An Interview with Sider Institute Director Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Devin Manzullo-ThomasToday I’m happy to introduce readers to Devin Manzullo-Thomas, the new director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College. Actually, frequent readers may already recognize Devin’s name, as I’ve mentioned his work from time to time — including his contribution to the Covenant Quarterly issue on Pietism that I recently helped put together.

Devin is a graduate of Messiah who went on to get his master’s in public history from Temple University; you can learn more about his research on the relationship between the Brethren in Christ and the post-WWII neo-evangelical movement at the website Born-Again Brethren. Devin has also worked with the Brethren in Christ Historical Society and its journal, Brethren in Christ History and Life. He blogs at The Search for Piety and Obedience.

Over the course of a few e-mails, I asked Devin to talk about his new position and his views on the relationship between historians and their publics, but also his understanding of the role of Pietism in the development and identity of the Brethren in Christ.

Tell us about the Sider Institute and your role there. What is its mission? What’s your vision for it as director?

The Sider Institute at Messiah College exists to — as our website says — “promote the exploration of Anabaptism, Pietism, and Wesleyanism—the theological traditions that shape the ‘personality’ of the Brethren in Christ, the founding denomination of Messiah College, and that inform the College’s educational mission.” We do this in a few ways. Each year, we sponsor a study conference for pastors and laypeople in the Brethren in Christ Church; from year to year, the conference theme shifts, but in the past we’ve addressed subjects as diverse as the role of tradition in contemporary church life, the role of the Bible and salvation in Christian experience, and the status of the peace position in the Brethren in Christ Church. We also sponsor an annual lectureship on Anabaptism — an event that has brought to our campus scholars like Ronald J. Sider, Nancy Heisey, and John D. Roth. Both of those programs seek to bridge the scholarly-public divide as we interpret Anabaptism, Pietism, and Wesleyanism for specialists, non-specialists, and the general public alike.

We also sponsor an annual scholarship program for undergraduates, providing funding for research projects that focus on either one of the three traditions, or on Brethren in Christ studies.

Morris and Leone Sider
E. Morris Sider, with his wife, Leone – Sider Institute

The Institute got its start in the late 1990s and early 2000s, through the efforts of Dr. E. Morris Sider, the foremost historian of the Brethren in Christ tradition and for many years a professor and archivist at Messiah College. In his scholarship, teaching, and church administration, Dr. Sider played a crucial role in the recovery of Anabaptism, Pietism and Wesleyanism as “usable pasts” for both the Brethren in Christ and for Messiah College. Our programming both preserves and expands his work.

I’m still getting my feet wet as the Institute director, having accepted the mantle in July 2013. Yet I’m already convinced that the Sider Institute stands to do much more — both at Messiah College and beyond. I’m looking forward to exploring new ways to facilitate conversations about the contemporary significance of Anabaptism, Pietism, and Wesleyanism — both within our larger community (which includes the Brethren in Christ) and within our classrooms.

Your graduate training was in public history, and both with the Sider Institute and Brethren in Christ Historical Society you’ve served diverse publics. It seems like there’s a growing trend within the discipline to broaden historians’ horizons and reach beyond the academy (e.g., the 2014 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History is on the theme “Christian Historians and Their Publics“). What’s most valuable about such a rethinking of what historians do? What’s challenging about it?

Harold S. Bender
Harold S. Bender – Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online

In his article “Anabaptist Visions at the Library of Congress,” Bluffton University historian Perry Bush argues that, for Anabaptist historians, the study of the past is a vehicle for “reconstructing [the] future.”[1] In other words, for scholars in the Anabaptist tradition, the historical process has largely been a quest for a usable past (or pasts). This desire has been embodied in the life’s work of countless Anabaptist scholars, from H.S. Bender — the inventor of the “Anabaptist vision” — to E. Morris Sider, a scholar in my own Brethren in Christ tradition who has done more than perhaps any other historian to explain and illustrate the thought and practice of the Brethren in Christ. I find myself following in the footsteps of these historical giants. In my own work — whether for the Brethren in Christ Historical Society or now the Sider Institute — I have felt this compulsion, this desire to make my research into the history of the Brethren in Christ Church (and related communities) into something that can be “useful” for my readers.

Of course, as a trained academic historian, I’m aware of the liabilities of searching for usable pasts.[2] Nevertheless, as a public historian, I have a disciplinary obligation to serve a particular public: after all, shared authority is one of the bedrock principles of good public historical work. In some ways, my research needs to be “usable.” So, I’m always going to be working with diverse publics, seeking to help them understand themselves through a rigorous and complex explication of the past – and that’s a reality that energizes me.

Thus, in some ways, the turning tide of Christian historical inquiry – what you’re referring to, for instance, when you mention the upcoming Conference on Faith and History on historians and their publics, or CFH president Tracey McKenzie’s 2012 call for Christian historians to serve the church – has been for me a validation of my own work, rather than a “rethinking of what historians do,” as you put it. Whether I’m sitting down to write an essay, or camping out for days of research in an archives reading room, or sorting through objects for an exhibit I’m putting together, I know that this work will only succeed insofar as it’s rooted in a community of memory — and as it’s shaped by the needs and concerns of that community. As someone who cares about the future of the Church, and particularly my own church, the Brethren in Christ, I’m privileged to work within that community of memory – and privileged that its concern for its own self-understanding enables me to produce meaningful, intellectually rigorous, and historically complex scholarship.

Based on your studies, and perhaps your own experience of these institutions… how has Pietism shaped the Brethren in Christ Church and Messiah College? How has that influence interacted with those of Anabaptism or Wesleyanism?

Good question. Most scholars agree that those who would found the Brethren in Christ Church were primarily German-speaking, Anabaptist émigrés from Europe who encountered Pietism in its revivalist form, in late eighteenth century Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. These former Anabaptists were attracted to Pietism’s emphasis on a warm-hearted conversion experience — a kind of “new birth” that resulted in a transformed heart and life. The recovery of Pietism within the Brethren in Christ Church — a process that began in the 1930s with the publication of our first denominational history, and that accelerated in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s through the efforts of Dr. Morris Sider and others — helped the Brethren in Christ to understand that our doctrinal emphasis on more evangelical themes (conversion, sanctification, etc.) grew out of our Pietist background.

At Messiah College, the heritage of Pietism reinforces the school’s distinctively evangelical flavor — we draw most of our student population from Evangelical denominations, and our identity statement declares our “embracing evangelical spirit.”

Covered bridge at Messiah College
The historic covered bridge on the campus of Messiah College – Creative Commons (Badagnani)

How else has Pietism been “useable” at Messiah College? How could its insights be better manifest on our campus? In the main, I think it empowers us to live out our mission of educating students “toward maturity of intellect, character and Christian faith.” Early Pietists were — as Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom has shown — concerned with character, and with cultivating virtues (faith, hope, love) that would nurture a particularly ecumenical, fraternal kind of Christian character. In the midst of doctrinal divisiveness within the Lutheran Church, and with the devastation of war well within their historical memory, these early Pietists wanted to make virtuous disciples and cultivate Christian unity. Messiah College would do well to remember their witness as we seek to live out our mission.

In the same vein, our institutional commitment to intellectual and spiritual hospitality — the kind of hospitality that welcomes various traditions and perspectives to the table for conversation, not condemnation — is reflective of similar traits and desires within historic Pietism. As it developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Pietism was a transdenominational — even ecumenical — movement, inspiring different confessional groups with its message of the “new birth.” It brought different — even divergent — voices to the table. It provided a ground on which many people could stand, united and yet diverse. Recovering this element of the Pietist vision within our midst would certainly strengthen Messiah College today.

[1] Perry Bush, “Anabaptist Visions at the Library of Congress (and Other Tales from the Edge of Evangelicalism),” in Minding the Church: Scholarship in the Anabaptist Tradition, ed. David Weaver-Zercher (Telford, PA: Pandora Press, 2002), p. 72.

[2] A helpful word of caution for Anabaptists in particular comes from John Fea, “Intellectual Hospitality as Historical Method: Moving Beyond the Activist Impulse,” in The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism, eds. Jared S. Burkholder and David C. Cramer (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012), pp. 74-100.

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