As I considered my assigned topic for this conference—the history of nonconformity in the Brethren in Christ Church—my mind kept returning to the idea of improvisation, a term that brings to mind the performing arts. Think about a jazz concert or improvisational theater, where the musicians or actors perform extemporaneously—or, as some might say, where the performers “make things up as they go along.” Like it or not, that is what all of us do in the course of our lives: we are always making things up as we go along, because history is always going along. It is always moving forward.
Still, as any jazz performer can tell you, improvising is not simply doing something in the moment. Rather, it is drawing on a host of techniques and traditions that the performer has reviewed and practiced many times. The context may be new, and the words or music may be different from the night before. Still, the performer is not simply making it up as she goes along.
The same is true of churches, which is to say, throughout its history, the Brethren in Christ Church has improvised faithfulness by drawing on past practices and assumptions, all the while trying to take into account what it knows about the will of God and the context in which it operates In the end, all conceptions of Christian nonconformity are the result of negotiating the complicated demands of the present. What does it mean for us, in this place and time, to be in the world but not of it?
Anabaptism and the early Brethren in Christ
It is impossible to consider the history of Brethren in Christ nonconformity without recognizing the church’s roots in Anabaptism—the sixteenth-century Reformation tradition that emphasized believers’ baptism and gave birth to various expressions of the Mennonite faith0. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists were nonconformists in the sense that they felt the established church had lost its way. In their early confessional statements, they went out of their way to set themselves apart, not just from the larger society, but from the churches and the churchly people who followed convention and upheld social norms. The 1527 Brotherly Union, commonly called the Schleitheim Confession, is a clear case in point. The sixth of Schleitheim’s seven articles condemns using sword, even in “defense of the good,” something most Christians were willing to use in sixteenth-century Europe. And the seventh article, following Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount, condemns the swearing of oaths.
In some ways, the Anabaptists’ rejection of the oath and the sword was simply a more particular example of a larger principle in the Schleitheim Confession, that of “separation.” Article IV of the confession reads like this:
“We have been united concerning the separation that shall take place from the evil and the wickedness which the devil has planted in the world, simply in this: that we [shall] have no fellowship with them.” 
The confession continues with these words:
“There is nothing else in the world and all creation than good or evil, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who are come out of the world…and none will have part with the other….Everything which has not been united with our God in Christ is nothing but an abomination, which we should shun.”
That is strong separatist language, to be sure. There is no middle ground in that rhetoric, just good and evil, darkness and light. Most contemporary North American Christians do not think of their world in such stark dualisms, though many historians suggest the rhetoric makes sense in view of the way early Anabaptists were persecuted. If we had death sentences hanging over our heads, we might resort to that sort of language as well.
Fast forward a few hundred years to the late eighteenth century and the earliest years of the River Brethren. Most students of Brethren in Christ history believe that the early Brethren were disgruntled Lancaster County Mennonites. While it is true that the early Brethren in Christ were unhappy with some aspects of Lancaster County Mennonitism, their earliest confession, written sometime in the late eighteenth century, suggests they did not wish to discard their Mennonite-informed separatism entirely. In the spirit of Schleitheim, this early Brethren in Christ confession forbids the swearing of oaths, the bearing of the sword, and the holding of civic offices. On the positive side, it instructs church members to solicit community input when making important decisions (“Nobody in important affairs should do anything without brotherly advice, such as marry, or change his dwelling, [or] buy land”). Drawing further from the Anabaptist tradition, the eighteenth-century confession admonishes church members to shun fellow members who had fallen into sin.
Before I move to the nineteenth century, I want to make three observations about the early Brethren in Christ and nonconformity (a word that doesn’t appear in the confession, by the way)
- First, the eighteenth-century confession gives the impression that the early Brethren were living in a world they considered adversarial to their faith. It was not persecution they feared, but rather worldly enticements—enticements frequently embraced by other Christians—that would erode their faith.
- Second, one of their overriding concerns was the false assumption, held by some people apparently, that Christians were equipped to make good decisions on their own. Of course, the entire notion of church discipline is rooted in the conviction that the community of believers is wiser than the individuals who make it up. In other words, the practice of church discipline assumes that individuals need the church’s help when making decisions, and they need the church’s help to live faithful lives.
- Third, there is nothing in the eighteenth-century confession of faith about dress. We do not know how much emphasis the early Brethren placed on distinctive dress, though most historians think that emphasis grew as the nineteenth century ran its course.
Nonconformity and nineteenth-century Brethren in Christ Life
In the middle of the nineteenth century, North American Anabaptists underwent what one historian has called a sorting out process, with some of them choosing a way that has since been called the “old order,” that is, the way of radical social nonconformity.11
The Old Order Amish are the most renowned example of this distinctive way of life. Let me identify just a few social traits that characterize the Old Order Amish even today, the roots of which extend back to the nineteenth century and sometimes much earlier:
- the Amish worship in homes, not church buildings;
- Amish worship language is a mix of German and Pennsylvania Dutch;
- Amish ministers greet one another with a holy kiss;
- the Amish dress in plain-colored, uniform dress; the women wear head coverings;
- the Amish refuse many forms of modern technology, including cars and televisions;
- the Amish shun wayward, unrepentant church members.
It is not inconceivable that the Brethren in Christ could have retained some of these practices, all of which were part of their early nineteenth-century experience. In fact, the church’s most profound disagreement in the nineteenth century, one that led to two permanent splits, pertained to one of these things: the place of Sunday worship. In the 1850s, a Brethren in Christ bishop by the name of Matthias Brinser decided to take the radical step of building a meetinghouse for his Dauphin County congregation. His decision to do this aroused consternation, particularly among some Lancaster County churches. Lancaster County leaders met with Brinser and counseled him to stop construction on his meetinghouse; and when Brinser rejected their counsel, they excommunicated him and all of his supporters, citing Matthew 18:15-18 as support for that action.
Of course, that is not the end of the story. As historian Carlton Wittlinger notes, River Brethren meetinghouses appeared in Woodbury, Pennsylvania, and Canton, Ohio, within the next decade. By the early 1870s—that is, about 15 years after Brinser was excommunicated—Franklin County Brethren in Christ congregations began to build meetinghouses, and they appeared in Lancaster County shortly thereafter. By that time, the 1870s, a few of the more conservative Brethren in Christ congregations—now known as the Old Order River Brethren—had gone their own way. Today, as Wittlinger explains, the plain dress, beards, and house and barn services of the Old Order River Brethren provide glimpses of Brethren in Christ life before “late nineteenth-century innovations” transformed the Brethren in Christ into a more world-conforming denomination.
And what were these late nineteenth-century innovations? They were, for the most part, innovations that other socially assimilating Anabaptist groups embraced as the nineteenth century ran its course: revivalism, missions, both in urban areas and abroad, and Sunday school. 
I recently gave a lecture for the bicentennial of Slate Hill Mennonite Church, which is located near Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, and is part of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. As far as the advent of Sunday school is concerned, Slate Hill’s story is practically the same as the Brethren in Christ story. In 1871, the Lancaster Mennonite Conference gave its okay to local congregations to start Sunday schools, as long as a local church was unanimous in wanting it. Five years later, in 1876, the Brethren in Christ General Conference gave its okay to a Brethren in Christ congregation in Ohio to begin a Sunday school. By the mid-1880s, Sunday schools were relatively common throughout the denomination.
We look back on those days and laugh, or at least we wonder: what could possibly be wrong with Sunday school? Our concern today is that church members have little interest in Sunday school at all, except perhaps for their kids. Back then, however, Sunday school was suspect because it opened the airwaves to competing authorities. Who knows what might be advocated in a Sunday school setting? Moreover, Sunday school was one of those things that “worldly” churches did, those churches that added programs the New Testament church knew nothing about, churches that were happily embracing the assumptions and activities of the larger world.
In some ways, then, the latter half of the nineteenth-century appears to be a time when the Brethren in Christ rejected their nonconformist ways. Or to say it a little differently: it was a time when the Brethren in Christ began to look like other Protestant denominations in North America. Church buildings, Sunday schools, revivalism, missions—these innovations pushed the Brethren in Christ toward the mainstream of North American churches.
But there were exceptions to this, primarily in areas that, in their view, were frivolous aspects of industrial, mass-marketed America. The automobile was, by and large, not seen as frivolous, and the Brethren accepted it quickly. But other technologies and entertainments were embraced much more slowly. Radios, motion pictures, and even photography were considered suspect, as were parades, membership in civic clubs, and the buying of life insurance.
Nothing, however, raised as many concerns as dress and other matters of personal appearance. Again, we do not know just how distinctive the Brethren in Christ looked in the early part of their history. What we do know is this: they looked increasingly peculiar as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth century, a bodily expression of nonconformity that produced two competing urges. On the one hand, some church members raised questions about the necessity of plain dress as it was practiced by the Brethren in Christ. Was it necessary? Or might it actually be counterproductive to the church’s evangelistic efforts?  That impulse, among other things, compelled others to conclude that the church needed more formalized standards for dress.
One of the supporters of more formalized dress codes was O. B. Ulery, who was best known in the denomination as an advocate of entire sanctification. Here we see how the denomination’s perfectionist Holiness theology complemented the church’s commitment to nonconformity. In 1936, one year before the denomination took up the issue of uniform dress—in other words, not just plain dress, but a specified, church-mandated plain dress—Ulery published an article in the Evangelical Visitor titled “Separation from the World (in Dress).” In it, he cited two sins that gave rise to fashionable dress. On the one hand, there was lust, which according to Ulery meant cutting off fabric until “we have the deplorable rise and spread of nudism.” In addition to lust, pride was also a problem, because prideful people array themselves in order to “excite envy of others and attract admiration and flattery.”
Ulery and his allies felt it was too hard for individuals to draw these lines on their own, leading to the adoption of denomination-wide standards for dress. These standards, which understandably differed for men and women, were first published in the denomination’s 1937 Statement of Faith and Doctrine.
- For the Brethren –
- Suits of plain material with the erect collar are considered our uniform.
- The wearing of silver, gold, precious stones, or other forms of ornament and apparel for adornment (such as the tie) is not consistent with the principles of separation and nonconformity as taught in the Word of God.
- For the Sisters
- Dresses of plain material which modestly cover the body and include the cape are considered our uniform.
- The wearing of silver, gold, precious stones or other forms of ornament and apparel for adornment, or artificial efforts to beautify or bedeck the face or hair, are likewise not consistent with the principles of separation and nonconformity as taught in the Word of God.” 
In his history of the Brethren in Christ Church, Carlton Wittlinger argues that there was some ambiguity in these prescriptions. Were they meant as worthy goals for members—akin to daily Bible reading, for instance—or were they hard-and-fast membership standards that were to be enforced at the local church level? In any case, Wittlinger says, some churches embraced them as standards that were to be strictly enforced. For his part, Ulery argued that plain dress was a welcome aid to evangelism. “In all my travels,” he wrote, “I have never once had its religious significance mistaken, but again and again it has opened the way for a spiritual testimony and conversation.”
The Brethren in Christ in the twentieth century
Again, this was 1937. The dress standards can be found in the denomination’s Statement of Faith and Doctrine, which was adopted that year, as Article VIII. For our purposes, however, Article VII may be more pertinent, because Article VII was the one that spelled out the broader principle of nonconformity. Actually, the Article is titled “Separation,” though the noun “nonconformity” appears in it twice. The “Separation” Article is long, nearly 800 words, 29 of which read as follows: “Nonconformity not only implies separation from the world, but also definite separation unto Christ. There is no merit in being different, except it be for the glory of God.”
Let me jump ahead 28 years, to 1965. In 1965, General Conference was held in Upland, California, and my family loaded into our station wagon to make the trip west. A few nights after General Conference concluded, my family camped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where, even in July, nighttime temperatures can drop into the 30s. That night, my mom, who is now 91 years old, did something she had never done in her life: she wore wool slacks that she had purchased in anticipation of a cold night spent in a tent.
As luck would have it—and you can decide whether God had any role in this—she ran into a Brethren in Christ couple on the way to the shower house. And not just any Brethren in Christ couple, but one from a conservative Brethren in Christ congregation that was still committed to the denomination’s 1937 dress standard. My mom recalls that all she could muster was a comment on the weather: “It’s really chilly tonight, isn’t it?”
“There is no merit in being different, except it be for the glory of God.” I doubt that carefully phrased line was in my mom’s mind that evening. She was probably thinking, “There is no merit in being different if it means your legs are chilly.” Or perhaps she was thinking: “If it’s okay with John that I wear slacks, I’m going to do it.” John, of course, was my dad, and he was of the generation of Brethren in Christ leaders who, over the course of two or three decades, sloughed off various nonconformist practices.
As legend would have it, one catalyst for this change was a meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in Indianapolis in April 1950, and more specifically, a late night conversation among a handful of Brethren in Christ church leaders about the failings of their denomination.  Why was their denomination failing to grow like other evangelical churches represented at the NAE meeting? What was holding back the Brethren in Christ and, in some cases, causing its young people to turn away? In a General Conference sermon he delivered in two months later, one of those Brethren in Christ leaders, John N. Hostetter, identified the problem, which he identified as “legalism.” Hostetter borrowed this word from a recently published book entitled The Small Sects in America, which placed the Brethren in Christ in a category titled “legalistic” groups. Hostetter said he didn’t know the author’s basis was for placing the Brethren in Christ in this category, but he did think it was worth considering the fact that an outsider had looked at the Brethren in Christ Church and had come to that conclusion. Moving beyond the book itself, Hostetter urged his listeners to consider this theological point: “it requires less sacrifice to be legal than to be spiritual.” 
That is an interesting point, and rather nicely said, but it is hard to know what Hostetter meant by it. Not only did he fail to define legalism; he did not say what it meant to be spiritual, which allowed him to avoid the dilemma that, from the very beginning of the Brethren in Christ Church, being spiritual meant maintaining certain practices (“scriptural practices,” in Brethren in Christ parlance) that less committed Christians deemed optional.
If nothing else, however, Hostetter set the stage for reevaluating nonconformity, a stage assumed a year later by his brother, C. N. Hostetter, Jr. In his 1951 General Conference sermon, C. N. reiterated some of his brother’s concerns, substituting the word “traditionalism” for John’s use of the word “legalism.” Careful to avoid the sensitive issue of dress, C. N. reminded his listeners that certain traditions (e.g., the style of carriage tops) had “hindered the work of God” by spawning controversies not worth having. Like his brother John, C. N. noted that the denomination’s basic problem was spiritual. The challenge of Brethren in Christ leaders, he said, was to encourage people to live in a way that (quoting Paul in Acts 20) they “count not their lives dear unto themselves.” C. N. concluded his sermon by connecting deep spirituality to a freedom from covetousness, the result of which was generosity: “If we lead [our brothers and sisters] deep enough with God,” he said, “they, like Paul, will not covet silver or gold, but will labor, share, and give for the Master.”
The Hostetter brothers’ rhetoric scratched a sociological itch at the right time. Interacting more fully with other Christian groups, and increasingly leaving the farm for middle class professions, the Brethren in Christ were primed for improvising, that is, primed for thinking about the denomination’s “scriptural practices” in a new way. For the next decade, the word legalism would be invoked frequently to contest or at least mollify many of the church’s time-honored practices—not just plain dress, but the holy kiss, the wearing of wedding rings, the purchase of life insurance, and even participation in the military, which after 1958, was no longer considered a matter of church discipline. For Ulery, these sorts of traditional practices could be justified, at least in part, on the basis of spawning spiritual conversations. For others, however, these practices seemed to stand in the way of church growth, and for that reason they were traditions to be left behind.
Let me fast forward, then, to the present. Here is what the current Brethren in Christ Articles of Faith and Doctrine say about nonconformity:
Those who follow Christ are strangers and pilgrims in the world, called to share the light of Christ. In the renewing of our minds by God’s grace, we resist conformity to our fallen, broken world. Nonconformity calls us to reject the world’s unrestrained materialism, its sensualism, and its self-centeredness. Rather we seek to express the values of God’s kingdom by a lifestyle of modesty and simplicity.
Recall once again 1937, when the church had an 800-word statement on “Separation,” followed by another 600-700 words on “Christian Apparel.” Not only is the current denominational statement much shorter—fewer than 75 words—I suspect that many Brethren in Christ Church members have never even read it. I could be wrong about that, but even if I am, there is not a pressing reason to read it today. The ideas are broad and open to interpretation, and whether we like it or not, individual church members have been granted a lot of latitude for how they put these principles into practice.
I now attend a Mennonite church, but I can fully affirm this statement. I like to think I am rejecting the world’s “unrestrained materialism”—our house is fairly modest by contemporary American standards—but you might disagree if I told you how much money I spend every spring for my boys’ baseball bats, not to mention the cell phones they carry around in their pockets.
To return to the metaphor of improvisation, I sometimes feel that my wife and I are making things up as we go along. But what choice do we have? I remember talking to Ronald J. Sider some years after he wrote Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which encouraged people to live more simply and to give more generously. Although some critics charged Sider with soul-killing legalism, Sider believed his book’s approach to wealth and generosity was absolutely biblical. In any case, Sider admitted to me that having children had made him rethink how much of his paycheck he could actually give away. He, too, was improvising, making it up as he went along. It is what we have to do.
Still, making it up as we go along is not the same as going it alone. Ron and Arbutus Sider may have been stuck with improvising their way through life, but they were transparent with trusted friends about their finances. I may be stuck with improvising faithfulness, but I nonetheless believe that church attendance matters; that having honest, Christian friends matters; that denominational discernment matters; and that denominational memory matters. I try to partake of all those activities, because together they shape my life in ways it would not be shaped if I was just making it up on my own.
This, I like to think, is at least one area where I find myself in line with the nonconformity of the eighteenth-century River Brethren, who were skeptical of Christians who lived their lives as if the counsel of their Christian brothers and sisters was irrelevant. Should I follow my own lights when offered a new job? Should I trust my own judgment on what God wants from me? Should I simply fall back on Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart”—a verse that contemporary American Christians use to justify just about everything under the sun? Or should I listen to those who know God, who know me, and who are willing to be honest with me? As inheritors of the Brethren in Christ tradition, I hope we would agree on how I should answer these questions.
 Throughout this article I typically use the label “Brethren in Christ” to refer to the local and national antecedents of the denomination now known as the Brethren in Christ Church. The use of this label is somewhat anachronistic, however, since the church was known as the “River Brethren” in the decades prior to the Civil War.
 For a brief history of Anabaptism, see J. Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism, 2nd ed. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2005).
 The Schleitheim Confession, trans. and ed. John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA Herald Press, 1977), 14-18. Jesus condemns oath-swearing in Matthew 5:33-37.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 12.
 For a consideration of early Anabaptist martyrdom and dualistic rhetoric, see David Weaver-Zercher, Martyrs Mirror: A Social History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 18, 74-78.
 For instance, Carlton O Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience: The Story of the Brethren in Christ (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978), 18-19.
 For William M. Meikle’s translation of this confession, see Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience, 551-54.
 Ibid., 553.
 Ibid., 553. For an early sixteenth-century Anabaptist rationale for church discipline, see The Schleitheim Confession, 10-11.
 Theron F. Schlabach, Peace, Faith, Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-Century America (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988), 11.
 For a consideration of Old Order Amish religious practices, see Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher, The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010).
 For an account of this controversy, see Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience, 134-138.
 Ibid., 137-38.
 Ibid, 134.
 For this trend in other Anabaptist churches, see James C. Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 106-188.
 John Landis Ruth, The Earth is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 593-594.
 Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience, 207-213.
 For consideration of the automobile and other emerging technologies and entertainments, see Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience, 342-347.
 For an expression of this concern, see Morris Sider’s biography of the Chicago-based missionary, Sarah Hoover Bert, in Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978), 39.
 Ibid., 325-328.
 O. B. Ulery, “Separation from the World (in Dress),” Evangelical Visitor, January 20, 1936, 21.
 Constitution and By-Laws, 1937, Statement of Faith and Doctrine, 23-24.
 Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience, 355.
 Ulery, “Separation from the World,” 21.
 Constitution and By-Laws, 1937, Statement of Faith and Doctrine, 21.
 For an account of this meeting, see Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience, 479-481.
 Elmer T. Clark, The Small Sects in America (New York: Abingdon Press, 1949), 211-212.
 J. N. Hostetter, “General Conference Sermon,” in Minutes of the Eightieth Annual General Conference of Brethren in Christ (Nappanee, IN: E. V. Publishing House, 1950), 12-13.
 C. N. Hostetter, “General Conference Sermon,” in Minutes of the Eighty-First Annual General Conference of Brethren in Christ (Nappanee, IN: E. V. Publishing House, 1951), 12.
 For relaxing disciplinary procedures regarding military service, see “Report of the Peace, Relief, and Service Committee,” in Minutes of the Eighty-Eighth Annual General Conference of Brethren in Christ (Nappanee, IN: E. V. Publishing House, 1958), 42-43.
 The denomination’s current Articles of Faith and Doctrine can be found at http://www.bic-church.org/about/articlesoffaith.asp; these words can be found in the section titled “The Holy Spirit and the Church.”
 Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1977).
Author: David Weaver-Zercher
David Weaver-Zercher is professor of American religious history at Messiah College, and author of Martyrs Mirror: A Social History and several books about the Amish.