Off to Mexico City!

As you read this, I’ll be en route to Mexico City, where I’ll be presenting a paper titled “Between Legalism and Liberalism: The Brethren in Christ, the New Evangelicals, and the Rhetoric of Religious Identity in Postwar America,” at the “Historia, Protestantismo e Identidad en las Américas” conference. I’ll be in Mexico City from October 5-9 — a welcome mid-semester break from Philadelphia.

A version of this conference paper will be published in the December 2012 issue of Brethren in Christ History and Life, so those of you who are interested will eventually be able to read the full piece. Until then, here’s a taste:

A brief survey of the [Brethren in Christ] church’s publications during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s reveals both the group’s sense of separateness and its expressed need to belong to a larger body. In the years following World War II, Brethren in Christ church leaders focused intensely on integrating their community into the wider “conservative” Protestant world; paradoxically, leaders’ rhetoric also centralized the group’s distinctive doctrines and specific concerns. As though to emphasize this paradox, church leaders at this time often depicted their denomination as a community in crisis. Stagnating from a lack of new members, divided over issues of doctrine and practice, succumbing to the lure of acculturation, and struggling to expand their network of schools, missions, and benevolent institutions, the Brethren in Christ Church had reached a tipping point. “Traditionalists” pressed for a renewed emphasis on the distinctive elements of church life and practice, urging discipline for dissenters. “Progressives” pleaded for exercise of individual conscience, often while modifying or even abandoning formal teachings and historic practices. Church officials, desperate for unity amid this perceived impasse, sought to re-assert what it meant to be “Brethren in Christ.”

Thus, in the 1940s and 1950s, Brethren in Christ leaders fashioned two categories—termed “legalism” and “liberalism”—into which they sorted beliefs, practices, and attitudes of which they wanted no part. Against these undesirable elements, church leaders defined the “true” Brethren in Christ. Thereby, they posited a fresh identity for their small denomination—an identity they believed would empower the church to best balance its historic commitment to “separation from the world” with its call to “aggressive” evangelism. Later, those same leaders traded their own identity-shaping language for language borrowed from the larger Protestant world. This shift enabled leaders to rhetorically graft their small sapling of a church onto the sturdy trunk of the burgeoning “new evangelical” coalition.

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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.

6 Responses to Off to Mexico City!

  1. Beth Mark says:

    You represent our denomination well, Devin! Thanks for sharing this “taste.”

  2. Randy and I are bursting with pride at what you are accomplishing. I praise God that you were in the first-year seminar that Randy co-taught with Kim Phipps. I might have met you without that connection, but then again . . .

    • R. Aubrey Hawton says:

      I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of the full text of your presentation, Devin. May God grant you an exciting, beneficial and productive few days in Mexico City, and safety in your travels.

  3. dorothy gish says:

    Way to go, Devin.m You represent us well. Blessings.

  4. Devin Manzullo-Thomas says:

    Thanks to all of you for these kind affirmations! I’m just now settling into my hotel room here in Mexico City, and (after a quick tour of the local area) will spend the rest of the night getting ready for tomorrow morning’s presentation. Prayers and well-wishes are welcome.

  5. Pingback: Home From Mexico City! « the search for piety and obedience.

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