Coercion, Dancing Dutch Children, and Brethren in Christ Nonconformity

This dance sequence from the 1937 film "Heidi" was censored by Messiah College trustees when the film was shown on campus in 1946. Apparently, the censors objected to the dancing, which would have been considered sinful behavior by the college's sponsoring denomination, the Brethren in Christ.

Not sure what these three things have in common? They were all part of an usual event held on the campus of Messiah Bible College in 1946.

Like the denomination that sponsored it (and like other Christian schools, including Wheaton College), Messiah Bible College from the outset opposed attendance at movie theaters. Not until the early 1940s did the use of films for educational purposes become a part of the school’s academic life. Even then, as E. Morris Sider writes in Messiah College: A History, the films would undergo a strict censoring by the Board of Trustees, and the professor or administrator showing the film would be obligated to block out objectionable segments of the film by placing a card in front of the projector lens.

Perhaps expectedly, this censoring served to entice students — many of whom had never seen a projected image — even more. As Paul Hostetler, a student at Messiah Academy in the 1940s, recalls,

We [students] would sit there, our imaginations running wild on what we might be missing!

Eventually, entertainment films came to the college as well (despite the denomination continuing to prohibit members from viewing Hollywood fare). As Sider writes in his history:

After some reluctance, the Administrative Committee in 1946 allowed Heidi to be brought to campus, but when they discovered upon previewing the film that Shirley Temple, the popular child star of Hollywood, played in it, they divided evenly on whether or not to show it . . . [1]

A major force in the decision-making process: student appeals to then-President C.N. Hostetter, Jr. As Winnie (Hostetter) Worman, a college student in the 1940s, tells it, students “prevailed upon the administration” until they relented and allowed the film to be shown.

While the student coercion eventually worked, college trustees still censored the film. Eleanor (Heisey) Lehman remembers watching the “final product”:

When the dancing was there, they put their hand over the [projector lens] — they hid it! [2]

It seems that college administrators didn’t want their students to see scenes of dancing — an activity that would have been considered sinful by the school’s founding denomination.

Looking back, the decision might seem silly — especially given the extreme kitschiness of the scene in question. Check it out:

Nevertheless, the incident points to an interesting paradox: the rigidness and flexibility of the church’s enforcement of their doctrine of nonconformity in this era. Before the 1950s, when much of the language of nonconformity disappeared from the denomination’s official documents, the church struggled with how to enforce its long-standing position. A 1937 decision to write out the church’s expectations on dress is seen by historians today as the group’s attempt to strictly enforce behavior under assault from modern culture. As that culture increasingly challenged demonstrations of nonconformity in the 1940s, church leaders began to recognize their inability to hold up these standards without losing members. Thus, flexibility became a part of the group’s approach.

The incident at Messiah Bible College ably illustrates this circumstance — and offers some insight into the way that the school related to its founding denomination in that period.

Notes:

[1] E. Morris Sider, Messiah College: A History (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1984), p. 214.
[2] The individuals quoted in this post were interviewed as part of my research for an upcoming article on the Brethren in Christ Church’s attitude toward film in the years 1910 to 1970. For more on that topic, check out this post.

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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.

One Response to Coercion, Dancing Dutch Children, and Brethren in Christ Nonconformity

  1. Elaine Byer Reed says:

    As a child, I heard that in the 50’s the Brethren in Christ Church went through a major reorganization to deal with the possibility of church divisions. That was when the church was divided into 5 geographical regions, with 5 bishops appointed or elected? for each. That was supposedly when a daughter of a minister “put her hair down” and probably other cultural shifts were expected. Is this true? It would be interesting to hear other information about the decision.

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