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 of 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.
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.