Click here for some background on this post.
I made some modest progress on the article this past week. One area that I worked to develop was my section on Brethren in Christ women and the “Evangelical turn.” As I mentioned in another update, this section tries to answer a very broad question: How were women affected by the Brethren in Christ Church’s encounters with Evangelicalism, especially in the 1950s and 1960s?
Here’s what I’m suggesting: On the one hand, Evangelicalism empowered Brethren in Christ women, specifically allowing greater liberty on church practices like plain dress and the head covering. On the other hand, Evangelicalism simultaneously disempowered Brethren in Christ women, as it supplied the Brethren in Christ with ways to talk about male-female gender roles in the church that did not rely on symbols like dress.
What does this mean? Well, I first had to explain the symbolism and significance of Brethren in Christ women’s dress.
Here, I was aided by two books. The first was Peace and Persistence by M. J. Heisey, a Brethren in Christ scholar who teaches at SUNY Potsdam. From Heisey, I learned that Brethren in Christ women often bore the burden of the public practice of nonconformity, the doctrine that shaped their alternate ways of living in and relating to the larger society. This assertion reflected some of what I’d learned in my research: mainly, that Brethren in Christ women often felt that they were more “different” than their male counterparts, whose plain dress requirements were not nearly as distinctive as the women’s. Moreover, Heisey provides evidence that many Brethren in Christ women, especially in the first part of the twentieth century, saw plain dress as a form of empowerment and symbol of equality with men, even though the literature of the denomination explicitly described plain dresses and head coverings as symbols connoting women’s subordinate status to men.
The second book that helped me here was a collection of essays titled Strangers at Home: Mennonite and Amish Women in History, and edited by scholars Kimberly D. Schmidt, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Stephen D. Reschly. One essay in this collection — “‘To Remind Us of Who We Are’: Multiple Meanings of Conservative Women’s Dress” by Beth E. Graybill — proved especially helpful. Graybill’s ethnographic work among 1990s-era conservative Mennonite women confirmed what Heisey’s historical research had also conveyed: that dress often had multiple meanings within the context of Anabaptist churches. Some saw it as empowering, while others saw it as a burden.
Knowing this helps to explain what it meant that Evangelicalism “empowered” the Brethren in Christ women to lay aside plain dress and head coverings. In my research, I uncovered anecdotes that suggest that women who encountered Evangelicals or Evangelical outreach methods ultimately came to see plain dress/head coverings as cultural forms rather than scriptural requirements, or as hindrances to effective outreach and assimilation. In other words, Brethren in Christ women who encountered Evangelicalism came to discard symbols like plain dress while maintaining (or seeking to maintain) values like humility and simplicity.
In next week’s update, I’ll explain the second half of my section on Evangelicalism and Brethren in Christ women, and offer some further thoughts about the importance of including the voices and experiences of women in this kind of historical research.