Denominational identities are elusive things. Bore down deep enough in any given area of belief or practice within a church group and one is certain to find some form of variance over time. Even meticulously preserved rituals take place in changing cultural contexts which lend those rituals new connections and, therefore, new connotations. When asking questions of identity, then, one cannot hope for strict or static definitions. This does not, however, render investigations into religious identity pointless. While static definitions of identity will flounder under serious historical investigation, it remains possible to recognize the identity of a religious group as a gestalt across both geographic and temporal distances alike. Such recognition works in similar fashion to the recognition of persons. I have had the experience, on multiple occasions, of running into friends from elementary school whom I had not seen in years. In these cases, there was a slight pause as we were both struck by a sense that we ought to know the person in front of us, followed by a moment in which actual recognition dawned. Our faces had changed (hence the delay), but they had also remained—in an impossible-to-perfectly-define way—the same. Religious identities are, so this paper assumes, similarly identifiable over time. If this is so, then investigations concerning such identities ought to proceed via thick description and narration rather than by attempting to provide static definitions.
With these considerations in mind, this paper will offer an explanatory account concerning a transformation in the Brethren in Christ’s religious identity during the middle years of the twentieth century. At the dawn of that century, the Brethren in Christ were a small sectarian1 denomination who gathered in simple meeting houses, dressed plainly, worshipped without instrumentation, maintained a long-held stance of nonresistance and non-participation in war, and were constituted by a highly committed membership distinct from the outside world. In just a few decades in the middle of that century, all these long-held distinctives had either been abandoned or placed under significant strain. A person attending a typical Brethren in Christ church in 1935 would hardly have been able to predict how remarkably different a typical church in the denomination would be by 1965. How was such a radical transformation possible? What caused this change and how deep does it go?
This paper will attempt to shed light on these questions by (1) providing a basic account of the denomination’s historic identity up to and including its transformation in the middle years of the twentieth century, (2) drawing upon the theory of Brethren in Christ theologian Luke Keefer Jr. concerning the nature of that transformation, and ultimately, (3) building on and going beyond Keefer’s theory with help from Clifford Geertz’ conception of religious symbols as syntheses of a religious group’s ethos and worldview. Moreover, it must be noted that the account offered in this paper is primarily an anthropological one2 and, as such, is incomplete on its own. Committed Christians, including those of us in the Brethren in Christ, will want to ask some important theological questions alongside the anthropological ones raised here. That theological task, however, intersects with and can be enriched by engagement with the anthropological perspective of this paper. Finally, I must forewarn my readers that the argument which follows is necessarily complex and thus its explanatory power will, if genuine, only reveal itself over the (winding) course of the following account.
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- Identifying a group as “sectarian” has, since the work of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, often carried an implicit negative judgement. Anabaptists—given their traditional refusal to participate in the violence of the state—have long been labeled as “sectarians” or as “separatists.” Such groups, so the typical evaluation goes, care more about their inner purity than about any responsibility to the wider society. No such evaluation attaches to my description of the Brethren in Christ as a “sectarian” group at the beginning of the twentieth century. For an able deconstruction of the negative connotations of “sectarianism” see Philip D. Kenneson, Beyond Sectarianism: Re-Imagining Church and World (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999). I use the term as Kenneson does, to describe an alternative way of imagining the church’s mission within the world. [↩]
- This paper had its genesis in a PhD seminar focused on the use of cultural anthropology in works of theology. [↩]