The Brethren—1785–1860, Reconsidered in 1974 -- By: Robert G. Clouse

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 08:0 (NA 1975)
Article: The Brethren—1785–1860, Reconsidered in 1974
Author: Robert G. Clouse

The Brethren—1785–1860,
Reconsidered in 1974

Robert G. Clouse

The papers given at the Brethren Writers Conference at Ashland Theological Seminary in April, 1974 represents the historiography of most of the branches of the Tunker fraternity. They also reflect some of the continuing concerns of the divisions of the church. It is a mark of ecumenical maturity and a tribute to the kindness of the hosts at Ashland Theological Seminary that such a congenial conference could be held after our church has experienced so many painful splits. One is often tempted to make a case study of the Brethren Church to demonstrate some of the dangers of fragmentation inherent in the Protestant position. Although numerically small compared to the major Protestant sects, the Brethren have experienced repeated schisms. The seamless robe of the church has indeed been repeatedly rent. Throughout this meeting, however, there was a genuine concern to understand a variety of views concerning nineteenth century Brethren history.

Several points linger in the mind of this writer. First is the reconsideration of what has become the traditional view of Brethren development. As Professor Durnbaugh states: “The focus of this now-traditional approach is to divide Brethren history—like ancient Gaul—into three parts. With minor differences in nomenclature and chronology they are: 1) a period of early or colonial history (from 1708 to the Revolutionary War); 2) a period of eclipse or wilderness (from the Revolutionary War to 1850); and 3) a period of recovery or renaissance (from 1850 to the present).”1 He continues to explain that this view of high achievement during the colonial era has been overstated and that the picture of Brethren stagnation during the wilderness period has also been exaggerated. Evidence is given by Durnbaugh and by Dale Brown and Roger Sappington that serves to develop a more favorable outlook on the wilderness period of Brethren history.

Many of the trends that are found in the Brethren Church during the years 1785–1860 are continued by the Old Order Brethren. Their position is explained in the paper given by Marcus Miller at the Conference. Professor Brown suggests that some of these emphases would be unity, legalism, and simplicity in addition to the Brethren distinctives such as the love feast and a peculiar mode of baptism. In short, one comes away from these papers with the impression that the Old Order counter-cultural emphasis is of greater value than the Progressive Brethren attitude which attempted to adjust to the emerging American nation during the nineteenth century.

Such interpretations can lead others less skilled in history to some str...

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