We have a great bunch of students assembled this semester — 12 in all. It’s a small class, but that makes it more conducive to conversation about some of the theological issues at stake with the Brethren in Christ (particularly issues like peace, women in ministry, and others).
Most students are here to fulfill a General Education credit in theology; a few had never even heard of this Brethren in Christ! But several have or currently do attend a Brethren in Christ congregation, and other one or two grew up in theologically related denominations (like the Mennonite Church) and are looking to learn something about a sister church.
We’ve only been at it for three days, but we’ve been flying through the early history of the Brethren in Christ. To give you some context, in January term, we cover about a week’s worth of material in a single, three-hour day. Thus, we’ve already talked about the emergence of Anabaptism and Pietism as church renewal movements in Europe; about the immigration of Mennonites, other Anabaptists, and “church Pietists” (like Lutherans and Reformed Christians) to Pennsylvania in the early 18th century; about the origin of the River Brethren along the banks of the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; about the “Brethren mindset” that allowed the River Brethren to emerge; and about the early doctrines and practices of this community.
Students have been pretty engaged — about as engaged as you can expect for students in a Gen Ed theology class! We’ve already had some good conversations about Christian pacifism — always a topic of some controversy, even at a place like Messiah College. Students were open about their opinions, and varied in their perspectives: many affirmed the position and said they liked it, while one or two others had some reservations. We’ll continue to address this issue throughout the next weeks.
I’m looking forward to the rest of my time with these students. Later today, we’ll be headed down to Smithsburg, Maryland, to tour the Ringgold Meeting House — the oldest Brethren in Christ meeting house still in existence — for a field trip. (For the uninitiated: Brethren in Christ people met in “meeting houses” for much of their history, rather than in more typical “churches.”) Later this week, we’ll start exploring what historian Carlton Wittlinger has called “the first period of transition”: that period of about 30 years in which the Brethren in Christ adopted a number of new innovations — from missions to higher education, from Wesleyan holiness theology to revival meetings. These innovations began to transform the “Brethren way” — a subject we’ll consider in some depth over the next three or four days of the course.
Stay tuned for more reflections!