The Brethren in Christ in an “Age of Evangelicalism”

Last weekend I traveled to Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, for the 28th biennial Conference on Faith and History. There I joined some other scholars of Anabaptism for a panel on “Shifting Identities Among American Anabaptists.” (The panel reflected the broader conference theme of “Cultural Change and Adaptation.”)

My fellow panelists presented excellent, thought-provoking papers on change and adaptation within Mennonite and Missionary Church contexts. My paper, perhaps expectedly, focused on the Brethren in Christ Church in the mid-twentieth century.

Our panel was relatively well attended, and concluded with a great commentary by Grace College historian Mark M. Norris and some good Q&A. Celebrated evangelical historian Mark Noll was there, and shared words of affirmation with me after the session.

I’ll be reflecting more on the session and its themes of change, adaptation, ecclecticism, and hope in a future post. For now, I wanted to share a taste of my paper.

Twitter user @beaslega snapped this artsy Instagram pic of me while I was giving my presentation. Thanks!

Other Brethren in Christ tended to focus on the complementarity of denominational distinctives and evangelistic endeavors. Such a position was presented by Ohio minister C. W. Boyer in a 1962 article in the church paper, the Evangelical Visitor. “The mere fact of being distinctive is not something to apologize for, or something we should necessarily try to eliminate,” Boyer argued. Taught “in the right manner, at the right time, and in the right place, [distinctives like nonresistance, plain dress, and the prayer covering] may actually be assets which will help to build spiritually strong congregations.”

As such statements suggest, many Brethren in Christ found support for their doctrinal particularism within the evangelical movement. In the 1950s and 1960s a number of Brethren leaders lauded evangelicals for their committed opposition to worldiness—a position shared by the Brethren in Christ. In much the same way, Canadian bishop E. J. Swalm, a vocal proponent of the nonresistant position, preached often at Moody Bible School, a fundamentalist institution at which he found much support for the Christian way of peace.

Of course, Brethren nonconformity differed considerably from the post-fundamentalist cultural separatism of neo-evangelicals. While evangelicals objected on moral grounds to some aspects of “secular” life, they did not sharply parse the sacred and the secular. As mentioned earlier, evangelicals could accept some “worldly” innovations, especially when they wanted to adapt these innovations for evangelistic ends. For evangelicals, the mark of authentic spirituality lay not in simply avoiding worldliness, but in cultivating an inner holiness that insulated one from worldiness’s ravages.

Many church members gradually came to embrace evangelical thought on this issue, but not all Brethren in Christ were so quick to welcome evangelicalism’s cultural hermeneutic. For Bishop C. N. Hostetter, Jr., the marriage between evangelical theology and American nationalism blinded these Christians to the biblical injunction against participation in war. In the 1950s, Hostetter frequently went head-to-head with evangelicals on “the peace issue.” As he wrote to theologian Carl Henry in 1954, “The inclination of evangelicals . . . is to take for granted that the Bible approves participation in war and [to] classify all opposition to it as identified with the pacifism espoused by liberals. The evangelical fellowship should be better informed.”

Stay tuned for more.

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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, Events and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Brethren in Christ in an “Age of Evangelicalism”

  1. David E Byer says:

    Devin, thanks so much for bringing back your blog and for this post. I was aware of this conference from John Fea’s blog. Jeannie and I look forward to seeing you at the Annual Meeting og the Brethren in Christ Historical Society on 20 October!

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