W. Harold Row: Servant and Bridgebuilder

by Maddie McKeever

Those who have grown up within the Church of the Brethren may recall the name M. R. Zigler. He was a man who served as the first executive secretary of the Brethren Service Committee and a Brethren leader who helped to found Civilian Public Service during World War II. Another prominent individual, although perhaps lesser-known today, was Rev. W. Harold Row – a Church of the Brethren pastor in Virginia and Pennsylvania, denominational leader, and, along with Zigler, something of a Brethren pioneer in ecumenical, service-oriented relationships. Row’s gifts of service and hospitality were common throughout both his professional and personal relationships. Moreover, in analyzing Row’s friendships, especially, it becomes evident that his vision of serving others was, overall, very personal to him—on both large and small scales.

W. Harold Row
Photo courtesy of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives

W. Harold Row

Harold Row is known for serving as the executive secretary of Brethren Service Commission (formerly Brethren Service Committee) from 1948 to 1968. He took this position after serving as associate executive secretary of Brethren Service Committee from 1946 – 1948. Row followed the examples of Brethren leaders who came before him, particularly M. R. Zigler, in his manner of taking on and managing many different leadership roles within the denomination. For instance, Row became Zigler’s "chief aide" in managing the new Civilian Public Service (CPS) program through his job within the Brethren Service Committee.1 Much of Row’s work was ecumenical, such as his work with Church World Service and the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO). Row’s years of work through different positions within the Church of the Brethren, from about 1942 – 1971, offer insights into the unique structure of the Church of the Brethren denomination, particularly in the years around WWII. 2

While Harold Row did not become executive secretary of BSC until 1948, the 1930s may provide some context for the creation of Brethren Service Committee along with the other positions in which Row later served. According to Donald F. Durnbaugh in his book Fruit of the Vine: A History of the Brethren: 1708 – 1995, the 1930s was certainly a challenging time for the Church of the Brethren. While there are different reasons for this, most are linked to the Great Depression, which posed financial and other related challenges for Brethren leaders.3 Not only were the congregational budgets restricted, but leaders such as M. R. Zigler and others had to take on more responsibilities.4 “It could thus be said that the 1930s, though placing the Brethren in real straits for resources, was a formative and creative period in the life of the denomination.”5 While Durnbaugh’s book does not explicitly mention how this affected Row, we can certainly see how the groundwork was being laid for ecumenical ministry and increasingly centralized leadership roles within the Church of the Brethren denomination.6

Moreover, it is evident that Row was passionate about serving others and did not simply do so for the sake of his job. Row was known to be quite personable with many people – often those of different backgrounds and life experiences than his own. He traveled to nearly sixty countries during his lifetime, and his extensive travels quite likely would have broadened his cultural awareness of how to relate with people of other countries. It is also likely that his hospitable nature would have impacted how the Church of the Brethren denomination connected with other churches and organizations. For instance, this is particularly true in the connections that he established between the Church of the Brethren and the Russian Orthodox Church, which began in 1963.7 In the book The Church of the Brethren Past and Present, edited by Donald F. Durnbaugh, Edward K. Ziegler mentions how ‘[t]his exchange of Christian dialogue across the “Iron Curtain” is rooted in the hope that peace may come to the war-broken world in the twentieth century and in the firm conviction that the churches may point the way to a just and lasting peace.’ 8

(From left to right) Norman J. Baugher, Metropolitan Nikodim, W. Harold Row
Photo courtesy of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives

(From left to right) Norman J. Baugher, Metropolitan Nikodim, W. Harold Row

Harold Row and his wife, Leona Row, became close friends with a Japanese couple, Gan and Chiyo Sakakibara. Gan Sakakibara was a Japanese professor of English at the Tokyo English Center, which he also founded. Both he and his wife were Christians.9, 10 They met Harold and Leona at the 1959 Conference on Rapid Social Change, held in Salonika, Greece. The two couples became friends, and records of correspondence show that these friends kept in touch throughout the years ever since. The Sakakibaras first visited the General Offices in March of 1960.11 Although he and his wife were not Brethren, Gan Sakakibara was very interested in the Hutterian Brethren and conducted extensive research on them. Later, he led groups of students from the Tokyo English Center to the United States. While much of this correspondence indicates that the main reason for Sakakibara’s travels to the U.S. was to help his students learn English and introduce them to American culture, the correspondence between these friends shows that Row knew of Sakakibara’s interest in pacifism, Anabaptism, and specifically in the Hutterian Brethren.12 Harold and Leona Row helped accommodate their Japanese friends by hosting them and helping plan their itineraries for their trips to the U.S. In one letter addressed to Row, Sakakibara expresses his appreciation and states that he counts Row “to be number one among” his American friends. It is said that Gan Sakakibara later converted to Anabaptism.13

Harold Row seated with Gan Sakakibara (left) and Chiyo Sakakibara (right). Taken in March, 1960.
Photo courtesy of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives

Harold Row seated with Gan Sakakibara (left) and Chiyo Sakakibara (right). Taken in March, 1960.

On July 14, 1971, Harold Row passed away from cancer. Kenneth I. Morse, editor of Messenger at the time, published a poem by poet laureate William Stafford in the August 15, 1971 issue in remembrance of Row. The poem is titled “Thoughts for a Dying Friend.” Stafford alludes to the many gifts that Harold Row freely gave, which may allude in turn to Row’s warmth, care, and hospitality.14 Even with his many leadership roles and responsibilities, Harold Row is shown to have demonstrated deep interest in and care for others, and he formed meaningful, lasting relationships. Row actively worked for others’ wellbeing, as is also explained throughout the Messenger tribute to Row by Howard Royer, who was editor at the time. His article it titled “He Knew Every Man as Brother,” and it was published in the December 1971 issue of Messenger, shortly after Row’s death.15 Harold Row’s definition of service might be summarized by this quoted expression of his, which was included in Royer’s Messenger article:

Our service to our neighbors is not in order to please God, but rather in terms of the New Testament agape, serving our neighbor because of God’s love for us and in us.
Harold Row with William Stafford’s wife and daughter, September 12, 1970.
Photo courtesy of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives

Harold Row with William Stafford’s wife and daughter, September 12, 1970.

Howard Royer’s Messenger article, “He Knew Every Man as Brother,” was very helpful in tying together themes from the other research materials used in writing this Hidden Gem.


1 Donald F. Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine: A History of the Brethren: 1708 – 1995 (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1997), 478.

2 Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine, chs. 20 – 23.

3 Durnbaugh, 438 – 39.

4 Durnbaugh, 442.

5 Durnbaugh, 443.

6For further reading, please refer to Donald Durnbaugh’s Fruit of the Vine: A History of the Brethren: 1708 – 1995 esp. chapter 20.

7Durnbaugh, 495.

8Edward K. Ziegler, “Ecumenical Relations,” in The Church of the Brethren Past and Present, ed. Donald F. Durnbaugh (Elgin, IL: The Brethren Press, 1971), 138.

9“Sakakibara, Gan (1898 – 1994) and Mano Chiyo (1898 – 1987),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Sakakibara_Gan_(1898-1994)_and_Mano_Chiyo_(1898-1987)".

10“An Anabaptist in Japan: Biblical Revolutionary,” Messenger, November, 1973. https://archive.org/details/messenger1973122112roye/page/n401.

11“An Anabaptist in Japan: Biblical Revolutionary,” Messenger, November, 1973. https://archive.org/details/messenger1973122112roye/page/n401.

12The mentioned correspondence between Harold Row and Gan Sakakibara belongs to the Brethren Historical Library and Archives collection.

13“Sakakibara, Gan (1898 – 1994) and Mano Chiyo (1898 – 1987),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Sakakibara_Gan_(1898-1994)_and_Mano_Chiyo_(1898-1987)".

14Kenneth I. Morse, “His Life Goes On,” Messenger, August 15, 1971. https://archive.org/details/messenger1971120123roye/page/n577.

15Howard E. Royer, “He Knew Every Man as Brother,” Messenger, December, 1971. https://archive.org/details/messenger1971120123roye/page/10.

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