Recent Conversations on Evangelicalism and Pietist-Anabaptist Identity

Bridgewater College logo

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Bridgewater College, which is located in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, just outside Harrisonburg, Virginia. The occasion, spearheaded by Steve Longenecker, was a symposium on the history of the (Schwarzenau) Brethren tradition’s relationship with evangelicalism.

The intersection of evangelicalism with Pietist and Anabaptist groups is a topic that has interested me for years. Back in 2012, David Cramer and I co-edited The Activist Impulse, a volume of essays on this subject. The title comes from the notion that evangelicals and Anabaptist groups have always shared a desire to live out their faith (activism) in real and meaningful ways, even as they have pursued this in ways that are sometimes contradictory. The object of the book was to provide space for contributors to write about and reflect on historical and theological intersections with an underlying theme of revisiting the traditional notion, shared by many Anabaptist writers, that evangelicalism is a threat to Anabaptist distinctiveness. Although both David and I would be somewhere within the neo-Anabaptist crowd and are sympathetic to evangelical-Anabaptist engagement, our goal was not to prove the above notion wrong, but rather to problematize it and offer essays that explored the tensions that are inherent in the topic.

The book was generally well-received, but some online reviews, such as those by Ted Grimsrud and two by Devin Manzullo-Thomas (found here and here), did provide some healthy pushback. (Other print reviews can be found in the Mennonite Quarterly Review and I am told that reviews in Fides et Historia and Brethren Life and Thought are still in the works.) I will resist the temptation to address the criticisms they raise and point instead to one of the central themes of our discussion in Bridgewater: the difficulty of definitions.

Some of the basic tensions that have plagued this conversation revolve around the meaning of evangelicalism. I tend to operate with a broad understanding oBurkholder & Cramer, eds., The Activist Impulsef evangelicalism defined historically by writers such as David Bebbington and W. R. Ward, who have focused on transatlantic streams of evangelicalism in the 18th century. A “big tent” definition would also include the kind of left-leaning evangelicalism described in David Swartz’s Moral Minority and more progressive “emerging” and “neo-Anabaptist” evangelicalism of recent decades. For some, however, especially those prone to accentuate the corrosive effects of evangelicalism on Anabaptist distinctiveness, evangelicalism is best represented by God-and-country Americans in the Religious Right, fundamentalism, and a kind of generic and ahistorical conservative piety. What one means by evangelicalism will certainly affect the way one understands the evangelical-Anabaptist relationship and our little band of Brethren historians and theologians at Bridgewater spent a great deal of time wrestling with what it means to be “evangelical.” Perhaps because Brethrenism is rooted more firmly in historic Pietism than Anabaptism, I sensed this group of Brethren representatives was less apt to regard evangelicalism as a corrosive infiltrator and more as something that has almost always existed, though not always comfortably, within Brethren circles.

Bowman, Portrait of a People

Equally challenging was the question of Brethren identity. These sorts of gatherings often include a spectrum of representatives from Old Order to “liberal” Brethren and this conference was no exception. Historically, the (Schwarzenau) Brethren tree has included revivalists and anti-revivalists, radical sectarians and progressive accommodationists. It has included theological liberals and those who gravitated toward fundamentalism. Although this Brethren pluralism has often resulted in schisms and the formation of new groups, there still remains a willingness to sit down at the same table around common historic roots. This creates an interesting dynamic, however, and means that when Brethren folks come together, we do not all agree on what it means to be Brethren! A sense of identity can revolve around anything from preserving plain dress and strict codes of discipline to promoting post-Christendom notions of peace and social justice. These differences will also affect opinions about evangelicalism and how well the Brethren tradition and American evangelicalism can get along or even share part of the same identity. The work of sociologist Carl Bowman, who kicked off the symposium, provided the group with a helpful quantitative framework to begin our discussion, but I doubt any of else felt that we were able to move beyond the impasse of definitional difficulties, even if we all thoroughly enjoyed participating in what will no doubt be an ongoing conversation.

7 thoughts on “Recent Conversations on Evangelicalism and Pietist-Anabaptist Identity

  1. So much confusion and controversy could be avoided if we all worked with the distinction between “evangelical” as an ethos and “evangelical” as a movement. Many people talking about “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” are talking past each other because some mean an ethos and some mean a sociological phenomenon. The current sociological phenomenon, especially as defined by the media, is politically and socially conservative, but there’s nothing about the evangelical ethos that makes that necessary. I am an evangelical in the ethos sense but am politically-economically progressive. I find no conflict in that. Others do because when they hear me call myself an “evangelical” they think I’m identifying with a movement. Of course, I do identify with the evangelical movement I grew up in in the 1960s. Then there was a robust political left wing of evangelicalism within the movement (e.g., Mark Hatfield and John Anderson). But I don’t identify with the current “evangelical movement” which is only a fragment of the broader evangelicalism I grew up in in the 1960s. I still strongly identify with the evangelical ethos represented by, for example, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards (for all their theological differences). And I find that traditional, classical Anabaptists are among the most evangelical people ethos-wise.

  2. Jared: Great post! Sounds like a fantastic conference at Bridgewater, and a conversation that more Anabaptist-Pietist groups (like my own Brethren in Christ!) would do well to have.

    Dr. Olson’s point above is a good one, and I’ve always appreciated his distinction between evangelical “ethos” and an evangelical “movement.” Of course, even that distinction requires some disambiguation, since evangelicalism as a “movement” looks different depending upon one’s historical viewpoint. Hence, perhaps what we need is a tripartite distinction: evangelicalism as an ethos, a sociological phenomenon (what I think Dr. Olson means when he refers to a “movement”), and a historical reality — with all the change- and continuity-over-time that comes with it.

    Also, for the record, I love *The Activist Impulse*! My critiques are meant in the spirit of broadening the conversation and continuing to refine the paradigms by which we assess Anabaptist-Evangelical intersections. The work continues!

    1. Devin: Thanks for the comment – I appreciate your mention of the importance of “historical reality.” I appreciate too your assurances about AI. I’m very thankful for the attention you’ve given it – both praise and critique. I only wish we’d been introduced sooner so you could have contributed a chapter on the BIC!

  3. Jared,
    Spot on summary of the conversations, and I think the real struggle we were having in the room. As I have gone back through my paper, I also think a definition of Neo-Anabaptism would have been helpful. I know in my interactions, we can easily point to “Neo-Anabaptists” but rarely have a common sense of what that involves. I tend to see my own Neo-Anabaptist leanings as a Post-Liberal perspective on the richness of my own tradition, yet sometimes I find it to be short hand for those persons drawn to historic Anabaptism as a helpful corrective to the ways Evangelicalism (as a movement) has answered the cultural engagement question you highlighted.

    It is also interesting how those streams of Brethrenism have some shared reactions to Evangelicalism– it is one place where it may be said that more traditional (German Baptist) folks and progressives have interesting points of similarity. But then again, that may be my own Post-Liberal read on the conversation.


    1. I like this, Josh – its well said. And I agree that a working definition of Neo-Anabaptism would be helpful. Your distinction between insiders who call themselves Neo-Anabaptists and outsiders who see Anabaptism as a corrective is a great observation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.