I had a great morning on Thursday at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, guest lecturing in a May Term course called “Anabaptist and Amish Groups in Context.” My presentation focused mainly on the history and beliefs of the River Brethren tradition. The course was being team taught by Jeff Bach, director of the Young Center, and Conrad Kanagy, professor of sociology at Elizabethtown.
To my surprise, there were only two students in the class, but we still had a great time exploring the River Brethren’s uniqueness among other groups rooted in the Anabaptist tradition.
I framed my talk in terms of adaptation and negotiation — two terms that characterize the centuries-long transformations of the River Brethren tradition and its branches (Brethren in Christ, Old Order River Brethren, and United Zion Church). Because there were only two students, I invited them to interrupt me whenever they wanted to ask questions, make connections, etc. We ended up having some interesting asides about local history, plain dress variations, and assimilation into mainstream culture.
I spent most of my time sketching the early history of the River Brethren movement — its formation amid the religious (Christian) pluralism of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” its hybridic (and quintessentially American) fusion of Anabaptist and Pietist beliefs, its early beliefs and practices like plain dress and love feast, and its geographic expansion and schisms in the mid-19th century.
As Conrad Kanagy reminded me during the talk, so much of early River Brethren history is “extremely local” for people at Elizabethtown: the Conoy Creek, where oral tradition indicates the River Brethren held their first baptisms, runs just a few miles from the college, and Jacob Engel — one of the River Brethren founders — established a homestead in nearby Bainbridge (and it still stands today!). While not the focus of my talk, I do hope these kinds of local connections were interesting for the students and professors to make.
Quite interestingly, one of the students was a National Park Service ranger from Philadelphia taking the course to better understand the expectations and background of the many Amish, Mennonite, and similar groups that come for tours at the Independence National Historic Park. He was quite eager to learn as much as he could and then take his knowledge back to his fellow rangers!
Students in the course are combining these kind of in-classroom guest lectures (on Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, River Brethren, and others) with service-learning opportunities at Mennonite Central Committee and ethnographic research and visits to places like the plain communities of Big Valley and Bellevue, Pa., and an Old Order River Brethren worship service in Lancaster County. I wish I could take this course!
Thanks to Jeff and Conrad for inviting me to participate in this class.