Brethren Historical Library and Archives

James Quinter and the Creation of the Modern Church of the Brethren1

By William Kostlevy

James Quinter

Few dates in Church of the Brethren history are more important than February 1, 1816 for that is the date of the birth of James Quinter. The son of a day laborer, Quinter was raised in poverty and after his father’s untimely death became the sole supporter of a family of 4. As chance or providence would have it he found employment near Phoenixville, PA at a store owned by Brethren Isaac Price. Too reserved to be a storekeeper, Price found Quinter employment on a farm owned by a young married couple Isabel and Abel Fitzwater. It was to the influence of this family that Quinter attributed his 1831 conversion in Brethren endorsed evangelistic meetings in a neighboring school house.

Known as the “boy preacher” Quinter’s circle that included the noted women preacher Sarah Righter Major pioneered in the use of such innovative religious strategies as protracted or revival meetings, Sunday schools, prayer meetings, publishing, foreign missions, higher education, supported the temperance movement, and opposed slavery. In 1856 he became the English language editor of the semi-official denominational periodical the Gospel Visitor and he edited the first hymnal. Quinter, the quintessential Brethren insider, served on the Standing Committee of Annual Conference and for nearly thirty years as writing clerk for Annual Conference. Quinter’s death while in prayer at Annual Conference in North Manchester, Indiana in 1888 seemed to provide virtual divine sanction for the remarkable transition of Brethren from a peculiar and sectarian people to an evangelical Protestant denomination with a few distinctive, albeit Biblically sanctioned, worship practices.2

The church that buried Quinter was very different from the one he had joined in 1831. It was now a transcontinental religious community complete with colleges and foreign missions. Its language was largely English. Its membership was infatuated with higher education and foreign travel. Yet it was still a unique ethno-religious subculture. In 1888, few would have confused Brethren with their Methodist neighbors. Brethren maintained distinctive rituals of community formation, perpetuation and maintenance. Although aggressively evangelistic, their dress remained unique. They refused to bear arms, rejected oaths, and spurned litigation.

Quinter passionately defended the traditional ordnances of the Brethren. The proper mode of believer’s baptism was trine immersion. If baptism was the rite of passage into the faith community, the three part Brethren love-feast was the glue that unified what was now a widely dispersed trans-continental body of believers. The unity of the movement was reinforced by visiting preachers and an annual gathering open to all members.3

As an innovator who believed that “the church should avail itself of every lawful means” to achieve its mission, including “enlargement of its dominion and conversion of sinners,” Quinter freely employed novel means such as evangelistic meetings and the written word to enlarge the Dunker domain. Among the most controversial was the subdued but still too obvious use of elements of Protestant revivalism. In 1862, C. H. Balsbaugh, who would later do a complete about face about such matters, wrote in the Gospel Visitor “I regard this movement as an unjustifiable and intolerable departure from the established order of the Brethren, and a pitiable, mawkish imitation of the most superficial and odious of all religious innovations.” Quinter himself was aware that excessive emotionalism could undermine the church’s evangelical task. As he wrote in 1874, “There is no proper distinction often made between a proper degree of excitement and excessive excitement.” Further Quinter saw that too much evangelical preaching aimed merely at “exciting the feelings.” But this misuse of revival technique was no excuse for lack of evangelical zeal. “Perhaps,” Quinter wrote, “there is as much failing in not feeling enough, as there is in feeling too much.” Or as he later wrote, “The heart of the sinner must be broken and subdued and this work is accompanied at times with strong emotions of distress, which are frequently followed by emotions of unspeakable joy.” For Quinter and his generation revivalism was a primary means for evangelical outreach.5

Revivalism, for Quinter, was a tool not exclusively for the salvation of individuals but for the integration of new converts into the faith community. As adopted by Quinter, revivalism, in effect, served already existing community-building rituals. Those moved by Quinter’s evangelistic appeals were added to the church through trine immersion. Trine immersion meanwhile was not merely one among a series of correct initiation rites into the Kingdom of God, it was the gospel mode. This was, in part, because he shared the traditional Brethren emphasis that Baptism had less to do with personal salvation than with becoming a member of the body of Christ. In fact, following traditional Brethren teaching Quinter insisted that personal salvation and church membership were inseparable. As he wrote “Salvation is only promised in the gospel to those in the church of Christ.” Effectively using arguments based upon the meaning of the Greek prepositions, Quinter approvingly quoted Timothy Dwight, “All persons are baptized not in but into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: that is, they are in this ordinance publicly and solemnly introduced into the family and entitled in a peculiar manner to the name of God.”6

The second distinctive ordinance was the love-feast. In nineteenth century Brethren context its function was to reaffirm baptismal vows in the context of Christian community. Quinter and other evangelists subtle redefined it in evangelical terms. As Brethren moved toward the end of the nineteenth century special evangelistic services were culminated in baptisms by trine immersion followed by the three part love-feast. The full love-feast now celebrated the inclusion of evangelically converted folks, often but not necessarily teenagers from Brethren homes, into the faith community. But if individual conversion in the altered settings of revival meetings were an innovation love-feast itself continued to highlight Brethren insistence that the Christian religion was communal. For Quinter the Lord’s Supper was a real meal because it symbolized a new reality, namely the creation of a new family renewed in the image of the image of Christ.

Quinter’s deep concern with personal and even social behavior emerged out of his belief that even as Brethren experienced new physical environments, Scripture properly understood provided the faithful with real ethical guidance. In an essay entitled, “The Adapting Power of the Gospel,” Quinter wrote, “if principles contained therein are well studied, the examples there given wrought out, then the disciples of Christ will be qualified to solve all the moral questions which they will meet with involving their highest interests as immortal beings.” Far from being merely a personal ethical code Christianity required active social engagement. This finds clear expression in one of Quinter’s most important sermons, “The Servant of God Is a Servant of His Age.” Moving far beyond the cultural isolation of early Brethren Quinter urged Brethren to serve their age in a three-fold manner. They were “to remove every cause of evil; labor to establish right principles among those to whom their influence extends; [and] labor to get people to practically accept Christian principles.”7

In spite of his desire to serve his age in many ways Quinter remained a traditionalist. For him the first principle of Christian ethical formation was nonconformity to the world. “Christianity,” Quinter wrote, “is of necessity the inexorable foe of every wrong, every abuse, every law, custom, usage, or institution, that tends to injure or debase mankind.” Becoming specific Quinter noted that these included “slavery, polygamy, war, dueling, alcoholic beverages, or anything else …inconsistent with Christianity.” Likewise Quinter remained a decided champion of traditional Brethren dress. In 1865 acknowledging that many Brethren favored abandoning traditional Dunker dress requirements, Quinter drawing on the insights of Methodist founder John Wesley, “Non-conformity to the world, simplicity of manners, meekness of spirit, and plainness of dress, are among the peculiarities of the apostolic church… and where they do not exist the church does not exist.” Although admitting that he had once voted in a presidential election Quinter insisted that in a nation that employed capital punishment and repeatedly elected soldiers to high political office non-resistant Christians should not vote. Even in a world where Christians were urged to serve their age as light and salt Brethren remained a people apart. “Christianity,” Quinter wrote is not a mere profession—not a name, it is a life regulating principle.” 8

Brethren shared nineteenth century America’s preoccupation with Christian millennial expectation. Their frequent debates with the followers of Alexander Campbell were not merely over baptismal forms but also reflected differing views of the end times. In one of the few Brethren publications from the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Benjamin Bowman attached the false post-millennial eschatology of the Stone-Campbell tradition. As Bowman argued Christ would establish his own kingdom without the misguided preparatory work of humankind. 9

As a premillennialist, Quinter believed that the universal kingdom of God was a future event. But a foretaste Christ’s final eschatological victory was already present in Christ’s body, the church. A person born through water and the Spirit “not only sees the Kingdom of God,” Quinter wrote, “But is admitted into it.” For Quinter both future and present dimensions of the Kingdom were important. As he wrote in 1857, “we literally here expressly state our belief in a literal and future millennium on earth. But we believe it is the privilege of Christians to enjoy now a foretaste of the happiness which they will enjoy in that regenerated or millennial state of the world.” In fact Quinter insisted that the Dunker’s most distinctive rite, the love-feast, was profoundly eschatological. “This feast of love,” he maintained, “may be regarded as a representation of the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb, which is to take place when the Savior comes, and his people shall gather themselves together and sit down in the Kingdom of God.” For Quinter the chief value in millennialism lay not in speculations about the future but in the heighted ethical concern in the present. The immediate responsibility of the church was to prepare itself for the age of the coming Christ. In effect Brethren millennial expectation sharpened immediate moral and ethical concerns.10

Closely related to their heightened millennial thrust Brethren longed for the reconciliation and reunification of humanity. The masthead of the Gospel Visitor described the periodicals purpose as “to promote Christian union, brotherly love, and universal charity.” The tenacity of this view was repeatedly reasserted by Annual Conference rulings that “the Holy Kiss” was to be extended across racial lines.” Quinter himself rejected pleas that the Brethren support the colonization of American-Americans in Africa on the grounds that racial separation was inconsistent with the catholic nature of the Christian faith. Further Quinter’s passion for world missions was built upon a similar conviction that the gospel was no respecter of political and ethnic boundaries. As an early champion of Brethren international mission Quinter saw the church as a community that transcended ethnic and racial boundaries. The desperate locations of early Brethren missions in Denmark (1877), Sweden (1885) and India (1894) point to an understanding of missions as an invitation to discipleship and not a strategy to export Western culture. “The object of missionary work,” Quinter claimed, is to apply the death of Christ with all its accompanying truths to the saving of men from perdition.” For Quinter and most nineteenth century Brethren,” all the accompanying truths” were the rituals of a primitive non-resistant Christianity. For them, even as the churches boundaries expanded to include Indians, Danes, Swedes, and non-German stock Americans, the practices of the church remained closely tied to the rituals formulated by German Pietist immigrants to colonial Pennsylvania. Although willingly employing the new measures commonly associated with the great Evangelist Charles G. Finney and learned from their Methodist, Evangelical and United Brethren neighbors, Dunkers remained a distinct even if increasingly Evangelical Protestant denomination.11


1 A version of this paper was published in Stephen L. Longenecker, editor The Dilemma of Anabaptist Piety: Strengthening or Straining the Bonds of Community? (Bridgewater, VA: Penobscot Press, 1997).

2On Quinter’s life see Mary N. Quinter, Life and Sermons of Elder James Quinter (Mt. Morris, IL: Brethren’s Publishing House, 1891, 1-78. Also very helpful is H. R. Holsinger, History of the Tunker or Brethren Church (Lathrop, CA: by the author, 1900), 358-365.

3On the meaning of baptism for Brethren see Dale W. Brown, “A Baptismal Theology with implications for Evangelism, Conversion, and Church Growth,” Brethren Life and Thought 28 (1983), 151-160. On the distinctive rites of the Brethren see Carl Bowman, The Cultural Transformation of a “Peculiar People” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 52-76.

5James Quinter, “Inaugural,” Gospel Visitor June 1856, 105, C. H. Balsbaugh, “The Anxious Bench,” Gospel Visitor June 1862, 164-167 and James Quinter, “The Excess and Want of Feeling in Religious Service,” Christian Family Companion and Gospel Visitor 20 October 1874, 666-667. The final quotation is from James Quinter, “”Our Journey to Miami County—An Interesting Revival,” Gospel Visitor April, 1866, 123.

6James Quinter, “Is There Salvation Out of the Church” Gospel Visitor June 1861, 161. The second quotation is from James Quinter, A Vindication of Trine Immersion as the Apostolic Form of Christian Baptism (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1898), 21-22.

7James Quinter, “The Adapting Power of the Gospel,” Gospel Visitor December 1859, 354 and Quinter, life and Sermons, 209-212.

8Quinter, “The Adopting Power,” 356. James Quinter, “Christian Apparel and non-Conformity to the World,” Gospel Visitor, November 1865, 324. James Quinter, “Remarks—The Other Side,” Gospel Visitor April 1966, 101-114.

9A brief quotation from Bowman’s work is found in “B Bowman on the Millennium,” Gospel Visitor March 1862, 49-52.

10James Quinter, “The Kingdom of God—No. 1,” Gospel Visitor November 1856, 294. James Quinter, “Millennium of the Soul,” Gospel Visitor, April 1857, 99. Quinter quoted in Bowman, Brethren Society, 63.

11On the Holy Kiss, see Bowman Brethren Society, 66-73; “Our Danish Mission,” Gospel Messenger, 28 August 1883, 121-122. On Brethren Missions, see Donald F. Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine: A History of the Brethren1708-1995 (Elgin, IL: Brethren press, 1997), 343-362.