Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives)

By the time you read this Photo Friday installment, I’ll be at Cedarville University, where I’m participating in a two-day symposium on “Religious Roots and the Future of Higher Education.” A handful of historians from Christian colleges and universities will be gathering to discuss their particular institutions and consider how their schools’ religious roots can position them well for success in the 21st century.

I, of course, will be presenting a short paper on Messiah College’s religious roots and institutional history. Today’s Photo Friday captures a single scene from that paper: the inauguration of Messiah’s seventh president, Rodney J. Sawatsky, who worked to help reclaim Anabaptism, Pietism, and Wesleyanism as central to the college’s religious identity. (As most of my readers know, those traditions inform the identity of the Brethren in Christ Church; the Brethren in Christ Church launched Messiah College in 1909.)

Here’s an excerpt from my paper that focuses on Sawatsky’s contributions to college identity:

In 1994, the final year of his presidency, Hostetter worked with the Board of Trustees to initiate a study of institutional identity. The goal of this study was to articulate a new statement of identity and mission for the college. An ad hoc committee of faculty members, trustees, staff, administrators, and students worked with a wide array of college constituents to craft a new mission and vision statement. The statement reaffirmed the roots the college in the three religious traditions — Anabaptism, Pietism, and Wesleyanism — that inform the ethos of the founding denomination. Yet the statement also makes clear that Messiah is not simply a denominational school, but one that demonstrates an “embracing evangelical spirit” that welcomes a variety of Christian perspectives. . . .

Key to the re-articulation of institutional identity in this period was the appointment of the college’s fifth president, Rodney Sawatsky, in 1994. Sawatsky was the first non-Brethren in Christ leader of Messiah College. A Canadian Mennonite with a Ph.D. in American religious history from Princeton University, Sawatsky was keenly interested in helping to formulate institutional identity. In his doctoral dissertation Sawatsky had argued that at times of uncertainty and crisis Christian communities have turned to history to define their identity, and he used American Mennonites as a case study of his assertion. Without a doubt Sawatsky saw Anabaptism, Pietism, and Wesleyanism as “usable pasts” for a Messiah College in crisis. In his inaugural address he called the Brethren in Christ tradition “a holistic vision of the Christian personality” and urged the college to strengthen its “historical [Brethren in Christ] connections.”

Yet as one who had “drunk refreshingly from the wells of mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox spirituality,” Sawatsky also emphasized the importance of diversity. “What I like about Messiah,” he admitted early in his presidency, “is that it has not remained narrowly sectarian. I prefer a community where a variety of Christian traditions are represented.”

Sawatsky played a key role in finalizing the statement mentioned earlier. His vision and the vision of the statement emphasizes ecumenical particularity – a blending of specificity and diversity. He, like others, saw this vision as befitting the contemporary makeup of the institution. Further, he saw this vision as consistent with the school’s long history of nurturing tradition while also seeking progress.

I’ll share more of my paper — and a report on the symposium — in a future post. Stay tuned!

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“Retaining the Legacy” of Messiah College

Ernest L. Boyer speaking at microphone

Ernest L. Boyer

Each year, I teach a course at Messiah College called Created and Called for Community. It’s a required course for all first-year (freshman) students, taken in their second semester, that introduces them to the unique theological identity of the school.

One of our readings in that class is Ernest L. Boyer’s “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College,” originally delivered as a speech during college’s 75th anniversary in 1984.

In the piece, Boyer claims that Messiah has always been characterized by four “virtues”:

  • It has “sought to broaden education, not restrict it”;
  • It has “been not just a campus but a community as well” — meaning that its students, faculty, and staff have been united by a shared purpose and mission;
  • It has “been a place where dedicated teachers are also good and trusted friends”; and
  • It has “helped students seek connections between what they learn and how they live” — in other words, translating academic knowledge into an orientation toward service and reconciliation beyond the Ivory Tower.

When I teach this text to first-year students, I ask, “Do you think Boyer’s ‘virtues’ are still part of Messiah’s character today? Has your time at Messiah been marked by these virtues?” Invariably, they all tell me “yes.”Readers: Many of you are Messiah College alums; still others of you know the school through your friends, family, or through church connections. I’m curious: Do you see these “virtues” evident at Messiah College today? Share your thoughts in the comments section!

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Photo Friday: Billy Graham’s “99% Agreement” with Anabaptist Nonresistance

In this photo from the Evangelical Visitor, Billy Graham (third from left) meets with representatives of the Mennonite Church

In this photo from the October 21, 1961 issue of the Evangelical Visitor, Billy Graham (third from left) meets with representatives of the Mennonite Church

Today’s Photo Friday installment highlights a seminal event in Anabaptist history: a 1961 dialogue between Mennonite and Brethren in Christ leaders and Billy Graham — at the time, one of America’s most famous figures and undoubtedly the “face” of popular American Evangelicalism.

The dialogue happened on August 20, 1961, in Philadelphia. Those familiar with Mennonite history will recognize some of the denominational leaders who participated in the event, including John C. Wenger and Elmer Neufeld. Bishop, peace advocate, and Messiah College president C. N. Hostetter, Jr., represented the Brethren in Christ. As Hostetter’s biographer E. Morris Sider records:

Hostetter was consistently impressed with Graham. He heard Graham speak frequently at NAE [National Association of Evangelicals] conventions; he invariably labelled Graham’s sermons with such adjectives as “powerful” or “impressive.” [1]

No doubt others in the group had been similarly impressed by Graham’s style and presence — and no doubt they were aware of his celebrity among most of America’s Christians in the 1960s. Likely it was this combination of professionalism and popularity that led these Anabaptists into dialogue with “America’s preacher.” If they could convince Graham of the gospel message of peace, perhaps he could proclaim that message far beyond the bounds of American Anabaptism.

The October 21, 1961 issue of the Brethren in Christ publication, the Evangelical Visitor, gives further details on the conversation:

The purpose of the meeting was to engage in a personal conversation with Dr. Graham concerning the New Testament ethic of love and nonresistance and also to hear from Dr. Graham a word which might encourage and stimulate our churches to become more evangelistic. . . .

In response to the presentation, Dr. Graham replied that he appreciated deeply the privilege of listening to the testimony of other Christians. . . . He commented briefly on the problems involved in taking the nonresistant position, but noted the uncertainty and confusion among Christians regarding the proper attitude toward participation in war. He stated his personal openness and interest in meeting for more extended discussion on the doctrine of nonresistance. [2]

Interestingly, the event also crops up in a recent analysis of the “fragmentation of Evangelicalism” written by religion scholar Molly Worthen. In her post, Worthen argues that the mid-twentieth century popularity of Billy Graham among conservative Protestants projected a public image of Evangelicalism as unified across denominational lines and cooperative despite varying theological emphases. The reality, Worthen concludes, was much more complex. Numerous groups — Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, and Mennonites and Brethren in Christ among them — admired Graham for his popularity and conversionist message, but felt that aligning themselves with the so-called “Evangelical coalition” represented by the National Association of Evangelicals might compromise their denominational authority.

Worthen highlights the Graham dialogue as an example of this complex interplay between particular denominations and the larger Evangelical ecumenical movement:

After a detailed presentation of Anabaptist beliefs—particularly nonviolence—the Mennonites asked for Graham’s advice. How did evangelical leaders view Mennonites’ pacifism? How might they improve their evangelistic outreach?

Graham was gracious. This wasn’t the first time he had heard of Christian nonviolence; civil rights activists had been living and preaching it for years. Graham told the group that he “could easily be one of us in about 99% of what has been said,” the secretary recorded. He expressed willingness to discuss the doctrine of nonviolence in the future, but warned of the “historical danger of a denomination putting undue emphasis and overweighting ourselves on one particular point.”

Afterwards the Mennonites felt hopeful. Graham was “open to be led and to be taught,” and they planned to pursue more contact with evangelical leaders. Yet Graham was wary of appearing too easygoing in his theology. He insisted that no press release quote him directly.

In exchanges with neo-evangelicals, the Mennonites—like all good diplomats—continually revised their approach. They stressed common ground but grew more confident in their distinctive doctrines.

Years later, when a new generation of young evangelicals grew disillusioned with the Christian right and went looking for alternative models of discipleship, the Mennonites were ready. John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus—a closely argued defense of Christian nonviolence—enjoyed a long life beyond its 1972 publication. In 1976, ethicist Stephen Charles Mott called it “the most widely read political book in young evangelical circles in the United States.”

Interestingly, Worthen’s conclusions about Evangelical complexity echo my own observations about the ways in which the Brethren in Christ reacted to the rise of post-World War II Evangelicalism — the kind of Evangelicalism, at least, represented by Graham, the NAE, and other outfits like Christianity Today and Fuller Theological Seminary. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Brethren in Christ really responded not just by joining the NAE — and thereby ratifying the claims of the post-war Evangelical movement — but also by resisting identification with this broad contingent of Protestants, and even, in some cases, seeking to reform these fellow Christians.

Certainly the Mennonites’ and Brethren in Christ’s attempt to “convert” Graham to a peace position reflects one effort to reform Evangelicalism.


[1] E. Morris Sider, Messenger of Grace: A Biography of C. N. Hostetter, Jr. (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Publishing House, 1982), p. 216.

[2] “Sixteen Church Leaders Meet with Billy Graham in Philadelphia,” Evangelical Visitor, October 21, 1961, p. 14.

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What’s the Best Introduction to Pietism?

Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom's "Angels, Worms, and Bogeys"

Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom’s “Angels, Worms, and Bogeys”

That’s basically the question my friend and Bethel University professor Chris Gehrz (better known as The Pietist Schoolman) raises and answers in his recent blog post.

Gehrz’s post focuses on two books — Douglas Shantz’s An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe and Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom’s Angels, Worms, and Bogeys: The Christian Ethic of Pietism. Chris has reviewed both in recent months. (His review of Clifton-Soderstrom appears in the August 2013 issue of Brethren in Christ History and Life.) Based on his consideration of both of these self-proclaimed “introductions” to a crucial movement within seventeenth-century European Pietism, Chris concludes that “the strengths of each largely mirror the limitations of the other.”

Here’s a preview of Chris’s post:

Shantz’s is not only double the price of Clifton-Soderstrom’s, but more than double the length. (And that not counting the appendices, bibliographies, and endnotes — more in a moment.) I concluded that its length “leave[s] the book rather more expensive than necessary for some of the undergraduate and seminary students and ‘others interested in learning about a defining moment in the Christian story’ that make up Shantz’s intended audience.” Though Shantz has his moments as a writer, it is too rarely the “lively” read promised on the back cover, while I praised Clifton-Soderstrom for “[writing] in a style that is concise… and eminently readable.” In short, Angels, Worms, and Bogeys’ “accessible writing, clever structure, and practical bent make it a valuable addition to the Cascade Companions series, which seeks to acquaint non-specialists with the Christian theological tradition.”

While Clifton-Soderstrom’s sketches of her three central figures — Philipp Jakob Spener, Johanna Eleonora Petersen — were more consistently interesting than their parallel passages in Shantz’s Introduction, her book suffered by comparison to Shantz’s in at least three important ways.

First, while it would be unfair to criticize the writer of an intentionally slender “companion” for focusing so heavily on just three individuals, I did point out that this focus ”keeps her from exploring the Radical variants of the movement that did not share the Lutheran Pietists’ ‘high view of the church’ (p. 13) and did not fit so neatly into her summation of Pietist theology: ‘both orthodox and life-giving’ (p. 20).” By contrast, it is in his discussion of the Radicals that Shantz shines, both in synthesizing the work of others and in demonstrating his own extensive expertise (e.g., he proposes a new typology of Radical Pietism).

Dale Brown's "Understanding Pietism"

Dale Brown’s “Understanding Pietism”

To read the other two reasons — and the rest of his post — click here.

Interestingly, Chris concludes that neither Shantz’s nor Clifton-Soderstrom’s books succeed Dale Brown’s classic Understanding Pietism as the definitive introduction to Pietism. Some readers of The Search for Piety and Obedience may know that Brown’s book was reprinted in 1990 by Evangel Press, the now-closed publisher formerly operated by the Brethren in Christ Church.

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How Are We Doing?

question-markThe Search for Piety and Obedience has now been up and running for almost five years — thanks, in large part, to the support of readers like you! When I started the blog back in 2009, I whipped up a short statement to give some meaning to the endeavor. Now, I’m wondering how well I’m doing at this stated mission — and whether the wording could use some tweaking.

After the break: A review of what we say we’ve been doing, and an opportunity for you to weigh in on how we’ve been doing.

Continue reading

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Photo Friday: The Global Anabaptist Family

E. J. Swalm stands by bridge

Brethren in Christ bishop E. J. Swalm stands at the spot along the Aere River in Berne, Switzerland where 16th-century Anabaptists were put into a weighted cage and lowered into the water until they died. Then they were raised to be replaced with the next victim. (Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives)

Mennonite World Conference (MWC), founded in 1925, is a global fellowship of Anabaptist-related churches. Some regular readers of the blog may know that I currently serve with this organization; others may know that MWC’s next global gathering (called an Assembly) will be held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in summer 2015.

The North American Brethren in Christ have long been involved in this world-wide body of Christ — at least as far back as 1957, when Canadian bishop and nonresistance advocate E. J. Swalm participated in that year’s MWC Assembly in Karlsruhe, Germany. (According to records, he was accompanied on his trip by fellow Brethren in Christ leaders Charlie B. Byers and C. N. Hostetter, Jr.)

Before and after the assembly in Karlsruhe, Swalm traveled around Europe, often visiting historical sites related to 16th-century Anabaptism, or fellowshipping with European Mennonite leaders he knew. He occasionally published notes from his travels in the Evangelical Visitor. The following excerpt comes from a missive published in the September 9, 1957 issue of that publication:

My dear readers, we broke our conversation with you at Basle, Switzerland where we spent a few hours and did some shopping.
. . . Later in the day we called on Rev. Samuel Gerber, President of the Swiss Mennonites who is a farmer high in the Alps. He is a very spiritual man with a strong passion for evangelism. After having a little prayer meeting, we went on our journey arriving at Berne about sunset.

Berne is a large city, famous for its miles of Arcades along the main street, also rich in Anabaptist history. Here in the Aare River early Mennonites were drowned one by one because their faith held them steadfast in Christ. We felt a sense of holy awe as we walked down the cobble stone street toward the bridge where scores of them took their last earthly journey before they stepped on heaven’s shores.

The Brethren in Christ have continued to be well-represented within Mennonite World Conference in the intervening years. For instance, former MWC president Nancy Heisey grew up as the child of Brethren in Christ missionary parents. The current MWC president is Danisa Ndlovu, bishop of the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe. And many North American and Global South Brethren in Christ leaders participate in various levels of MWC administration and leadership, from the Executive Committee to the four Commissions to the leadership for the Pennsylvania 2015 Assembly.

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I Can’t Wait to Read This Book!

Apostles of Reason

Apostles of Reason

In my day job at Messiah College, I keep running into people who are reading Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. The book chronicles a broad swath of Evangelical history — from the 1940s and the emergence of public figures like Billy Graham, to the recent present (i.e., 2000s). As you might suspect, Worthen covers a lot of ground, seeking to show how Evangelicalism in America is beset by a “crisis of authority.” Evangelicals, claims Worthen, emphasize the “authority” of Scripture (through interpretive strategies that vary widely across the Evangelical spectrum) while at the same time lacking a central authority figure (like the Pope in the Catholic tradition). Worthen suggests that this crisis is what makes Evangelicalism incredibly complex, fragmented, and difficult to understand.

This book has been sitting on my shelf for months. As soon as I get a respite from the semester’s workload, I’m hoping to delve in. From what I can tell, Worthen’s account will undoubtedly shed light on my ongoing research into the historical interactions between the Brethren in Christ and Evangelicals.

In the meantime, check out this review of Worthen’s book by scholar D. G. Hart, at Religion in American History.

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