The Developing Thought and Theology of The Brethren—1785–1860 -- By: Dale W. Brown

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 08:0 (NA 1975)
Article: The Developing Thought and Theology of The Brethren—1785–1860
Author: Dale W. Brown

The Developing Thought and Theology of
The Brethren—1785–1860

Dale W. Brown

These years, the so-called wilderness period, have been frequently characterized in Brethren historiography as a time of sterile anti-intellectualism and isolation resulting from the withdrawal of the Brethren from the cultural milieu and literacy activity of the colonial period. Current reassessments of these decades are revealing that the evangelistic fervor and great missionary expansion of the pioneer Brethren was accompanied by a surprising amount of theological writing. It is true that some of the chief apologists such as Peter Nead, Henry Kurtz, and William Thurman were converts from other denominational traditions. Their contributions, however, can be attributed to the dynamic expansion of the movement as logically as to any intellectual famine in the fraternity. We need more research in interpreting the documents of the period and in analyzing the theology of the hymnody and minutes before becoming too definite in any final assessment. After reading Peter Bowman, John Kline, Peter Nead, James Quinter, William Thurman, and Henry Kurtz, I offer some tentative judgments. The following topics have emerged, arbitrarily in line with my interests, from my reading in the literature of this period.


One of the recurring motifs was the theme of unity. This emphasis on unity was expressed in the minutes of the Big Meeting (one of their favorite names for the annual meeting) in 1815. “For the Lord Jesus and the apostles teach us that we should be one, of one mind, speak the same thing, and that there should be no division among us: and to this end we also labor to be obedient to the gospel of Jesus by the grace of God.”1 Henry Kurtz in his introduction to The Brethren’s Encyclopedia defines the purpose of the annual gathering as follows: “In fact, we may say, every Yearly Meeting was a solemn act of renewing our covenant, into which each one of us had entered… .”2

The desire for unity manifested itself in a remarkable maintenance of unity during the years which experienced a language change and widespread geographical expansion across an expanding continent. Floyd Mallott always felt that it was a miracle that the transformation from a German speaking to an English speaking people occurred without producing a major schism. It would be intriguing to know at which Yearly Meeting English became the primary vehicle of communication. A clue as to the time of transition can be garnered from a careful examination of the Yearly Meeting minutes of 1841 and 1845. In 1841 the query asked whether it was “proper for tea...

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