Born-Again Brethren in Christ: Week #17 — Women and the Evangelical Turn (Part 1)

strangers-at-homeClick 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.

peace-and-persistenceHere, 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.

Stay tuned!

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A Great Evening with Some Young Historians

If you're hanging out with young historians, you have to take a selfie. Participants from left to right: Ted Maust, Joel Nofziger (from Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society), Moira Mackay, Brooke Strayer, and me

If you’re hanging out with young historians, you have to take a selfie. Participants from left to right: Ted Maust, Joel Nofziger (from Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society), Moira Mackay, Brooke Strayer, and me

As I reported in an earlier post, this past Monday I participated in an event called “What Young Historians Are Thinking.” The event was co-sponsored by the Sider Institute at Messiah College and by the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, and held at Lancaster Brethren in Christ Church. It featured short presentations by three young historians writing about Historic Peace Church traditions (specifically, Mennonite Church, Brethren in Christ Church, and Religious Society of Friends/Quakers). I served as the moderator for the evening gathering.

Here’s a quick recap of the night.

We had about 50-60 people turn out for the event, including folks from all of the church traditions represented. Those in attendance were treated to three really interesting (and very different!) presentations.

Readers of the blog will likely recognize the name of the first presenter: Brooke Strayer. (We’ve written about Brooke’s research here, here, and here.) For the fourth time this year, Brooke delivered a presentation on her research on the history of the Brethren in Christ peace position between World War I and the present. In her presentation, Brooke argues that adherence to the peace position has declined among church members, even as leaders continue to stress the position. She points to confusion on the principle of peace as well as greater acculturation as the sources of this declining adherence. As I listened to Brooke’s talk yet again, I was struck once more by how her work embodies what we might call “historical activism”: using the past to encourage change in the future. Of course, we could debate whether or not this is a responsible use of historical research, but one thing is clear: Brooke is very, very passionate about Christian peacemaking.

The evening’s second presentation came from Moira Mackay, a recent graduate of Juniata College and a current graduate student at Simmons College studying history and archives management. Moira’s presentation focused on the life and work for 19th century British Quaker Anne Knight, an early feminist and tireless advocate for abolition. Mackay showed how Knight, though relatively unknown, networked and collaborated with leading suffragists and abolitionists in both Britain and the U.S., including Lucretia Mott. The most interesting aspect of her presentation, in my mind, was her encouragement to historians to pay attention to those voices that are not often included in the historical narrative, including the voices of women.

The third presentation came from Ted Maust, a graduate of Goshen College who currently works for the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. Ted’s paper focused on the work of 19th century Mennonite John F. Funk, who launched a denominational newspaper — Herald of Truth — at a time when Mennonites were “the quiet in the land” and largely resistant to activities that threatened to draw the church into the “world.” Ted highlighted the fact that Funk left the bosom of the Mennonite Church — eastern Pennsylvania — and moved to the city of Chicago (a perceived hotbed of “worldliness”), where he launched his paper. Funk’s pilgrimage away from the Mennonites and into the city ultimately compelled him to start the paper, and by the end of his life he had returned to the Mennonite fold. I saw Ted’s paper helping us to understand how the past is often a “foreign country,” a landscape that challenges our simple stereotypes about how things were “back then.” Funk’s journey away from and then back to the Mennonite Church challenges the way we think about a communally-oriented and sectarian society like the 19th century Mennonites.

After the three presentations, we had some good Q&A with the audience. People seemed very engaged with the material, and excited about the work of these young historians.

I had such a good time with these young scholars, and I’m looking forward to next year’s gathering already! Stay tuned to the blog for updates.

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What Young Historians Are Thinking

Young-HIstorians-posterTonight, the Sider Institute and the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society will present our annual “What Young Historians Are Thinking” event, which will bring three young researchers to the Lancaster Brethren in Christ Church to present their research.

Check out the poster (liked on the right) for more details on the historians and their presentations.

You can also read about the event here.

Frequent readers of The Search for Piety and Obedience might recognize one of the historians: Brooke Strayer, whose research into the history of the Brethren in Christ peace position we’ve posted about several times (here, here and here).

Looking forward to seeing some blog readers at tonight’s event!

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Born-Again Brethren in Christ: Week #16 — Getting Back on Track

work-in-progressClick here for some background on this post.

After three weeks (here and here) of slow progress on my Born-Again Brethren in Christ project, I finally feel like I’m back on track.

I did four things for the project this past week:

1. I re-outlined the whole paper. As I’ve progressed, I’ve found that I have so much I want to say. Of course, not everything’s going to end up in the final draft. I’ve come to grips with this reality and have already made some tough decisions to cut material. But I’ve also added some material (including whole sections) and expanded some material that I thought would be treated generally. Because of all these shifts, I spent some time this week re-outlining the paper. Not only will this new outline help me see how all the material fits together, but it provides some big-picture structure for what I’ve already done.

Here’s the outline in its current form:

I. Introduction

II. A New Paradigm (answering the “so what?” question of this paper)

III. The Not-So-Quiet in the Land (Brethren in Christ background/history)

IV. Joining the National Association of Evangelicals

V. Opting for the Evangelical Mainstream

VI. Women and the “Evangelical Turn”

VII. Religious Awakening in Christian America

VIII. [Church Growth Movement]

IV. [Social Concern Issues]

V. Conclusion

2. I asked some new research questions. I’ve come to a place in my writing where I realize I need to answer some additional research questions — questions I didn’t ask in my original research (for my master’s thesis) or questions that have developed in my mind since that original research period. Some of these questions I’ve handed off to Glen Pierce and his research assistants at the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives. I’m very grateful to Glen and his staff for the assistance they’ve offered in this project! I’m investigating some of the other questions myself. Stay tuned for more in-depth posts about some of these specific questions.

3. I drafted a new section on Women and the “Evangelical Turn.” How were women affected by the Brethren in Christ Church’s encounters with Evangelicalism? That’s a big question I asked during my master’s thesis research — and though I answered it, I didn’t answer it to my satisfaction! Nevertheless, I now have a full section of my article dedicated to this very subject, and started drafting the section this past week. Perhaps I’ll share a bit of this research in a future post. Stay tuned!

4. I began to draft a section on Brethren in Christ “social concern” in the 1960s and 1970s. This is yet another section that requires some new research. Nevertheless, I have enough material at this point to create some topic sentences for the paragraphs in this section. I’ll need to fill in the paragraphs with material from my research. Again, stay tuned!

The article is really taking shape. There a lot of work still to be done, but I’m cautiously optimistic about the good forward momentum I’ve developed this week!

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Born-Again Brethren in Christ: Weeks #14 and 15 — Too Much To Do

MC-historyClick here for some background on this post.

Well, it’s been almost two weeks since I’ve checked in with my progress with “Born-Again Brethren in Christ” project. Frankly, there hasn’t been much. Between the recent Sider Institute study conference, which occupied a lot of my time, and my other duties, I haven’t had much time to focus on writing. Moreover, I’ve had another project competing for my time. Some readers will remember my participation in a symposium this spring on the religious roots of Christian colleges and universities. The convener of that symposium wants to shop around an edited book based on the papers presented at that session, which means I’ve been spending the last two weeks polishing that piece.

Needless to say, I haven’t had much free time to devote to the “Born-Again Brethren in Christ” project. Alas. Maybe next week.

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Rethinking Church Membership: Reflections on the 2014 Sider Institute Study Conference

Participants in the 2014 Sider Institute study conference listen to Dr. J. E. McDermond's talk on conversion and church membership.

Participants in the 2014 Sider Institute study conference listen to Dr. J. E. McDermond’s talk on conversion and church membership.

The 2014 Brethren in Christ Study Conference is a wrap! Held October 9-10, 2014, the conference was a first in many ways:

  • It was the first study conference to be co-sponsored by both the Sider Institute at Messiah College and the Fresno Pacific University Biblical Seminary.
  • It was the first study conference to be held at the Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church.
  • It was the first study conference to be live streamed across the country, allowing us to include participants from outside the central Pennsylvania area.

This year’s conference also drew a substantial crowd of over 70, with participants from Brethren in Christ, Mennonite, Church of the Brethren, and United Zion fellowships.

The main presentations included:

“Does Church Membership Still Matter?: Reflections on ‘Belonging’ in 21st Century Christianity” by Kurt Willems

“Conversion and Life Between the Resurrections: Belief, Belonging, and Behavior” by J. E. McDermond

“A Missiological Approach to Church Membership by Daryl Climenhaga

Accountability and Church Membership in the 21st Century” (panel discussion) featuring Hank Johnson (moderator), John R. Yeatts, Keith Miller, and Josh Crain

“Where Do Our Loyalties Lie?: Belonging Beyond the Local Congregation by Valerie Rempel

Check out the Sider Institute Facebook page for images of the conference.

All of the main presentations were filmed, and will be posted on the Sider Institute website in the near future. These presentations will also be featured in a forthcoming issue of Brethren in Christ History and Life, the journal of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society.

In my role as director of the Sider Institute, I’ve received some positive feedback from attendees — as well as suggestions on how to improve for next year’s gathering.

Readers: If you attended the study conference, please leave some reflections on your experience — favorite presentations, most profound insight, suggestions for improvement — in the Comments section below!

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Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism / David R. Swartz

moral-minorityA version of this review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Reflections, the journal of the Missionary Church Historical Society.

With Moral Minority, David R. Swartz has produced one of the most eye-opening histories of American evangelicalism in recent years. The book charts the course of an understudied movement within American religious history: the so-called “Evangelical Left.” From our current historical moment, with the lingering influence of the religious right on American politics, a robust and influential Evangelical Left may be difficult to envision. But as Swartz ably demonstrates in his lively, easy-to-read study, this theologically conservative but politically progressive bloc has worked since the 1960s to integrate social justice and conversionist faith into a broadly pro-life evangelical political agenda. This Evangelical Left emerged in the years before the tradition’s right-wing turn, and though never monumental nor monolithic it has had a greater impact on the whole of evangelicalism than scholars typically presume.

Swartz argues that the groundwork for this progressive evangelical politics was laid in the years after World War II by Carl F. H. Henry, theologian and architect of a resurgent neo-evangelicalism. Henry exhorted evangelicals to abandon their political quietism and to assume a greater role in the public square, offering a “commanding call to a new social mission” (21). A second generation of “born-again” leaders would carry out Henry’s charge. At a time when evangelicalism was still “a politically contested and fluid movement” (25), these leaders would turn the tradition’s politics in a leftward direction.

The stories of these emergent evangelical leftists occupy the first part of Swartz’s study. Each chapter offers a biographical vignette of one movement leader: radical peacenik Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners; civil rights activist and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship president John Alexander; anti-Vietnam Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.); and feminist Sharon Gallagher, organizer of the Christian World Liberation Front. Their alternative political perspectives illustrate how, amid the social and cultural tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, evangelicals began to shift the focus of debate from personal faith to public action. Swartz also showcases the broad coalitions among national and international evangelical groups forged by the incipient movement: Samuel Escobar’s Latin American theology, Richard Mouw’s Dutch Reformed theology, and Ronald J. Sider’s Anabaptist theology each influenced the evangelical left in key ways.

These somewhat-disparate strands of progressive evangelical sentiment formally coalesced with the signing of the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Conscience in 1973, at a meeting of evangelical leaders at a YMCA Hotel in Chicago. The document united a movement-in-the-making while also delivering a more trenchant indictment of evangelical social apathy than Henry had offered a generation before. It upbraided evangelicals for their inattention to racism, their tacit endorsement of gender inequality, and their blind allegiance to nationalism, militarism, and conspicuous consumption. It urged evangelicals to repenting for failing to accept “the complete claim of God on [their] lives,” and rallied all believers to embrace “a Christian discipleship that confronts the social and political injustice of our nation” (quoted in 267). Such a decisive statement from such an unlikely source quickly caught the attention of both secular and religious media. According to Swartz, “a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times suggested that ‘some day American church historians may write that the most significant church-related event of 1973 took place last week at the YMCA Hotel” (181).

Indeed, this evangelical “progressive united front” emerged years before the rise of the more conservative Moral Majority. At the time it seemed that consensus centrism, not far-right Republicanism, might become the political persuasion of American evangelicalism, and that leaders like Mark Hatfield and Sharon Gallagher—not Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—might become this movement’s public faces. “That evangelicals would strongly mobilize on behalf of the Republican Party,” Swartz asserts, “was anything but assured” (218).

So what happened? Swartz offers two answers. First, he claims, identity politics fractured the coalition. African American evangelicals felt alienated by what they perceived as sustained racial inequality, even among their leftist colleagues; thus, they poured energy into separate organizations like the National Black Evangelical Association. Similarly, evangelical feminists—turned off by the preponderance of male coalition leadership and frustrated by repeated unsuccessful attempts to gain a greater voice within the movement—turned their attention to building groups like the Evangelical Women’s Caucus. Repeated and seemingly irreconcilable theological clashes between establishment-focused Calvinists and countercultural Anabaptists further fragmented the coalition. Without a unified center, the movement lacked a coherent platform and a resonant voice. Swartz concludes, “Preoccupation with minority rights and identity, while essential to their platform, hurt the political viability of the evangelical left” (210).

Second, evangelical progressives’ fusion of conservative theology and social action made them ideological orphans in the polarized political arena of the late 1970s. Until then, progressive evangelicals imagined themselves as occupying a viable space in electoral politics. However, as Swartz explains, evangelical leftists’ conservative theology alienated their would-be allies in the evolving Democratic Party, which would enforce a pro-choice orthodoxy and embrace a “cultural libertinism” (219) by the late 1970s. Meanwhile, a growing religious right gained traction within the Republican Party largely because of their capacity to forge a united front—a feat that leftist evangelicals could not emulate. As a result, in the 1980s and beyond, “progressive evangelicals . . . were left behind by both the left and the right” because of their inability to “fit [into] an evolving two-party political system” (214).

Swartz’s argument here is convincing insofar as it explains how a once-promising movement has been eclipsed in both the scholarly and popular memory by the much larger and more vocal religious right. And yet at the same time, the argument reveals one of Moral Minority’s difficulties: its use of the term “left.” These progressive evangelicals were neither “left” in the New Left sense, nor “right” in the sense of identifying with the politics of Nixon and, later, Ronald Reagan. Even before the political polarization of the late 1970s, these ministers, activists, academics, and others defied simple categorization. Their concerns were too expansive to fit a single party platform. And yet the appeal of the term “left” is obvious, since no word truly characterizes their stance. Were they “evangelical centrists”? Or just non-right? The existing classifications seem inadequate.

Whatever we might call them, these justice-oriented evangelicals did not disappear in the 1980s and 1990s—a surprise twist in Swartz’s account. Anyone familiar with the landscape of twenty-first-century evangelical politics can attest to the lasting influence of Wallis and his Sojourners organization, which continues to engage evangelicals on issues like global poverty, immigration, and race relations. Sider’s still-thriving Evangelicals for Social Action is the grandfather of all evangelical justice organizations. And a new generation of activists—like Shane Claiborne and his Simple Way intentional community—now follow a path first blazed by these progressive forebears.

The current popularity of figures like Claiborne points to Moral Minority’s greatest strength: its timeliness. As the diverse movement known as evangelicalism once again enters a period in which it is “politically contested,” Swartz’s book provides an important scholarly point of reference for this new context. Academics, church leaders, and laypeople alike would benefit from reading this lucidly written, exhaustively researched, and richly contextualized study.

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