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Shaping Life and Work: Paul S. Boyer and the Brethren in Christ Church

Paul S. Boyer

I hope some readers of the search for piety and obedience will recognize the name Paul S. Boyer. A celebrated cultural and intellectual historian of the United States, Boyer is the Merle Curti Professor of History Emeritus and former director of the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, and has written books on topics as diverse as evangelical-fundamentalist prophecy belief, the atomic bomb in American popular memory, and the Salem Witch Trials.

Boyer is also a son of the Brethren in Christ Church. His father, Clarence W. Boyer, was a prominent twentieth-century denominational leader; his paternal grandparents, William and Susie Boyer, founded one of the denomination’s first urban mission stations in industrial Dayton, Ohio. As a historian, he has contributed several articles and an excellent book to the study of the Brethren in Christ.

Recently, I stumbled across a History News Network article in which Boyer reflects on his childhood in the Brethren in Christ Church and how it influenced his future vocation as a historian. Here’s a taste:

My future perspective as a historian was influenced, too, by my very conservative religious upbringing. The Brethren in Christ church, an offshoot of the Mennonite church, took seriously the biblical injunction”Be not conformed to this world.” The members did not vote, generally refused military service, and dressed very plainly-no neckties for the men; head coverings, cape dresses, and dark stockings for the women. They avoided the movies and other worldly amusements, and viewed the secular power of the state with profound skepticism. I’m no longer a part of that subculture (which in any event is very different today), but its influence has shaped my life and work. . . .

After high school I enrolled at Upland College in California, a small denominational school that has since closed. Wendell Harmon, who had written his Ph.D. thesis at UCLA on the Prohibition movement in California, taught U.S. history at Upland. Wendell had a skeptical turn of mind and a dry sense of humor. His classes, including a seminar on American Transcendentalism, jolted me into realizing that studying history could be intellectually engaging, even fun. In June 1955, preparing to leave for two years of voluntary service in Europe with the Mennonite Central Committee, I asked Wendell for reading suggestions. His list included Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition (1948). I devoured the book, writing on the flyleaf words that were new to me (salient, milieu, inchoate, sinecure, ubiquitous). Hofstadter’s cool-eyed revisionist look at America’s political heroes was eye-opening. There is no canonical version of history– all is up for grabs! My copy of this 95-cent Vintage paperback, now falling apart, is still in my library.

To read the entire piece and learn more about Boyer and his work, click here.

3 responses to “Shaping Life and Work: Paul S. Boyer and the Brethren in Christ Church

  1. Another Boyer who contributed so much to education! I wonder if he and Ernest Boyer’s
    families are related. One of the significant contributions of the BIC has been the scholarship and leadership that its members have contributed nationally outside of the church. Arthur Climenhaga, Royce Saltzman, and Owen Aldefer are a few other examples. Many of them were active on both the West and the East coasts, which was good for the Church as a whole. Their influence has helped to make the BIC church, and children raised in the church, more relevant to the community around them. Thanks for sharing their contributions.

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