I Wish I Had Been There
by E. Morris Sider
Around 1788, some residents of the northwest corner of Lancaster
County separated from fellow church members to form the River
Brethren, later known as Brethren in Christ. Most members of
the new group had been Mennonites, including their leader, Jacob
Following conversion experiences in pietistic revival meetings,
Engel and his fellow converts began to meet together, also in
pietistic fashion, to talk about the spiritual renewal they had
received. Continued discussion convinced them that baptism should
be by immersion. Baptizing each other in this fashion became
the catalyst to form a separate group.
This scene raises many questionsboth religious and sociologicalthat
I wish I had been there to ask and to explore the answers.
Why was the pietistic conversion experience and immersion
baptism such strong impulses to separation? How much was the
separation influenced by religious/spiritual conditions among
Mennonites? Had church membership in their congregations become
mainly a matter of family or ethnic identity? When Mennonites
talked about conversion, what did they mean, and how did this
contrast to the pietistic concept of conversion?
I wish I had been there to observe what dialogue took place
between Mennonite leaders and those who were thinking about leaving
the fellowship. Was there any attempt to accommodate opposing
views, or, as frequently happens in such cases, were lines drawn
and did they become more fixed with further discussion? And when
the parting came, was it with goodwillwith the blessing
of Mennonite leadersor were feelings exacerbated by probable
attitudes of religious superiority by the River Brethren?
I wish I had been there to note the degree to which strong
personalities fed the differences leading to division. I assume
that they were significant; probably at the bottom of most divisions
lies a conflict of personalities.
I wish I had been there to observe what happened to social
relationships. What effect did the separation have on families
who had members in both groups? Were relationships as warm as
before the break? Did Mennonites and River Brethren intermarryas
frequently as they would have done had the break not occurred?
Was exchange work on their farms done as often, and with the
same good will? Did former fellow members, now separated, support
each other financially in cases of personal economic hardship?
I wish I had been in Jacob Engels living room (the small
house still stands) to observe the nature of early River Brethren
worship. Beyond testimony meetings (telling of religious
experiences), how did the pietism of the new group affect their
previous worship patterns, including such corporate worship expressions
as singing and prayer?
Few of these questions can be answered from Brethren in Christ
sources, which are virtually non-existent for that early period.
As Carlton Wittlinger observes in Quest for Piety and Obedience,
most of our knowledge of the early years of the Brethren in Christ
is circumstantial. Our understanding of those years must be drawn
from what is known about the group some 100 years after its founding.
But were the sources available, they would be the basis for a
valuable case study in the dynamics involvedboth religious
and sociologicalin divisions and formations of new groups
within the Anabaptist tradition.
E. Morris Sider has recently retired as
Archivist for Messiah College, Grantham, Pennsylvania, and the
Brethren in Christ Church. He will be the Young Fellow at the
Young Center for the Study of Anabaptist and Pietist Groups at
Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, October 2000