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.
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. By the late 1940s, however, a new call had risen up: “unity in diversity.” 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.