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As I posted last week, I’m working on a publication-worthy article about the Brethren in Christ and American Evangelicalism. Due to traveling and other time-consuming projects, I haven’t made much headway in either my research or writing so far this week. So rather than just provide that “update,” for this first week’s post I decided to write a bit about the topic I’m exploring and why it appeals to me as both a historian and as a church member.
This project, “Born-Again Brethren in Christ,” reflects my intense interest in the relationship (or lack thereof) between Evangelical and Anabaptist groups in American history. As a historian, the topic raises seemingly endless questions: How have these groups related to one another over time? What contextual factors — theological, cultural, geographical, economic — have shaped the interactions between these groups? How has the meaning or definition of the terms “Anabaptist” and “Evangelical” changed over time? How have those shifting defintions shaped interactions between self-proclaimed Anabaptists and Evangelicals?
The topic also raises some theological and/or confessional questions: Can an Anabaptist be an Evangelical — and vice versa? Do Evangelical beliefs “corrupt” Anabaptist distinctives like peace, nonconformity, and the church as total community? Can Anabaptist distinctives be strengthened by Evangelical beliefs? The list goes on.
I’m not the first to ask these (and similar) questions. And I hope I’m not the last. In fact, I’ve learned that there are actually schools of thought on this question within the larger Anabaptist historiography (i.e., “history of history”). Perhaps I’ll say a bit more on these schools later. Needless to say, my questions are ones that other scholars and church historians are asking, too, which of course makes the prospect of writing this article all the more exciting.
These questions arise from my own personal investment in a faith community that has drunk substantially from both Anabaptist and Evangelical wellsprings — and that has felt the tensions of doing so. One Brethren in Christ scholar has suggested that the Brethren in Christ must be “Evangelicals with a difference” — just as we have been Anabaptists, PIetists, and Wesleyans “with a difference” throughout our history. The popular perception, at least among pastors and laypeople of my generation and some others, is that we have not done a good job of the former. But my research shows that Brethren in Christ have always felt the tension of being both Anabaptist (and sometimes Wesleyan) and Evangelical. More on this in future posts, I hope.
As my mentor and professor David H. Watt reminded me during the process of writing the thesis, all scholarship is autobiography — and that’s certainly true of this project for me. While in the end I want my article to reflect the best in American religious history scholarship, I can’t escape the fact that I’m drawn to this topic because it’s one I’ve wrestled with, confessionally, for many years.