Who Are The Brethren in Christ?

Members of the Brethren in Christ
Church at the General Conference of
1911, held in Highland, Ohio. (BICHLA
Photographic Collection, “Events —
General Conference,” Box 1 (1908-1955),
Folder “1911 — Highland, Ohio”

Born during a period of Protestant revivalism that swept across Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the late eighteenth century, the Brethren in Christ began as the “River Brethren,” so called because many of them lived near the Susquehanna River. Denominational historians have often represented the group’s evolution as a quest to synthesize individualistic evangelical piety with corporately held religious values like pacifism, simplicity, humility, and mutual aid.

Central to Brethren in Christ spirituality were two doctrines: nonconformity and nonresistance. Nonconformity included the idea that Christians should be different from non-Christians; it compelled the Brethren in Christ to adopt alternative forms of dress, speech, consumption, and entertainment. Nonresistance took literally the biblical mandate to “love one another,” and compelled the Brethren in Christ to resist all forms of violence, including war.

Two 19th-century church
members model the alternative
dress form practiced by
the Brethren in Christ for most
of their history. (BICHLA
Photographic Collection, “People —
Individuals/Families,” Box 15
(Z-Unidentified), Folder “Zook,
John Roel and Sarah Anne
(George).”)”

By the middle decades of the twentieth century, Brethren in Christ people had come to diversify their practice of these doctrines. As some men entered the military and as some women removed their cape dresses, denomination-wide conversations arose about the need for strict nonconformity and nonresistance standards. Some viewed the doctrines as constraints on the church’s evangelistic mission; others viewed them as the only ways for church members to stay true to the Gospel. A few leaders argued that even those who disagreed about the doctrines should continue to abide by the rules of the church: “[T]he individual must be willing to surrender his personal rights for the good of the group,” argued one church leader.[1] By the late 1940s, however, a new call had risen up: “unity in diversity.”[2] Members were urged to abide by the principles of nonconformity and nonresistance even if that meant that practice varied wide from member to member.

What spurred this change in Brethren in Christ thinking? While a variety of factors contributed to the church’s postwar transformation, the call for “unity in diversity” rang out most strongly from the new evangelicalism.

Chapter 2: Who Are The New Evangelicals? >>

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1 thought on “Who Are The Brethren in Christ?”

  1. Will the two articles cited here be available via a link as the tool is developed?

    It is interesting that John Climenhaga (1884-1969)supported “unity in diversity” at least several years before the 1950 NAE awakening encounter.

    As you know, Donna Wenger has contributed a fascinating profile [Brethren in Christ History and Life] of her parents John and Emma Climenhaga. John and Emma related to one another in a way that was unique for their times. I rather wonder if Emma may influenced the viewpoints he expressed in the article.

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