How did the Brethren in Christ first encounter the new evangelicalism? The following stories illustrate some of the ways that Brethren in Christ people — leaders and laity alike — formed relationships with figures and organizations at the heart of the new evangelical movement.
The National Association of Evangelicals
Institutional ties between the Brethren in
Christ Church and the new evangelicalism were cemented in 1949, when the denomination voted to affiliate with the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the public face of the emergent Christian movement. Prior to this time, the Brethren in Christ remained “an island unto themselves,” and refused to join ecumenical organizations. But changes in denominational life spurred church leaders to pursue affiliation with other like-minded religious groups, including the NAE.
Almost immediately, the Brethren in Christ began to feel the impact of NAE affiliation. Delegates to the NAE convention of 1950, held in Indianapolis, Indiana, were particularly affected by what they saw and heard. Gathering informally after a convention session, these Brethren in Christ leaders confessed that, in the presence of impassioned and success-oriented evangelicals, they felt confused and embarrassed by their denominational peculiarity. Were elements like plain dress inhibiting effective outreach? As Samuel Wolgemuth, one of the convention delegates, later reflected, “the spiritual depth and vision of NAE speakers and leaders [provoked Brethren in Christ attendees] to evaluate in depth, together, the . . . restrictions that the [church’s] ‘legalistic’ teachings and practices . . . placed on the church and its outreach program.”
In subsequent years, church historian Carlton O. Wittlinger would characterize this late-night gathering as a “catalyst for change” in the Brethren in Christ Church. Convention participants would draw inspiration from the NAE as they instituted reforms in church doctrine, including abolition of a prescribed church uniform and of proscriptions on military service.
Youth for Christ
Of course, the NAE was not the only link
between the Brethren in Christ and the new evangelicalism. Informal connections with the movement — such as those forged by pastoral couples Sam and Grace Wolgemuth and Eber
and Ruth Dourte — “primed the pump” for denominational affiliation.
Ruth and Eber Dourte were the struggling pastoral couple of a rural, western Pennsylvania church when Eber’s brother-in-law, Samuel F. Wolgemuth, first introduced the couple to an organization called Youth for Christ in the late 1940s. Launched by Robert Cook and Torrey Johnson in Chicago in 1946, by the end of the decade this organization had chapters across the U.S., each holding a rally for local teenagers on Saturday night.
Wolgemuth first encountered the work when he attended a convention in Winona Lake, Indiana, in 1949. By the early 1950s, he had left his post as a Brethren in Christ bishop to become the organization’s overseas representative to Japan. By the 1960s, he was president of Youth for Christ International. Long before that, however, he introduced his in-laws to the group — and the wider evangelical movement.
Billy Graham’s First Crusade – Los Angeles, 1949
While the Dourtes and Wolgemuths were
making their initial contacts with Youth for Christ on the East Coast, another group of Brethren in Christ — students at the denominationally sponsored Upland College in Southern California — made their way to a watershed event in new evangelical history: the inaugural crusade of evangelical icon Billy Graham.
Held under the “Canvas Cathedral with the Steeple of Light,” the crusade drew 350,000 people in a three-month period. Among those in attendance were Robert and Eleanor Lehman, students at the college. “[As Brethren in Christ,] we were accustomed to revival meetings,” Bob would later recollect. “And [the Los Angeles crusade] was just kind of the grand-daddy of them all—it was a much bigger crowd, it was about as big a crowd as we’d ever seen at one place at one time.”
The Sixth World Congress on Evangelism – Tokyo,
Contacts with the new evangelical coalition continued into the 1950s. When Wolgemuth moved to Japan, he did not sever contacts with his home denomination. In 1952, he invited eight fellow ministers and laypeople to take part in a special event he was planning: the sixth World Congress on Evangelism.
Writing from the event, participant and Brethren in Christ bishop Henry Ginder mused, “Here one sees and hears Christians of different lands and languages uniting in earnest prayer, each in his own way.”
Another participant, Eber Dourte, remembers that the event had a major impact on his (and fellow travelers’) practice of Brethren in Christ doctrines like plain dress. According to Dourte, the desire to “fit in” with their fellow evangelical ministers compelled all but one of the Brethren in Christ participants to don neckties while preaching and attending seminars in Tokyo.