This is the story of Christian. No, not that Christian, but rather three Christians. And these were not just ordinary Christians. Each one rose to become bishop of his respective church. Each came of age in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania during roughly the same period of time, the late eighteenth century. Each of these men came to faith in the Mennonite tradition and each one can trace his lineage to the Swiss Brethren of the Palatinate, in what is modern-day Germany. Impressively, each has left us with records and reflections of his significant spiritual growth and acumen during a defining period of American theological development. All three would be deeply impacted by and respond to the spirit of Pietism. But as the winds and waves of the First Great Awakening washed over the quiet hills of Lancaster County, only one would remain in the fold of the Mennonite Church.
Each of these Christians would come to embrace a position on Pietism that would define not only their individual lives but also the character of their communities and, in time, their denominations. The first position is one of caution and restraint. Christian Burkholder, bishop of Earl and Brecknock townships in the Mennonite Church, represents this position.1As revivalism spread across Lancaster in the late eighteenth century, the Mennonite Church became ever more uncomfortable with Pietism and those churches that sprang from its ideals. During this time and within this context, Burkholder would begin to articulate a growing desire among the Mennonites to reestablish the more conventional distinctions of their tradition—namely, faith, obedience, humility, and brotherly love. Burkholder would lead his congregations in a renewal of these virtues that was so sweeping and profound it would come to define his Church for the next two hundred years.
The next position is one of unrestrained embrace of the values and ideals contained in Pietism. Christian Newcomer, bishop of the United Brethren in Christ, best represents this position.2Although he had grown up in a devout Mennonite family, he nonetheless experienced great anxiety regarding his salvation. As he grew into adulthood he would come to experience several points of heart-felt conversion, ultimately resulting in a full assurance of his salvation. He would later become closely acquainted with Philip Otterbein and Martin Boehm whose message of the new birth he enthusiastically approved. Christian Newcomer would rise within the newly formed United Brethren, taking many of his fellow Mennonites with him through his preaching and evangelistic ministry, while at the same time becoming a vocal critic of what he considered the sterile and cold faith of his Mennonite contemporaries.
The third position is something of a middle way between Burkholder and Newcomer. It may best be described as a synthesis of Anabaptism’s community orientation with Pietism’s emphasis on the new birth. This position is well represented by Christian Lesher, bishop of the River Brethren (later called the Brethren in Christ).3Lesher was one of the first children born into the newly formed River Brethren. Regrettably, little is known of his conversion or when and where he became a member of his parents’ church. We do, however, know that he was consecrated as bishop in 1825 and, therefore knew the founders of the River Brethren, including Jacob Engel who died in 1833.4Additionally, we have access to several of his writings and much of his library, providing us a rare glimpse into the theological construction of and influences on the earliest River Brethren.
The question at the center of this article is “why?” Why did these three men come to such complex and conflicting responses to Pietism from within their Mennonite communities? And in what ways did each one set a course for future generations to follow?
To help resolve these questions, the following article will offer brief analyses of the work of each of these three eminent “Christians” in an effort to see how each responded to the impulses of Pietism from within their traditionally Anabaptist heritage. It will begin with an examination of Christian Burkholder’s Address to Youthand discuss how Burkholder’s nuanced approach to Pietism allowed him to revive and promote the more traditional aspects of his Mennonite heritage. Next, we will examine Christian Newcomer’s autobiographical material and travel logs to identify how latent elements of Pietism within Anabaptist history opened the way for a Pietistic awakening among Mennonite communities.
Finally, we will consider Christian Lesher’s essay “The Church and Church Discipline” to explore how a leader in the River Brethren movement held the streams of Anabaptism and Pietism in tension. Lesher’s response, as we will see, offered a third way between two streams that our other two subjects viewed in conflict. The study will conclude with some reflections on this middle way, contending that it continues to provide an appropriate response to the felt needs of an increasingly diverse and conflicted world today.
But first, it may help to begin with the question of why these three traditionally Anabaptist Christians should have felt conflicted in the first place. Or perhaps more to the point, why did they feel compelled to respond to Pietism as a source of tension within their faith? What was present in the early American Mennonite communities of Lancaster County that resonated with or reacted against Pietism so strongly as to launch the trajectories of three distinct Christian denominations? To answer these questions we must consider the state of the American Mennonite church at the close of the eighteenth century and the literature that defined it.
Mennonites of the colonial period and the spirit of Pietism
The colonial period was a time of intense acclimation for the first Mennonite communities in America. It is difficult for us to imagine the contrast experienced by Anabaptist émigrés who made the journey to the New World from their European homes. By the middle of the eighteenth century, significant numbers were arriving, especially among the Swiss Brethren who tended to settle across Lancaster County. Among them was a nine-year old Christian Burkholder who, in 1755, came to the New World with his five younger siblings. Christian’s grandfather Hans, a Bishop among the Swiss Brethren, captures well the distress of the world they were leaving behind.
In a letter dated January 4, 1744 Hans writes,
… the Great God has visited us with another punishment, a contagious disease and death has come among the horned cattle so that many thousands of them have fallen and many of our brethren have not a single one left so that poverty is very great among the friends and many know not how to help themselves. Besides the lordly oppressions are very great and no remission is to be hoped for.
Regarding these “lordly oppressions,” in a letter dated 1775 he laments,
Conditions are very hard among us here in the Palatinate. Our young men cannot be received as congregation men by the authorities here. To get a letter of protection we pay 50 florins. This is double what others pay for safe conduct. We cannot endure this much longer. We have no civil protection. Besides this the oppression of the local magistrates is already too great, and the taxes provided by the court too heavy. We cannot provide them, let alone the bounty for our young men to escape the army service.
Little wonder, then, that he writes later that year, “I have just learned… that some of our friends from the Upper Palatinate wish in these dangerous times to set out on a journey to Pennsylvania.”5His own son, Christian Sr., was among them.
What they encountered when they arrived was unlike anything they had experienced before. One early Pennsylvania resident reported in a letter to family in Rotterdam:
I have here a shop of many kinds of goods and edibles. . . I have no rent or tax or excise to pay. I have a cow which gives plenty of milk, a horse to ride around; my pigs increase rapidly. . . I have many chickens and geese, and a garden, and shall next year have an orchard. . . .”6
Many who came to America in the eighteenth century shared such experiences and their reports back home only served to fuel emigration.
Perhaps even more astonishing than early American prosperity, though, was Pennsylvania’s “Holy Experiment” with religious liberty. Quite apart from anything the Anabaptists had previously encountered, they were not persecuted or penalized in any way for their faith and traditions. They were able to worship freely and found themselves interacting with members of other Christian “sects” without reprisal or censure.
This was new, particularly for those coming to America from the Palatinate. Never before had they experienced a climate of such sweeping freedom, allowing them to live and worship as they pleased. For the first time in their history, they had to understand themselves not as a community in conflict with the world but simply as one more expression of faith in a free market of religious ideas. The transition was bewildering.
In this climate a crisis began to emerge that was actually a crisis of no crisis. In general, life was pleasant, productive, and peaceful. This was problematic for a tradition that had so defined itself by patient suffering in the face of persecution and distress.7How might these communities pass on the spiritual fervor of their progenitors in a land of relative ease? The answer, for many, was to turn their struggle inward.8To this end they discovered ample support in Pietism.
The confluence of Anabaptism and Pietism in devotional literature
Upon examination, the relationship between Anabaptism and Pietism is striking and predates the American migration from Europe. This is nowhere more apparent than in the devotional literature that came to serve both communities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Even before their journey to the Americas, the Dutch Mennonites began to enjoy greater freedom in regard to their worship and prosperity. Swiss Brethren, while never entirely free from tensions, enjoyed occasional respite from direct persecution. This easing of tensions cast the stories and literature of the previous age in a more distant and less relatable light. As noted historian Robert Friedmann puts it, “records of old were now either read with a new interpretation or were completely neglected.”9Just as significantly, religious life itslf was becoming dramatically reinterpreted.
Whereas the religious tensions of the past required courageous confessions, the religion of the seventeenthand eighteenth centuries became ever more a matter of the heart. Johannes Arndt (regarded as the grandfather of Pietism) reoriented Christianity toward an “undogmatic inwardness.”10His seminal work True Christianitymoved the imitation of Christ from a contest against the worldto an inner, subjective process and so set the agenda of religion for generations to come. By the late seventeenth century, Pietism carried this theme forward into a well-developed and prolific devotional literature tradition. It was really only a matter of time before this tradition impacted the Anabaptists communities.
One of the earliest examples of Anabaptist literature cherished in the New World is the Ausbund. This treasured work of Swiss Brethren origin still holds a place of honor among the American Amish of today and so bears the distinction of being the oldest Christian hymnal in continuous use.11At its core is a collection of Anabaptists songs, composed in the dungeons of Passau, Germany under extreme duress. But even in these early expressions of Anabaptist devotion one hears echoes of Johannes Tauler, Henry Suso, Hans Hutt, and the Theologia Deutsch.12Such currents reveal that at the advent of Anabaptism spiritualist and even mystical works were being resourced and integrated as the community might have need.
This principle is likewise marked in the later prayer books of the Mennonite tradition. An early example of this genre is the Forma eenigher christelijker ghebeden(1664). Written by the Dutch Mennonite Leenaert Clock, its structure deliberately parallels that of the state church and so represents yet another mark of change within the Anabaptist tradition. Among prayers for baptism and the Lord’s Supper we find prayers with distinct Pietistic overtones. The influence of Johannes Arndt is definitely identifiable, especially in the words of Prayer III which reads,
Break, pound, and make contrite our hearts that they may shed gushing tears which Thou, O Father, mightiest behold. . . . We also pray that Thou mightiest bestow upon us Thy great longing and the affection of the heart, and also a sweet, devout nature, so that we in childlike love may call upon Thee, O God, as our Father. . . .13”
Later prayer books continued the trend. Clock’s book became the model for all future Mennonite prayer books and was readily adapted by the Swiss Brethren in Golden Apples, which borrows some of his prayers. Another prayer book compiled by the Swiss Brethren entitled Send-Brieff von einem Liebhaber Gottes worttook 12 of Clock’s prayers and appended three more, taken verbatim from Arndt’sParadiesgärtlein. The most well recognized Mennonite prayer book is also the most complete in its inclusion of the new spirit of Pietism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Published by 1708 at the latest, it was titled Die ernsthafte Christenpflicht,15or in English, A Prayer Book for Earnest Christians.
In his work on Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries, Friedmann describes the Christenpflichtas the “first complete Mennonite prayer book” and “the most widely read devotional book of the Swiss Brethren.”16With this publication the integration of Pietism into Anabaptist spirituality had reached its apex. Exemplifying the new emphasis on personal, heartfelt devotion, it includes morning and evening prayers as well as those to be prayed before meals, a “Prayer of Devout Parents for Their Children,” and a “Prayer of a Sad and Depressed Person” that reads, “if you, O Father-Heart, do not again refresh me, my salvation will fade.”17
What is remarkable for this study is the way these devotional materials found their way into the “New World” of North America. Christenpflich, for example, received its first publication in 1745 at the Ephrata press in Pennsylvania.18Earlier copies that came directly from the Palatinate have been found in Mennonite homes and preserved. In fact, Pietistic devotional material was widely read among the Mennonites and Amish of colonial America. Among authors found in these communities is Johannes Arndt whose influence on Anabaptist piety has been already noted. Additionally, copies of the Pietistic writer Johann Friedrich Starck and an anonymously written but clearly Pietistic publication, Geistliches Lustgärtlein,have also been found. Whereas Anabaptists on the continent integrated Pietism, it seems that those in the “New World” unreservedly embraced it.19
In his survey and analysis of this material, Friedmann observes, “the large collection of [colonial] non-Mennonite books in Goshen College Library shows the amazing interest of the Mennonite homes in devotional literature of this kind.”20He goes on to describe a “thirst” for the types of emotional warmth and spiritual fire that were present in Pietism. Many of these works made their way into the colonies from the Old World, but still more were produced from within in the colonies.21Christian Sauer’s press in Germantown and the Ephrata Community Press are two well-known, prodigious contributors.22
Among them were catechisms and other literature used in the rearing of children in the faith. This potent combination of catechisms for the young and devotions for the advanced inspired an American generation of Mennonite farmers, craftsmen, and homemakers in the ways of Christ. In effect, the Mennonites of Lancaster County had been weaned on Pietism and it remained an important source of spiritual nourishment throughout their lives. The effect this literature had on the community at large can be observed in the lives and writings of all three of our representative “Christians.” To begin our inquiry, a closer look at Christian Burkholder’s catechetical work Address to Youth is in order.
Christian Burkholder: Address to Youth
Of his legacy, Burkholder’s Address to Youthis undoubtedly his most enduring and influential contribution.23The book was a quick success, so much so that its second edition received the full endorsement of “27 ministers and deacons of the Mennonite Church, in the name of the whole church.”24The uniform endorsement of the work may also indicate the degree of the turmoil the book was written to address.
“The chief address of this book,” Burkholder signifies, “is the rising generation. . . . [For] we have fallen on times and circumstances in which our predecessors never were, they could give neither warning against, nor instruction about them.”25It is well worth noting that by 1804 (the date of the second edition) Pietistic revivals had already peeled off a number of Burkholder’s community. The work of Martin Boehm, in particular, had inspired alarming defections toward the newly formed River Brethren (Christian Lesher’s tribe) and the emerging United Brethren (of Christian Newcomer). Adding to the crisis, by the turn of the nineteenth century a new threat had taken shape in the form of Methodism, especially as propagated by the German-speaking Evangelical Association of Jacob Albright.
It is no accident, then, that the Addresscovered topics familiar to both Anabaptist and Pietist traditions. In fact, it was a way of delineating the distinctions. But the move also underscores something else. The way in which Burkholder describes the awakening of the soul to sin, salvation, and the new birth indicates just how deeply Pietism had infiltrated these Mennonite communities. His Addressis an attempt to confront this fact and reorient the next generation of Mennonites toward the “faith of their fathers” even as he employs language bearing the unmistakable accent of the new Pietism.26
He begins with the topic of repentance, a familiar theme in the Mennonite tradition but also a favorite in Pietist circles.27Repentance is developed, in Pietistic fashion, with great subjective turmoil. Its object for Burkholder, as it is within Pietism, is reliance on Christ at the recognition of one’s sinful and broken estate. To that end he writes:
Greatly afflicted and troubled in spirit is the penitent soul, if she somewhat delights in the pleasures of youth, and then retires to solitude. This becomes, as it were, a hell to her conscience, and she is ready to cry out, “Oh what have I done!”28
Such a description would have fit neatly in any Pietistic work on the subject.29The text goes on to describe the “penitent soul” as “heartily sorry” and in need of repentance. For Burkholder, the evidence of true repentance leading to conversion is invariably a “change in heart.”30
All of this would resonate well with Pietism as it was preached at the time. For example, Christian Newcomer notes these very themes in Philip Otterbein’s sermons:
“O how conclusively did he reason? How did he endeavor to persuade his hearers to work out the salvation of their souls? How did he try to convince all of the necessity of vital, experimental religion, and a thorough change of heart?”31
However, Burkholder begins to take these concepts in a new direction (or perhaps an old one) by arguing that true repentance is marked by something more than just a subjective experience. It results in “fruits meet for repentance.” In other words, there are visible and tangible means by which others may determine the extent of one’s true conversion. Chief among these is “love (for) one another.”32
In this, Burkholder submits to his community a criterion for measuring the sincerity of her members’ conversions. Such criteria were necessary for a community that prioritized discipleship and continued to take internal church discipline seriously, both of which reflected the more traditional Anabaptist values Burkholder feared were at stake. He goes on in his Addressto describe the type of love that marks conversion. Such love is manifest “in deed and in truth.” Simply put, it leads one to obedience because, “If you do not live in a state of obedience you are not in a state of love.”33It also leads to harmony with one’s neighbors, a particularly poignant remark to a community being torn apart from within:
The kingdom of Satan in an unpeaceable kingdom, it being ever engaged in quarrels and wars. The kingdom of Christ, on the contrary, is a peaceable kingdom. It consists of nothing but love, peace, and unity. . . .
“Reader, perhaps you have lived for some time in a state of uncharitableness with your neighbor, and it would not cost you your life, as it did your Saviour, to make peace with him. It would only cost a little of your pride and self-righteousness, and can you not give up these?”34
Burkholder believes there is a counterfeit conversion that is just as personal as the real thing. If true conversion is marked by peace, love, and obedience, its shadow is undoubtedly characterized by pride, self-righteousness, and division. The carnal man, he writes, is identified by “a strong love for himself and his own righteousness.”
This picture of the prideful, self-righteous “carnal man” becomes the foil against which Burkholder develops the virtue of humility as an authentic expression of his community’s Mennonite heritage. This ideal, as articulated by Burkholder, would later develop into the “Humility Theology” that defined the Mennonite tradition for the next 100 years.35And herein lies the genius of Burkholder’s Address. It represents a critical shift in emphasis during a particularly expressive time of spiritual awakening. Through this shift Burkholder is able to channel the desire for an inner Christian experience toward an expression more in line with Anabaptist norms.
For Burkholder, humility served as antithesis to perceived shortcomings within the new culture of revival. It is pride, he argues, that tempts us with “self-exaltation, trying to persuade us that we have had much experience, much more than we really have had, that we are far advanced in the divine life, etc.”36
These words, written in their historical context, cannot help but call to mind the testimony meetings that were central to Pietistic spirituality. The “awakened” would often witness to their conversion and could even pinpoint a particular experience in which he or she had received the full assurance of faith. Burkholder, though, indicates that he believes the practice is overblown and ultimately unhelpful. “My experience,” he writes, “can help you nothing, nor can your experience help me anything.” Further, he challenges the idea of a normative experience of conversion and regeneration: “I am not to dictate to God how he is to go to work. . . in you.”37This is over and against those preachers and evangelists who insisted on common experience as evidence of one’s salvation—preachers, for example, like Christian Newcomer.
Christian Newcomer: The Life and Journal of the Rev’d Christian Newcomer
Newcomer’s journals provide us with a first-hand glimpse into a formative period of America’s religious history. His recollections often include descriptions of women and men crying out for salvation, praying fervently for forgiveness, celebrating their experiences of God with loud shouts, and even at times “like at Pentecost” giving off the appearance of being drunk.”38Mennonites were frequently in attendance, although Newcomer’s work exposed him to societies all across Pennsylvania and Maryland. Still, he often makes a particular point of recording interactions with his Mennonite brethren when they occur. For example, he appears eager to describe a particular Mennonite preacher with whose soul he “immediately flowed together in love.”39Such experiences elicit notable joy and appreciation for Newcomer whose affections never strayed far from his Mennonite heritage. The opposite, though, is also true. No one can grieve us like the ones we care for the most. And just as often, Newcomer is quick to report the “narrow hearts”40of his estranged community even as he prayed for their full salvation.
Newcomer was born in Lancaster County in 1749, the second son of eight children. His journal begins with the retelling of a formative experience he had at an early age involving his grandmother. He recalls overhearing his parents’ concern for this woman who, though certainly an upstanding and pious woman of the Mennonite faith, experienced great anxiety over the condition of her soul and fear regarding her final destination after death. This notion shocked and perplexed the young Newcomer who began to wonder how one might know for certain the eternal condition of the soul.
As he grew to adulthood, this preoccupation with personal salvation continued to burden his mind. It eventually led him to inquire of some notable ministers of his Mennonite community how he might find relief. He was encouraged to be baptized, join the church, and receive the sacrament. Newcomer followed their prescription and while it did establish his place within the community, it did little to relieve the anxiety of his soul. Though he continued to seek counsel and direction from his elders he invariably walked away frustrated and disappointed.41
His quest for assurance led him to extended times of prayer and the study of scripture. It was in the pattern of these habits that he received the experience of “full assurance” that had so long evaded him. He writes:
My joy, or rather ecstasy, was so great that I was in some measure as one beside himself… Several weeks, and I am almost ready to say, perhaps the most happy weeks of my life, passed away in this most happy manner, my peace flowing like a river, and the love of God dwelling in my soul.42
Newcomer describes this experience as a turning point in his life. His experience offers some important insights, particularly as they relate to the Mennonite communities in and around Lancaster.
First, Newcomer’s community was generally perceived as quiet, well-meaning, and good natured. To his memory, he recalls his Mennonite neighbors as “good-meaning, friendly sort of people.” “I was esteemed by my neighbors,” he writes, “and most of them wished me well.”43It would be hard to hope for more in this or any other age.
Second, such experience as Newcomer describes regarding his salvation was, at the very least, uncommon in his community at the time. For example, shortly after his experience he seeks out an esteemed minister of the Mennonite Church in order to describe the joy he was experiencing upon his personal “conversion.” The minister, however, was perplexed. Newcomer writes, “He could not understand me; he thought me hasty, [and] said, that I had formed too stout an opinion in this matter, and might easily be in error, in believing such professed experience.”44
Newcomer further describes his Mennonite neighbors as a people “without experimental religion, and but very few if any could be found in our part of the country, with whom I could converse on the subject.”45
But this is not to imply that there were no frames through which his neighbors could understand these experiences. There appears to have been something churning below the surface in the hearts of these “quiet of the land.” Members of the community, Newcomer’s grandmother for example, were vocalizing questions of salvation and assurance. The above-mentioned minister, too, came around while on his deathbed. He called Newcomer to his side and confided, “Since that time [the time of their conversation], conviction has darted through my mind like a flash of lightning… My dear Christian, I do believe that by the power of our Saviour Jesus Christ, Sin can and must be destroyed in my heart, if I shall be saved.”46These anecdotes seem to indicate the existence of a felt need among the Mennonites.
If they stood as only the observations of Newcomer they could be easily dismissed. However, when seeking to understand why so many Mennonites left their faith and communities to join Boehm, Albright, or the River Brethren, these stories may afford some insight. Since there was a general consumption of Pietistic literature, as evidence clearly suggests, these topics would have been on people’s minds. The Pietistic revivals of the First Great Awakening provided context for these needs to be explored and, for some, satisfied. Further, the ideals expressed in the revivals were already present in Mennonite hearts and minds, finding their way in through Pietistic themes in Mennonite devotional literature.
Finally, once a Mennonite was “awakened,” his or her experiences found ample opportunity for expression in the community. In fact, it was their own tradition of worship that provided the venue for these newly inspired “converts” to testify to their conversions. Meetinghouses of this period (several examples still exist) were constructed as simple rectangular buildings that included face-to-face seating on three sides with the fourth reserved for preachers, elders, deacons, and song leaders. Their design implied equality and members of the congregation were often offered opportunities to speak. This practice is confirmed by Newcomer who states, “The Mennonites gave the privilege or liberty to speak,” a liberty that he often claimed.47The meetings, therefore, were easily adapted to include the types of testimonies that were enjoyed by Pietists. The employment of multiple speakers was also easily scaled. Consequently, the pattern of meetings observed in Lancaster (for example, Isaac Long’s barn) was not unprecedented in structure, even if the meetings were unparalleled in size.
Additionally, it should also be noted that Pietistic preachers tended to be more exciting and interesting than their traditional Mennonite contemporaries. A less than flattering report from Newcomer of a Mennonite congregation in Lancaster reads, “I listened attentively to two of their preachers, but their discourses appeared [to me] cold, dead, and formal.”48The year was 1803, at least opening the possibility that he had witnessed the venerable Bishop Christian Burkholder!
Newcomer came to the conclusion, as did a number of his peers, that his conversion had placed him beyond the scope of the Mennonite tradition. Consequently, he decided to move beyond their walls. Finding others who shared his convictions, he “associated with them and joined their society and. . . withdrew [himself] from the Mennonite society, for their want of life and power of religion.”49It is important to note that Mennonites in Central Pennsylvania and Maryland were filling the ranks of the emerging United Brethren in Christ to some degree, many having been organized much earlier by the labors of Martin Boehm.50A little later, Albright’s Evangelical Church would become home to still more. But it should also be noted that there were many who shared Newcomer’s appreciation for “life and power of religion” who did not share his pessimism about the Anabaptist tradition. Some sought a blending of the two streams. Christian Lesher was one of them.
Christian Lesher: Library and Works
Christian Lesher was born in Lancaster County in April 1775 and stands in the tradition of the River Brethren (Brethren in Christ), which likewise organized in Lancaster County between 1775 and 1780. This means that Lesher and the River Brethren have the auspicious distinction of coming into the world together.
The River Brethren’s origin traces back to the same Pietistic awakening that characterized the work of Martin Boehm.51Martin H. Schrag, in his chapter on “The Life and Times of Christian Lesher,” explains that “awakened” groups met together and were often identified by location—thus the “Conestoga Brethren,” the “Pequea Brethren,” and the “River Brethren,” so named because of their proximity to the Susquehanna River.52Most of these societies met as a matter of spiritual pragmatism. They were likeminded individuals seeking others who valued “experiential religion.” As they identified more with their small groups, they identified less with their established churches. Eventually, most of these disparate groups organized within Boehm, Otterbein, and Newcomer’s United Brethren. But the River Brethren were unique in that they resisted this pull. While they certainly met to share their experience of the new birth with like-minded believers, they also met for an additional reason.
“For the River Brethren,” writes Schrag, “the church was not something that gradually evolved for functional purposes and individual edification, as believed by the United Brethren; the church was to be established as a body integral to true Christianity. Both the new heart and the new community were a part of God’s plan for salvation.”53In short, the River Brethren desired an experience of vital piety that both empowered and served the Visible Church. The two values were integral to one another.
But the question remains “how?” How were the early River Brethren able to blend these two streams that tore other communities apart? Unfortunately, the earliest leaders of the movement left few written records to inform our understanding.54Christian Lesher is an important exception. His personal library provides us with a rare glimpse into the intellectual construction of one of the River Brethren’s first leaders. Additionally, his writings demonstrate the way in which at least one leader in the River Brethren was synthesizing the traditions of Pietism and Anabaptism. A quick review of his library will offer a backdrop to Lesher’s thought.
As one would expect from the synthesis of Anabaptism and Pietism, Lesher’s library55included copies of such traditional Anabaptist texts as Martyr’s Mirror, the Ausbund, and the Froschauer Bible.56It also, however, included several Pietistic and radical Pietistic works such as Arndt’s True Christianity, Spener’s Pia Desideria, Gottfried Arnold’s account of Church history, and even a copy of the Berleburg Biblefor which he paid a significant sum.57Lesher, as a member of the River Brethren, was inspired by both Anabaptist and Pietist streams. He and his communities simply brought the “invisible church” into the open, organizing it as an expression of God’s salvific community in the world.
This idea is more clearly explicated by Lesher in his essay, “The Church and Church Discipline.” There, Lesher covers the topic of keeping order within a Christian community confronted by sin. Its tone is pastoral and he discusses how a Christian may overcome sin in her personal life, how to confront sin in a fellow Christian’s life, and at what times the community must invoke the expulsion of a member for the sake of vital witness.
Lesher begins the essay by announcing its subject. Immediately we witness the presence of the River Brethren’s defining streams.
How the family of God should be conducted agreeably to the order of the visible Church of Jesus Christ, by such children as are born of God, and baptized by the same spirit into one body, and in whose hearts the love of God has been shed abroad by the Holy Ghost.58
As we can see, the visible church is foremost in the mind of Lesher. This church, though, is comprised of those who have been baptized, not with water but by the “spirit,” as evidenced by hearts filled with God’s love through the Holy Ghost.
As the essay proceeds, we meet references to both Lesher’s Anabaptist and Pietistic heritages. For example, regarding Anabaptism he elevates feet washing as a sign of love, union, and mutual submission. He provides a strong warning against wealth and the pursuit of riches, a clear mandate to assert church discipline to preserve community witness, and draws a clear distinction between the church and society at large.59
In reference to Lesher’s Pietistic tradition we find equal evidence. He uses vivid imagery to describe the individual’s union with God,60he encourages his communities to draw upon the power of the Spirit to overcome the power of sin, and he frequently cites Pietistic and Radical Pietistic literature, indicating a thorough familiarity with it as source material.61
Though both streams are well represented, there is no irony or even a sense of tension in their inclusion. Rather, Lesher highlights their compatibility. For example, he cites commentary from the Berleburg Bible to support the Anabaptist ideal of church discipline.62And he identifies corporate unity as flowing from the individual’s relationship with God.63
This last idea best exemplifies how the River Brethren synthesized the two streams of tradition. For Lesher and his community, one’s experience of God gives rise to one’s love for the visible church. This is in contrast to the Mennonite tradition of Burkholder in which one’s experience of God is secondary to active love, unity, and obedience. Lesher, however, asserts that it is primary, even foundational to one’s place within the body of Christ. Transformed lives comprise a transformed community. The transformed community bears witness to transformed lives. To repeat Schrag, “both the new heart and the new community were a part of God’s plan for salvation.”64
Three Christians, three responses to Pietism
The various responses outlined above demonstrate particular tensions arising from the collision of Anabaptist and Pietistic sentiments. Real and fundamental differences existed and each of our three subjects sought to resolve them in different ways.
One such tension is seen in the way each tradition evaluated outsiders. Pietism, because of its emphasis on a central set of core values, was able to evaluate outsiders by their receptiveness to those values, regardless of their theological tradition. It downplayed the distinctions between Christian “sects” and embraced anyone who shared the values of the new birth and renewed life. Such orientation fueled the imperative for missions and evangelism, even in regions with long established churches. We witness this impulse in Newcomer’s travel logs. While it is clear that Newcomer was happy to share his message with anyone who would listen, it is also clear that the majority of Newcomer’s audiences came from predominantly Christian communities.
The Mennonites, standing in the tradition of their Anabaptist predecessors, placed significant value on the distinction between those inside and outside the community. Historically, this distinction may be observed in the way some communities developed the term “half-Anabaptists.”65 Such language created an important category for early Anabaptists who desired to identify friendly neighbors while continuing to highlight their otherness. Internal membership, meanwhile, was evaluated by strict conformity to the norms of the community. Their witness to the world was to be found in their diligent obedience to these shared norms. This is why Burkholder placed such a premium on the ideals of humility, obedience, and harmony within his Mennonite communities; these values served the internal cohesion that he believed necessary for the community to maintain its witness in the world.
This also highlights the radically different views each tradition held regarding the individual and her place within the community. For the Pietists, Christian community was the gathering of individuals who had been converted and experienced the renewing work of Christ. This emphasis led some radical Pietists to minimize or even reject the need for Christian assembly and Christian sacraments altogether.66Instead, one’s experience of inner renewal through the Holy Spirit became the central focus of a common life and the source of one’s witness to the world.67Sermons focused on the individual’s experience of grace, whether it came in the form of conversion, repentance, or renewal. For the Pietists in general and the radical Pietists in particular, the true church was often an invisible church.
Nothing could have been more contradictory to Mennonite ecclesiology. The Anabaptists had always strived to be the visible church, a conviction they purchased with their blood. While they affirmed doctrines such as the new birth and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, these were not the emphases of the church. Instead, the testimony of one’s devotion was her quiet obedience to the law of Christ, namely, her love for others. One’s spirituality was determined by one’s involvement in the community, not in the boastful recitations of personal experience.
These differences explain why Christian Newcomer so valued his and other’s experiences and the testimonies they produced while Christian Burkholder rejected experience as having any value at all for the faith of others.68It also explains Newcomer’s frustration with attitudes that he perceived to be “cold, dead and formal,” whereas Burkholder viewed these same attitudes as producing a harmony emanating from a state of “love, peace, and unity.”69
Ultimately, such differences had more to do with emphases than doctrine. Mennonites possessed well-formulated doctrines of the new birth, and the United Brethren in Christ would organize an ecclesiology that valued peace, unity, and discipleship. The priority emphases caused clashes in these communities and led to an impasse. Burkholder could not find a way forward with the Pietism of his day and thus, in a clever maneuver, re-appropriated his community’s Pietistic impulses toward the pursuit of humility. Likewise, Newcomer, in final frustration, “withdrew [himself] from the Mennonite society, for their want of life and power of religion.”70
The innovative response of the early River Brethren, then, is unique for its rejection of this dichotomy. Whereas Newcomer’s group apparently saw no place for inward devotion in the Mennonite faith and Burkholder’s group apparently couldn’t find a way forward with Pietism, Lesher’s group identified a middle way. In this way they sought to balance the Mennonite ideals of obedience with Pietistic ideals of inner renewal.
In conclusion, there is a great deal that we may glean from these intuitions today. We too find the church on the threshold of a new era. Where the Mennonites of earlier days were confronted by a crisis of no crisis, ours is a crisis of no concern. We find a growing apathy in our culture regarding faith and religion in general. Yet faith and religion still have much to say concerning the hopes, needs, and desires of our current generation.
In an age in which people and organizations “rebrand” or “reinvent” themselves in response to the whims of a capricious culture, a community exhibiting continuity stands out in stark relief. In our age of transience, the longing for community is coupled with a desire for identity, belonging, and acceptance. The virtues of a visible community, united in common bond, offer hope to a weary people, adrift and alone in the world.
Likewise, the hurt, guilt, and shame that accompany capricious relationships and uncertain morals leave many longing for renewal. The doctrine of the new birth has much to offer a wounded and/or remorseful generation. The heritage of the Brethren in Christ offers both “the new heart and the new community.” These remain central to our understanding of God’s salvation in the world.
The lives of Christian Burkholder, Christian Newcomer, and Christian Lesher demonstrate distinct responses to the crises and tensions of their day. Each one labored on behalf of his community and, perhaps less directly, on behalf of his world. For the Mennonites, the problem of Pietism marked the renewal of a prestigious heritage. For the United Brethren in Christ and the River Brethren, the emergence of Pietism was the birth of something new entirely. In considering their responses, we may discover fresh insight into our own world as we confront the theological and social challenges of our day. For as long as Christian communities seek to engage their world with the Gospel, the stories of our “Christians” will have the ability to inspire new movements of faith, obedience, and renewal.
Christian Newcomer, The Life and Journal of the Rev’d Christian Newcomer Late Bishop of the United Brethren in Christ, Written by Himself, Containing His Travels and Labours in the Gospel from 1795-1830, A Period of Thirty-Five Year, trans. John Hildt (Hagerstown: F.G.W. Kapp, 1834).
An example of a similar and earlier transition may be seen in Leonard Gross, ed. Golden Apples in Silver Bowls: The Rediscovery of Redeeming Love, trans. Elizabeth Bender and Leonard Gross (Lancaster, PA: Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 1999), 34. In the preface, the writer, speaking on behalf of at least some of his community, lamented the loss of virtue forged in the fires of persecution.
Galen A. Peters, ed. The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund: Some Beautiful Christian Songs Composed and Sung in the Prison at Passau, Published in 1564, trans. Robert A Riall. (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2003), 13.
Christian Burkholder, Address to Youth on True Repentance and Saving Faith in Jesus Christ, Pure Love to God and Our Neighbor, Obedience to the Word of God, and A Full Surrender of the Soul into His Hands in Questions and Answers, translated to English, [np.: np.], 1857, accessed February 23, 2018, http://thecommonlife.com.au/rainham/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Christian-Burkholder-2-Addresses-to-Youth.pdf
The structure of his address (repentance, faith, and love expressing itself in obedience) is strikingly similar to Johann Arndt’s True Christianityin which Arndt notes, “Now this book which I have written, specially treats of such sincere and earnest repentance of the heart, of the exhibition of faith in the life and conduct, and of the spirit of love which should animate all the acts of the Christian.”
Note, for example, the cry for purity found in “Prayer for Purity of Heart,” by Johann Arndt: “Strengthen me, that I may not allow the impure spirit to rule within me or to take over me and own me, like an impure house. Let impurity not defile my soul, poison my thoughts, or pollute my body.” This prayer, interestingly, is list as no. 22 in Leonard Gross’s Die ernsthafte Christenpflicht,a prayer book compiled for Anabaptist devotion.
Newcomer, Christian, The Life and Journal of the Rev’d Christian Newcomer Late Bishop of the United Brethren in Christ, Written by Himself, Containing His Travels and Labours in the Gospel from 1795-1830, A Period of Thirty-Five Year, trans. John Hildt (Hagerstown, MD: F.G.W. Kapp. 1834), 29.
Theron P. Schlabach identified a shift from “suffering theology” of the earlier Anabaptist to “humility theology” of their nineteenth century descendants in his 1983 article, “Mennonites and Pietism in America, 1740-1880: Some Thoughts on the Friedman Thesis,” Mennonite Quarterly Review,57, no. 3 (July 1983): 222-240. This position has been nuanced and even challenged by Richard K. MacMaster and later Andrew C. Martin in “Mennonite Spirituality: A Re-Assessment of ‘Humility Theology’ in North America in the Nineteenth Century,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 85, no 2 (April, 2011): 293-323. Both MacMaster and Martin identify themes of humility existing earlier than the period Schlabach focuses upon. Regardless, Burkholder’s project was, as the very least, to recover humility as a distinguishing mark of the Mennonite tradition, a value he would have considered incompatible with the bold boasts and proclamations that accompanied eighteenth and nineteenth century revivalism.
An analysis of Pietistic and Anabaptist influences on the first River Brethren Confession of Faith was conducted by Martin H. Schrag and may be found in Martin H. Schrag, “The Impact of Pietism Upon Early American Mennonites” in Ernest Stoeffler ed. Continental Pietism and Early American Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), 74-122.
The production of the Froschauer Bible was overseen by Ulrich Zwingli and became a favorite among the Swiss Brethren. Lesher’s copy came with him to Franklin County from Lancaster but was printed in Zurich in 1538.
The Berleburg Bibel is an eight-volume translation of the Bible from original languages that included copious commentary with Radical Pietistic leanings. For his copy, Lesher paid $30 in 1819. This translates to roughly $540 US in today’s currency. Schrag, Christian Lesher, 89.