Progressivism—A Definition -- By: Dale R. Stoffer

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 15:0 (NA 1982)
Article: Progressivism—A Definition
Author: Dale R. Stoffer

Progressivism—A Definition

Dale R. Stoffer


In any movement the original ideals on which it was based are gradually forgotten or watered down by the passage of time. Slogans and platforms which had a crisp, assertive ring become trite and stale. The centennial year of The Brethren Church provides an occasion to reexamine the convictions which caused six thousand men and women to leave or be expelled from the German Baptist Brethren Church (the present-day Church of the Brethren) and begin a new denomination. The purpose of this article is fourfold: (1) to give a historical overview of the events that led to the formation of The Brethren Church; (2) to look briefly at the areas of contention among the various factions in the German Baptist Brethren Church; (3) to distill the basic principles which gave the Progressive movement its distinctive character; and (4) to offer a definition and evaluation of Progressivism.

Historical Overview

It is necessary to return to the early 1800s to provide a foundation for understanding the Progressive movement. Until the 1830s the Brethren1 had generally been insulated from the influences of American society. Three factors in particular made this insulation possible: the retention of their German language and subculture during the early decades of the 1800s; the tendency of the agriculturally minded Brethren to migrate westward, frequently in groups, in search of better and cheaper land; the strong religious principles of simplicity and separation from the world. By the 1840s, however, English had become the predominant language among the Brethren and their enclaves were increasingly being surrounded by American culture. The Brethren were forced to come to terms with the fast-changing, materialistic society of the new world.

Initially the Brethren sought to “fence out” the influences of American culture through the decisions of Annual Meeting.2 Rulings were rendered on everything from life insurance to flowered wallpaper. During the 1850s, however, men like Henry Kurtz, James Quinter, and John Kline began advocating the use of modern practices—periodical literature, Sunday Schools, higher education, evangelism—to aid the church in its mission.

During the 1860s and ‘70s three distinct positions gradually

evolved in response to the acculturation process. The left wing, known as the Progressives, sought to “keep pace with the times.” Led by Henry Ritz Holsinger, it advocated the use of any practice that would contribute to the mission of the church.

The right wing, known...

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