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“On Bible Lines”: Where the Brethren in Christ Meet the Fundamentalists

For Christian fundamentalists at the turn of the twentieth century, "Destructive Higher Criticism" was a tool used by liberals to lure born-again believers away from true faith.

The Brethren in Christ were (and are) not fundamentalists. This— thankfully—has been the long-held contention of many Brethren in Christ historians. While debates about “the fundamentals of the faith” raged on in schools and churches across the United States in the early years of the twentieth century, the Brethren (who had no seminary-trained pastors, and who avoided much ecumenical interaction in order to preserve a “pure” church unblemished by “worldliness”) remained both geographically and intellectually distinct.

But they were not modernists, either. The Brethren in Christ have long been a conservative fellowship, shaped decisively by theological strands that emphasized personal and corporate piety and obedience to God above all else. Thus, their worldview was not entirely distinct from that of the fundamentalists.

Luke Keefer, Jr., has offered a helpful qualification of this point, especially as it relates to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Because the church has long held a high view of Scripture, he argues, the Brethren in Christ “agreed with the conservative cause . . . [t]o the extent that they understood the ‘battle for the Bible.’”[1]

Evidence of this limited collusion with “the conservative cause” cropped up in the “News and Notes” section of this quarter’s newsletter from the Brethren in Christ Historical Society: a re-printing of a 1912 “announcement brochure” from what was then known as Messiah Bible School and Missionary Training Home (now Messiah College, which is currently celebrating its centennial year). The announcement asserts:

[B]y conducting [our school] on Bible lines we hope to avoid some of the disastrous results following the attendance at schools where ‘Destructive Higher Criticism’ is fostered and the Bible is not held as the main rule of life and action.

J. Gresham Machen left Princeton Seminary to found Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929.

The brochure’s pejorative reference to “Destructive Higher Criticism” would certainly have been echoed by fundamentalists like J. Gresham Machen. Machen reacted against Princeton Theological Seminary’s perceived shift toward liberalism by resigning his academic post and starting his own seminary, Philadelphia’s Westminster Theological, in 1929. In founding Westminster, he sought to foster “an intellectual atmosphere in which the acceptance of the Gospel will seem to be something other than an offense against truth” [2]—a mission, it seems, that Messiah’s earliest promotional literature (and the denomination sponsoring it) would likely have endorsed.


[1] “‘Inerrancy’ and the Brethren in Christ View of Scripture,” in Reflections on a Heritage: Defining the Brethren in Christ, ed. E. Morris Sider, 214 (Grantham, Pa.: Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 1999). Keefer maintains, however, that a variety of circumstances and long-held convictions—not the least of which was the Brethren’s natural aversion from controversy-causing language—precluded their full acceptance of the fundamentalist position.

[2] What is Christianity? and Other Addresses, ed. Ned Stonehouse, 129 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1951).

6 responses to ““On Bible Lines”: Where the Brethren in Christ Meet the Fundamentalists

  1. Do you think the BIC would have developed a more pronounced fundamentalist voice if they had not been isolated from seminaries during the turn of the century?

    Did they purposefully isolate themselves?

    Also I love the illustration. As I read each descending step I was saying to myself: right, yes, well naturally, sure, sure, yes, of course, uhuh, that seems about right, badda-bing and yep!

  2. Chris: Good questions. To the first: Yes, I think so. As Brethren in Christ church historian Luke Keefer (from whom I quote above) asserts, those within the denomination had sympathies for the conservative cause insofar as they understood it. I’ve written elsewhere on the blog about folks who did emphatically side with the fundamentalists in issues of biblical inerrancy (although the denomination itself never affirmed such terms). So I think that at least a segment of the church did and would have to an even greater extent (had they possessed the faculties to comprehend the fundamentalists’ scholarly arguments) advocated for the fundamentalist cause if the church had been more “mainstream.”

    To answer your second question: Yes and no. In the early years of the twentieth century many Brethren in Christ still saw most of Protestantism as part of “the world”; certainly the mainline denominations from which fundamentalists eventually withdrew — the Presbyterians, Baptists, etc. — were considered “worldly” by the plain Brethren in Christ. So they intentionally did not mix with “those people.” But at the same time, the predominant lifestyle pattern of the Brethren in Christ in the early twentieth century — rural, farm-based, local in terms of not moving beyond certain geographic “boundaries” — simply perpetuated an isolation from “the rest of Christendom.” Brethren in Christ ministers didn’t need seminary, because the church believed in calling ministers from their midst; their approach to the Bible was communal (everybody had a role in its interpretation) and pre-critical (didn’t involve much exegesis, etc.). So in this sense, their isolation was not intentional — it was simply a by-product of their communal rhythm.

    I should say, however, that some Brethren in Christ in the early twentieth century DID go to centers of higher education. At least one pastor — considered quite progressive in the more conservative areas of the church — was a graduate of BIOLA (Bible Institute of Los Angeles), a fundamentalist school in California. Another guy left Messiah Bible School to finish his degree at Princeton, where he likely encountered some of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy.

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