What’s In a Name? (Apparently A Lot — Especially If You’re Canadian.)

In his book "My Beloved Brethren," E.J. Swalm -- bishop emeritus of the Brethren in Christ Church -- recalls a number of key events in the life of the church in Canada, including the controversy surrounding a possible name change (from Tunkers to Brethren in Christ) in the early part of the twentieth century. Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives.

On April 17, during their annual meeting at the Stayer (Ontario) congregation, the delegates of the Canadian Conference of the Brethren in Christ Church voted to “petition . . . General Conference to initiate a process that considers a new denominational name.”

Recognizing that “there is a growing realization that our denominational name uses terms that . . . are perceived as gender biased and lacking contemporary connection with people we are trying to reach,” the Canadian Conference plans to bring their resolution before the church-wide delegate body gathering in Grantham, Pa., later this year.

The Canadian Conference’s petition illuminates the power of language to shape perceptions, but it also highlights a critical issue in the history of the Brethren in Christ Church: the power of change to create conflict.

A story of a previous name change considered by the Canadian church — as told by bishop emeritus E.J. Swalm in his book, My Beloved Brethren — illustrates these dynamics, and posits a potential solution.

After the jump: to stay “Tunkers” or not to stay “Tunkers” — that is the question.

As E.J. recalls:

The name of the church in Canada was up for discussion [at the 1917 General Conference]. The debate waxed so heated and lengthy that the chairman appointed a time-keeper to limit the speeches. I remember one speaker who was notified by the time-keeper, Brother John Bestard, that his time was up.

“But I want just a couple more minutes yet.”

“I say sit down!” insisted Brother Bestard.

The speaker sat down.

It seems almost ludicrous that this question continued on the Canadian Conference docket periodically for sixty years. In 1933 the Canadian Church was threatened with a split over just such childish immaturity. Strong personalities gave leadership to a minority group which pleaded for the adoption of the name “Tunker.” The criterion was that no other name would give us exemption form military service in Canada. This was, of course, only an illusion, but it persisted through several decades.

A large majority of the 1933 council favoured the name Brethren in Christ because it conformed to the name of the incorporated body in the United States. They carried the decision of the council overwhelmingly.

The losing minority suffered painfully from their defeat and served public notice of recession the next day. Three days later a very tragic incident occurred in one of our districts. A neighbor’s barn was burned by an arsonist. Sadly, this was the result of discord between two brethren [over the name issue].

This had a very sobering effect upon the dissenting group, who humbly asked for a special session of the Canadian Conference. This was granted and they agreed to consider a compromise proposal to apply for a Provincial Charter with Letters Patent incorporated with the name “Brethren in Christ (Tunker).” After cautious debate, it was accepted almost unanimously, as spiritual and level-headed delegates did not wish to precipitate a serious crisis.

Most far sighted members knew it would be only a temporary concession, but it served a good purpose because time wears the edge off memory. Strong feelings dissipated and the issue became dormant. In 1964 the Canadian Church applied for a federal charter and was incorporated under the name, “The Canadian Conference of the Brethren in Christ.” I do not recall a dissenting voice. A cleavage had been averted and the birth of a new denomination prevented.

As history, E.J.’s story illustrates the power of language to cement group identity: to bring cohesion when used, and to bring division when questioned or changed. Likely the 1964 decision to officially change the name was a nonissue since “Brethren in Christ” was becoming more frequently used on both sides of the border; thus, even this event confirms such conjecture.

But as a lesson in ministry and administration, this story offers a potent reminder of the power of compromise. As General Conference 2010 nears and we wait to see what reaction this proposal for a name change may cause, we ought to reflect upon the wisdom of this earlier generation of church leaders, who recognized the benefit of reconciliation over division, and worked diligently to pursue the course of compromise.

For more on the Canadian church in the twentieth century, see E.J. Swalm, My Beloved Brethren: Personal Memoirs and Recollections of the Canadian Brethren in Christ Church (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1969). (The above story comes from pages 11-12 of that text.)


About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
This entry was posted in Essays and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What’s In a Name? (Apparently A Lot — Especially If You’re Canadian.)

  1. Jean Swalm says:

    A timely discussion! I certainly hope no barns will be burned this time. Many times I heard this story.

  2. Pingback: A New Name for the Brethren in Christ? « the search for piety and obedience.

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