Jeff Bach on Becoming Grace

Last month I posted an excerpt from Shirley Mullen’s foreword to Becoming Grace, a volume I helped to edit about the history of Grace College and Theological Seminary. Today I offer the book’s second foreword, written by Jeff Bach, in its entirety. Jeff is an accomplished historian of Pietism and is best known for his landmark book on the Ephrata community in Pennsylvania. He was gracious enough to introduce the book with the following words of praise:

Becoming Grace is title capturea gift to many audiences that surpasses the scope and purpose of most institutional histories. Jared Burkholder, M. M. Norris, and their contributors offer a clear and balanced account of Grace Theological Seminary from its origins in Akron, Ohio, through its expansion at Winona Lake and the difficulties of a later denominational division. The story of the seminary, as well as the college, is carefully set in the context of conflicts between professors and their advocates that precipitated its founding. The account explains the deeper Brethren context behind those events while moving forward through the continued religious developments among the Grace Brethren. At the same time, authors set that background in the context of broader cultural movements and developments within conservative Christianity in the U.S. in the early twentieth century. Readers can almost hear the rousing revival preaching, the singing of Rodeheaver hymns, and the passionate teaching of professors at Winona Lake.

The book also offers an excellent introduction to the global reach of Grace College and Seminary while also recounting in sufficient detail its significance in the region around Winona Lake, as well as connections to the wider network of Christian fundamentalism. The writers succeed at putting human life into their story by telling of students, outreach ministries beyond the campus, and accounts of significant leaders. As a result, the book tells real stories about real people, not just lofty ideas bantered by a few larger-than-life leaders. While the various authors work at fairness to the prime movers at Grace, they also offer balanced, respectful insights into the challenging personality characteristics of some of those leaders. Consequently, this book is a truly human story of an institution that has at times struggled, yet also has achieved much. Though this is a more difficult path for writing a good institutional history, the fruits are much more satisfying in presenting a complex picture of the institution and its people, the values important to it, and the influences of external forces along with internal conflicts and achievements. Readers can enjoy the dynamic moments and persons throughout the first seventy-five years of Grace’s history.

The attention to social and political developments during Grace’s history likewise adds depth to the story. Changing views on the participation of women in church leadership, both in American society and among the Grace Brethren, views about race, attitudes toward members from around the world, and reactions to challenges in American politics such as the Cold War, cultural change in the 1960s, and new roles for conservative Christians in politics since the 1980s—all show how Grace has responded to changes from the outside and their impact on the inside. By facing into these issues, the authors have narrated a story that is connected to its times from its beginnings on the heels of the Chautauqua movement to the present day. Readers will find here much more than a tepid story of a denominational institution; rather they will discover an engaging account that weaves a textured cloth of cultural context.

Bach, Voices of the TurtledovesThe authors provide meaningful historical background that will illumine readers on topics that may seem less familiar, such as Pietism, Anabaptism, and the small movement of Brethren and their distinctive beliefs and practices. For readers who want to understand the Grace Brethren and this deeper context, the writers provide plenty of information. For newcomers to these topics, the account is not overwhelming in obscure detail, yet it is informative. Similarly, the various authors provide theological insight throughout the book. These insights are especially helpful for readers who may be less familiar with the vocabulary of fundamentalism, which is clarified in the narrative. At the same time, readers who are well grounded in these terms will find plenty of description and analysis of refinements and distinctions in the theological developments among the Grace Brethren. Burkholder, Norris, and others are to be commended for doing the additional work to provide this careful, scholarly work to make this story serve the alumni and supporters of Grace Seminary, as well as to deepen the historical and theological understanding of all readers.

Burkholder and Norris have succeeded remarkably in sustaining a clear and credible editorial voice throughout the book. Often institutional histories with multiple contributors can seem like a crazy quilt pieced by a sewing circle. In this book, the pieces fit, and the unique expertise of contributors comes through, yet the completed project stands together as a whole. The author-compilers have crafted a story that gives remarkable detail, yet explains the twists and turns of the plot and sets it within both its specific denominational scope and the much broader American context. Few accounts of denominational histories achieve this balance with the fairness and engaging qualities of this book.

Readers should welcome the gift of Becoming Grace, offered in these pages. It is at times a captivating story of human conflict and spiritual aspiration, far more than a dry account of a few leaders and their ideals. The book is also a tale of the dynamics of preserving ideals and responding to cultural change. The pages are filled with characters, some famous, some less known, all woven like strands into the cloth of a compelling story. Becoming Grace is an informative and engaging narrative about an institution and its people who have accomplished much. Ultimately it is a story about people of faith and their best hopes to act in response to their perceptions of God at work in their lives. Becoming Grace will draw readers of many backgrounds to receive the gift of this story.

Becoming Grace is available for pre-order here.


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