A Study of Brethren Historiography -- By: Donald F. Durnbaugh

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 08:0 (NA 1975)
Article: A Study of Brethren Historiography
Author: Donald F. Durnbaugh


A Study of Brethren Historiography

Donald F. Durnbaugh

Very little attention has been given to Brethren historiography—the study of the ways in which the history has been written of the lineal and spiritual descendants of the first eight at Schwarzenau/Eder in 1708. This is not too surprising when we recall that it was only two generations ago that the first surge of Brethren history writing began. In the three years bracketing the turn of the century, M. G. Falkenstein, and H. R. Holsinger brought out their pioneer histories of the Brethren (evidently with some feeling of competition. In 1906 John Gillin produced the first sociological investigation of the Brethren. Two years later John S. Flory released his study of early Brethren literary activity. The same year saw issuance of the handsomely-manufactured volume of the bicentennial addresses of the Annual Conference of the newly-named Church of the Brethren. The latter volume serves as a capstone of the foundational elements of Brethren historiography. Later writers such as Otho Winger, S. Z. Sharp, J. E. Miller, J. M. Kimmel and others built on their findings.1

There had of course been earlier articles and biographies published in the periodical literature and almanacs. The two men in the latter half of the nineteenth century best qualified to write the history of the Brethren found themselves incapacitated to finish the task, despite their evident immersion in the topic. Henry Kurtz found the pressure of editorial work and the absence of original documents inhibiting; Abraham Harley Cassel was too sensitive to his lack of formal educational background and literary training to undertake the task; moreover in later life his capacities failed. This led Brumbaugh to write the poignant lines: “Alas! Life-long devotion has dulled his ear and dimmed his eye. He cannot do the work.”2

A full study of Brethren historiography would be both fascinating and instructive. That exceeds the possibilities of this paper. Rather, the intent here is to analyze the received interpretative scheme of Brethren history which has long dominated

the narrative scene. Its groundwork was laid by the writers mentioned earlier. The interpretation has been further expanded and polished by writers of more recent times. Such excellent works as Auburn Boyers’ study of Brethren education and Albert T. Ronk’s history reflect this basic understanding, with certain modification. A few exceptions to the regnant interpretation have been published—such as J. M. Kimmel’s Chronicles of the (Old German Baptist) Brethren with simple division at the time of the schism—but...

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