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Brethren Religious Consciousness Series: Historic Stage

In an earlier blog, I made brief mention of Michael Barnes’ book, In the Presence of Mystery: An Introduction to the Story of Human Religiousness (1990). Barnes offers helpful descriptions of religious experience/consciousness as part of a four-stage development (primitive, archaic, historic, and modern).[i] In this next series of blogs, I would like to expand on each of these stages in a Brethren context.

The primitive stage of consciousness contains little to no individuality but only the collective identity of the tribe or community. In the archaic stage, basic structures and systems emerge within the group. The historic stage witnesses the development of absolute truth and identity over and against other truth and identity claims as a systematic articulation of theological identity develops. Lastly, the modern stage transitions a black and white ideology/theology to one of paradox and mysticism in pursuit of the common good.

The historic stage of Brethren development is exhibited well by the nineteenth century Brethren thinker Peter Nead. Peter Nead was

a born Lutheran, a convinced Methodist, a thrice-immersed Dunker—these were the stages of the spiritual pilgrimage of Peter Nead (1796-1877), teacher, preacher, and writer.[i]

Stoffer further contributes to the picture of Nead by opening his chapter on the theologian’s life with the following introduction:

Without doubt the most thorough and detailed exposition of Brethren thought during the nineteenth century comes from the pen of Peter Nead (1796-1877). In his two major works, Theological Writings and Wisdom and Power of God, Nead covers the major themes of systematic theology and considers at length the distinctive practices of the Brethren. His works received wide circulation among the Brethren and undoubtedly served to effect greater unity of thought throughout the Brotherhood. Albert Ronk pays tribute to Nead and his theological writing by observing that his “theology was so pungent and convincing, the minds of the people were so thoroughly settled as to the sacramental rites, that, in the disagreements which later caused three divisions among the Brethren, none of them arose over the Sacraments.”[ii]

Stoffer concludes his generous introduction by writing, “For an in-depth understanding of the thought of the nineteenth century Brethren mind, the investigation of thought of Peter Nead becomes mandatory.”[iii]

Nead was known as “the English Preacher” for his ability to serve in a bilingual capacity. Many Brethren ministers of the period still preached in German. A few were bilingual. As Fred Benedict notes, “Nead’s great love for the Brethren’s doctrines; his attachment to the church’s traditions and his ability as a speaker which gave his arguments force and conviction certainly smoothed the transition to the new language.”[iv]

Nead’s theological outlook stressed Scripture over the Spirit—a truncating of the dialectic that would prove detrimental to later Brethren of the nineteenth century. A legalistic tone develops in his writings which is why Nead can describe the Bible as “one law book” for the church.[v] Such a systematizing of thought led Nead to argue, for example, that “not only the mode [of baptism], but all that is connected with the institution [is] strictly essential [and] willful omission in any one part of the institution,” he notes, “would be an infringement upon the holy name of Jesus.”[vi]

The irony of the period is a series of articles Nead wrote in 1860 for the denominational magazine, the Gospel Visitor, wherein he strongly advocated that Brethren vote in political elections.[vii] Nead’s departure from a more traditionalist posture for the Brethren is intriguing as his rationale was radical for the Brethren of the period, “There was a time when we had our scruples about these things,” Nead wrote, “but as subjects of the civil government we owe these duties to the government for the well-being of ourselves and fellow man.”[viii]

Nead received a reprimand from the Annual Conference and upon request through standing committee was made to publicly apologize remarking, “I am now tolerably far advanced in years—I have been a member of the church nearly forty years, but have not made that advancement in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ as many others have done. To err is still too common with me.”[ix]

Nead’s willingness to go out on a limb for Brethren voting reveals not just a nuanced understanding of the role of government and the church’s interaction with the State but also a growing tension around the role of individual conscience and the witness of Annual Meeting. Nead’s reprimand is a turning point as his later views will remain steadfastly in support of a growing group known as the Old Order who did not depart from traditional Brethren moorings of the period. In this instance, Nead reveals a progressive understanding of government different from the traditional Amish, conservative Mennonite, and conservative Brethren perspectives.

It’s important to distinguish where Nead’s thought nuances the traditional Brethren/Anabaptist perspective on government. In regards to the church’s involvement in the government, Nead is quite orthodox by Brethren standards. In one of his more famous works, Theological Writings, he articulates the traditional Brethren view on church and world:

To be strictly honest in all [the church’s] dealings with all men: to speak the truth upon all occasions: to sue no person at law: not to resist evil, but to suffer: to do unto all men, as we would wish them to do unto us : love our enemies, consequently the members do not learn to go to war: to pay tribute to whom tribute is due.[x]

For Nead, the relationship of the church to civil government is determined by the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7. In this passage, Paul argues that the role of government is to punish evildoers and protect the good of the land. All peoples, in response, pay taxes (or tribute in times of war) to the governing authorities.

Yet Nead’s writings also reveal a struggle with answering the question of whether all governments are ordained by God.

Thus it is plain that our Saviour did not refuse to pay tribute, and if he did not I do not see why his disciples should. And the apostle Paul, in his letters to the Romans, treats this subject at large. In this chapter, he charges every soul to be subject unto the higher powers— that no one should rebel against the civil authorities, but to be obedient: “For there is no power but of God, the powers that be are ordained of God.” Here it will not be amiss for me to remark that those powers which the apostle speaks of, as being ordained of God, cannot mean a base and corrupt government, or such powers as are in opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ: for if you admit, that all the powers that were, and are, in the world, have been ordained by God, then you must also admit, that it was the powers of God which put Jesus Christ, the apostles, and all the holy martyrs to death; which cannot be true, if the Gospel is from God. We must believe that all those powers which are ordained by God, are such as will not punish a righteous man, or one who feels it his duty to obey the Gospel. It is certain that all those powers which do oppose the precepts of the Gospel, are not from God; for God will never oppose himself. [xi]

The telling distinction for Nead’s understanding of civil government comes with this line: “For if you admit, that all the powers that were, and are, in the world, have been ordained by God, then you must also admit, that it was the powers of God which put Jesus Christ, the apostles, and all the holy martyrs to death; which cannot be true, if the Gospel is from God.”[xii]

Nead’s rationale for the church to abstain from the patterns of the world is patience, obedience, and hope—Anabaptist and Pietist postures also evidenced in the writings of Sander Mack. The irony is that while Brethren of the period were not to be involved with civil government, beyond paying the tribute, their witness put them in direct confrontation with the Civil War as rumors of secession grew. With the South’s secession from the Union, Nead’s words became haunting to Brethren. Unfolding before them was the embodiment of Nead’s good and corrupt governments.

Such introspection and reflection was new for the Brethren. As a result, the Brethren brought increasing numbers of questions to Annual Meeting for deliberation.[xiii] With greater assimilation and the tumult of the antebellum South, Brethren faced several serious dilemmas. The first was a dilemma of faithfulness. What were the essentials of apostolic faith? Where was the line between timeless truth and cultural tradition? What changes in faith and practice were permissible? How could innovation and progress be reconciled with primitive Christianity? This dilemma was often expressed in a legalistic perspective regarding the ordinances—a quest for identity amid a sea of Christian denominations. This period, in some sense, became a struggle over Brethren dogma. Dogmatism arose among an Old Order faction that desired to retain the outward symbols of identity—plain dress, separation from the world, and distinct language. Meanwhile, a progressive faction, the “Progressives” for their appreciation of progress, also known as the “fast element,” sought to encourage localized engagement with society with a larger freedom/autonomy from Annual Meeting.[xiv]

A second dilemma arose regarding unity—how much unity of faith and practice was required? Where must it be preserved and where could variation be tolerated? Was unity of principle more important than unity of practice? Such a dilemma became expressed in varied interpretations of the purpose and authority of Annual Meeting.

The third dilemma was separation—how should Brethren remain distinct from other Christians and larger society? Where were the boundaries between true and nominal Christianity? Did Brethren possess a truer understanding of what it meant to follow Christ? This dilemma was often portrayed as a calcification of Brethren practices. Instead, this was a quest for identity as the Brethren sought to differentiate themselves from other religious groups.

These three stressors—faithfulness, unity, separation—caused a crisis of authority on the eve of the 1880s schisms. Annual Meeting wrestled with questions about their authority and were challenged on the scope of their oversight by the progressive wing. Questions before Annual Meeting reveal growing tension points: what means should be used to maintain unity and separation? Could Brethren be compelled or obligated to adopt certain practices? Which ones and how rigidly? What is the agent of enforcement and by what authority does it operate? How do Brethren relate with America?

By the 1860s two opposing viewpoints had developed in the church. One group, the Progressive Brethren, known as the “fast element,” sought to encourage localized engagement with society with a larger freedom/autonomy from Annual Meeting. The “Progressives” felt the brotherhood should make full use of such practices as Sunday Schools, evangelism, higher education, and foreign missions to enable the church to spread its beliefs more widely and to more quickly move into the mainstream of American culture. An opposite position was taken by the Old Order who felt that such innovations would move the church in the direction of worldly Christianity and away from the established faith of the church. During the 1870s a third group, the main body of the church, the Conservatives, sought a mediating position between the two extremes. By the beginning of the 1880s, tensions among these factions had reached a breaking point. This breaking point was exacerbated by seven streams of dissension:

  • Periodicals
  • Education
  • Evangelism
  • Paid ministry
  • Sunday Schools
  • Dress
  • Feetwashing[xv]

For the purposes of this chapter, the streams of periodicals, education, feetwashing, and dress will suffice to capture the dialectical tension arising among nineteenth century Brethren.

Feetwashing—By what mode?

A contentious issue dividing the two groups was the proper form of feetwashing. The Old Order practiced what was called the “double mode” of feetwashing in which one person washed the feet of several while another followed and dried them. This mode of feetwashing was generally practiced by eastern Brethren churches. The Old Order desired uniformity on this practice. The Progressives sought freedom to practice the “single mode”: each person both washes and dries the feet of their neighbor. This mode was practiced by the Far Western Brethren as well as the Germantown congregation. During the latter 1860s and throughout the 1870s this issue was bitterly contested in church periodicals and at Annual Meetings. Differences emerged between Far Western and Eastern Brethren.[xvi]

Periodicals—Who speaks for the Brethren?

In 1851, Henry Kurtz (1796-1874), a leading Brethren elder in northeast Ohio, began the Gospel Visitor as a means of preserving the unity of the scattered church, resolving doctrinal and practical problems, and promoting the values and ideals of the Brethren. In 1865, Henry R. Holsinger (1833-1905) began the Christian Family Companion that advocated progressive ideals and utilized an open forum to encourage a full range of opinions on controversial issues.

In 1873, due to mounting criticism of his approach, Holsinger sold his paper to James Quinter (1816-1888), the editor of the Gospel Visitor. In 1878, Holsinger reentered the publishing business with The Progressive Christian, a strongly progressive paper. In 1870, the Old Order reluctantly entered the field with The Vindicator, a paper devoted to maintaining the old order cause. These periodicals and others kept attention focused on all the controversial issues facing the church and popularized the disputes concerning these issues.  

Education—Is higher education worldly?

James Quinter was a leading voice for the development of Brethren-related schools and colleges, arguing that such schools were needed in order to help train Brethren to meet the stricter standards for the teaching profession. Education, Quinter asserted, would make Brethren moral and religious convictions present in children’s public-school education.

The Old Order were opposed to higher education because it was seen as a worldly pursuit that could lead to an educated and, in time, a professional ministry. Annual Meeting was initially opposed to higher education but reversed its stance in 1858. The first successful Brethren-related schools were Juniata College (1876), Ashland College (1878), and Mount Morris Seminary and Collegiate Institute (1879), which would merge with Manchester College in 1932. [xvii]

Dress—How are we separate from the world?

The Old Order felt that acceptance of traditional dress was an indication of a spirit of humility and modesty, feeling that uniformity of dress should be maintained by Annual Meeting. Progressives insisted that individual conscience should determine how one should apply the principle of nonconformity, feeling that mandatory uniformity destroyed the vital spirit of inner obedience that is at the heart of the Christian life.

By the end of the 1870s, three factions and their central arguments had coalesced. The Old Order wanted strict adherence to their perception of the established order. The Progressives advocated rapid movement into the mainstream of American life.[xviii] The Conservatives, the main body of the church, sought to mediate the two positions while maintaining the unity of the church.

In 1880 and 1881, after their “Miami Valley Petition” was rebuffed by Annual Meeting, the Old Order separated from the larger body.[xix] Simultaneously, Holsinger’s continued agitation for the Progressive cause led to a backlash against him and other Progressives. The 1881 Annual Meeting, held at Ashland College, appointed a committee to visit Holsinger in his home church in Berlin, Pennsylvania. This committee called for his expulsion which was upheld at the 1882 Annual Meeting. About 6000 Progressives joined what became The Brethren Church in 1883.

The Progressives held a convention in Ashland, Ohio on June 29, 1882 that established plans for a new denomination, pending further efforts at reconciliation. When such efforts were not fruitful, the Progressives adopted the “Declaration of Principles,” penned by Stephen Bashor which maintained that in doctrinal matters there should be universal harmony, on questions of government and customs the church should observe congregational polity, and that the Conservatives were the ones who had departed from the historic principles of the church.[xx] Thus the established and affirmed polity of the Brethren Church became “limited congregationalism”:

The apostolic idea of congregational church government relates alone to the incidental affairs of the local congregation, and not to doctrinal practices and tenets which must be general or universal—the same in all congregations, the doctrinal conditions of membership in one congregation shall be the doctrinal conditions in every other.”[xxi]

The macro and micro trends leading up to the 1880s-three-way split of the Old Order, Conservatives, and Progressives were like a flame to dry kindling.[xxii] Several of these trends have been explored already. The era was marked by macro stressors of technological and scientific development. A new movement of the period, revivalism, as mentioned earlier, was marked by a strong emphasis on higher education, progressive theological viewpoints, evangelistic fervor, and a greater social consciousness.[xxiii] These technological and scientific discoveries, coupled with revivalist impulses, applied pressure to how the Brethren understood their Christian engagement with the world. Through these macro trends, the dilemmas of unity, faithfulness and authority became translated to three factions each demanding, respectively, a witness of identity, unity or mission (see chart below).

Brethren Group

Identifying Issue

Old Order

Historic Identity


Ecclesial Unity


Progressive Mission

The battle lines were drawn regarding how to steward the core theological streams of Brethrenism—Anabaptism and Radical Pietism.[xxiv] On one end of the spectrum were those accentuating strong Pietist emphases of Spirit, individuality, and openness in dialectical (and often diametrical) tension with those emphasizing more Anabaptist emphases of outward form, community and order.[xxv]

The three camps each held a different central issue in the face of the larger assimilation dilemma for the Brethren. The Old Order carried the torch for historic identity as a boundary marker of true Brethrenism. The Conservatives (later Church of the Brethren) held that ecclesial unity was essential for maintaining Brethren identity. The Progressives, reacting to a perceived calcification of “Brethrenism,” responded that Brethren faith must adapt to the modern world (see chart below). Within only a few years, the Conservatives, not favoring the Old Order’s restorationist desires nor the Progressives’ adaptation requests, had moved away from the Old Order and excommunicated the Progressives.[xxvi]



Outward Form


Inner Spirit



Personal Conscience




Annual Meeting Balance

Local Congregation

The Progressives, now the Ashland Brethren, emerged as a small remnant focused on Brethren engagement with the modern world eventually rallying around a struggling denominational college, Ashland College in Ashland, Ohio. This group would face further distress with the emerging Fundamentalist-Liberal controversy sweeping through the United States.[xxvii] The missional impulse that had identified this group as “Progressive,” for their appreciation of progress, would not dismiss the three central dilemmas of the nineteenth century—historic identity, ecclesial unity and progressive mission—though these impulses were nuanced for the period (see chart below).

Brethren Group Identifying Issues

Desired Societal Engagement

Fundamentalist (Grace)

Dogmatic Identity, Prophetic Mission

Prophetic Separatism

Brethrenist (Ashland)

Ecclesial Unity, Engaged Mission

Cooperative Separatism

While both camps, Fundamentalist and Brethrenist, pursued missional engagement, the battle lines would be drawn around those seeking unity and mission (Brethrenist) and those arguing for a dogmatically entrenched theology more skeptical of the world—and especially liberal theology (Fundamentalist).[xxviii]

The newly formed Brethren Church experienced schism around the cultural forces of modernity. The shift from historic to modern religious consciousness came at great price.

[i] Donald Durnbaugh, “Vindicator of Primitive Christianity: The Life and Diary of Peter Nead,” Brethren Life and Thought 14, no. 4 (Autumn 1969), 196.

[ii] Dale Stoffer, Background and Development of Brethren Doctrines, 1650-1987 (Philadelphia, PA: The Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc.1989), 114.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Fred W. Benedict, “The Life and Work of Elder Peter Nead,” Brethren Life and Thought 19, no 1 (Winter 1974), 66.

[v] Stoffer, Brethren Doctrines, 119.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Further research needs to be done to see if Nead’s advocacy for Brethren voting was in response to the slavery issue that was developing a North-South divide in the country.

[viii] Benedict, “The Life and Work of Elder Peter Nead,” 70.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Nead, Theological Writings, 4906, Kindle.

[xi] Ibid, 1590, Kindle.

[xii] Ibid. If all governments are ordained by God, Nead argues, then God is complicit, even culpable, in the death of his son and the apostles. Governments that rule as a “terror to good works,” Nead writes, are not ordained by God. See ibid, 1595, Kindle.

[xiii] These yearly gatherings of Brethren from around the country began in the mid-1700s and served the dual role of maintaining fellowship among the scattered Brethren and developing unity on questions of faith and practice that were considered by the assembled Brethren.

[xiv] It is fascinating to see how decisions of Annual Meeting became codified throughout this period to ironically produce a creed for Brethren behavior.

[xv] Stoffer offers detailed analysis of each of these streams of dissension in his chapter entitled, “Issues Contributing to the Schism,” see Stoffer, Brethren Doctrines, 133-144.

[xvi] Of special note on this issue is the dialectical leadership of George Wolfe Jr. who held the far-western and eastern Brethren together in spite of their differences regarding proper mode of footwashing. Wolfe would later assist with the merger of the two groups in 1859, see ibid, 106.

[xvii] For more on the development of Brethren higher education, see S.Z. Sharp. Educational History: Church of the Brethren. Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1923.

[xviii] Progressives were also known as the “fast element” for their desire to engage larger American society.

[xix] An earlier petition was drafted by the Old Order Brethren and presented to Annual Meeting in 1869. That petition expressed concern that the church had strayed, in many localities, from the “ancient order and practices.” The petition, with a later amendment, expressed opposition to Sabbath schools, prayer meetings, social meetings, Bible classes, and protracted meetings—preaching geared toward conversion and baptism. The hope was that Annual Meeting would exercise its authority and quash such developments. When Annual Meeting did not respond authoritatively enough for the Old Order, a later petition, known as the “Miami Valley Petition,” as it was drafted in the Miami Valley of Ohio, was drafted for presentation to the 1880 Annual Meeting. This petition had five key features: 1) the overriding concern was for unity and peace, 2) the “fast element” must be removed, 3) firm action must be taken against various innovations to protect the ancient order of the church, 4) the Old Order desired firm action—not the Conservative ethic of forbearance, and 5) the Old Order were concerned about their authority within the Brotherhood, see Stoffer, Brethren Doctrines, 146. The following response from Annual Meeting precipitated a departure of the Old Order:

RESOLVED,…that while we declare ourselves conservative, in maintaining unchanged what may be considered the principles and peculiarities of our fraternity, we also believe in the propriety and necessity of so adapting our labor and our principles to the religious wants of the world as we render our labor and principles most efficient in promoting the reformation of the world, the edification of the church, and the glory of God. Hence, while we are conservative we are also progressive [italics mine], see Henry R. Holsinger, “Introductory,” The Progressive Christian 1 (January 3, 1879): 2

The Old Order, now the Old German Baptist Brethren, feeling rebuffed by the response of Annual Meeting, broke away in 1881.

[xx] For more on the 1880s schisms, see Stoffer, Brethren Doctrines, 145-156.

[xxi] Ibid, 166.

[xxii] For the purposes of this chapter, “macro” will denote larger societal religious trends. “Micro” will denote those internal trends among the various factions within the Brethren of the period.

[xxiii] Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004), 60, 98.

[xxiv] Stoffer explores many possibilities for the schisms of the1880s. One of the theories entails that the streams of Anabaptism and Radical Pietism had become polarized from one another which helps explain the posture of the Conservatives of the period who were seeking to keep both streams together. Other theories are explored but for the sake of this paper the separation of a Pietist and Anabaptist witness are used to help discern particular pathologies that developed in the respective camps—Old Order (Anabaptist pursuit of separation) to Progressives (Pietist pursuit of individuality and openness). It should be noted that it is an unfair caricature to believe that Pietism was absent from the Old Order or that Anabaptism did not influence the Progressives. See Stoffer, Brethren Doctrines, 145-156.

[xxv] Ibid, 154. It should be noted that just because a branch of the 1880s Brethren emphasized characteristics of either Anabaptism or Radical Pietism does not mean they did not hold emphases of the other theological stream. Ashland Brethren did not become radically congregational nor do those of the Old Order embody full separation from society or a dogma of uniformity. See ibid.

[xxvi] While more could be written on the three groups that came out of the 1880s divisions, this paper, for length and focus, will transition to the development of the Progressives.

[xxvii] The Fundamentalist-Liberal controversy was a late nineteenth and early twentieth century conflict around issues regarding the role of Christianity in society, the authority of Scripture, and the death, Resurrection, and atoning sacrifice of Jesus. For more on these respective movements, see George M. Marsden. Fundamentalism and American Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006 and Gary Dorrien. The Making of American Theology, 3 vols. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

[xxviii] “Brethrenist” denotes the Brethren group that would form the Ashland Brethren after 1939. It is important to note that the 1939 split between the Ashland and Grace Brethren groups cannot be characterized as a Fundamentalist and Liberal split. Thinkers of the Ashland Brethren were not liberals and shared the concerns of Fundamentalists with the beliefs of Protestant Liberalism. Fundamentalists charged the Brethrenists with being “liberal” because, rather than dogmatically rejecting liberal theology, there was an openness to dialogue with it on issues like evolution and higher criticism of the Bible. “Skeptical” is a polite way of describing an often-hostile posture to the world, especially liberal theology.

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