Brethren in Christ History and the Immanence of Story

Yesterday, I was invited to speak as part of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society’s annual Heritage Service in Ringgold, Md. As per my invitation, I discussed my growing interest in Brethren in Christ history.

My talk was one small part of a service that, as Brethren in Christ Historical Society president Emerson Lesher described in his invocation, seeks to help today’s church remember corporately our shared heritage. Held in the denomination’s oldest existent meeting house (dating back to 1871), the service is a very physical reminder of the centrality of community within historic Brethren in Christ belief and practice.

For the benefit of those readers who couldn’t be at the event, I’ve posted my talk after the jump.

I’ve been asked to talk today about my growing interest in Brethren in Christ history, and I’m happy to do so. Since I began to explore our history and heritage almost two years ago — first as a student in Dr. Morris Sider’s history course at Messiah College, and then later as an employee of the Brethren in Christ Church — I’ve developed a deep and abiding passion for the subject.

In particular, I want to talk today about story, because I believe that when we consider Brethren in Christ history as story, we get a glimpse of the subject’s enduring promise and enduring fascination — for me personally and, I hope, for all of us as part of this church community.

The story of conscientious objector E.J. Swalm (pictured above in his younger years) remains one of the best and most valuable examples of the Brethren in Christ Church's corporate stance of nonresistance -- a story that has helped countless pastors and lay members understand the essence of a Christ-like, nonviolent witness. Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives

I think the great Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor hit the nail squarely on the head when she wrote that “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way. . . You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” O’Connor is describing an essential aspect of story: that it exists wholly within itself, that its meaning is inherent and cannot be separated from the narrative that develops it. It seems to me that such a notion — the idea of the immanence of story — has fueled the Brethren in Christ’s interest in their denominational history for more than thirty years. Think about it. Why, after almost a century, do we continue to tell the story of E.J. Swalm, bishop of the Canadian Church, and his courageous decision to be imprisoned rather than join the military during the First World War? We tell that story, I believe, because there is simply no other satisfying way to explain our doctrine of nonresistance. Sure, we could quote the doctrinal statements we’ve prepared on the subject. But what do such official declarations actually tell us about our ethic of peace, rooted in our understanding of Jesus Christ and demonstrated through acts of love, compassion, and faithful presence? I believe they tell much, much less than the story of Bishop Swalm.

To quote an old, familiar hymn, we Brethren in Christ love to tell the story. And that’s one of the reasons I love Brethren in Christ history. Because for as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by story. From Bible tales to fables, from Roald Dahl’s children’s books to William Faulkner’s epic novels, I have long been entranced by the power of narrative to convey complexity, ambiguity, beauty, and truth.

Now, as I turn toward greater involvement in the telling of Brethren in Christ history, I have the chance to — and the challenge of — conveying complexity, ambiguity, beauty, and truth in my study of our shared heritage.

Of course, in the academic discipline of history, minimizing the task of understanding the past by calling it a “story” is close to sacrilege. Astute historians jettisoned the idea of pure narrative history years ago, when they realized that such lazy scholarship threatens, among other things, to marginalize the voices of minorities — including religious minorities.

So when I suggest that I’ve come to appreciate our shared Brethren in Christ heritage because I love stories, what I’m trying to communicate is this: What I Iove about events like the heritage service, and about institutions like our Historical Society, is that we don’t stop at just telling stories about the past. We tell stories about the past because we believe they matter for the present.

Philipp Jakob Spener, the founder of the Pietist movement, believed that the best way to "do theology" was to look at the lives and examples of Christian heroes of the past.

Philipp Jakob Spener, the founder of the Pietist movement, believed that the best way to "do theology" in the present was to look at the lives and examples of Christian heroes of the past.

Perhaps this is part of our theological DNA. In an article recently published by the magazine Christian History, Bethel Seminary professor Chris Armstrong argues that Pietists invented church history. That’s right: Those same seventeenth-century German Lutherans who imbued the early Brethren in Christ with a desire for heart-felt religion, also devised one of the longest-standing curricular staples in seminary education.

Here’s why. According to Armstrong, Pietists were “in search of a living orthodoxy” — a kind of experiential religious faith that was committed to being righteous and not just being right. That search led Pietists into urban centers, where they established orphanages, hospitals, and other inner-city ministries. That search led Pietists to devote themselves to cultivating a heart religion with a social conscience. And that search led them to invent church history.

As Armstrong has written:

[Pietists] discovered that when you turn from theological treatises to church history, you begin to see how theory has become practice in the lives of real people. Then when you return to do theology, you have gained a new angle on the task.

To see “how theory has become practice in the lives of real people”—that’s attractive to me. And it should, I think, be attractive to all of us. Coming as we do from a church tradition that incorporates various theological strands and shies away from doctrinaire treatises, we don’t have much of a base for our corporate life and thought. We have the Bible, of course, and we’ve long been committed to reading it, studying it, and allowing it to guide our ministry and worship. But all Christian traditions have the Bible. And, of course, we have the classic texts of the traditions that influenced us: Pietism’s Pia Desideria and Anabaptism’s Martyr’s Mirror, for example. But those aren’t really Brethren in Christ texts. So where do we find our theology-made-flesh?

We find it, I believe, in our stories. And over the last seventy-plus years—ever since Asa Climenhaga produced the first (but certainly not the most conclusive) history of the denomination—we’ve been working to understand how those stories give meaning to our continued life as the Brethren in Christ Church.

I could go on for a long time: I could recount a lot of stories from our past that have inspired me, stories of people like Frances Davidson and George Detweiler and C.N. Hostetter, Jr., and Mary Jane Long. I could do that. But for the sake of time, I’ll contain myself.

In closing, I want to share a quote from another celebrated American writer, the essayist Joan Didion. In her book White Album, Joan writes that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I think this has been true in the Brethren in Christ tradition. Here’s hoping that we continue telling our stories, just as we continue “to search for a living orthodoxy.” Thank you.


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.
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8 Responses to Brethren in Christ History and the Immanence of Story

  1. Devin,

    Thank-you for sharing your presentation. Good stuff. A few thoughts to ‘stirr the idea pot.’

    In Christ, Tom
    I agree that story is very important. The lens through which one reads the story and the direction which one takes it (i.e., interacts with it, practices it as an individual part of a community) are vital. As such, various Christian communities/traditions (and those within communities/traditions) have ‘read/lived’ the Word of God in a number of ways. No matter how much some of us try to deny it, a set of teachings guide communities of believers as they follow Christ in the midst of the God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), the Word of God, the people of God, the flesh, the devil, and the world.

    Presently, I dwell in the reality of the Biblical Story (i.e., Creation, Fall, People of God leading up to the coming of the Christ, the coming of Jesus the Christ with the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God which includes Redemptive work through this very day proceeding from Jesus the Christ’s life/ministry/death/resurrection/gifts/promises, and the long awaited glorious new chapter of the new heavens and new earth).

    Particular traditions exist as part of the larger Kingdom of God, but their final reference point is not to be themselves but instead the Word and Spirit of God. The history, practices, and key figures are valuable, but not final. They embody theories and doctrines in particular historical/geographic contexts which must be taken into consideration when given personal or broader application.

    Yes, Pietists are a key part of recording/telling of Church history. But Church history began with the telling/retelling of events, story, interpretation, application leading up to the formation of the Scriptures. Off the top of my head, I would give Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263–339 AD) credit for the first significant works of Church History beyond the book of Acts, i.e., “The Ecclesiastical History,” and “On the Martyrs.” Check out … And many Christian traditions have kept their stories and lived within them. …

    Let me know what you think. I have some more thoughts, but gotta run.

  2. devincthomas says:

    Thanks for your response, Tom. I wish you could have been at the service yesterday to hear Terry Brensinger (former pastor at Grantham Church, now with the International Brethren in Christ Association) read/preach from Deuteronomy 8 on the topic of “selective recall.” His sermon was a fantastic (and much-needed) follow-up to my thoughts on the value of storytelling in the BIC tradition, as he described how the Deut. 8 passage reveals the inbreaking of God into human history, guiding God’s faithful, etc.

    In regard to “dwell[ing] in the reality of Biblical Story,” I think that’s s smart assessment of how to understand, experience, and model Christ-likeness in everyday life. But the point I was trying to make in my talk (and, I think, the point that Armstrong is trying to make about Pietist conceptions of church history) is that dwelling locally — within one’s own tradition — is just as important as dwelling universally (within the biblical story, which should inform all Christian lives), insofar as dwelling locally helps us “to search for a living orthodoxy” within the specific doctrinal commitments of our tradition.

    That’s why I mention E.J. Swalm early in the piece. Do you know E.J.’s story? He was imprisoned for eighteen days during the First World War because he refused to be conscripted into military service; he later became a BIC pastor, bishop, and advocate for conscientious objectors throughout the Peace Church tradition. His life obviously reflects an ethic of peace, service/compassion, and love for neighbor — all values we, as Christians, receive from the witness of Christ Himself. But as a “local” story, E.J.’s life helps the Brethren in Christ to understand what “peace” and “nonresistance” mean TO US specifically — that we do not just refuse to participate in war, but that we seek creative, compassionate, and holistic (shalom) ways to nurture peace in our homes, our communities, our churches, and our world. When we look at the example of E.J. (and countless other conscientious objectors, activists, and peace workers throughout our history) we get specific examples upon which we can model a local life.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that the “lens through which one reads the story and the direction which one takes it . . . are vital.” I could say a lot (from my own background) about how the misuse of story can create chasms between the church and the would-be believer, but I won’t for the sake of space.

    Thanks again for the comments, Tom!

  3. Quick reply.

    Yes, “dwelling locally — within one’s own tradition — is just as important as dwelling universally (within the biblical story, which should inform all Christian lives), insofar as dwelling locally helps us “to search for a living orthodoxy” within the specific doctrinal commitments of our tradition.”

    They go hand in hand. One can become part of a “universal story” which looses the “incarnational” reality (possibly defended through doctrinal means), but one can also become too local thereby missing the ‘Big Picture.’

    The gritty-ness of “the way of life”/”living orthodoxy” and “articulation of faith” (to which I would add doctrine based upon the Word and Spirit) brings clarity in life, witness.

    Yes, I’m familiar with E.J. Swalm’s story.

    Several members of my wife’s family, including her father, served as conscientious objectors. My father-in-law’s service had very practical implications on how his family was raised in the midst of alternative service and for some years afterward as he continued in the same location for some time post Vietnam War. FYI: He entered as a Mennonite, joined a Methodist congregation, and became Brethren in Christ after returning to Lancaster County.

    My family has roots/family splits in the Moravian and United Brethren/United Brethren in Christ traditions. I was raised in the context of a local congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) which had a strong connection to story, the story of the founding of the ‘Christian Nation.’ For more visit

  4. Greg Starr says:

    Thanks, Devin, for your great thoughts and for your work for the BIC Church. I look forward to seeing how God leads your life within the context of the BIC and the stories that you will communicate to us through the coming years.

    I don’t know that we’ve met, but I know who you are and I’ll seek to introduce myself to you at General Conference.

    I have my MA in Church History from Ashland Theological Seminary (with focus on Anabaptism and Pietism) and teach the BIC DSP Intro to Church History class.

    Also, thanks to Tom for directing me to your post!

    Greg Starr

    • devincthomas says:

      Greg: Thanks for your kind words! I know who you are, too, and will look forward to meeting you at General Conference in a few weeks.

      In the meantime, I hope you’ll continue to follow me at “the search for piety and obedience.” Don’t forget to subscribe (via the Subscribe box on the column to the right)!

  5. You’re welcome Greg! Hope to catch-up w/you at General Conference. … only about a month away. Can’t believe it!

  6. Doneen Dourte says:

    I enjoyed your thoughts on this subject and am happy that a “young” person is able to reflect so competently on this topic. Also, I’m thankful that a “young” person is interested in the work of the Historical Society which is over-weighted with “older” persons such as myself.
    Looking forward to catching up with you at General Conference in a few weeks. Are you signed up for the Historical Society luncheon? Hope to see you there!
    Thanks for the time and thought you invested in your lecture.

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