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.