For many Mennonites, the Brethren in Christ are distant spiritual cousins. The BIC, while firmly Anabaptist, have also drawn deeply from the wells of pietism and Wesleyanism, which has created some strikingly different theological beliefs.
Furthermore, the BIC are geographically distant from much of the Mennonite population. More than 40 percent of the BIC’s U.S. congregations are in Pennsylvania. In Canada (where the denomination is called Be in Christ), 60 of 65 congregations are in southern Ontario.
But the BIC are kin. They were born out of a revival movement among Lancaster County, Pa., Mennonites in the 1770s. But they have maintained the traditional emphases on discipleship and nonconformity, even dressing plain well into the 20th century.
The BIC are members of Mennonite Central Committee — the esteemed BIC leader C.N. Hostetter Jr. was MCC chair from 1953 to 1967 — and of Mennonite World Conference.
All of which gives Mennonites a reason to read Stories and Scenes from a Brethren in Christ Heritage. As the title indicates, the book is a collection of stories from the 19th and 20th centuries organized into thematic chapters ranging from family life to evangelism to separation from the world.
Stories and Scenes opens with a passionate argument for the use of stories to convey history’s lessons by author E. Morris Sider, a prolific writer of BIC biographies and histories. One of the strengths of stories is they are usually about individuals. “It is difficult to identify with a generality, a theological abstraction,” Sider claims.
The stories in Stories and Scenes provide a wide-ranging and accessible introduction to BIC life and thought, illustrating both similarities with and differences from Mennonite understandings.
Many of the similarities will resonate with those who come from an “Old” Mennonite background. For example, in the chapter on separation from the world, Sider, a native Canadian, recounts his love of hockey as a youth in Canada. He delighted in pickup games on an iced-over creek but couldn’t join the high school team. The reason was “a classic Brethren in Christ separatist view,” Sider writes. He quotes his father: “You will be traveling to other places and being with other boys who could be a bad influence on you.”
“So I did not play on the team,” recounts Sider, “which meant that I had no chance at a career that may have eventually led to a place in the National Hockey League’s Hall of Fame (or so my young mind unreasonably fancied).” He instead became a longtime professor of history and English at BIC-affiliated Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and executive director of the BIC Historical Society for 22 years.
The chapter on peace includes accounts of BIC conscientious objectors in military camps during World War I and in Civilian Public Service during World War II. The stories are no different than those of countless Mennonites who chose to follow the Prince of Peace in the face of forces demanding allegiance to violence-wielding earthly powers.
But not all stories will resonate with Mennonites. The Brethren in Christ have adopted the Wesleyan belief of holiness or sanctification, also known as the second work of grace or second blessing: After accepting Jesus Christ, the believer is purified in a second encounter with God. In one account in the book, Luke Keefer Sr. tells of having been a BIC minister for four years without having experienced sanctification. He was holding a series of evangelistic meetings in 1943 when it happened. While he was preparing for a service, he heard God ask him if he could identify a time he had been filled with the Holy Ghost. He couldn’t.
“Instantly I felt very strange, as though I were ill,” Keefer recalls. “I was somewhat weak, numb, tingling, and, therefore, surmised that I might be dying.” He then had a vision of passing through an arch of blood on the way to Christ’s cross. At that moment, Keefer continued, “I was filled with the Holy Ghost. I instantly jumped out of bed and stretched my hands toward heaven and praised the Lord for the Holy Ghost.”
Stories and Scenes was not primarily intended, however, to serve as an introduction to the Brethren in Christ for non-BIC members. Rather, it was published by the denominational historical society to promote BIC heritage and nurture faithfulness.
“How can the current and future generations use the book to help us understand who we are as a church and where we’ve come from and to inspire readers to adopt . . . the best principles and practices of the heritage they’ve been given?” writes Harriet Sider Bicksler, editor for the BIC Historical Society, in the book’s concluding section.
She proceeds to outline some suggestions, including using Stories and Scenes for study and discussion groups, preachers drawing upon it for sermon ideas and illustrations and using it for denominational pastoral training programs. That makes the book doubly valuable for Mennonites, not just as an introduction to our BIC cousins but also as an example for how to capitalize on history to foster faithfulness now and in the future.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.