One hundred and thirty years ago, the Brethren in Christ were exposed to a new communication medium that would influence the Church in many forms. This new medium was called the Evangelical Visitor—the first official denominational periodical published by the Brethren in Christ. In 2004 the Visitor was discontinued and replaced with a new publication called Seek, which was replaced in 2007 by the most recent periodical called In Part.
The genesis of the Evangelical Visitor was in 1874, when the Brethren in Christ General Conference considered creating a denominational publication, but the subject was postponed. After 13 years of debate and discussion, the Brethren agreed to a petition from the Michigan district to publish the Evangelical Visitor for a trial period of four years. After the four years had elapsed, a vote was taken at the General Conference meeting in May 1891 and the motion was approved. The first editor of the Evangelical Visitor, Henry Davidson, wrote: “When the vote was finally taken on the question of continuance, it carried by only a small majority of those present.”
With 13 years of debate, four years for a trial, and a narrow margin of affirmation, there are many questions as to why the Evangelical Visitor faced such significant opposition among the brethren. The opposition to the periodical was unfortunate considering its goals: the spread of evangelical truths and the unity of the church. An effort focused on bringing unity to the church would ultimately bring much discord in relation to the tension of organizational growth.
In the 50th anniversary edition of the Evangelical Visitor, Editor Vernon L. Stump addressed the opposition to the publication:
There were those then, and they are to be found in every age, who could not see the need, nor recognize this as one of God’s avenues of progress, and felt that there were too many evils attendant to the launching of a publication. . . .
While we have little evidence to confirm what evils Stump might have been referring to, there are some indications in the Evangelical Visitor. In 1887, D. Heise wrote:
Our country is flooded with corrupt reading matter, which only tends to poison the minds of those who read it, and leave impressions which are injurious, both for time and eternity. Satan is doing a great work through the medium of the pen and press, and has some of the best talent in the land in his employ.
A contributor to the Evangelical Visitor from Morrill, Kansas wrote an article in 1891 further identifying what this corrupt reading matter was, identifying several different popular genres.
Despite the disapproval that the editors of the Evangelical Visitor originally faced, the periodical played a significant role in shaping the identity of the church. Brethren in Christ historian Carlton O. Wittlinger identified four consequences—or outcomes—that came from the publication:
- Unifying a geographically diverse church;
- Expanding the religious horizons of the community;
- Facilitating change regarding ministry methodology; and
- Illustrating the advantages of education.
At the beginning of my research, I developed a hypothesis that the opposition to the publication may have directly correlated to the outcomes that Wittlinger would later identify as consequences of the Evangelical Visitor. In my research, as one might expect, I have found this subject vastly more complicated than this essay can succinctly cover. However, my desire is to highlight some of the most relevant examples for each of Wittlinger’s outcomes.
Wittlinger identified the first outcome of the Evangelical Visitor as unifying a geographically diverse church. In 1891, at the General Conference meeting which decided the initial fate of the Evangelical Visitor, delegates were representing 24 districts from seven American states and one Canadian province. The year before, a writer known as J. H. E. from Chapman, Kansas, wrote about how some members were considering moving to California rather than centralizing all of their numbers in a few regions. While it might seem like the Kansan brother’s words may have been the modus operandi for the greater church, there was a tension of mindset between the eastern and western parts of the church. The greatest opposition to the Evangelical Visitor came from Eastern Pennsylvania.
While the Michigan brothers and sisters, who were further removed from their church family, were longing for connection, the Eastern Pennsylvania districts were able to keep up with their normal way of life being near the largest conglomeration of the church. Members of the Eastern Pennsylvania congregations were opposed to expanding the church, but it appears that their conservatism would have had some reservation regarding the changes that had come with a growing organization. Wittlinger indicates that “. . .members of older, established churches in the heartland of the brotherhood, who tended to be absorbed in the familiar routines of church life, were often unenthusiastic about missions.” It is possible that while surface-level opposition was to a communication medium, the deeper dilemma was likely a group of people who were struggling with the changes related to a growing church.
Wittlinger believed that the church faced the challenge of regionalization, especially during the 1896 debate over where to move the printing operations of the Evangelical Visitor in response to a financial crisis. Identifying contributors by their geographic location was the standard in the early years of the publication, but Nancy Heisey postulated that the church later became more “geographically sophisticated” in moving away from identifying regions. The church did not lose its geographic differences, but the publication helped bring cohesion to a growing church spread throughout North America and the world. The Evangelical Visitor acted as a substitute for weekly visits with family and friends, providing an opportunity for people to feel closer in proximity, despite their physical distance.
Wittlinger identified the second outcome of the Evangelical Visitor as expanding the religious horizons of the community, which may have been one of the most significant effects of the publication. One century after the founding of the church, Wesleyan theology began impacting the identity of the community. Evangelical Visitor editor Henry Engle introduced second-work holiness theology, even though he opposed emotional extremism and eradicationism. The issue of Christian perfection would become a significant source of debate among church members. The church would see evolving perspectives on this topic until it eventually denied second-work holiness as the only way to understand sanctification.
Resistance to the Evangelical Visitor was likely founded in fear of new theology that might influence the church. A great number of publications were being distributed that taught doctrines oppositional to the church’s understanding of faith. At the General Conference meeting in 1891, the church addressed the issue of religious publications that were providing misleading doctrines such as the mortality of the soul, restitution, soul-sleeping, annihilation, probation after this life. The conference resolved that members of the church should discard these publications, specifically referring to one called “The Prophetic Age,” while also barring ordination to any minister who held these doctrines.
Out of the four consequences of the Evangelical Visitor posed by Wittlinger, its facilitation of change regarding ministry methodology may have been the most feared. In the late nineteenth century, there were many new ideas being introduced to the community. It is difficult to determine whether the Evangelical Visitor was the primarily responsible agent for the changing realities in the church, but it did communicate these ideas about change.
I could explore several innovations that the Evangelical Visitor highlighted, such as changes in hymnals, benevolence ministries, the implementation of Sunday schools, changes regarding dress, and the response to new media forms like radio, motion pictures, and television. However, I want to further analyze the most significant issue regarding methodological change—home missions. This topic correlates to the overarching theme of resistance to change among members of the growing church. The introduction of new methods for home missions would further change life for the church as a whole, not just for the new members. While global missions would have impacted the greater church, the proximity of home missions left the church in a more precarious position.
The church had been attempting mission work since 1870, without the support necessary to keep the momentum of this demanding work.19] In 1886, at the General Conference held in Waterloo, Ontario, the church addressed the topic of the Great Commission. In three very simple words, “They have not,” the Brethren in Christ acknowledged that they had not been carrying out the mission of the church and resolved to change this reality. In the following year, at the 1887 General Conference meeting, the church decided to begin an investigation into starting a mission to Native Americans.
Wittlinger indicates that the lack of success of the mission work was likely a result of regionalization within the church. In response to the missional challenges, the Evangelical Visitor would play a role in providing voices for the opinions of church members who had new ideas to suggest. One of the strongest mission advocates was the Evangelical Visitor’s first editor, Henry Davidson.
The more conservative churches in the community would have been less enthused by the new methods being implemented in the church. As the church experienced change as a result of mission efforts, it expanded the community and included new members. Henry Davidson wrote:
In justice to those who were opposed, let it be said, that their opposition did not arise so much to the paper itself as to the evils liable to follow with it, as was supposed to have resulted to other denominations from like publications in their respective churches. But the good resulting from the circulation of the Visitor in the church, which was made apparent, during the four years of its existence, won many of those formerly opposed and they became steadfast and active friends, and worked in its favor.
The members of the Brethren in Christ who opposed the implementation of a new communication medium feared what they saw in other denominations. While there was fear of inheriting the evils of other denominations, there was also an interest in the successes of other denominations. In 1888, D. Heise wrote about the Brethren in Christ’s lack of success with mission work in comparison to the successes of other denominations. Heise’s perspective on this issue pointed to one reason for the Brethren in Christ’s inability to grow: a lack of developing systems. While the Evangelical Visitor did not inherently solve this issue, it provided a new platform for collaboration, discussion, and reporting on mission work. This integral medium allowed the church to change its methods regarding missions and many other areas of life.
Wittlinger identified the fourth outcome of the Evangelical Visitor as illustrating the advantages of education. In 1881, the General Conference convened in Ringgold, Maryland, and responded to the question: “Will the Brethren allow members to attend boarding or high schools?” The answer of the Council was, “By permission of the Church in District.” While to the unfamiliar reader this language might have seemed like an endorsement of formal education, its nuanced statement indicates that there was likely a difference of opinion on this subject from district to district.
The Evangelical Visitor’s first editor, Henry Davidson, had not received a college education, but became a strong advocate of education through his own pursuits and becoming well-read. His daughter, H. Frances Davidson, would go on to become the first member of the Brethren in Christ to receive a college education, holding both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. The periodical’s third editor, George Detweiler, would also be a strong advocate of higher education, particularly during the development of the Church’s first educational institution.
Detweiler once published in the Evangelical Visitor an irate letter from Bishop John Zook of Des Moines, Iowa regarding the decision to found the Messiah Bible School and Missionary Training Home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, rather than in Iowa. In Zook’s article, which spanned three pages of the Evangelical Visitor, he wrote about the complex relationship between the eastern and western factions of the Church:
.Pennsylvania always strongly opposed the school till of late, and in order to win and hold her confidence she ought to have the school. A similar argument was put up in favor of moving the EVANGELICAL VISITOR from Abilene, Kans., to Harrisburg, Pa.—that to thus change its location would gain the confidence and patronage of Pennslvania [sic]. What was the result? Ask the editor and examine the subscription list and you will know how it failed. It is the interested people who advocate, patronize and support our institutions that we must especially look after if we may hope to prosper as a church.
While Zook’s words were harsh, they presented an interesting idea that further highlights the challenges of change in the growing Brethren in Christ community. Zook was keenly aware of the fact that church was divided in ideology, and recognized that the eastern part of the church was more hesitant to found a missionary school. The Evangelical Visitor provided an avenue for him to express his frustration over the decision to locate the college in Harrisburg. Although his letter caused contention in the community, it did provide for further dialogue on the issue of education, a topic that would continue to be explored through the Evangelical Visitor.
The Evangelical Visitor accomplished its two stated goals until its discontinuation: sharing evangelical truths and helping to bring unity to the church. It did not accomplish these goals without challenges—such is the way innovation is often received. Regarding the publication’s existence, Visitor editorial content assistant Carolyn Kimmel wrote in 2004:
Perhaps the dissension that has swirled around the Visitor is really just an outgrowth of the reality of life together as a fellowship of believers. We all have at our core the same faith in Jesus Christ, but we continue to dialogue about and sometimes disagree over how that looks in our ever-changing modern day life.
Kimmel reminds us that the same types of challenges that the editors of the Evangelical Visitor faced 130 years ago and throughout the publication’s history still face our churches today. Regardless of denomination, dissension over issues such as communication methodology will occur as a result of living life together.
We are living in a digital era where new communication media are being introduced much more rapidly. Churches continue to struggle while navigating the tension between isolation or integrating these technologies into daily life. Wittlinger’s outcomes for the Evangelical Visitor are a reminder for the church to look to new means to accomplish some of these same goals. I believe we can use Wittlinger’s outcomes for the Evangelical Visitor as a framework for understanding the necessity to implement new communication media.
First, the Brethren in Christ are more geographically diverse than they have ever been, with a presence in at least 38 different countries. With this geographic diversity comes a need to be able to tell stories among the community. While each national church has its own communication means, there is an opportunity to use new communication means to share stories across the international Brethren in Christ community. This global platform for sharing stories could look like a Brethren in Christ version of the Mennonite World Review. The Mennonite World Review operates with both print and digital media, independently and self-sufficiently. Our church would benefit from a print and digital news platform to help tell stories from various perspectives and regions of the world.
Second, the church has absorbed and integrated a wide variety of theological identities. In recent history, the Brethren in Christ have been identified as having been influenced by three theological streams: Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan. On its website, the U.S. church has identified evangelicalism as a fourth influence. As the global Brethren in Christ community continues to contextualize the gospel in various cultures, there is a need to share and determine which theological ideals should remain at the core of Brethren in Christ identity. We need to identify which communication forms will help us provide forums for theological discussion. While there are some informal online newsgroups or social media forums for theological discussion, perhaps there could be some more formalized ways to approach this subject matter with a digital approach. For example, a global conference on a particular theological topic could be hosted via a video platform like Google Hangouts or YouTube Live for a larger group. Offering these online methods for theological reflection allows a more diverse group of people to engage in theological discussion in a nearly face-to-face environment without the cost of travel.
Third, the world around us has changed significantly in the last several decades. The United States and Canada have been experiencing a transition away from Christendom. With this comes new opportunities and methods for sharing the gospel. The church needs to highlight these innovative ideas in ways that encourage the community to experiment with new methods. One way this goal could be accomplished would be through audio/video podcasts. If a passionate group of people were to form a strategy for this program, they could highlight a different Brethren in Christ church on every episode, celebrating some of the unique ministry methods being used by each congregation.
Fourth, pragmatic education has the potential to facilitate the spread of the gospel. There is merit to the caution of over-intellectualizing theology to the point of making it inaccessible to lay people, but this does not mean that education is not an important factor in helping churches better accomplish their mission. New forms of communication media may help the Brethren in Christ better implement practical theological training for leaders throughout the world.
The global Brethren in Christ community would benefit from the development of a unified and innovative approach to advanced theological education. I am not certain what this would entail, but could include creating a specialized Brethren in Christ entity within an existing educational institution, specifically for professional undergraduate and graduate studies. If the church were to further explore this kind of vision for collaborative global education, with course delivery being offered primarily through an online vehicle, I believe that we could experience positive results in providing distinctly Brethren in Christ theological education with a global perspective.
Areas for further research
The research process led me to realize that this topic is vastly more complex than can be communicated comprehensively in this single article. In a sense of transparency, I admit that I am left with more questions than answers, the further I venture into this subject. Here are some of the questions I am pondering.
To best understand the effectiveness of the Evangelical Visitor, further research would need to be done, analyzing key moments in the church’s history and comparing these actions to the content of the periodical. Additionally, it would be of merit to hear personal accounts of individuals’ reflections on the outcomes of the Evangelical Visitor. These various avenues of research would need to take into account the eventual retirement of the publication. Beyond the course of the Evangelical Visitor itself, I believe there is benefit in being able to analyze the outcomes and transitions that resulted from the periodical’s successors.
Although print media is not completely irrelevant in today’s society, it is often given less attention that digital media forms. There are a lot of benefits to the use of digital media forms, but there are also challenges. To best understand how we use these media forms, we need to understand the successes of the Evangelical Visitor, an exclusively print publication, and learn how we can draw connections between both platforms. I believe that the Historical Society has a unique opportunity not only to reflect on these topics, but also to provide new opportunities to continue curating the Brethren in Christ story as it unfolds, much like the Evangelical Visitor did for more than a century. I hope that the Historical Society will be able to play a significant role in chronicling the history that is happening now. As I meet with people who have a vested interest in the Historical Society’s work, I am intrigued that I keep hearing similar sentiments and ideas about how we can continue to steward our shared stories.
Looking to our past helps us to lead better in the present and the future. The struggles of the church of yesterday are not unique to one isolated era. In the centennial version of the Evangelical Visitor in 1987, an article was reprinted from a 1951 edition of the Evangelical Visitor. The author, Elbert N. Smith, wrote: “With evangelism as our goal, we can make the lessons of the past serve the present day, and thereby build a better tomorrow.” The challenges and outcomes of the Evangelical Visitor have inspired the church for decades and will continue leading us in the twenty-first century.
 In minutes for General Conferences in the late nineteenth century, the Brethren in Christ seems to use the terms “Conference” and “Council” interchangeably.
 Origin, Confession of Faith, and Church Government (Abilene, KS: The News Book and Job Print, 1901), 10.
 Minutes of the General Conference of the Brethren in Christ. 1887.
 H. Davidson, “The Annual Conference,” Evangelical Visitor, June 1, 1891, 168.
 Evangelical Visitor, August 1, 1887, 1.
 Vernon L. Stump, “When… Why… How…” Evangelical Visitor, August 28–29, 1937, 7.
 D. Heise, “The Church’s Duty,” Evangelical Visitor, October 1, 1887, 18.
 Carlton O. Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience: The Story of the Brethren in Christ (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978): 269.
 There were seven states and one province included: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Ontario, and Pennsylvania. Minutes of the General Conference of the Brethren in Christ. 1891.
 J. H. E., Evangelical Visitor, May 15, 1890, 154.
 Wittlinger, 260.
 Ibid., 164.
 Ibid., 265.
 Nancy Heisey, “That Each Member Will Feel A Part…” Evangelical Visitor, August 1987, 2.
 Wittlinger, 266.
 Ibid., 230.
 Wittlinger, 164.
 Minutes of the General Conference of the Brethren in Christ. 1886.
 Vernon L. Stump, “When… Why… How…” Evangelical Visitor, August 28–29, 1937, 7.
 Wittlinger, 164.
 Ibid, 166.
 Ibid., 70.
 H. Davidson, “The Annual Conference,” Evangelical Visitor, June 1, 1891, 168.
 D. Heise, “Our Mission Work.” Evangelical Visitor, January 1, 1888: 67.
 Minutes of the General Conference of the Brethren in Christ. 1881.
 Fannie Davidson, “Our First Editor.” Evangelical Visitor, August 28–29, 1937.: 17.
 Sider E. Morris, “Davidson, Hannah Frances (1860-1935), ” GAMEO., last modified 1988. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Davidson,_Hannah_Frances_(1860-1935).
 Wittlinger, 292.
 J. R. Zook, “A Voice for Righteousness and Success, Evangelical Visitor, August 15, 1907. 5.
 Carolyn Kimmel, “The Sometimes Unwelcome Visitor,” Evangelical Visitor, November/December, 2004, 9.
 “By the numbers,” In Part. November 26, 2012, http://www.inpart.org/feature/numbers.
 Mennonite World Review, http://mennoworld.org.
 Luke L. Keefer Jr., “The Three Streams in Our Heritage: Separate or Parts of a Whole,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 35, no. 2 (August 2012): 331.
 “History,” Brethren in Christ U.S., https://bicus.org/about/history.
 Elbert N. Smith, “Our Obligation to The Past,” Evangelical Visitor, October 15, 1951, 5.